For many people, a week or two of vacation every year suffices to satisfy the hunger for adventure. Meghan Doherty ’03 and her husband, however, are a different sort.
Doherty and Jed Wolfrom share a sense of adventure and a love of travel, and since they met in 2005 at a ski resort in Jackson Hole, Wyo., had talked of an extended trip driving the Americas. “At some point, we realized if we were going to do it, we needed to do it,” Doherty said.
The couple, who married two years ago and split time between Wyoming and Moab, Utah, spent two years saving, planning and relentlessly searching for the perfect vehicle for their adventure. Ultimately, they decided on an older model truck, which they outfitted with a customized camper to serve as kitchen, bedroom and – in adverse conditions – living area. Doherty and Wolfrom’s general plan was to travel along the coast, where they might enjoy beach life, with sojourns into the mountains for climbing and hiking, with the southernmost tip of Argentina as their ultimate goal.
Leaving Wyoming on April 1, 2012, they started down the Baja Peninsula, took a ferry across the Gulf of California and journeyed through mainland Mexico. Crossing the border into Guatemala, they spent two weeks in Spanish language school and explored the country’s natural pools and caves. On through Central America they went: El Salvador and then a sprint through Honduras to reach Nicaragua, where they hiked a volcano that cradles a sunken lake and enjoyed extended surfing. Then to Costa Rica, where Doherty’s mother joined them for two weeks.
After shipping their truck – and themselves – to Cartagena (there is an essentially impassable 100-mile gap between Panama and Colombia), they traveled through Colombia for climbing and caving and then into the Southern Hemisphere via Ecuador, where Doherty – who played Catamount soccer – was delighted to unexpectedly score stadium seats at a “futbol” match between Ecuador and Chile.
For Doherty, the game captured what she and her husband love about traveling. In a post to the blog she kept while chronicling the trip (at adventureamericas.wordpress.com), she wrote: “There’s a whole world out there, who knows what opportunities we will come upon, what we will learn about people and about ourselves. We only have one life to live, why not live it to the fullest!” Unfortunately, a terrifying experience in Peru temporarily changed their perspective and nearly ended their fun.
A few days after Christmas, Doherty, Wolfrom and Wolfrom’s sister Jennifer, who had flown in from her home in Wyoming to meet them for 10 days, found a quiet spot to camp for the night off a road near the village of Pallcca, not far from Machu Picchu. By this point, Doherty and Wolfrom had been traveling for nine solid months and routinely camped roadside with no incident. On the evening of Dec. 29, however, as the trio toasted Jennifer Wolfrom’s 30th birthday, they were noticed by a couple of village residents and soon attracted a crowd. When the travelers refused to turn over their documents – experienced travelers typically make it a practice to share their passports only with officials – tensions escalated and the crowd turned violent. For the next 11 hours, into the early morning of Dec. 30, a mob of at least 30 people pelted the travelers with rocks and chased, beat and whipped them, holding them at gunpoint before ultimately allowing them to go.
The travelers at first were hesitant to court media attention, but with action from U.S. and Peruvian governments slow to arrive, they eventually did speak with Contessa Brewer of NBC for an interview that aired Jan. 25 on “Today.” The story spread worldwide; Wyoming lawmakers helped initiate assistance from the American Embassy in Peru, and Peruvian tourism officials offered an apology. “I don’t know if we would have even gotten our truck back or gotten any of the help we needed if we hadn’t had the media attention,” Doherty said.
Their physical injuries were extensive. Jed Wolfrom lost teeth in the attack and the three received 100 stitches among them. Their vehicle was smashed and broken, and their passports, money, debit cards and electronics were stolen. Perhaps most pronounced was the emotional trauma. “We did consider ending the trip,” Doherty said. “That was the initial thought: ‘We want to go home.’” But as time passed in Lima, Peru, processing paperwork and waiting for the return of their vehicle, the couple made the decision to travel on. “We’d had so many great experiences it was worth it to us to at least try,” Doherty said.
They did make an adjustment, from then on always traveling as part of a larger group. They spent months exploring Argentina with two other overlanding couples, including Danni LeTendre and her husband, Cesar Morales, formerly of Washington, D.C., who described Doherty and Wolfrom as “awesome travel companions.” That their friends bounced back from the attack in Peru is inspirational, Morales said. “It blew me away how open and engaged they were to new experiences on a daily basis after having a pretty horrible experience,” he said.
They also proved to be reliable and fast-thinking in an emergency. The couples were together, with Wolfrom and Doherty ahead in their vehicle, one afternoon when an accident rolled LeTendre and Morales down a riverbank. Having seen it in the rearview mirror, Wolfrom and Doherty came bounding down the bank to check on their friends. Wolfrom, who has EMT training, gave his friends a once over and declared no major injuries. Then they worked together to coordinate a piece of heavy equipment to pull the vehicle out of the ditch. “I don’t even want to think how that day would have happened without them there,” LeTendre said. “It was such a relief to see their faces.”
With its landscape and food – not to mention cheap and delicious wines – Argentina proved a high point for Doherty. “We pretty much ended with my favorite country,” she said. With Morales and LeTendre, they drove into Ushuaia, commonly regarded as the southernmost city in the world. Then they drove a bit farther, to a place called Rio Moat, where the road actually ends. They had reached their destination.
After 13 months of travel, the couple flew to Miami toward the end of May and were embraced by family. They were reunited with their vehicle at a Virginia port at the end of June. They spent time visiting family and friends on the East Coast over the summer as they transitioned back to a more routine way of life. “There’s a little cultural adjustment,” Doherty admitted.
Soon after their arrival back in the U.S., they learned that four individuals will be charged with aggravated assault and robbery in the act of violence against them. While Doherty wants to pursue justice, she has achieved an emotional distance. “We’re not letting it rule our lives,” she said.
The couple plan to head back to Wyoming by fall at the latest. Doherty has resumed her work with an environmental consulting company. Wolfrom is a carpenter and typically has work wherever he lands. Perhaps most exciting, they want to have children. “We met a lot of families who traveled together with young kids. It seemed really neat,” Doherty said. Another new adventure down the road.