TikTok Diaries from a Mississippi River Kayaker – Mpls.St.Paul Magazine

Meet the TikTok sensation, @notwaitingtolive, going viral for broadcasting his months-long adventures on the Mississippi.
October 12, 2022
6:28 AM
At the end of the summer, I met 32-year-old Manny Forge for beers and an order of the Szechuan brussels sprouts at Mac’s Industrial Sports Bar. Forge had spent the better part of the last two months kayaking more than 500 miles of the Mississippi River, from Lake Itasca to Minneapolis, and his plan was to paddle the entire 2,340-mile length over the next several months, all the way to New Orleans. He drove to Mac’s in a pick-up truck he borrowed from a guy in Blaine, one of the hundreds of thousands of TikTokers following along this adventure on his entertaining account, @notwaitingtolive, where he details picturesque river bends to a country music soundtrack, cataloguing the people and the wildlife he encounters, layering in historical facts about the area he’s navigating, in this case, Minnesota. And of course he went viral here—we’re like the perfect R-naught environment for a social media contagion: Minnesotans love being noticed by any media, perhaps especially a hip, new viral TikTok account, which just accelerated its virility exponentially.
For me, personally, the (figurative) tipping point was when Forge was robbed. A few weeks after pushing off the shores of Itasca, most of his crucial equipment was stolen from his kayak outside of the river town of Clearwater, Minnesota. After that, more and more people began suggesting that I track down this TikTok Tom Sawyer and interview him. Turns out Forge is a former civil engineer from Cleveland, Ohio, who quit his job to explore the country, funding his cross-continental trips by remodeling bathrooms and flipping houses. He says he’s learned how to place his faith upon the twin pillars of a strong social media narrative and the kindness of strangers. When last I checked his account, he had just made it past the arch in St. Louis, Missouri, halfway to his goal.
What was the impetus for this Mississippi adventure?
The seed for this trip was planted a decade ago. In my 20s, I biked across America. And ten years after that, I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. The Mississippi was always goal, but as a former water treatment engineer, it was a little bit off-putting because I knew how dirty the water is. There are so many chemicals and pollutants and stuff that give you cancer the further you go down.
So you had to overcome your fear of the Big Muddy’s dark waters. But why now? Did somebody dump you?
Ha! So I was engaged, but I swear that’s not the reason. We separated over a year ago. In March of 2021, so we made it through COVID more or less, and we were going to get married in May. I was at a decision point. I had bought the van before I met her, and I always thought I was going to move into a van.
Are you part of the whole #vanlife movement?
Yeah, I’ve been living in a van for a full year now. After I did the PCT, I bought the van. I planned on moving into this van, but it took way longer than I thought. Next thing you know, a year goes by, and I meet a girl. Next thing you know, we’re really hitting it off. Three years go by, we’re engaged. So I was at a decision point. It’s, like, I’m either never going to live in this van, or I’m never going to do the Mississippi River. But it’s, like, we’re going to have kids soon and this is it. Maybe if I become a really wealthy man, I can go do Mt. Denali someday or something. And so it’s like, it’s either this or that. There’s a true fork in the road. And I have nothing bad to say about her whatsoever, but I just chose this instead.
So it was your choice?
Yeah. I think it was mutually exclusive. I don’t want to speak for her, but that’s—yes. Before we separated, there was a specific moment at a Walgreens parking lot, late at night, in a Cleveland suburb. It’s 10:00 and this girl walks by, and she sees this huge van. It’s 22 feet long, it looks like a #vanlife van—there are solar panels on top. So this girl is like, “oh, do you live in there?” And I was like, “well, long story—no, I don’t.” And she’s like, “well, have you ever traveled in it?” I’m like, “well, not really.” I’d had it for four years, and that was my dream. And I’ve been using the van to remodel houses, so I’m using the van every day. But I didn’t buy it to remodel houses.
Its purpose was to travel.
Its purpose was to live in it. And we separated shortly thereafter.
Where’s the van now?
It’s in storage in Park Rapids.
So then you decided to do this trip.
