Reflections on a journey
On the 6th of August, 2011, with a mixture of expectation and trepidation, and accompanied by a leader and support van, 14 riders and two passengers set off from Anchorage, Alaska on an epic journey to the bottom of the world in Ushuaia, and on to Buenos Aires, Argentina. A week later, following a tragic, fatal accident, a non-riding related accident and what was a potentially serious riding accident, 11 riders emerged from the infamous Dalton Highway in a more sombre mood. With some hasty repairs in Fairbanks, one damaged bike was brought back to service and the twelve of us headed south for 20,000 miles.
With a renewed sense of reality of the consequences of a moment’s loss of concentration, unpredictable road surfaces or the impact of the actions of others outside of your control, this was not just a longer biking holiday with a few friends that we had all done in the past. We were about to experience, in the next 19 weeks, some breath-taking and truly varied landscapes from mountains to deserts to oceans, to ride some awesome roads and to face some challenging rough roads, landslides, suicidal drivers and animals, gale-force winds and torrential tropical rain, in temperatures from 0 – 47C.
This will be the concluding post of this journey, and will be a summary of my personal reflections on a long journey after a week of winding down in Buenos Aires. First of all I’d like to express my appreciation for all the words of encouragement I have received from many of you. For the motorcyclists among you I know that you have “ridden” many of the miles with me through the descriptions of the roads, and for the other travellers, through the photos and descriptions of the places I have visited and people I have met. This was mostly a personal diary but one I have been pleased to share with friends and family.
Many people have asked me what my favourite place was. This is impossible to answer as there is not a single criterion upon which one can make that judgment. There are many places to which I should like to return because of the landscape, the cultural activities or the people I have met, or all three. But also, the impression on the mind can be a consequence of the mood I was in on the day.
For spectacular scenery here are some of my most memorable scenes…..
The Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range, Alaska marks the Continental Divide and a sudden change in scenery in northern Alaska. Descending from the Atigun one drops into the North Slope and on to Prudhoe Bay, the northernmost settlement reachable by “road” in the Americas, and our first destination.
The Top of the World Highway, 130 miles long through Yukon, Canada was a challenge as it was entirely a gravel road, but the scenery was spectacular riding the mountain ridge with distant horizons, and almost entirely deserted.
After the remote Top of the World and the Al-Can highways in Alaska and Yukon, dropping into the relative civilization of Alberta the roads generally improved from here all the way to Arizona in the North American section. There were many opportunities to see mountains, glacial lakes and wildlife as we approached Jasper National Park and the Columbia Ice Fields.
Glaciers are always spectacular, although the Glacier National Park was devoid of them! As we reached the bottom of the Stewart – Cassier Highway, one of the most enjoyable roads I have ever ridden, we encountered the Alaskan panhandle of Stewart and Hyder with access to the salmon Glacier.
There was no shortage of mountain roads providing endless riding pleasure with eye pleasing views. Chief Joseph Pass and Bears Tooth Pass in Wyoming were particularly memorable in the northern USA section.
Yellowstone National Park is unforgettable, not only for its hot springs, geysers and huge lakes, but also for its size, taking several hours to drive across. Old Faithful is of course a major tourist attraction located outside of the Inn of the same name, but perhaps the more impressive scenes for me were the lake and Grand Canyon of Yellowstone from Artists’ Point.
Immediately south of Yellowstone you encounter the Grand Teton National Park, reflected in the lake. On a sunny day there is no possibility of just driving past. You have to stop and absorb the scene. This was one area that I was driving “off piste” to visit friends Kirby and Judy in Wyoming, south of Jackson.
The section through Colorado, Utah and Arizona included some of the most striking scenery with National Parks of Arches, Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon.
One of my most enduring memories was the road through Central Mexico. As we left the desert floor which extends from Arizona, we entered into a high mountainous area which was reminiscent of the Himalayas near Shimla which I had ridden a couple of years ago. I had not expected this scenery and the riding was fantastic, probably the best riding we did on the whole trip with 200 miles of twists and turns on good roads through cloud forest covered mountains on the way to Huejutla.
Entering Guatemala we encountered almost continuous volcanic features for the rest of Central America as typified by Lake Atitlan in Panajachel. Guatemala, along with Central and Southern Mexico occupy a very special place in my memories of Central America. The hard working and gentle Maya descendants were just a pleasure to be around. The old colonial town of Antigua Guatemala, the former capital, was a time capsule, 200 years old.
