Via e-mail dispatches from Bob Higdon beginning January 24, 2018. Position reports added from GPS tracking at https://tinyurl.com/ybspwzx5
Riding south: Prologue
January 24, 2018
In a few days I fly to South America. The plan is to ride a motorcycle from the top of the continent to the bottom. I will be joining a dozen other riders in Cartagena, Colombia for the start of this adventure. It is a well-organized, take-no-prisoners tour that will last more than two months. I’ve tried four times in the last 22 years to make this ride, either alone or in the company of a few friends. Each attempt quickly went pear-shaped, half the time before we even crossed into Mexico. Now I’m hoping to buy myself a finisher’s medal. To do so in this fashion, much like being carried by sherpas to the top of Everest in a chaise lounge, is the last resort of an aging scoundrel.
Apart from being a thing undone, irritating enough in its own right, there’s a box I need to check off here. The ride concludes in Ushuaia, Argentina, a town that bills itself as the southernmost inhabited spot on the continent. It isn’t, but it’s close enough. Should I make it, I’ll have ridden to where the road ends in South America, North America (Prudhoe Bay), Europe (Nordkapp), and Africa (Cape Agulhus). Theoretically, I suppose, that would leave some frozen hellhole like Magadan in Siberia as the northernmost town to be bagged in Asia, but I rode across Siberia once and I’ll never be crazy enough to go there again.
The tour’s leader, Helge Pedersen, will be setting up a web journal for our group soon. I’ll post a link when it becomes available. I hope to be able to post some notes of my own from time to time, depending on the web’s mood and mine. If you’d rather opt out, drop me a line. You won’t hurt my feelings; I’m a lawyer. Here’s a link to my Spot tracker: https://tinyurl.com/ybspwzx5 . It won’t become active until I reach Cartagena late Saturday.
Wish us luck. 😎
Riding south #02: Panic
January 27, 2018
Due to unrealistic scheduling optimism last night, my spousal equivalent, Chris,
and I managed to get about four hours of sleep before three separate alarm clocks went off
beginning at 0300. Ninety minutes later I was being picked out for secondary inspection by
the Kabuki Theatre players at TSA in Baltimore. My fear was that they would target the 35
packets of Crystal Light lemonade that I’d methodically emptied into an innocent-appearing
plastic container as a crafty form of gelignite that my ISIS supervisors had smuggled to me
by way of a submarine hidden off the coast of Daytona Beach. But they waved it through, only
to rescan my computer bag where I’d falsely declared at check-in that I had no lithium
batteries. There’s something about the word “lithium” that sets off red alerts among the TSA
cast of players, possibly because half of them pre-medicate themselves with it before coming
to work. But they missed all four of the lethal AAs.
A couple of hours later I was en route to Miami for a plane change to Cartagena.
The carrier was American Airlines, who advertises, “We’re not as bad as United!” But seat 13F
was something the Inquisition could have used to convert heathens. I drifted off to a fitful
sleep about 0630. At 0715 I woke up saying to myself, “Bobby, you’re going to puke.” I haven’t
vomited since 1966. Shifting around in the seat didn’t help. There was no objective reason for
my unease. The flight had been uncommonly serene. I opened my eyes. The cabin was alit with the
rising sun. I could see the light, but that was about all I could see. In the course of 45
minutes, I had become effectively blind.
I sat back. My stomach continued to churn. A few seconds later I slowly opened my eyes
again. Everywhere I looked was a hazy, whitish, impenetrable fog. I slid open the plastic shade
covering the window. I had a seat just in front of the right wing. I couldn’t see it. I turned
to the guy in the middle seat to my left. I could see a grayish shadow, but in truth I couldn’t
tell if was a man, two little girls, or a regiment of bagpipers sitting there.
Again I closed my eyes and returned to my ‘tray table closed and seat in upright
position.’ ABC, they teach the paramedics: airway, breathing, and circulation. No obstruction
in the airway; the breathing was not labored or raspy; and my heart rate didn’t seem elevated
or absent, but I couldn’t see my watch to make anything but a guess. I still wanted to throw up,
but wanted not to throw up even more.
And then a kind of quiet peace settled in. The only conclusion remaining was that I’d
blown out a big artery or vein in the occipital lobe of my brain, it had nailed the optic nerve,
and I would be dead before I could finish the thought. I’ve always wondered what would eventually
get me. I never thought it would be a crappy seat on American Airlines.
At some point I remember smiling. What a marvelous run I’d had. For five minutes or more
I sat with my eyes closed, peeking now and then. Mist, nothing but white, miserable mist. This
went on for more than 20 minutes. Finally, mercifully, the fog seemed to be dissipating. I tried
to sleep, perhaps to extend the hope. When next I opened my eyes fully, the world had returned in
its customary form. No bagpipers sat next to me.
I’ve got three physicians on this bcc: list and I’m sure they’re eager to weigh in, so
to speak, right about now. My initial thought that this was somehow diet-related. I’d recently
lost 15 pounds on a rigid, low-carb diet, so much so that on New Year’s Eve I weighed 165 pounds,
exactly what I’d weighed when I was a sophomore in college. I’d even stopped drinking soft drinks
with caffeine, once an unthinkable proposition. I was willing to head to 157 pounds, my high school
weight, when Chris looked at me with Those Eyes and asked me to stop. I did. In the last week before
today, I gained four pounds. This wasn’t a weight issue. I know it.
Mike Kneebone has been my motorcycle trip psychiatrist for almost 30 years. We have
ridden everywhere together. He has kept my psyche stuffed in one sock more times that I want to
remember. I called him when I got to the hotel in Cartagena.
“You had a panic attack,” he said. “You’ve been putting this pressure on yourself to
complete the ride south for almost as long as I’ve known you. It has to be that. And now you’re
on the way. It’s behind you, just like it was in Siberia. You’ll be fine now.”
Maybe so. When I got onto the plane in Baltimore, I crossed, as did Caesar a few years
ago, the Rubicon. There was no going back now. In the plane my choice was to jump out of a door
at 38,000′ or go on. My sleeping brain, whatever the hell that deranged thing is, evidently didn’t
like those choices.
You’ve carried me through the hot coals before, Mike. I hope you’re right once again.
Addendum: Was the earlier Spot URL hacked by the Russians? We don’t know. So we’ll foil them with
this one: https://tinyurl.com/ybspwzx5.
Riding south #03: Corkscrewed
January 29, 2018
The Caribe hotel in Cartagena sits at the western end of a peninsula, a first-class hotel in a first-class city. But there are things that even the finest hotels do not offer, and one of those is a box of Cardboardeaux. At home I prefer the whimsicality of Black Box or Bota. So the other night I decided my first foot expedition would be to celebrate my brush with airline death with una caja de vino, as the locals say.
They may say it, but they don’t sell it. But I outpace myself. From the Caribe’s end-of-the-line setting you exit only northeastish. There are six roads heading that way, known unimaginatively as Streets 1 through 6. If you are not on one of those, you are in the Caribbean sea. Number 1 parallels the north shore beach. Street 2 is Touristville. Street 3 is Localville. Streets 4-6 go but a few blocks before terminating in boredom.
I picked #3 because I labor under the delusion that one day I may learn how to speak Spanish better than a four year-old Hispanic girl. I’ve been under that spell for more than 25 years now, but I never tire of the effort which, I admit, is generally minimal. What makes this enormous joke even more remarkable is that I am an inordinately shy person. For me meeting strangers almost always borders on pain.
On top of that there is an undeniable truth about learning a new language: You’re going to get your hands dirty. You’ll have to embarrass yourself, to look stupid, to fail more than succeed. Occasionally communication occurs. But you really can do this, though it never seems quite so at the time. My college roommate went through the process in Russia, where they make sounds that are harder to understand than Double Dutch.
That’s why I didn’t take Street 2. All the hustlers speak a kind of Spanglish there. You don’t quite understand what it is they’re saying, but they’re not saying anything you want to hear anyway. No, as your attorney, I advise you to go down Street 3. No one speaks English in that neighborhood. And whatever it is you’re looking for — in my case a box of wine — you’re going to have to work for it. You will learn things there that you cannot possibly forget. Today’s word is “Corkscrew: sacacorchos,” meaning literally to “pull or remove cork.” In its structure, logic, and regularity Spanish was designed for people who have trouble learning anything. How can you not admire something that forgiving?
I ended the night at a sidewalk restaurant, having found neither a box of wine nor un sacacorchos. The place advertised pasta bolognesa, Admittedly, this is a dish on no one’s idea of a lo-carb menu, but that along with a bottle of Jagermeister and a bag of peanuts — the three basic food groups for weary travelers — can get you through the battle of Stalingrad.
Riding south #04: Por fin (Finally)
February 1, 2018
I know the travel blog’s regularity lacks a kind of je ne sais quoi, but I blame the customs office at the port, money exchange rates, security guards, civil uprisings, weather, and long-haul trucks. I am blameless. That having been agreed, let me try to catch up.
Our welcoming dinner was supposed to be last Monday in Cartagena, but because it took those of us who hadn’t sprung our bikes from customs at the port so long to do so, we got to the restaurant two and one-half hours late. I thought it would take four hours to complete the process; it took closer to seven. But the V-Strom survived the journey intact. Even the battery was in good shape. I’d abandoned the poor thing in Seattle more than four months ago.
Tuesday I spent packing the bike a variety of ways, attaching a tank bag locking ring, and trying to get my head into riding mode. I was in the locked parking lot so long and so often that the hotel’s security guard and I became friends. As I walked out through the lot to dinner — the welcoming one having been postponed to Wednesday night — I tipped my new friend 10,000 Colombian pesos for his conscientious work. That might buy him a beer at the hotel bar.
The next morning as we were ready to do an en masse departure, my buddy the guard wouldn’t let anyone out of the lot without an exit paper from the hotel’s front desk. No one had told us about that rule. I asked my former friend for my pesos back; he’d already drunk them. Thus were we unleashed into morning rush-hour traffic in Cartagena. How is it, you ask? Imagine any large city on the hottest day of the year. Now add 150,000 scooters, mo-peds, and 50cc two-stroke engines. That’s every city in Colombia on a work-day morning or evening. It took us over one hour to reach the far outskirts of town.
It was planned as a short day, just 175km, but what made it long was the local route. It seemed that every five kilometers a village of six or seven families would appear to slow traffic down for the ubiquitous speed bumps. Speed limits varied wildly and seemingly randomly from 30 to 70. The highest speed my SPOT tracker put down all day was 39mph. Although I was doing my best not to stand out from two million other motorcycles on the road, I soon noticed that no one was paying the slightest attention to either speed limits or double yellow lines. When I saw a couple of scooters overtake a patrol car on a double yellow at better than 25 over the posted limit, I gave up the law-abiding life.
