Part Two: Colombia to Ushuaia
By the time Kelly and I reached Colombia’s mountain border with Ecuador, we were exhausted and stiff from 24 hours of bus travel. We were almost four months and 2,500 miles into a transcontinental handcycle/bicycle tour, but it had been three weeks since we had strung more than two days together on our bikes. My physical confidence was the lowest it had been since immediately after my injury.
It had all started so well in Bogotá. After our escape from the heat of coastal Mexico, we spent a week acclimatizing to the cool, thin air of the high-altitude capital of Colombia. We met with the organizers of the Maximus Project, a program developing wheelchair rugby in South America as a way of promoting social inclusion through sport, and practiced with the Colombian national wheelchair rugby team. We did interviews with Colombian newspapers and television, using our trip to promote the message of social inclusion and disability rights. We felt reinvigorated about our mission and the value of what we were doing.
Then we descended off the high plateau that locks Bogotá in a perpetual spring and everything came crashing down. We’d hoped that we’d be able to handle a few days at a time in the blazing lowland valleys before the road invariably climbed back into the mountains. That was dismissed in the first two days of riding. Heat exhaustion immediately reared its dangerous head. Only 90 miles from Bogotá, I’d been smacked in the face by my overly optimistic calculations. We seriously considered abandoning the whole unwieldy dream right there. Tried, tried again, simply couldn’t do it. Valiant effort and all that. We even told ourselves that we were done.
After all the climatic and terrain extremes we’d been through, the riding in Ecuador looked doable. After that we didn’t know. But how many chances do you have to ride a bike through Ecuador? If we had let the possibility of future failures deter us, we’d never have left Portland. So we went to the bus station, Kelly sweated over our gear and then piggy-backed me aboard, and we headed for the frontier.
We only rode 20 miles our first day in Ecuador, up a large climb and back down the other side, but it was enough to breathe life back into the trip. The roads were good, and removed from the noxious heat and humidity, my body remembered how to circulate blood and fire muscles. In the afternoon we saw a level field next to an organic fertilizer warehouse and pulled off the road. I called inside from my bike and asked if we could camp there for the night. The manager, a slab-faced man who walked with a limp, waved his hand as if it was a silly question. “Of course, wherever you want.”
We went to unload our bikes and he came out a few minutes later with a bottle of pineapple soda as a gift. We cooked dinner as the sun dropped behind a verdant patchwork of fields and forest. It was like a scene from rural Ireland, scaled up and deposited on the equator at 11,000 feet. As dusk descended, the villagers returned from the fields and gave us wide grins and waves as they led their cows home for the night. In the morning the warehouse workers brought us coffee and bread to the tent. Less than two days after considering quitting, it felt like the world was trying to tell us something. Do whatever you must to keep moving forward. It’s worth it.
To give you an idea of our typical roadside abodes, here’s a partial list of our campsites in Ecuador: the tiled walkway of a church complex, a lumpy yard about 300 feet from the equator, the back field of a truck stop, the basketball court of an elementary school, the side of a concrete soccer field/town plaza, an uncultivated field overlooking a river gorge. The sites were a place to rest our heads, to cook a meal of rice and beans over a gasoline flame, to sip coffee in the silence of a chilly morning. Bathroom duties were often relegated to stops at roadside gas stations. Surprisingly, these often had accessible facilities.
We were no longer hobbled by the climate or stretched thin by a relentless schedule. As such, we lazed through Northern Ecuador. We spent four days in the converted barn of an Australian landscaper, another four wandering the streets of Quito with only a vague sense of where we were trying to go. Our trip, which had been an expedition through a hostile environment, again felt like travel.
* * *
One day, south of the sprawling madness of Quito, we were held hostage by an overly-friendly Ecuadorian family. A brief side trip turned into a nine-hour jungle expedition. On the way back, we wound up seeing a volcano erupt! Lava lit the night like a gigantic Fourth of July sparkler.
