Off the Map: Four Columbians take adventure vacations

Friday, November 16, 2007 | 3:00 p.m. CST; updated 1:53 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Judy Knudson relaxes with a hard-earned glass of wine during a recent trip to France. Knudson has been to France numerous times; during one of her trips, she and her husband spent nine days cycling through France's Loire River Valley in 1994.

LaVonne Patterson, 77, traveled to New Zealand in 2006 to put up house siding in the rain.

Dre Merello, 24, went to Italy last year, studied yoga and saw her future in the swinging pendulum of an old fortune teller.

Awakening Your Inner Vagabond

In his book “Vagabonding,” Rolf Potts promotes an ethos of travel that encourages seeking out experiences that emphasize discovery, creativity and personal growth. Although the philosophy is geared toward long-term travel, Potts says any traveler looking to get more out of a vacation can apply the principles. He offers the following tips for awakening your inner vagabond: • Slow down! “Many people’s impulse is to try and squeeze in as much as possible, and this can cheapen your experience,” Potts said. If you only have five or eight days of vacation to work with, he recommends focusing on a single location, leaving more time to take in the atmosphere and culture. • Eschew the obvious. Even traveling 15 minutes from the Eiffel Tower or the Giza Pyramids will land you in a more authentic spot among more welcoming and curious locals, Potts said. Prices are likely to drop dramatically, as well. • Do your homework. Investing in an independent travel guidebook and educating yourself on the layout, culture and customs of your destination will allay fears and encourage a more intrepid mind-set. Potts recommends Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, or Frommer’s publications. • Consider visiting a developing country. Forays into less industrialized locales make for much more vivid and educational experiences, Potts said. And they’re often cheaper. • Rethink the term “adventure.” Amazing trips can be had by simply “going out and allowing things to happen in a strange and amazing new environment — not so much a physical challenge as a psychic one,” Potts said.

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Four years ago, Dane Pavlovich, 31, moonlighted as a Christian missionary in the dusty oute reaches of rural Mexico.

Judy Knudson, 66 and a pack-a-day smoker, became an intercontinental cyclist in 1994 and ultimately changed her life forever.

These Columbia adventurers are not alone, according to Adventure Travel Trade Association-sponsored research conducted by Michigan State University in 2005.

The survey found that 53 percent of respondents have taken adventure-based vacations for educational benefit, and 39.5 percent cited achievement-stimulation.

For 15.5 percent, introspection was the motivation for taking such a trip and 10.8 percent said it was nature.

Survey respondents were asked to select multiple motivations.

“A lot of Americans want to do more than stay in the hotel and drink and eat,” said Dan Stookey of Great Southern Tiger Travel, a Columbia agency specializing in package vacations.

Pampering and escape from daily stresses still rate as high priorities for vacation, Stookey said, but seven days spent gorging on seafood buffets and lying by a chlorinated pool don’t always cut it anymore.

Columbians of all ages are finding that straying from the beaten path doesn’t have to mean pit latrines and cross-country treks in the backs of vegetable trucks.

The study noted that definitions of “adventure travel” have widened to encompass cultural learning and ecotourism experiences. Adventure-travel suppliers also pointed to a desire to support social causes as an increasingly important motivation for vacationers looking for alternative holidays.

Four Columbia residents made it to the edge of the map in recent years, and they illustrate a global shift in thinking.

Summiting Everest’s K7 or kayaking the Amazon aren’t they only ways to earn adventure chops anymore.

Whether you prefer to set out alone or move with herd, the adventure of a lifetime is within reach.

Here’s how these four did it.

Rising to the Challenge

Judy Knudson, 66, Loire Valley, France

“The saddest thing in the world is a missed opportunity.”

For Judy Knudson, the call to adventure came by way of an offer too intriguing to pass up.

“I’ll take you to dinner anywhere in the U.S. if you quit smoking,” her husband said.

Knudson scoffed, but when he upped the ante to “anywhere in the world,” she couldn’t resist the challenge.

Up to that point, Knudson had smoked over a pack a day for 35 years. She’d been the girl in gym class who ducked whenever a ball bounced in her direction.

“I’d never done anything athletic in my life,” she said.

One day in 1994, she and her husband wheeled a pair of dusty, neglected bikes onto the Katy Trail and set off for a ride.

But the sedentary years had taken their toll, and Knudson had to stop every 2 miles to rest. She was dismayed but determined to prevail.

Outings were initially limited to a few easy miles at a time. Her confidence and stamina improved rapidly, though, and she began pushing herself five minutes further each day.

