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An epic pedal from Alaska to Patagonia down the backbone of the Americas

By Jacob Thompson

IMG_0790Editor’s Note: This is a report from the road, or from some eroding mountainside village trail, sent by Jacob Thompson, one of three former UC Santa Cruz students attempting to ride the mountainous spine of the Americas from Alaska to South America. After three years and 25,000 kilometers of pedaling their loaded Xtracycle bikes, often choosing the most difficult routes imaginable, the trio reached Bolivia in August. This is a synopsis of their trip from the Arctic Circle through to Colombia. You can check for regular updates on their progress toward their ultimate goal of Tierra del Fuego ­– plus detailed photos, maps and rider profiles – on their website, www.ridingthespine.com.

“Where do you come from?  How long have you been traveling? Where are you going?”

These are the questions that come first.

The next round of questions are typically something like: “How many flats have you had? Have you ever crashed? Where do you sleep at night? Aren’t you scared?”

When you are on a bike ride that intends to span the entire length of the Americas following the mountains on dirt roads, you begin to dream about having a t-shirt or flyer to pass out and answer the barrage of unavoidable questions.

If we haven’t managed to slip away from the crowd of locals interrogating us, somebody inevitably asks us, “Why? Why are you riding your bike across the globe?”

This is the question that gets us, and our answer is rarely forthcoming. Sometimes I’ll look over at my barefoot companion Goat (yes, that’s his name), with his long hair braided to keep it from dreading, camouflage pants covered in mud and sleeveless, tattered cowboy pearl-button plaid shirt. And my other companion, Sean, with the black Cars-R-Coffins jersey he won at a bike race in Tucson for getting hit by a car, striped pants soaked to the knees in water, and wildly curly blond hair dripping rain that had been constant for the past few days. The truth is, when I think about why, I’m not always sure.

We met while attending UC Santa Cruz, all dirtbag students living in treehouses in the nearby forest to escape rent and riding freight trains on vacation to see the country. Apparently, after finishing university, you are supposed to get a career, maybe a mortgage, possibly a kid or two, but Goat had the prescience to pursue an alternative path: riding dirt roads and single-track across the United States.

Originally, it began as an ambitious 2,500-mile off-road route from Montana to Mexico along the Continental Divide. But as the twirling globe slowed to a stop, our fingers ran all the way down the longest contiguous mountain range in the world.

The Great Divide, rising from the earth as a gnarled spine, stretches its way from the top of Alaska, along the crest of the Rocky Mountains and down the Andes to the southernmost tip of South America in the Land of Fire. From then on, I knew the next few years would be spent as a bicycle nomad, chasing the southern horizon with my best friends and all our worldly possessions neatly packed onto bikes.

Our new lives began under the 24-hour Alaskan sun, a few miles south of the Arctic Ocean. Shortly into the first day of riding, a sign interrupted the vast sea of tundra and open skies, cautioning us that there would be “No Services for 240 miles.” Exactly the kind of sign we had long anticipated.

Approaching the Arctic Circle after a long day’s ride we were stopped by a truck filled with oil workers checking up on the pipeline that runs the length of Alaska. The driver leaned out his window, spit some tobacco at our feet and said, “You guys should be careful. We just saw a lone wolf about a half mile from the Arctic Circle Campground. Just six days ago some lady from Fairbanks was attacked there by a wolf and it’s still on the loose.” He quickly drove off, shaking his head and leaving us with a few more words of caution, “Alaska is wild country.”

Suddenly, I felt a bit more vulnerable in what is described as America’s last frontier. I imagined our ultra-light tent wouldn’t offer much protection from a hungry wolf, nor did I feel so confident with my little can of bear spray. “Yes, it is a wild country indeed,” I thought to myself.

Fortunately, we crossed the Arctic Circle without any sightings of the wolf. My spirits were high the next day as I pedaled rhythmically through the Alaskan wilderness. Elated to have escaped the dangers of the wolf, I immersed myself in the landscape: a caribou relaxed on a hillside of fireweed that covered the earth in crimson red, as if to extend the reflection of the fire that had preceded it.

Then I heard the sound of a distant trucker. Looking back to gauge the distance of the vehicle I saw a wolf jump out of the bushes and begin chasing me.

After muttering some profanities, I picked up the pace. Adrenaline coursed through my veins, transforming me into a frightened animal running for survival. My mind filled with images of the wolf in full stride, as if I were watching a wildlife film of the slow-motion chase of a predator on the plains of Africa. Only, here, I was the prey. I pedaled even harder.

I tried to get the bear spray out of my handlebar bag, but the wolf approached too quickly, and as it got within 10 feet of me, the trucker skillfully swerved and smashed into the wolf. A miracle, and it was only the fourth day of our trip.

Adjusting to life on the road, we continued south until the stark arctic landscape began to radically shift and powerful mountains manipulated the horizon with their jagged peaks. On occasion, a car would slowly pass and “discreetly” take our picture with their camera phone.  Seems we were wildlife as well.

Twilight soon grew longer and the sun would rest behind the mountain ranges slowly painting the sky for hours, fusing the sunset and sunrise. We bathed in the crystal rivers and lakes, while moose swam nearby to eat the algae and escape the mosquitoes, only their giant crown of horns visible. And each day we rolled further south following the curvature of the earth.

