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 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. 飄霧眉 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.
The next morning we fire up the bikes, and ascend into the Andes on a perfect road. We are fluid, going through hairpins, double hairpins, squared-off turns-climbing the flank of a single 4,700-meter peak. I can think of only one word: delicious. We move through mist and low-hanging clouds, with shafts of sunlight slanting into rainbows. The valleys below are green and fertile, a mix of old Inca terracing and more modern farms. Slender eucalyptus trees line the road, providing shade for huts with red tile roofs. A girl tends a flock of goats (identified with colorful ribbons) on a green meadow, book in hand. At one point I think the clouds above have parted to reveal patches of blue, but when I look up I see that it is snow-covered rock, another 3,000 or 4,000 feet of mountain. On a turnoff near the top of the peak we find a dozen or so tiny shrines, little churches decorated with flowers and ribbons and photographs of loved ones. The site of a bus plunge. On a hillside across the valley paragliders work the thermals, the canopies looking like bright-colored eyebrows, or ostentatious angels.
We share the road with vicuña, alpaca, llama, sheep, goats, dogs, roosters, pigs, horses and cows. On a narrow lane near Abancay, a bull tries to gore me as I pass, charging and making a hooking motion with its horns. One night after the sunset, I round a corner and a beautiful roan stallion wheels in the light from our bikes, filling the lane with wide eyes and flashing hoofs, inches from my head. I realize that riding sweep poses a risk. The novelty of our passing bikes wears off, and the local wildlife has time to react.
Entering Cusco, Ryan asks directions, a girl directs us onto a narrow cobblestone street, slick with rain, as steep as a bobsled run. The rocks are turned on their side, like teeth. The knobbies have no traction whatsoever. The people on the sidewalks frantically wave their hands, indicating that the road gets steeper. I touch my brake and the bike goes down, pinning my leg against the curb, a quarter of an inch shy of a fracture. The bike behind me goes down. It is harrowing. The locals help us lift the bikes, get them turned uphill.
A police escort leads us to a hotel that lets us store the motorcycles in the lobby. Without bothering to shower, we make our way to the Norton Rats Bar on the northeast corner of the central plaza. The owner, an American expatriate, once piloted a Norton to the tip of the continent. The walls are lined with photos from the trip. Above the bar are mounted heads, the four past American presidents, with their best known soundbites: I am not a crook. I did not inhale. I do not recall. We will find WMD in Iraq. We sip beers, trade stories, trying to reassemble the past few days. The dead battery. The punctured radiator. The roadside repairs. The incredible rush of unrelenting beauty.
Three days of desert north of Lima generate a few details. The total absence of life, the three colors of sand. Young boys pedaling tricycle ice cream carts in the middle of nowhere. We enter a <I>zona de nimbleras</I>, but instead of fog we find a 60-mph crosswind that sends a layer of grit skittering across the road like a special effect in a Steven Spielberg movie. Two lanes narrow to one covered by blowing sand, thick enough to swallow the front tire, deep enough that a road grader prepares to clear the drifting sands.
We decide to try a secondary route through the hills. We turn onto a dirt road and everything changes. We pass through villages alive with people, dogs, tiny three-wheel taxis fashioned from old motorcycles. Kids on motorscooters ride past, snapping pictures with their cell phones. The road throws split-finger fastballs at the bash plate that clang as loud and adamant as the sound of an aluminum bat. We slosh our way through gravel, gray dust on everything, parts falling off, teeth rattling. Oh yes, this is what we wanted.