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Posts by Isaiah Berg

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.

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.

Mailbag Monday #10

Today_we_continue our Mailbag Monday series…

Dear Isaiah,

How are you doing?  is it fun working with your brothers?  How long have you been doing this?  My name is Marissa im in 3rd grade my favriote color is pink.

Sincerely,

Obviously, only amateur cyclists are prohibited from this highway stretch.

Dear Marissa,

I’m doing very well, thank you!  Doing this with my brothers is quite amazing to tell you the truth; it isn’t always easy and fun, but there is nobody else I would rather have with me on this adventure.  We’re outside the border between Mexico and Guatemala right now, which is very exciting because it seems like just yesterday we entered Mexico from San Diego, California.  This journey is going by very fast, that is for sure; we left from Alaska on our bicycles on August 11th, 2011.  Five and a half months later, here we are!  We have some big plans in the works; next week we will fly to Colombia to continue our journey on the South American continent.  We will finish at the southern tip of Argentina in the city of Ushuaia at the end of May.  I may have written this before, but the Argentinian flag is blue and white, and blue happens to be my favorite color (with green a close second)!  Enjoy the rest of your 3rd grade year, Marissa!  My 3rd grade teacher was Mrs. Jamsa, and I have always thought she was pretty awesome.  I kind of miss 3rd grade, especially recess.

Sincerely,

Isaiah

Hidden, Silver City

Get_lost_with_someone_that_you_love_when_you get the chance.  Saddle up and ride someplace unfamiliar.  This place does not have to be a world away.  A different part of town could suffice, maybe one state over.  Keep in mind that this is not some New Age quest for self-knowledge.  It is about getting to know one another better, loosed from the constraints of familiarity and the status quo.  There’s the saying about character being who you are when nobody is looking.  I’d add that brotherhood is about who you are when you are all hopelessly lost in the dirt-and-rock mountain roads of Guerrero.

Nathan getting the job done in the hot Mexico sun.

A typical conversation from our Guerrero odyssey was as follows:

“Isaiah, where are we?”
“I don’t know, heading towards the sun?”
“How do we know we’re going the right way?”
“We don’t.  I can’t even read much less pronounce the road signs.  Tequesquipan?  Huitzoltepec?  Xochihuehuetlan?  Ahuehuetitla?”
“Isaiah, go ask that guy for directions.”
*minutes later*
“He said we are a long way from Taxco, much too far to ever ride by bicycle, and he couldn’t place us on a map.  He suggested turning left?”

I wish I had one of these. A truck to tow me uphill, a cow, or both.

We’ve been through a lot together as brothers, both before and during Bound South.  Wrong turns were a surprising first for us in the Mexican state of Guerrero.  Moving south of Valle de Bravo we had finally shaken off our serious bouts of illness.  We meant business. When mountain climbs can take upwards of three or four hours to complete, these mistakes can prove very costly.  On more than one occasion we found ourselves backtracking or getting navigationally creative in order to reach Taxco.  As the Bound South maxim goes, “When in doubt, choose adventure.”  What they don’t tell you about adventure is that the real deal is awfully stressful.  You quickly learn how important it is to guard yourself against your own anxieties and frustrations and exhaustion lest they spill over and affect your comrades.  It’s easy to take family for granted, especially when they are stuck with you on bicycles for a year.  Sorry, bro, no escape.

The silver city family gave us an apprenticeship in jewelry making.

We got lost but we found a little more about ourselves and each other in the end.  We made it to Taxco, the hidden silver city of Guerrero.  The Spanish came here for the silver centuries ago, and now that the mines have long since shuttered, the city thrives on tourism and the unparalleled artisan jewelers that have plied their trade here for decades.  We managed to meet a couple in a market; the husband a contractor and the woman a jewelry dealer.  Before we knew it we were camping in the shell of their unfinished garage on a hillside overlooking the city, and staying up way past our bedtime with a giant Mexican family and singing mariachi songs over a campfire.  Get lost and some magic might find you as well.

Climb a mountain side all day and move from one small world to another.

Affirmation

We_know_why we ride.  You know how you help.  Yet it wasn’t until a few days ago that we truly understood why we share.  More specifically, I didn’t fully grasp the value in parking our bicycles in an unfamiliar city and stumbling through countless streets and Spanish conversations in search of an elusive internet connection, known in these parts as WiFi (pronounced wee-fee).  To be certain, we love the opportunity to sit in the comforts of a café or restaurant and connect with the world.  Yet from the very beginning of this journey I had a tinge of uncertainty about Bound South as it exists on the web, sharing all of the minutiae of a Pan-American bicycle expedition.

