It started something like this:
Hey Dad, why don’t we ride our motorcycles to the Amazon jungle and take grandma and grandpa’s ashes back to where they lived as missionaries for 45 years?
“I said there is no way we could do it,” Dale Taylor recalled from the living room of his Lincoln home.
It was a crazy idea. Crazy expensive.
But his son Jay already had that covered.
They would do a Kickstarter campaign -- raising $7,000 to fund the trip. Investors could follow their travels online. Dale and Jay would film their journey, putting together a travelogue for their most generous supporters.
The trip would coincide with the 2014 World Cup -- maybe they could even catch the soccer game between England and Italy.
It was fun to fantasize about. But Dale knew Lori, his wife and Jay’s mother, would never go for it.
“But Lori encouraged it,” Dale said.
“She said it would be a great time to be with your son. And an incredible opportunity.”
Such was the beginning of their odyssey, “8,000 Miles With Dad: Two men, an Urn and an Open Road.”
A five-week journey that would conclude with spreading the ashes of Royal and Joan Taylor -- Dale’s parents and Jay’s grandparents -- at the point where the Pacaas Novos and Mamore rivers merge in Brazil, near the indigenous people they ministered to for 45 years.
The journey, taken in the spring of 2014, is now the subject of an independent film created by Dordt College student Nathan Walters. The Taylor family will host a screening of the film at 7 p.m. Sunday (Jan. 24) at the Joyo Theater, 6102 Havelock Ave. Dale, 58, and Jay, 31, who lives in Traverse City, Michigan, will be on hand to offer anecdotes from an 11-country trip of missed turns, broken-down bikes, bandito run-ins, close calls, lost equipment, new friends and a renewed father-son relationship.
But that’s getting ahead of the story.
Royal and Joan, a love story
The tale begins in the late 1940s, when an Indiana Hoosier named Royal Taylor, and a Ontario, Canada, girl named Joan Quick, both church-going teens, heard New Tribe Missions founder Paul Fleming talk about his work with the unreached people in Malaysia. Fleming spoke of bringing to these people a written language, schools, medical centers and, most importantly, the word of God.
New Tribes Mission (NTM) wanted to spread the word throughout the most remote villages in South America -- places untouched and undiscovered by civilization.
Fleming’s words resonated with Royal in Indiana and Joan in Ontario.
The young recruits met aboard NTM’s old DC-3 plane bound for Central America.
There was something about that “young blond man” who could not sit still, Joan wrote in an autobiographical history for her family.
“During that trip I watched him and sensed his burning desire to serve the Lord, even by drawing the rest of us together for a prayer,” Joan wrote. “I thought in my heart, that is the kind of man I wanted to marry!”
But Royal was headed to Bolivia and Joan for Brazil.
Distance did not deter Royal. He wrote Joan, asking if they “could correspond.” The cross continent letters continued for two years. Culminating in a proposal of marriage.
They reunited at the “small dusty town of Guajara Mirim,” located right on the border of Bolivia and Brazil.
“We had a fabulous honeymoon in a small, rickety motel room in Guayaramerin, Bolivia. Don’t let anyone hoodwink you into thinking you have to go some place exotic for your honeymoon. All it takes is the man of your dreams, any little place to be alone and there you will find your dreams come true,” Joan wrote.
Their first assignment together took one month of travel by boat, up one river and down two others, followed by two days aboard a wood-burning train, two more days on a large river boat, one day by truck until, finally, a large dug-out canoe took them to their destination with the Macurapi people.
Their first home was a chicken coop given to them by the tribesmen.
In 1957, NTM asked the couple to work with the Pacaas Novos Indians, an unreached tribe of cannibals, who had been killing and getting killed by government workers harvesting rubber from the trees in the Amazon Jungle.
By then, the Taylors had two children: Dave, 2, and Dale, 1.
The Taylors were asked to broker an accord between the Indians and the rubber harvesters. With no common language, the missionaries began by leaving gifts of pots and pans in a jungle clearing, hanging them from a rope suspended by two poles. They left the gifts by day, the Indians collected them by night, Dale recalled.
“Through sign language and gifts, the Indians started leaving gifts for them in exchange,” Dale said. “Eventually they made contact, and convinced them they had no intention of harming them.”
“My parents came in at that level,” Dale said. “They stayed 45 years.”
Joan’s autobiography recalls those early days in the jungle -- needing to lock themselves in their thatched roof hut at night, never daring to go outside wearing glasses, jewelry or carrying any other enticing trinkets like a spoon. She wrote of the time she caught one of the tribesmen stealing a diaper right off 2-year-old David’s behind.
She gushed over the “love of her life,” sleeping in Royal's protective arms in tree-strung hammocks.
The Taylors came to know and love the Pacaas Novos. Goods and services were traded. The missionaries helped create schools and introduced modern medicine.