No. So we separate, I move into the van—I got nowhere else to live, which is perfect. I finished remodeling some projects that I had. I’ve worked for myself this entire time—it’s how this is possible. I remodel bathrooms and homes. And I said, okay, the van’s done. But I don’t want to just live in a van, I like completable goals. And I’m like, well, how can I live in a van in a completable way? Well, what if I go to every state? Well, what would I do to complete the state? Because I don’t want to just go to the rest stop and say, hey, I’m here. I was like, I’ll do a random act of kindness in all 50 states. So I started out in August of 2020. I passed out wool socks to people who were homeless in New York. And then I went to Boston. I actually bought a ticket to the Yankees-Red Sox game at Fenway. I’m like, how sick would that be if I just bought a ticket to the game and gave it to somebody that couldn’t go to the game. So I was walking around Fenway and, I’m like, whoever’s got the best story, I’ll give you a ticket to the game. And honestly, none of the stories were good. So this guy’s working a hot dog stand and he’s in his 20s, I’m like, “hey, if I give you a ticket to the game, would your boss let you go?” And he’s like, I think so. He calls his boss, boss says yes, I’m like, there you go, dude. I didn’t go. I only had money for one—the ticket was $300 bucks. So I gave him the ticket and then the CBS affiliate or something heard about it, they put it on the radio and I kept going. I got eight of these random acts of kindness done in New England and then I ran out of money.
Did you go back to work?
Again, I’m not a wealthy man, so it’s, like, well, what can I do? I had made a contact through YouTube of a guy who lives out in Seattle. He just bought a home and I’m a contractor, so I’m, like, okay, I’ll go remodel your home. So I went from August into December doing the random acts of kindness, then drove my van to Seattle, remodeled this home for six to seven months. At this point, I’m wondering, how do I get to the Mississippi? I was exhausted when I finished remodeling the house. I’m, like, fuck, this took way longer than I thought. I’ve flipped seven homes, but this one was the longest and took the most—lots of custom work, with built-ins and wainscoting and a couple bathrooms. I’m like, I need a fucking break. So it’s summer, I got unlimited time, I got a little money in my pocket—let’s just get the Mississippi off the list. Not waiting to live.
The writer with @notwaitingtolive (right)
So your handle on TikTok, @notwaitingtolive, was originally your website?
Yeah, I quit my engineering job to do the Pacific Crest Trail on April Fools’ Day, 2016. That’s when I created notwaitingtolive.com. Like, I’m not waiting to live—I’m going to go out and do this. Because at that engineering job, people told me you can’t quit, it’s going to set your career back, blah, blah, blah, it’s never going to be the same. And it was never the same—my life has never been the same since that point.
When did you get on TikTok?
I got on TikTok for the remodeling. So I got 170,000 followers from remodeling videos.
Now you’re at 230,000.
260,000, actually. [Editor’s note: now he’s at 278,000]
So you’ve added almost a hundred thousand people just from the Mississippi trip.  
There’s a lot of overlap with fishing, wilderness, outdoors—it’s a very logical extension.
I do love the TikTok history stuff. So are you laying in your tent at night, looking up the Hinckley Fire on Wikipedia?
I’ll get to a town or a town’s coming up and I might look them up on Wikipedia. And usually there’s some quirky fact that sticks out. Like with Red Wing, which I’ll be coming up to in a couple days. Okay, what’s in Red Wing? Google Red Wing, Wikipedia, Red Wing, Sea Wing, Sea Wing crash, what’s the Sea Wing? Look it up. Ninety-seven people died, 50 of them were women from Red Wing, that’s interesting. So you just follow that worm hole down.
I’ll give you one more Lake Pepin fact while you’re here: Water skiing was invented on Lake Pepin.
No way. Sick.
You use a lot of country music to soundtrack your TikToks. Do you listen to a lot of country?
Yeah, I do. Well, a lot of the songs, I choose them from the river. I’ll listen to everything, dude. I mean, Black Keys—shout out to Akron, Ohio. I listen to anything.
You’re in Prince’s town right now.
Oh, really? I didn’t know that.
Dylan grew up here too, but we’re in his rearview mirror.
I met Jakob Dylan in New York City right after I did the PCT. My friend lived in New York City, so I flew from Seattle to New York. We went out on a Sunday night and we went into this dive bar. And this girl we were with is like, “that’s Jakob Dylan.” We’re like, “who the fuck is Jakob Dylan?” She’s like, “the lead singer of the Wallflowers—you know, “One Headlight”?” Oh, I love that song! So this girl goes up to him and she’s like, “are you Jakob Dylan?” He’s like, “no.” So I hadn’t shaved in six months. I just look like this weird homeless guy wearing a $300 Patagonia jacket. I think he gets the sense that I’m a mysterious vagabond or a trust fund kid, which I’m not, but you get all kinds of characters in New York.