Panama was the first “modern” city we had seen for a while, since for the most part we had not visited the capital cities of the Central American countries. The contrast of the old and the new and the historic context as the centre of Spanish Colonial Rule made it special.
Colombia was memorable for some of the heaviest traffic we encountered, tight and twisty mountain roads but also for the quaint city of Popayan.
Ecuador was such a pleasant surprise. With good roads, the bustling and historic city of Quito and more volcanoes! The unforgettable Quito cathedral and the 2 hour guided tour were a highlight.
It is impossible to summarise Peru in a few worlds or pictures. Spending more than 2 weeks discovering the deserts, canyons, altiplano, cities and cultural sites of Nasca, Macchu Pichu and Lake Titicaca was not nearly enough to know the country, but provides a short list of places to revisit one day.
The vast deserts of Peru continue into Northern Chile. The Atacama is one of the driest places on earth. Hot during the day and below freezing at night, it presents a formidable landscape for man and animals.
Crossing between Chile and Argentine several times following the famous Carretera Austral and Ruta 40 we covered hundreds of miles of gravel and dirt roads through some spectacular landscapes volcanic ash clouds, mountains, glaciers and villages tucked away in remote areas.
The city of Santiago was a highlight of the trip – clean, modern, efficient.
The final push to Tierra del Fuego and arrival at Ushuaia, the “end of the world”, was in many ways a moment of realisation that the journey was coming to an end, and that the justification of a destination to create the journey had been achieved.
The return north to Buenos Aires crossed 2,000 miles of Eastern Patagonia and the Pampa, almost entirely deserted. Buenos Aires with over 15 million people made up for it!
And no visit to Buenos Aires is complete without a visit to the Evita Peron mausoleum in La Recoleta. The city is full of Evita memorabilia.
And the final country…..a quick trip to Uruguay provided a special end to the journey. In wind-down mode and ready for some relaxation, Colonia del Sacramento on the coast of the Rio de la Plata opposite Buenos Aires could not have been more of a contrast.
As the sun goes down in Colonia, so it does on the journey. A fitting end perhaps.
The ride provided many opportunities for stretching my comfort zone. Beginning with the Dalton Highway, it was a tough start to the trip, followed a week later by the Top of the World highway.
Approaching the Bear’s Tooth Pass in Wyoming, road works crated an unexpected hazard. This was true for many parts of the journey where paved roads were replaced with temporary dirt sections, in paces for miles.
The Mokee Dugway in Utah kept me awake for two nights before we arrived based on its reputation as a difficult road. The warning signs for 25 miles before also did nothing to dispell the fear of impending danger. As it turned out, it was much shorter, and not as challenging as I had feared, or maybe I was just getting more adept at gravel roads and steep descents.
In Central America we had plenty of chances to overcome landslides and wash-outs. These we expected, but did not know where we would come across them. The wet, slippery mud was unpredeictable as was the time it would take to get moving.
The Banana Bridge between Costa Rica and Panama was a major obstacle, if not physically, but also mentally. Sharing a rickety bridge with trains, trucks and pedestrians, none of which would get out of the way for a motorcycle, proved to be an interesting experience as the boards along the sides tended to move as we passed over and did not always meet at the ends or edges. We were, it seems, the first group which rode across the bridge, without incident, out of the past 4 similar motorcycle expeditions.
I dropped my bike on three occasions. In Guatemala as I was parking at a roadside food stall and my foot slid on mud, in Canyon del Pato trying to do a U-turn on a steep incline, and on the Carretera Austral as I hit a pile of deep gravel . Thankfully all were either stopped or at very low speed.
Ruta 40 in Argentina is infamous. Earning the right to place this sticker on the windscreen is certainly a mark of the badge of honour! Hundreds of miles of gravel and dirt roads across Patagonia, with fierce, gusting horizontal winds and heavy vehicles make this one of the most challenging riding experiences that most of us will ever face. Once again, in previous expeditions, some people have opted out of the Ruta 40 and taken the coastal road instead. There are a lot of roadworks on Ruta 40 now which made it more of a challenge, buit in a few years time, much of it will be paved and the challenge will disappear.
While Ruta 40 faces challenges of gravel and high winds, the Carretera Austral can have steep inclines as well. Add to this heavy machinery grading the surfaces and washging a wave of loose mud over your boots as you wait for them to pass, and you have the recipe for a very scary ride.
