Couple Embarks on 27-Hour Road Trip to Help Lost Elderly Man Reunite with Son: 'The Best Feeling'
An Illinois couple who embarked on an impromptu cross-country road trip to help an elderly man reunite with his son have gone viral after they captured their heartwarming journey on video and shared it to TikTok.
Tracy Eckhardt and her fiancé Elton Hood first met 79-year-old Dennis Milentz at a gas station in Illinois earlier this month, Eckhardt, 41, tells PEOPLE.
Milentz had set off about a week earlier from his home in Heber-Overgaard, Arizona, and was headed to Fremont, Wisconsin to see his son Steven for the first time in nearly 20 years.
But after a week of driving and trying to follow directions written on a piece of paper, Milentz, a Marine veteran, had gotten lost — so much so that he’d somehow added 200 extra miles to his trip.
“It was really hectic,” he told NBC affiliate WMTV. “I fought to keep conscious so that I wouldn’t get into an accident.”
So Eckhardt and Hood, 44, stepped in, she explained on TikTok. Hood carefully wrote out directions from the gas station to Fremont to help Milentz get there, and even spoke to Steven on the phone to update him on the situation.
When Hood noticed that Milentz had a GPS, he programmed the address into it, and spent 20 minutes explaining how it worked. Hood also gave Milentz his phone number in case he came across any trouble – and sure enough, 15 minutes later, Milentz called to say he was lost once again.
That’s when Eckhardt and Hood realized what they had to do: they would make a three-hour drive with Milentz from Woodhull, Illinois to a halfway point of Madison, Wisconsin to make sure he got where he needed to be.
"We had kind of already said that that could be anybody's parent or anybody's grandparent," Eckhardt says. "There are so many people who have parents that will go do these things and they end up lost, or they meet somebody not so nice that takes advantage of them. And that just wasn't going to be an option for us to hear down the road that he was missing and know that at one point we had the opportunity to turn it around and get him there safely."
She adds, "We would have felt guilty forever if something like that would've happened. So when he called, it was pretty instantaneous. Here we go!"
It took the couple about 40 minutes to find Milentz after their initial gas station encounter, but when they finally did, they drove to Madison as he followed behind, chronicling their journey for TikTok with the hashtag #DrivingMrDennis.
Together, the group stopped to enjoy lunch in Iowa and swapped stories about their lives, forging a friendship as they learned about Milentz's history as a veteran, a train engineer and a driver near LAX.
The story didn’t end there, though — Eckhardt said in a follow-up TikTok that because circumstances prevented Milentz’s family from traveling with him back to Arizona, she and Hood were once again ready to help him get where he needed to be — this time by driving him 27 hours back to his house to make sure he was safe.
"[His family's] plan was to take him to Madison and write out instructions and hope for the best," she says. "And we had already discussed that him going on his own was not going to be an option for us because we would still feel bad. Like, we had started it with him and didn't see it through to the end. And neither of us were raised that way. And that's not how we raise our children."
She continues, "If you start something, you finish it. So we started it by getting him to his son and it was the right thing to do to finish getting him home. So he called me and instead of saying, 'Are you ready to go to Wisconsin?' he said, 'Are you ready to go to Arizona?'"
Eckhardt and Hood met Milentz and his family in LaSalle, Illinois on Wednesday, July 22, and spend the next 27 hours making the 1,664-mile trip back to Heber-Overgaard, stopping only for meals, coffee and stretches.
The couple drove Milentz's truck while he rode in the back — and once they dropped him in off in Arizona, were shocked to discover that their act of kindness had already been paid forward.
Eckhardt says a good Samaritan who saw their story on the local news in Wisconsin offered to pay for their plane tickets back home so they wouldn't have to make another lengthy drive back, and after all was said and done, they landed in Chicago on Saturday.
"We're normal people. Alone, we're not exceptional," says Eckhardt. "But together, people can do exceptional things... 2020 hasn't been a good year for most of us. You kind of forget the good parts of the world and your neighbors and your communities. And I feel like we kind of brought that to light and that's been the best feeling of all."
She continues, "I mean, it was a great feeling getting Dennis home. But when you realize that maybe you've inspired 3 million people...how often in your life are you ever going to be able to do that?"
Moving forward, Eckhardt says she and Hood are working on launching a nonprofit to help them continue to give back, and are starting by selling T-shirts with the phrase "Driving Mr. Dennis," the profits of which will benefit veterans and Alzheimer's organizations.
"We want to continue to do good and help others," she says.