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When In Doubt

Rambling_through_the Palouse of Eastern Washington, many months ago, we came up with a maxim that has served us well to this day.  “When in doubt, choose adventure.”  Noble in its intention, “choosing adventure” is meant to ensure that we don’t shy away from the paths less traveled.  They may be more dangerous or uncertain or difficult.  Adventure is a big part of Bound South.  In practice, however, this maxim is most often leveraged ex post to justify a poor decision by yours truly.

A reminder of hard work.

Our first day in Ecuador was a rainy and cold one.

We stumbled upon this school that night, where we took shelter.

A typical lunch in Colombia and Ecuador. For $2 or less, you can get a hearty meat and vegetable soup, an enormous plate of beans, rice, chicken, and potatoes, and a cold cup of juice. We love it.

Cycling is celebrated in Colombia and Ecuador. Road signs and statues are common.

Here is an example from our past days in Ecuador: we were riding down the Pan-American highway.  The road is spectacular, smooth, and mountainous.  I hear about “the old highway from Salinas” and convince Nathan and David to explore it with me.  The result?  Epic, muddy dirt roads, stream crossings, five-way-dirt-intersections-with-no-signs, impossibly steep cobblestone climbs, and lots of getting lost in the country.  We finally wound our way back to the Pana, exhausted and dirty.  At least we traveled southwards, right?  We press on, “adventure” the word begrudgingly gritted between our teeth.

The old "highway" from Salinas.

This tarantula (or rather the sight of him) on the Salinas road nearly knocked me off my bike.

Old roads are the best roads.

Thankfully it doesn’t always work out that way.  That’s what real adventure is about after all; it is not a steady and predictable set of  wonderful experiences and surmountable challenges.  As Robin Hanson writes, “This has a big lesson for those who like to think of their real life as a grand adventure: relative to fiction, real grand adventures tend to have fewer guides, and more randomness in success. Real adventurers must accept huge throws of the dice; even if you do most everything right, most likely some other lucky punk will get most of the praise.”  They must “learn to see the glorious nobility of those who try well yet fail.”  That’s real adventure; simultaneously sobering and satisfying.

Entering one of many tunnels on El Chaquinan.

Leaving the rain, complete darkness engulfed us in most tunnels. Headlights were a necessity.

Steep and muddy single-track called for teamwork.

Mud was inescapable and a bit of fun.

Isaiah functioned as Nathan and David's rear brake for this extremely slippery downhill.

The riding was unforgettable.

Sometimes adventure works out and it makes all of the hapless searching and uncertainty worth its while.  We found an old decommissioned railroad line outside of Quito that had devolved (evolved?) into unkempt dirt singletrack, winding its way through countless canyons and dark tunnels.  Locals call it El Chaquinan and were shocked to see gringos attempting its passage by bicycle.  It wasn’t particularly difficult riding, safe for the parts where we had to scale muddy walls by pushing the bikes, or where my tires washed out on some old rails and sent me diving over the bars.  It was fun, like the first time you rode your bicycle through the rain and mud as a kid.  It was the kind of riding I will remember for the rest of my life.  The annual Carnival celebrations in Ecuador helped us clean off the mud; so many children had squirt guns to do battle with our water bottles.  In the end, we arrived in Tumbaco muddy, tired, and excited for the time to rest with our fantastic hosts.  Teachers at the British School near Quito, the Tober family hosted us and fed us and let us be a part of their family and community at the British School.  The adventure continues now south of Quito as we ride quickly into Peru.  Spending time with the Tober-Zambrano family made us all miss our own family and home.  When you think about it, family is a real adventure with great reward and few guides.  Our sights are set on that and so much more as we continue southwards on our bicycles.

Camelback's high performance jet valve bottle technology proved to be unbeatable.

We spotted this rider from the railroad line high above in the canyon.

We called this bamboo shack home for a few days while we stayed with the Tober-Zambrano family.

During our presentation at the British School, many questions were asked.

Steve lets his daughter, Carla, give Angus a try.

Like their parents, Steve and Maria's children were bicycle fanatics.

Ramone dizzies David with a few roundabout laps at center court.