Two days later we rode away from our night’s lodging, a South American version of an Alpine chalet, and the mountain was still spewing smoke. The road was steep and we warmed up quickly. The riding was difficult, and the slope unending. But my body was responding. The effort felt good and right, and I challenged myself to stick to Kelly’s back wheel. I settled into a rhythm as we passed weathered shacks. Leather-skinned Indians in bright sweaters and brown fedoras were bent over in the fields. We climbed into a swirling fog and the slope mellowed amidst a landscape of eerie moorlands. Somewhere above, now shrouded in clouds, stood the snowy, 20,000-foot summit of Mount Chimborazo.
On the other side of the pass the sun came out and the road wound down in broad sweeping curves. I kept my hand off the brake and slipped through the thin air like a wraith. Thirty miles per hour, 40 mph, 50 mph, I topped out. As I shot by, field workers stood up, pointed, and laughed at the speed. For six miles, Kelly and I rarely dipped below 40 mph. When the gradient mellowed, we pulled into a gas station. I was wild with adrenalin and grinning like a fool. I’d never had a better day on my handcycle.
As we rode south into the heart of the Andes, the climbs kept getting bigger, the slopes steeper. I had been feeling stronger and stronger through Ecuador. But as the topography lines crowded together, we began running into the limits of our ability to recover. There was no flat riding. We were either flying downhill or crawling up.
Cranking up a 12 percent slope with 40 pounds on the back of your handcycle feels like weight lifting. You max out a chest press, then a row, and then repeat 100 times to get one-hundredth of the way to the top. With every rotation a battle, there is no way to get into a rhythm. If you ride a regular bicycle and want a sense of what Kelly was going through, put a trailer on the back of your bike, let a full-size human sit in it, and go ride up the steepest hill you can find. Now stop halfway up the hill, sit there for 10 minutes waiting for your unimaginably slow partner, then try to get that bike moving again without falling over or tearing your hamstring out of the back of your hip. When you get to the top, ride back down, and start up another hill again.
These Sisyphean days, combined with calorie-deficient meals, food poisoning, and dysentery (yes, dysentery), took their toll. We had to thumb rides from friendly pickup drivers twice when sickness and terrain left us between supplies and unable to reach the next town. I was losing muscle in my shoulders at an alarming rate. Kelly’s endurance was getting worse rather than better.
But for all our exhaustion, sickness, and atrophy, we were still enjoying the riding. Each new challenge we overcame — whether finding palatable food in the land of roasted guinea pigs, locating a campsite when the road is terraced into a mountain, or arranging bikes and tent so I could sit on the commode chair out of direct view of the highway in the morning — only strengthened our resolve to keep moving by whatever means necessary. Our pride had been beaten down by the sheer difficulty of the task at hand. We reached Loja, in the far south of Ecuador, and the road again dropped out of the mountains. The only way to get to the next section with a rideable temperature was another 500-mile bus ride. So we accepted it as a necessary evil, and with the strength of Kelly’s straining back, loaded up again.
* * *
When you ask a Peruvian what the northern coast of their country is like, they give you a funny look and pause for a moment. After trying to think of the best way to translate “post-apocalyptic hellscape” into more diplomatic terms, they usually give a one-word answer like “breezy” or “dry.” If you are riding south, as we were, there is a near constant headwind. The landscape is sand, and more sand, occasionally broken up by a mountain of sand and rock. It took us two weeks of this to get to Lima. Two weeks of brutal, boring riding, with constant stomach and bowel issues due to the lack of sanitation or clean water for cooked food. We ate bland rice, soggy French fries, and occasional bits of fried fish. I spent a lot of time washing underwear. Lima couldn’t come soon enough.
In both Lima and Trujillo we went to wheelchair rugby practice with the local teams. The Trujillo team had just received a batch of shiny new rugby chairs three days before (paid for by USAID). Instead of teaching about zone defense or key offense, Kelly’s and my contributions were a little more rudimentary: Here’s how you transfer into a rugby chair. Here’s how you pick someone off the ground. This is how you wheel backwards. They were blown away by skills I’ve long taken for granted. It brought me back to the feeling of freedom and possibility that my first time sitting in a sports chair had given.
