crew of the 2017 Desert Bus for Hope

The Most Boring Good Turn In The World

Eight hours on a straight road—over and over and over again

Marathon sessions are not uncommon in the world of charitable fundraising. The word “telethon” itself is a portmanteau of “television” and “marathon,” after all. But the Desert Bus for Hope, which leaves November 9 this year, is a different kind of fundraising journey altogether.

The annual event was started in 2007 by internet sketch comedy troupe LoadingReadyRun. The group had decided they wanted to do something to support Child’s Play, a charity that helps improve the lives of children in pediatric hospitals and other child welfare facilities. Around the same time, they had gotten their hands on a copy of a video game known as Desert Bus, that had originally been produced by the magicians Penn and Teller but was never commercially released.

“The conceit of it is that we stick ourselves in a room for a week and play the most painfully boring video game ever made”

The game, as with much of the duo’s comedy, was somewhat frustrating. “You drive a tour bus from Tucson, Arizona, to Las Vegas, Nevada, at 45 miles per hour, in real time,” says Graham Stark, a co-founder of LoadingReadyRun. “It takes eight hours. It is a completely straight road, there’s no traffic, nothing exciting happens. It is utterly dull. But the bus pulls to one side, so you can’t just tape the controller down, you have to keep every couple of seconds tapping the button to correct the bus’s steering to keep you on the road. You have to actively engage with this game for all eight hours. At the end of eight hours, you get to Las Vegas and you get one point, and you turn around and drive back.”

“It literally never ends,” Stark said.

At some point, LoadingReadyRun hit on the idea of using Desert Bus as part of their charitable initiative, and Desert Bus For Hope, now in its 12th year, was born. “The conceit of it is that we stick ourselves in a room for a week and play the most painfully boring video game ever made, until people stop donating money to a children’s charity,” Stark told Good Turns recently. “Every subsequent hour of the run requires more donations to reach. The very first hour just costs $1, and then it goes up by 7% every hour.” The run generally lasts about a week, Stark says. “By the end of it, we need another $40,000 to keep us going.” And in total? Recent years have raised between $650,000 and $700,000 a year, and in all Desert Bus For Hope has raised almost $4.5 million for Child’s Play.

That’s a lot of long straight lonely road.

“When we first started, we all had a lot of sleep deprivation,” says Stark. “These days we take care of ourselves a lot better, and there is a huge group of people that make this thing run.” (Pictured above.) The desert bus itself is driven in shifts, by a cast that varies from year to year, Stark says. “We have people who have been driving shifts from the very beginning.”

Among the people who have supported Desert Bus For Hope from the start are Penn and Teller themselves. “Even in the first year, they called in and directly supported us, and have called in in one form or another every year. For the first several years, Teller phoned in every day and bought the whole team lunch,” Stark says.

Engagement with the audience is a big part of the event. “We have a chat room who are watching us live, so we’re essentially busking for these donations,” Stark said. “People will suggest, hey sing this song, or what if you did this funny thing. And we will do that, under the understanding that someone will then give us five or ten or twenty bucks. We also have giveaways, we have prizes, we do auctions and things for pretty amazing prizes. But the vast majority of the money we raise is just from direct donations to make us do goofy stuff for a week.”

None of the money raised goes to LoadingReadyRun. “Everyone works volunteer. We spend a huge amount of our time over the course of the year preparing for each event. There’s also a lot of planning and administration that goes into it now,” Stark says. “We don’t touch any of the donations. They go directly to Child’s Play.”

The charity is near and dear to LoadingReadyRun’s heart. “Child’s Play was started almost as a response to this newspaper article on people who play video games,” Stark said. The article characterized them as “basement-dwelling nerds.”

“That was very much the sort of people we were as well,” Stark added. “Years ago we were taken with the idea of the Child’s Play charity. Their thesis is that it’s awful to have to be in a hospital, but it’s really bad if you’re a kid. So they’ve tried to alleviate that as best they can.” No one can alleviate the boredom of the Desert Bus, though—but that’s exactly what makes the Desert Bus For Hope such a laudable good turn. See you on the highway.

(Photo courtesy of Kolin Toney for Desert Bus For Hope)

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