Even worse was the heat. It was boiling. As I came into the fried hell of Montería in mid-afternoon, the air temperature on the bike’s dash was at 41C (106F). No one trusts these gauges, but another rider reported her GPS conking out. Phones exposed to the sun in tank bags were overheating. I parked the bike outside the hotel and staggered inside. Incredibly, our reservations were at a different hotel a couple of miles away. The word quickly circulated about the confusion — only one other rider had arrived before I did — and we quickly regrouped. We would have our welcome dinner at 1900 in the (amended) hotel’s restaurant.
Oops. Hold that thought. Our two youngest riders — Spike and Paul — are in their early 50s. They room together. We call them “the boys.” They’d decided to go swimming since the day’s route took us along the sea coast for a while. Then at sundown while still a good distance from the hotel they were stopped cold in a civil uprising with the road in front of them aflame with burning tires. I’d been caught in one of those things in Mexico once. At some point order would be restored, but they and the chase van would be hours late arriving. So we postponed the welcome dinner once again. Someone suggested we combine it in Ushuaia with the farewell dinner.
I trundled off to my room at about 2030. A few minutes later I received a text bringing further information about the riots: Apparently private vehicular traffic in the entire city was to be suspended at 0600 the next morning. If we weren’t out of Montería by then, we’d be effectively jailed. Our plans changed to having breakfast at 0400 and leaving the hotel as a group for the road south at 0500. It never occurred to me until I was writing this sentence what such martial law was going to do to a population of 400,000 people the next morning.
We left the heat and climbed as high as 2,800m on the way to Medellín. You might never have heard of this huge city but for the cocaine king Pablo Escobar. He’s buried not far from here. I’m not sure if a visit to the grave is on the itinerary tomorrow. Today trucks trying to climb 12% grades in first gear were definitely the order of business. I passed 2,000 of them on double yellows before I quit counting. There are some kinds of riding I hate more than that, but right now I can’t think of many.
Another early start tomorrow because of recent road closures. Gotta run.
Riding South #05: Dramatis personae
February 3, 2018
Last night at the Hotel Campestre Portal del Sol in the middle of nowhere we managed to hold our twice-postponed welcome dinner, finally to meet and greet the thirteen riders (plus three local support staff) we’d been meeting and greeting during the previous week. Despite its imposing name, the hotel is — and no one will disagree with me here — actually quite the perfect dump. It looks good at sunset in an aging, Gloria Swanson kind of way, but lacks some of the amenities picky travelers such as ourselves enjoy: air conditioning, hot water, soap that doesn’t crumble when you open the package, and more than three minutes of internet connectivity every hour or so.
The dinner was basic, consisting of a slab of chicken, eight fried potato slices, and a scoop of white rice, each portion colder than the last. My dinner companion pushed his plate away, his eyes asquint, so I took his chicken for today’s lunch and put it in the room’s refrigerator. It doesn’t cool anything, but the door will keep the bats out. After dinner we introduced ourselves serially around the table.
I am going to defer biographies of my fellow riders to the Globeriders.com web site. Look for a link to the current Live Journal. I haven’t seen it because, as noted, here at the Portal del Sol our internet availability is mainly a matter of rumor. But our task was simple: Stand up and tell these other people why are you doing this ride.
Many of these riders had traveled before with the organization’s founder, Helge Pedersen. Last Tuesday at dinner I sat with five people who combined had ridden on these expeditions 28 times. Let that sink in. This isn’t a two-week Gray Line bus tour of the National Parks of Wyoming. No, when you sign up for a ride with Helge, you’re in for 60+ days, $30,000 to get in the door, and $20,000 or more in a bike that is accessorized more than a Dior model. The $10,000 for your own air fare, lunch money, tips to the hotel maid, and psychiatric consultations are chump change.
Five of us are Globerider rookies, but I’ve known Helge the longest of anyone. We first met at a motorcycle rally in 1990 when he was coming off of a ten-year solo ride around the world. Trained in his native Norway by the helicopter rescue service as a photographer, he did a show-and-tell, maybe 20 photos in a 90-minute talk. I can still see them. His beaten motorcycle stood in the back of the auditorium with a saddle bag open to accept tips. I tossed in five bucks. At some point that weekend he and I went to dinner with Mike Kneebone (the founder of the Iron Butt Association), Andy Goldfine (the founder of Aerostich), and financier Jim Rogers (the co-founder with George Soros of the Quantum Fund). Helge’s now running a multi-million dollar touring operation. I haven’t founded anything yet, but I’m still looking.
When it was my turn to speak, I noted that I felt like an apostate in a rival religious cult. I was surrounded by the International Motorcycle Adventure Touring Club, whose members kick back after dinner and discuss their favorite outdoor cafes in Krasnoyarsk and where to find reliable treatment for STDs in Dar es Salaam. My background, I said, was the Iron Butt Association, whose members are looking for a different kind of grail.
“You look like you’re having fun,” I observed. “A couple of empty wine bottlers and a dozen wounded beer cans on the table here are mute evidence. My people don’t have fun. We think Mennonites aren’t serious. We have a saying that if you aren’t riding, getting gas, eating, or sitting on the throne, you’re wasting time. My people don’t waste time. The clock is always ticking.
“I don’t stop for lunch. I rarely stop to take a picture because no camera can ever see what my eyes do. I am here for one purpose: to reach Ushuaia. Nothing else matters.”
It was unnecessary to mention that I was the only rider not aboard a BMW. That’s because I used to drink so much of the Kool Aid that I had the telephone numbers of three successive CEOs of BMW of North America on speed dial. I danced with the boys and girls from The Fatherland for a million miles, right up to the point where we had The.Worst.Divorce.Ever. Maybe they’re not as bad as VW, but putting these guys in a tux and teaching them parlor French for a dinner party is just putting lipstick on a pig. And it wastes time.
I wanted to say that I doubted that I could win my fellow travelers over to my sect, given its basic rigidity, but perhaps they could win me over to theirs. Instead I mentioned that I was reminded of the insufferable “Survivor” TV shows where the most obnoxious contestant will say within the first 20 seconds, “I’m not here to make friends.” I tried to laugh when I realized what the words sounded like, but IBA people don’t laugh a whole lot either. Still, the IMATC crowd seemed to think it was funny enough, so I may have dodged a bullet.
Riding South #06: Against the odds
February 3, 2018
My idea of a good road is U.S. 50 in Nevada, where I can aim the bike at the horizon and read a book for the next two hours. Climbing up and down hills behind trucks and buses and diving into blind corners and hoping to come out alive aren’t why I have ever ridden a motorcycle. I can get through those curves; I just don’t like to do it. In this I admit that I am in a minority of motorcyclists so small that you will need an electron microscope to find us.
Today, mercifully, the main highway from A to B straightened out for half the run into a reasonable facsimile of a U. S. highway. My right hand and wrist, the things that adjust the throttle 75 times/minute on these kinds of difficult roads, finally got some relief. As usual, I was by myself for most of the day. I don’t mind that. I’m used to it. I’ve made an art form of riding a motorcycle slowly, something that embarrasses normal riders.
But you need to use that word “normal” warily if you’re talking about bikes and bikers. A normal person looks at a motorcycle, appreciates in an instant that the machine’s natural resting position is on its side, and concludes that no one in his or her right mind would ever want to be aboard such a contraption. It will go to ground as hard and fast as it can, taking you with it. I conclude, therefore, that anyone who knows that obvious fact and yet rides anyway is by definition abnormal.
Surviving such grim odds, a counter-theory has it, is a positive bio-feedback mechanism of the first order. To ride 1,000′ in a straight-line safely is an actual feat, in the Herculean sense. To do so you’ve had to coordinate each of the five senses and all four extremities in perfect coordination. If you make it, you’re awash in endorphins. The hero’s medal is yours. If you don’t make it, the sport wasn’t for you. Here’s a band aid, or a ventilator.
Motorcycle skill is not subtle to detect the way a talent for baseball is. You might have to watch a hitter or a batter play for a while before you conclude whether he has a bright future. With a motorcyclist you have only to watch him bore into the first downhill right-hand corner at 50% above the posted speed limit and you’ll know the rider’s level: did the brake light wink? No? Then let him go, because you’re never going to catch him. European riders are especially good at this kind of panache. I rode across the width of Russia with Steve Attwood, the Englishman who won the 1993 Iron Butt Rally in a laughably underpowered motorcycle, and never saw his brake light come on at all.
In our group Ron and The Boys, Spike and Paul, are the ones who’ll be in front when they want to be. I tagged along behind them for an hour yesterday through a long, pretty valley. They would extend their lead over me, then I’d catch up when we hit another construction zone blockade. At some point a teen-aged girl on a small bike slipped herself between me and the lead group. “This won’t do,” I said to myself chauvinistically. I rolled on the throttle, but she responded in kind. I admired her grit. It was clear that I could overpower her, but it was pointless even to think of it. She belonged in our group — at one point she even overtook Spike — so to bludgeon her with brute force would never have conquered her wonderful skill. She would have looked good on a tricycle.
In these work zones where traffic is halted motorcyclists always filter to the front. As I took off my helmet and unscrewed myself from the bike, I saw her parked behind me. I said, “Su motocicleta es tan fuerte.” (Your bike is so powerful.) In my world back home this is the kind of remark that would have the Valkyries of #MeToo coming down on me like avenging angels, but she just smiled. I can’t imagine that having an old gringo pay a compliment to her bike would be the highlight of a young Colombian woman’s day, but it was the highlight of mine. Anything that doesn’t remind you of how terribly dangerous this game really is keeps the ever-ready wolf away from the door. At least for another mile.
Riding south #07: Flight
February 5, 2018
The improbable transformation of Danny Liska from a Nebraska farmer to the worldwide poster boy of BMW motorcycles in the early ’60s began with his dream to ride a BMW street bike to the Yukon river in Alaska. He did, stuck the front wheel in the river, then turned around and rode to the bottom of South America. Along the way he walked the 67 miles of impenetrable jungle between the Panama canal and Colombian border known as the Darien gap. You could not open a bike rag in those days without seeing his picture. A few years later he made a similar pole-to-pole ride from Norway to South Africa.
