From Eight DUIs to Local Hero —The Story of Durango Joe

By Zachary Siegel 07/24/15

If you’re ever drunk and in need of a ride in Wisconsin or the Twin Cities, call up Durango Joe, the redemptive designated driver.

Durango Joe
via Author

We’re all familiar with the very American crash and burn narrative of addiction: Famous such and such spirals downward, sinking slowly into a grey stew of despair. While it may be entertaining, and may result in one more dreary recovery memoir, it all feels groundless, reinforcing my baseline pessimism. 

But once in a while local heroes, such as Durango Joe, the man you’re about to meet from River Falls, Wisconsin, gets the spotlight. I don’t always enjoy when my somewhat pessimistic disposition gets challenged, but Durango Joe, the man who owns four Dodge Durangos accessorized with purple lights and roaring mufflers (he tweaked them to be extra loud) forces me to confront the good in people. After getting out of jail for his eighth DWI, he decided to drive drunk people, on donation, home from local bars. Durango Joe knows the power of service and cherishes his community. 

I called Joe up to get his story. When I asked him where he was he told me he was parked, sitting in his Dodge Durango, of course. 

So you have received eight DWIs...that's a lot. How old were you when you picked up your first one? 

My first DWI came when I turned 21. The second one came when I was 23...24 and again at 28—

Ah, OK. I think I get it. Did you ever try any treatment, like an in-patient?

Yeah, when I was younger. On maybe my fourth DWI, my probation officer said, "Joe, I'll put you into treatment." Well, I was in a treatment center for 28 days and I was drunk every day in there. Staff would let me go to the YMCA so I could work out my frustrations. On the walk down, there was a gas station and I'd pick up a bottle of Nyquil. I'd slam that down and when I got back to the treatment facility, I'd be! I'll tell you what, drinkin' Nyquil is really bad. 

So I obviously failed at that attempt and shortly after I was in another car wreck. But this one—seriously—was not my fault. A guy ran into me and totaled my roommate’s truck. I went to prison on that one as an ATR (alternative to revocation). I was locked up for a whole year and then went in for four months to the actual prison system, but I didn't go all the way through the prison system. They just put me in a prison to let me see what it was like. They then pulled me out and asked, "Did you learn anything yet?"

Did you? 

No. The day I walked out of prison my roommate came and picked me up. Sitting in the front seat was a six-pack of beer and a bottle of rum. I fixed myself a drink and slammed down three of those beers. I was drunk before the two miles from there to the highway. 

To backpedal, you said "another car wreck"—how many of those were you involved in?

I've been in several car wrecks where people look at the car and wonder how in the hell did you walk out of that? Being drunk, you flop around a lot.

I had a ’57 Chevy once, one of those quarter-mile cars. Had some pretty big sponsors too, like Marlboro and Snap-on Tools. Well, we were looking for a driver and this guy was showing me how he could drive. So we went out for a spin, I was drunk and he was drunk. But I thought he was sober, I mean, he’s a race car driver. Turned out he was pretty drunk. He took a corner doing 130 mph and we were launched into the air, spinning three times before hitting the ground. Then we hit and rolled several more times. Probably should be dead. 

While serving time for your eighth DWI you sat in on a Victim Impact Panel. There, people told you their stories. That seems to really have been a turning point for you with the whole drunk-driving habit. What was it you heard that stuck with you? 

The wife of a man who died driving drunk told her story. She said he was going 60 mph and he hit a tree head on. He flew out of the truck and smashed through the windshield with his body. It took the cops a while to find him because he flew so damn far away from the scene of the accident. She was so devastated. She even lay with him in the morgue for an entire day before he went in the ground. 

So I listened to that and it was like watching my life play out in front of me. It put me in a place to reflect. Being in prison—the real deal prison this time—it was all so humiliating. Your dignity gets taken away. You get told what to do, when to do it and how to do it. If you have to go to the bathroom, you have to ask. If you want clothes, you have to ask. If you want to eat, you stand in line and march to the food. 

That all took a big toll on my inner-person. I saw what was becoming of me and I said, “Hey, I don't like this. I don't want to ever come back to this.” I wanted to change but there was only one way I could. I had to reach down deep inside myself and pull out what was holding me down. 

What’d you find? 

All my life it was really about not being loved. I was pushed out of the family. I was the black sheep. I was always made fun of in school. I was always the kid that got picked on. I was bullied. 

A lot of people confront themselves and feel deeply that their lives are not turning out the way they had planned—yet they continue to self-destruct. What keeps you on the path you want to be on? Like, why the eighth DWI, and not the ninth or tenth? 

