Jeremy Kroeker and Elle West have been riding down to the tip of South America from their home in Alberta, and they’ve been telling us about it as they go. When they last checked in, they’d reached southern Argentina and taken a cruise to Antarctica now, now they’re headed home. Except, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re stuck in Uruguay.
To read Jeremy’s dispatches from the beginning, start here and just keep clicking forward.
COLONIA DEL SACRAMENTO, URUGUAY: I used to do a lot of ice climbing. When I’d reach the top of the route, I’d congratulate my climbing partner. If I was climbing solo I’d just breathe a contented sigh. Then I’d think, “Good stuff, Jeremy. You’re half way there.”
See, getting off the mountain, or the frozen waterfall, is every bit as important as getting up there. For example, it is possible that, in 1924, George Mallory reached the summit of Mount Everest before anyone else. But, even if he did, he died on the way down. So, top marks go to Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary who, in 1953, not only reached the highest point on earth, but also survived the descent.
This motorcycle trip that I’ve been on with my girlfriend, from Canada to Argentina and back, is no Everest expedition. By comparison, it’s unremarkable. It’s no real physical challenge. Sure, there were tiring days, like fighting the wind in Argentina, or a day of stand-up riding on this gravel road or that, but nothing that pushed us to exhaustion.
We saved up, we determined to go, and we did it. Yet there is a mountain top feel to the endeavour, and that peak experience happened in Ushuaia. (Yes, we tacked on a trip to the Antarctic but, ultimately, our adventure “topped out” in Tierra del Fuego.)
The problem now is that the journey home is neither exciting, nor clear. On the way south, one’s focus sharpens like the tip of South America itself. Every kilometre funnels you to a single point. Going north, the continent broadens and options multiply.
Options multiply, that is, until borders close. As I write this, Elle and I are stuck in Uruguay, just across the bay from Buenos Aries, with no chance to leave or to further explore, self-isolating amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic.
We are fortunate, though. Because we have no jobs, we have no jobs to lose (although my employment is secure when I return home). For us the restrictions on travel are frustrating, but this is also a great time to catch up on reading, to catch up on rest, and to look back at our journey.
On the very first day Elle and I hit the road, in British Columbia, Canada, we had travelled just a few hours from our homes in Alberta. We spent the weekend at a motorcycle gathering with dozens of friends. We didn’t ride in the event, though. We evaluated our packing systems and fixed some bugs before the long road ahead. Also, I drank a bunch of beer around the campfire.
Thus, it was with a spinning head one night that I found myself wandering away from the fire, alone, looking at the stars and asking myself big questions. Eventually Elle tracked me down, and we sat together looking at the sky.
After a long time staring in silence, I unburdened my mind, and Elle listened. Why are we doing this trip? Why am I doing it? Is it based on a genuine curiosity of culture and desire to connect with people? Or is it because I’ve “branded” myself as a motorcycle traveller, and you can only keep the “brand” fresh if you’re doing something new? Is this merely a motorcycle check mark? Is this a mid-life crisis? Is this to build an Instagram following? Or is it unfinished business from my last trip south when I only made it to Panama?
Looking back, most of those questions remain. And I have more.
At the half way point on this trip, with another seven months to go before we’re home, I’m asking myself, “Has it been worth it?”
Even before I finish typing that, my brain screams YES! Yes, it was worth it. At least, it has been worth it so far. As I’ve said, this trip, through some 15 countries, covering over 30,000 kilometres, has been easy. Sure there were rough days, like the punctures in Peru, the heat in Arizona, the ruptured eardrum in Ecuador, the wind in Argentina, and a few dropped bikes here and there. But that’s minor stuff on a hardship scale.
There is some stress, too. For instance, Elle and I had each squirrelled away about $30,000 Canadian dollars for a year on the road. Now, thanks to the impulse purchase of an Antarctic cruise and, for me, some unforeseen financial problems with my condo back in Canada, I have less than $10,000 for the remaining seven months of travel – or of lockdown in this time of COVID-19.