In 1989 he self-published the story of the first ride as “Two Wheels to Adventure: Alaska to Argentina by Motorcycle.” The book is unforgettable, but not in the way you might think. Danny’s world was, like his photos, black and white. In the book’s almost 800 pages there is not a hint of subtlety or nuance. He both wrote and rode straight forward and with blunt force. But when I had a chance to meet him at the same motorcycle rally in July 1990 where I met Helge Pedersen, our current group’s leader, I couldn’t pass up the chance.
I remember the brief meeting still. I said something he liked and he enveloped me in an enormous bear hug. I also asked him what the road to Alaska had been like. He said that the road, unpaved then in its entirety, had been as difficult a ride as he would ever take. “I never saw anything but the gravel 50′ ahead of my front tire.”
Those words were rattling around in my head like BBs yesterday. It was more climbing and falling, out-revving trucks to the next corner. I stopped once to take a picture. It was our fifth day on the road, and the fifth day I wanted to go back home. When you’re in a group ride in a cold rain, after about 100 miles someone is certain to say brightly, “Are we having fun yet?” These aren’t my roads, and even if they were, I wasn’t seeing anything but the rear bumper of yet another truck.
I was the first to arrive at the motel, another grim dump with not even a sign to announce the place’s existence. When the second rider showed up a while later, he too had been confused about the location. He posted a message to the other riders still on the way in that the place was named “Hotel Abierto.” I told him that what that really said was “Hotel Open.” For an hour I couldn’t get the Eagles’ record out of my ear. I also vowed to stop saying condemnatory things about Motel 6.
The rumor at dinner was that there were 3,000 Venezuelans huddled at the border, seeking entrance to Ecuador the next morning. If we didn’t pay a “special fee” to exit Colombia ($10) and another to enter Ecuador ($20), we’d likely not clear the border at all in a single day. We voted unanimously to pay the fees and jump the lines. I stress here that these were options, not bribes. But it came back to haunt me nonetheless.
We showed up at the Colombian customs just after 0700. That’s when we saw the Venezuelans. I was instantly thrown back to photographs of war refugees in 1947, DPs we called them for “displaced persons,” and my heart sank. One young woman with a thin serape around her shoulders sat on a cold curb, the temperature in the high 40s. Her knees knocked together spastically. Hugo Chavez’ daughter, María Gabriela, doesn’t have such problems. She’s worth more than four billion.
Paying the piper got us out of Colombia in an hour and into the line that wrapped around the block for entry into Ecuador. Paying another piper got us to the head of that line, a brazen act that was not unnoted by the people in the line. One of them was Will, whose bike we’d earlier noticed in the parking lot. It was a battered KTM with a surfboard strapped on the machine’s right side. It bore Colorado plates.
In such settings gringos will usually find each other in the way magnetized objects do. He’s 37, trying to stay on the warm side of the sun. He’s four months into his journey now, and if he can maintain his expense budget of $30/day, he can hold out for another three or four years. Things in the U.S. aren’t much to his liking, he says. He doesn’t elaborate. He doesn’t have to. He’s not angry, not in the way Barbra and Whoopi are pissed. But, despite their perennial vows, they haven’t left the country when things haven’t gone their way. Will has.
I asked him if the people in the line noticed how we’d skipped Illinois Avenue and gone directly to “Go.” He said everyone had seen it. “But what am I going to do?” he smiled. “If I pay what you did, I probably don’t sleep in a cheap motel this week.” I gave him my card — the lawyer’s card that bespeaks power and riches of unimaginable attainment — and asked him to send me his email address. I want to know how he’s doing.
And what he’s doing is something that few people can, that of working without a net for years on end. Our tour leader, Helge Pedersen, did it. Ted Simon did it twice. Joshua Slocum, Francis Chichester, and Robin Lee Graham sailed alone around the world. I can’t do such things. I’ve tried. As much as I laugh at the farce of the human condition, I can’t live without being in touch with it.
When Danny Liska died in 1995 of leukemia, some of the great lies of his life unraveled. Not only had his incredible expeditions not been solo outings, he’d ridden almost every mile of all of them with his wife, Arlene. And at some point, having fallen under the spell of a Colombian succubus named Regina 11, he’d not only divorced Arlene but expunged any record of her from his book and his photos. How could he have done that? I don’t know. Maybe his middle name was Icarus.
Riding South #08: Cuenca
February 7, 2018
If brevity is the soul of wit, I’m going to be hilarious tonight.
The night before we entered Ecuador I admitted that I hadn’t filled my tank with expensive Colombian gas. “It’s $1.48/gallon a half-mile from here,” I explained. I was shunned and tutored briefly. Before we cross a border, we fill up. No excuses. I vowed to go and sin no more. Peace returned.
If the magnificent roads in Ecuador were the only improvement over my plodding up and down endlessly through Colombia, it would be enough. My mood brightened instantly. We came into the outskirts of Quito on a six-lane divided highway, the equal of any interstate route in the U.S. The traffic in the capital, something I’d been dreading, wasn’t even that bad. I made one wrong turn but recovered., It was our seventh day on the road, and the only one so far that I’d truly enjoyed.
We took a rest day yesterday. Some of us went on a tour of the city with a local guide. We went to a large cathedral (reminiscent of Notre Dame), a large university (reminiscent of the Sorbonne), a large city square (reminiscent of La Place de la Concorde), and a number of other sites that looked like but sounded nothing like gay Paris. Yes, the French have been in Ecuador, a place, mais oui, where the Earth’s equator runs through. The French surveyed the line, now the site of a celebratory park, but got it wrong by 200′. Higher than 9,000′, Quito is the world’s second (to La Paz, Bolivia) highest capital.
At this latitude we have just over 12 hours of sunlight each day, so we’re normally on the road at daybreak. Quito is also 55km long — not quite Los Angeles dimensions, but not bad — so we were off with the sun again this morning. It took almost an hour to escape choking traffic. For the first time I put on a fleece jacket under my riding coat. We would be well over 8,000′ for most of the day. At one point the temperature dropped to 10C, fog was a near-constant presence, and a rain shower was around nearly every corner. If Weather.com is to be believed, tomorrow will be much, much worse.
Riding south #09: Highballing
February 8, 2018
Shall we check my prognosticative skills? My last sentence last night was succinct: “If Weather.com is to be believed, tomorrow will be much, much worse.” And was it? Not quite. By the judgment of everyone with whom I spoke, today was the best ride of the trip to date. Even I was farting through silk.
I thought the end of this day would see the virtual certainty of rain here in Macará with a high maybe reaching 50F. I brought my electric clothes up to the room last night and suited up this morning. My mood was dark and edgy. Rain I can take. Cold I’m prepared for. Cold rain is for me as bad as the moto life can get. To confirm my worst fears, I logged onto Weather.com again this morning at 0530. One of my saved locations was Macará, Peru. Peru? We were going to Macará, Ecuador. Quick check. Oops. Rain in the afternoon for sure, but highs in the 70s. My mood lightens with the dawn, the electric clothes go back in the back, and I clomp down to breakfast.
I was practically the last arrival. A fruit plate awaited me. Someone had arranged it in the shape of a smiley face. Oh, no. This is what I’ve done to these innocent people: They think I’m going to hang myself. I thanked them for the kind thought. It was a beautiful gesture from some genuinely caring people.
The hills awaited us. It was a day on a bike unlike any I have ever seen. As I may have mentioned, I’m not a great fan of winding roads since they usually mean nothing but hard work and unrelieved tension. But the Pan-American highway, which we followed the entire day, today was a jewel. My previous high in going through corners on a single day was 80,092, seven more than the number of curve balls thrown by National League pitchers in 1938 and 1,206 more curves than appeared in the Miss American contest from 1927 through 1949. I went through that record before noon and there were still 40,000 more waiting around the bend. I sincerely do not believe there were more than a dozen occasions where we had 500 yards of uncoiled highway.
This setting is made for the hot shoes in our group, and they went at it with abandon. The danger, of course, is that when you go bombing into a blind corner, you don’t have any idea what will be waiting for you on the way out. Today, a representative one, I saw potholes that could swallow a child, abandoned construction zones, rocks, an oncoming truck halfway into my lane, and a dead body. I’m not sure about that last one, but the point is you don’t know if it will be Santa Claus or the Wicked Witch of the West. But the highway generally is so beautifully constructed that it lulls you into a sense of security that you’d feel riding along on a state highway in Iowa.
It should also be mentioned that for almost the entire day we were at altitudes that are next to impossible to find with such consistency in the U.S. Within the first hour we’d climbed to over 11,000′ and consistently stayed aloft between 7,000′ and 9,000′ for hours at a time. There are few such roads in North America — Walsenburg to Durango to Ouray in Colorado comes to mind — but today’s route truly was something unforgettable.
Tomorrow we descend from the clouds to coastal Peru, saying goodbye to the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and his masterpiece, “In the Hall of the Mountain King.” I’ve been wondering why his fellow countryman, our leader Helge Pedersen, has been looking so contented of late. But a day like today could make a Viking of the least of us.
And it’s still not raining in Macará.
Riding south #10: The dead dog
February 09, 2018
Sitting idly this morning for about 400 hours in the no-man’s land between the borders of Ecuador and Peru gave me time to think of some of mankind’s — Justin Trudeau, Canada’s single-helixed prom king, would say “peoplekind’s” so as to be more “inclusive” — great questions, such as am I going straight to hell when my meter runs out or which is heavier, the Great Pyramid at Giza or the Chrysler building?
Society has gone to extreme lengths to keep rabble-rousing Libertarians such as I in tight check, both here and in the hereafter. In the here they build monstrous courthouses, pass laws that no one reads or understands, and with a roll of the dice seize your money, property, and/or life when you run afoul of any of their infinite array of statutes. As for the hereafter, they construct spectacular cathedrals and tempt you with the carrot of heaven or threaten you with the stick of hell. It cannot be an accident that the courthouse and the cathedral look as though they’d been designed by the same guy (or guyperson).
Heaven doesn’t sound like anything new to me. According to Billy Graham, pastor to every president of the United States from Chester A. Arthur to Oprah, heaven is a square with sides 40 miles long. If my figures are correct and if you give each saintly resident nine square feet in which to roam around, that would provide room for five billion people. Why not just move to China or Jersey City?
The Dark Beyond, on the other hand, seems far more interesting. Hieronymus Bosch painted it as a wonderland of transcendental horror, a kind of Friday the 13th sequel in Disneyland. James Joyce described it so vividly in his “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” that it frightens me yet, so much so that I’m . . . well, praying he can’t be right, Jean-Paul Sartre took it down a notch in his play “No Exit.” There the characters merely sit around and talk, clawing at each others’ nerves with irritating precision. At some point you realize that none of them is ever getting out of that room, alive or dead. Hell is other people. I can get down with that one, especially after having been the president of my condo association.
