Picture it: two freshmen sitting in a Wheaton College dorm room. Late one evening, amid piles of dirty laundry, a ripped-up five-dollar floral couch from Goodwill, and a few Disney princess posters on the wall, an idea was born: “We should drive the Pan-American Highway when we graduate...”
This conversation occurred late one evening in 2014 between James Guebert ’19 and Caleb Krumsieg ’18. Caleb recruited Karl Cassel ’17 and Theodore Muschany as the final two crewmen. Theodore—the only non-Wheatie among us—had grown up with Caleb back home and worked with Wheaton students at HoneyRock and at the Micah Project, an outreach ministry founded in 2000 by Wheaton alumnus Michael Miller ’94 for boys on the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, which we later visited on our journey.
Our goal was simple: to drive from California to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world.
We dubbed our trip “Project: Go There” based on a quote from Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing and gear company: “I met a lot of young people who asked me what books to read or films to watch. I think that is a good way to start, but there’s no substitute for just going there.” We were “going there” beyond borders from California to the southern tip of Argentina, stepping away from our formal education and out of the places in which we felt most comfortable. By “going there”—driving with purpose along a long, unpredictable road across geographical and social borders—we learned to trust God in the midst of our fears.
PREPARATION AND POSTURE FOR THE JOURNEY
Prior to departure, we spent over three years preparing for the trip, sorting out the logistics and determining our goals. Recognizing the tremendous privilege we had to pursue an educational experience like this, we greatly desired to do it with a respectful posture, acknowledging that we would simply be guests passing through new countries. We didn’t want to start any of our conversations with the presumption that we knew all about our country hosts already. We wanted to truly listen to our fellow Americans from North to South America.
As we thought about what God might accomplish in us through this pilgrimage, we determined that our primary (or most necessary) goal was to improve our cross-cultural engagement by practicing a posture of learning. We hoped that developing this skill would lead to a more fruitful experience.
We also obsessed over our “fear of the other.”
This fear was ultimately challenged and quieted by the welcoming, accepting, and encouraging support from those we met throughout our journey. We were constantly flexing the muscle to listen, as opposed to making assumptions. Our fear was conquered all over America and beyond: by patrol persons in Mexico, street boys in downtown Tegucigalpa, our ship’s captain in Cartagena, fellow travelers in the Patagonia wilderness—basically by everyone we were in proximity to from all walks of life.
With little more than grit, determination, and a 2001 Toyota Sequoia we fondly named “Abuelita,” we set off from San Francisco on August 8, 2017. Prior to our first border crossing into Mexico on Tuesday, August 15th, we each felt our own concoction of excitement, fear, and apprehension. After crossing the border later that day, we were taken out by a stranger to eat tacos for dinner as we overlooked Monterrey that evening. He spoke about his vision for the church and taught us about social engagement.
This late-night conversation on our first night across the border was the first of many face-to-face confirmations that the Lord is using people around the globe to tirelessly spread the gospel.
During our make-your-own study abroad experience, we crossed into 13 countries, which afforded us the unique opportunity to negotiate the bureaucracy at each border crossing. As we bounced from checkpoint to checkpoint, the gifted Spanish speakers among us (primarily Theo) managed the details for hours on end: buying car insurance, haggling at the foreign currency exchange, or convincing officials to give us back our malaria meds. Meanwhile, the rest of us “gifted English speakers” watched. Each time, both parties felt immense frustration with the unorganized and elongated process. Later, we realized that the entire process stemmed from the characteristically human fear of other people. Borders are symbolic of a fear-based separation between humankind, something contrary to Jesus’ command to love one another, even our enemies.
WELCOMED BY THE STRANGER
While we may not forget the twinge of apprehension we felt as we pulled up in our duct-taped vehicle to that first border in Laredo, Texas, we will never forget the love that quickly abolished any fear we may have tried to pack in with our camping gear. At each border crossing, we were welcomed into a unique country where real people love, work, eat, sleep, cry, and laugh. Not once did we meet a person who threatened us. On the contrary, we found new friends and acquaintances to be relationally present and welcoming, and we were inspired by the complete strangers who made the effort to patiently tear down any dividing lines between us.
Human relationships among strangers are broken. By refusing to listen and empathize, strangers can easily slight or misunderstand one another. Throughout our experiences, however, a novel form of love healed our wounds. In Matthew 10:11, Jesus urges his disciples to take nothing with them and to seek “people of peace” who will house them. The mission of Christ is dependent on these people of peace—people who may not be Christian nor share our cultural heritage.
Dozens of people from all over these continents warmly opened their doors and generously provided meals. As we shared stories over food and coffee, our hosts revealed ways of life that differed substantially from our own. By trusting us and sharing their lives, they demonstrated love at one of its most basic levels.