Carla didn't hesitate to show off her cycling prowess either. In fact, she was very clear about how she was both stronger and faster than David on the swings and on her bicycle.

The end of a hard day's work at the British School

Mailbag Monday #13

Today_we_continue our Mailbag Monday series…

Dear David,

How is your trip?  I love to ride bike.  I take piano lessons.  I am realy good at my Chrimas songs.  How many miles do you ride every day?  I am in the 3rd grade in the Hazelton School in North Dakota.  I have a farm.  I have kittens at my farm.  They are about 6 weeks old.  What kinds of things do you like?  What is the state you are in now?

From,

Summer

Tunnel silhouettes near Quito

Dear Summer,

Our trip is going very well.  Ecuador is wonderful.  The people are very kind and the views are spectacular – we are beginning to see snow-capped peaks again!  It’s great that you enjoy riding your bike.  It is something you can enjoy for many years to come.  Piano is a wonderful instrument to learn.  I took lessons for a few years but took up other instruments as a I grew older.  On average, we ride about 120 kilometers, or 70 miles, a day.  It varies depending on the terrain and our overall health.

My family has a farm, too!  In addition to many kittens, we also have horses, cows, and dogs.  I like many things.  I have always enjoyed playing sports, namely soccer and basketball.  I also enjoy camping and exploring.  Last summer, I went backpacking in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming with three friends.  Photography, reading, music, and serving others are a few other interests I really enjoy.  Currently, we are in the Cotopaxi province of Ecuador. Its area surrounds Cotopaxi, an enormous volcano that soars close to 20,000 feet above sea level. Thanks for your letter!

Sincerely,

David

Gear: Leatherman

Leatherman._He’s our sixth man off of the bench.  He can’t guarantee success, but he sure does prevent a whole lot of failures.  We met in Anchorage; he was a well-made American tool in our loving American family who was ready to travel the world.  We first became acquainted after we forgot to purchase a can opener and were forced to crudely hack at a tin lid with our new friend to survive outside of Denali.  It was love at first opened can of chicken.  Leatherman doesn’t complain, doesn’t smell, doesn’t bend, doesn’t break, doesn’t rust, doesn’t wear out, and doesn’t pilfer my secret stashes of food, unlike just about everything else involved in Bound South.  Leatherman is the overqualified corporate leader, while we are some cheap imitation of The Office.  He possesses countless utility and skills and tools; we frantically call upon him to save our lives with just the knife and the pliers.  Perhaps we’ll finally use the corkscrew in Ushuaia.  Or cut some firewood in Patagonia.  Leatherman is the chicken, we are the egg.  Leatherman is the cart, we are the horse.  Leatherman will return from Argentina as he always is: sterling, silver, and handsome.  We will return from this trip emaciated, bilingual, and with embarrassing tan lines and some good stories.  Most of those stories won’t mention Leatherman directly.  Made-In-The-USA, Stainless Steel, Infinite-Utility, Multi-Tool-We’ll-Never-Lose-Leatherman, today is your day.

Mailbag Monday #12

Today_we_continue our Mailbag Monday series…

Dear Nathan,

How are you doing?  I’m doing great in school.  Do you ever feel like you are in danger?  How the scenery?  Are they cool awesome?  How long are you going in miles?  It will be great if you can answer the questions but if you can’t, it’s ok.

Sincerely,

Matthew

Hey Matthew,

I’m doing great! We just started the South American portion of our journey and the mountains are already kicking our butts. Each of the last four or five days we’ve had to climb a mountain, or a series of them. It has been a ton of work.  Each day we tackle several four to six hour climbs on terrain that varies between gravel and a mixture of rocks and mud. I’m glad you are having a good time in school, I have many silly memories from school. On warm days in wintertime we would try to make super-snowmen. Typically recess would end with massive snowballs that no one was capable of lifting.

To have an adventure atop a bicycle saddle comes with much danger. Some days, we travel on the shoulders of busy highways. Couple that with threats of bears and bandits, and there is plenty to make a person concerned. We do our best to be safe on the roads and use good judgement, and pray that others look out for us in the same way. It’s hard to worry about it when we find ourselves in the middle of such beauty. The Andes of South America have made my jaw drop on several occasions. The trip will end up at around sixteen thousand miles which sounds massive, but it’s amazing to think we are already over half done.