When you leave one nation but have yet to gain entry to the next, you literally are a man (or genderlesspersontype) without a country. In 2004 I sat on my bike seeing Ukraine in my rear view mirror and looking through my windshield to Hungary. One was firmly rooted in the 12th century, the other the most modern country in eastern Europe. But I was still nowhere, as I was this morning. I stared idly at a dog that lay prostrate on his side in the dirt.
There was nothing else to do. The customs official in Peru was processing intake applications at the rate of one every 12.5 minutes. We were thirteen, plus the chase van driver, Jairo, a Colombian who will be with us to the end. He was working out his own kind of hell. Earlier that morning as we were exiting Ecuador, he’d backed the trailer into another car. I was three feet from the scene and yelling at him to stop. He didn’t hear me. It looked to me like a $200 repair at the nearest auto body shop. But the guy he’d hit was the Immigration Minister of Ecuador, so Jairo was up against the wall for $600. The heat and humidity rose.
The dog remained immobile, and by that I mean that in five straight minutes breath he did not take. Nick sat next to me, tears leaking from his eyes in end-stage boredom. I turned to him. “That dog is dead,” I said. Nick disagreed. A politician would treat such a question as one of opinion; it is not. We both continued to stare at the inert thing. Tiring of the game after a couple of minutes, Nick stood and walked toward the corpse. It raised its head a few inches and opened an eye. Point to Nick.
Still, wasn’t it the perfect symbol of the cursed traveler, a canine Flying Dutchman or a guest in the Hotel California who can check out but never leave? If your papers are incorrect with a misplaced comma or a juxtaposed numeral, you can’t get in and you can’t go back. You cannot recharge; entropy has you by the nuts. Unable even to move, you lie down in the hot dirt, you waste away, and then you die like a dog.
I used to think that hell was being stuck permanently on a motorcycle on the Cross-Bronx Expressway on an August afternoon in rush hour. That’s nothing. Nor is it an eternity of flaming pits or being locked everlastingly in a room with a time-share salesman. No, it’s just another border crossing.
The Chrysler building is heavier.
Riding south #11: The wind arrives
February 10, 2018
We took up a collection last night at dinner to pay the extortionate fees demanded of our chase van driver for his having rear-ended the car yesterday of a hijacking politician. To say that Jairo is happy for our thoughts beggars the word. We can collectively afford this gesture easily enough, and I need not mention that we need him more than he needs us.
Having been lobbying unashamedly for just a few straight highways, I have been taking a lot of incoming artillery from my fellow riders today, as we have gone from the verdant mountains of Ecuador to the crappy, wasted, windy, and slum-ridden coastal plains of Peru. A close friend of mine owns property in the Amazonian region of the country, but even he would recoil at this landscape. It isn’t pretty except in spots, reminding me of the worst parts of the Navajo reservations of northern New Mexico. To improve much upon what we’ve seen would raise it only to the level of squalid.
Today we rejoined the Pan-American highway. It varies from interstate quality to find me the idiot who designed this monstrosity so that I can strangle him. The dangers even on the finest highways are aplenty, but the scariest are the speed bumps. These things are ubiquitous in Hispanic countries, the poor man’s traffic light. They’re known as la policía acostada (the sleeping policeman). Usually they begin life painted with bright yellow stripes. Sometimes the entire mound the width of the road is sloshed with yellow paint. Either way, that wears off in ten minutes. Now you’ve got a small wall in the road that the human eye can barely distinguish from a normal roadbed. It’s one thing to meet one of these things in a village at 30 kph, but imagine smashing into one while you’re doing 100 on an autopista. This is an inexcusable hazard on a limited access highway.
City driving is its own nightmare on Elm Street. Cabs have largely been replaced by mototaxis, 125cc bikes lugging small covered wagons. They can’t accelerate or brake, but they do those things better than they turn or stay out of your way. That doesn’t stop them from being aggressive. But the Peruvians take it to a level of irresponsibility. The only reason to drive the way they do is to pay a bully back for a beating in the third grade. I keep telling myself I’ve survived Istanbul and Mexico City, but whenever the traffic in Lima is mentioned, a D minor chord of doom sounds.
As we neared the coast the main feature of our day became the wind and the particulate dust it brought with it. It is an incessant, easterly hammer, blurring the landscape like a pointillist painting even on the clearest days. In the far distance on a mountain close to the sea I could see a long, thick cloud of grit being blown horizontally to the east. At some point it was bound to find my lungs, eyes, air filter, bearings, and chain. Get used to it, Bobby: the wind will only be worse in Patagonia, except there the dust could be snow.
Helge warned us not to get our hopes up about the hotel in Huarmey. It was, yes, another landfill, although there was hot water and air conditioning. Mercifully it was also close to the sea, cutting down on most of the airborne dust. It would be nice to stay in a Best Western every night, but given miles, hours of daylight, and the frequent unavailability of accommodations much above the level of Motel 2, Helge can’t do any better. Despite what your motivational instructor told you, there really are some problems that don’t have satisfactory solutions. The alternative to our route goes into thin air on dirt roads through the Andes to Cusco. Really? I don’t think so.
We leave early tomorrow, hoping that we hit Lima at the optimum arrival time, that being 1100 on Sunday. The theory is that the commercial traffic will be light and everyone else will be in church. But the mototaxis never sleep, no respectable church would let them in, and their mufflers are tuned to D minor.
Riding south #12: Once more into the breach
February 12, 2018
With still 34 kilometers to go yesterday to the hotel on the south side of Lima, I pulled up next to Nick in the tortuous, snarled traffic. “I’ve never been in anything this terrifying in my life,” I said. He flipped up his face shield. “Cairo’s much worse,” he said. He flipped the shield down. The light changed, and we were thrown back into it. Six months ago I’d put down a deposit of three big ones on a Capetown-to-Cairo ride in 2019. Before we got to the next light, fighting mototaxis and trucks every inch of the way, I’d written that money off.
Harrison, Debbie, and I were the first ones on the road before dawn. It was but 300km to Lima from Huarmey. I was determined to have someone lead me through the jungle. Their bikes were the smallest of the group’s BMW fleet, just slightly larger than my Suzuki 650cc V-Strom. But when they hit the entrance to the autopista on the outskirts of Huarmey, they disappeared. I figured they’d be in Lima in an hour. No hotel was going to let us check in at 0730. I eased off and cruised along at 95 kph. As far as I’m concerned, nothing good happens to a bike at speeds above that.
Nick caught up with me with about 50km to go. It was just beginning to get gnarly. And then the walls simply caved in. Look, I’m not Shakespeare or Dante. I can’t do justice to the highway psychosis exploding in every direction about me. I stopped looking at the distance to go on the GPS because I was afraid that it might actually be increasing. I white-knuckled it on Nick’s tail for two and one-half eternities. Around 1130 we saw the Casa Andina sign fifteen stories high on the hotel. Nick signaled me to take the lead in. I drove the last two blocks, pulled into the hotel’s garage, took the bags off the bike, and trooped up to the front desk. After a few minutes of confusion, the desk clerk told me that I was supposed to be at the Casa Andina Select. I was standing in the Casa Andina Premiere. And where is the Select? Two blocks away. Ah, I had taken the lead from Nick and missed a turn at the very next intersection. At the end of my life I am going to want those wasted 37 minutes back but I doubt that my bleats will be heard.
The night before in Huarmey Helge had given us the customary tourist warnings about Lima: it can be a very, very dangerous place. Don’t walk alone at night. Don’t carry a backpack or anything that can easily be sliced away from you. Do carry a sacrificial wallet with a little money and maybe an expired credit card, a driver’s license, and a photo of someone’s family that you can give up in a robbery. I already was doing that. He skipped over a description of the traffic inasmuch as it is indescribable. As the black information piled higher and higher, I found it increasingly difficult to maintain my generally cheery, optimistic, and positive-imaging persona.
That’s a laughable lie, of course. I’m not any of those things. My pessimism is deeply ingrained and walled off in a vault. Nothing ever disappoints me because I never thought it would turn out well anyway. Occasionally I am happily surprised. But as I was checking into the second Casa Andina within the hour, it was hard to reconcile Helge’s bleak advice with the neighborhood surrounding me. The hotel is in the Miraflores section of Lima, south of city center. Miraflores is to Lima what Beverly Hills is to Los Angeles. I spent an hour today looking for some replacement motorcycle gloves at a couple of large department stores recommended to me by the hotel staff. It was a doomed quest. You’re not going to find biker gloves in a shop on Rodeo Drive, at least not if you don’t want diamond-encrusted and alpaca-lined hand covers that were originally commissioned for Angelina Jolie. “You got anything that used to cover an animal, maybe an animal like Bambi? Maybe something for a welder or a pipe fitter? No? How did I know that?” I always know.
OK, so perhaps it wasn’t my best day but it was a great day for Helge, Franco, and Nick. Their wives — Lisa, Jennie, and Waan — have flown in for a couple of weeks of high-class travel with a biker gang. We had a good dinner at a fine restaurant last night. Today there was a city tour but I’m morbidly tired of every city on earth except Annapolis, Maryland and Daytona Beach, Florida. Seven years ago in a lottery Chris won a vacation package to Machu Picchu. She came through Lima and stayed at the hotel that Bill Gates uses when he’s in town, a place not far from our hotel. But the highlight of Lima for her was El Parque del Amor and its sculpture of “El Beso,” the kiss. Visiting the park this morning was the most light-hearted hour of walking around I’d done in more than two weeks, a happy surprise you might say.
And at 0630 tomorrow morning I’ll be more than ready to kiss Lima goodbye.
Riding south #13: Maria
February 14, 2018
Sweat droplets fell off my forehead onto the registration desk at the hotel yesterday. It was twenty minutes to two in the afternoon and the temperature was 90F. I was in full riding gear, which means a helmet, gloves, boots, ballistic armor — elbow, knee, shoulder, and hip — and asphalt-resistant skidwear weighing another 20 pounds. The conversation was in Spanish, but I’ll translate it for our English-speaking readers:
“I was here an hour ago. I’m wondering if I can check into my room yet.” “As I told you, we will have no rooms available before 2:00.” “I understand. Do you have a bag?” “A bag?” “Yes. I’m going to vomit.” “Let me check that again for you.”
I know this isn’t team play. I also know it’s why Americans lack reputations as suave and sophisticated interplanetary travelers. It’s just that this Casa Andina hotel chain and I haven’t yet met each other’s expectations. An ATM in the first one in Chiclayo ate my debit card, costing me three hours of the four hundred remaining in my life. The second one in Lima was in Lima. Now this. Yeah, I got the room, but the desk clerk got me. Welcome to #316. No elevator. Have a happy hike to the top floor, Yank.
