A well-known Mississippi couple has decided to shuck their upper-middle-class life in Jackson and head south, way south, the first leg of a trip they hope will take them around the world.
So many people say they want to travel. One day. They wait, then one of them gets sick or something else happens and their plans remain dreams.
Oliver and Jennifer Diaz decided not to wait. Still in their 50s, with their children in college, they want to see the world before grandchildren arrive and while they still have their health.
They depart New Orleans on Tuesday for Cartagena, Colombia. They’ll be there for a week.
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After that, the itinerary is flexible, but they plan to travel for at least eight months, come home for a spell and head out again.
The Diazes are going to hike, eat, get to know the locals and travel their way around the continent of South America, the first leg of what they hope will be a journey around the world.
Jennifer Diaz said traveling in South America, and many parts of the world, for that matter, is cheaper than living in Madison, Mississippi, where the Diazes relocated from the Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
Each of them is traveling with one backpack. They’ll take breaks from roughing it along the way, staying at resorts, and having family and friends over.
Yes, their family and friends told them they were crazy when they started talking about the idea. But this trip has been a long time coming.
The couple had back-to-back experiences in 2005 that shattered life as they knew it. They know nothing can be taken for granted, not even their freedom.
Disaster strikes twice
When the federal investigation started, Oliver Diaz was serving as a member of the Mississippi Supreme Court. Jennifer Diaz ran a bed and breakfast in Green Oaks, the graceful beachfront mansion they owned in East Biloxi.
They had two small children, Olivia and Oliver. Diaz, a former state representative and appeals court judge, had endured a punishing race to win a state Supreme Court seat in 2000.
The new decade brought to Mississippi the first of the big-money campaigns for Supreme Court seats, with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business interests spending millions to defeat candidates such as Diaz, who were seen as friendly to litigants suing corporations.
Diaz raised close to $1 million for his successful race, and therein lay his problem. The federal government indicted the Diazes, claiming they had taken bribes from wealthy trial attorney Paul Minor. Two lower court judges from the Coast, to whom Minor had loaned money, also were indicted.
Jennifer Diaz eventually pleaded guilty to a tax evasion charge to avoid prosecution in the judicial bribery case. The judicial bribery trial, with four defendants, lasted three marathon months in Jackson in the summer of 2005.
In the end, Oliver Diaz was the only defendant acquitted on all charges. He left the courthouse in tears with his father, former D’Iberville Councilman Oliver Diaz Sr.
Diaz, who had taken leave from the Supreme Court after his indictment, composed himself outside the courthouse and said, “I look forward to resuming my life as normal, as it was before the indictments.”
He could not have known Hurricane Katrina would devastate the Coast 17 days later.
Find what’s important
The Diazes eventually settled in Jackson. Diaz continued on the Supreme Court until he lost the seat in the 2008 election. Life seemed to open up again after that. Jennifer Diaz tended their horses, honed her cooking skills, looked after their 43-acre property and took care of their children.
Oliver Diaz returned to private law practice. But he also worked with producers on a feature-length film about the influence of big business on the civil justice system. The documentary, “Hot Coffee,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was picked up by HBO.
At the same time, Diaz took on some interesting cases. In 2010 and 2011, he successfully represented a Mendenhall football player kicked off the high school team because he wore pink cleats to a game and practice in honor of breast cancer awareness.
Diaz has also helped with the appeal of Mississippi’s law allowing certain businesses to turn away homosexuals because of religious beliefs. More recently, he successfully defended a Forrest County justice court judge who uses the nickname “JudgeCutie” on social media.
The Commission on Judicial Performance wanted to reprimand “JudgeCutie” for what was seen as unbecoming behavior, but the state Supreme Court dismissed the case two days after hearing arguments, the swiftest decision Diaz had ever seen.
Diaz has taken time off from his law practice, too. Jennifer Diaz grew up in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, a resort town in the northern Rocky Mountains surrounded by lakes. As a child, she hiked trails in the mountains and national forest.
She was a young woman working for Disney World when she stopped in Ocean Springs on her way to New Orleans. She and her future husband met on the beach. He followed her to New Orleans, then she followed him back to Mississippi. That was 35 years ago.
She shared her love of hiking and nature with her husband and children. Her parents owned a travel agency, so traveling naturally became a part of their lives. The Diazes have taken their children aboard, too, to France, Italy, Canada and probably their personal favorite, the Galapagos Islands. Once a year, they all go skiing.
Oliver Diaz explained to his friends on Facebook, on the family’s December 2015 ski trip:
“Several years ago, Jennifer and I decided that we wanted to give our kids experiences, rather than things, for Christmas.
“Over the years we have lost homes and possessions to hurricanes, floods, and other things.
“However, we have realized that, as long as we had our friends and family, we had everything we needed. We decided that making memories and sharing our love of travel and adventure was how we wanted to spend our holidays with our children.”
‘Live your dream’
Before the ski trip, the couple embarked on their most epic adventure to date.
They hiked the John Muir Trail in California’s breathtaking Sierra Nevada mountain range. In a month, they walked 230 miles while camping, catching fish in mountain streams and hanging laundry on a line to dry.
At journey’s end, he wrote on Facebook: “We carried our food and shelter and drank water provided by nature. We were without most modern conveniences for the entire time.
“We were without Internet or cellphones and could not communicate with family and friends, and completely unaware of current events. I am about 25 lbs lighter and infinitely richer for this experience.”
The trip bolstered their confidence for the hikes to come in South America. They’ve made sure all their gear and clothes fits into one backpack apiece, including his camera equipment and clothes suitable for an evening at the opera.
The kids were a little nervous when they learned their parents would be taking off for parts unknown. But they’ve warmed up to the idea. They’ll be joining their parents at Christmas and during other time off from college.
The Diazes are staying flexible, but they do want to return home to D’Iberville for his father’s 80th birthday in June. And then? Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Nepal in Asia.
They figure they can see the world in three years.
They don’t call themselves retired. Rather, they like to say that they’re taking a “sabbatical.”
“The storm taught us, don't wait; don’t put off things,” Jennifer Diaz said. “Be present. Live your dream.”
Follow the adventure
Oliver Diaz will be blogging and taking lots of pictures on a journey around the world with wife Jennifer. Follow their adventures at olaroundtheworld.com.