PanAmerican: Home to Canada – 19-30 August, 2015

Before starting the Pan American, home was in Chiang Mai, but I hadn’t planned on returning. (Not to spoil the ending: I’m writing this from a Chiang Mai coffee shop.) We left Thailand with several gigantic suitcases; even knowing most things would be left in Loveland before we started the ride, we still thought we would have plenty of space on the bike. How little we knew.

For several months I’d been purchasing gear for our adventure. (I’ll post a full list of essential gear shortly.) A down quilt made in Seattle, a North Face tent, cooking sets, pelican boxes altered for a motorcycle from Caribou Cases – I was channeling my excitement into online shopping. Gear, check.

Because of Amp’s US visa (she’s Thai), she didn’t need a visa for most countries in Central and South America. Canada was another issue, but one that went surprisingly smoothly, in part due to a letter I wrote begging the Canadian consul to allow us to take this trip together. I was so excited about the trip, so optimistic, that nothing seemed like an obstacle. Visas, check.

We were lucky enough to fly through London on the way to the US. Technically Thais aren’t supposed to transit through the UK, but again, some excited begging to an official allowed us to roam free.

Riding the London “tube” to Paddington Station – that still makes me smile. Our 20-hour layover was as packed as could be: we grabbed a pint at a proper pub (cider, a breakthrough for us as I always wanted to have Amp drink with me, but she generally disliked alcohol – it was a shadow of many more breakthroughs large and small in our relationship over the trip), then got up early the next morning (yay, jet lag!) to walk downtown London, wandering past the London Tower Bridge, Globe Theater, and the Buckingham Palace before we had to return to the airport and continue our flights.

London at night – The Rose & Crown Pub
Our London hostel
London Tower Bridge!

The next week was a crazy rush. Because of my expat tax status, I had to limit my days in the US and I was worried about pushing the Alaskan summer season too much. (As it turns out, I wasn’t worried enough, but more on that soon.) In addition to trying to wrap up a few work projects, we spent our days installing equipment on the motorcycle, shopping for all the items I hadn’t been able to order ahead of time, and packing and repacking and repacking and repacking our bags. That’s not a typo – we started with a huge pile each of “essential clothes and gear”, and had to keep subtracting from it repeatedly as the cases still wouldn’t fit everything.

Finally, the bike had the case mounts installed, I had a good tank bag and waterproof duffel bag. Our departure day was already half over, but we were leaving. I couldn’t have been happier when we said our goodbyes at the curb in Loveland (with echoes of my first motorcycle trip six years earlier) and we drove off to start our adventure.

Mounting the Caribou Cases
Ready to go! But not.

We didn’t get very far. The bike was so heavy that when parked on flat ground, the main spring compressed, and the bike would fall. It nearly fell at the gas station of our first fill up, and Amp had to hang with all her weight on one side to keep it from falling over. I figured I could live with that for fillups; what I couldn’t live with was the way the bike bucked side to side in the slightest breeze, threating to throw us off the first overpass. (Part of this was due to some basic KLR650 problems, but a few modifications help immensely, and I’ll write those up, too – I wish I’d known that then, instead of figuring it out two years later.) Scared, I pulled over and looked up the nearest Kawasaki dealer to get a heavier rear spring installed. My dad drove out to pick us up from the dealer, and we went back to the living room to repack our boxes yet again.

I will say this – nothing is as motivating as the fear of dying and killing your closest human companion. We left with “only essentials”, but the bridge made us both feel like we could do without at least 20% of what we’d packed, and when we drove back to the bike, our boxes were much lighter.

We discussed giving up for the day at that point. At four o’clock in the afternoon, making an early start the next day was tempting, but would have also been too discouraging, so we started again.

Grooves along the road made some of the travel tricky, but otherwise that afternoon was spectacular. The weather was warm, but traveling along the highway with a breeze blowing past, everything was beautiful. The US is amazing on a motorcycle, even more especially the west, where we rode by pastures just starting to turn golden, ate dinner at a little no-name diner, and rode into the starry night, not stopping till almost midnight to spend the night at a hotel.