Royal, a trained linguist, developed an alphabet for the Pacaas Novos language and then wrote the language down.
He taught them to read and write and devoted decades to translating the Bible into the Indians’ native tongue -- a project he continued after the couple retired in 1995 and up until his sudden death in 2011.
Like father, like son
“It was a crazy, incredible life,” Dale said of growing up in the Amazon jungle.
“We lived in a thatched-roof house with a mud stove, no electricity, no running water, had an outhouse. We had bamboo walls. Mom cooked on a wood stove most of her life. … My parents bought their first refrigerator after 25 years of marriage (in 1977).”
He grew up playing with the Indians. “Hunting alligators and monkeys, fishing for catfish and piranha,” Dale said.
When Dave was 7 and Dale was 6, their parents sent them off to the missionary boarding school, located 30 miles from Manaus, Brazil, right along the Amazon River.
The school was 800 miles away -- five days travel by boat -- much shorter by New Tribe Ministries airplane. The boys left in September and returned home in May. They saw only their mother when she visited at Christmas time.
Dale graduated from the mission high school in 1975, and returned to the Pacaas Novos. He decided to be a missionary, and returned to the United States for training as a language specialist.
At school, Dale met another mission recruit, Lori, a California girl with a desire to spread Christianity among the unreached.
Lori was training to be a linguist and planned to work in the Philippines.
Dale planned to return to Brazil.
But Dale and Lori fell in love. They married.
New Tribes Mission sent them to Chihuahua, Mexico, where for four years they trained and prepared other new missionaries for work in the field.
Then in 1985, the Mexican government told the missionaries to leave Chihuahua.
The Taylors headed high into the Sierra Madre Mountains where the Tarahumara people lived. There at an 8,000-foot elevation, they settled and repeated what Dale’s parents had done so many years earlier with the Pacaas Novos.
Dale and Lori, and eventually their children, learned the unwritten Tarahumara language.
Lori developed an alphabet for the Tarahumara language. The couple taught the villagers how to write it.
“I worked to translate scripture and Bible lessons,” Dale said.
They helped build a church.
“In many ways, living in the mountains and raising four children in the Sierra Madre Mountains, was like a real-life 'Little House on the Prairie' -- except it was the jungle,” Lori said.
They stayed with the Tarahumara for 15 years, with year-long sabbaticals back to the U.S. and Canada interspersed between.
When the Taylor kids began heading off to college, Dale and Lori decided it was time to return to the United States or Canada, where much of Dale’s family still lives.
In 2000, they settled in Norfolk, joining some long-time friends from Mexico. One year ago they moved to Lincoln.
Taking Royal and Joan home
Two years after Royal Taylor died, Joan passed away from Alzheimer's.
Royal's ashes stayed with Dale in Nebraska. Joan's ashes remained in Canada.
But they belonged together.
Dale said they belonged in the Amazon jungle, near the Pacaas Novos.
With Brazil hosting the World Cup -- 2014 seemed like the perfect time to make the trek. Perhaps merge a little soccer with the family send-off.
“It was Jay’s idea to make it a motorcycle trip,” Dale said.
Jay said his idea was inspired by “The Motorcycle Diaries,” a movie about the Marxist guerrilla commander and revolutionary Che Guevara.
“That story deserved to be told, and we are all better because of it. I feel the same about this trip,” Jay wrote in his Kickstarter campaign,“8,000 Miles With Dad.”
The Taylors would travel through Central America, crisscrossing 11 countries: U.S., Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia.
Dale would carry his father’s ashes.
David’s son Justin would fly from Canada to Brazil with Joan’s ashes. The family would unite in Manaus, Brazil, and travel by boat to the Marriage of the Waters, where the tributaries flow into the Amazon.
Lori admits now that she was OK with the trip, right up until Dale and Jay hit the road.
“Once they were gone I had much trepidation,” she said. “Neither one are the brakes for the other."
Plus, there was always the risk of the unknown and unexpected.
The motorcycles could break down.
The video equipment and footage could get lost or damaged along the way.
A country could deny them entrance or confiscate their bikes.
They could get kidnapped by hostile guerrilla militia -- or run into trouble with drug cartels.
“I don't know what to say here,” Jay wrote on his Kickstarter page. “If this happens, we're screwed.”
“In every situation, we are prepared to live on less, make ends meet, brainstorm a solution, and ultimately arrive in Brazil in time for our flights home (aaaand, not so peripherally, just in time to catch a World Cup game *goooooaaaal* in Brazil as well!),” he wrote.
There also was some concern about the legalities of taking human ashes on an international road trip. But Dale was nonplussed.
“If something happens we’ll talk our way around around it,” he said. “Latin Americans are very sentimental about family and religion. … This (trip) was a pilgrimage and holy trip to honor our parents.”
On May 15, 2014 -- a cold and very wet day -- Jay hopped on his motorcycle and left Traverse City.
