This event was truly one for the ages. Deceptive in its simplicity, diabolical in its execution. There wasn’t a single correct solution, with constantly shifting variables such that even the most skilled player ultimately had to leave a large part of their success in the hands of Lady Luck. Every single one of us rode a different ride, and nearly every one of them had the potential to be the winning solution. One construction zone here, one wandering Winnebago there, and the outcome would be totally different. That’s on top of the added retro twist, providing waypoints that were just within the (100 mile or so) vicinity along with written directions to the actual location, plus the potential for time-consuming tasks involved in order to actually secure the points.
I LOVED it. Absolutely loved it. What an amazing way to pull everybody’s collective heads back out of the spreadsheets and make us pay attention to the puzzle. Like I said, deceptive in its simplicity, diabolical in its execution. I’d considered taking 2019 off, spending my vacation with the family, but I lost my resolve as soon as I saw that Jeff Earls would once again be the rally master. I am SO glad I threw my name in. I have never had more fun in a rally, hands down. From beginning to end, from the roads to the bonus locations, twisty bits of asphalt to twists in the game, I was hooked.
I can’t say enough to thank Jeff for this absolutely stunning event. And even the best rally idea couldn’t be executed without the indefatigable Lisa Landry, Michael Kneebone, and an army of amazing volunteers. The Iron Butt family truly makes this event what it is. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for bringing us together every two years, then flinging us violently apart, then bringing us all back together for this amazing celebration of the fringe of motorcycle exploration. Without you, we’d just be a bunch of weirdos bumbling about the continent.
What I actually said:
I heard there were people online saying they’d win the rally by finding the winner, following her around for 11 days, then picking up one more bonus. Well, only Ian McPhee had the cajones to try and it killed his final drive. Thank you and goodnight. 😂
In my defense, I did previously attempt to recruit Tyler Risk to be my wing lady so she could help me make good words come out of my face. Unfortunately she couldn’t be at the finish line and I was tragically left to my own devices. Thank you to everyone who had more faith in me than I had in myself, and thank you to everyone who understands that I had no actual expectation of winning and was left at a nearly complete loss for words when the big moment came. This was a huge rally filled with amazing riders and determined in large part by luck. It really was anyone’s game to win, and it still seems quite surreal that my exhilarating adventure was enough to bring home the win. I will truly never forget the feeling of that moment, and I thank each and every one of you who helped celebrate the amazing rides and incredible adventures of all 109 riders.
Endurance riding isn’t for everyone. We’re the 1% of the 1%, and even that is probably a pretty generous figure. Not everyone understands why we do what we do; some people don’t care at all, some are intrigued while acknowledging that it’s not something they’d personally pursue, and some are quite vocal in declaring that this is NOT the right way to be riding a motorcycle. No one is obligated to condone or participate in endurance riding, but I thought I might shed a little light on why I personally love this type of riding in the context of the 2019 Iron Butt Rally rally.
In the course of these 11 days I watched the sun rise over the vast, rugged Nevada desert. I watched the sun set from the lush beauty of the Gaspe Penninsula. I felt the weight of a deep, moonless night in one of the most distant corners of the Everglades. I felt the buzz of humanity in a traffic jam in Washington DC at 1am on a Friday morning. You can do any one those things right now, should you desire. Load up, head out, and be confident that you can have those experiences at your leisure.
I also rode some roads that you almost certainly will never ride, because there is absolutely no good reason to be there. I rode nearly 100 miles north of an already far-flung town on virtually flawless asphalt to reach a small informational sign overlooking a remote dam. Aside from being a dam employee, there is no logical reason to travel this road. And yet there I was, with beautiful blacktop unfurling along the shores of a stunningly beautiful reservoir, beams of sunlight stabbing through silver skies to highlight the perimeter of rugged, verdant cliffs deep in the Canadian Rockies, and I had it all to myself. I reached the terminus of this quest, snapped a quick picture, and saddled up for the return journey. In what seemed like only minutes, I reached a sign indicating that I would be intersecting the main highway in 20kms, and I was legitimately disappointed. I was in the middle of nowhere, with no practical reason to be there, and I was disappointed that this amazing bit of moto-perfection was coming to an end.
