Delayed 220,000-mile overland journey steers into Sussex
“The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry ...” – From Robert Burns’ poem, To a Mouse
Michael Ladden had big plans for 2020. In January he was putting finishing touches on the 75-square-foot travel trailer he built. He was fueling up the big orange 1979 Mercedes Unimog that he would haul the trailer with for the journey of a lifetime.
He would fall asleep at night ticking off the continents and oceans he would cross in his four-year, 220,000-mile, drive-the-globe adventure.
First, starting from his home in Connecticut in the spring, he would head north and tour the eastern provinces of Canada. Then he would turn westward, crossing to the Pacific coast of Canada, before turning southward on the Pan-American Highway. That would take him thousands of miles to the southern tip of South America – Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.
A ship would carry his rig across the Atlantic to the southern tip of Africa. From there he would travel mud, gravel, paved, desert and shell-shocked roads to the northern edge of the continent and take a ferry ride across the Mediterranean into Europe. Northward he would rumble, from country to country, eventually turning east and crossing into Asia above the Himalayas before, a couple of years later, once again turning south.
Down the western edge of the China Sea, his journey would take him through Vietnam, before he embarked for his second ocean crossing, through the South Pacific islands to Australia.
After exploring that continent's cultural and geographical diversity, Ladden planned to make the final ocean crossing of his long journey, eastward across the broad Pacific and back to the United States.
Home again, home again, jiggity-jog.
But as those ruminations lulled him blissfully to sleep, a more sinister and mysterious traveler of even greater proportions beat Ladden to the punch in its own journey around the world: COVID-19.
That’s why, instead of lumbering down the Pan-American Highway in his big orange rig this fall, Ladden instead found himself this week in Sussex County.
After seeing his giant Mercedes in the parking lot of Big Oyster Brewery in Lewes Saturday evening, I tracked Ladden through his drivetheglobe.com website advertised on the side of the rig. We met in person Sunday afternoon in the back yard of Carl Davis’s home on Jefferson Road north of Milton.
Davis and Ladden developed a 30-year friendship via their mutual love of Land Rover vehicles. They both lived in Connecticut at the time, before Davis moved to Sussex.
“This is what I’ve been doing instead,” said Ladden. “Visiting friends and backyard camping. State parks. And a lot of bicycling. Up and down the East Coast so far. My next stop will be Colorado for a visit to the world’s specialist on these Mercedes Unimogs. Tweaking and tuning it up. Then I’ll head to the Southwest for the winter and see how things evolve.”
Ladden spent five days at Delaware Seashore State Park’s Indian River Inlet campground before hooking up with Davis. From there he took cycling trips down into Maryland, to Assateague Island and other locations on Delmarva. “I don’t like to drive more than 100 miles a day. Really, my goal each day is to bicycle at least as many miles as I’ve driven. Since I left Connecticut in the spring, I’m actually ahead on my cycling miles: 3,310 cycling miles and 2,521 driving miles. With cycling, you’re really out there. You’re exposed to everything. The more exposure, the more experience. My journey isn’t about that Mercedes tractor and the trailer. They’re just a tool to get the experience.”
On the way to Colorado, Ladden plans to tap into a network known as Harvest Host. “It’s a network of breweries, wineries, farms and historic places that allow self-contained units to camp overnight. It’s a win-win. RVers, overlanders, etc. get a free place to stop, and the places get a little extra business out of it.”
Ladden isn’t feeling sorry for himself for COVID’s interruption. He’s 52 now but started indulging his wanderlust 30 years ago. He hasn’t missed much, having already traveled across seven continents in separate journeys. When he headed out in 1991 to find gorillas in their mountainous habitat of central Africa, he and his traveling buddy, Eric, had a far more spare rig. Just their feet and backpacks.
They didn’t find the gorillas, but they did hear exotic woodpeckers that turned out to be machine-gun fire. Out of cash and stuck in a Catholic missionary outpost in Rwanda, they watched heavy tanks rolling through the streets of town.
That would have felt threatening if Ladden hadn’t been suffering from a serious case of malaria at the time. “I wanted to die. It was bad.”
To make matters worse, he mistranslated the directions on a prescription and ended up taking 10 times the normal dose of hydroxychloroquine. That resulted in him temporarily losing his eyesight and wandering away from Eric in the middle of the night on a train, before passing out and being resuscitated by a German lady.
He’s driven across frozen sections of the Arctic Ocean in Canada and taken school supplies to First Nation children in remote villages in minus-50-degree temperatures.
Getting to this point
Ladden’s stake in a regional Keller-Williams real estate franchise in Connecticut, and his sale of a chain of Irish pubs that he started and then sold, have enabled him to embrace the traveling life. Over the past five years, he’s taught at a number of overland expos.
“It’s a hot thing in the U.S. now. The whole overland phenomenon is a combination of people into off-road four-wheeling, van lifers and RVers. It’s all about getting out and exploring, discovering other cultures, other points of view.”
At 52, Ladden thinks his backpacking days are probably behind him. After spending most of his traveling days overseas, coronavirus will likely keep him focused on travel in the United States. “I’m not overly optimistic that what we’re going through now will change quickly. Almost every border in the world is closed. People are stuck all over the place. There’s widespread civil war, homelessness and starvation. This is probably the first time in the history of the world that every single human being is sharing the same problem.
“I could easily spend the rest of my life in the United States, experiencing all of its cultures, subcultures and regions. If there’s any good coming out of this, it may be that people are more self-reflecting, buying more RVs and getting out in their own country.”
That doesn’t mean Ladden’s giving up on thinking big.
“Maybe when I’m done doing the U.S., I’ll go around the world on a boat. People doing that are seeing things I can’t see. But what I’ve learned is, don’t make too many firm plans. I was thinking this year has really turned into a disaster for me, but it’s actually turned out to be incredible. I probably wouldn't have discovered this area, and I’m really liking it here.”
For more about Michael Ladden and his journey, go to drivetheglobe.com/rtw.