Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
23,000 km. 203 days. 21 countries. Seven time zones. 125 degrees of latitude. 13 flat tires. Enough oatmeal and white bread that I'm sick of both. Frozen arctic, snow-capped mountains, windy high plains, burning deserts, rolling hill country, warm sunny beaches, tropical jungles, extreme elevation. Seven Andes crossings. Sunburns, saddle sores, numb hands, diarrhea. And now I'm going to try to wrap it up in one long description.
My first post from the road was titled "Getting the Worst Part Over," and at the time, I firmly believed that to be the case. And now? Yeah, I might've been right! I hate the cold.
Alaska's Dalton Highway, as much as I trashed it, might have been the best unpaved road I saw the whole time! At least it's maintained. South American countries do no such thing, and Bolivia appears to only have one wholly paved highway in the entire country. Southern Argentina and Chile are innavigable without using horrible unpaved roads. But to give them some credit, they're paving parts of it now.
South America is a land of extremes. However tall you think the Andes are, they're taller. However strong you think the wind is, it's stronger. However loud you think a city could be, they're louder. However many different answers you expect to get for the same question, you'll get more. However fast you think a person can possibly talk, you're wrong! I wasn't prepared for how bad the unpaved roads would be, that the wind can repeatedly blow you off your bike...and then knock you over once you've stood up again. I had no idea I would ever have to wade thigh-deep across a stream, pushing Valeria through the muddy bottom, then drag her onto the bank by her front rack. I didn't know that I'd get robbed at gunpoint. And I would've never believed how loud Latin America is.
If you had me describe Latin America in one word, it would be "noisy." The dogs that never stop barking, the people that shout every word they say (this certainly wasn't everyone, but only a few loud people still get noticed), the music blaring in public everywhere you go. But more than everything, the honking. You would think the entire continent-and-a-half was populated by four-year-olds that just found out the car has a horn.
As it turns out, there is no word in the Spanish language for "loud." Instead, they use the word "strong." And in a culture with a macho complex, anything strong is good! I wonder if that difference in vocabulary has anything to do with the cultural difference. Argentina and Chile were notable exceptions. Still not perfectly nice and quiet, but much better.
I used to like dogs, and now I don't. I started carrying rocks on Valeria, just so I could hopefully dent a dog's skull when it started barking and chasing me, again. I never succeeded, in no small part because once a dog saw a rock in my raised hand, half of them started running. They're not stupid. And if anyone would take the time to train their dog, they'd behave. But go to Latin America and you'll never see anyone walking a dog.
I've said it before, but it's true enough to say it again: it's not what you have to do on a bike tour that makes it difficult, it's the things you have to give up. It was rare that I didn't want to ride anymore. Sure, there were hills that I didn't want to climb, headwind that I didn't want to fight, rain that I didn't want to fall. And the occasional day that I didn't even want to get out of bed. But overall, I never got sick of riding and wanted to stop. What I wanted was a pair of jeans, toilets that flush predictably, breakfast tacos, consistent internet access, daily showers, clean laundry. Close friendships. Familiarity. The ability to communicate without concentrating.
A few people have asked if I feel like this ride has changed me, and my answer so far is no, I don't think it has. Not a lot, anyway. I've done long bike tours before, and I still felt like the same person. In fact, other than less emotional and more mature, I feel mostly like the same person now as when I was about 16. Which is funny, because I feel like between the ages of 16 and 11, I was a different person entirely, and the amount of time between those is three times smaller. I've changed interests to some degree, but I think I've mostly maintained the same personality.
But if anything, I've become less shy. I normally don't like approaching strangers and talking to them, but on a bike tour, you better get over that real fast, because you have to ask people for help every day. At one point during this ride, I went through a phase where my shyness kicked in again, and as a result, wound up staying in hotels more often than I probably should have. Luckily, this was in Peru, where a cheap hotel room can cost as little as $3. Perhaps related, this is also where I felt the most homesick.
A lot of people have asked if I got lonely, and yes, I did sometimes. But less often than you might think, and maybe even less often than I do in "normal" life. And sometimes it was a good kind of lonely, more like solitude than anything.
I feel at my loneliest when I'm surrounded by humans, when there are loads of people around and none of them are talking to me, and I don't know what to say to them. When I'm truly alone, I don't notice what I'm missing. But when I see so many people, I feel left out. Ever had a friend invite you to a party, but forget tell you where it is? That's kind of what I feel like when I'm within city limits. I can tell there's so much going on, but I don't know how to be a part of it.
I wound up having to answer a lot of the same questions on a daily basis: where are you from, where did you start, how long has it been, how far is that. It got to the point that I almost tried to avoid bringing up the subject, because I was tired of reciting the same answers every day. Still, I tried my best to be polite and answer everyone's questions like they were important to me. I hope I succeeded. But there were a few questions that have always been a little irritating, I think mostly because I still don't have an answer.
