Aaron Schmidt seemed to have disappeared. The University of South Dakota freshman wasn't responding to emails or cellphone messages, and his family hadn't heard from him in days. It wasn't until police were called that a clue turned up: a credit card purchase for a bus ticket to New York City.
Turns out, the 18-year-old had boarded a bus in eastern Nebraska _ a mere $40 in his pocket _ with plans to join Occupy Wall Street protesters in the city where the movement began. His father and uncle flew to New York from their homes in Wisconsin, and began handing out fliers with his photo to protesters.
Schmidt eventually responded to a relative's text message, two days after his parents reported him missing to campus police, and he met up with his father and uncle in New York.
Schmidt said he didn't think he needed to let anyone know about his plan to take the more than 1,200-mile trip, and he didn't foresee it being such a big problem. He had taken part in small Occupy Wall Street protests in Omaha, Neb., and South Dakota, but he wanted to see what it was like in the heart of the movement.
"I wanted to learn more about it. It's hard to know exactly what's going on with something until you experience it yourself. It's hard to judge something from afar from reading things simply online," said Schmidt, who had never been to New York before the trip.
He slept on cardboard in Zuccotti Park for two nights because he didn't have a sleeping bag, and he munched on food distributed by other protesters.
Family members had a hunch he might be at the Occupy camp in the park, where anti-Wall Street demonstrators have centered their activities, after his parents scoured his credit card bill and found the bus ticket purchase. His relatives have long known that he was a passionate advocate for what he saw as the world's injustices _ but they certainly weren't prepared for his New York trip.
His uncle, Al Boelter, said he wasn't angry with his nephew but worried about his safety in a new city with so little money.
"I said Aaron, it's cool to go around the world, but you just can't take off and not tell a soul," Boelter recalls telling Schmidt when they reconnected. "It's kind of a weird deal. I'm just glad it's over."
Schmidt said his time in New York and at the encampment was "fun" and "interesting," though he said the park was smaller than he expected. The protesters had many views, he said, although he doesn't think that hurts the cause.
"That's a problem for having a unifying voice, but I don't think it's really a problem for the movement because everyone is there for the same fundamental reasons. It's just everyone wants something different out of it," he said.
Schmidt, who is unsure if he'll return to school and has returned to his hometown of Waunakee, Wis., said he will continue to take part in issues he finds important. He is currently volunteering to gather signatures to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The Republican is being targeted largely because of a GOP-backed law he helped pushed through that strips most public employees of their collective bargaining rights.
"If I don't participate, I'm basically accepting whatever happens. I can't complain," he said. "If I participate and try to do something and the end doesn't fit me, I can complain. I can say I went out there and I tried."
Kristi Eaton can be reached at twitter.com/kristieaton