As we climbed into the Canadian Rockies autumn began to set in. Sporadic trees sparked into a torrid spectrum of reds and yellows, before igniting entire hillsides. The night sky shimmered with rays of scintillating greens and blues. Glaciers and abrupt peaks loomed overhead, lined with snow, reminding us that winter was not far behind.

We picked up the official Great Divide Trail in Banff, Alberta, and began a series of off-road trails that snaked their way through the mountains. An early winter storm sent temperatures plummeting and covered the mountains with snow. Just after Butte, Montana, the temperature dropped to -12F, unbearable conditions on a bike. An abandoned wilderness cabin with firewood provided welcome refuge, but we still suffered frostbite and hypothermia. The snow slowed us down exponentially and by the time we neared Colorado, the trails were piled with up to four feet of snow and the roads frosted over with black ice.

We were forced to drop off the divide and seek alternative off-road routes like the Kokopelli Trail through the canyon country of Utah, dropping us off in Moab, where we took some time to enjoy the incomparable slickrock mountain biking.

Immediately south of Moab, we found ourselves completely unprepared for the terrain. Sand and snow crippled our progress. We ran out of food three days out, still a hundred miles from the nearest store. After a strenuous day of calorie-deficient riding, we were fortunate enough to come across a camper who was able to spare some pasta and sauce. But the experience made us painfully aware how important it would be to be prepared for self-supported survival in the days and months ahead.

After passing through a Navajo Reservation, we picked up the Arizona Trail that winds all the way to Mexico, boasting a surprising amount of single-track and one giant obstacle: the Grand Canyon. Carrying our bikes and gear out of the canyon on the steep Bright Angel Trail was an ordeal we would not want to repeat. Back on the rim it was a pleasure to mount our bikes and drop down into the blooming Sonoran Desert stretching to the border.

Relief from the scorching, arid terrain of Mexico was earned by climbing up into the pines where the weather cooled. Eventually, small sections of hoodoo rock formations and steep cliff faces shifted into immense canyon country, occupying a third of the state of Chihuahua, known as the “Barrancas del Cobre.”

After asking around, we started drawing some lines on our maps that would cut across the canyons, always accompanied by the warning, “You should be careful, these roads are only used by drug runners. They are extremely dangerous.”

After descending into a canyon over a mile deep we faced an arduous climb out that would take multiple days. One night while camping at a river, we watched two trucks get stuck attempting to cross. Immediately, bales of marijuana were transferred into a truck across the river. When filled, it sped away leaving the smugglers with a dozen or so bales to hide in the nearby bushes as headlights appeared on the mountain road above. A Hummer arrived loaded with soldiers. They pulled up next to a truck in the river and dragged the driver out. Apparently the rest of the smugglers had already taken off on foot. Minutes later our camp was raided at gunpoint, with the military thinking we were somehow a part of this drug smuggling operation.

“Somos gringos,” we pleaded in an attempt to calm them. They were sweating profusely and their machine guns shook frightfully. After searching through our bags they realized we were harmless, “You guys okay. There are guys moving drugs here. You fine,” the general reassured us in choppy English.

Soldiers raided our campsite three more times as we pedaled out of the canyon country and down to the coast where we were met by suffocating humidity and insufferable biting insects.

We ended weeks of flat coastal riding at the border of Guatemala, where we began climbing, and climbing, until we reached the tallest peak of Central America, the Tajumulco Volcano. From the top we could see both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, El Salvador, and for a moment, it really did feel like it would be all downhill to Patagonia.

Our efforts to find dirt roads became considerable as we found ourselves unable to acquire any useful maps. We started to examine Google Maps, closely scanning the satellite images for possible routes, but when it came down to it, we just had to talk to people at every turn. In some of the more rural areas, the indigenous didn’t speak Spanish. With enough gesturing and luck, we’d somehow manage to find our way to the next town.

As we reached the Panama Canal we knew that the roads would soon stop at the Darien Gap, an impossibly mountainous jungle that serves as the only break in the otherwise continuous Pan-American Highway. The area is renowned for its guerrilla presence and it was the rainy season, making it nearly impossible to cross overland.

We bought some sea kayaks and figured out how to strap our bikes onto them. With the help of an indigenous Kuna contact, we were able to acquire permission to travel through the Kuna-Yala Nation. With absolutely no kayaking experience, we had to learn fast as we hopped from one island to the other. At each stop we had to meet the village chief, known as the “Sahila” and ask for permission to camp.

After 18 days of paddling we arrived in Turbo, Colombia, and wound through a maze of mangrove channels into a giant port filled with merchant ships headed to Panama. All the boatmen and fisherman hanging out in the docks cheered as we paddled up.

They picked up our kayaks with us in them and placed us onto a city street. Beers were forced into our hands and the barrage of questions began. Yet, this time, when they asked the usual questions, we were happy to attempt some earnest answers. Why ride the spine of the Americas?

For experiences and adventures and connections just like this. As the cliché goes, it’s about the journey. Ours just comes with a more literal meaning.

A more reflective answer may come when we reach the tip of South America. It’s doubtful it will in any way supersede these impressions; rather it’ll benefit from the continuity of these experiences into a whole, like individual vertebrae forming a spine.