Notes from Day 1:

Weight of gear initially:

Tank bag – 6.7 kg
Amp’s backpack – 3 kg
Right side case (Christian’s) – 16.3 kg
Left side case (Amp’s) – 15 kg
Duffle bag with security cable – 15.2 kg
Top case – 17.2 kilos

Weight of gear after oh-my-god-we-almost-died repack:

Tankbag – 6 kg
Amp’s backpack – 2.6 kg
Christian’s case – 13.7 kg
Amp’s case – 15.2 kg
Duffle bag and security cable – 9.7 kg
Topcase – 14.7 kg

Merging onto our road
At least someone’s excited!

The first day of a ride is one of the happiest, while enthusiasm is still more important than a sore bum. Our next day on the highway began to be more difficult, but getting off into the small roads of rural Wyoming helped. From my notes that night:

Day 2: 415 miles

Today was long and hard. The first few hours we were buffeted by winds, having to go slowly through the hills of northern Wyoming. After a few hours of straight, stressful roads, I was questioning my choice of this as a lifestyle.

It wasn’t till the evening that some of the upside really came back. We got off the interstate and onto a country road, and wound our way through Montana. The winds died down, blocked by mountains and trees, and traffic thinned. The sun set with a fiery glow and golden crown, we saw hawks and spotted fawns, and rode through mini-climate pockets of warm, grass-scented air. There’s no way we’re making it to Canada tonight, and I’m stiff and sore from a 12-hour span of riding (breaks included), but that finish was what I needed to feel good about this trip.

Plus, we meet people when traveling like this. Everyone is curious about the bike and where we’re headed. At a gas station on the Native American reservation we met a man who had ridden a KLR650 around Bolivia. At dinner we met an older gentleman (along with his family) who’d had one of the original Goldwings, and had lived in the little Montana town for 95 years, though he didn’t look yet 75. His wife was beside him, wishing us a safe journey before they drove off (in a car driven by the 95 year old!) together. He said his secret was marrying a good woman, and having a good son; it makes me think perhaps the secret is appreciating the people you love.

More adventures tomorrow. And hopefully a new country for Nin’ta and I.

Some people naturally look great resting from the road
My other sweetheart outside

One more day brought us to the Canadian border, cold and tired, but thrilled to be visiting another new country together, having tasted our new lives. That night we spent in a hotel with a water slide, which had immeasurable appeal to my inner child – but wasn’t that the point? Isn’t all travel a chance to let our inner child out, to nourish the parts of us we normally pack away for practicality, to give ourselves a chance to explore all of who we are?

Notes from Day 3: 315 miles, Lewiston to Cardston

We need more winter gear. At least a second pair of mittens. We finally had a day of beautiful riding, but cold, caught between wind, rain or both. We veered through the Blackfeet Nation to get closer to the Glacier mountains, but went back to the plains because of the rain. I think on our next long ride I’ll be wearing wool.

At lunch we met a couple of guys walking the Continental Divide trail, almost done after more than 2000 miles. I’m putting a bookmark on that for the future.

Further north we saw the mountains, largely obscured by the smoke at first (fires in the PacNW), then clear — beautiful forests and lakes finally coming in to view.

After our second rain flurry we finally came in range of the border, and knew for sure we would make it. We stopped to have a cup of coffee; I was worried about Nin’ta getting hypothermic. The border agent was grumpy, but I would have been, too, sitting in a cold shack on the side of the road.

Canada! We’re in. At the first town we gave up on camping (just one more night!) and stopped off at a hotel with a hot tub and water slide. Well, well worth it.

We also decided to take a couple of days in Waterton instead of pushing on to Banff right away. Hopefully today we’ll get our blog up and running, too — so far all our notes are just on our phones. And hiking tomorrow? Or…? Who knows — we’re travelling!

Too beautiful
The last cup of coffee in the USA
oh, CANADA!!!

The PanAmerican Ride: Prologue – March 2012 to August 2015 – “when you’re finished in Thailand, I need a partner”

“When you’re finished in Thailand, I need a partner.” The Pan-American highway ride, from Alaska to Argentina, began with nine words. AR and I had ridden to Cambodia and through northern Thailand together, sharing a sense of adventure and romantic travel ideals. Our first Christmas in Thailand we’d kayaked to camp on a tiny little coastal island, where we sang Christmas carols around his tiny battery-lit tree. In Angkor Wat, we’d taken turns posing in a brimmed hat in the ancient temple, our own Indiana Jones pictures. We’d shared completely impractical, improbable adventures, and loved them. And he had an idea for another.

