Part One: Portland to Manzanillo
A storm had blown in from the Pacific and settled on western Oregon. On the slopes of Mt. Hood, fog shrouded the forest and rain pattered our jackets. I climbed the pavement slowly, watching as my fiancée, Kelly, steadily pulled away and then stopped to wait for me. Even with 150 pounds spread between four waterproof panniers and a bulging trailer, I couldn’t keep pace with her. I was in the lowest gear of my handcycle, barely going 4 mph while cranking, and still I had to stop and rest every two-tenths of a mile. Two days in, and Kelly and I were already exhausted.
Too little sleep and too much stress as we’d prepared for departure had left my body feeling like a hollow shell, and Kelly was fighting to keep her eyes open as she waited for my sluggish approach. As I crept up towards her, the driving rain and unending slope pestered me, as did my questions. Are you sure you want to do this? Do you have any idea what you’ve gotten yourselves into?
Truth be told, I didn’t really know exactly what we’d gotten ourselves into. I couldn’t have. That’s one of the problems with doing something that hasn’t been tried before. Do all the research you want, you’re never going to know the grimy details until you go out and do it. But even with water dripping from my helmet, snaking in icy rivulets down my neck, and my arms feeling like they’d been crisped by a blowtorch, I was sure about the first question. I’d wanted adventure, and adventure is rarely comfortable.
Presently the fog thickened, wrapping the road in an opaque cloak. Kelly pulled onto the shoulder and I parked behind her. “Nice day for a bike ride,” I said, as she leaned her bike up against the guardrail.
“Yeah, it’s a beaut.” She cracked a soggy grin.
* * *
The plan looked something like this: We’d leave Portland and ride over Mt. Hood before heading south to central Oregon, then cut over to the coast at San Francisco and go south through Mexico and Central America. From there we would take a boat to Colombia, climb into the Andes and ride down the mountains along the west coast of South America, eventually reaching the bottom of the continent in Argentine Patagonia. We thought we could cover roughly 10,000 miles over the course of the year. Averaging 35 miles a day, we’d be able to take a day of rest after every five days of riding. Apart from the few times that friends and family would visit us en route, we’d be on our own.
We wanted to be self-supported for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the biggest was that we wanted to show that a grand adventure didn’t have to be a grand production, even when one of us was a quadriplegic. We felt that an epic journey needn’t have foundational backing and an able-bodied crew making sure that (insert disabled athlete here) had the support needed to do something inspirational. It could be as simple as two people who wanted to spend every day of the next year together getting on their bikes and riding south. And that if they kept going, eventually they’d run out of road somewhere on the other side of the earth.
Of course, a simple idea isn’t always so simple in its execution. Once we’d made the decision to do it, our life turned into an all-consuming, neverending to-do list. Pouring over maps and climate charts, researching, designing, testing, buying and modifying equipment, strengthening our bodies, packing up our lives, budgeting, saving, penny-pinching, seeking sponsors, self-promotion, and begging for donations. All of this, not even to attain some far-reaching goal, but simply to arrive at the point where we could begin our journey.
Of course, friends and family were thinking about the big picture, wondering how far we were going to make it before calling it quits, where we’d get robbed first, how long before we got run off the road by an angry pickup driver. But Kelly and I were just trying to get through a few more items on the list: air up the tires, strap down the bags, fill up the Camelbaks. In the madness of leaving, it had hardly even sunk in that once we’d ticked those off, there wouldn’t be anything else to do but get on our bikes and start riding.
Now, two days in and no longer riding high on the adrenalin of departure, neither of us was feeling like we’d prepared at all. Not that how you feel matters much when you’re on a narrow, busy highway being pounded by a fall storm. You keep moving because your only other option is turning around, which isn’t really an option at all. You turn the cranks until you can’t turn them anymore. And then you do it again. Eventually you make it to the top of the pass and start flying downhill, and as you descend, you realize you’ve crossed your first mountain range. Here on the leeward side of the Cascades the rain stops, and the smell of pine forests gets blown into your nostrils at 38 mph.
Everything is right with the world while gravity is with you. But when you reach the bottom, the road rears back up steeper than before, and doubt and dread starts to creep back in. You’re able to beat them back, for the moment, because you already know that on a trip like this, pleasure and pain go hand in hand. If you have already made it over one mountain, you can get over another.
