Mission: Immerse and Explore

How an Evansville couple found adventure during the pandemic

Growing up in Southwestern Indiana, Joe Ellsworth was intrigued by stories of people backpacking across foreign countries. It seemed the height of freedom and a life-changing entrée into adulthood. This fascination was filed away to build a life in Evansville, raise children, and found Fire & Rain Marketing/Communications. The thought, though, never completely left his mind.

In retirement, he initiated a plan where he would visit several “dream destinations” at length and immerse himself in each culture while exploring important sites.

Photo of Argentina’s Igazu National Park provided by Joe Ellsworth

Ellsworth regularly spoke of this dream with his partner, Stacey Hebebrand, who didn’t dismiss the idea but wasn’t as passionate about fulfilling it … at first. In 2018, an itinerary was drafted, to strike out in 2020. Then, shutdowns related to the COVID-19 pandemic forced a stronger examination of their next steps. They decided they’d take their chances.

Numbers were crunched. Selling their house and cars would free them from the costs of maintenance, insurance, and taxes. Most possessions — including clothing — were purged and the rest stored at a relative’s house.

Originally hesitant, Stacey decided, “I needed to grow by getting out of my comfort zone.” San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, proved to be the perfect inaugural stop. They gained experience in abruptly adjusting plans, whether due to new travel restrictions or returning home when Hebebrand’s mother passed away. As well, the travelers picked up how to communicate effectively with limited Spanish-speaking skills, trust their instincts, and practice staying calm when faced with the unexpected.

“We had to put our trust in a lot of people,” Ellsworth adds.

Photo of Stacey with an elephant outside Chiang Mai, Thailand, provided by Joe Ellsworth

Perhaps most importantly, the two discovered how they were impacted by the value of extending respect and accepting kindness, no matter how unusual a courtesy was offered. At the end of several transformative weeks in remote Mexico, a shaman’s parting blessing was thoroughly appreciated.

Their newly recognized skills served them well throughout the following two-plus years visiting 27 more countries. Upon leaving Mexico, the couple boarded a plane to a country unknown to either — Montenegro — as their original destination Croatia had just closed its borders due to the pandemic. Their leap of faith was fortuitous. It was a beautiful time in an enchanting country.

Next, the adventurers hopped over to Greece and set up a home base in Paros for 10 weeks to explore islands and bask in paradise. Low tourism continued to add to their enjoyment as locals were pleased to engage with them, seeing them regularly at the market and about town.

That summer presented one highlight after another as they spent weeks at a time exploring the local contemporary life, as well as the ancient ruins and remnants of past cultures in Jordan and Egypt. Next up were outstanding experiences in the Ugandan jungle, a few days in Turkey, then Romania, before wrapping up the season hiking the Carpathian Mountains.

Photo of Petra, Jordan, provided by Joe Ellsworth

Fall 2021 found the couple riding camels across the Sahara desert in Morocco, then onto England’s fairytale-like Cotswolds region, which surprised them with strong new friendships. But warm weather beckoned, and they ended the year with two months in Thailand.

In 2022, Ellsworth and Hebebrand began South American immersions and explorations in Argentina, Uruguay, and Peru — the latter a country they describe as a “non-stop adrenaline rush.” It was there the adventurers camped in an Amazon rainforest with its arachnid, serpentine, and feline inhabitants, crossed a piranha-filled river, hiked through the Sacred Valley, and climbed Machu Picchu.

Word of Ellsworth’s exploits reached associates at the University of Evansville’s Harlaxton Manor in Grantham, England. He was asked to teach beginning in the fall, and campus quarters allowed them a base to travel around England, Scotland, and Iceland on weekends and breaks. Second-semester weekends were used to visit at least 11 more European countries. Hebebrand was able to work remotely and researched houses for their return to Evansville in spring 2023.

Over the two-plus years of exploration, Hebebrand’s three adult sons and Ellsworth’s adult son and daughter joined them at various times. Friendships were forged, and there are unlimited powerful anecdotes.

“I’d like to condense the whole trip into a 60-minute presentation … for middle schools or high school,” Ellsworth says.

Before then, 2024 is expected to offer a few months for the travelers to check Australia and New Zealand off their list, along with Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. This time, they’ll keep their house in Evansville. From now on, home base is here.

Previous article
Next article
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

Related Articles

Latest Articles