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Posts tagged ‘mountains’

Away from the Andes

I_like_mountains.  Having grown up on the flat, windswept Upper Great Plains, the mountains always captivated me growing up. I’ll never forget the first year I ever saw the Rockies, when I was in 7th grade, after sitting in our family’s Suburban and driving 12 hours to reach Bozeman, MT.  Sitting in a bucket seat and looking out of the window, it seemed otherworldly to see majestic, snow-capped peaks rising out of the Earth.  To this day, the scale and grandeur of mountains has that effect on me.

One of our last high altitude views of the Andes in Ecuador

Low lying clouds and dramatic light are the cause for this other worldly scene.

Needless to say, the Andes of South America have certainly impressed us.  Yet we have left them for a time, trading long climbs through alternating cool rain and blistering heat for the consistent headwinds of the Peruvian coast.  The gateway to Peru from Ecuador in Macará brought us to a new country and people but also to a new climate and terrain.  Lush mountain vegetation turned to a lowland jungle of sorts, flat as a plate of glass aside from the ominous spine of the Andes that stretches beside us to the East.  Moving south of Tambo Grande, the soil soon turned to sand and the trees to sagebrush and chaparral.  Soon we were in Peru’s long coastal desert, fighting strong headwinds from the south and with no apparent end in sight.  It is amazing how quickly a bicycle can transport you between different natural environments.

At face value, it doesn’t seem like riding through a flat and windy desert would hold much appeal.  Why trade the cool mountain air and spectacular mountain vistas for a hot headwind?  A simple answer would be: “it’s easier”.  We fought all day, every day to maintain our pace through the mountains, climbing over consecutive mountain passes and breathing a sigh of relief if we managed to get 100k done in a day.  In the flatlands outside of Chiclayo, even with a headwind, we got a 9AM start and rode in a motivated paceline throughout the day, with the front rider rotating and breaking the wind for the others.  We had nearly 100k done by lunchtime, and 180k done by the time darkness fell and we found a cheap hostel to shower and sleep through the desert heat.

Terraced rice patties in northern Peru

The desert flatlands are conducive to a different kind of bicycle touring.  It’s about more than just how easy the miles are.  Mentally it is almost a totally different riding experience with my brothers.  In the mountains, it is as if each of us are fighting an individual battle against gravity and wind.  We are thoroughly alone with our heavy bicycles and the sound of rhythmic breathing and the feel of sweat and exhaustion.  It is as if the mountains put your mind and body in isolation, not only from the world but also from one another.  In the mountains, Bound South is an ensemble split into rooms of overworked soloists, working alone, together.

Straight, flat, quiet, and calm conditions equate to new speed records. 180 kilometers

We had to leave the mountains to regain that feeling of a choir again.  Suddenly the miles come easier, and the hum of the tires and the whistle of the wind molds three bicycles into one organic whole.  The effort of one on the front is the shield of the two behind, with each pull an individual strength that is sacrificed to move the group forward more quickly than we could ever accomplish individually.  It’s kind of cool and a luxury that most bicycle tourists cannot afford.  Yet the flatlands are about more than the speed of the riding as well.  We are afforded more time to talk by the loosened constraints of miles and time.  In Tambo Grande, we met a wonderful and gregarious woman named Gloria who soon introduced us to her accomplished nieces and nephews, all studying a variety of engineering at the local university in Piura.  We had time to sit and talk for hours and over lunch the next day.  She begged us to stay another day so that we could meet her other niece, the one with “strong, muscular legs and a thin waist who made all the men go crazy when she danced the samba (and her overprotective mother).”  Unfortunately, the time had come to go.  The experiences we have with people are made richer when we can afford to spend more time with them.

The desert around Trujillo

We won’t be here long.   A remarkable canyon road to the highest mountains of the Andes will take us soon to Huaraz from the coast.  But for the time being, we relish the togetherness and the speed that comes from bicycling through lowlands.

Shut Up Legs

A_surly,_hard-as-nails German professional cyclist named Jens Voight was once asked what he tells his legs to do when he’s hurting in a race.  His response?  “Shut up legs.”  One might think that after many thousands of miles our legs would be silent killers, mashing fat-kid watts and dancing on the pedals to soar over the Andes.  Yet another cycling maxim comes to mind, Lemond’s famous quotation: “It doesn’t get easier, you just get faster.”  And so it goes for us, except the “faster” part might be a little dubious.