“I finally bought my new motorcycle,” he wrote from Canada, “I need a bad-ass partner… we go south in Mexico, and you can finally teach me some of that goofy dancing you love…we would keep going down into Guatemala…El Salvador to Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. But to stop there would be just silly, you see? Colombia is just a little further, and then there are just so many options…we end at the southern tip of Chile…Let me know what you think.”

“Construction of Japanese bicycle requires great peace of mind”

Reading his letter changed my life. I wanted to go, not least because of the enchanting  hand-drawn map. He and I were born for another century, but we would make the most of our own. I agreed. I would ride a motorcycle to the bottom of South America; I just wasn’t sure when or how.

“How” took two years of work. I was an English teacher when The Letter came. I figured that the whole trip required three months of decent riding and, even camping and eating at taco stands, would cost about $10,000. But that was more than half my salary.

ParadiseIsNowhere – One of our Chiang Mai motorcycle trips

 

I quit teaching, moving to Chiang Mai to work online, to start a business that would allow me to save for the trip, or at least allow travel and work at the same time. It worked. And I was also lucky enough to spend time with my old college friend, Chavez, and another digital nomad, JP.

I tested my dream, spending three weeks motorcycling the length of Thailand, confirming that, yes, I loved that lifestyle. I also asked my long-term girlfriend, Nin’ta, to join. Rather than a 3-month tornado, I decided to spread the trip over 9-12 months, and spend time working along the way.

We didn’t leave for another year, though I was very tempted to start early and alone when I first rode my KLR650, the one I purchased for the trip that summer. I sat at a stop light one day pointed south, thinking, “my laptop is on the back, I have clothes with me: I could leave right now, just keep driving south till the land runs out.” (My grandmother, a major anchor in my life, had just passed away, so perhaps I can be forgiven for wanting to run away.) My story would have been very different if I had kept driving that day, but I’m glad I didn’t, glad I was able to share my travels with Nin’ta, even when we were at odds, and glad to have had the trip that I did.

For the beginning, Chavez and another friend, RJ, decided to join. Chavez was the one who decided that there was really no point in starting the trip from Colorado, when the road started up in Alaska. His logic was unassailable; Alaska seemed like a small add-on to an already large trip. Nothing wrong with an extra couple weeks of travel – it would be quick, right?

ParadiseIsNowhere – Pan American Plan – obvious now, adding Alaska was decidedly not quick

In the end, the Pan American didn’t take just one year. Or two. I’m writing now 3 years after we started, and only off the bike for a few months.
We met many riders along the way with the Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) goal. Only a handful made it all the way. None took as long as we did. Instead of trying to get to the bottom as quickly as possible, we lived in countries along the way, spending months without even starting the motorcycle, getting to know foreign cities as home.

I’ve forgotten so many details from the trip, I know there are people we met who are lost in time, and texture to the days and stories I won’t be able to recreate, not even from the thousands of photos and the old journal entries. (And even those are less than they should have been, due to a journal getting lost by FedEx Colombia – more on that frustration later). But for my later self, for the kids we may one day have, or for anyone out there who wants to make the same trip, even if it’s just by armchair, here’s my Pan-American travel story.

Dedicated with love to AR, who is about to start the Pan-American trip he inspired me to ride, and to Nin’ta, my partner in our crazy, adventurous life.

passive, whatever that means

I’ve decided my next step involves passive income. This summer was tough, financially. And it’s still tough. I’ve been looking at finances and while I’m still floating, I need to land some serious work over the next few weeks to keep that state. At the same time, when I ask myself what I really want, the first answer is always travel, adventure — things that don’t come easily while working.

I’m incredibly grateful for the work I’ve had over the last few years. Looking back at the beginning of my freelancing and the goals from that time, this has given me so much more freedom and financial reward than I could have expected four years ago. That we were able to live well all the way through Latin America while staying in decent hotels and beautiful apartments — I’m incredibly grateful.

But I’ve also known that coming back to Chiang Mai wasn’t an endgame goal, just a stop along the way. I’m glad now to have a home and stability, and looking for a balance, but I also know that my current situation is too tenuous; I want to be able to travel for a few weeks, or take off some time to help with my family, and not feel like I’m risking my financial future. The only way I can see to achieve that is to create passive income.

A few years ago I read a great article on that subject on the Steve Pavlina blog. The guy has some weird ideas about some areas (his open relationship series isn’t for me), but he does have some great psychology regarding starting a passive income source, so I’m going to be following along with his series on creating your first passive income stream. I don’t know exactly what that will be, but I do know the first step: creating a goal.