But you could go there. If you’d like to go to Mica Dam, you certainly can put that on your bucket list. But there’s more to it than that. At some point – I couldn’t tell you exactly where – I was riding in the rain in the middle of the night when the wind shifted just so, such that the only sound, the only sensation in the world, was the quite pull of my tires against wet pavement. I was riding through a misty dawn when I came upon a moose in a field of wild flowers – tall, willowy flowers in every imaginable shade of red, pink, orange, purple, and white – simply enjoying her breakfast and regarding me with the same fascination with which I regarded her. I’ve had just exactly the right song show up on my playlist at just exactly the right minute, as though the cosmos was telling me that this is exactly where I was intended to be at this very moment in time. I’ve watch the breathtaking symphony of distant thunderstorms, powerful and beautiful and nearly impossible to capture in all of its majesty; it simply must be experienced and absorbed. I’ve had moments where the sky is so blue, the air so calm and warm, the ride so fluid and so effortless, that the entire world melts away and I’m left with a calm focus that I can only imagine must rival the most ardent practitioners of meditation. I have formed connections with people who, outside of this pursuit, I never would have had occasion to meet, people who make my life richer, fuller, more complete.
This is my zen. This is my release. This is my connection with that which is both greater than myself and deep within myself. You can’t put those moments into your gps. You can’t plot a trip to the place where your soul will heal or grow or quiet or shout for joy. You just have to put yourself out there. Your place may come through hiking or biking. Sailing or soaring. Brushing the dog or holding your new grandchild. I hope you all have a space in the world where you find your best self; this is mine. On two wheels, exploring, experiencing, looking for any opportunity to avail myself of the majesty of the universe. The more you’re out there, the greater the likelihood that these moments will find you. Rally riding is not for everyone, but its right for me. Any excuse to be out there, leaning, twisting, seeing, smelling, feeling, focusing, absorbing; any opportunity to be so overwhelmed by the majesty of it all that I have no choice but to hone in and thoroughly experience the precise splendor of this solitary moment. This is why I rally.
It would be so easy to undertake this trip in a van. We could easily carry everything we needed to be comfortable and self-sufficient. We would have fewer concerns about safety and security on the road, especially when we’re off on an adventure away from the vehicle. We could easily sleep in a van when we’ve found that amazingly perfect spot, but it’s too cold or wet to bother with a tent. We could charge all of the gadgets and doo-dads we’d need to keep us entertained and on our pre-determined path. Cruising in climate-controlled luxury. Best of all, overlander rigs are a dime a dozen all across South America. We could pick any destination we fancy, and I guarantee that within a week we’d be the proud new owners of an appropriate vehicle that fits our budget. Absolutely no international vehicle shipping required. Maybe… maybe just a nice little van…
But you know what else comes with a cage? Insulation. Isolation. You don’t really smell the ocean spray or the freshly cut fields. You don’t feel the rain or the warmth of the sun. You pass over the road as a means to an end, instead of really experiencing the road as an integral part of your journey. You close yourself off, intentionally and unintentionally, to interactions with other people. Simply being in an enclosed vehicle, especially as a family unit, makes people less inclined to approach you. As a result, you’re less likely to hear about that incredible road-less-traveled, that little gem that only the locals know about. But possibly the most critical thing missing from a caged journey? The community. There is simply nothing in the world like the motorcycle community. I can’t imagine taking a trip of this magnitude without the motorcycle community being an integral part of it, both because of how important it is to me and because I want Monty to fully experience it for herself. This is truly the best community in the world.
Case in point: My last blog post. I was (am) at my wits end trying to come up with a shipping option for getting the sidecar rig (at bare minimum) to South America. I ran through the full-picture drama in that post, but the Cliff’s Notes version is that nobody really wants to deal with vehicle export from the USA. We make life difficult, apparently, and nobody wants to willingly subject themselves to that. Cue the Amazing Motorcycle Community! Within hours of that blog going live, I had literally dozens of messages from friends and followers offering help and suggestions. Some provided contact information for freight forwarders or transport services that they had used. Others offered to put me in touch with contacts in other regions – friends, business associates, experienced travelers – who might be able to help. Still others offered up ideas for approaches that I might not have thought of. That’s why I love this community! Even though I’m not sitting on the side of the road with a flat tire, riders saw another rider in need of assistance and jumped right in.