Flying down rough mountain descents; bad pavement can be dangerous.

Most people have no idea what it is like to pedal a bicycle all day, day after day.  We certainly didn’t before August.  We had no collective touring experience before we drove up to Anchorage to begin this project.  Our early days of bicycle touring in Alaska provide constant memories and comic relief to this day.  I was a competitive cyclist before Bound South but that doesn’t make Angus any less of a big, fat, heavy monstrosity to pedal uphill.  We aren’t looking for pity, just understanding.  Every day is a pretty hard day at Bound South; not so hard that we doubt ourselves, never so easy that we take anything for granted.  Cycling is 99% physical; what you can do is what you can do.  The mental 1% is small but pivotal; if Bound South were the Death Star, it would be the uncovered thermal exhaust port.  If your head is in the right place the human body is capable of some miraculous things.  If not, you might have a date with a proton torpedo.  A good mind alone can’t get you to Argentina; that’s why “dreamt” isn’t the same as “done”.  But bad mental states can certainly keep you from it.  A good mind is necessary but insufficient.

There's a cow out at the pasture! Time to go fencing, right Dad?

The number one challenge I have encountered in protecting my “mental game” is compartmentalization.  With cycling in general, and a bicycle expedition in particular, it is almost impossible to separate your mental outlook from the environment being pedaled through.  It’s hard enough to wake up at some ungodly hour to pedal through cold rain for a few hours for training or, heaven forbid, for fun.  It’s even harder when you don’t have a choice, when “home” is an MSR tent, and when the end of your ride will guarantee no more comforts than the beginning.  A common thread in all athletics is a powerful and intoxicating self-awareness of the body; it’s strength, coordination, exhaustion, performance, and recovery.  The experience of disciplined athletic training for the first time is akin to pulling aside a dashboard curtain and seeing the gauges of your car for the first time.  Once you’ve seen it once, you’re forever aware and would never go without it again.  So it goes with us; we attend constantly to the sensations of our bodies, fueling and refueling and feeling the sensations in our legs as we move southwards.  On a bicycle expedition, however, countless other concerns compete for my mental space along with the stresses of our bodies.  Some of it is trivial, like the  countless decisions we make on the road about where we will rest, where we will eat, and where we will camp for the night.  Other things are easily taken for granted, like the water we used to get from the tap.  Acquiring 20 liters of reliable, cheap, purified water to get us through the day is just one of many small details that get lost in the noise of these concerns.  Sometimes I wish that Bound South could just be about riding our bicycles and taking pretty pictures.  That’s the fun stuff and it’s not hard to handle even on the hard days; though the stress can leave you vulnerable.  Minutiae accumulate like pebbles in a stream, and they can bring you to the brink before you recognize it.  Once you are tired, thirsty, and battling a headwind for 180 kilometers on the Peruvian cost it is more understandable when a flat tire at dusk makes you want to throw Angus into a river.

Szczerbiak has never, ever been this clean since leaving California.

These Ecuadorean climbs went on, to quote a farm kid from Eastern Washington, "basically forever."

The key is always to keep your eye on the prize.  Every kilometer done is one less between us and home.  We’re certainly not tired of this journey; it’s a privilege unlike anything I have ever experienced before.  But the end in Ushuaia is what makes every day so significant and what pushes us to ride southwards with a lot of heart.  Live like you’re dying, ride like you’re flying back from Argentina in May.  In the meantime, we’ll just tell the legs to shut up and enjoy the ride until the wheels fall off.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Out of Oregon

Thematically, Bound South is an adventure beyond the shadow of a doubt.  If one were to write the book, it would not be a placid Walden on wheels.  A life by bicycle is not one of boundless mental reflection and meditation; it is actually a life missing its comfortable dose of autopilot.  We are overloaded with the sounds and smells of the world and the subtleties of the sympathetic nervous system, listening to the engines of our body and attending constantly to the biology of hunger, thirst, and joy.  There are moments of exhilaration; the car that passes too close, the lost connection of fast wheels in loose dirt, and the magical descents when your disc brakes can run cold in a wheeled emulation of flight.