We’d begun our escape from Lima at 0615, I safely sandwiched between Helge, Vince, and Nick and their better halves. The pack was carrying about 25 kph more velocity than I’m comfortable with, but when you’re getting out of Lima, you do whatever is necessary. I rode with them to the first gas stop three hours to the south along a flat, sandy coastline. Riding at such a brisk pace had pounded my fuel consumption from 70 mpg in Ecuador to 50.
The desert isn’t for everyone, but it’s always been more than enough for me. I love its ruthlessness, its austerity. I’m thinking of becoming a Buddhist so that I can return in the next life as a tarantula. So I swept through the desolate, empty terrain with a light heart. I might as well have been northbound on U.S. 95 out of Las Vegas, one of my favorite roads anywhere. Most riders would throw a rock at it. South of Nazca along the coast down to Chile, the desert becomes even harsher. It’s the Atacama. No rain has been recorded there in human memory.
When I was first turned away from the hotel just after noon, I rode around town looking for some motorcycle gloves. After striking out at two small Honda shops, I got lucky at a place called Italika. There I also ran into Dave Reinhold, another U.S. traveler on a KLR who has been working his way up and down the continent for months. We traded woeful road stories for a while, laughing at the slings and arrows of the two-wheeled life. I wistfully got back on the bike, turned toward the hotel, and put on my I’m-about-to-vomit face.
I’d put myself down for a $100 seat this morning on one of the little planes that litter the skies above Nazca, since there is no other way, apart from a National Geographic special on TV, to see the unique geoglyphs that attract people here from all over the world. This morning I had second thoughts. I’d seen some of the acrobatic stunts those pilots were pulling as I was coming into town yesterday — barrel rolls, Immelmann turns, English bunts, and reverse half-Cuban eights with a split-S — and knew there was no way I could survive that without a bag from the hotel desk clerk. So I wrote off that C-note and went to see Maria’s grave instead.
She is the Matron of the Lines, Maria Reiche, a German who emigrated to Peru in the 1930s, found her way to these ancient drawings by operation of chance, and once here spent the remaining 60 years of her life trying both to explain and preserve them. Trained as a mathematician, she theorized that the lines in their dizzying array of geometric shapes were a kind of astronomical calendar, akin to Stonehenge. No one believes any of that anymore. She died in 1998 and is buried at what was once her workshop, now a museum, 28km west of Nazca. Rusting next to her one-room shack are a battered VW Kombi van and a Beetle. But of course, fraulein.
Though she failed at explaining the lines, she succeeded in an even more important task, that of saving them from destruction. At the time of her arrival, the Pan American highway was being drilled right through one of the glyphs. The engineers had no idea what they were plowing up. Reiche determined to make the Peruvian government aware of the archeological treasure it had and to preserve these delicate structures from further harm. That they have survived at all is due almost solely to her unrelieved efforts over six decades. In gratitude for her work the government made her a citizen of Peru shortly before her death. UNESCO has designated the lines as a world heritage site. Hers was a life not lived in vain.
With almost 2,800 miles now in our wake, the distance from New York to Los Angeles. we are close to one-third of the way to the bottom of the continent. On my phone’s calendar this morning was the note: “Start Diamox.” It’s an anti-altitude sickness medication. We’re at 1,700′ here in Nazca. Tomorrow we’ll be at 7,800′ in Abancay. For the twelve days beyond that we’ll never be below 11,000′.
Next stop: the Andes.
Riding south #14: A cold day in thin air
February 15, 2018
I grew up in San Francisco. I was 14 years old and living in Tokyo before I saw a snowflake fall from the sky. The experience was not a pleasant one for me then nor is it now in my dotage. That explains some of my nervousness yesterday morning as we prepared to depart Nazca. Helge said that we would be going over a pass. He didn’t say how high, but the word “snow” was mentioned. If that word doesn’t grab your attention as a motorcyclist, you’ve missed a meeting.
The other day I mentioned that for riding a motorcycle a forecast for a me doesn’t get any worse than cold and rain. I forgot about throwing fog into that grim mix, which was what waited for us after the first hour or so. The grade was always up. You couldn’t see beyond the front of the truck that was blocking you and crawling up through the soup at a stately 5-10 kph. It rained off and on and grew steadily colder with increasing altitude. Ron, Spike, and Paul held back to carry me through the interminable mess. It took more than a couple of hours to punch through it. When it was finally clear enough to do so, I pulled off into a turnout to put on an electric coat and gloves. They didn’t work.
I couldn’t believe it. I’d had two different failures of this equipment when I’d ridden the bike from Maryland to the shipping agent in Seattle last September. I’d not only fixed those problems, I believed, but was carrying on this trip spares of every piece of electric equipment you could name: coat, gloves, connectors, controllers, cables, and splitters. Everything I tried was as dead as my cold hands. I didn’t know what else to do, so I put on the warmest gloves I had and continued on. The road continued upward.
Around 1300, still trying to wish circulation back into my hands, I realized I’d been riding above 13,000′ for more than four straight hours, climbing almost to 15,000′ at one point. Where in the hell was this “pass” Helge had talked about? This was an altiplano, and an enormous one, not something you go up and over in 20-30 minutes. And if it started snowing on this high plain . . . well, you don’t think about that. The only thing that kept me from losing it altogether was knowing that Ron, Spike, and Jairo in the chase van were still behind me somewhere.
When I got to the hotel, I made every diagnostic test of the battery, wiring, fuses, and equipment that I could. That took 90 seconds. Then I asked for help. Vince immediately volunteered. We first checked the connectors on the battery posts with a multimeter. There was 12 volt power but the leads were reversed (showing -12.9v instead of +12.9v). The controller to the coat and gloves couldn’t recognize what was being sent down the line. We swapped the leads on the battery poles. Green lights. Case closed.
A friend of mine, one of the ace shade tree mechanics in the BMW world, joked once that he could usually fix any bike’s electrical problem in a couple of minutes. The rub, he confessed, was that sometimes it could take a week just to find out what the problem was. Not so here, at least for Vince. I would not have run this one to ground on my own, but at least the last of my worrisome problems had been laid to rest.
Or so I thought.
Riding south #15: A vision to last forever
February 19, 2018
My father was walking home from a cemetery with a friend who had just buried his fourth wife. Neither of the men was yet 45 years old. The widower looked at my father and said wistfully, “Bob, I guess I’m not supposed to be married.” I’m beginning to feel that way about riding to the end of the line in South America.
In the last week the vision of my right eye has deteriorated to the point that when the group sets out tomorrow morning, I will be riding in the chase van and my bike will be on the trailer. It is unclear, so to speak, what is causing the problem. There are at least three things that could be at issue, or it could be something else. If it’s an infectious process, I should be able to handle that. It all stems from a ratty, incurable skin condition known as rosacea, something I inherited from my father, the dermatologist. Every now and then he reaches out from the grave, taps me on the shoulder, and reminds me who is in charge. The other conditions are potentially fly-home-early trip-enders. This is an off-day in Cusco and I’m spending it waiting to hear from my cornea specialist in Maryland.
I realized something was seriously amiss when I was unable to keep up with anyone through the fog leaving Nazca and again in the fog and rain on the ride into Cusco. The fog notwithstanding, I simply couldn’t see, and when you can’t see where you’re going on a motorcycle, you really do need to reassess things. The looming decision point seems to be Santiago, Chile. We’ll reach there on March 7. If I can’t ride by then, that’s the best place to send the bike back to the U.S., and probably me along with it. There are a lot of unknowns here. That will change in time. It always does.
We went to Machu Picchu yesterday, leaving the hotel at 0530 on a jitney bus for a five-minute ride to the bus station. There we boarded a grander bus for a two-hour ride to the town of Ollantaytambo. Then it was a train for 90 minutes to Aguas Calientes, where you take a final bus up a harrowing series of switchbacks to the entrance to the park. It takes 25 minutes, but seems endless. I couldn’t look out the window.
This is the rainy season, but we were blessed. Though it had rained continually through the night before, we arrived in the late morning to sunshine and a few high clouds. For the out-of-shape members of the brigade, it is a punishing hike up to the overlook of the excavated area, but we made it. Not everyone did. Paramedics were preparing to carry a woman who’d collapsed near the top back to the entrance on a stretcher.
This site would be a test for me as to how travel-jaded I’ve become. As I came up over the last ridge, gasping for breath, I saw the entire panorama laid out before and below me. I just smiled. It was magnificent. I aimed the camera here and there robotically, but there’s no lens that can do justice to places like this or Fuji or the Dolomite Alps. Nope, you commit these scenes to read-only memory in your brain and hope you don’t have a power outage.
Javier, our hyperactive guide, was far too excited for these kinds of altitudes. Machine-gunning facts at 500 rounds/minute, he stated that this is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Well, maybe if he means the Incan world, but the site wasn’t seen by anyone outside the tribe until 1911 when an American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, hired some locals to show him where it was. And this wasn’t even the place he was looking for.
The park, meant to hold one thousand residents, receives more than one million visitors each year. Javier points to some lichen on a rock. “Someone will take an instrument and remove this. We want this park to remain pristine forever. Touching the rock changes it.” Though he seems genuinely in earnest, the futility of such an undertaking is obvious. You’ll stop the erosion of the rain, the lightning strikes, and the slow, silent work of the lichen? Do what you will, one day these majestic mountains will all be just grains of sand. Ask Ozymandias.
Still, a faint heart never filled a flush. A Swedish engineering firm has devised a plan to remove people from the park altogether, circling visitors around in some Andean Magic Mountain ride. That’s one approach to reducing tourism, I suppose. But if Peru believes it can find a way to put time in a bottle, they’ll be the first people ever to have done so.
Riding south #16: Making air out of nothing at all
February 21, 2018
Tiwanaku ruins, BO
Yesterday I became carry-on luggage. I am now a passenger in the chase van operated by Jairo (pronounced HIGH-row) Ruíz, a resident of Bogotá, Colombia, who will follow us to the bottom of the continent. From there the tour group members will fly home, arriving in a matter of hours. Jairo’s return journey will take three weeks. To the rest of our crew he is a rarely seen lifeline; to me he is the reason I remain on this venture at all, even as an animated suitcase.
Following a course from A to B each day has been a different experience for me on this ride, even though I was an early adopter of global positioning satellite (GPS) receivers. The earliest models simply gave you a straight-line calculation from one data point to another; it was up to you to figure out the turns. Then auto-routing followed, in a form much like everyone uses today. Plug in an unknown address and just follow the yellow brick road to your destination. Easy peasy.