There were two guys at practice who might class into the sport. The rest were paraplegics, and amputees not missing enough of their limbs. Stevens, the amiable, square-faced Colombian who runs the Maximus Project, had told us that it was a serious issue for them just to find people with quadriplegia. After leaving the hospital, they disappear. Most often taken care of by family, but locked into a life of inactive dependence. Getting the word out about a new adaptive sport is a monumental challenge when people with quadriplegia rarely leave their homes.
Still, in Trujillo, two was a start. We rounded out a scrimmage with a few nondisabled helpers and everybody got to play. One of the quads got hit and fell through the bottom of his chair. His mom got to learn that maybe he wasn’t as fragile as she’d been led to believe.
* * *
From Lima we took a sideways hop up to Cusco rather than continue along the barren coastline for another 1,500 miles. My best friend joined us to ride the high-mountain stretch to Lake Titicaca. We rode through villages where the locals hardly speak Spanish, as Quechua and other indigenous languages predominate, and amused ourselves by startling herds of llamas. We topped out the trip when we crossed a pass at 14,300 feet. From there, we descended to the vast expanse of the Altiplano, the high plateau that spans from southern Peru all the way through Bolivia.
Bolivia was a land of contrasts: blinding sun that transitioned into dark thunderheads and blowing hail in a span of five minutes, angry drivers that threw drinks at Kelly as we rode, and farmers so generous that they brought us warm milk from their cow in the icy hour before sunrise. The food was terrible and the camping great. It’s a land of wide-open spaces and jam-packed towns. It was one the most beautiful places we’d seen, and we rode through it as fast as we could.
At 13,000 feet Kelly hacked and coughed and wanted nothing more than to keep moving. We rode eight days straight through one of the last places on earth where the indigenous population is still the majority. Seven nights of sleeping under the sheltering sky and waking to the frosted plumes of our breath. After being on the road for eight months, the tent was our one constant companion. With that familiarity, it grew into the only home we had. Looking at the quality of Bolivian motels, we were glad to have a space to call our own.
* * *
It all came together in Argentina: clean water, vast spaces, good food, cheap and accessible hotels, and wild camping wherever we needed. Coming out of the mountains, down the weathered sandstone canyons of Jujuy, the culture and infrastructure of Argentina presented themselves like a treasure trove of ordinary riches. Throughout South America our biggest surprise had been that the riding hadn’t been the hardest part. Sure, it was difficult, and there were some areas that my body simply couldn’t handle. But on a day-to-day basis, it was other things — finding decent food in endurance-athlete quantities, hauling gear through inaccessible hotels, never knowing where the next clean(ish) bathroom would be, dealing with constant stomach bugs, having people stare at us like a circus sideshow — that became the most fatiguing. Kelly had been battling illness nearly continually for the past three months. She was running on empty by the time we descended from the Altiplano.
In Argentina, our life off the bikes normalized a bit. That, in turn, translated into the riding. In between towns the distances were vast. We wanted to get to Mendoza, where my mom and sister were coming to resupply us for the oncoming winter. The 1,000 miles from the Bolivian border to the pretty city of vineyards and soaring peaks turned into a month-long sprint.
We rode from the high plains to fertile farmlands and onto the vast desert of eastern Argentina. Despite the distances, both of us felt more invigorated than we had since California. When you’re on your bikes for eight hours a day, constant availability of pasta and $2 bottles of wine helps both your physiology and psychology more than you can imagine. Our bodies operating at full capacity was a revelation of how resilient they’d become.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of my handcycle. The seat rail on my Force CC snapped while wheeling down the smooth pavement in northern Argentina. Seeing the inside of the tubing, I couldn’t believe such a thin piece of material had been intended to bear a rider’s weight on off-road terrain. Luckily, some creative thinking from a mechanic in Tucuman, a metal splint, and some rivets fixed things up enough to keep riding.
After we left Mendoza, we pushed toward the great wide nothing of inland Patagonia. We would often camp four or more nights in a row, then find a decent hotel to clean up and eat a meal that had been cooked on more than one burner. Then we’d head back into the open. Kelly would often carry 15-20 liters of water leaving a town, adding 30-40 pounds of weight, but allowing us to be self-sufficient with cooking and drinking for multiple days. The nights, already near freezing in Mendoza, grew colder. We were sleeping in our down jackets, with an alpaca blanket and an extra sleeping bag stuffed into our normal, two-person sleeping bag. In the mornings Kelly would stick her head out the tent door, light the stove under the vestibule, and we’d drink coffee still wrapped in down, faces perched over the rising steam. Those 10 minutes sipping coffee were usually the only respite from the go, go, go of the rest of the day. The daylight hours were few and we moved as fast as we could to be able to put in the miles that we needed.
