Lots of college students take time off to travel, but David Johnson’s getaway was radical. Johnson, who is the new director for the Peace and Justice Programs, had an uncle once tell him that in one’s 20s is the time to “radically experiment with life.” So, taking him at his word, the then-21-year-old senior at St. John’s University in Minnesota joined two friends on what they called an “Expedition of the Americas.” The trio took a 13,000-mile journey from Argentina to Minnesota. On bicycles. They left in December 1995 and didn’t return until September 1996.
“I was fairly unqualified for such an experience, as were my two co-riders. Nonetheless, we were at the right stage of life to thrust logic aside and go for it. We intentionally didn’t budget any money for places to stay. It was exciting. Every night we needed a place to stay, and people responded.”
“Our first day, though, was a total disaster. We left from Tierra Del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina. The day included one bike breaking, rain, snow, a mountain climb and descent, and wind so heavy I was blown into a ditch three times. I wondered if we had bitten off more than we could chew. At the end of the day we saw a man at an otherwise deserted ski resort, and he told us, ‘The weather is terrible, and you guys are crazy.’ But he said we could stay at a cabin there. He brought us plates of food, and we had an enormous dinner with his family, laughing and storytelling. I went to bed that night and thought, ‘This is going to work out.’ ”
“We found amazing generosity from people we met along the road. One time in Brazil we had not eaten in 24 hours . We saw a pickup truck chock full of fruit, and we waved down the driver and asked if we could buy some fruit. The driver said he couldn’t sell us any, but that didn’t stop him from giving us a supply of fruit. So we had an all-fruit banquet. That evening, we ran into the guy again and he invited us to stay at his house. He organized a block party and his friends netted a bunch of fish from a river. His neighbor was a blacksmith and cooked the fish over anvils. That kind of thing happened consistently.”
“There were some scary moments. The most harrowing was in Colon, Panama, a very depressed, poor and neglected city. We had left our bikes at a harbor to walk around. We sensed we were being followed. Suddenly, a man grabbed us and told us we were being followed by folks that you don’t want to be followed by, and he told us to get a cab and get out of there. We did. While there was danger, there also were folks looking out for us.”
“There were lots of thrilling moments. We had a barbeque with the bishop of Montevideo, Uruguay, on the roof of a cathedral overlooking the city. In Guatemala, I had a political awakening.
“I learned about the unsavory facts of the United States supporting the overthrow of a democratically elected government in the 1950s, but that was complimented by a positive awakening when I met North Americans working with Guatemalans in promoting a just future. All of a sudden I had direction in my life. I recognized there are all kinds of ways to promote a better future, and I could be part of that future.”