People and Cultural Richness
The landscapes through which we passed were often breathtaking. The roads, twisting and winding through mountains and deserts were frequently so long that you had to stop and re-focus, but left you with a grin from ear to ear. But the journey also included some of the most educational and cultural experiences that I have had in my life.
The Tlingit museum and lodge on our way from Yukon to British Colombia celebrated the First Nations heritage. Although the totems here were for tourism, they represented a long and rich civilization. Later we passed through a village and saw a row of totems for long departed ancestors.
Approaching Moab in Utah, we rode along the Colorado Canyon. I was attracted by the dark “desert varnish” which coated the sandstone rocks lining the canyon, and stopping to take a closer look, found a slab with inscribed petroglyphs. Later, talking to the park rangers, it appears that the slab I found had not been mapped on to their database. Dating from before the 13th century, they marked a pre-European settle civilization, still very much in the stone age.
Mesa Verde in southern Utah is another site I had visited before, but to see the cliff dwellings is always a rich sight. Dating from the 9th to 12th centuries it marks the stage in Anasazi development before they disappeared quite suddenly form the area.
The Mayan civilization, both in its heyday of the 5 – 9th centuries and today add great depth to the journey. Pelenque in southern Mexico was a major site as was Copan. We also met a current Shaman from Mayan ancestry in Chichicastenango, Guatemala, who blessed our journey in a Mayan ritual over an altar said to be more than a thousand years old.
More modern cultural experience were afforded through many churches and cathedrals we visited along the way, but also through art. The Botero museums in Colombia, in Bogota and Medellin, celebrate the famous artist and his unique style of portraying the human form.
Traditional crafts are still practiced in many central and South American countries. Watching an old woman spinning Alpaca yarn in the Chivay town square while engaging in a chat with other local women added a rich dimension to our visit.
And of course the children. Everywhere we went we found children happy to come up and talk with us, try to sell us sweets or fruit, or just want to climb on the bikes.
What have I learned?
1/ about myself
To want to go for a ride on the bike is a hobby. To look forward every day to strapping on the boots, in rain or shine, cold or hot, gravel or asphalt, is a passion. There was not a day I did not look forward to riding, seeing new sights, meeting new people and discovering new customs even when I was faced with 200 miles of gravel.
I also appreciated that this was a privilege to have the chance to travel the length of the Americas.
2/ about the equipment
Bike – The BMW GS1200 Adventure is a truly remarkable machine. From high speed blasting across the paved road surface, to picking its way through deep mud, gravel, rocks and on steep inclines, it is probably the best bike for the job, especially when carrying a full load of luggage .
Preparation– there is no substitute for good preparation, be it maps, the bike equipment, clothes, and mental preparation. In this way there were fewer circumstances when you had to meet unexpected challenges.
Clothes – I carried too many. Daily washing routines made clothes easy to manage and I could have used less than half of what I actually took. Merino wool is fantastic! Multiple layers and good waterproofs meant that I was never too hot, never too cold and never wet on the inside (except in Costa Rica when I thought I could outrun the storm in Volcan Arenal!)
3/ About People
From Alaska to Ushuaia and all countries in between, people are in many ways similar and very different. The availability of good education is crucial. It is still the case in many countries in Central and South America that 5-6 children is the norm for poorer people to provide a cushion in old age for parents who have no pension or savings, while the more wealthy have 1-2 children. This ensures a permanent poverty trap and encourages social unrest as the gap between rich and poor widens. Perceived or actual corruption in the ruling structure further promotes unrest and the heavily politicized graffiti in many countries through which we passed bears testimony to dissatisfaction through the population.
But one cannot be but impressed at the hard working people of South Mexico and Guatemala where the countryside is worked in family sized patches of vegetables, a pig or two, few chickens and all the family working away. Carrying large bundles to markets the men and women work side by side to sustain their livelihoods. The patchwork of smallholdings covers the rich volcanic soil on mountain sides even on the most impossible slopes where mechanisation cannot be considered.
And spare a thought for the remote Estancias in Argentina when you next tuck into a steak or lamb, and the harsh life they lead to bring the food to the table. Often hundreds of miles from even the nearest small town, the remoteness in a cold, semi-arid and windswept landscape must be tough.
It has been a life enriching experience. Thank you for coming with me.
December 20th, 2011