Passive income goal: $100 per month in passive income by April 13th, 2019, my 35th birthday. Stretch goal: $1000 per month in passive income by August of 2019, one year from now.

Interestingly, looking back on my old posts as I imported them from wanderlustadventurer, I was struck that my freelance business started almost the exact same way.

Approachable

Amp joined me in one of my regular coffee shops, and laughed as she told me that the staff thought I always looked “so serious”. I’ve caught sight of myself in windows while I work, and they’re right – my neutral expression when I’m working is intense, furrowed, and definitely unfriendly.

That was a few years ago, and I’ve been working on being more approachable since. On Saturday, I had several random strangers approach me and start up conversations, and I thought, “Win!” Today I realized I may be too approachable.

Sitting at a small outdoor mall watching people walk past, I was surprised when I Chinese woman came very close and asked me where I was from. A group surrounded her, from little round-faced children to older retirees, and they seemed so damned excited about my answer. The leader showed me a question on her phone, asking me to help them with a game. I said “sure, I guess” – and the group actually clapped.

They told me to repeat a short phrase in Chinese, and with my year of living there, copying the sounds was easy. They clapped again! This is great! I have no idea what’s happening!

Then they motioned me to follow them, and I walked to the front of the shopping area, where I saw no fewer than five high-end cameras with oversize fuzzy microphones all pointed at me, recording, and the woman asked me to repeat the phrase I had just “learned”.

But… I can parrot almost anything with a decent ear for language, but my memory for language is essentially nill. I don’t think them recording me saying, “I don’t remember,” in English was quite what they were hoping for. But it’s what they got.

Gamely, they still gave me a keepsake… keychain? Window pull? Curtain tassel? A keepsake. We’ll just call it a keepsake.

Goal!!!

Goal! I was just researching some info on fitness, and opened up the settings of my food tracker (SHYE, See How You Eat) to make a note, when I saw the goal I’d typed in months ago: 34″ waist size at 200 lbs. When I downloaded this app, I weighed about 225 lbs (down from my all time high of 243 lbs), and had a waist of somewhere in the 38 inch range. Since then I’ve been steadily losing weight, but like most goals, I like to shift the goal post as I go. Last week I noted with some discouragement that my waist was still 2 inches more than I’d like, and I recently decided I’d like to lose an additional 15 lbs. I’m hard on myself. I was discouraged.

But opening up this app, I realized how far I’ve come: my waist measurement was 34 inches last week, and my weight is now below 195 lbs. Without even realizing it, I’d already passed by my old goal.

Wednesday Weekly Update: Sick!

We said goodbye last week, my sister and nephews hugging us tightly before walking the winding queue through security, and disappearing beyond. I miss them – funny how quickly you get used to having family around, how lonely it suddenly feels when they’re gone.

But at the same time, I was looking forward to some rest. This summer has been almost excessively busy – like a proper summer should be! – and now, I thought, would be a great time for catching up on work and resettling in Chiang Mai. Instead, we spent the week in bed sick.

I’d started getting a cold on Monday, and by Wednesday it was in full swing. I tried working a couple of times, but felt incredibly stupid, like I was using an underpowered computer. “First I click here [pause] and then I’ll need to [pause] yes, add that feature to the model there [pause] and then I’ll [pause] fuck it.” On Friday I sent a series of hurried and apologetic emails to clients; gladly, I received only kindness and well-wishing in return.

Luckily, Saturday I was starting to feel a little better, and wanting to get out of the house, hoping to clear away the cobwebs before Monday arrived. We’ve been enjoying the MoBike hubless bike share here, and so we grabbed a couple bikes to head to the university grounds and explore.

We’d been to the arboretum before, but a group of volunteers happened to be painting, and we got to see the fitness equipment in transition to their new, cartoon-animal selves.

For lunch we headed to my current favorite restaurant in Chiang Mai, Sushi Umai. The sushi is spectacularly good, but I come in equal measure for the quiet I find there. The staff is always friendly and welcoming, the interior has a pleasant hush to it, and a TV plays NatGeo on low volume, usually showcasing international eats that whet both my appetite for the delicious maki and sashimi I order and for more travel. It suits me, and I go there as a sanctuary, stepping into the softly lit interior like timeless prince into a fairy ring (Zelda fans know what I mean).

