Jeremy Kroeker and Elle West are riding down to the tip of South America from their home in Alberta, and they’re telling us about it as they go. When they last checked in, they’d reached Lima, Peru; now, they’ve crossed into Chile and over the border to Argentina, heading south all the way.
It came through the intercom but I might have heard it anyway, piercing through the jet engine howl of the wind in spite of the distance between us. A scream. Then my girlfriend spewed forth a firehose torrent of profanity that, if written here, may trigger Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in some gentle reader.
Elle had crashed.
I wanted to run to her, but could not for several reasons. One: I’m a 47-year-old man with hips like a retired police dog and, two: I could not leave my motorcycle or it would cartwheel across the plain like a tumbleweed in search of a fence. Do I lie? Perhaps, but certainly the bike would fall over in this gale, which is exactly why Elle had come off in the first place.
Through the speakers in my helmet the cursing continued, forcing me to switch off the system. But Elle went a step further, removing her device and flinging it to the dirt. Now she sat crosslegged on the ground with her back to me, with her back to her motorcycle and, somehow, with her back to all of Patagonia and this god-damned wind.
I struggled to position my bike so that it might stay standing when I left it. The good thing about a KLR 650 in this environment is that it has the density of a boat anchor. The bad thing is that it has the aerodynamic profile of a Holstein cow. Somehow I managed. The wind lost interest in the machine and I left to check on Elle.
As I stumbled forward, buffeted by the storm, I wondered if I had underestimated this entire journey. In fact, I know I had. I go to motorcycle shows to promote my books and I talk to people about travel. If they express an interest in doing it — riding from Canada to South America — I’ll say off the cuff, “Yes. Do it. In fact, of all the big motorcycle adventures out there, that one is the most attainable.”
I mean the paperwork is easy, compared to Africa or the Middle East, I tell them. You don’t have to ship your bike, you just ride straight from here (they’ll learn about the pesky Darien Gap if they do any research.) Yeah, there’s a language barrier, but if you can read English, you can at least understand the alphabet and start to figure out road signs and menus in Spanish or Portuguese. You’ll learn some phrases on the way, too. The cultural norms are similar to those of North America, there are loads of places that fix motorcycles, on and on and on.
But what I failed to appreciate, and I now see as the main challenge on a long ride, is mustering up the resolve. That’s it. Resolve is necessary in the first place to scrape together the time and the money, but resolve is also tested on the road time and again. So bring extra.
The true challenges of the trip
I almost ran out in Peru, of resolve, that is. I already wrote about the traffic, the flat tires, the wild camping, etc. And then, have you heard the myth?
The myth goes that the human body continuously replaces every cell so that, after some time, you’re a totally new person. Yeah, well, it’s not true. But it seems to be true of the Kawasaki KLR 650. In addition to all the consumable bits on my bike — inner tubes, tires, brake pads, etc. — I have also replaced dozens of things that have atomized from vibration or sheared off from metal fatigue. This mostly happened in Peru, climaxing with the subframe bolts in Cusco just as we were about to leave. At this rate, by the time I return to Canada I’ll have a totally different motorcycle.
Then, in La Paz, Bolivia, at 3,600 metres in elevation, my bike wheezed like an asthmatic tuba player. When curious locals ask me how fast my motorcycle can go, in Bolivia, I tell them that the maximum speed is 85 kilometres per hour. This actually worked to the benefit of my relationship with Elle, if I’m being honest. Sometimes I race ahead of her, winding joyfully (recklessly, according to her) through the bends on asphalt, or over the rough sections on gravel. In Bolivia, thanks to the self-limiting aspects of a carbureted engine, it appeared as though I had a renewed interest in keeping pace with my wonderful girlfriend on her fuel-injected BMW.
In spite of this new bonding effect, it was also in Bolivia, near the salt flats, that Elle and I had our most acute test of our resolve to remain together on this adventure. We awoke in a town so small and cut off from the greater world that, apparently, they had not yet discovered the concept of breakfast. Leaving hungry, we rode in the cold toward Uyuni. We missed lunch as well and, arriving hours later, we each got into a bit of a pout with one another. The metaphorical foot-stomping culminated with each of us riding to separate restaurants where, speaking for myself, the argument continued in my head.
After some food, over the stereo came Coldplay’s, “Nobody Said it was Easy.” With that, Elle rode up and we were together again. Thereafter, for a few days, we still took turns beneath the warm blanket of victimhood, but we finally both came out and smiled at each other in Chile. (I don’t know why we packed that stupid blanket, but it’s very difficult to abandon.)
Back on the road
And then a long, long ride south in Argentina, mostly following the famous Route 40 to the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands). We hiked down into the canyon to see the millennia-old cave paintings. When we got back to the bikes, we found an American admiring the machines.
“You’re about to hit a horrible section of the Ruta 40,” he said. “I stopped yesterday to help two riders pick up their bikes.”
The man (we never caught his name) was travelling by rental car on this trip, but usually he’s on a motorcycle, he said. He added, “I mean, it’s really bad. It’s not just the loose, thick gravel. It’s the wind. You take each thing separately and you’re okay. But together.…” He trailed off.
Later that night, our hotelier agreed. She didn’t elaborate or try to scare us. She just nodded, pointed at the map and said, “It’s ugly.”
That’s how we ended up in the ditch alongside Ruta 40, Elle sitting on the ground, her motorcycle toppled over behind her, and me shouldering into the wind to see if she was okay. I sat with her for a while, neither of us speaking. The red pony tail on Elle’s helmet whipped and snapped with each gust. Otherwise we were still and silent.
“I’m done, Jeremy,” she said at last.
Another long pause.
This was the second time the wind had bullied over her bike in just 35 kilometres. We still had approximately 35 kilometres to go and, when I had last stolen a glance at my speedometer, we were only travelling at about ten kilometres per hour.
I wanted to tell her that we were nearly half way, that we could make it if we just went a hundred metres at a time. Just slow, slow, slow. We can do this. Then I imagined setting up the tent in this nonsense: it would get ripped to shreds and in the process, I would end up looking like a Chinese Ribbon Dancer.
A birthday break
I wanted to tell her all of that, but then it occurred to me that this was not the time for a pep talk — this was the time to listen. In fact, on this very day, it was my birthday. Perhaps, at the age of 47, I could finally learn a thing or two about communication, and the last thing Elle had said to me was, “I’m done, Jeremy.”
I nodded my head. Yes, we will camp here tonight. I moved the bikes over to a flat spot where I would begin the ribbon dance. I dropped Elle’s bike in the process, just riding it up onto the road. She was right: it was time to hunker down before someone got hurt.
Erecting the tent went exactly as well as you’d expect, but somehow we got it up and anchored. We collapsed inside and immediately conked out for a nap. Then, as it was still light out, we went back out into the wind.
An armadillo padded right up to me and briefly took shelter behind my boot. A shy fox trotted by, stopping to check out our campsite. There were guanacos to watch, and rheas, an ostrich-like bird. In short, this turned out to be a great spot to take a look around.
In the morning we would get up early. It would be calm. The road would still be horrible, yes, but with no wind we could manage just fine.
As the sun went down I looked up to the stars and found the Southern Cross. Looking back, this had been a pretty good day after all. On this day the wind had pushed us around, yes. But, we were fine now. The wind pushed us around and then, in a strange way, it strengthened our resolve.
That’s a good day.