So through the power of love and brotherhood, we solved our transport troubles and are excitedly planning all the other aspects of our journey, right? Um… not so fast. Turns out I didn’t just have a flat tire, I had a massive blowout with no tire shops in sight. I submitted for a bunch of quotes to fly the bikes between North and South America, based on recommendations of friends and fellow travelers (albeit from transactions that happened a number of years ago); I received a New Record High Quote of $8,000 to fly both bikes from Los Angeles to Chile. No problem; we’re just as happy to ride up to Canada and fly down from there. Canada on the whole is far more amenable to facilitating (or at least not impeding) international vehicle transport, and we do love the heck out of Canada. Air Canada doesn’t have any routes into South America on their Fly Your Bike program, but they can still fly motorcycles as regular cargo. I approached them for information and, not to be outdone, they quickly provided me with a New Record High Quote of $9,600 to fly both bikes from Toronto to Bogota. We’re Number One! (sigh.) It seems the harder I work, the more research I do to make sure I’m providing all the right information in the right way, the higher the price tag is getting.
It’s time to come at this from a different angle, so we’re mulling over a number of different options. The US is a bust and Canada doesn’t seem to be any cheaper. Or at least, it’s not cheaper to South America. Just for interest sake I also asked Air Canada to quote transport to Glasgow, Scotland. Glasgow IS on the Fly Your Bike program and we also have family in Scotland. Turns out we could get both bikes to Europe for under $2,500 out the door. At that rate, it would be substantially cheaper to fly the bikes to Scotland, explore for a while, then ship from Europe back to South America. At least then we’d get some cool adventure for our money rather than just tossing $10k directly down the drain. Another possibility would be to go South to fly South. We could ride down through Mexico and fly out of Mexico City or Merida, or possibly ship out of Cancun. Mike isn’t nearly as apprehensive about riding Baja California (or as he called it, Southern Southern California), and from there it’s an easy ferry ride across the Sea of Cortez then a quick zip across mainland Mexico. Piece of cake, right? Maybe?
Then again, if we’ve already broken that Central America seal, why not just keep going? There are two reasons why we were not planning to ride through Central America: First, Mike didn’t feel like it was safe. It took me so long to talk him into South America that Central America was a concession I was more than willing to make. So what has changed? Believe it or not, Mike was actually the one to suggest riding down through Mexico and shipping from there. I think he’s actually getting pretty enthusiastic about this trip, and doesn’t want to see it derailed before it starts. He’s willing to make some concessions to make it happen. I gently presented to idea of the yacht cruise and he said “Why the heck aren’t we doing that?!?!” Because that option requires us to get ourselves to Panama. “Well,” he replied, “you talked me into South America.” A little glimmer of hope, perhaps? I think maybe the myriad of travelers saying “My only regret about Central America was not having more time to enjoy it” just might be starting to sway his opinion a tiny bit.
The second consideration was that, at the time, it seemed to be nearly the same price to ship from the US to South America as it was to ship around the Darien Gap. Once you’re in Panama, they know they have you over the tourist barrel. There is really no reasonable away around The Gap aside from shipping or flying; you can easily get sucked into a mire of surprise fees, shipping delays, paperwork struggles, bribe attempts, and language barriers. And once again, the sidecar really throws a wrench in the works. It’s definitely a lot harder to just show up and hope to sneak in on a shipment with the sidecar, especially based on the number of “We don’t handle sidecar” replies I’ve received on transport inquiries. It just seemed so much easier to handle everything in the US and arrive in South America ready to roll. But that was before, and this is now.
To recap, what are some of the options around The Gap? We could fly, which is the fastest and typically has the fewest surprises. We could share a container, which is the cheapest but also the slowest, with the highest probability for delays and added costs. There are any number of countries and ports/airports where we could depart from, depending on how far we wanted to ride. Travelers often report flying their bike and themselves from Central America to Colombia for around $1,000, but then again I’ve heard people say they got an entire container out of the US for $2,600, so I’m taking all these numbers with a big ol’ grain of salt.
