Jeremy Kroeker and Elle West have been 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 southern Argentina; now, they’re finding out just how far south they can reach.
ANTARCTICA—I’m drinking whisky with an Israeli potato farmer on the observation deck of a cruise liner in the Antarctic. The room sways, and I reach for the bar to steady myself. Is it the room swaying, or is it the whisky? No, it’s the room. We’re travelling now, and the ship rolls with the gentle rhythm of the dark water below.
The farmer is imparting wisdom to me. “Whatever doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger,” he says. Then, after a sip of whisky he adds, “And whatever does kill you, only makes your mother stronger.”
We clink glasses over that, and I take my leave. I move to a full-length window and look out into the night. If I were outside, bundled against the wind, I might hear the blow of a humpback whale. Sometimes they come that close. From inside I just look for the spray in the moonlight. I watch as we glide past icebergs, and I sip my drink.
Elle and I had come a long way with our motorcycles, all the way from Alberta to Ushuaia, Argentina. We didn’t keep track of our mileage, but I guess it’s been about 30,000 kilometres, so far. It was in Ushuaia that a single tear pooled in her eye, spilled over, and tracked down her cheek.
“Are you trying to make me cry?” she said.
I blinked at her, perplexed. All I had said was, “Well, this trip is basically a long ‘out-and-back.’ Now there’s no more ‘out’ left.”
Elle wouldn’t allow me to wipe the tear from her face. “Not in public,” she said. So I just sat there. In fact, I was feeling melancholy as well. We had come a long way, and now there was no more south left to go. I thought, too, about the last time, just a few days earlier, that I had seen tears in Elle’s eyes under very different circumstances.
Rioting in Chile
We were in Punta Arenas, Chile. It was here that Elle bought new tires, got an oil change and, for the first time in her life, tasted tear gas.
I’ve sampled this bitter herb before (most potently while observing demonstrations on the edge of Israel and the Palestinian Territories) and it was I who first clued in. We were having dinner at the only place we found open, a Best Western near the main square. When we finished we stood examining a map on the wall, finding our location and tracing out where we had been. I started to sneeze. Elle sneezed, too.
“We must be allergic to Patagonia,” Elle said, smiling.
“Mmm-hmm,” I offered. Sneeze. But this seemed oddly familiar. The tickle in the back of the throat, the watery eyes. I turned to look out the window and saw a dozen people filming something with their phones.
“It’s not allergies,” I said to Elle. “That’s tear gas.”
Protests and border closures had loomed all around us for the past few months: Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. We saw evidence of them along the way with boarded-up windows and scorched asphalt from burnt tires. But this was the first time that we encountered activity.
With tear gas canisters bouncing around, protesters running, and a water cannon lurching through the street, Elle toddled into the fray to practise her Spanish.
“Tengo una pregunta,” she said to a young person. Then Elle continued in Spanish asking things like, “Why are you protesting? Why are you throwing rocks? Where is the bathroom?” I don’t know, I wasn’t listening.
Like I said, I’ve seen this before. From my experience, after the tear gas, after the water cannon, after the stun grenades, then come the rubber bullets. You don’t want to be there for that. I’ve watched as rubber bullets scattered crowds in Egypt, and many protesters in those clashes ended up with eye patches for the rest of their lives.
This protest didn’t seem to warrant that level of escalation (there were no stun grenades) but you never know. I tugged at the cuff of Elle’s jacket, keeping my eye on the water cannon, and we walked back to the hostel.
The next day we crossed with the motorcycles once more into Argentina, posed for a few photos at a signpost, and pushed again into more wind. The landscape transitioned from open plains with scrub brush and guanacos, to forested terrain, then mountains.
After all this time on the road, all the planning that came before, all the daily perseverance that brought us to this point, I expected our arrival in Ushuaia to be a triumph. Yes, we did stop at the welcome sign on the edge of town for photos. Yes, we hugged each other and murmured a few congratulatory words but, arriving there at our southernmost point, our strongest sensation was fatigue.
Elle and I checked into a hostel and then … we slept.
The end of the world, almost.
Over the next few days, following a rest, there was a growing feeling of elation. Loitering in Ushuaia with nowhere else to go, we met other travellers who had made similar journeys. There was even a trio of riders whom we had met aboard the Stahlratte, sailing from Panama to Colombia. We raised glasses with them, and we laughed.
