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Jun 12, 2014

World Cup inspires family mission

Dale Taylor and his son, Jay, rode motorcycles from the U.S. to spread Dale's father's and mother's ashes in the Amazon.
Dale Taylor and his son, Jay, rode motorcycles from the U.S. to spread Dale's father's and mother's ashes in the Amazon.

MANAUS, Brazil -- Three generations of Taylor men left the United States on motorcycles, headed south across two continents, looking to close a circle that had been opened so many years before. The World Cup provided the excuse, or maybe the push, as it often does: existing not only as a sporting event but as a way of measuring the passage of time, and of turning a long imagined idea into urgent action. So the Taylors checked the maps, counted the miles -- 8,000 in total -- and hit the road. Dale Taylor, and his son Jay drove toward Brazil with a mission: to spread Royal Taylor's ashes in the Amazon, where he'd worked as a missionary in the 1950s and fell in love with a woman named Joan.

Dale wanted to take his dad back to the place where their family was born.

Jay, 29, left first, from his home in Michigan, riding out through the sleet and the snow. As if an omen, a random father-and-son motorcycle duo rode with him until Indianapolis, and when they turned off, another random father and son wheeled alongside him all the way to Oklahoma City. That's where he met Dale, who'd ridden down from Nebraska with his oldest son, Ben, who couldn't get his wife's permission to make the whole trip but wanted to play some part, even if it was just a drive to Oklahoma.

"The whole trip was about fathers and sons on motorcycles," Jay would say later.

Their constant companion was the memory of Royal Taylor, and his sand-white ashes, which lived in a plastic bag. He packed adventure and service into his 86 years before dying in 2011, using stairs instead of elevators right until the end. When they met, and early in their marriage, Royal and Joan lived among the Pacaas Novos tribe. Committed, Royal learned their oral, unwritten language and then invented and taught them their first alphabet. His life's work after that was translating the New Testament into the tribe's language, and when he died, he'd completed about 90 percent. Friends and fellow missionaries, including his son Dale, are finishing his Bible as a tribute.

Even after Royal and Joan moved back north, the spiritual center of their lives was Brazil. They talked about those years constantly. Later in life, Joan wrote a little book about their time in the jungle. She described snarling animals in the darkness around their hammock, and how she never felt afraid. Royal was there to protect her.

He called her "Joanie."

Their granddaughter Melissa described them together in a word.

"Adorable," she said.

Into their 60s, he'd buy her silk underwear for Christmas and then delight in showing it to the blushing family. Then, three years ago, he suffered a sudden stroke and went down fast. His last words, spoken softly to his gathered children, were from his favorite hymn: "Am I a soldier of the cross?" This past November, Joan died, too, and at her funeral, Dale looked at his son and said, "We should take their ashes to Brazil."

The World Cup spurred Dale and Jay to act, and that's how they found themselves headed toward Manaus, where a cousin would fly in with Joan's ashes so the married couple could be spread together. The first day, near Oklahoma City, Dale pulled up the village where he grew up, Guajara, on Google maps and delighted in showing his son the life he'd left behind in the jungle. He seemed wistful and happy as he talked, remembering what used to be.

Both father and son had their private reasons for hitting the road.

They weren't as close as either wished; when Jay was around 16, his dad's behavior had almost destroyed his parents' marriage, and although the family survived, a distance remained between father and son. This trip would provide the intimacy and time for a reunification. One day, between Costa Rica and Panama, on Day 18, Dale's voice crackled on the in-helmet intercom. The pregnant unspoken question would finally be put in words.

Why are you actually doing this trip? he asked his son.

Jay on the trip with Dale:
Jay on the trip with Dale: "The whole trip was about fathers and sons on motorcycles."

Jay rode as he thought, and then said he had a thirst for experience. Maybe he was chasing, and maybe he was running, but Jay always wanted his life to be a string of once-in-a-lifetime moments. For him, the trip would be about them eating roadside tacos, or driving the CA-2 coastal highway in El Salvador, dipping in and out of midnight black tunnels, or waking up on a basketball court in the middle of a small-town Panamanian square. Those are the things he'd sought out and would remember.

He asked his dad the same question.

Dale told him he wanted to cherish every possible moment with his son. The month on the road, with Jay cruising alongside, surely made Dale imagine all the ways that the past might have kept a small but seemingly un-crossable gap between them, and how this motorcycle ride bridged that divide. Jay treasured the experience of two continents, and Dale treasured watching his son experience those places. He knows things only a father whose boy has become a man can know, about how fast it all rushes away, and how once it's gone, it can't ever come back.

Jay began to sense that on their journey south.

"I'll look back on this, as my dad is passing," he said, "and say, 'That's what the trip was about.'"

He began to sense other things, too, finally getting to really know the man he'd known all his life. In his journal, he kept a log of all the things he learned. His father lived a simpler life, he found; in 35 years of driving, Dale had owned 10 cars. In 14 years of driving, Jay had owned 14. He found his father nervous at a border he'd crossed many times before, and wondered how and why people change. His dad gets sappy on FaceTime and is clueless about alcohol. Jay learned his father is tougher than he, and is a better problem solver, and is more interested in the people he meets along the way. Jay wrote himself a reflective note in his journal: "I don't ask enough questions. Do I not care enough?"

Mostly he saw that he and his father were a lot alike, growing more so every day. One day, Jay noticed for the first time that he and his father stood the same, talked the same, even fidgeted the same. He was becoming his father, as all men do, and he wrote in his journal that day, "my transformation is complete."

Later, after the trip, Jay thought about what lingered between himself and his dad, which a road trip to a soccer tournament had helped resolve. He would search for the proper, measured words.

"It's been a good trip," he'd say. "It's been important."

They arrived in Panama and, as planned, sold their bikes and boarded a flight to Manaus. The plan was for much of the family to gather and watch the first soccer match between Brazil and Croatia on television, paying homage to the flame that drew them back to Brazil.

"We all wanted to see the World Cup somehow," Dale said.

Waiting on the game, and on the informal memorial service for Royal and Joan, they walked the humid streets, ordering whole fish grilled between two pieces of metal, served with rice and beans. Together, they explored the Amazon, visiting the school where Dale went as a child, sailing down the river that dominated his early memories. Dale's oldest son, Ben, and his daughter, Melissa, flew in to help spread the ashes. Nostalgia took hold of Dale as he slipped back in time, making his children try the fruit juices he remembered. They waited on their cousin to arrive from Canada with Joan's ashes so the couple could be together again, in the place where they first fell in love -- the place they loved nearly as much as each other.

"It's a culmination of who they are, and what they embodied," Dale said, sitting in a Manaus cantina with three of his children. "They wanted to die in Brazil with their boots on."

At a red plastic table, looking out on the salmon-colored opera house and the brick plaza facing it, they wondered aloud what grandpa would think about this trip, about the extravagance of money and time, both of which could have gone to finishing the translation he spent his life trying to complete. They were still so close to the trip that the larger truth of it all escaped them, for now at least, although it will dawn on them with time and distance: a father and son reunited, a family gathered in the place where it began, days of laughter and memories and joy.

Jay and Dale didn't bring Royal Taylor to Brazil.

He brought them.