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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.