Thanks for writing Matthew!

Nathan

Mocoa-Pasto

The_beauty_of this bicycle journey is the way in which landscapes get burned into your legs.  The Americas and the Andes are no longer an abstraction.  Distance can be reformulated in terms of effort.  All of the faint guesses at the road ahead are replaced by the tactile grip of hands upon handlebars, tires upon stone and dirt, and landscapes burned into your memory.  In the remote mountains of the Colombian Cordillera Central the mountains shoot up, their lush vegetation contrasted with the jigsaw puzzles of farm fields, cliffs, waterfalls, and lakes.

Hard stones and a dirt road climb for 30 kilometers.

Riding up to where the clouds rest

There is one lonely road crossing these mountains from Mocoa to Pasto, a rugged road with few peers the world over.  Our ride into a new world began at 2,000 feet outside of Mocoa, taking shelter from tropical rains and preparing our South American Trolls for their ride on the wild side.  Since leaving Central America, we acquired some knobby Kenda tires and ditched our fenders other non-essentials to prepare for off-road adventures.  Well-prepared, and somewhat well-rested, we pushed our bicycles out into the rain and began to ride uphill with fat, knobby tires and high hopes.

Endless climbs ensued

Stream crossings abounded.

Descending through the clouds

We weren’t prepared for what we would encounter.  We climbed out of the mixed sunshine and clouds of Mocoa into the mist-covered mountains of the Cordillera Central.  Within a few kilometers, our strangely empty paved road became a narrow, single lane of winding dirt and stone.  Imagine if someone laid down a ribbon of mud, sprinkled sharp paving stones on top, and let it all dry to satisfaction.  This was our road, the lone highway across the mountains between Nariño and Putamayo of Colombia?  Absurd.  Imagine if the one bridge from Fargo to Moorhead was a narrow pedestrian rope-bridge, or if the only crossing between California and Oregon was a dirt road somewhere below Crater Lake.  As we were passed by countless death-defying trucks and combis on their five-hour, 130 kilometer sojourn through the mountains, I could hardly believe where we were.  One moment we were climbing underneath overhanging cliffs, another disappearing into the mist, and soon reappearing in time to cross a stream that became a waterfall beneath our tires.

A sweeping descent to the valley below

Storms flew across this mountain valley

We climbed up and down to 10,000 feet on far too many cold mountain passes, each a victory with little fanfare as the stones would only punish us more as our speed increased on the downhills.  Disheartened and hungry, we frequented many small roadside restaurants where a heaping plate of chicken and rice and potatoes would set us back a princely $2.  We had surmised that a very early start would get us to Pasto in a little over a day.  Three major mountain climbs and impossibly rough roads meant that we took a full two and a half days to complete the journey.  The last forty kilometers to Pasto brought us smoother dirt and even some long lost pavement, which made up slightly for how worn out our bodies were from bouncing across the stones for two days.

A restaurant and campsite for the night had no electricity but much character.

Climbing out of the valley, on pavement this time

We met this avid cyclist at a lunch stop

Reaching Pasto, finally, we struck up a conversation with some firefighters outside of the city center.  Soon we were talking to the chief of the bomberos and we had a place to camp for the night.  Camping and asking questions can take you a long ways in this world.  And now as we are days from Ecuador, already the pain in the legs is fading and the memories call us back.  This was easily the hardest ride we’ve faced since leaving Alaska.  Roads like this call us to continue and maybe, if we’re lucky, to one day return. 

The last valley held Lago de la Concha

It was hard, but resting with the bomberos allowed us to recover nicely.

Good Work

Einstein_was_once asked about the origins of his theory of relativity.  He famously responded, “I thought of that while riding my bicycle.”  We think of a lot of things while riding our bicycles, whether they be humorous variants of 90s pop songs or probing questions of politics, philosophy, and religion.  These past days we climbed some incredibly steep, long, rocky, hot, and rainy mountain roads in Colombia.  At the time, all I could think about was how much work it was.  Strangely enough, I think that is a good thing.