And there is another option around the Darien Gap: Yacht cruise. No, I’m not joking. Sailing along with your bike on an island-hopping vacation-within-a-vacation is actually a very popular choice for motorcycle travelers. They load up you and your bike, feed you glorious meals, stop for snorkeling around little desert islands, and deliver you fat, relaxed and happy to the port in Columbia. Depending on which company you select, either all or most of the fees and expenses are included in the price of the trip. It’s not nearly the cheapest option, but at $3,300 for an all-inclusive four-day cruise for three people and two bikes, it’s not nearly our most expensive option either. (That $10k quote for Air Canada is going to be hard to top.) The down side is that our travel schedule had put us in the area of Uruguay in early October. If we’re just hitting Central America in October, we’ll be arriving right in time for hurricane season. A lot of the ships start rolling in their sails at that time, so we’d either have to leave home much earlier than planned or come up with a different option.
So, yeah. We’re still at an impasse. We’re not paying $8,000 to get our bikes to South America. I wouldn’t be thrilled about paying half that. I would sooner pay $2,500 to ship the sidecar, then just buy a second bike down there. I gave a good overview of that option in the last blog too, so if you haven’t read that one yet, head over there to see all the pros and cons of buying down there. What happens if we can’t come up with any palatable options? Then plans need to change. Europe is an possibility that neither of us are opposed to, but the cost of traveling around Europe will definitely shorten the duration of our adventure. Asia is a possibility too; Mike has traveled around Thailand, but I’ve never been to Asia. Or what about… staying a little closer to home?
A big wrench in the works is if we stay anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, with an October departure date, winter will be upon us. This past October we had some solid weeks of freezing rain in South Dakota. We’d have to head south pretty quickly, and that’s assuming that the weather treats us well for our departure plans. If we’re leaving from the US and heading south through Mexico and Central America, we should be in good shape weather-wise (assuming we can dodge any hurricanes.) So what if we were to explore around Central America through spring, then head back north to explore Canada and the US? I know I said that we didn’t need a year to explore North America because it is so more accessible than South America; when I said that, I didn’t realize that South America was virtually impenetrable from here. It is also much more expensive to embark on extended travel around North America, but by avoiding expensive shipping we will have that much more to spend. I would be extremely disappointed to give up on my South American dreams (for the time being) but I don’t want to entirely miss out on the opportunity to travel before Monty starts school. I also don’t want to tank our family financially by plowing ahead with a “nothing money can’t fix” attitude.
I sent out some new quote requests today. I still have a few friends putting out feelers for us. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling pretty defeated. Persistence, in this case, only seems to be making things worse for both my stress levels and shipping quotes. Pending receipt of these last few quotes, I’ve pretty well exhausted all my resources. While I was writing this, I received an email from my last yacht-cruise option with the news that they don’t accommodate sidecars. I’d happily buy a couple cheap bikes in South America if finding a sidecar was a reasonable expectation. I’ve done my due diligence and come back with nil. So what does the future hold for Third Wheel Adventures? Only time will tell…
*2019: This is the last episode of #ThrowBackTravel to be pulled over from our old website. There may be more throwback stories as I have time to compile old ride reports and pictures, but they won’t be coming as fast and furious like they have been. So don’t just wolf it down. Sit back, pour a drink, savor it… And off we go!
Crossing on the Yukon River Ferry. Yes, that’s us in a car. A rental car, to be precise. Three of our four tires were destroyed, beyond repair. The closest tires we found were 8 hours away in Fairbanks, Alaska – a far cry better than the 8 DAYS it would take to have tires shipped to us in the Yukon. The trade off for time was price – this car only came with 100 free kilometers (about 60 miles). When our little trip was complete, 25 1/2 hours and 1,407 kilometers later, they hit us for almost $600. Talk about painful…
Alaska was having a little wildfire problem of their own, although thankfully farther from the road. You’d think that a place that spent half the year covered in snow and the other half of the year slogging around in melted snow would be low on fire danger, but that’s clearly not the case.