That’s not the system we’re using, mainly because GPS devices can be personalized (don’t make U-turns, avoid dirt roads or tolls, and so on). Instead, Helge Pedersen five years ago created a trail of bread crumbs for every foot of this ride from Cartagena to Ushuaia. As opposed to auto-routing, which can produce different routes depending upon the GPS’ internal settings, this system is called tracking. If you, like Hansel and Gretel, follow the bread crumb trail, usually denominated as a green line on the GPS map, theoretically you cannot go wrong.
You see where this is headed, right? Jairo dutifully dropped the day’s destination into the GPS, stuck the unit into tracking mode, and followed the green line out of Cusco into a mud-slimed construction zone that brought half the bikes in the field to their knees in despair. Eventually everyone was able to redirect onto the correct route (mainly by using the disapproved auto-routing), but it was no way to begin the day. It was our grim luck the bread crumb trail had been horrifically overtaken by highway remodeling. This trip is advertised as, and delivers as, adventure touring: You do what you can to overcome. The entire route is a no-whining zone.
Once out of Cusco, however, we climbed into the majestic valleys of the Andes. It was everything that Colombia and Ecuador had offered but reaching twice as high into the clouds. I was looking forward to proving my thesis that living in such rarefied conditions retards the growth of animals that depend upon oxygen. I am certain, for example, that the Bolivian adult male has a mean height of 31″ and lungs the approximate size of weather balloons. I also read on the internet that if you raised llamas at sea level, they would grow to 18′ at the shoulder on average. Incidentally, I ate llama at dinner tonight. It tastes nothing like chicken.
Jairo had popped a USB stick of oldies into the dash and was running the tracks through the van’s radio. I think he may have done this for my sake, but in truth there is no gringo with a greater love of Hispanic bubble gum music — basically a mildly advanced form of doo-wop in Spanish — than I. I glanced up at the GPS, centered below the rear-view mirror on the windshield. We were closing in on 3,500 meters, roughly 11,500′. I mentioned it to Jairo: “Tres mil quinientos metros.” The default language in the van is Spanglish. Neither of us can speak enough of the other’s mother tongue to make conversation either meaningful or painless, conditions that produce long periods of silencio.
He replied that we’d be at 3,800 meters at the end of the day. I shook my head. My entire life has been spent within 300′ of sea level. I shouldn’t be up here in this alien land. Taking 15 steps at 12,000′ simply punches 1″ holes in my already perforated lungs, my tiny, atrophied lungs, not those big ass bags the Bolivians have.
The radio rolled on:
But I don’t know how to leave you And I’ll never let you fall And I don’t know how you do it Making love out of nothing at all.
Ah, another of the incomparable Jim Steinman’s masterpieces. And who to deliver it but Air Supply? I turned to Jairo and smiled.
“No hay Air Supply aquí.” There’s no Air Supply up here. “Nunca.” Never.
Riding south #17: By the numbers
February 22, 2018
La Paz BO
[Note: Possibly as a result of my having used a TinyURL link to reference my tracking data, some recipients have experienced intermittent losses of these posts. Mike Kneebone, the president of the Iron Butt Association, has kindly set up a link where all of the material to date is stored: www.ironbutt.com/higdon.]
The road from Puno, where we took an early morning tour of the floating islands of Lake Titicaca, to La Paz is 160 miles and as flat as a pool table. We did not vary our altitude — 12,500′ — so much as 100′ in two short days of riding. Along the way we would face an “easy” border, saying goodbye to Peru and El Condor Pasa, which, judging from the number of times we heard the depressing tune, must be the national anthem, and being welcomed to Bolivia and its president, Evo Morales, the country’s answer to Bernie Sanders.
Jairo and I spent the two-hour jaunt to the frontier teaching each other our respective alphabets and arguing about whether the Spanish “ll,” the 27th letter of their alphabet, should be pronounced the way they do in Argentina or as the rest of the Spanish-speaking world does. Take “llama,” for example, pronounced “YAH-ma” by everyone but the Argentineans and Jairo, who’s from Colombia. He says “SHA-ma.” It’s a soft sound, though irritating and clanky to the non-Argentinean ear. He does another thing with the letter “V,” saying “vista” instead of “bista,” though I hope to be able to disabuse him of that habit quickly. I don’t want him to be embarrassed when he’s speaking in public.
The “easy” border turned into a four-hour suicidathon, made marginally entertaining by watching blood periodically shoot our of nearly everyone’s ears, a morbid sign of terminal boredom and frustration. The basic problem was a new-to-the-game clerk. You could not give her any answer that she did not immediately have to confirm with her supervisor. She was also in charge of looking at VIN plates. That became my problem since my Suzuki’s VIN isn’t located in the same place as the BMW VINs. She was ready to reject me altogether until Jairo explained to her that not every moto in the world is a damned BMW. I could barely watch this blithering charade since I was busy changing the bandages on my ears.
A little while later we were advised that motorcycles cannot be hauled into the country on a trailer because shut up. That meant Bobby would get to ride for a while. It was about an hour’s lope to the hotel, but riders who’d already left reported back that they had run through thunder, lightning, hail, and a military checkpoint along the way. A black storm was crawling up behind us. My phone’s Magic 8 Ball app said that the outlook was “Very doubtful.” It was 20 degrees colder than I’d have liked, but I got dressed, tried to remember where the ignition key went, and followed Helge to the hotel. At least it was still sunny in the late afternoon, and my worthless right eye wasn’t any worse. We didn’t see a drop of rain. Gracias.
I’m not going to embarrass our hotel by naming it. The lady who owns it is a warm, gentle person and an excellent cook. I know she’s doing her best, but Chris sent me a text: “Just read some reviews of your hotel in Trip Advisor. Hope you have something warm to wear to bed.” I was in Room #301 on the top floor. There are 32 steps, each one a dagger to the lungs. The desk clerk begged me not to lose the key. “Es la única,” the only one. I locked it in the room the next morning when I went to breakfast.
The cold wasn’t the worst feature of the night, though it did attract one’s attention. The feral dogs roaming the streets were worse. Even in a Class A hotel in Puno my room featured a small cloth bag of ear plugs. My experience has been that the staff won’t go to that trouble and expense without a reason. More dogs.
My feet had not yet touched the frigid floor the next morning before I realized that I might have left the GPS running all night on the bike. If I had forgotten to turn it off, I would have a dead battery for sure. Dressing as quickly and warmly as possible, I tromped down the 32 steps and out into the parking lot. Jairo had pulled the GPS off the bike the previous evening and had rolled the bike back onto the trailer. Thus did he save me once again. Back up the 32 steps I went to the dining room. I collapsed half-frozen into the nearest empty chair. Almost everyone had already finished breakfast and was now engaged in watching Ron demonstrate the wonders of measuring the partial pressure of oxygen (PO2) in the blood with a pulse oximeter.
I know you may think you have wandered into an episode of The Twilight Zone here. I did as well. Why, you might ask, when every cubic inch of space on a touring bike is as precious as uranium isotopes, is anyone in this group toting such a device? Well, Ron is not quite anyone. His father is Indonesian, his mother Dutch, his wife Korean, and at home in Switzerland the family speaks English. I need not mention that he also rides as if his rear tire is about to catch fire, so I guess if he wants to stick his fellow riders’ fingers in the oximeter, I doubt anyone is going to make a churlish comment. And no one did. They just held out their fingers to be tested. So did I.
I should mention here as a recovering medical malpractice defense lawyer that I used to be paid the big bucks for knowing what the oximeter did and what the numbers meant. So I waited my turn, still recovering from the 32 steps, with a bit of trepidation. The PO2 tells whether the circulatory system is adequately oxygenated. Yours now is in the upper 90s. That’s good. Around our breakfast table the numbers were in the 91-93 range, a result of the diminished oxygen supply at our altitude. When Ron turned to me, he couldn’t get a reading at all. A second try failed with a different index finger. I sat on my hands for a couple of minutes to warm them up. On the third try the device produced a PO2 of 82 and a heart rate of 118.
I sat back but said nothing. This was definitely not good news. Organs begin failing with a PO2 below 80. I checked my respirations: 30, twice normal. I checked my pulse: 88, 40% above normal. With numbers like this I might as well have been at Mt. Everest’s base camp. If that PO2 was accurate, my first stop in La Paz would be the airport, where I’d be booking a seat on the next flight to Santiago and sea level. The only cure for altitude problems is to get out of it.
We spent a couple of hours on a hike around the Tiwanaku ruins. They are ruined ruins, looted thoroughly by grave robbers and invading Spaniards for centuries. I spent most of my time checking my pulse and respirations. They were moderating a bit. I had hoped to have another chance with Ron’s meter, but by the time I’d returned to the hotel he had already fled to La Paz on the heels of The Boys.
Back in the van on the short ride to the city, I continued to fret about that PO2, trying to convince myself it was an aberration. The heart rate reading had clearly been wrong. Surely the inability to get any readings at all initially must have been due to my cold fingers, and they were cold because the small veins and capillaries had been constricted by my having been outside. If there’s not a lot of blood flowing, there’s not going to be a lot of oxygen to measure. When we got to the hotel, I sent a text to Ron, asking to borrow the oximeter. By the time we were able to get together, my pulse and respirations had returned almost to normal. I wasn’t even surprised when the PO2 showed a new and improved reading of 89. No worries and case closed. Now to fix this damned right eye.
Riding south #18: Evo
February 25, 2018
Uyuni salt flats BO
You see his smiling face on about every third billboard, a giant Big Brother image redolent of Orwell’s 1984. No brick wall is complete without “Evo, Sí” spray painted in size triplegiga font. He’s Evo Morales, Bolivia’s president-for-life (if he gets his way), an unreconstructed Socialist straight out of central casting. Sailing into the presidency of one of South America’s poorest countries in 2005, he immediately jumped into bed with his two heroes, Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro. Heard this one before, you say? That’s what I thought too.
The basic script for the caterwauling reformer was written by Gaius Gracchus 2,300 years ago and without changing a single note it was working still for Bernie Sanders in 2016: “Those rich bastards stole your money and your land. Vote for me and I’ll steal it back.” Evo’s twist was to add that he was born into the Aymara indigenous nation, one of 36 such groups recognized in Bolivia, some of which have as many as 40 members. And you thought identity politics in the U.S. was out of control.