Red Dirt Descent down Forest Service Development Road 60

Lest I give you the wrong impression, however, this is no thriller novel.  There are some moments of climactic choice; whether to take the ditch at the sound of an oncoming 18-wheeler, to take uncertain forest roads versus sterile and certain highways, and whether to seize the $1.88 tortilla chips in the constant battlefield of the grocery aisle or rather cede victory to the twin nemeses of Hunger and Budget.  Our maxim has become, “When in doubt, choose adventure and choose food.”  There is enough oscillation between meditation, exhilaration, and simple self-preservation to occupy the mind for a lifetime of riding.  If you don’t believe me, just get outside and ride your bike.

Camping at Cultus Lake at high altitude. Too cold to swim.

Leaving Bend was no easy task.  Getting to Crater Lake National Park was at least as difficult.  The most extensive and difficult climbs of our journey made each day a trial of our accumulated strength.  Holding to our word and our maxim, we “chose adventure” through the Deschutes and Umpqua National Forests, eschewing the paved roads off of the Cascade Lakes Highway and instead traversing some of the most impassable and spectacular forest service roads we had ever seen.  The Trolls were made for this, after all.  One only has to climb up to 6,000 ft. Windigo Pass with a heavy bike on sandy single-lane dirt to appreciate what we faced on just one afternoon in central Oregon.

Stopped and stood for a while at the rim of Crater Lake. Also too cold to swim.

What goes up must come down, and we earned every single vertical foot that brought us up to the wonder of the world known as Crater Lake.  Thousands of feet deep, Crater Lake rests as the remnant of a volcanic collapse from an ancient era, ringed by park roads and campsites closed for the proximate winter.  It was absurd to ride our bicycles over nearly 8,000-foot-high Crater Lake in late October, a blessing of a warm sun and clear skies.

Lodgepole pine remnants from the Davis Fire of a decade past.

 

We hope and pray for more pleasant absurdities between here and Argentina, such as the outhouse we used to cook oatmeal in when our campsite froze overnight west of Prospect.  Or the reappearance of my awesome tan lines.

Tan-lines too marvelous for words.

We ride on for California and continue a dogged but sustainable pace, stopping to rest and reflect in equal measure with our adventures and absurdities.  Why we ride will always be the critical thread that moves with us to Argentina and will one day bring us home.

The long road to Crater Lake over old volcanic ash.

Bicycle Cowboys on Ice

Housekeepers from a lodge in Lake Louise found us behind a nondescript parking lot in the village.  They were some British Columbian girls on their way home from work.  We were huddled around our MSR stove waiting on our pasta noodles and Campbell’s Chunky Prime Rib & Vegetable soup.  Due to a closed campground, and the threat of a $2,000 fine, we were planning on stealth-camping in the trees down by the Bow River.  “You guys are like bicycle cowboys!”  I guess we are.

Taking a short break from climbing out on the cold Icefields.

It has been a wild ride from Jasper.  Like so much of the journey thus far from Alaska, it has been composed of unexpected blessings and the absence of what some might call “responsible planning.”  It all began in the town of Jasper; we arrived wet, cold, hungry, and later than expected.  This is par for the course for Bound South.  We spent more than an hour looking for an evening church service as well as a shelter to pitch our tent under.  We didn’t like the idea of spending $25 or more for a patch of cold and exposed campground dirt far from town.  We stumbled upon an evening service at a Baptist Church and before we knew it we had a place to stay.

Gratuitous yawning.

Thinking that this was too good to be true, we felt that we should be as ambitious as possible with our day of rest.  Ideally, we would be ambitious with a combination of minimal planning and abundant risk.  We are bicycle cowboys after all.  Naturally, our “rest day” consisted of hiking up 3,000 feet of vertical on Whistlers Mountain outside of Jasper.  The recommended time for doing this hike was a minimum of three hours up and two hours down.  We were up and down in three hours total, which was fortunate because it was freezing and windy at the top and we returned home in the dark.  Running up and down a mountain takes a toll on the human body and our only serious adaptation has been to riding our bikes.  Needless to say, our legs got wrecked from all of the fun we had on our rest day.

Hiking closer to the summit of Whistlers.

