Staff columnist

Son takes family to uncharted territory

Ann Macari Healey
Posted
Ann Macari Healey

Neil DiLorenzo lays the brown folder on the kitchen table. As he tells the tale and to better illustrate his point, he pulls out a map, a list of coordinates, a copy of an email, a log of emergency numbers.

The thick file holds a literal paper trail, meticulously plotted, of his son's extraordinary expedition in unsettled lands far away, a trip of self-discovery taken like pilgrims of old, on foot, alone, depending on the kindness of strangers for food and shelter.

And, in this day of immediate and unceasing communication, no cell phone or laptop, therefore — for the most part — no connection to family or friends.

"It did hit me, several weeks into it - he's homeless," Neil says. "I saw a homeless man and thought, 'That's my son,' except he's in a foreign land."

They call it Donovan's Journey.

But make no mistake: It's Neil and Michelle DiLorenzo's journey, too, one more in the life of parents, this one lived daily with a worry that hunkers in their hearts, even as they celebrate the unique courage of their child's unusual quest.

Neil: "We don't really understand why he's doing this."

Michelle: "It's something that's calling him."

Neil: "I think he felt he had to do this to discover himself, to see if he could live without the support of anyone."

For Donovan DiLorenzo, 42, the oldest of Neil and Michelle's four children, an early career path seemed clear: Make money, lots of it. And as a marketing account executive working for top ad agencies, he was close to earning his first million before 9-11.

But the devastating calamity shook him and rearranged his priorities.

After researching urban school districts across the country, he decided to teach in the Ninth Ward in New Orleans, a predominantly African-American neighborhood struggling with deep poverty. He earned a master's in education while teaching there. As Katrina bore down, he delivered two carloads of Ninth Ward residents to his sister's home in Arkansas for safety, and later relocated them to Dallas - he still keeps in touch with the families.

After Katrina, he gutted flooded homes, cooked in community kitchens and distributed supplies and information to victims. In 2006, he joined the Peace Corps and spent 28 months teaching in Malawi in southeast Africa, one of the world's least-developed countries.

He returned to New Orleans, teaching in a charter school, while also housing and supporting several immigrants from Malawi.

"He doesn't have anything," Neil says, "but he gives everything he has."

Last summer, Donovan decided to act on a new dream - a pilgrimage through the Middle East and India with the possibility of writing a book about those experiences.

To prepare, he gave away all his possessions, including his cell phone and laptop. He mailed books and mementos to his parents' Highlands Ranch home. He kept one change of clothes, a sleeping bag, a tent and his bike and began cycling to Colorado.

For three weeks, Neil and Michelle didn't know where he was, or how he was.

"It was," says Michelle, who texts her children good morning every day, "awful."

One afternoon, they spotted him riding down the street.

"He looked like the UPS man," Neil says. But Donovan's test run had proved successful.

Planning began for the big journey.

"We really wanted him to buy a cell phone," Neil says. "He refused. He didn't want to be able to communicate with anyone."

A friend told Neil about a lightweight GPS tracker that fits in the palm of a hand.

"You're not talking to us," Neil told Donovan. "You're not really communicating. At least, as long as the coordinates are moving, we'll know you're alive."

So, Donovan agreed. Every three days, he would activate the GPS device. Neil would plot the latitude and longitude on maps and be able to follow his route.

The outgoing, friendly boy who loved sports but not hiking or being outdoors, and who often took three showers a day because he was a bit of a clean freak, strapped on Teva sandals, determined to push his boundaries even further.

He boarded an airplane for Jordan Aug. 26.

"This journey is really a pilgrimage of sorts," he wrote before he left on a website set up by family to track his travels. "I'll walk a good portion of my travels such that the journey is slower by nature, giving me more time to think, write and connect with others . . . . As in a traditional pilgrimage, I step out without many resources and see how life unfolds. Not expecting this to very easy, but meaningful."

He had enough money and a credit card to buy local clothing and necessary border and travel documents. The first night in Amman, he spent in a hotel.

And then, he was on his way.

The first three weeks, Neil and Michelle slept two to three hours a night. Neil developed a routine, checking email as soon as he woke to see if the GPS tracker had sent coordinates, then heading down to the kitchen for coffee with Michelle. One of the earliest locations came through Sept. 2.

Neil spreads the map of Jordan, Syria and Israel on the table.

His finger jabs the location he has circled in black marker. "He was trying to cross the King Hussein bridge. . . which made me nervous because he's going from Jordan to Israel . . . "

On Sept. 6, another set of coordinates arrived. They put Donovan just south of the Sea of Galilee.

"He's two, three miles from the Syrian border," Neil says. "Within a day of that, Obama said we're going to declare war. For all I knew, he knew nothing of the problem. . . . (A friend in Egypt) said he's got to get out of there; he's got to get a gas mask. We were just totally petrified."

Michelle misses being able to talk to Donovan every day.

"I am very nervous . . . that has been really, really hard not knowing where he's at," she says. But "you have to let them do their own thing."

Sometimes, finding the locations doesn't alleviate the worry.

Neil folds open another map, a topographical one that seems to depict mountains and no roads. "When I see him in the middle of nowhere, like this," he says, "it makes me even more concerned."

But Neil has become an expert map finder. What seems like mountains on one map turns out to be hills with a dirt road on another.

Neil's maps trace Donovan's journey with careful precision. He circles the coordinate locations in black marker and writes the date, then highlights the route in yellow. Occasional emails from Donovan are carefully tagged and posted onto the website, donovansjourney.com, so that family and friends can follow, too. Neil posts information on Facebook, as well. Donovan has journaled three stories about his trip so far, also on the website.

He writes about sleepless nights in the open listening to packs of wild dogs outside of Nazareth, the spontaneous kindness of strangers inviting him to tea and conversation, playing with children near the Dead Sea.

After walking 661 miles through the Middle East, including a brief stay in Egypt with a friend during which he was able to call Neil and Michelle, Donovan is now walking through India.

Inadequate computer and satellite networks have prevented the GPS tracker from sending coordinates.

"I worry more about him getting sick and if he gets sick what is he going to do," Michelle says. "I pray every day that he doesn't get sick."

"It's the unknown," Neil says, "and how is he going to handle it."

Through scarce emails, they knew Donovan had traveled in December to a well-known ashram in Puttaparthi to meditate and study awhile.

"He's right here," Neil says, pointing to the town north of Bangalore. "I feel he's in a safer place. The only negative is I don't hear from him every three days."

Despite the worry, their son's adventure leaves them in awe. 

"I envy what he's doing," says Neil, an avid hiker. "I wish I would have thought of something like this. . . . "

"I feel he has a calling and we're behind him the whole way - we will support him always," Michelle says. "I just wish he'd be home."

On Jan. 3, Neil checked his email to find a priceless New Year's gift - a message from Donovan, the first since Dec. 20.

"The path has changed a bit," Donovan wrote. "I feel the need to pay respects to Gandhi and the Dalai Lama."

He is headed to their ashrams.

Although he mentioned possibly returning to Colorado in May and that he had experienced some "tenuous times," he also noted he wanted to spend three months working with Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity in Calcutta.

"Obviously, as things unfold, he wants to do more and more things," Neil says, "but it's kind of hard to see what he will do for sure."

So, Michelle and Neil wait.

It's all they can do.

"He is," Michelle says, "always in my prayers and in my mind."

Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at ahealey@coloradocommunitymedia.com or 303-566-4110.

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