Even that is no big deal, though. I’ve met travellers who could live years in South America on $10,000. On the home stretch, Elle and I may have to camp more than we want. We may use websites that link travellers with free homestays. We may eat more rice. Maybe, when Elle does an oil change on her BMW, I can take her used oil and use it like fresh oil for my Kawasaki. (No, that’s getting too thrifty.) We can make these cuts or, failing that, we can dip into a line of credit and pay things off when we return to work. Still, money stresses me out.
Now, although we hope to visit new countries when travel restrictions lift – Brazil, Paraguay, and perhaps others – we are on the way home. It’s time to check in and see if I’ve learned anything about travel.
On the way down we did many things wrong. We slept late (we’re on vacation!) thus creating extra difficulties. When we started late, we suffered in the heat of the day, or with the wind in Patagonia. Late starts saw us arrive at border crossings at lunch hour, thus increasing our crossing time. And, if we started really late, we struggled to find shelter before dark.
Then again, there’s one thing that we did right. There are different ways to cross the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia. We chose to sail for three days aboard the famous (some say infamous) Stahlratte.
Passage on the Stahlratte seems costly. We paid $1,200 US dollars. But, when you factor in the three days of accommodation, food, and the novelty of experience, this becomes a bargain. Tack on the ease with which the bikes are imported into Colombia, and passage on the Stahlratte becomes the best decision Elle and I have made on the trip.
I’m not sure how we’ll get past the Darien Gap on the way home, but the Stahlratte may be the solution. (Assuming that travel restrictions lift and that we can ride home. At the moment, we are considering leaving our motorcycles in Uruguay to collect at a later date. Time will tell.)
Also, there’s one more thing I did right on this journey. I chose to ride with Elle.
We’ve had some rough days, don’t get me wrong. We have bickered. We have been snappy. We have miscommunicated and misunderstood. Then, after some time, we have spoken honestly with one another about why we feel hurt, angry, or just grumpy. That’s down to Elle. I’ve said before that she is trained as a counsellor, so I will never win any argument with her. Then again, she doesn’t argue to “win.” After all, we’re on the same team. A true victory boils down to understanding.
So, yeah. There are improvements to be made for the journey home. And there are unanswered questions. Will this trip improve my life? Will I grow as a person? Will I learn to be a better partner to Elle? I’ll have to reflect on those more later.
Now, when it comes to the question of why – why sacrifice so much time, effort and money at this stage in life to ride the long line from Canada to Argentina and back – I’ll keep it simple. When a New York Times journalist asked the ill-fated George Mallory, “Why climb Everest?” Mallory famously replied, “Because it’s there.”
Let’s use Mallory’s answer as a placeholder. Maybe I’ll elaborate one day. This assumes that I’ll make it back, of course, and I intend to. After all, this is no Everest expedition. There’s no glory in it, and the risk is much less. But, sticking with the metaphor, here in Uruguay, I’m just down from the summit. That means I’m about half way.
Getting home for Elle and me will be the next challenge. We set out to accomplish something – to ride our motorcycles from Canada to Ushuaia, Argentina. Check. But we also intended to ride home. We still plan to do that but, at the moment, this is not within our control.
Are we frustrated with our current situation, isolated, stalled, here in Uruguay? Yes. Are we worried? No. Elle and I have been through enough on this trip (never mind in our previous travels) that we know that this shall pass. A solution will present itself.
Although we are not moving, I consider us rolling home. This is not the sexy part of the journey and, for that and other reasons, this will be the last article in this series. Thank you, dear readers of Canada Moto Guide, for joining us on this trip. From now on, if you want to keep up with Elle and me, find us on Instagram or Twitter. Perhaps, one day, there may be a book about this adventure. Who knows?
Now we’re homeward bound. If we could go back and ask Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmond Hillary about their climb, they’d agree – reaching the summit is half the battle.
Okay then. Let’s get home.
To read Jeremy’s dispatches from the beginning, start here and just keep clicking forward.
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.