Ryan Ver Berkmoes was in for the night Thursday when he got a call from someone seeking election yard signs.
Ver Berkmoes, a volunteer with the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris campaign locally, said he delivers about 50 yard signs a day, making 10 to 15 stops all over the region.
“I was done for the day,” he said. “But I pulled the shoes back on, hopped in the car and took them some signs.”
That sudden change was nothing compared with what Ver Berkmoes has experienced throughout 2020.
Already seeing their jobs affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, he and his wife nearly lost their home in California to wildfires. Then Ver Berkmoes decided to drive across the country to work on a political campaign.
He arrived in Cambria County two weeks ago, and is staying at the home of his college buddy, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown professor John McGrath, and McGrath’s wife Anne.
Ver Berkmoes and his wife are freelance travel writers whose work has been negatively impacted by the virus.
The couple have had two homes threatened by wildfires – their permanent residence near Santa Cruz and a home they’re refurbishing as a rental 150 miles north in Monte Rio. Both areas were evacuated on Aug. 19. He said the flames passed within 300 meters of the Santa Cruz house.
They moved in with Ver Berkmoes’ sister-in-law, who raised $7,000 through a Go-Fund-Me page to send him to Pennsylvania.
“I was saying I always wanted to work on a political campaign,” Ver Berkmoes said, noting that he wanted to help in a competitive election state.
California is deep blue, but Pennsylvania is a swing state that backed Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but flipped to Republican Donald Trump in 2016.
He said he called the McGraths and said: “You up for a roomie for a couple of months?”
Wednesday evening, Ver Berkmoes was behind the wheel of his car with the McGraths as passengers, waiting in line for Biden’s campaign stop at the Johnstown Train Station.
Ver Berkmoes said he and John McGrath have been best friends since the first day they moved into the same dormitory at the University of Notre Dame.
“This was a great landing spot for me,” Ver Berkmoes said, “and John and Anne have made it incredibly easy.”
Before entering his candidate’s rally, Ver Berkmoes lamented the bickering he had watched during the presidential debate the night before, and said he longed to hear candidates discuss important issues.
“We’re not sitting here having smart conversations about tax policy or the national debt or energy policies or climate change, or the typical issues we should be talking about,” he said.
Other motivating subjects for the campaign worker include the pandemic – and what Ver Berkmoes called a lack of respect for the views of science and health professionals – and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We’re going through a bit of racial reckoning that is certainly decades overdue,” he said. “Yet, the leader of the country is doing his best to tamp it down and ignore it.”
Thanks to his campaign duties, Ver Berkmoes said he is putting about 500 miles on his car a week – on top of the nearly 3,000-mile journey from Santa Cruz to Johnstown.
McGrath said his friend already knows the back roads and by-ways of the Johnstown area better than the professor who grew up here and has been working in the area for 25 years.
“It’s been great talking to people of all ages, all perspectives,” Ver Berkmoes said.
“Some have been committed Democrats their whole lives. But I’m meeting more and more people who say this is their first time doing something.”
The coronavirus is still impacting his income, and the wildfires are still raging in his home state.
But Ver Berkmoes said he is energized by “the most important election in my lifetime.” He said the interest in the election – and the calls for those yard signs – “just keeps mushrooming.”
As for how long he plans to stay in Johnstown, he said: “I’m committed – until the 4th of November.”