Hunger for adventure has taken Madison and Jake Leland to faraway lands, majestic sites, moving sounds and fascinating people.
The globetrotting couple have covered many miles but yearn to take many more roads less travelled.
How about an extensive summertime road trip, a daunting task of passing through at least 25 countries sprinkled on two continents? How about consuming more than 10,000 miles, beginning in Europe and finishing in Russia less than two months later?
All from behind the wheel of a modest, 20-year-old, Ford Fiesta the couple bought for $100 from “some guy on Facebook.”
The Lelands – Madison, who grew up in Auburn and Federal Way, and Jake, of Duvall – are about to take their chances in the Mongol Rally, an international road trip that’s described as the “Greatest Adventure in the World.”
More of a survival mission than an actual race, the rally can be unforgiving. Rally vehicles have a 1200cc engine limit. On average, about 70 percent of the 300 teams that enter the rally complete the ride, which spans about one-third of the Earth’s circumference.
Teams must go it alone, without backup or support vehicles. Teams must be resourceful and work with people of many walks, cultures and languages to solve problems along the way, like mechanical breakdowns or simply replacing a flat tire.
“We’re on our own. … I’m sure we will be using charades, most of the time,” said Madison, a Todd Beamer High School graduate, speaking from Kathmandu, Nepal, where she and her husband are touring. “We heard about past rally teams tying together their engines with shoelaces and Zip ties … and getting really creative.
“This adventure will pit us against some of the most ominous mountains, deserts and border crossings known to man,” she said. “We have never done anything like this before. We’re very excited for it, but it’s also overwhelming.”
Jake added: “I’m a little nervous, a little fear of the unknown, but I’m also real excited. It will be an adventure, a fun experience. We obviously have a lot of challenges, but we will learn from those. We’ll grow from those.”
Team Leland – Jake’s brother, Jaren, will join them as a navigator – will follow a southern route, beginning in Prague, Czech Republic on July 15, and ending in Ulan-Ude, Russia, about 150 miles from the Mongolian border, before the rally closes its finish line Sept. 10.
The route promises good highways to Turkey, but the path turns difficult with unpredictable turns, undefined roadways and rugged terrain. For instance, teams will cross the Gobi Desert of northern China and southern Mongolia and use the Leh-Manali Highway, one of the highest roads in the world (average elevation 13,000 feet), which stretches about 300 miles through the mighty Himalayan landscape.
“It’s a free-for-all,” Madison said. “We are taking the southern route. Other teams are crossing Iran. We chose to cross the Caspian Sea outside Turkey to complete the southern route.”
The Lelands met in college, Madison graduating from Washington State University, Jake from Gonzaga.
They held corporate desk jobs in Chicago for the past five years – Madison in business development, Jake in financing and auditing.
Whenever they could, the couple travelled. Married in August, the Lelands went on a safari in Africa for their honeymoon. When they returned, they entertained thoughts of travelling farther and longer.
No car, no house and no kids, the 28-year-olds were looking for something more.
“We felt pretty restless and realized how much there was to see out there,” Madison said. “It pretty much spurred our motivation to leave everything behind and travel more.”
So they took in Europe, explored parts of Asia. They volunteered, taught English and worked in nonprofit outreach at various stops.
Drive for others
The upcoming rally carries meaning for the Lelands. Teams are required to drive for charity.
The Lelands are raising money for Smile Train, an international children’s charity that provides free cleft lip and palate corrective surgeries for boys and girls in developing countries. The cause is special to the Lelands because Jake was born with a cleft lip and palate, and Madison graduated from the Speech and Hearing Sciences program at WSU.
For Jake, surgeries from infancy to 5 at Children’s Hospital corrected his smile. Other children in third-world environments are not as fortunate.
“For some of them, it affects every aspect of their life, from eating, breathing, to how they are treated in the community,” Madison added.
The Lelands plan to drop by hospitals to meet surgeons and patients along the way.
Travel and people have brought out the best in the couple, who continue to gain a better perspective of who they are, who others are and where they are going.
“People seem very different in other countries, but when you actually go there, you realize it’s not scary,” Jake said. “People more or less are the same. They want to be with family. They smile. They laugh. … They enjoy food. They have their religious traditions.
“No matter where you live in the world, humans are all similar,” he said. “And we can all get along.”
• Smile Train donation page: my.smiletrain.org/fundraiser/mjroam
• Follow the Lelands on their travel blog: mjroam.com
• Follow the Lelands on Facebook