The jungle road from our campsite outside Melgar.

Work gets a bad rap.  Vacations are supposedly where the fun is at.  At the beginning of this journey we all framed Bound South as some time off, a missed harvest, a gap year, at the very least a departure from traditional work.  I envisioned it as some kind of strange adventure-vacation for a good cause.  Time changes minds, however, and now I proudly regard every day of this journey as a job.  While my more industrious peers are earning hefty salaries as they design widgets, consult companies, or recklessly gamble with your retirement savings, I have an unpaid internship in bicycle adventuring.

Cows eke out a living on the steep mountainsides near Pitalito.

The job description is simple but demanding.  There is ample work and leisure, but both are ruthlessly scheduled.  Sleep ten hours every night in a tent, if you are lucky.  Rise with the sun.  Eliminate the terrifying insects that collect on your belongings.  Enjoy your oatmeal, again.  Ride your loaded bicycle at least 100 kilometers, regardless of weather, terrain, or other conditions.  Cover at least four degrees of latitude per week to hit Ushuaia on time.  Consume at least 4,000 calories a day to avoid withering away.  Meet and speak with interesting people.  Receive marriage propositions from beautiful South American women.  Decline them (for now).  Never turn down gifts of food or shelter.  Capture wonderful things with your camera.  Compress all of it into writing.

Sleepless, mosquito-infested, 80 degree humid camping is hard.

Six months in, this is a lot of work.  It is not always fun, but it is fulfilling.  This is an important distinction, similar to the distinction between happiness and joy.  Bound South abounds in the small joys of bicycle travel, but fun and happiness are far from guaranteed amenities.  Stress, homesickness, exhaustion, bitterness, and despair all creep in when these Andes rise up before you.  They sometimes cloud the clear vision of endless American landscapes or the quiet moments that we share with new families and friends.  Yet this is surely the work of Bound South, struggling against the mortal frailties of bicycle travel in order to see the human beauty of the Americas.  It is work that we strive towards against all odds, even when it isn’t fun or easy, climbing mountains with the same attitude that we used to pick rocks from North Dakotan farm fields.

A preview of the mountain roads to come.

Trivia

Trivia_is_defined as insignificant or unessential matters, as well as obscure and useless knowledge. It is derived from the Latin words tri, “three,” and via, “ways.” In Roman times trivia would describe an intersection of three roads. At this point there would be kiosks and places to post information for travelers that was frequently ignored. We have made our obscure and useless knowledge into a game for you all, a chance to learn more about us and prove how well you know us. If you wish to keep score you may create your own scoring rubric and compete with other readers.

Choose the best answer to the following questions:

Me Gusta!

1. Choose the things, ordered from most important to least important, that we find most pleasing.

a) showers, tailwinds, laundry, free food

b) laundry, free food, tailwinds, showers

c) free food, showers, laundry, tailwinds

A wild ‘X’ appeared!

2. Which animal has eluded us in our travels?

a) Boa Constrictor

b) Crocodile

c) Grizzly Bear

d) Iguana

Adjusting brakes on a steep descent.

Como se llama?

3. What is the name of Isaiah’s bicycle?

a) Angus

b) Charlet

c) Hereford

d) Burly

4. What is the name of our Mariachi band?

a) Chupacabra Scramble

b) Tres Leches

c) Sangre de los Niños

d) Viva Oxxo!

Cyclist Badges

5. Identify the owner of the following tan lines:

a)

b)

c)

6. Whose calf is that!?

a)

b)

c)

You heard it hear first

7. Who is the speaker of the following quotes, and which location best suits the quote?

a) “Guys, we just dropped twenty G’s on ice cream.”

b) “I have bean juice all over me.”

Now that you are breathing hard from intense thought we hope you picked up some useless facts about us. We’ve had six months in the saddle and we are accumulating the marks of the road. Our callow skin has grown tough and tan, and our muscles are starting to match our spirits. With the Andes towering over us it couldn’t have come at a later time.

