What is one red paper clip worth?
For Kyle MacDonald, 26, the question is simple, but the answer is more complex and more inspiring than anyone could ever imagine.
Starting with one red paper clip, MacDonald wondered whether it was possible to make enough trades to eventually get a house.
His inspiration was a childhood barter game called Bigger and Better.
"It would be cool [if] instead of getting the job to buy the house, I just played Bigger and Better till I actually traded up to the house," MacDonald said. "That's when I looked down at my desk and saw one red paper clip and said, 'I'll start with that.'"
From there, MacDonald blazed a new trail in Internet trading from his computer in Montreal, making incremental trades until this week -- a year and a day since he began his adventure -- when he made his 14th trade for a house in Kipling, Saskatchewan.
A Long, Strange Trip
It all started July 12, 2005, when MacDonald offered to trade the now infamous red paper clip in a posting on the Internet message board Craigslist.com.
Before long, two young women from Vancouver, Canada -- Rhawnie Vallins and Corinna Haight -- stumbled across his listing.
"I was like, 'Hey, Rhawnie, check this out. This guy wants to trade a paper clip.' What can we trade him? What do we have?" Haight said. "We got to do this now, you know?"
Two days later, MacDonald traveled to a convenience-store parking lot to meet Vallins and Haight and make what he says was the most important trade in his adventure: one red paper clip for one fish-shaped pen.
"As soon as I got the call, I'm like, 'Wow, this is going to be fun,'" he said. "People actually want to do this."
That fact became increasingly obvious as the trades kept coming.
MacDonald swapped the fish-shaped pen with a woman in Seattle for a tiny doorknob with a smiley face. He then traded the doorknob with a man in Amherst, Mass., for a Coleman camping stove.
The Birth of OneRedPaperclip.com
What had started as a game was now taking on a life of its own, and MacDonald needed to find a way to reach a bigger audience. He created his own Web site: OneRedPaperclip.com.
Despite some strange offers -- body parts, souls and even virginity -- MacDonald still was getting legitimate bids.
When he and his girlfriend, Dominique, began poring through hundreds of letters and e-mails looking for deals that would get him closer to a house, they found a Marine sergeant in California who wanted to trade the camping stove for a power generator.
"I went from a generator, which was, you know, I thought was great, to a keg of beer, which I knew was great," he said. "Two days later, a local deejay named Michal Barette said, 'I need to get in on this. I'll offer you my snowmobile.'"
So MacDonald, who was now a celebrity, traded for the snowmobile.
Later that week, while being interviewed on Canadian TV, MacDonald announced that he would travel anywhere to make the right trade except one place: Yahk, British Columbia, population 200.
"So I thought, 'Well, that's safe. No one's ever going to make an offer from there anyways,'" he said, laughing. "Woke up in the morning, and the phone rang: "Hi Kyle, my name's Jeff. … And we want to make you an offer.'"
The offer was an all-expenses-paid trip to, you guessed it, Yahk, British Columbia.
Genie in a Computer Monitor
MacDonald traveled to Yahk to accept the trade and then turned it around for a small-panel truck -- a far cry from a home, but at least it had heat and doors. He was getting closer.
After swapping the truck for a recording-studio contract, he met a young singer-songwriter named Jody Gnant who desperately wanted to record her music.
"I offered one year of free rent in a one-bedroom apartment in lovely downtown Phoenix," Gnant said.
It was this trade that made MacDonald realize that he was part of something very special and that he was not only bartering for a house, but he was in the business of granting wishes.
"She said, 'I really want that recording contract. … This is my opportunity to get my album done,'" MacDonald said. "Her personality just came through over the phone. … And I said, 'Done.'"
So, with a legion of media in tow, he made the trip to meet Gnant and exchange the recording contract for the apartment.
Close but No Cigar
"People said, 'You got your house, you know. You made it to this house,' and I was like, 'Well, it is a house, but I only have it for one year,'" he said. "'I'm going to keep going until I own a house.'"
With millions of people now clicking on his Web site and with MacDonald now appearing on TV and radio shows across North America, this big adventure was about to take an extraordinary turn.
A woman named Leslie Criger, who also lives in Phoenix, was about to make an offer that would propel "one red paper clip" to a whole new level.
"She says, 'I would like to get you to hang out for an afternoon with my boss,'" he said. "I said, 'Who is your boss?' And she goes, 'Alice Cooper.'"
Though Criger, who works in the rock star's restaurant, hadn't even spoken to her boss about it, his reaction couldn't have been more positive.
"I started thinking about it and going, 'That's genius,'" Cooper said. "The smart thing is, he doesn't make a trade unless the other guy is getting a great deal."
So MacDonald headed back to Phoenix to meet Criger to trade one year's free rent in a Phoenix apartment for half a day with a rock legend.
Before MacDonald moved on to find his next trade, he was asked to join Cooper on tour in Fargo, N.D., where he was brought on stage holding the symbol of his journey.
"Being on stage was totally surreal," he said. "The fact that we were holding a red paper clip over our heads together made … this whole project really come together."
Corbin Bernsen's Snow Globe Collection
When MacDonald posted an opportunity to hang out with Cooper on his Web site, offers came pouring in by the thousands.
His next trade would be different from all the others, and would stun and baffle his fans.
He traded the hang time with Alice Cooper to a concert photographer from Cincinnati, for a motorized Kiss snow globe.
The move turned out to be the right one as actor Corbin Bernsen, best known for his role on the hit TV show "L.A. Law," was waiting in the wings to snatch it up.
"I have 6,000 of them," said Bernsen, an avid snow-globe collector." I never heard of the Kiss snow globe."
Bernsen said that when he saw the snow globe: "I said, 'Got to have it.'"
He then traded MacDonald the snow globe for a speaking role in a film he's about to direct titled "Donna on Demand."
"There's someone out there who wants to be an actor," MacDonald said. "I think this is an amazing opportunity."
If that wannabe star or starlet is among the 1,000 or so people living in Kipling, Saskatchewan, he or she is in luck.
The town made MacDonald's dream a reality when it offered him a house for the part.
Auditions will begin soon.
Almost one year to the day after beginning his quest, MacDonald headed to Kipling to see his new home in person and to meet the town's mayor.
His dream had finally come true, and for everyone who had watched and become part of his experiment, that red paper clip had helped them realize anything is possible.
"I've embarked on an adventure, and that paper clip symbolically holds it together," he said. "It's really easy to remember one red paper clip."
No doubt few who've seen this journey unfold will ever forget.