Not that there was much to linger over as we pushed into Patagonia. The plains extended to the horizon and beyond, the endless expanse of scrub thorn like a mottled green ocean. We could ride all day and the view would barely change. I began, for the first time in my handcycling life, to welcome hills because they presented a change from the boredom of ever-present flat vistas.
* * *
The unremitting pace we’d set through Argentina continued as we pushed toward the southern tip of South America. We’d never planned on riding this far. But the sections we’d had to pass due to the heat gave us more time to push south. No one rides through Patagonia in the winter. There are reasons for this: It snows; freezing winds rake off the Andes; the roads ice over, and during the day the temperatures barely break 32 degrees. It is not comfortable. But adventure, as I’ve said more than once, is rarely comfortable. Every previous failure had made us even more stubborn. We’d push ourselves until physiological limits or overt danger made it impossible to continue.
Whether or not we’d be able to make it to Ushuaia, where the Pan-American highway ends, depended on the weather. We said that if the roads snowed over, we’d be done. Three days away from Tierra del Fuego the roads turned into an icy mess. But we were so close we didn’t want to be done. So we hopped rides until we got to a town, Punta Arenas, where we could find knobby tires for our bikes. We tested them in a blizzard and the tires gripped well. So we rode to the ferry and set sail for Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of the continent.
We rode from Porvenir, on the eastern side of the island. A mile away from town, the only sounds were the whooshing wind and the crunching of our tires on snow-covered gravel. There were hills of brown grass, the occasional herd of guanaco (a cousin of the llama), and little else. We crested a short climb. As we descended, the spectacle before us overwhelmed me. In front of us lay a lagoon, ruffled by the wind and surrounded by snow-dusted hills. A cluster of pink flamingos stood at the lagoon’s edge, spindly legs disappearing into the frigid water. The road hadn’t a car in sight, and ran along a breakwater, beyond which the dark blue waters of the southern ocean separated us from a range of jagged white peaks, the last of the Andes.
It was a sight at once wild and oddly familiar, what with the flamingos and something else — the island peaks reminded me of my childhood home in Southeast Alaska. But here we were, on the far side of the planet, bundled against the Patagonian winter and still riding our bikes. It filled me with the kind of bursting, authentic joy that made meaningless all the struggles and failures of the past 10 months. Heat stroke and plane flights, pickup truck rescues, grinding through headwinds and over mountain passes — all of it had brought us here. For a beautiful moment, to be moving under my own power through a landscape as remote and spectacular as anything I’d ever seen, made it all worth it.
Of course, then the snowy road gave way to mud, and the gooey, slippery surface kicked up into short hills as steep as anything we’d been on. Our progress, already slow, ground to a crawl. There was a shelf between the road and a cliff that overlooked the ocean. So after a few miles and three hours of struggle, we called it a day — how many times do you have a chance to sleep in the snow with a view over the Straight of Magellan? About as many as you do to handcycle through Ecuador, I’d guess. We hurried to put the tent up on the snowy ledge. I was already shivering as we raced against the gathering night. But, if anything, the harsh conditions only amplified the beauty. Right then, I didn’t care if those had been the last miles we could ride.
We had to accept one more pickup rescue, be taken in by some fantastic Argentines, sleep in a bakery and catch a bluebird day to cross the southernmost pass in the Andes before a group of a dozen or more strangers, including one crazy guy on a skateboard, who’d heard about us on social media, escorted us the final 10 miles into Ushuaia. It was a fitting ending to an amazing trip.
We would never have been able to do it without the outpouring of support — physical, psychological and financial — by countless people, from our friends and family to perfect strangers. When we finished, we’d been on the road for 315 days and ridden approximately 6,500 miles.
You never know what your body can do until you try.