WiFi with a view in Taxco

This uncertainty was a part of my broader discomfort with social media and internet culture as it currently stands.  We live in a world that is increasingly about copying rather than innovating, and  sharing rather than doing.  I was afraid of how the act of posting our photography, writing, and experiences would color how we lived each and every day of this journey.  Would we act differently, write differently, or change the nature of our journey for our audience?  Would our connectivity isolate us from the people and places we encounter?  As I sit in a café and write this post, I see countless people streaming past the window in front of me, each offering their own story or portrait of the world they inhabit.  How much richness will I miss between Alaska and Argentina while fumbling through my memories and sensations?  The thoughts and conversations of one day spent riding with my brothers through these strange lands are enough to bury my feeble attempts to log them.  I gave up journaling before I even started (David’s religious consistency with nightly journaling continues to amaze me).

Climbing through a valley in the western highlands of Mexico

I gave Bound South a chance.  I reasoned that the social pressure to assure family of our survival and to share our experiences with the world would ensure a rigorous schedule of reflection.  I was willing to bear the costs to our “authenticity” whatever they may be.  Five months later, I know we made the right decision.  Our connections with the outside world are limited to a couple of times every week when we stumble upon an internet café.  This is simply not enough time to distract us from our experience (or to assure our family of our daily safety).  Our time spent writing in comfort has been a necessary respite from long mountain climbs, navigational uncertainty, exhaustion, and the nitty gritty of our adventure.  Our website is also our vehicle for collecting donations and advancing our cause.  A few days ago, WordPress decided to feature us as among the best of the 700,000+ posts that are shared on the web every single day.  Comments and traffic and messages have poured in, and we are overwhelmed with a sense of humility and gratitude.

In the end this isn’t about us.  This is about our journey and our cause.  Yet Bound South will always be bound up in who we are as brothers; David in his youthful boldness, Nathan in his calm mentorship, and myself in my sharp wit and incredible good looks.  What we are doing is compelling, dangerous, and uncommon.  We can’t deliver you stylized and idealized travel guides, or depictions of heavenly Latin American cuisine.  We can only promise you our world, a world that is raw, mortal, and perilous; but it is shot through with love, courage, and the laughter that only brothers can enjoy on a long road to Argentina.

Thank you for sharing that world with us.  We take so much joy in this journey and the privilege of sharing it with you.  Your donations, messages, and comments sustain us whenever we have the chance to see them.

Mailbag Monday #8

Today_we_continue our Mailbag Monday series…

Dear Isaiah,

My name is Halley I just love to ride bike.  Wat are you doing this for?  Probly for something good.  Wat is your faveret food?  Wat’s your favert coler?  Do you like to ride bike?  Do you get exhausted?  I get exhausted sumtimes when i ride bike around the block.

Your frend,

Halley

Greetings on a cobblestone road in Mexico

Dear Halley,

I am so glad to hear that you love riding your bicycle.  I hope you love bicycles for the rest of your life; I know I will!  My brothers and I are riding our bicycles to Argentina on behalf of Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity.  We want to build a home for a needy family.  I think that’s something good, and I hope you agree.

My favorite color is blue (though green is a close second) and I like riding bike a lot.  I would be crazy to do this if I didn’t.  Sometimes I get tired, but I’ve got my brothers with me so I can always push through.  When I was your age I remember riding a bicycle around a 10-mile loop at Itasca State Park in Minnesota with my family.  It is hard to imagine it now, but at the time I felt superhuman for completing that ride.  Keep pushing your limits, Halley, and you will amaze yourself someday.

Your friend,

Isaiah

Engine and Uncertainty

The_beauty_of a bicycle is also its vulnerability.  The beauty is that uncanny resemblance to flight, the nirvana of a smooth ride on an open road with the power of the human body and nothing more.  The bicycle’s humanity is its vulnerability to the frailty of the body and legs.  We are always at the mercy of winds and storms and the metal cages that whir past us every day.  Ghosts in a tired shell, our bodies need rest but sometimes even that isn’t enough.  The engine of the body breaks.  Back in Oregon I reflected that much of our mental space while riding is occupied by listening to our bodies.  Hunger, thirst, exhaustion, strength, health, and motivation all move across our minds as we ride.  We’ve been listening to the inputs since Alaska and one might think we’re experts at this point.  Hubris had me thinking I was an expert a few weeks ago.  There is no such thing, as the body is a fickle and complicated thing.  For the second time in the trip we’re battling engine failure: illness.

2000 vertical foot sunrise hike to see butterflies? Why not!

