On the pampas the horizons seem to flee. The llamas are golden, the clouds impossibly white. We let the bikes run. Suddenly, the view changes. The lead bike rises above the line of the horizon, a rider flails through the air 10 feet above the ground. This is not good. Jeff has gone off the road at 70 mph. Katie goes into paramedic mode, calming Jeff, running her hands up his spine, probing, checking ribs, legs, arms. The fall has ripped his touring jacket from shoulder to waist, peeling the back protector to reveal the We-Build-Bridges T-shirt. He is scuffed, but within moments is giggling, flashing the “I Can’t Believe I’m Still Alive” grin that is his default expression.
Ryan pulls the bike up and starts collecting the bits scattered across the desert. The luggage is destroyed. The right ecuador cell phone numbers handlebar is bent almost to the tank. Mirrors, turn signals, front fender snapped off in a microsecond. Both wheel rims have dents. Incredibly, it still runs. He puts the parts that still work back on the bike, takes it for a test ride. It will last another 7,000 miles. Our motto: We Will Make This Work.
Jeff tells what happened. A small bird had hopped into his path. The next thing he knew he was off the road, launched into a culvert. “I thought, wow. I’m Superman. Oh look, there’s the bike. Oh look, there’s the bird…” In a field strewn with jagged boulders, he had landed on sand.
The trip came up long before I was ready. A phone call, an invitation to tag along with a group of BMW riders embarking on a five-week, 8,000-mile journey from Peru to Virginia. I would document the ride, a fundraising effort for a group that builds footbridges in remote areas of the world. I’d been thinking about a long ride, something open-ended, without support vehicles, the experience of being totally “out there.” This seemed to fit the bill. A third of the distance around the world with complete strangers. I had a brand-new BMW F 800 GS and it was thirsty. If there was a point of no return, I crossed it before I hung up the phone.
First, the riders. Ken Hodge is an insurance benefits specialist and member in good standing of the Newport News Rotary Club. He discovered motorcycles late in life, when he bought a bike, rode it across country in 48 hours, then began to dream of a bigger adventure, something for a good cause.
He recruited his daughter Katie (a fire department paramedic), his stepson Ryan (a mechanic and dirt-bike rider) and Ryan’s best friend Jeff. I’m impressed by their preparations. They ride old BMW R 1150s and F 650 singles. Ryan had spent a year renewing the bikes, poking about the inner recesses, memorizing the shop manuals for each machine. They would bring enough tools and parts to handle almost every emergency.
INTO THE ANDES
We stop at Nazca to view the ancient figures scratched in the rocky desert. From the top of a tower we can see a figure with raised hands. Just to the north, the Pan-American Highway bisects the figure of a lizard, decapitating the creature. Bound by the tight focus of brass transit levels, the surveyors who laid out the road were not even aware of the sacred relics, discovered when aerial flight became common.
I realize that we are as blinded by focus, by concentration as the surveyors were by their instrument. The trip will be a series of images, sidelong glances, captured at speed.
Descendants of the people who built the Inca trail, Peruvian builders know their stuff. But it’s the tracery, the managed flow of momentum, that has our respect. The road ascends ancient seabeds, hills covered with talus, fractured dry ridges with cornices sculpted by landslides. Midday, we find ourselves on a high pampas inhabited by thousands of vicuña and alpaca. In the distance, our first sight of snowcapped peaks. There are stone corrals on nearby slopes, one-room huts. In the middle of this giant nowhere, a lone shepherd walking on the side of the hill.
We discover that the distances on maps are those of the condor. We travel incredibly twisted roads that sometimes take a hundred turns (and several miles) to get from one ridge to the next. The map indicates towns, but to our dis-may not all have gas stations. We buy gas in a small outpost from a woman who ladles it out of a bucket with a coffee pot, then pours it through a plastic, woven kitchen funnel into our tanks. The whole town watches. We push on into the descending night. We make it to the next set of lights, 20 or so buildings on two streets, find a hotel, and park our bikes in an enclosed backyard with dogs, chickens, dead birds, plastic bottles and an animal hide tanning on the wall. Instead of the usual exit signs, the restaurant in our hotel has green arrows that say “ESCAPE.” It is not a criticism of the food. The forces that drive the Andes skyward have been known to demolish whole towns.