The view from the Top of the World Highway was impressive, but not quite as impressive as the Dempster. This road was also dirt, and better maintained than the Dempster, but we have to admit that if we had to be on it, at least it wasn’t on the bikes. We’ve done enough dirt riding on street bikes to last us a while.
Entering Alaska for the second time. We look happy because we think our troubles are over. We’re so gullible.
OK, the sights WERE pretty, and the faux sunset WAS spectacular, but still… It wasn’t $600 worth of spectacular.
WOW! OK, this was also pretty amazing. We also got a chance to actually talk, which we can’t do on the bikes. I guess it wasn’t so bad, but still… $600?
We left Dawson City at 5pm and arrived in Fairbanks at 3am. We couldn’t find a campground or a reasonably priced hotel with a vacancy, so we did what any completely insane person would do – we slept in the parking lot of the motorcycle shop. Mike slept in the driver’s seat, and I slept with the rear seat down, half in the trunk and half on the seat. Not a real restful night sleep since it didn’t get dark, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
BUT LOOK! IT’S A MOOSE! A MOOSEY MOOSEY MOOSE AND HER MOOSEY MOOSEY BABY! Now THAT makes it all worth while!!
We finally got a picture of a moosey moosey moose!
I’ll make a long story short. When the motorcycle shop opened and we asked for our tires (which we had ordered and paid for by phone last night), they just shrugged their shoulders. It took over an hour and a half for them to figure out what had happened: They charged us for the three tires we needed, then someone else came in and wanted to buy one of them. Knowing we were driving all night from the Yukon to get these tires, they credited us back for one and sold it to someone else. They didn’t call to inform us, didn’t apologize, and didn’t want to give us our third tire back. Call us if you want all the sordid details, but lets just say that in the end, the cops were called and we left the shop with three tires.
*2019: OK, we’ve dragged this out for 14 years. For those of you who haven’t heard the whole animated, curse-filled tale in person, here’s a little more story. There was a lady working at the parts counter who had some serious attitude. I get it, we’re foreigners, but we came in with a pleasant attitude (or as pleasant as could be expected, considering we’d just slept in their parking lot) and just wanted to retrieve our paid-for tires and hit the road. If I had to guess, having 14 more years of powersports customer service under my belt since that glorious day, she was probably the one who sold our tire out from under us. She probably gambled that we wouldn’t make it, and figured that cash-in-hand from a local buyer was better than a refunded credit card charge a few days down the road. She lost that gamble, and rather than roll it back she decided to double down.
“May we speak with the parts manager?”
“I am the parts manager.”
“Who is your manager?”
“I’m the top of the food chain today. So sad for you.”
The only thing the shop offered was to give us the two tires that were still on our invoice. Fantastic! A $600 rental car later, that would get us fully 2/3 of the way to mobile! Sigh. An hour and a half of nasty looks and snide remarks later, a mechanic innocently walks in from the back and says “I found that other tire you were looking for.” He was immediately incinerated with the vicious laser-gaze from the Parts Manager Lady.
Apparently the sequence of events were as follows: We purchased the three tires over the phone. I called from the road about half way to Fairbanks and confirmed that our tires were there, paid for, and that we would be arriving to pick them up the following morning. A few hours later, a local rode in and asked for one of those tires. Not having any more to sell him, they credited us for one and sold it to him. He left his bike to have the tire installed… And there it sat. The tire had yet to be installed, but when we asked for the tire (which was, by any measure, rightfully ours) so we could be on our merry way, Parts Lady said she couldn’t sell it to us because it was already sold to someone else. Aaaaaahhhhmmmm,…. Okaaaaay,… buuuuuttt,…. I also have a receipt showing that I paid for three tires, including that one right there. Does it need to be resold a certain number of times before it gets locked in to a particular owner or something? Or is that a determination made based on the zip code of the purchaser? What exactly do we need to do to leave here with those three tires?