Maybe you reminded him of his father.
Yeah. I don’t know. But he’s like, “yeah, you know what, I am Jakob Dylan.” He bought us shots of tequila and it was sick. And then he started talking to us real cool. I’m like, “dude, what was the meaning of ‘One Headlight’? That song’s sick.” And he’s like, “you know how it is, man.” And his wife was there with him—she’s sweet, she’s really into philanthropy. He’s like, “dude, it’s the early ’90s, we just got married, I never had a hit, I was starting to feel some pressure from my wife. Like, come on, what are you going to do? So we just put some catchy lines together.” He’s, like, “you know that line cold as Independence Day? That’s from a Springsteen song. I just stitched together catchy lines. It’s not about anything!”
Just like his dad—stealing from the greats.  
Oh yeah, and I’m, like, “oh: your dad.” And he’s like, “well, me and my dad don’t really talk a lot. But what’s cool is Johnny Cash is my godfather.”
That is cool. Back to the river: you’re averaging about a hundred miles a week.
Yeah, 15, 20 miles a day, whatever it is. 
So you’ve been on the water for about a month before horror of horrors, you get ripped off upstream from St. Cloud. What happened?
So my phone died, it stopped charging. Even though I have all these battery banks, I could not charge it. And it was pouring, and it’s getting close to 5 p.m. So I’m flying blind without that phone. I probably should have some backup, I should have bought a GPS, a dedicated one, but I’m just flying blind. I just walked into town, found the main street, there was a Subway. I go inside the Subway, and hope the phone will dry out. But it just never did. And then there’s a motel next door. So I’m like, okay, my phone’s dead, I’ll just go over to the motel, I’ll just stay here. Now, at the time, my boat’s half a mile away. I should have done a better job of hiding it.
Yeah, I’ve watched your how to hide your boat with a brown tarp TikTok.
Yeah. And I didn’t even put that over the boat. I didn’t expect to stay the night. I thought I was going to go to Subway, phone would dry out and it would charge, and I’d just be back at the boat. At this point, I’ve already traveled over 7,000 miles across the U.S., all human-powered. Mostly small towns, and I’ve never had any problem at all. I was in Clearwater. I don’t know how many people live there, but it has all the trappings of a small town. And Minnesota’s been great—great people. But I came back to the boat and you get to a pit in your stomach. But to be candid, it’s like, I just know it’s going to work out—I know people are going to help me. I just know it, so it’s like, okay.
Well you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people following you, which actually helps a little bit, right?
It gives me a sense of security. And as soon as I posted, two guys showed up. One guy showed up within 15 minutes. He’s like, “Hey! Not waiting to live!” The other guy, I met him two days earlier and he had given me his phone number: Mark, he actually was the former mayor of Sauk Rapids. And I didn’t even call him, he called me within five minutes. He’s like, “hey, I heard. You need a ride?” I’m like, “well, yeah.” And he’s like, “we got to go to Scheels, we’ll get you everything.” And someone left a comment on that video: let good people do good things. And I’d never heard that quote until I saw that comment, but it’s so true.
And the thing with Mark, my instinct wouldn’t have been to go to Scheels, I never even heard of Scheels. My instinct was, there’s a bunch of random stuff I need to get, I’m probably going to have to go to three different stores and I’ll probably need to rent a car—I don’t want to bother anybody. And Mark was like, “no, we’ll go there—we’ll take care of everything.” I just let good people do good things. So I just let him do a good thing, and next thing you know, Scheels is giving me a $500 gift card to replace stuff. And that replaced the tent, the sleeping bag, that went a long way. And I just knew people would help. People have helped me so many times over the last decade. And that’s why I was doing the random acts of kindness. That’s why it took the format of helping random people, because random people have helped me. They’ve given me rides. They’ve cooked me meals. They’ve lent me their trucks. They’ve let me stay in their homes. And that has happened over and over and over and over and over again. So I got no problems. That’s why I am so confident with no plans. Like, let’s just go and it’ll just work out.
Steve Marsh is a senior writer at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine.
October 12, 2022
6:28 AM
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