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Odyssey to Ushuaia
A Motorcycling Adventure from New York to Tierra del Fuego
By Andrés Carlstein
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2002 Andrés Carlstein
All rights reserved.
To Boldly Go/Where Other People Already Live
My sunglasses had been stolen from my pocket in a Peruvian coat-check, so I had to keep the tinted visor on my helmet down to curb the tremendous glare. Salt, pure and blazingly white, lay in all directions. There was enough salt to kill every last slug on the planet. Aside from the mountains visible to the southwest, there was no earth nearby. All around me lay a flat white desert of salt where not a creature could live. I wasn't taking any chances — the crusty white lake bed we rode on reflected the bold midday sun, sending rays into my eyes from all directions and threatening to cause a kind of snow blindness, even though there wasn't any snow in sight. Temporary blindness, no matter what the cause, was a condition that would make riding my motorcycle off the salt impossible. This was the Salar de Uyuni, a 7,500-square-mile dried lake at 12,000 feet, formed when a huge bowl of ocean water was driven skyward with the rising continent millennia ago. And we were stuck on it.
My two companions and I were unsure how to proceed. "I think we need to go southeast," I finally said. "That travel agent said there was a road down there, and we haven't crossed it yet. I'm sure that's the way."
Robert, a big, graying man in his fifties who looked like a retired lumberjack or burly ship captain, sat on his massive black BMW bike to my right. He flipped up his helmet and a bushy beard popped out. Reminiscent of something from a cartoon, his beard looked like an expanded white sponge that couldn't possibly return to its original size and fit back in his helmet. He slowly took off his gloves and examined the global positioning satellite receiver (GPS) mounted on his handlebars for what must've been the tenth time.
The third man in our group, Peter, sat on his large, red-and-white BMW bike with his legs spread wide for balance, arms across his chest in frustration. His piercing Colombian eyes were set with a gravity they rarely displayed. "Yeah, but the other guy said there's also a road straight south from the Isla de los Pescadores," Peter said. "We came straight south, and still there's no road. I think we need to go west. We don't have enough gas to run around looking for a road. It has to be one or the other."
We were at an impasse. Normally during a disagreement between two members of the group, the third person settled the tie. But Robert just looked at us in silence. Between the GPS, maps, and local information we had figured we couldn't get lost. And technically we were right. We knew exactly where we were, but we couldn't find a way off the salt. The solid land lay just a couple hundred meters to the south, but between firm ground and us was a wide moat of sandy-salty mush that would surely swallow up at least one of our bikes if we tried to cross. Normally foolproof, the GPS wasn't helping us because there were no good reference points in the software to tell us where the road was in relation to our position. The sacred GPS, as Peter dubbed it, could only tell us what we already knew: that we were somewhere along the edge of the salt lake, but not on hard land.
We didn't want to end up like that French couple last year — their truck sank into the muck and they were stranded, suffering in the burning days and freezing nights under the endless, cloudless sky for nearly a week before being rescued. They were consular representatives from France, and Bolivian Air Force planes began looking for them when they didn't arrive at their destination as expected. Nobody knew where we were, let alone gave a damn, so if we got stuck we'd have to be our own rescue party. Worse still, we were running out of water and gas, and we had nowhere to turn for more information. I was sick of the constant committee frustrations that come when making group decisions, and decided it was time to act.
"Look, we know there's a road over there to the east. Supposedly it also heads south, right?" They both looked at me noncommittally. "We haven't seen anything resembling a road yet, so if we go in that direction long enough we will cross it. We have to cross it. I'm going that way." I lowered my visor and started off. I looked back a few moments later to see them grudgingly begin to follow.
Fortunately I was right. We made it to the bridge and to hard, salt-free land. Robert, the big Canadian, stopped his bike next to mine and smiled. "That was a close one," he said. "We had to make a decision and it had to be right." I realized this must've been his way of complimenting me. I'm sure it was hard for him, considering how many times I'd done the completely wrong thing since we had been together. Who am I kidding? Half the time I'd been a two-wheeled pain in the ass, and saying these kind words was probably not unlike verbally passing a kidney stone. I nodded in appreciative silence, not wanting to screw up this unusual moment.
* * *
Back when my brother and I were kids, we used to dream of riding motorcycles to Argentina. We would joke about pulling triumphantly into the drive of one of our many uncles' houses — our loving family and beautiful female strangers (they'd heard about us and came from across the land in bikinis to meet the heroes) would embrace us at the door with the sun shining and our engines revving loudly. Since childhood we'd been infected with our father's love of motorcycle travel, but while we were encouraged to travel, we were discouraged from having bikes of our own. After our father's death, all his old treasures were sold, including a two-stroke NSU, a DKW, and a BMW touring bike. The motorcycle had left my presence, but it hadn't left my consciousness.
