Two adventurous young women from Pelican had an adventure in Europe…a half century ago, during an era far away…

“When you go out in the world…you are never really alone–you’re always in someone’s back yard.”

Those simple, but really quite profound words, were from Joann (Meyer) Sorum–who took off with Phyllis Drayton for Europe, not long after they graduated from Pelican Rapids High School.

These young women, determined to see the world, decided  to hitchhike across Europe.

Now, that alone isn’t necessarily headline news.  But consider the year, 1962. Further consider that these gals grew up in a fairly sheltered environment from Minnesota’s heartland–both from relatively modest rural backgrounds.

Sure, there has was a long tradition of young people–generally from economically privileged and mostly urban backgrounds–galavanting off to Europe.

Joann (Sorum) Meyer and Phyliss Drayton, two young women from the Pelican area visiting a family in Switzerland, 1962.   Phyliss is standing at left, and Joann at right.
Joann (Sorum) Meyer and Phyliss Drayton, two young women from the Pelican area visiting a family in Switzerland, 1962.
Phyliss is standing at left, and Joann at right.

But the story of a pair of young gals from Pelican Rapids, making a four-month journey more than a half-century ago in “foreign territory,” struck me as unusual–and refreshing–for that era.

We published a couple photos, in last week’s Pelican Rapids Press, of Joann and Phyllis–with a family from Switzerland. It generated several calls and contacts–including Joann herself.

The summary story:  Joann graduated from Pelican High in 1959; completed her training as a “beautician,” as they were labeled at the time; and was working her trade at the Dayton’s department store’s “Looking Glass” salon.

Joann was inspired in part by her brother, who enlisted in the Army and had been stationed in Germany.  He was four years older, and his stories of working as an Army ski instructor in the Alps and traveling around Europe on leave, were very compelling.

“I decided at age 15 I wanted to go there,” said Joann, who saved up her own money to make the trip  The book, “Europe on Five Dollars a Day” was a best-seller and became her guide.

Phyllis, graduated from Pelican in 1960, and joined Joann in the adventure. To make the trip affordable, they hopped a freighter ship–which was the cheapest way to cross the Atlantic.

“We traveled from the top of Sweden to the bottom of Greece,” recalled Joann. They stayed with relatives and friends, including two previous foreign exchange students who were among the first ever to be hosted in Pelican Rapids–one from Greece and one from Germany. They also stayed at Youth Hostels, which had become a standard for young travelers in Europe.

It was the height of the Cold War, and the women visited Berlin’s infamous “Check Point Charlie,” which was where U.S. and Allied forces stood nose-to-nose against Soviet Union troops to the east.

This was an uncommonly adventurous pair of women for the time; but Joann confessed that–in Italy–she became hopelessly homesick. “I went in to a Catholic church and just sobbed,” recalled Joann. I jokingly suggested that, in Italy, it would have been about impossible to find a Lutheran Church like she was familiar with back home in Pelican.  “The Good Lord must have been working on me,” she laughed, noting that after she married a young man from Dent, she converted to Catholicism.

The pair hitchhiked, hopped trains, and hiked for four months.

Both survived the trip.  Joann returned.  Phyllis stayed on for a year, after getting a temporary job as a secretary at a U.S. Air Force military base.

The “international traveler” became a hit on the local speaking circuit, as Joann delivered her slide presentation to Rotary and 4H club audiences.

After marrying, Joann lived in Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota with her husband, Charles Meyer, Dent, who also served in the Army and spent most of his career in the agricultural business with Green Giant and Harvest States.  Now a widow,  Joann is retired  in the McDonald lakes area east of Pelican.

A sad sidenote to the story: Phyllis Drayton eventually moved to the West Coast. According to her brother, James, who lives in the Pelican area, she later battled ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and died in Seattle in about 1974.

Joann today, a widow living in the McDonald lakes area east of Pelican.
Joann today, a widow living in the McDonald lakes area east of Pelican.

But the story of two young ladies from the Pelican area, heading off to Europe for an adventure a half-century-ago, had a certain charm–and frankly–relevance today.

Joann’s words, that “you are never really alone” in the world; that “you’re always in someone’s back yard” are oddly optimistic and reassuring in this time of international disharmony; distrust of our friends and neighbors; anger over immigration; and fear of terrorism. Somehow, it seems like a less complex time when the biggest bogeyman on the block was easily identified: Communist Soviet Union.

Some might describe such a philosophy as simplistic and naive. But wouldn’t it be pleasant to think that we all have friends–everywhere? And that we can find peace and common ground in one another’s “back yards?”