Three months later, Knudson hadn’t just kicked cigarettes, she’d also completed a cycling trek from Kansas City to St. Louis. It was time to cash in on her husband’s offer.

In the summer of 1994, the Knudsons set off on the “payoff trip,” a guided bike tour in France. For nine days, they pedaled 40 to 50 miles a day through the Loire River Valley, from Tours to Amboise, lodging in medieval castles, touring the countryside and picnicking on bread and fresh produce along riverbanks. The evenings were reserved for long, leisurely meals and, of course, plenty of wine.

“It was just absorbing,” Knudson said.

Aside from the satisfaction of rising to the physical bar, Knudson came away from France with a strong affection for the locals she encountered. “You hear a lot about ugly Americans, but we were treated so wonderfully by everyone, everywhere,” she said, and the positive experience strengthened her commitment to explore other cultures and languages.

Thirteen years later, she’s racked up 40,000 miles on three bikes, and her bragging rights include treks across New Zealand, Ireland and Canada, plus 46 out of 50 states during several cross-country trips.

An injured shoulder has slowed Knudson down in recent months, but she’s not about to collapse back into the fuzzy arms of a La-Z-Boy recliner. The future holds the promise of another biking trip to New Zealand, language courses in France, and perhaps a summer teaching piano lessons in Singapore.

“I’ve got this passion to explore other cultures,” she said. “I’ve got a whole lot of living to do.”


Knudson advises those interested in taking a cycling trip to seek out a touring company familiar with their desired destination. Such companies can tailor trips to individual needs and fitness levels and provide bikes, helmets, lodging and often meals.

She recommends Backroads for international tours and CycleAmerica for trips in the United States.

Knudson also hopes to organize a bike tour through Budapest, Vienna and Prague in May 2009. For more info, e-mail Knudson.

Saying ‘yes’ to those in need

LaVonne Patterson, 77, Manukau, New Zealand

“Something is just saying to me, ‘Go do it!’”

If the future belongs to the young, don’t tell LaVonne Patterson. It’s her birthday next month, and she’s got big plans for her 77th year. Sitting beneath an engraving of Martin Luther King Jr. in Show-Me Central Habitat for Humanity’s office one rainy Friday morning, Patterson sipped a mug of coffee and recounted her recent journeys. She has had quite a few.

Like Knudson, Patterson cultivated her adventurous spirit later in life. When her husband died in 2000, she moved to Columbia to be near family but then wondered about her purpose.

“I said, ‘OK, now what? What am I here for?’”

Her search led her to the local Habitat office, where she began work as an office volunteer. In 2004, she took the plunge and signed up for her first volunteer trip, heading to Veracruz, Mexico, along with almost 2,000 others participating in the Jimmy Carter Work Project.

As the group worked to build 74 houses in five days, Patterson raced around the kitchen tent, doling out chicken casserole and spinach soup to the sweaty, hungry masses.

The pace was frantic, the heat was intense. She was hooked.

So in August 2006, she headed out again. This time, the destination was the small town of Manukau on New Zealand’s North Island, where she and 16 others spent about 10 days building a house for a family in need.

In work boots and rain gear, she labored cheerfully in the mud, helping install flooring and siding as the New Zealand winter came to a soggy close around her.

With the help of the home’s future owners and a few locals, the team erected the 1,200-square-foot home in less than nine days.

The prospect of two weeks spent among strangers was a non-issue.

“You just know you’re taken care of,” she said, and counts getting acquainted with other volunteers as a highlight.

“Only a few had ever met before,” Patterson said, “and what a delightful, interesting mix of ages, backgrounds and colors — all with the same spirit of working together to make a difference in the lives of a family who needed a home.”

Volunteering with Habitat has given Patterson a renewed sense of purpose and self-confidence.

“I’ve learned I can do things I didn’t think I could do,” she said.


Habitat for Humanity, a Christian-affiliated volunteer organization, organizes a variety of local, national and international work projects throughout the year. Volunteers age 17 and older are welcome. For more information, call the Show-Me Central branch of Habitat for Humanity at 499-1202, or click here.

Taking passion to the next level

Dre Merello, 24, Tuscany, Italy

“When you’re really still, that’s when you start to see.”

Each morning for eight days in the summer of 2006, Dre Merello’s morning wake-up call was a loudly braying donkey. As the sun rolled over the green hills of Tuscany, she rose from bed and made her way downstairs for morning yoga class.

Merello, 24, a local artist and teacher, had been studying yoga since age 19, but a health scare ultimately propelled her to the Kripalu yoga retreat in an 800-year-old Tuscan villa.

