STONINGTON, ILL. - Shane Bouvet pointed to the towering grain silos near his parents' home in this "little speck in America" and explained how he used to climb them to peer beyond the town's tight confines.
Bouvet, 24, knew then he wanted a life outside, but the prospects for the former night watchman and single father living paycheck to paycheck seemed dim, before he improbably rose from delivering signs for Donald Trump's campaign to becoming its volunteer social media coordinator in Illinois.
His work earned him an invitation to an inaugural ball near Washington, and he planned to attend the inauguration itself. It was an unprecedented opportunity, but he faced one last obstacle as he prepared to leave in recent weeks: How was he going to afford a proper suit and shoes?
Much of Washington watches cynically at an inauguration that seems to shrink by the day, with celebrities dropping out of the festivities and the potential for greater attendance at a protest the next day. But loyal supporters are making plans to back a man they still have faith can make America great again.
Hundreds of buses will be converging on Washington filled with well-wishers, including many rural voters who flocked to the polls, put out signs or donated a few dollars in an effort that added up to history for Trump. They remain dazzled and want a front-row seat for his ascension.
Among the throngs will be Bouvet, who on Wednesday piled into a car with friends and began the drive to Washington to stay at a Days Inn in Arlington, Virginia.
"This is pretty much the biggest thing I've done in my life," Bouvet said of the inauguration. "I don't get out much. I'm a small-town, blue-collar guy."
On a recent day, Bouvet was buoyant as he led a short tour of Stonington, a town of fewer than 1,000 in Southern Illinois with some homes that are boarded up and others sliding into disrepair. Despite skepticism from many, Bouvet said he felt confident that Trump's business experience and promise to bring jobs back to America would bring renewal to struggling and forgotten corners of the country, like his home town. He wanted a hand in the healing.
Bouvet, who now works part time as a FedEx courier, turned aside the questions raised about Russia's interference in the election and other controversies, saying the standard on which he would judge Trump on was right here in Stonington.
Stonington, which sits amid tilled fields of rich, black earth flat as tabletops, has a story that became familiar during the election. It has been hard hit by plant closures and the shuttering of a nearby mine that once employed Bouvet's grandfather. Bouvet said his own father had worked hard at a local foundry to move the family from a trailer into a tidy home. Now, he has cancer, and his mother faces a long commute to a minimum-wage job after a layoff.
"I get tired of seeing people hit rock bottom," Bouvet said. "If you go to the coffee shops, the old guys talk about the old days when engines roared and things weren't built in China."
Bouvet said his unlikely foray into presidential politics began during the Republican primary. Bouvet, who has dabbled in local politics, was going through an expensive custody dispute over his 4-year-old son and was working nights as a security guard at a hospital. The boy's birth had derailed, at least temporarily, his dream of becoming the first person in his family to get a degree at a four-year college.
Bouvet was in turmoil and he said Trump's blunt and unfiltered style, plus the fact that his bid for the presidency was dismissed by many, appealed to an underdog like himself.
After working nights at the hospital, Bouvet began spending his days supporting Trump. He delivered Trump signs, made cold calls for the candidate and posted pro-Trump memes on Facebook. "THROWN TO THE WOLVES" reads the text on a photo of Trump striding confidently in front of his private jet, "COMES BACK LEADER OF THE PACK."
Bouvet's campaign work reached a new pitch after attending a Trump rally last March. Bouvet said he arrived at the Peabody Opera House in St. Louis about 12 hours early to ensure he got into Trump's appearance. He said he shivered through the night, standing in line without a coat. At one point, he waved a Trump flag in front of the opera house as people chanted, "U-S-A.!"
When Trump's speech was over, Bouvet said he pushed through the crowd to try to meet Trump. The encounter was brief, but it was enough that Bouvet recalls it glowingly: He said Trump told him it was amazing he had waited hours, and he autographed a campaign sign for Bouvet before moving on in the swirl of people. Bouvet said he felt part of something bigger - a movement.
Afterward, Bouvet went door to door for Trump in Stonington and other towns nearby. He said he paid for about 3,000 Trump stickers out of his own pocket to hand out at the Illinois State Fair. Bouvet upped his work organizing on Facebook and received an offer to become the volunteer coordinator for social media for Trump's campaign in Illinois in August.
"He grew our audience," said Stephanie Holderfield, the director of the Trump campaign in Illinois. "He's young and he's energetic. He had good, positive messaging."
The efforts culminated on election night. Bouvet said he broke down crying as the results came in. Trump's surprise victory was his own.
Lisa Christiansen, an actress, life coach and Trump supporter, said she invited Bouvet to the Great American Inaugural Ball at the MGM National Harbor after meeting him online and seeing his social media work. She said they plan to attend the inauguration together. Bouvet's background reminded her of her own challenges growing up.
"I feel like it's my responsibility to reach to people that might not otherwise have the opportunity," Christiansen said of the invitation.
With the invitation in hand, Bouvet scanned his wardrobe for something to wear. He had old suits, but nothing appropriate for an evening ball, let alone the proper shoes. He thought about scrimping a few dollars from his paycheck. That was when Mike Bell, a former teacher and a politico from Bouvet's part of Illinois, stepped in.
"I've known him long enough that when he told me he was going to inaugural ball, he would need a suit," Bell said of Bouvet. "We went to Men's Wearhouse."
Bell said he was also able to secure a donation of Allen Edmonds dress shoes. The Wisconsin shoemaker has regularly provided shoes to presidents for their inaugurations.
On a recent day, Bouvet modeled his black suit as his parents looked on in the home they share.
Bouvet spoke excitedly of the connections he might make in Washington, a city he thought of more for its possibilities and history than as a political swamp. He wants to see the Tomb of the Unknowns and other landmarks.
Bouvet hopes to bootstrap his work on the Trump campaign into opportunities with others. It's a long shot, but Bouvet also hopes he can speak to the man he credits with widening his world.
"I'd look him in the eye and say, 'Sir, I . . .' " Bouvet said confidently before lapsing into an uncharacteristic and uncertain pause. "I wouldn't know what to say.' "