We've become accustomed these days to doing our globe hopping the safe, sanitary way: colorfully encapsulated under glass, behind a television screen. Satisfying two senses isn't enough for at least four young Arkansans, however. This summer, they plan on heading to London to participate in the Mongol Rally, a 10,000 kilometer, six-week jaunt that will take them across Eurasia in a second-hand car.
The rally, which has been run since 2004, has a number of stipulations, each of which can make completing the rally (which organizers call "an adventure" instead of a race, pointing out that there's no official recognition for finishing first, second or third) exponentially more difficult. Rally participants will begin in London on July 14, and must arrive in Ulan Bator, Mongolia within six weeks, but there is no set course for them to follow. Racers must drive a car with an engine size of less than 1,200 cubic centimeters (that's 400cc smaller, for example, than the engine found in a late-1960s VW Beetle), and are forbidden from using GPS or electronic navigation, limiting them to paper map, compass and prayer. Racers must raise money for two charities, one selected by the race organizers, the other by their team.
Alyx VanNess of Little Rock, along with Chase Green, Trisha Parker and Joseph Vance of Fayetteville, make up The Arkansas Chuggabugs. If all goes well and their efforts at fundraising work out, they'll be the first Arkansas team ever to take on the Mongol Rally. They've selected Heifer Project International as their team's charity.
Unlike a lot of the European rally participants who have the luxury of getting their chariot together over the course of months, the Chuggabugs will have to send a teammate to London a few weeks in advance to try and buy a car.
A tiny car.
A tiny car that has to stand up to 10,000 kilometers of abuse in the harshest conditions imaginable.
A tiny car which — barring a very generous Chuggabugs patron yet to be revealed — will have to be purchased for little more than scrap prices.
Alyx VanNess, 21, said she had several opportunities to travel in college, including a chance to backpack across Europe, but could never bring herself to do it. "I'd always provide myself with these justifications of why I couldn't go," she said.
A few months back, though, after a friend announced he was moving to Poland, VanNess made herself a promise. "The night he announced it, I thought: Okay, the next opportunity I get to travel, I'm going to take it," she said. "No excuses allowed." That night, her friend Chase Cooper, who was putting together a team to participate in the Mongol Rally, posted on his Facebook page that a team member had dropped out.
"I was like, 'I guess this is it!' " VanNess said.
Chuggabugs teammate Joseph Vance seems to be experiencing some of the same butterflies as VanNess, admitting that the prospect of trusting a car bought almost sight unseen to take him a third of the way around the world is "a little bit terrifying." Though most of the participants survive to rally again another day, it isn't without risk. A 24-year-old member of a British Mongol Rally team died in August 2010 after a serious car crash in Iran. Still, Green seems to have a Zen calm about the potential dangers of the road, not to mention a pretty good argument for why he's doing it.
"We have a tendency to live through pictures," he said. "We read about places, we watch television about it or something, but very rarely do we take the initiative to go and experience something. I want to go out and see what the world is like."
VanNess said that Green, who knows how to read both a compass and a topographical map, will be the official navigator for the trip. The team plans on taking a "southern route" which should weave through 13 counties (though not, VanNess pointed out, through Iraq or Afghanistan).
All that's in the future, though. Right now, the Chuggabugs are looking for sponsors, scouring eBay UK for a good deal on a solid Fiat ("The cars get absolutely torn to pieces," VanNess said. "We've seen pictures of cars being held together with duct tape by the end of it.") and struggling to raise the money they need for their charity donations, airfare, and six weeks of food and travel.
Given they'll have to buy the car and almost everything else they'll need for the trip once they get to London, VanNess figures they'll need about $10,000 to $12,000. They've already held some fundraisers in Little Rock and Fayetteville (find out more at their website: www.wix.com/chuggabugs/mongolrally), and plan to hold more between now and this summer. If they don't reach the mark before July, VanNess said, it'll mean cleaning out their respective savings accounts. They don't particularly want to do that, she said. But what, after all, is money when compared against six weeks of high adventure? That thought is apparently pushing out all other fears.
"I moved to Little Rock a couple months ago," VanNess said, "and I still get lost in Little Rock... My mom keeps asking me, 'Why are you doing this?' My response has just been, 'Why not?' "
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified team member Chase Green, listing him as Chase Cooper.