Sunday we woke with little energy; Amp had picked up my cold, and we mostly hung out at home. Monday I was able to get a little work done; Tuesday and Wednesday I was tired again.

However, I have decided to try setting aside a middle day each week to explore business opportunities, and Wednesday I wandered the large Worarot Market near the Ping River in search of silicone nylon to make outdoor and travel gear. A helpful cloth merchant was willing to point me in the direction of another cloth shop and even wrote down the name of the material I wanted in Thai for me, but though I found that shop, and stopped in at a dozen others asking for the material, I had no success. I don’t think silnylon is available here in Chiang Mai, which casts serious aspersions on my dreams of manufacturing outdoor gear here. Not losing hope yet, though — may be able to find something in Bangkok.

More next week, I hope. -Ch

Sacred

What is sacred?

Sacred means set apart. As a culture we have ideas of things which should be set apart, should be sacred. Sex. Marriage. Death. And maybe these are good and right; maybe not.

But this morning, what is sacred?

My coffee.

Sacred is what I’m setting apart, what I’m cordoning off from the craziness of life in order to deeply experience, and today that is my coffee. I’ve purchased Thai beans from the Royal Project and ground them in my little grinder and when I dished the beans into the grinder I could smell their rich earthiness and I poured hot water in a small backpacking coffee maker and served myself this coffee in a mug that’s handmade by a local artist, a mug that was a gift from Amp for our first Christmas in Chiang Mai,  and when they were grinding I was talking with Amp, and when I drink the coffee I sip slowly and look at the mountains —

And this is sacred.

Siam

Today I awoke in Bangkok. Getting here hasn’t been easy, but it feels great to be back. Last night after arriving we went out for a quick snack from 7-11, and walked away with spicy fried basil for less than two dollars; it was delicious. I walked down the hall this morning and saw flower covered vines growing across the back parking lot wall, carelessly guarding the colorful scooters parked beneath, the kind of careless beauty of the untended plants here. And today we’ll be visiting King Kong to get our fill of charcoal grilled meat… it’s good to be back.

Just a bite

A restaurant on the west coast, long considered one of the best in the US, would serve only a 13-course fixed menu meal, with each course just a few bites. Asked why, they replied that unless the guests were left wishing for “just one more bite” of each dish, they had given the guest too much — because the last bite wouldn’t have been fully enjoyed.

Santiago and Valparaiso are our last bites of Latin America, and already we’re planning our return. This morning we both got blurry-eyed, knowing we were leaving our last apartment of the whole trip. We’ve spent the afternoon in Valparaiso taking dozens of pictures from all angles, and fully enjoying ourselves — and wanting more.

Walking in Santiago

I love the colors of the life here, the constant vibrance of the streets, the street performers dancing or playing drums, the bustle of men in suits walking to their cafes or families heading to parks. This is the rhythm of Latin America, the rhythm my life has taken on for the last two and a half years, and I’ll miss it.

We arrived in Santiago a week ago and checked into our AirBnB, our apartment home for this stay. When we were planning our Patagonia ride we scheduled just 2 weeks for the time down and back, and planned on meeting a friend from Buenos Aires tango classes who was on another road trip near Santiago. We arrived 4 days late, and so had to rush on our first day to meet up. After checking in and showering, we rushed through the city to a sushi bar in the Bella Vista neighborhood.

First impressions were mixed; coming from the plaza, the surrounding neighborhood was mostly shut down on the Sunday evening, and dodgy. But we transitioned into the Bellas Artie’s district, and suddenly found ourselves in a hipster area, with second wave coffee shops crowded next to vinyl stores and tiny Thai restaurants.

Seeing our friend again was a wonderful finish to the trip, sharing a bottle of wine and a meal and conversation for a few hours to celebrate that, for us and for this trip, this was an ending.

A sense of unreality has pervaded since. On Monday we walked the city, but with the bike in a nearby parking garage, everything was normal except the lack of conversation about where we would ride next. And the sense of relief: driving on the highways in Chile was a little crazier than expected, and both of us had been fighting a sense of doom for the last day or our trip, worried about dying at the very end. That became stronger when we witnessed a car crash in front of the coffee shop we were in, and when Amp was nearly hit by a dolly falling from a Coke delivery truck, both in the space of ten minutes.

—-