* * *
In Oregon we pedaled through the high central desert and southern pine forests, battled headwinds and got used to our equipment. I learned how to use a lightweight commode chair that my dad had made to allow for my daily duties out in the middle of nowhere. After only a week of riding, a trouble spot on my coccyx opened up. What could have turned into a trip-ending problem was quickly resolved when Kelly cut a piece out of my Stimulite cushion to relieve the pressure.
Through northern California we raced the descent of fall, bracing ourselves against 25-degree nights with whiskey and hot rocks pulled from the campfire and wrapped in a towel to heat our sleeping bag. We rode through autumnal valleys and mingled with free-range cattle, climbed the passes between them, and bombed the descents. When we came out of the mountains at Red Bluff, Calif., we sprinted for the Bay Area. In the Central Valley, flat as a lakebed, we strung together 50-mile days, knowing that each one laid the foundation for the long miles to come.
The U.S. part of our trip rolled by more or less as we’d hoped — difficult but doable — beautiful, accessible, well set up for touring cyclists. After a few weeks of physical suffering, our bodies slowly began to get used to the new normal of life on the road. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the accessibility of campgrounds and hotels made everything else easier to deal with. When we were off our bikes, I could help Kelly with setting up and taking down camp, hauling gear to hotel rooms, picking up food while she worked on something I couldn’t.
In Southern California, we shared the road with Teslas and Maseratis, rode past single-family compounds with front gates worth more than our Portland condo. Here the unknowns of Mexico began looming larger. We were getting a stream of advice from people worried about our crossing the border. Most of it some variation of “be careful” or “Mexico is really dangerous right now.”
We took the unsolicited warnings with a grain of salt. I don’t want to discount the reality of drug violence and petty criminality, but long experience traveling internationally had made me skeptical of such prognostications, most of which are fueled by U.S. news coverage, which, at best, skews towards the sensational. We were more concerned about inaccessibility, the ever-increasing heat, and the traffic as we crossed to the Baja Peninsula.
* * *
Once across the border to Tijuana we were baking hot, as if greater San Diego had wrapped itself in a climate shield to prevent the Mexican heat from fouling its temperate reputation. Of more immediate concern was the realization that we had managed to delete all our Mexico maps from our GPS and had not bothered to check if our paper map had a Tijuana insert (it didn’t). Not to fear, my Spanish, which had been rusting in the back of my brain for 10 years, was immediately pried loose by adrenalin and necessity.
Asking directions from gas station attendants and taco truck chefs, we pedaled into the surging chaos of Latin American traffic. Each foray we treated like a military operation, yelling instructions back and forth amidst the din of horns and whooshing tires.
“Car coming fast, squeeze right … Hole! … Merge lane clear, I’m with you … We gotta turn here, cross after the black truck.”
Tijuana looked like any other Latin American city, dirty and frenetic, sure, but from the warnings we’d heard, I’d half expected to find gangsters in leather jackets holding shotguns on every corner and police-tape cordoning murdered informants. Instead, the sidewalks were crowded with businessmen in shiny suits, whiskery old street-sweepers, and uniformed school children on their lunch break.
We finally found the right road and followed it, climbing up into the hills that surround the city. I was frying in this jungle of asphalt and exhaust, but there was no place to pull off. High curbs penned us in like minnows in a river of salmon. But by the time we crested the climb, traffic had thinned, and we were able to pull to the shoulder and enjoy the view of the Pacific rolling onto the beach at Rosarito. Two hours later we were sitting by the pool at a cheap, beachside hotel, toasting Pacificos to our first day in Mexico.
* * *
For the first few days south of Tijuana the terrain felt like an extension of Southern California: Highway 1 winding among dry hills and cooled by an ever-present sea breeze. The roads were good and the towns touristy enough to find accessible places to stay. It wasn’t until we cut toward Baja’s harsh inland desert that we began to realize what we were in for over the next few months. Away from the coast, the road climbed into the mountains and the heat jumped immediately.