Highlight text below for answer key:

1. c
2. c
3. a
4. b
5. a) David, b) Nathan, c) Isaiah
6. a) David, b) Isaiah, c) Nathan
7. a) David, in Aipe, Colombia, b) Isaiah in Monarch Sanctuary in Mexico

Mailbag Monday #11

Today_we_continue our Mailbag Monday series…

Dear David,

Hi.  My name is Kristi.  I like that you are trying to raise money to build homes for the poor.  It is very kind to help others.  Ms. Stoltz is my teacher.  She told us about you.  I hope you have a safe trip.  Thank you for helping others.

Sincerely,

Kristi

Black and white image of Lago de Atitlán

Dear Kristi,

It’s wonderful to hear from you.  You are absolutely right about helping others.  Leading a virtuous life through service and leadership is incredibly important.  Before this trip, I learned much about myself and how to best help others during my involvement in various high school activities.  Students Today Leaders Forever and Fill the Dome were two of these, and are two great examples of how students can become engaged in servant leadership.

I encourage you to find ways to lead and serve throughout your life.  You will grow and prosper as an individual, student, and citizen. I know I have.

Thanks for your letter!

Sincerely,

David

In America

Our_leap_to_Colombia used a famous foreign destination as its stepping-stone, a strange land where we were cultural and lingual outsiders: Miami.  Though it was only a matter of months since we last had touched US soil, our brief layover in the States had a surreal character about it.  We were all casually speaking English again with complete strangers in that gregarious American way that is so dear to my heart. The cleanliness beside well-lit streets, the bright colors of the buildings, the gleam of infrastructure, the simplicity of clean water from a sink, and the cheeky consumerism of the city all swept over me.  “Your wife is hot,” pronounced the emboldened interstate billboard advertisement, continuing in the fine print, “Buy her a new A/C.”

Momentary road block due to construction meant an early lunch for us in Colombia

We enjoyed the blessings of a brief home stay, a warm bed, and a home-cooked meal.  We even sang for our supper which you should be able to find on our Facebook page.  And as quickly as we had become strangely reacquainted with a familiar world, we boarded a plane bound for the cool, stormy, high mountains of Colombia.  After assembling our bicycles in the lobby of a very patient hotel, we moved south and are now bound for a region known as Trampolin de los Muertos, literally the Trampoline of Death, a reputation earned by its spectacularly steep, twisty, and remote mountain roads.  These are the roads that keep us up at night and that we wake up for in the morning.  This reminds me that we could improve our record with regards to waking up early in the morning and climbing mountains.  We obviously have much left to learn between here and Argentina.

Goliath disassembled

Unpacking Angus

An education isn’t merely about the acquisition of knowledge, nor is it necessarily just about critical thinking.  William Deresiewicz wrote an essay once about leadership and intellectualism that I found very compelling, in part because it pointed to the profound orientation that results from a liberal education.  It is certainly important to know things and to hone your abilities to deploy one’s intelligence and acumen.  Yet it is also important to think about the right things.  And so with every kilometer of solitude, and the privileges of time to read good book and speak with local people that we meet, we see the world and ourselves a little differently with every day of riding.  Buried in the debris of our scattered thoughts comes a realization: that with every passing day as travelers, the unknown mountain roads of these strange lands have become home to roaming souls and minds.

Go South, Young Man

I_revel_in_the moments of clarity and consciousness that adorn this bicycle expedition.  They vary from random echoes of abstract college lectures to personal acquaintance with the far-reaching consequences of history, governance, institutions, and culture across the Americas.  I marvel at the great forces of the Earth that produced Central American cliffs and prismatic lakes.  Other times I simply consider all of our weathered faces and wonder what great forces have already shaped us as well.

Spectacle of the year: Gringo showers in the town square.

Flying down the hot and muggy coastal plains of Chiapas on our bicycles, I remember one night camping outside of Juchitan.  As twilight fell mosquitoes converged upon us as we haplessly scrambled down dirt roads looking for a secluded field to pitch our tent amidst the bogs.  In nearly perfect darkness we swatted at mosquitoes and finally rode to an unlocked gate, our salvation.  We danced something wicked with a plague of mosquitoes for 45 seconds while we hastily ripped our bags from our bicycles and threw on long sleeve pants and shirts to protect us from bites and the risk of malaria.  It was still 87 degrees Fahrenheit outside and would not fall much below that overnight.  We sweated through our shorts and shirts until we were able to strip them off in the safety of an (almost) bug-proof tent.  We killed and/or threatened a few impossibly large insects and spiders and attempted a restless night of sleep despite the hum of the mosquito vanguard and the uncomfortable heat of the tropical coast.