The first time was in Alaska.  Within a few days of leaving Anchorage, we were three rookies with a couple hundred miles in our legs and the Denali Highway and Alaska Range ahead of us.  Tendonitis appeared in my Achilles and in the knees of my brothers with terrific inflammation and pain during our rides.  We could have expected it considering how few miles we had on our touring bicycles before we left for Alaska.  Nathan clearly had the worst of it.  Outside of Tok, AK, the pain was so great that Nathan could barely crawl at 8mph and was unable to match our 80-mile-a-day pace.  Nathan rode in the back of a Californian’s RV to Whitehorse so that he could rest his knee and recover while David and I pressed on alone.  Without healing, Nathan could not continue, and I do not know what we would have done without him.  This was a very difficult time for us so early in our expedition.  We didn’t share our fears outside of our family.

Family pig takes a break in the pool from the afternoon sun.

After some extended rest with retired Catholic priests in Whitehorse, we pressed onwards through the Yukon.  Tendonitis disappeared.  We were tentatively thrilled with the miraculous recovery we experienced.  Nathan felt like he was riding gingerly for weeks, reveling in the pain-free riding but aware of how serious the condition would be if it returned.  We put all of that stress behind us once we reached the States and since then our bodies have felt like unstoppable, finely tuned riding machines.

We awoke before dawn to hike a mountain and see thousands of monarchs.

All it takes is a bout of illness to bring you back down to earth.  A head cold and ear infection derailed some of my more ambitious plans for the Central Highlands, costing us a few days of rest in Patzcuaro.  Now in Valle de Bravo, David and Nathan have encountered consecutive bouts of flu-like symptoms and food poisoning.  It has been an unfortunate distraction from the unforgettable memories of the Mexican Highlands.  This illness has no rhyme or reason, no apparent cause, nor any clear course of action.  All you can do it eat well and sleep and pray it is better tomorrow.  It is a powerful lesson in serenity.  Argentine winter is already beckoning to us as we hurtle towards the month of May.  We have a lot of hard miles ahead of us, especially in the high Andes.  Having lost nearly two weeks in the last month now to illness I fear for what else we may encounter between here and Ushuaia.  It is not in our hands in the end.  When we are well we will ride; this is all we can do, and it must be sufficient to cross these many small worlds leading to Argentina.

Gear: Rohloff

Our_Surly_bicycles attract a lot of attention, which can be attributed to both their “Agent Orange” paintjobs, the brightly colored Ortlieb bags that hang from them, and the gringos riding them.  A while ago we struck up a conversation with an employee of a grocery store who was moving carts in the parking lot.  He noticed our bicycles and asked about them.  At one point I was describing how protective we were of our steeds.  “These bicycles are our lives for a year.”  And it is true.

Campagnolo 39t road racing crank on the front. Italian. Mmmm.

Our wheels get a lot of attention as well, mainly because at first glance they appear like single-speed bicycle wheels.  Once you look closer, however, you notice the cable housings for the shifting mechanism and the oversized rear hub.  Enter the magic of the Rohloff: 14 speeds in an internally geared hub.  These German Schätzchen of ours get the job done, transporting us and our gear reliably, smoothly, durably, and as fast as our legs can handle.  Neil at Cycle Monkey took care of our Rohloff wheel build in California, assembling purpose-built wheels for our rugged expedition touring.  The Rohloff disc-compatible rear hub was paired with a Phil Wood disc-compatible hub on the front wheel, all laced with 32 strong spokes to Velocity’s Cliffhanger rims.

German engineering at its finest.

Let me indulge my inner bicycle nerd and explain to you what I love about these wheels.

  • Discs.  Disc brakes aren’t as sexy as rim brakes, but they work perfectly in all conditions.  They are strong.  The Avid BB7 brake pads last an eternity.  The rim experiences no wear from braking, and the bike stays cleaner.  Better yet, with the Troll, you can use disc brakes and fenders and racks simultaneously.
  • Maintenance.  Or rather, the lack thereof.  This stuff just works.  Our Rohloff runs a perfectly straight chainline from front chainring to rear cog.  Our Trolls have a strong, long-lasting chain that never has to be shifted.  We set the chain tension and oil/clean the chain every few days.  We change the oil of the Rohloff hub every 5,000 miles.  The chain and cog, like all good singlespeed combinations, last longer and stay cleaner and are cheaper to replace than conventional chains and cassettes.  After riding your bicycle all day, it is hard to describe what a luxury it is to not have to do any significant work on your bicycle.  It just works.
  • Performance.  Riding these wheels rocks.  The Rohloff has 14 evenly spaced gear ratios that enable us to crawl uphill with our heavy bags and fly down the other side of mountains without serious compromises.  The shifting always works, and with all of the indexing in the sealed rear hub, never has to be adjusted and only gets better with time.  A Rohloff is hub is a portly replacement for conventional derailleurs and other parts; but it’s worth its extra weight in gold.
  • Durability.  These wheels marry functionality to insane durability.  They pay a price in weight, to be sure; but on a Pan-American bicycle expedition there isn’t anyone counting the grams.  These wheels are very strong, such that we feel confident even on rocks, single-track, cobblestones, and dirt roads at speed.  The Rohloff has huge hub flanges laced symmetrically to the rear rim; the result is a wheel twice as strong as a traditional, off-set rear wheel even with extra spokes to compensate.   There are no derailleurs or guides to bend or fail.  Even if our cables were cut, the hub can be shifted manually with an allen wrench.  Velocity rims have a proven and well-deserved reputation for quality.
  • Simplicity.  The Germans put a bunch of complex engineering into a very simple final product.  A simple twist of the wrist is all it takes to shift up or down with perfect reliability.  There is one chain, one cog, and one chainring to worry about.  You can shift gears without pedaling, or while standing still.

