John Nikas is on a 50,000-mile road trip, crisscrossing all 50 states. It is a journey he expects will be hopeful and heartbreaking.
Drive Away Cancer: Follow Grace
Nikas said the thing he is most looking forward to is also "the thing I’m least looking forward to, and that’s actually spending time with the people that sign Grace."
"Grace" is a 1953 Austin-Healey. She is a slick gun-metal gray vintage British sports car, and she is covered bumper to bumper in signatures and messages. Each signature on Grace represents someone who has battled cancer.
On the hood, a brief message of encouragement: "For Marcy, Beat the Beast." Under the windshield, a daughter wrote, "To my dad, the gentle giant."
Last summer, in an effort to "Drive Away Cancer," Nikas drove Grace across the country and back again. He said many people had doubts that the nearly 60-year-old Grace could make the trip.
"Even our closest friends last year didn’t think we would make it out of the state," said Nikas, of Irvine. "In fact, most of my family."
Grace is not built for this kind of long-distance, rugged travel.
"Somehow, we’ve caught fire 14 or so times."
He estimates that Grace breaks down every three hours. But then, somehow, she gets back on the road and perseveres.
That metaphor is central to Nikas' passion for "Drive Away Cancer." He wants people with cancer to believe that like Grace they are capable of great things -- seemingly, impossible things -- despite the rust and difficult road.
Nikas says he believes in miracles, "and I think that this car is emblematic of those miracles. Sometimes when you are sick, you have to believe in those things."
At every planned and unplanned stop along the way, people ask about Grace. Many then take a moment to sign her. Nikas gives people privacy when they sign, but every time a name goes on the car he asks about that person. Who are they? How are they doing? What do they like to do? What kind of places do they like to visit?
At a gas station in North Carolina, Nikas was approached by a man who pulled from his wallet a picture of his wife. The man explained that Colleen had passed away from breast cancer the year before. He had always promised her to take her to California, but never got the chance.
He then asked John if he would take her to California.
Nikas says it was a privilege to oblige the man. He drove Grace and Colleen to the beach at Monterey. He convinced a policeman to let him drive out on access road so he could get Grace and Colleen right up next to the beach.
To this day, Colleen’s portrait smiles at John from the dashboard.
Then there was the woman in a Sonic parking lot in Tennessee who sobbed as she went to sign Grace.
"On the exact spot where she was going to sign her dad’s name, it was already on the car because her brother had signed it in Georgia the day before," he said. "And, she hadn’t talked to him. Just completely by accident ran into Grace."
was so inspired by his time on the road last summer that he and Grace are on the road again. This summer they are hoping to drive 50,000 miles and across all 50 states. This time, however, the trip is a bit more structured, because so many people have asked John and Grace to come visit.
Like Richard Astin from Portland, Maine. He lost his sister five months ago to breast cancer. He works Portland Motor Club, where he details cars. He has even offered to "clean Grace up … without taking off the signatures of course."
Peter Gordon from Hartland, Vermont is currently being treated for cancer. He has invited John and Grace to visit his home.
"It’s just a wonderful feeling knowing that someone really cares," Gordon said.
Cindy Meitle wants Grace and John to visit her cousin in Kauai, Hawaii, and take him for "the ride of his life."
And that’s the thing -- cancer is a struggle that connects all of us. John can roll into any gas station or walk down any street and hand a marker to anyone he meets.
We all have someone to sign for.
During the course of NBC4's interview with John, in a small parking lot behind an automotive bookstore in Burbank, a man asked about Grace. Like many who first approach Grace, he was a car racing enthusiast.
Moments later, he took the Sharpie and wrote the name “Nell Strong” on the passenger door.
Patrick Strong said Nell is his mother. She lost her battle with breast cancer in 2006. The vintage Austin-Healey strikes him as particularly poetic because when his parents started dating, his dad had another model of Austin Healey that "he rolled with her sitting shotgun."
With an amused grin he continued, "Yet, she still married him."
Writing his mom’s name amongst the nearly 7,000 names made him feel part of something bigger, he said.
"I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who was as completely selfless as she was," said Strong.
These are the moments that motivate Nikas. The chance for a son to share a detail about his mom. Or for this writer to remember her cousin. Tucked on the back quarter-panel, I had a chance to honor Matt Gallagher, who seemed to always know, "It was about the ride."
Nikas says carrying these names cross country is a "noble undertaking" and every time someone signs, he promises to "take very good care of that person."
Nikas insists on making this trip about the people he meets. He keeps the focus on their stories -- and the inspiration they give him. But in certain quiet moments he admits that the ride can be really hard.
Grace is a small car with no roof and few amenities. When it is hot, it is really hot. When it is cold, it is really cold. When it rains, he gets wet.
In addition, "Drive Away Cancer" is a non-profit. When he left he said he had enough funding to get cover about 3,000 miles. He joked, "Only 47,000 to go."
Still this is a project he believes in with all his soul. You can see it in his face. You can hear it in his voice.
It is a simple but powerful concept. Nikas believes the simple act of signing a name -- and sharing a detail about someone who struggled with cancer -- helps us all to heal. He says that at the end of the day, cancer can only take your life, "But what it cannot touch are the people you leave behind and your legacy and the love of others.
"Every single name on this car… they all are loved by someone and the fact that these names are here reminds us of that."