In the campaign Evo rode his native heritage like a horse, despite the fact that he couldn’t actually speak the Aymara language. But pointing out such trivial inconsistencies is considered poor form, much like noting that Elizabeth Warren, the Senate’s only Cherokee, rarely sleeps in a teepee. Other warts Evo didn’t even bother to hide. The only things he believed in, he said, were the land, his parents, and “Cuchi-Cuchi.” Yes, that means exactly what you think it means, as his three children, all out of wedlock by three different women, mutely attest.
Upon his inauguration in 2006 diplomatic relations with the U.,S. crumbled. Evo had come up through the trade union ranks as a coca grower. He refused to cooperate with DEA efforts in Bolivia. His stance was “Coca yes, cocaine no.” That wasn’t good enough for the U.S, State Department. If you’re not all in with “Just say no,” then you might as well be a narco-trafficker. Even Obama, whom you’d have thought could have been Evo’s brother by another mother, condemned him. Evo seemed genuinely hurt by the repulse, and I can’t say that I blame him. The man wanted to protect one of his country’s industries, and besides, you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of truthful words the U.S. government has spoken about drugs since 1938. I give this round to Evo.
I’m tempted to say that no one knows where all this will end, but if the past is prologue, then we have some clues. Nationalize gas and oil (check), see if Iran is interested in your uranium (check), and bypass or ignore the Constitution when it gets in your way (check). Despite some positive economic gains during Evo’s presidency, Bolivia is still dirt poor, but that word means something else when you look at Venezuela and Cuba. Unlike kleptomaniacal thugs like Hugo Chavez and Robert Mugabe, Evo cares nothing for material things. One thing is sure: He won’t be going quietly into the night. The man is on a mission.
Our mission today was to visit the salt flats 300+ miles south of La Paz. Until recently the farther south you crept, the worse the road got, including some infamous river crossings. Friends of mine a few years ago came down the highway only to return northbound with their bikes on the back of a truck. Now the road is sealed the entire distance. The river crossings are made on bridges. The world changes apace, even in Bolivia.
As Mike Paull mentioned this morning before we set out in three 4×4 land cruisers, unlike China’s Great Wall, El Salar de Uyuni really can be seen from space. It is the greatest concentration of flat land on the face of the Earth, so unvarying that it is used to calibrate the altimeters of orbiting satellites. Now, during the wettest rainy season in years, more than 10% of the 4,200 square miles of the salt flats is under water.
As Machu Picchu is to the tourist industry in Peru, so is El Salar to Bolivia. Last night every hotel in the Uyuni-Colchani area was booked with Asian tourists. Even so they are not the principal benefit to Bolivia’s economy in this forlorn place. Lurking a few inches to a few yards below the surface are the chlorides of salt, magnesium, potassium, and particularly lithium, the latter making up nearly half of the world’s supply of the precious metal. Without that element, you don’t have modern batteries, a fact that surely has not escaped Evo’s attention.
In our vehicle as we splashed toward a rendezvous point miles away, Ron and Paul suddenly burst into their rendition of Gordon Lightfoot’s Carefree Highway. Nick, Lightfoot’s countryman, could not help but join in. As Lightfoot was in large measure responsible for my getting through law school — another story for another day — I quickly cranked up the tune on my phone. That led the driver to pass me a connection cable and soon we’d turned the cruiser into an 80 dB boom box. I turned to Franco and said, “I guess you’re outvoted here.” He smiled and replied that he too was a big fan. We reverberated through the brine at 10 mph. If it were the only memory I ever carry away from the magical place, it will be enough.
Riding south #19: Cerro de la Muerte
February 27, 2018
Every morning for almost 475 years now the men of this town have trooped up to Cerro Rico and started digging. The smart ones come back down at night, cough the dust of a dozen minerals out of their lungs, and open a book. Education, with luck, could be the only thing that will save them from an early grave. If an accident doesn’t kill the average miner between 30 and 40, lung disease surely will. Today in Potosí there are seven women for every man.
It wasn’t always this way. It used to be much worse. Following Francisco Pizarro’s conquest of the Incan empire in the early 1530s, Spain’s efforts to control the hemisphere from central Kansas to the Straits of Magellan shifted into high gear. Here was a cash cow the likes of which had never been seen in the history of human civilization. And the udder on this cow was Cerro Rico — Rich Hill — in Potosí. By 1545, it was the largest city on earth.
There were not enough survivors of Pizarro’s campaigns to swing the picks on Cerro Rico, so Spain played the cards that it knew best: first the sword, then the Bible. It swarmed through the jungles and rain forests to the east in what is now Brazil, enslaved and converted millions of indigenous people, and sent them off to Potosí. There, some 14,000′ above where they were used to living, they also experienced summer nights where the temperature averages 41F. They died like flies, eight to ten million of them over the centuries, or maybe they died wishing that they could die like flies. It wasn’t even over even when independence movements swept the continent 250 years later. Cerro Rico merely shifted from a Spanish killing field to a Bolivian one.
We did a tour of the city’s main museum. It is dedicated to memorializing the mining, refining, and minting of silver, some 300,000 tons of the pure stuff during Spain’s remarkable run. Life-size manikins, from the ages of mule power through steam power, uncomplainingly operate machines designed to make other men rich. Nearly every one of the carefully restored grinding, pounding, or crushing machines brings forth the identical thought: How many minutes on average can this worker operate this device before it takes one of his fingers?
I do not recall seeing any female manikins operating machinery in the museum, but that is not to say that women had no role in the extraction process. Our guide took us to a section of the city lying directly below Cerro Rico. It was literally walled off from the rest of the town, a zone historically reserved for the indigenous population. As luck would have it, the location was convenient for everyone. Raw ore could be simply rolled down the sides of the hill and lagoons high on the hill could sluice water to follow along with the rocks. The women’s job was to scrub the ore before it could be passed along to the next phase of the refining process. Who knew — who even cared, really? — that the rocks were suffused with mercury oxide, a biohazard of the first rank?
The hill is today a sinkhole, tunneled out to the point where you’d think nothing could possibly remain in its spectacular shell. But geologists say that while most of the silver is gone, 65% of the tin, zinc, lead, and other metals remains still. They’re trying to keep the entire mountain from collapsing under its own weight, but no one who has seen maps of the tunnels can believe in such Sunnybrook Farm hopes. And when it goes, it could take a fair share of the 15,000-20,000 men who enter the 500 access tunnels each day at dawn. Think of it as simply a variation on a theme, a dirge that has been playing for half a millennium.
We wound up in the town square at the end of the tour. In the distance the brown, denuded mass of Cerro Rico frowned down on us. Potosí’s fortunes have similarly declined over the years. No longer the center of the universe, today it is the fourth largest city in Bolivia. It can still reach out, however, and remind you who it once was.
I struggled in vain to find some shade from the midday sun. Two women in our group talked quietly near me. “Our guide’s a widow, you know? She has three small children. Her husband was killed up there. A miner. In Cerro Rico.”
March 2, 2018
Like most advanced, caring, and post-industrial countries, Bolivia has taken steps to ensure that its children are protected from the ravages of unfair labor practices. OK, your scribe was just having some fun there, since you know as well as I that every word in that first sentence is (with apologies to Mary McCarthy) a lie, including “and” and “the.” Nick was telling me at breakfast the other day what his tour of the mine at Cerro Rico had been like. “If I had known . . .” I interrupted him. “Stop,” I said. “I knew what it would be like: A dust-choked, strangulating hell at 14,000′ where you’d sell your mother to a Portuguese white slave ring to escape from the place 15 minutes into a two-hour tour. How could you not know that?”
“Oh,” he said, “it was worse than that.”
He described it as “harrowing.” The word “claustrophobic” also came into play, as it does with many stories set in caves. The workers there, all young because the older ones have died off, need to load ten tons of ore each shift into large, rolling carts. Make your quota and you take home 150 Bolivianos, just under $22. Miss your mark? Try again tomorrow, Juan, but today your 12 hours of breathing toxic dust has netted you nothing.
The minimum age is 14, but everyone knows there are ten year-olds burrowing away like moles in that hill. Their mouths are so jammed with coca leaves they look like they’re trying to eat four golf balls. It alleviates hunger and increases energy, they say. They also say that on the Big Rock Candy Mountain the hens lay soft-boiled eggs. The few leaves I sucked on in Quito didn’t do much except get me on a DEA known user list.
Nick was about ready to make a few dynamite holes in the damned place just to get some uncontaminated air when the guide said that there was one last station on the cross to visit: the God of the Mountain. I perked up. “Really? I wouldn’t mind that part of the tour. I’ve got a few things I’d like to mention to that Guy myself,” I said, perhaps a little too warmly. The guide noted that it would require traversing a path of about 50 yards on hands and knees, at which point Nick naturally offered an objection. It went nowhere. The guide explained that it was the only way out.
With all due respect to the panoply of deities, I’ve seen Nick’s photos of the God of the Mountain and I must say that this One’s sculptor is no threat to Michelangelo. It’s a kind of ribbon-covered mud pie in a more or less human form with a gaping maw into which worshippers have placed half-lit cigarettes and a genital package that appears to be more threatening than useful. I wasn’t comfortable that Mud Man would hear my prayers about the improvement of working conditions at Cerro Rico. No, for that I’m afraid that I’d Better Call Saul.
* * * * * * * * * *
When we left the salt flats five days ago and headed south to Uyuni, we turned to the left in the middle of town and proceeded northeast to Potosí. Had we continued straight south, however, in another 75 miles we’d have come to San Vicente. You have heard of this village, even if you don’t know it. Hollywood has guaranteed it.
In 1901 after a remarkably successful ten-year career of robbing trains and banks in Montana, Wyoming, and Utah, Robert Parker and Harry Longabaugh decided that they would retire to Argentina and become gentlemen farmers. They were joined by Longabaugh’s girlfriend, Etta Place. The Pinkerton Detective Agency had been after them and their gang with every bit of the enthusiasm they’d earlier used to track down Frank and Jesse James. If you were west of the Mississippi at the beginning of the 20th century, you’d heard of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
For a while they appeared to have kept their noses clean but in 1905 they robbed a bank in Patagonia of $100,000. They hit another at the end of the year west of Buenos Aires and escaped into Chile. In 1906 Etta Place, tired of running, decided to retreat to the United States. Longabaugh accompanied her, then returned to Bolivia, where Cassidy had a job working as a guard for one of the silver mines. Things remained quiet until early November, 1908 when two American heisted a silver mine payroll near San Vicente and stole a pack mule. The animal, worth nothing, bore the mining company’s brand.