Still, we often found ourselves caught off-guard by generous hosts who saw us sick, pathetic, or dirty—and still offered us shelter. Once, while driving along the coast, we were welcomed into a Chilean film star’s home that had housed the Chilean president just weeks prior. In Quito, Ecuador, a retired couple spontaneously offered us a meal and place to sleep. Near Santiago, Chile, we exchanged work on an avocado farm for a place to stay. Throughout Central America, we made connections with lovely people, many of whom were affiliated with Wheaton: Daniel Gunn ’90, Phil ’87 and Jill Kroese Aspegren ’87, Michael Miller ’94, John ’01 and Rebecca Haver Bell M.A. ’01, and Stephen Kusmer ’11.
CLOSE CALLS AND HEALTH TROUBLES
Not all days on the road are created equal. One day we had an efficient 15-hour drive through the Atacama Desert, where we stopped only to sleep under the stars. Other days were spent stopping every 30 minutes, pulling off to address Abuelita’s countless aches and pains. One day in rural Nicaragua, our heroic drivers, James and Karl, coaxed our four-wheeled Abuelita to perform feats unfit for any Toyota Sequoia: everything from small tree demolition to near-vertical mudslide climbs.
Caleb’s journal entry recounts our realization that our “road” was “simply a different genre of terrain.” In the process of avoiding a nasty pothole, we found ourselves caked in mud, with the entire right side of Abuelita hanging off the road. We were inches away from tumbling down a ravine into the Nicaraguan jungle. We jumped out of the car and scrambled to grab sticks to scrape, claw, and fortify the unforgiving earth in an attempt to free Abuelita without sending her plummeting. Hours later, our skin covered with mud, sweat, and vicious bug bites, we shed tears of triumph.
The four of us also quickly learned that for a closer connection with our hosts, we had to get off the beaten path and eat the local street food. Doing so, however, posed other risks to our health. The low point came just after the hallmark high of climbing Machu Picchu; between retching and attempting to refill our stomachs, we spent the night hardly breathing. Similarly, Karl spent several days connected to an IV in a Cartagena hospital bed battling a stomach virus and dehydration. These were the realities –the price, even–of life on the road.
Of course, there were moments along the way when each of us wished to be back in our North American communities, where we had spent all those sleepless nights romanticizing a nomadic lifestyle in Latin America. Nearly every night for a semester we slept in a different location, sometimes on mountaintops or at rural gas stations in the dense heat. The highs, lows, and in-betweens seemed unbearable at times.
Sometimes simply existing on the road took a great toll on our psyches. We longed for a consistent place to sleep, found ourselves jerked awake at night flailing at imaginary threats, and felt exhausted from overstimulation. We spoke to different individuals at each new place, some of them homeless, some fellow adventurers, and some who had been forced to leave their homes behind.
Bombarded by seemingly random experiences, we frantically looked for something to tie it all together. Amidst the most dramatically beautiful places, we still found ourselves restless. This discontentment pointed us toward our anchor: the love of God for the creation.
Whether it was our fear of venturing into the unknown or being trapped in the known when we returned home, we learned to look beyond our fears to find a deeper peace. Backpacking in Patagonia and climbing volcanoes in Guatemala reminded us of God’s grand and benevolent purpose for the world. These messages from God brought us rest.
We also learned about thankfulness. Instead of partaking in a feast on Thanksgiving, we fasted and contemplated everything for which we could be thankful that wasn’t related to physical needs. This helped us realize that what we tend to be grateful for is having our physical needs met. One night a vicious wind broke our tent, leaving us in the pouring rain all night, just before a 30-mile trek the next day. By the end of that trek, we had bloody feet, tired souls, and a new perspective on how important creature comforts are, despite our desire to transcend them. When we were stripped of all ability to provide for ourselves, we were forced to trust in God, which illuminated the beauty around us and made it much easier to be thankful.
FROM FEAR TO TRUST
Fear is a quickly identifiable obstacle for much of life. We observed how fear causes people to doubt God’s goodness and sovereignty, and to doubt other people and ourselves. Fear is a crippling inward-focused instinct that keeps us from flourishing as God intends. The command “fear not” is the most common command in the Bible, making it one of the chief themes of the Word.
Driven by our desire to learn about the world beyond an insular classroom, we embarked on Project: Go There with the goal of being good guests as we traveled through the Americas, aiming for a posture of learning. We learned that such a posture is not just a kind practice; it is a form of moving beyond fear into the trust that God intends. Through the practice of pilgrimage, trust became more natural. As we realized our need to be completely stripped of our crippling fears, we found a new freedom through the liturgy of the road.