This time I had truly admitted to myself that I was an alcoholic. Admitting it, saying it, and believing it, and knowing that’s what kept me down. Was there anything ever good about alcohol? Oh yeah, a few good parties here and there but how much did it cost me? All my drinking and DWIs probably cost me some $365,000 in money, houses and cars, but most of all, relationships and family. It really cost me everything. 

I truly wanted to change and what I had to do was confront all of that. 

It keeps me going. Life is not a smooth path. But the Creator gave me a beautiful life. What I have here is a beautiful thing and I'm just trying to help people. If I drink, I won't be able to help anybody. I won't be giving back. I'll lose what I have and maybe even my life. Is the drink worth it? To me, not anymore. 

So you’re being of service now. What gave you the idea to start driving drunken people around? 

I worked at a cookie factory and we'd gather around and watch the news. These young kids would be walking from downtown St. Paul and some would freeze to death because they were walking home so drunk, and they’d pass out before making it home. Up here in River Falls, kids were doing the same thing. When you're that drunk, it thins your blood. If it's that cold out and you're walking a ways, it's dangerous. So it made me think: these kids need rides to get home safe. I don't want to see kids die because they drank too much. 

Do you tend to pick up people who have been down that same dark path as you? 

I pick people up all the time and you know what they say, it only takes two to have an AA meeting. I am my own traveling AA meeting. People call me up for a ride and they hop in the car and sometimes the conversation just goes there. So every day I'm getting a meeting in, whether I like it or not [laughs].

If someone needs a ride to a job, I drive ‘em. I've also helped a few people become able to stabilize their life far enough for them to eventually buy their own vehicle, pay the insurance, put gas in it, and really get themselves on their own without using me anymore. That is such a nice feeling. [sobs]. When I can do something like that for somebody. 


Just picked up this man. He was homeless and needed a ride. He was trying to get Social Security, trying to build his life back up. I looked in this man's eyes... saw so much sadness, so much despair, and he had no money [sobs], he was living under a bridge. I wished I could do more for him. 

But you did what you could, Joe. 

At least I could help him with the ride. He'll remember that, I hope.  

You showed this man care, I bet a lot of people walk right past him without blinking an eye. 

Yeah, I've been there. I know it. I also sport purple in my logo to support the women of domestic violence. I had a woman, my significant other; she was in a bad situation, where if I didn't pull her out, she may not be here. I try to help the women, drop them off at the shelter where they can get away. These people touch me and I try to touch them back.

But I've stuck everything in my company and now I'm broke. 

What happened? 

The police chief shut me down until I can get my paperwork in order. I’m running on empty now. 

Why’d he shut you down? 

He doesn't like me very much because of my record. He compared me to a sex offender. I can't pick people up in River Falls until I have the proper license for running a taxicab service. But I've got the ex-city attorney on my side and the former mayor on my side. I found out that the chief couldn’t deny me the license. I can get it and they have to issue it. 

But he can still make my life a living hell. Even if I get a parking ticket, he can yank the license. 

Why does he have it out for you—because you’re an ex-drunk?

The original name of my company, back in 2013, was "Durango Joe's Sober Ride." The chief hated that and would not allow the people or children of his town to get in a car with a guy who has eight DWIs. He mentioned statistics showing everyone relapses and told me I'd relapse. 

I then changed the name to "Durango Joe's Free Will Rides" because I was giving the choice to the people. If you want to ride with me and need a ride, I am here. Nobody can tell you that you cannot ride with me. 

But he really shut me down because I take donations and he said that I'm running a business for hire because people give me donations. I understand his point of view but he also has to try and open up his mind a little bit, you know. People can get better and people can do some good. 

I think it's really sad the chief is giving you a hard time. But you can show him up by keeping doing what you're doing. 

I've had my ups and downs getting this off the ground. But I won't hit the bottle because I like what I do. I like helping people. My life is beautiful. There is a lovely woman in my life. I own four Durangos. I never had so much in my life. 

I've even got my son back. He talks to me now. I got to see my grandchildren for the first time ever in their lives—my oldest one is 12 and the two little ones, twins, are seven. I got to see them for the first time on Father's Day. 

A lot of good things have come out of what I do…Sorry, I get a little emotional thinking about all of this. 

It's powerful stuff, Joe. Anything you'd like to say to the people reading this? 

Believe in what you do. And thank you so much for this interview, I feel a lot better. 

Thank you for your work, Joe. I feel pretty good, too. 

Zachary Siegel, is a regular contributor to The Fix. He last interviewed Marc Lewis. Follow him on twitter.


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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.