They stayed the night of November 3 at a small boarding house in San Vicente. The owner, suspicious of the pair, found the mule’s brand and notified a local Bolivian cavalry unit. By nightfall the house was surrounded. When soldiers attempted to close in, one was killed and another wounded. A deadly firefight ensued. After midnight a man’s screams were heard in the house. Two pistol shots followed. At dawn the soldiers entered the house, finding both men shot to death in an apparent murder-suicide. Both had been bleeding out from dozens of bullet wounds. They could not otherwise be identified.
Were they the Dynamic Duo? Of course. Can we prove it? Of course not, though television crews with DNA experts have tried their best to do just that. But what mystifies me about these two in the end is what in the world were they thinking, pulling a robbery like that in an utterly desolate area? They stood a foot taller than anyone within a radius of 200 miles. Their accents would give them away instantly. They could not have looked more like gringos had they been wearing Snow White and Cinderella masks.
Sixty years after their unnoticed deaths, director George Roy Hill released his film version of the pair’s exploits, thus guaranteeing Parker and Longabaugh eternal celebrity. Though history has been kinder to the movie than critics were at the time, nothing for me can ever excuse Hill’s ending: His stars, Newman and Redford, burst from the boarding house in broad daylight with four guns blazing away and then . . . freeze the frame and turn it into a lobby poster. Sure, as if they might escape to star a sequel.
The truth was far more horrific. They sat in that dark, miserable house, dying of arterial blood loss. For almost half their lives they had been inseparable friends, as lucky as anyone has ever been. Now one would have to shoot the other through the forehead, then turn the pistol to his own temple. How did it come to be called that, I wonder.
#21: Sweeping muddy water
March 6, 2018
Two days ago at breakfast Debbie Christian asked me to be on the lookout for her if she decided to take a break by the side of the road at some point during the day. She looked a little out of sorts. Half an hour later she was being packed into a cab and taken to the public hospital in Salta. It is unclear even at this moment what is actually going on, but speculation covered the waterfront from appendicitis to gall bladder inflammation to general GI distress to zombie apocalypse. By early afternoon it had been decided that she and Aillene Paull, a trauma nurse at home in Seattle, would fly to Santiago, Chile and have the patient examined by the pros from Dover. There on Wednesday we would reunite.
The elite chase van crew, Jairo and your esteemed scribe, thus had its scheduled departure moved from 0800 to 1255, meaning that we would be racing the sun to the evening’s destination in Belén. I don’t dislike driving at night; I hate driving at night. There is nothing that can happen during the day to a motorcycle or a rider that will be in any way improved should the same thing happen after the sun goes down. Being in a car doesn’t make me feel much better. What with speed bumps, pedestrians, and animals the size of Mothra, Destroyer of Worlds, nothing good can ever be waiting for us in the dark.
Fortunately, we soon found ourselves on the prettiest road of the entire tour to date, La Ruta del Vino (The Wine Road) leading to Cafayate, a small town that could be right at home in the Napa valley of California. The first store I saw was selling wine-flavored ice cream. If that weren’t enough of a draw for me, I discovered that a group of some 70 ex-pat Americans spends six months a year there playing golf and sopping up the local grape products. I am hopeful that Cafayate has not yet seen the last of me.
The road south was a gorgeous drive through a spectacular valley for at least 100 miles, then turned into an identical twin of U.S. 50 in Nevada. Helge calls these “Bob roads” because they’re long, flat, straight, and boring. I call them a state of tranquil bliss where I can understand the square root of -1 and other imaginary things. The only interruptions in this Eden are paved dips in the highway where rivers caused by flash floods cross the road surface. They are “los badenes,” a low-budget response to conditions where there isn’t enough money or concrete to build all the bridges you’d need to keep traffic moving. As long as the storms don’t get out of hand, the plan works. But steady rain can quickly turn dry river beds in the high desert into currents you’d be foolish to test in a tank. Read on.
The sun beat us to Belén by 15 minutes. By the time we’d finished dinner it was past 2300. I set two alarms for 0600 and 0601. The following day to San Juan at just under 400 miles would be the longest day of the entire trip.
Although I use the expression “chase van,” what we really are is a sweep vehicle, a term used in automobile rallying. Theoretically we are following the last of the bikes on the tracking line and sweeping up stragglers with our brooms along the way. There’s a time each morning when we’re scheduled to leave. The riders know it and try to beat us out of the gate. Not Paul. Not yesterday. Spike said his roommate was sleeping in. OK, he knows the risks.
So we occasionally get ahead of some riders, as we did yesterday morning, and have to turn back. The SPOT tracks show our negative progress beginning at about 0720 yesterday morning (all times are EST, though we are actually two time zones ahead of that now). Ron’s bike was having some kind of electrical problem. By the time we found him, he was running again.
The weather was worsening with the temperature dropping, wind kicking up, and storms firing all over the horizon ahead. Just after noon we received a message that a landslide had blocked our route. Nick and Franco with an early morning start had gotten through before the closure, but now all traffic was being diverted. Attentive readers will recall that when the tracking line fails as in the case of forced detours, all bets are off for GPS auto-routing. On his GPS Vince Cummings did a quick reroute and came up with a plot of 800 kilometers to the destination hotel, a prospect that would finish his day not much earlier than midnight. Helge’s GPS suggested a 485 km route, while Jairo’s GPS shaved it to 425 km. It was a kind of object lesson in chaos theory, where every model is completely dependent upon unique initial conditions.
And, as it turned out very quickly, none of it mattered much anyway because not ten minutes after the main group had decided upon a basic way to proceed, the road ahead was blocked by a flash flood that was literally carrying large logs across the highway without a great deal of effort. At least 50 vehicles were stacked up on each side of the cascading river, then about 25-30 meters across. After a few minutes of watching the flow, Ron grabbed Harrison’s hand and the two of them walked gingerly into the tide, crossed to the other side, bowed to applause, and walked back. That broke the ice. A gasoline truck was the first into the slop, quickly followed by Mike Paull’s and Helge’s sidecars. Moments later as we were congratulating ourselves on our bravery, we heard a report that Nick and Franco were backtracking from an impassable river. We thought they might be trapped.
As the afternoon wore on, Jairo and I lost touch with the rest of the field. The badenes were without number, though mercifully without a great deal of water either. Exiting from one particularly muddy badén, Jairo noticed that there were no motorcycle tire tracks. We stopped in the next town for an assessment of things. We were 245 km from San Juan. Bikes were scattered across northwest Argentina like BBs, apparently all heading to the barn. It would be a repeat of the day before where the brooms raced the sun to the hotel and lost. Nick and Franco arrived an hour after everyone else, but no one knows how they did it.
We know how Paul made it, however. He managed to get going around 0900, an hour after our sweep car began brooming the route. Following the green tracking line usually isn’t something he pays a lot of attention to, so he just plugged in the auto-route path and set sail. Around noon he had a leisurely lunch, took a half-hour nap along the side of the road an hour later, and cruised into San Juan at about 1730, two and one-one half hours before anyone else. Landslides? Nope. Impassable rivers? Nah. Just another day in the saddle for one of The Boys. That’s the Texas way.
March 9, 2018
Three days ago we came through the last of the Andes’ passes, along the way hiking into a national park for a few kilometers to get as close as we could to a view of Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia. If ever there was a day I’d hoped for bright morning sunshine, this was it. And we got it.
I was in high school when I first came across Maurice Herzog’s story of his French alpine team’s ascent of Annapurna in 1950, the highest mountain then to have been climbed. They did it without oxygen and without a route. They paid for it though, leaving a bunch of fingers and toes up there. Three years later Hillary conquered Everest, but his success seemed to me to have been not so hard-earned as that of Herzog’s team. But it was Everest, and the fame and fortune to the guy who could first bag that one, that captured the public’s imagination.
One of Herzog’s stalwarts, Lionel Terray, was a climber from the town of Chamonix in the French Alps. Trust me on this, there is no more beautiful place on earth than this little town. He wrote a book of his mountaineering accomplishments in 1964 with the French title, The Conquerors of the Useless. When it was published in the U.S., the title was changed by Madison Avenue to The Conquerors of the Impossible. OK, I got that. Positive imaging and so on. But Terray knew what he was doing, just like motorcyclists know what they’re doing: impossible, useless things.
What it took longer for me to absorb was Terray’s death the following year on a relatively simple cliff near Grenoble in France. I kept the copy of the story of his last climb as related in Paris Match for at least 20 years. I’ve been to the place where he fell. I’ve visited his grave — he is buried next to Edward Whymper, the first climber of the Matterhorn — every time I’ve been to Chamonix. And since Terray had climbed Aconcagua and had been the first to climb the even more difficult Fitzroy in Patagonia, for me just to look even at a distance where this nearly immortal man had stood was a gift in and of itself. I took a lot of photographs, but I will never see what he saw.
We crossed the border into Chile. It took forty days to get through, more or less. Jairo and I arrived in downtown Santiago in rush hour, the usual take-20-minutes-to-go-three-blocks routine we’d already perfected in La Paz and other cities. The next day I asked the desk clerk at the hotel where I might find the nearest urgent care center. I didn’t know the expression for “Doc-in-a-Box,” but I was given directions to a university hospital not three blocks away.
I’ll skip to the chase and omit the six hours or more sitting in waiting rooms over the next two days, but the care I received from an ophthalmologist at the hospital was the care I needed and the advice that I have heeded. His examination revealed that a small vein in my right eye had occluded, almost certainly because of the extreme altitude I’d attained leaving Nazca, and that I’d need further testing to determine the extent of the damage and to mitigate the possibility of further problems. His recommendation was contained in ten words: “Suspender su viaje programado y retornar a su país EEUU.” Cancel your planned trip and return to the U.S.
About 30 years ago one of Rider magazine’s staff writers, Beau Allen Pacheco, wrote an article in which he said in passing, “Sooner or later everyone quits riding.” Those words have haunted me ever since. How does it come to be that a person who is a motorcycle rider ceases to be that person? I’ve come up with some truly eloquent theories over the years about why people ride and why they quit but until now have never had to put the theories to the test. As to the latter, why riders stop riding, I’ve concluded that my original idea — they simply can’t take another bad day in the saddle anymore — is as good an explanation as any. At some point it just isn’t worth it. You just can’t push that damned bike ten more feet down the road.
I don’t know where I am here. an eternal stranger in an eternally strange land. I know I can’t see very well in what used to be my good eye. I know I’m not willing to fall off a cliff to prove a useless point the way Lionel Terray did. I know that I had a life on a bike that left nothing on the table when it was over. Beyond that, I hardly know a thing. But it was fun while it lasted. I do know at least that much. I think.