One hot summer evening just before my last semester of college at Penn State, the motorcycle dream came back to my mind. It came from deep in my memory, but for some reason, suddenly the message was loud and irresistible. I was having drinks with some friends in a pub when the idea crystallized — and I decided right there that, no matter what happened, I would ride a motorcycle south until I ran out of road in Argentina.
You know you've said something remarkable when people grow silent for a few moments, processing your words, eyeing you with quizzical concern, as if to say, "Should this person be on medication?" So after that evening at the bar where my friends replied, "Don't you know there are planes for that?" or "Hope you have a tough ass," I stopped telling others I planned to ride a motorcycle to the tip of South America.
How do you justify selling everything you own and riding a bike through the Americas? Thousands of people have done it, and thousands more will do it, probably all for similar reasons, but I'd be surprised if any of us could readily explain those reasons. Besides, people don't want to know the real reason — the truth is too simple, too boring. The general expectation is that such a grand plan must have a grand motivation behind it. I felt obliged to come up with elaborate rationalizations to hide what, to me, was acutely obvious: I simply felt like it. The trip seemed like the thing to do.
I suppose there was also the issue of roots. As a first-generation American, distance kept me apart from my large extended family — I had over thirty blood relatives in Latin America who barely knew me. I felt a need to connect with the Argentine part of my past, to know my inner workings by getting to know those most like me and ensconce myself in the enveloping warmth and camaraderie of my corner of the gene pool. Another benefit would be the perfect chance to improve my Spanish.
And there was the impending future. After Penn State, I'd planned to go on to medical school. I was in the world of exams and competition and applications and interviews. I had taken all the tests and been accepted to several schools, but despite the fact that I was successfully selling myself to people I'd never met, I didn't feel good about it. The dream of going to med school and becoming a doctor was one I'd struggled for years to realize, using all my motivation and discipline, but lately it didn't inspire me anymore. My father had been a doctor, and although he died when I was just eleven years old, I could still feel an unconscious desire to follow in his footsteps. Whether he planted that idea in my psyche or not, I was realizing more each day that the vision of my future in medicine was really more his than mine. As that insight sank in I started losing wind for academics. I felt directionless. Hollow. When the trip idea came along, suddenly life was inspiring again. Taking the motorcycle south was a dream all my own, and one that seemed undeniably worth following.
Planning the trip was tough. It took nearly nine months of careful research and effort, during which I realized that this was, by far, the most difficult undertaking I'd ever attempted. In the end, there was only one really critical ingredient. If you have it, all the less important things become attainable, or a way to succeed without them can be found. That key ingredient is motivation.
"You don't own a motorcycle." "Do you even have a motorcycle license?" "You're fucking crazy." Statements like these can be daunting for someone with insufficient motivation. For a properly motivated individual, the only appropriate response to these negative comments ("Bite me.") becomes immediately clear, thereby freeing the mind and social schedule for the more pressing tasks at hand, such as buying a motorcycle, obtaining a motorcycle license, and getting professional psychiatric treatment.
First I needed a motorcycle. After reading everything I could find on the subject of motorcycles and travel, and after talking to informed parties, a vision of the ideal bike for the journey became clearer. It had to be powerful, not too heavy, and suitable for highway and off-road use. The right motorcycle would be hard to break, and if broken, easy to fix. It had to stand up to some of the worst roads on the planet. I narrowed my focus down to a class of bikes collectively known as dual sports, designed for the twofold purpose of riding both on and off paved roads. Dual-sports are tough and street legal. They're designed to go long distances on- or off-road and can take lots of abuse. They have big gas tanks, tough suspensions, semiknobby tires, and minimal frills. Imagine a motocross bike (the kind that flies through the air over tall jumps on dirt tracks), hop it up on steroids, weigh it down with a powerful engine and a big gas tank, and you'd end up with a good idea of what a dual-sport looks like. There are now many varieties of dual-sport on the market; the class has grown considerably since the advent of the annual Paris — Dakar rally, a torturous, high-speed, transdesert race where two-wheeled machines define the term "enduro."
Once I decided on dual-sports in general, I narrowed the search to a class with a single large cylinder, collectively known as "thumpers." Thumpers are so called because their single cylinder makes a loud, distinguishable exhaust note, not unlike the constant pounding of a drum. I preferred this kind of dual-sport because, as I had learned in my research, if anything goes wrong with that single cylinder, the bike is typically much simpler to fix than a multiple-cylinder ride. Since I had limited mechanical knowledge of bikes, simplicity was an important factor. Among the manufacturers I considered were Suzuki, KTM, BMW, Honda, and Kawasaki. I decided on Kawasaki, the model KLR 650.
