“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.”
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.
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?
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.