    Beautiful and simple Phil Wood front ISO hub.

  • The best bicycle is the one you forget about as soon as you hop on.  Ideally there is nothing to distract from or diminish the ride.  That is how I feel about our wheels.  They aren’t cheap, but they just work.  I plan on enjoying the functionality, durability, simplicity, and craftsmanship of these wheels for the rest of my life.

Rohloff rear hub. Note the Troll's wondrous disc/rack/fender/Rohloff compatibility.

New Year, New World

We_awoke_in_our tent to the gentle rocking of a cargo ferry with mainland Mexico and the port city of Mazatlan on the horizon.  Impossibly thick ropes soon flew from the ship to secure it to the numerous huge pylons anchored on shore.  Following dozens of big rigs and their sleepless drivers, many of whom had slept on the cold hallway floors of the ship the night before, we rode our bicycles off the ferry and into the gateway to mainland Mexico.  We stopped at an auto garage to ask for directions to the Malecon, the shorefront main street of many Mexican port cities where we were meeting a North Dakota connection.  After receiving directions and some words of caution, we were assured by the mechanic that Mazatlan was a “satanic jungle” and that he would pray for our safety as we traveled through.  Someone should put that on a billboard or something.

Mild confirmation bias is our saving grace.  It is certainly possible that Mazatlan was the most dangerous city we’ve seen yet in Mexico.  We’re not so sure.  Our hosts in the city did drive me by a restaurant that had been shot up by the local mob after it didn’t pay its protection money.  The traffic and people were far from menacing, though they may have been in more of a rush than those on the Baja.  We’ve received dire warnings from other Mexicans about Mazatlan, and when we got to Mazatlan we received dire warnings about the places we passed through to get there.  Were it not for a careful optimism on our parts, we would have never braved the border at Tijuana.  We continue to absorb as much information as we can, even if it does little to alter our route or our conscious optimism about the road ahead.  If Mom and Dad are reading this, don’t worry, we’ll totally consider hitch hiking or something if a Latin American civil war breaks out in 2012.

I miss home and our family a great deal, accustomed as I was to spending this season with them.  The New Year has us all reflecting on the past year, especially the way that countless families have taken us in and made us feel like one of their own.  The Catholic Diocese of Whitehorse, the Coopers of Coeur d’Alene, the Pfeiffers of Portland, the Samuels of Santa Monica, the Taylors of San Diego, and the Salazars of Guadalajara are just a few of these.  Thank you all for what you’ve done for us.


December has foreshadowed the rest of our journey in 2012.  We’ve climbed some tremendous mountains in Mexico’s western highlands, and we respect the toll that it takes on our bodies.  The Andes will only be bigger, more challenging, and more spectacular.  I’ve dealt with illness for the first time since leaving Anchorage.  A dreadful headache became a cold and ear infection; sadly, I’m still recovering and the illness has cost us some time and miles.  Rest and health can’t be compromised, and once I’m healthy we’ll be riding strong once again.

The human and geographical diversity of the mainland is incredible.  Megacities and rural farming villages and beautiful lakes and mountains rise up at every turn.  Most of North America, even the Baja, has been defined by the vast, empty natural landscapes between places.  This New World brims with life and a constant human presence.  Riding a few mornings ago beside Lake Chapala, we struggled up an impossibly steep cobblestone climb for seven kilometers.  Every turn had us greeting another farmer or laughing child or family with a breathless “Buenos Dias” and a smile through gritted teeth.  It’s almost as if we’ve been practicing piano in the family room since leaving Alaska, and finally we’ve reached our recital and constant audience in the new world of mainland Mexico.  Sometimes we’re self-conscious, but most of the time we’re smiling, inspired, and excited for our next opportunity to inspire a stranger’s day with our story.

Hemingway once recounted in a conversation with a friend, A.E. Hotchner, that “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”  If there ever was a moveable feast, it is this bicycle expedition.  The sights and smells and sensations will linger and move with me long after we reach Ushuaia in Argentine winter.  In the meantime, I hope that you all find richness and love and a moveable feast of your own in 2012.