About 60 percent of the riding I planned to do would be on pavement, and the rest would be in rocky, sandy, or muddy terrain, but nothing too technical. The need for long-distance comfort and power far outweighed the need for off-road superiority. The KLR matched my needs for several reasons. The bike excels at highway riding and has a range of almost three hundred miles with the stock six-gallon tank. Off-road the bike was above average, its greatest asset being a high-torque motor that pulls like a tractor. And it pulls, all right. I wouldn't be surprised if the thing could tear stumps from the ground. The KLR had been in production for thirteen years, and though some may consider that a liability (old technology), I considered it a strength because all the kinks had been worked out of the model long ago. Furthermore, many years of KLR production meant aftermarket parts were available to tailor the bike to my needs, and replacement parts were more likely to be available in Latin America. In terms of price no other bike even came close.
Having decided on the bike I wanted, I found a dealer who could supply one. I also began taking a Motorcycle Safety Foundation rider course and got my motorcycle license. I still needed riding gear for the trip, including a helmet, gloves, electric vest, boots, and a riding suit, to protect me from the elements and from unscheduled dismounts. The surroundings would vary from subtropical lowlands to glacier-covered mountains. Luckily, I found a single riding suit to accommodate these different climes. With a removable fleece liner, zippered ventilation, and wind- and waterproofing, the suit would serve as my own mini-environment for the next twelve months. The two-piece outfit also came equipped with armor pads in the shoulders, elbows, and knees and was made from ballistic nylon — superior even to leather for crashes at less than 80 MPH — to prevent the loss of highly valued flesh to any surfaces my skin might meet.
To protect my head, another item I value, I selected a full-face helmet. I chose to cover my hands with winter riding gauntlets for cold days and short elkskin ropers for the warm ones. For my feet, I settled on a pair of leather hiking boots I'd had for seven years. They were like a pair of old college drinking buddies that I didn't have the heart to toss out of my life — unpolished, comfortable, and with a slightly funky odor. I considered taking tall riding boots for the extra shin protection, but decided against them because of their bulk.
The Internet proved to be one of the most invaluable tools for researching all these decisions I was making. I spent a lot of time reading personal Web sites and connecting with others who had done, or were doing, similar trips. It was over the Internet that I hooked up with Robert and Peter, two experienced riders who eventually ended up riding with me for most of the way. Although I'd always imagined taking this trip alone, it made a lot of sense for safety and convenience to travel in a group for at least part of the journey.
While scanning the Net I learned of people who'd taken trips like mine and then some, like Ed Culberson, the first man to traverse the entire length of the Pan-American Highway by motorcycle. That's no small feat. The Pan Am, in theory, stretches from the top of Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, all the way to the tip of Argentina, ending outside of a little town called Ushuaia. It's supposed to be a road that connects the Americas, but in reality, the Pan Am is incomplete. There's a nasty stretch of jungle, about eighty miles in all, between Panama and Colombia, called the Darien Gap. There are no roads, so all travel must be made on meandering footpaths, or by hacking one's way with a machete. Imagine chopping a hundred yards of foliage in the sweltering, steamy heat, walking back to your bike and riding it forward, and then doing that over again — all day. As you can imagine, the going is slow. All rivers, of which jungles have many, must be crossed the old-fashioned way — by fording. To make matters even more interesting, the jungle also happens to be occupied by drug smugglers and terrorist revolutionaries. People like that get very suspicious when trespassers come out of the bush on motorcycles and ride across their cocaine fields. Then it becomes a matter of shoot first, mount your head on a stake as a warning to others later. Not to mention the various parasites, bacteria, spiders, and giant snakes that also don't like to be disturbed.
I also read about Helge Peterson, the much-lauded Norwegian rider who circled the earth on a bike and documented his trip with photos. By the way, Helge has the distinction of also crossing the Darien Gap. Culberson was the first to do it from the north, and Peterson was the first to tackle it from the south.
Then there was my personal hero, Emilio Scotto, an Argentine man recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records for the longest motorcycle ride around the earth. Scotto circled the globe seven times and covered over four hundred and fifty thousand miles on his Honda Gold Wing, all while learning five languages, changing his religion to Islam, and marrying his girlfriend in India. When he started his trip, he left with little motorcycle experience and the equivalent of three hundred dollars in his pocket. Whenever he ran out of money, he'd park his bike, find temporary work, and save until he could afford to continue.
Excerpted from Odyssey to Ushuaia by Andrés Carlstein. Copyright © 2002 Andrés Carlstein. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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