Because of my disability, I don’t sweat. The heat in the middle section of our journey was something that had been our biggest worry in the planning. There was simply no way around it. In attempts to mitigate my thermo-regulatory problems, I’d worked with a friend to design and install a spray system on my handcycle. It was a simple plastic tank attached behind my backrest that could be pressurized with our bicycle pump. Automotive hosing ran along the frame to a release valve on the side of my seat, and then to a nozzle that was pointing at my shoulders and face. While moving, I could hit the release and send a fine spray over my skin that would simulate the evaporative cooling of sweat.
I’d hoped that I wouldn’t need to use it until mainland Mexico, but Baja was having a hot fall, and I became wedded to it as soon as we turned from the coast.
Away from the touristy beach towns, Baja is sparse and rugged, a landscape of rock-strewn mountains and cacti extending to the horizon. Small pueblos were spaced along Highway 1 every 30-50 miles: single-story brick and rebar buildings with dusty side-streets patrolled by packs of kids on BMX bikes.
The wide-open spaces let us camp where we wanted. We never felt remotely threatened by anything other than a bus passing too close on the road. The people were laid back and always working. Rising at 4 a.m., we felt proud riding away with the pink sun peeking over the horizon. But soon we’d hit bustling streets, tortillas already frying over portable propane tanks, and hunched grandmothers already sweeping dust from the dirt in front of their shops, shoulders wrapped with thin sweaters against the chilly desert mornings.
As we pushed ourselves toward the promise of a family visit at Thanksgiving, the pace — already nearing 2,000 miles over the first few months — finally began catching up with me. A fatigue descended that our limited rest days would not cure. On one flat, mind-numbing stretch approaching Guerrero Negro, I even found myself nodding off at 12mph. I sprayed myself with water, slapped my face a few times, and kept pedaling.
We’d planned to keep riding while Kelly’s parents were visiting, but after a few consecutive days of rest, our bodies went into recovery mode — intense soreness, all-day sleepiness, and general malaise. Even with 10-11 hours of sleep at night, it took eight days before I started to feel normal again. By then, we’d lost the cushion on our schedule that we’d killed ourselves to gain.
Our biggest mistake in planning was not taking the effect of cumulative fatigue into account. Throughout the trip, we were only able to put in about two months at a time at our planned pace before needing a week or more of rest. It was the first realization that we wouldn’t be able to cover the distance we’d hoped for, and it stung.
* * *
On Mexico’s Pacific Coast the land was transformed. Foliage crowded the road, trees rose from behind a green curtain, and insects sung a soundtrack as we rode. There was standing water and reedy estuaries. Flattened snakes, some thick as my forearms, colored the road, while tarantulas and scorpions scurried across the asphalt. It was tropical, hot. At first we were fine in the mornings, able to make good progress for a few hours before slowing our pace as the heat thickened.
South of Mazatlan, the hills were small and we continued our long days. Fatigue lingered through the sticky nights. Again we churned through 40-45 mile days in order to reach incoming family, this time my parents for Christmas, ahead in Manzanillo.
But problems rose with the hills. A 2,000-foot climb on the tail end of a stomach illness left me shattered halfway through. There was no wind, and the air, heavy with water, allowed little evaporation. Without a breeze, there was no valve for my body to shed heat, which built in me like a pressure cooker. We got a ride in a pickup to the top of the climb, then kept pedaling, eventually settling down for a restless night camping in a small town plaza. From there, just making it through the day became more and more difficult. We could only ride for two hours past sunrise before my body started trying to shut down. When we stopped to cool off, I could barely function. Kelly had to go find water, refill bottles and my spray, and get snacks together. I kept still and poured water over my head — the only way I could cool off. Kelly was exhausted too, but for her our rests were no rest at all. It was not fair, but it was the only way to keep moving.
Farther south, the terrain stacked upon itself. It seemed like we were always either climbing or descending, but the descents were never long enough. Two days out from Manzanillo, we spent the morning riding through undulating hills under a welcome cloud cover. Then the sun came out and everything changed.
We had a quick bite to eat at the top of a hill and started down the other side. Whizzing through a hot breeze, I suddenly lost all ability to concentrate. My attention flashed between the road, my brake, and Kelly’s back wheel, like rough cuts in a film. There was no fluidity to my thought. It felt like my mind was a hamster caught in a wheel spinning faster than its legs would go. Spin your arms, get your blood moving, I told myself. In my thought process, movement was always the answer. But now, it only made things worse.
At the bottom of the hill I yelled up to Kelly to pull over. She found a grassy clearing with some shade. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I … don’t … know.”