It was in Ushuaia, over lunch one day, Elle shed her tear. There’s no more south for us. There’s no more south. Unless …
There are often last-minute deals from Ushuaia to the Antarctic but, because of the Coronavirus, suddenly there were a glut of them. It was still overpriced for our budget, though. In fact, when you did the math, including all the incidentals and exchange rate from US dollars, this side trip would amount to about $9,000 Canadian Dollars. Per person.
That was nearly one third of our entire trip budget for the year, gone in days. Could we even make it home with our remaining funds if we undertook this journey? (We could have done it for less, but we did not have flexible dates. We needed to meet a friend in Buenos Aires in less than two weeks.)
We agonized over the decision. This would leave us flat broke by the time we rode all the way back to Canada. In fact, if we did this, I would have to skid over the final border into Alberta using my line of credit, immediately get back to work, and start paying off travel debt.
At last, because you can justify just about anything, we committed to a package that flew out of Punta Arenas to join a cruise ship at King George Island. Our package would be both shorter and more expensive than others, but it was aboard a brand new luxury vessel. And the trip was shorter only because we would fly over the Drake Passage, saving us four days of potentially rough, open water with not much to see. We would still be in Antarctica proper for four full days. And we would still get to set foot on land (weather permitting) twice a day.
I tried to comfort myself over the expense by thinking of the open bar during meal times. And Elle figured she could probably jam at least $1,000 worth of chocolate things into her luggage before we left the ship. Damn the torpedos.
One more crash
Once more we had a destination, the promise of moving farther south, and a short timeline. Elle and I packed our belongings, said goodbye to Ushuaia, and rode off to Punta Arenas to catch our flight. My mind was on the Antarctic. I was probably still fatigued from all the miles and all the wind. I had fresh concern about the injuries that Elle and I done to our credit cards. In short, I was distracted.
That’s when I crashed my motorcycle. At speed, I got sucked into a bad line on a soft shoulder and I rolled off into the ditch.
I once saw a cocker spaniel go cartwheeling across the Saskatchewan prairie.
That memory haunts me to this day. The dog was mine, and her name was Buffy. I was only 12 years old, so please forgive me, but one time I tried to share the joys of motoring with my dog. She was fine, perched on the gas tank between my arms, until about third gear. Then she stepped off.
Well, like Buffy so many years ago, on this day, racing along a gravel road, I found myself suddenly without a motorcycle, skidding across the landscape at about 60 kilometres per hour. It was horrible but, like Buffy, I escaped without injury. When the dust settled, like Buffy, I stood with glazed eyes that stared way past the horizon. That’s how Elle found me. I had picked up my bike already with the help of passing motorists, and I was just standing there in the ditch.
“What happened?” said Elle.
“Oh, nothing,” I said, with a quaver in my voice.
Then I walked her through the crash scene, trying hard to shrug it off like it was no big deal. I looked the bike over and found no major damage. My luggage rack and left pannier were bent, but I could straighten that out when time allowed, not now. I rotated my mirror back into position and left the ditch. For the remaining ride, I focused all my attention on riding, and I took it slow.
Three days later, we were on a luxury cruise liner in the Antarctic.
Time to start thinking about home
Somewhere, on a deck below me, Elle is probably stuffing chocolate into a ziplock bag. Up here, the potato farmer is back at my side, and I tell him about the crash. He has an opinion about that, too.
“Slowly, slowly, quickly, quickly,” he says. “We used to think about building a house for five minutes and take three years to build it. Now we think about building a house for one year and build it in five minutes.” I nod and stare out the window. It’s an odd comparison, but I see his point. In some ways a long motorcycle trip is like building a house – it leaves one with crippling debt. Okay, but seriously, slow and steady progress is preferable to lurching and short sprints. It’s wise to keep your mind present on the task as well.
Slowly, slowly, quickly, quickly. I’ll keep that in mind for the journey home. I guess I’m on that journey now, for this, the Antarctic, is truly our farthest point south. When we land back in South America and get reunited with our motorcycles I’ll try to think about the ride more. Take it slow. After all, I’m in no rush to make my mother any stronger.
We’re not quite finished with Jeremy and Elle yet. They have to make it up to Buenos Aires and then he’ll let us know if this grand adventure was worth it. Come back here next month to ride along on that final leg.
Jeremy Kroeker is the author of Motorcycle Therapy: A Canadian Adventure in Central America, and Through Dust and Darkness: A Motorcycle Journey of Fear and Faith in the Middle East. With his motorcycle, he has traveled to 30 countries while managing to do at least one outrageously stupid thing in every one.