Like many dreams of adventure, it began in a college bull session. John Armstrong of suburban Belleville, N.J. used to talk things over with Yves Tommy-Martin, a Fulbright scholar from France, while both were students at Amherst College. They continued to talk of one big adventure before settling down to careers when Armstrong turned up in Paris on his own Fulbright to do research in Chinese literature at the Sorbonne. Soon, they had enlisted two more companions—another Frenchman, Jean Pillu, 25, and another American, Donald Shannon, 28, of Milwaukee. Their ambition: to drive the 8,500 road miles from Paris...

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