Walking around like crippled men, unable to descend a set of stairs without crying, the three of us pressed on from Jasper to ride the Icefields Parkway.  I don’t wish to impoverish the beauty of these Canadian Rockies by attempting to describe them.  I’ll let the pictures do the talking.  Life on the road was memorable to say the least.  We found ourselves camping in campgrounds that were shut for the winter, tenting in open shelters and braving subzero temperatures at night.  With a three-season-tent and a decent supply of cold weather gear, we were never in danger; though we did wear everything we had in order to stay warm in our tent through the night.  I am looking forward to (hopefully) warmer temperatures in the States.

Unforgettable cold crosswinds on Sunwapta Pass.

The Icefields brought us some of our highest climbs of the trip, with Bow Pass and the Columbia Icefield taking us up to nearly 7,000 feet of elevation.  Remarkably, that was within 500 feet of the summit of our Whistlers hike, which gives you some perspective as to how much we climbed.  The Icefields also acquainted us with 40mph crosswinds like we had never seen before.  With our bikes fully loaded they behave like heavy sails.  This is no exaggeration: we climbed the last segment of Sunwapta Pass with our bikes leaned over more than 45 degrees into the wind to avoid being blown across the road and into traffic.  We will probably meet crosswinds like this again in Patagonia, and luckily we have plenty of time between now and then.

The Icefields were cold but worthwhile.

The road since the Icefields has not disappointed, either.  Lake Louise brought us rest and an unexpected home stay with some housekeepers.  The road into Radium brought us some spectacular climbs and descents, including some hairy encounters with mountain goats at 45 mph on the winding descent through mountain roads flanked by cliffs on all sides.  And what would tent camping be without being greeted by deer in the morning?

One of our morning visitors.

We might get wet and cold and discouraged at different points of the ride.  Yet we believe in ourselves.  Deep down, we buy into this “bicycle cowboy” thing.  We have paid our dues, climbed our mountains, and watched our bodies change and adapt even in the short six weeks since we left Alaska.  We ride knowing we’re up to the task at hand, even if it means we’re shattered by the time we finish riding by the light of our headlamps barely find the strength to sit down to a home stay and a heaping bowl of spaghetti.

America the Beautiful beckons to us already.  As Kerouac writes, “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”

Reward after a long, cold, and rainy descent.

Brothers

The first thing that people notice on our business cards is the tagline for Bound South: Three Brother’s Expedition from Alaska to Argentina.  Immediately they gaze in awe at the three of us.  However, it is not the 30,000 kilometers separating Alaska and Argentina that shocks them.  It’s the fact that we’re doing this with one another as brothers.

Taking a rest day in Jasper, hiking 3000 ft. of vertical.

“You three must get along pretty well, huh?”  No, I like to say that we hit rock bottom somewhere in the mid ’90s.  Our parents may attest to this.  The tipping point was the winter of 1997.  Nathan and I buried David up to his head in the mountain of snow on the edge of our farmstead and convinced him that we had left him there to die in the imminent blizzard.  Good times.  Since this relationship is incapable of further deterioration, I figured that my brothers were a safe bet for a year-long bicycle expedition.  Blood is thicker than water.  On this trip we have discovered that blood is also thicker than sweat, Gatorade, Tang, and the delicious jelly filled with glass shards that I recommended to David in Alaska.  “Countercultural” might be an epithet in our home state, but I think we fit the definition pretty well.  I don’t know how many siblings would voluntarily choose this path that we’ve taken.

On some level, I think that fact is a small tragedy of modern America.  America reaps the fruits of individualism, mobility, and pluralism.  You can be who you want to be and escape the traditional confines of your family or region to find your community, whether in the real world or in cyberspace.  When relationships suffer, it is far too easy to withdraw, escape, and move to an environment with less friction.  Society can freely atomize and self-sort into stagnation.

The Heisman

Yet perhaps this is just mild self-aggrandizement.  The three of us are lucky to have brotherhood and friendship that is more than duty or obligation.  I attribute this blessing to the years we have spent working together on our family farm in Starkweather, ND.  Occasionally, we were jealous of our peers with their summers of liberty and we resented the family farm for it.  We look back now and wouldn’t trade it for anything.  When you have work together and live together, inseparable from planting to harvest, you can’t walk away from your problems and you have to learn to love one another.  We have strong family bonds to show for it.  There is a powerful, sustaining magic in kinship of which we have only begun to scratch the surface.  I hope that this magic can be made evident here at Bound South and perhaps rediscovered in the lives of our readers.