At 22, Merello was suddenly plagued by a host of mysterious ailments. Painting in the studio, she’d find herself overcome by waves of dizziness. “My energy was dropping out of my body,” she said.

She visited a doctor who attributed her physical problems to unresolved emotional issues and gave her a choice: find a way to de-stress her life, or start taking medication.

Worried, Merello found her way to Columbia’s alleyCat Yoga center and enrolled in Kripalu yoga classes. Her health quickly improved as she strengthened her practice.

“I wasn’t making healthy lifestyle choices, and yoga helped me to make good choices,” she said.

In the summer of 2006, shortly after finishing college, she learned that the studio owners were about to leave for a yoga retreat in Tuscany. She mentioned the trip to her mother, who offered, on a whim, to take her.

In keeping with the atmosphere of contemplation, the retreat center was electronics-free. “There were so many kinds of tranquility,” Merello said.

After morning class came an organic, vegetarian breakfast out on the veranda. Days were spent touring nearby areas, practicing yoga, taking meditative strolls through the rolling countryside, snapping photos of wildflowers along horse trails, burying her nose in bushes of rosemary and noticing the little things.

Her time at the retreat also involved intense introspection. After yoga sessions, she’d lie still on the floor, overcome with vulnerability. She struggled to keep an open heart, to listen, to recall the principles of Kripalu.

“It’s about letting things you don’t need go and holding onto what you do need,” Merello said. “Lessons like that can be hard to learn.”

She is convinced that her time at the yoga retreat altered the course of her future.

The swinging pendulum of an old Italian psychic guided her to quit an unsatisfying job and pursue a dream of working as an artist, and, in moments of meditation, she felt a strong call to service.

Returning to Columbia, Merello began volunteering as an art teacher at a Columbia elementary school. Soon, she was offered her first solo art show at Ragtag Cinemacafé.

She credits these opportunities to workings far more deliberate than mere serendipity.

“My awareness was open,” Merello said. “I was allowing things in.”


The owners of alleyCat Yoga, Ken McRae and Kathleen Knipp, will lead Kripalu yoga retreats in Tuscany and other locations in 2008. For more information, call 441-0848, or click here.

Putting faith into action

Dane Pavlovich, 31, Aguascalientes, Mexico

“This is what we’re called to do. No one should suffer or struggle.”

How hard can it be to lay a cement floor? Rent a truck, back it up, pour the concrete, let it dry.

In Mexico, things work differently. Just ask Dane Pavlovich, head basketball and cross-country coach and assistant athletic director at Stephens College.

In the summer of 2003, Pavlovich and his wife, Amy Kay, members of the Christian Church Disciples of Christ, led a group of college students on a mission trip to a rural area outside of Aguascalientes, where they spent a week and a half laying the floor of a Christian retreat center for a church that lacked the resources, money and tools to complete construction on its own.

“It would have been an easy process here,” Pavlovich explained. “Instead, we were working for six days. It was frustrating knowing the task could’ve been done in a matter of days.”

Cement had to be mixed on the ground. The only water source was 400 yards away, so water had to be carted back and forth in trucks. To stabilize the foundation, dirt had to be moved and packed with crude tools. Supplies were scarce, and hard manual labor was the order of the day.

But in the end, Pavlovich came to view rising to such challenges as the high point of the trip. In a burst of inspiration, he and other volunteers created a channel to speed up the trawling process, and the problem-solving success thrilled Pavlovich.

“Using resources well led to quicker work,” he said, a hint of good-natured pride in his voice.

When the center was completed, the local pastor christened it, “The Columbia Room.”

Pavlovich’s mission work began as a show of solidarity with his wife, an associate minister at First Christian Church. But over time, service trips, such as the mission in Mexico, took on a deeper meaning.

“It’s not something I would have seen myself doing 10 years ago,” Pavlovich says. “It’s grown and developed in me. There’s something there that continues drawing me back.”

When the work days were finished, Pavlovich also spent time in worship and enjoying fellowship dinners with the local congregation, and he said learning about the religious customs of people of a shared faith and separate culture has given him a broader religious perspective. Dane speaks some Spanish, but even the language barrier became irrelevant during moments of worship.

“When you’re in church, you have a bond,” he said. “It’s a whole new experience.”


Churches throughout Columbia support long- and short-term mission trips abroad for congregation members.

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LaVonne Patterson November 17, 2007 | 6:20 a.m.


You have handled the material that I gave you in the interviews very well. The over-all article flows well from one travel experience to the others. Perhaps we have enticed the reader to plan a 'travel adventure off the map.'

Here's to a great future for you,

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