13 stranded strangers went on a spontaneous road trip. Here’s where they are a year later

6 months ago

In December last year, after their flight from Orlando to Knoxville was unexpectedly canceled, 13 stranded strangers desperate to reach their destination rallied together, rented a van and hit the road.

It was a spontaneous decision that one of the passengers, Alanah Story, chronicled via a series of videos posted on TikTok. The relatability of the situation, teamed with the enthusiastic cast of characters along for the ride, quickly captivated social media users.

The van passengers hailed from across the globe, and everyone had a different reason for traveling that day. There was Carlos Cordero – who became the group’s main driver and de facto leader – and his then-fiancee Laura Puckering, who were taking their teenage daughter Mikayla Puckering to tour the University of Tennessee. Then there was Alanah and her mom Renee Fortner, who were on their way home from a beach vacation. Meanwhile, Michelle Miller, an influencer known as @thefarmbabe, was set to present at a conference in Knoxville and the clock was ticking.

In one of their TikTok dispatches, the group leaned into the whole “this could be a movie” vibe.

One passenger, Q, joked that he, as the sole Black man in the group, would be the one to “die first,” a nod to horror movie tropes. Michelle said she was only here for the snacks, and Renee quipped about stopping at the liquor store.

Social media was invested in their journey – it seemed like everyone could relate to someone in the van. And as Alanah’s TikToks gained traction online, the strangers in the van got to know one another during the long, overnight drive.

“Everybody was so awesome. It almost went too perfect,” said Carlos last year.

“It took collective effort. Everybody really had their own thing going on. But everybody cared about one another’s ventures and responsibilities.”

The group reached Knoxville tired but happy. Then they went their separate ways, promising to stay in touch.

And they actually did.

They set up with a group chat – entitled “Not fast, just furious”, a reference to their driving origin story and the car-themed movie franchise. Then, there came a buzz of media interest in their wild journey that the group navigated together. That came and went, but most of the passengers stayed connected.

Their night in the van had fast tracked their friendships. Soon there were weekend stays at one another’s homes. New Year’s Eve parties. Super Bowl Sundays. Nights spent bowling, playing mini golf and singing karaoke. And when Laura and Carlos got married earlier this year, they invited everyone along.

One year on from their wild van adventure, six of the passengers, Laura, Carlos, Mikayla, Alanah, Renee and Michelle jumped on a Zoom call to update CNN Travel on how they went from strangers to “family.”

“It’s just really cool that this happened out of a fluke of a flight getting canceled. We met these great people that we’re legit still friends with,” says Alanah.

For those following along with the stranded passengers’ journey last year, 17-year-old Mikayla’s quest to make it to her University of Tennessee tour was perhaps one of the most engaging parts of the story.

Mikayla made it to the college tour – against the odds. And she was treated as a celebrity upon arrival, a memory that she and her parents Laura and Carlos still look upon with a mix of disbelief and gratitude.

But while Mikayla enjoyed visiting the University of Tennessee, she ended up going to Penn State University – and she’s absolutely loving it so far.

So far at Penn State, Mikayla has never been recognized as one of the viral stranded passengers. But when her roommate Googled her prior to them moving in together, she came across the myriad of online articles about her van adventure and sent them on, disbelieving.

“She was like, ‘Wait did you do this?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that was me,’” says Mikayla, laughing.

Mikayla remembers that during the spontaneous road trip last December – as it became clear she and her parents had stumbled upon a warm, fun and genuine group of people– she kept thinking: “Everything happens for a reason.”

This sentiment has epitomized this past year for the stranded strangers turned friends. It crossed Alanah and her mother Renee’s minds at Laura and Carlos’ wedding, as they found themselves celebrating the marriage of a couple who, six months previously, they didn’t know at all.

“They’re like family now,” Alanah says. “We cut up whenever we’re together, we have a really good time. And so that’s what we did at their wedding. We just had a ball.”

“It was so nice they made it,” says Laura, who took Carlos’ name when they got married, becoming Laura Cordero.

Michelle couldn’t make the wedding, but she reunited with the group for Super Bowl Sunday. Renee gave Michelle her bedroom for that weekend – the sign of true friendship, Renee jokes.

Meanwhile Alanah and Q spent New Year’s Eve together and have enjoyed regular karaoke sessions.

“I talk to him literally like two or three times a week. That’s like my brother. I love him so much. We’re pretty close,” she says.

Some of the group also went ballroom dancing with Seth – one of the other passengers who shared some of the driving with Carlos during the van ride.

“It was so much fun,” says Alanah.

Seth also shared some of his poetry with Carlos and Laura.

“He made us cry,” says Carlos. “I love the guy, he’s so kind hearted.”

Some of the van passengers live further afield – like Mexican farmers Adolf and Johan – which makes staying in touch a little harder. But they still share updates on their lives in the group chat.

“They sent a video of them celebrating Thanksgiving at church, which was really cool,” says Michelle.

Laura and Carlos recently hosted Michelle for a movie night – the group wanted to check out a new Hallmark film that they suspected was, at least in part, inspired by their story.

“Holiday Road” is about a group of strangers who decide, when their flight is canceled, to rent a shared van and drive to their destination.

CNN Travel reached out to Hallmark for comment. A spokesperson for Hallmark previously told Business Insider that “Holiday Road” was “inspired by multiple news stories of strangers banding together across the country over the years” and “not based on any one story and all characters are wholly original.”

The real-life van passengers were somewhere between flattered and amused to learn about this film, which they say they weren’t aware of prior to its release. There’s no requirement for production companies to consult real-life subjects of fictional movies or TV shows, although they sometimes do.

“I guess we felt like we could have been included in it,” says Alanah. “I mean, it’s kind of cool, because who gets to say they have a movie made about their lives?”

“I was also pretty jealous of their van – it looked a little more comfortable. Ours was not comfortable,” says Laura, laughing.

While there’s still talk of a future movie in which the real-life passengers are more involved, some of the group feel like it’s a situation where the reality was cinematic enough in itself.

Alanah suggests a documentary might be the best format for telling their story.

“Our stories in themselves, without being dramatized, are still pretty entertaining,” she says. “I would love for it to be seen as what it actually is.”

The group recently celebrated the one-year anniversary of meeting when they were stranded at Orlando International Airport.

As the van ride anniversary passed, the friends found themselves weighing up the idea of going on another group road trip – a planned one, where “we won’t have to be sleep deprived, leaving at 10 p.m.,” as Mikayla puts it.

“It would be great to have a destination to go to,” says Renee. “Let’s go somewhere where we can all hang out, like a resort or something fun.

Meanwhile Carlos is in favor of going some place where they could do a “team activity.”

Whatever the future holds, the group are just thankful for their unlikely, enduring friendship.

“For all of us to have become as close as we are. I mean, I’d never have guessed it. I’m very thankful though, because they’re all just amazing,” says Laura.

“We’re truly blessed. The fact that we did find good people – and then it’s not just one or two, it’s pretty much everyone in the van,” adds Carlos.

For Carlos, the experience has been a reminder to not “lose faith” in strangers, and remain “open hearted.”

“We all need to be a little bit more humble, and more kind,” he says.

His words are echoed by Alanah.

“It’s really important to realize that even though you come from all walks of life, people thrive best, when they’re in a community. And that’s something we were able to develop amongst each other,” agrees Alanah.

“There’s community for everyone. Even people who are super different, we can still find a way to level with each other, and come together.”…Read more by Francesca Street


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