Moving quick to flee the morning mosquitos.

Glancing at David and Nathan above the glow of our camp stove, precariously insulated above the floor of our three-man tent, I couldn’t help but notice how worn out they looked.  The countless days of wind, rain, sunburn, and 8,000 miles of sweat showed on their faces along with exhaustion, discomfort, and excitement at the imminent rice-and-beans dinner we were preparing.  I will never forget their unguarded faces because they represent the kind of men I have as brothers: men who would work against great difficulty and discomfort in pursuit of a good thing, and bask in the glow of our camp stove as if we had arrived at a luxury estate for a night of rest.

Fun fact: the white concrete of the underpass is cool on a hot day.

The most important changes since Alaska have been more than skin deep.  I know already of intangibles that we will take with us when our road ends in Argentina.  For example, we will never see distance nor our capabilities in the same way.  Topography will be forever inseparable from the character of a place and its people.  It will be a sin to not live simply; after nearly a year with three bags and a bicycle, we have all come to better understand what we truly need and what makes us happy.  Our brotherhood will be stronger, with a greater love and understanding of one another’s weaknesses and greatest hopes.  We will still be hopelessly in love with peanut butter, Mexican Coca-Cola, and downhill signs.  Yet as I glanced at our tired faces, I admit that the positive intangibles weren’t on my mind.  Instead, I was coming to face the tradeoffs and costs of this bicycle expedition for the first time.  We were riding fast through the oppressive heat of the southern Mexican coast, averaging nearly 150k a day in order to make up time lost to illness and the lonely roads of the Mexican highlands.  Our intermittent phone calls home were always laced with the uncomfortable questions of our pace and goals, and whether we’d be home in May in time to see our sister graduate from high school.  I sat in the tent with my two brothers, all of us pushed to our limits, and imagined the long road to Tierra del Fuego that we were bound to.  This is a dream and adventure with great opportunity and great cost.

Endless steep climbs and switchbacks near Lago Atitlán.

This is ours to shape.  And so we made a decision to fly from Guatemala City to Bogotá, Colombia.  Originally, we were to continue 1,000 miles further south to Panama City where we would use a plane or boat to cross the impassable jungle of the Darién Gap.  That was going to be our bridge to South America.  This represents a great leap for us, one which we considered very carefully.  Would we diminish this journey by missing a part of Central America?  Would we look back and regret the leap forward?  Ultimately, we all deeply wanted to continue on our bicycles to Panama.  The costs and tradeoffs were too great to bear, however.  Simply moving up our necessary flight can make an immense difference for us.  With this relatively small step to Colombia, we can ride strong and fast in the hopes of making it home to see our sister graduate from high school.  We have more time and flexibility to explore the spectacular mountains and villages of Colombia, Peru, and Patagonia.  With any luck, we’ll be able to explore the vast richness of the South American continent and still return home to begin the next chapter of our lives with friends and family in good time.  It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s the one we’ve got and we’re riding with it all the way to Ushuaia.

Sunset over Lago Atitlán.

The shores of Panajachel.

There are no empty places between Alaska and Argentina.  We will miss a great deal in Central America, but we will also gain that much more in South America.  Just two days of riding in Guatemala brought us the heat of the lowlands, friendly encounters with Guatemalan police, breathtaking vistas of what might be the world’s most beautiful lake and some of the most incredibly difficult riding of our journey across the steep canyons and broken roads of Guatemala’s mountains.  Perhaps we were rewarded for our new plans with a month’s worth of difficulty and beauty, crammed into two days of riding.

When the road disappears in front of you, have faith and ride on.

Saying good-bye and climbing high away from the lake.

Many things have changed since leaving Alaska.  The dream hasn’t.  We are bound for the Andes of South America and a long, unbroken road to Ushuaia.  We hope you’ll continue to follow us there.

If we made it this far, we can make it to Ushuaia.