On May 17, 2014 -- another cold and wet day -- Dale strapped a storage container, carrying his gear and his dad in a plastic bag, to the back of his Kawasaki KLR-650 and took the highway out of Norfolk.
That evening, he and Jay met up in Oklahoma City.
On May 18, they hit their “first hiccup.”
“Wind knocked dad's bike over, so now we have to figure out how to hot-wire the kill-switch,” he posted on Twitter.
They didn’t get back on the road again until May 21. They planned to be in Mexico by nightfall.
They gassed up just this side of the Mexican border. A fellow traveler, upon seeing their duct-taped “Brazil or Bust” slogan, struck up a conversation.
“You do know that just last week they discovered 40 bodies just across the border…,” the traveler told them.
Cartel atrocities were nothing new. American tourists were advised not to travel through Mexico. But Dale and Jay weren’t worried, they weren't tourists -- Mexico was their home.
“We knew if one minded their own business, they would be fine,” Dale said. “We knew the culture. We knew we would be fine.”
They were robbed their second night in Mexico. While they slept, thieves entered their two-man tent and stealthily stole their laptop and Jay’s cell phone.
Unfortunately, they had not backed up the video footage from the day before.
Dale and Jay gave up a travel day and waited to see if the computer would turn up.
Police told the father and son the thieves were most likely cartel members, suspicious that Dale and Jay were drug enforcement officers posing as tourists.
“People told us we were lucky that we didn’t wake up. That we probably had guns to our heads and didn’t even know it,” Dale said.
On the plus side, locals were so taken with the Taylors’ journey that they called the Tampico newspaper, which sent a reporter out to write their story.
Their story appeared in two newspapers. Dale and Jay also caught the attention of ESPN reporter Wright Thompson, who was en route to the World Cup. Thompson tells them to get in touch when they get to Brazil.
Jay and Dale reached the Guatemala border on May 25.
“We are technically in Guatemala, but they won't let our bikes into the country until 8AM tomorrow. Tonight we eat and sleep in the neutral zone,” Jay posted in Instagram.
The next morning, they encountered more bureaucracy and long lines. And they get swindled in a money exchange.
“Guatemala has been a little rough," Jay tweeted. "And we've taken a lot of wrong turns ..."
But the scenery is beyond beautiful, he wrote. Thanks to the newspaper articles, eager crowds await them in every town. One man invited them to sleep in his church, he offered a prayer before they got back on the road.
They crossed the border into El Salvador on May 27.
“It's surreal that I'm on a small strip of land connecting two massive continents,” Jay tweeted.
They reached Nicaragua on May 28, and spend the next two days repairing their motorcycles. They arrive in Costa Rica on May 30 and “dine on white queso with fried plantains, rice and beans,” and camp on the beach, Jay tweeted.
En route to Panama, Jay’s Go-Pro camera breaks loose from his motorcycle. It is many miles before the loss is discovered.
“That makes two cameras, a cell phone and a laptop down on this trip,” Jay tweeted. “By the end, the documentary will just be a bunch of pencil sketches."
They reached Panama on June 1. Time is running out to get to Brazil by their target date of June 9. Dale’s other children and Jay's siblings, Ben and Melissa, are scheduled to fly in for the scattering of the ashes and soccer.
Dale and Jay sell their motorcycles and fly to Brazil.
ESPN’s Wright Thompson catches up with them at a cantina.
“The whole trip is about fathers and motorcycles,” Jay told Thompson.
It’s about bridging divides and self discovery.
The memorial ceremony for Royal and Joan set for June 11 is delayed when the airlines “lose grandma,” Jay tweeted.
Two days later, the luggage with grandma inside is recovered.
On June 15, the family board a motorboat and set out for the Marriage of the Waters. They stop at the point where the muddy brown churning water of the Amazon River quiets and water turns a still clear black. It is here where his parents veered off into the jungle and the Pacaas Novos.
The weather was cold and foggy, Dale recalled. Melissa held the urn on her lap. Dale gave a short speech, talking about his parents and their dedication to the Pacaas Novos and God.
Melissa tilted the urn over the side of the boat. The family watched as the ashes floated to the water, blending for all eternity in the Amazon Jungle.
“It seemed like a fitting end,” Dale said.
He reflects on the observation of ESPN’s Thompson.
“... In the end this journey was not so much about bringing their ashes to Brazil, but rather they who brought us,” Dale wrote in an Instagram journal passage.
Now, 19 months later, “8,000 Miles With Dad” will be shown on the big screen.
Father and son feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction.
“It was a crazy idea which we had no way of knowing how it would end, but only by doing it would we find out,” Dale said.
And he offered this take-home message for others: “Be willing to attempt big and crazy adventures. It’s amazing to see how many people are willing to join or support you once you are willing to take risks and trust God for the outcome.”