I was having a hard time forming sentences, but eventually stammered something about needing to rest. Kelly grabbed the thermometer and took my temperature: 101.8. Troublingly, this was not abnormal. Not knowing what else to do, I poured water over my head and rested in the shade. After five or ten minutes, the hamster wheel began to slow down and I quickly morphed into feeling like some large beast that had just been shot with a tranquilizer dart.
Another ten minutes and we had no choice but to start moving again. There was still one more climb before we’d be done for the day, and the sun’s angle was getting long. I trudged through the last 10 miles, but I was lucky that heat stroke did not take me down.
The next day, in what was supposed to be an easy 20-miler to Manzanillo, I was cooked from the start. No power in my arms. Belligerent body I could do nothing about. We limped into a condo complex of soaring white stucco where my parents were due to be arriving later that evening, and I drew a cold bath to rid myself of this awful heat.
* * *
We started to decompress from a few days of relaxation and margaritas, extending our view beyond the immediate concerns of what we needed to do daily to get from point A to point B. After some deliberation it became clear that our reality had become skewed. I’d been running a daily, self-induced fever that had started to edge towards heat stroke. Kelly was nearing her breaking point from the stress of having to do everything on the road, while I could barely function except to pedal.
The excitement of the trip had been about us getting to ride together and experience the world in a unique way. But since getting to coastal Mexico, it had become all about me. All our energy was going toward nursing my body through a climate in which it clearly was not capable of functioning. Only three weeks had passed since we’d taken the ferry from Baja. Ahead was an uninterrupted 2-3 months of the same cauldron.
As we thought about what to do, I remembered a survival book I’d read years ago. The takeaway was that people who stick to a plan that has been rendered obsolete by actual conditions are the ones most likely to get themselves into trouble. Not completing a stated goal might hurt the ego, but it won’t put you in the hospital. It was sound advice, and I knew we needed to follow it, but it didn’t make us feel any better.
Deflated, we researched and reconsidered the best way forward, then booked a flight for high-altitude Bogotá, Colombia. We’d found our limit when it came to heat.
Now, the thin air and serpentine roads of the Andes awaited.
How They Did It
by Ian Ruder
So how the heck did a quad and his fiancée complete a 10,000-mile trek that would be daunting even for two riders without disabilities? Through years of thought and planning and a fearless creativity that allowed them to adapt to the unpredictable events that awaited them around every bend in the road.
A month-long tour in Ireland in 2009 (“Touring by Handcycle,” NM, June 2011) gave Seth and Kelly the confidence that a trip of this scale was feasible. It also taught them the do’s and don’ts of equipment setup and packing. McBride rides a Top End Force Cross Country with modified seating and gearing to make the 7-8 hours a day he spends in it more comfortable. He packs his everyday Box wheelchair, customized to handle the expected mix of roads and off-road terrain, on the back of his cycle, which has the same size axles, meaning he always had backups (though the handcycle wheels lacked pushrims). Kelly shoulders most of the equipment load on her touring bike. “We learned early on in trying to do touring stuff that the only way for us to ride at a somewhat similar speed was if she was carrying all the weight,” explains McBride.
A former member of the U.S. wheelchair rugby team, McBride is no slouch physically, but he worked with trainers at a local gym to hone his strength and balance before embarking. “We knew endurance would come if our bodies were well-prepared for all the other rigors of the trip, and we didn’t want to burn ourselves out on the bikes before we started riding for a year,” he says.
The duo was equally meticulous in planning the route, though McBride says options were limited. “Through Mexico, Central America and a lot of South America, there is basically one road — unless you’re willing to weave hundreds of miles out of the way. We were right on the roads with traffic. It was definitely scary at first, but then you sort of get used to it.”
Knowing accessible restrooms would be few and far between, McBride took a custom lightweight commode his dad built. He says it worked well, but he stopped using it when he realized he could swing his backside over his bike and let nature do the rest. “I’m sure it was hilarious if anyone saw me,” he says. A small supply of 10-15 reusable caths served him well for the entire trip. McBride didn’t have to worry about suppositories, as he doesn’t use them, but he did bring a 90-day supply of an antispasmodic (for bladder control) and insulin (he is diabetic). He had friends and family restock him along the route.