For one, "What was your favorite part?" I don't know. Thinking back to places like Canada, it was so long ago, it almost feels like a different trip. Comparing that distant memory to what happened a week ago is too hard to do. And even if I could, lots of places were cool. I don't have any one favorite, much like I don't have a favorite food, or movie, or song. I like a variety!
OK, here's a list: The Cassiar Highway, Glacier National Park, the Grand Tetons, Caprock Canyon State Park, Texas Hill Country, South Padre Island, Tajin, Costa Rica, Northern Colombia's coffee region, Mancora, the Andes in Southern Peru, Salta, Argentina's Lakes Region, Carretera Austral, Chalten, Calafate, Ushuaia.
And fine, I'll make a pick: Argentina was my favorite Latin American country.
But I gotta be honest, hard to top the good ol' USA. I wish I could give a sexy pick and say Nicaragua or something really surprised me, but yeah, USA might have been the best place I went to. The land and the people, both. Sometimes we have a bad international reputation, and sometimes we're even down on ourselves, but from my experience, we're the kindest, most generous people I met, with Canada right behind. Want evidence? I never once bought food in the United States. That's how much support I got from the locals.
"Why are you doing this?" The full answer is certainly more than one sentence, and I could give you parts of it. But in truth, I still don't know. Part of it is to challenge myself. Part of it is to see the world. Part of it is because I like it, what's wrong with that?!? I started answering this question with "Because I like riding my bike," in part just to see how people would react, but also because it's as good a reason as any. Why exactly do I need a reason to do it, anyway?
But I think all those together is still less than half the answer. I thought I would be able to figure it out or put it into words by the time I finished, and I still can't. Sometimes I've wondered if I'm doing this because I don't know what else to do.
And finally, "What comes after this?" I still have no idea. Again, something I thought I would solve after having several months to think about it, but I think I'm not any closer than when I started. If anything, I've only come up with more ideas, without eliminating any.
But when people asked "What do you do when you're not biking?" I kept answering "Physics teacher." Maybe that means something. I enjoyed what I did as a teacher, but didn't like the environment. Much like I enjoyed the environment at Google, but didn't like the job I was doing. I could see myself going back into teaching if I could find a better situation. Maybe even in another state?
During my last week at the hostel in Ushuaia, I was something of a celebrity there, which was a strange departure from normal. I'd spent seven months mostly alone, forced to make new temporary acquaintances daily, no one ever knew who I am. And now, suddenly everyone knew me, I had friends, and maybe even a crush. But it still paled in comparison to going home. I love meeting different people from all over the world, but I haven't had a close relationship of any kind for seven months. That's tough for anyone. I miss feeling important to someone.
I must have started a sentence with "When I get home, I'm gonna..." about 900 times. Eat Mexican food, cook stir-fry, go running, watch old movies, wear jeans, put on a suit and tie, spend an entire afternoon in a big grocery store, take all the hot showers I want, stay inside when the weather sucks, read books, ride a bike with a mass 20% that of Valeria. But seeing my family and my best friend will be the best part.
When I started in northern Alaska, the sun never went all the way down. When I finished at the southernmost city in the world, near the summer solstice, the sun was only down for about four hours, and it never got all the way dark. The shortest days I ever had to deal with were 12 hours long, as I passed the Equator almost exactly on the equinox. When I flew back to Texas, the weather didn't change at all - a Texas winter is like summer at high latitude (I don't know how anyone can stand to live somewhere cold). But the days shortened by a ridiculous degree - four hours later in the morning, four hours earlier in the evening. It might have been enough to get me mildly depressed for a day or two.
Before I left, I saw penguins!
You get a lot of time to think on the bike, and the answer to "What do you think about?" is so long, I would have to answer it in real time, probably over the course of a week. I had been hoping I would eventually find some answers to "What am I doing here?" and "What would make me happy?" but if anything, I raised more questions. And honestly, that might have me closer to the truth. Who really knows what we're doing here? I think the only wrong answer to that would come from a guy who claims to know all the answers. And if there is such a guy, I'd like to meet him. Either I'd learn a lot, or I'd be entertained.
Yes, I'd do it again! But there are a few things I might do differently. For one thing, I would like a partner. There were some times I was happy to be alone, and I like the independence and autonomy of a solo ride. I know that everything I did, I personally earned. But some parts would have been much easier, and more enjoyable with a partner. And I believe that shared experiences count double.
And finally, I want to take this time to thank the hundreds (yes, hundreds) of people that helped me along the way. I'm going to refrain from a list of names, in part because that seems a little strange, but also because I know I would forget to list someone, and I don't want anyone to feel unappreciated.
If you ever feel like we as humans are an unkind species, if you're losing faith in our nature, I encourage you to do a long-distance bike tour or backpacking trip (hiking, not buses). Put yourself in a semi-vulnerable, challenging situation, and watch the outpouring of support. The kindness of humans is overwhelming. So maybe the best answer to "What was your favorite part?" is the people that have helped me. Thank you - each and every one of you. It meant a lot. More than you think.