We did not go to extreme lengths to hide our discontent with the situation, but we never got loud or made threats. We did, however, make it clear that we would not be leaving with fewer than three tires. And why would we? We’d ordered three, paid for three, and needed three to get on with our trip. We weren’t about to pay for the World’s Most Expensive Tire Change ®, only to have to return to Dawson City and wait for over a week in order to arrange for a single additional tire to be flown in. Not happening. Parts Lady, or somebody in the shop, apparently tired of our presence and called in the fuzz. They were pretty cool about the whole thing, just standing by to make sure we didn’t try any funny business. Eventually the tables started to turn and the other shop employees started to more vocally support our position. I think the fact that we were polite(ish) but persistent really helped sway sentiment in our favor. While Parts Lady held firm, other employees started loudly telling her that, basically, she was being a jerk. They got pretty persistent on our behalf, pointing our the obvious fact that the tire was ours to begin with, Number Three hadn’t been installed yet, and that the ride-in was in a better position to wait for another tire to arrive.
I think, ultimately, everyone just grew tired of the “locals back locals” thing when it came to backing up her clearly indefensible position. It was ridiculous and everyone could see that. Everyone – the cops, the other employees, even customers that were lingering around to take in the show – were chatting with Part Lady while giving us the side-eye that said “Yeah, I get it.” We reached a point where the cops were probably tired of hanging out but Parts Lady needed to save face, so she stepped out for some reason and another parts guy thankfully gave us our rightful Number Three. In retrospect, and even really at the time, we weren’t angry with the shop, it was just one person on a power trip who made a series of increasingly poor business decisions. But I’ve said it before: It’s the spectacularly good things and the spectacularly bad things that really stick in your mind after a trip, and no matter how this panned out it was going to be a memorable event.
By the time the bike shop dimwits were done screwing around, it was too late for us to get the rental car back in time. There’s an extra fee for that. The rental place also runs the only taxi service in town, and since they were closed by the time we got back, we had no way to make it the 25km to where we left our bikes. Sigh…
When we finally made it back to the Klondike Lodge, they were closed. We shared our sob story with the mechanic there, trying to sway him into opening up the shop so we could install our new tires. It didn’t work. Instead, he bought us dinner and a night in the lodge. Praise the Lord, there are some good people left in the world!! We were filthy, exhausted, and STARVING – we hadn’t had time to stop for food since we left Fairbanks. We ate like pigs and slept like babies, clean, dry, and happy for the first time in days.
Our Heros! Richard, the mechanic at the Klondike Lodge, and his assistant Brandon. When all was said and done, they didn’t charge us a cent and refused a tip. (We left one anyways.)
We didn’t get good pictures of the slices in the tires, because we intended to cut out the worst chunks and save them as souvenirs. We forgot. You can see how bald the top tire is – that was Mike’s front. The middle one is my rear tire, and it has five big slits in it (the largest was almost 2″ long). The bottom one is Mike’s rear, and if you look at the bottom of the picture just left of center you can see one of the many places where his steel belts were showing through. Believe it or not, these tires were new when we left California, and should have lasted us at least 5,000 more miles.
All this struggle faded into distant memory when we made it to Mukluk Annie’s in time for the all-you-can-eat breakfast a few days later. The whole buffet was good, but those were the best blueberry pancakes we had ever eaten. Look at that – it’s flopping off the edge of the plate!! Judging by the look on Mike’s face, Gnomad picked the wrong place to kick back…
Overlooking Teslin, Yukon. If you look at the far side of the bridge, then nine more miles up the road, you’ll see Mukluk Annies. Mmmmmm…. pancakes….
This was going to just be a short rest stop in Watson Lake, Yukon. A sign forest is a good excuse to take a break, but we figured is would be kind of geeky. Saying so might confirm our geekdome, but it was actually a lot of fun!
We were just going to stretch our legs and pop in for a quick look. With over 60,000 signs, I don’t think there’s such a thing as “a quick look.” These are all thumbnails. Click on a few, and I’m sure you’ll see what we saw – There’s a lot of really funny stuff in here!
We saw lots and lots of wildlife, but this herd of buffalo was probably the closest. We saw caribou today, too, but they cleared out before we could snap a picture. I think they sensed that we had eaten a Caribou Burger a couple days before. (Incidentally, it was VERY tasty, and I highly recommend trying it if you get the chance.) This big herd was standing right next to the road, completely ignoring us. Mike was sitting right next to me, completely ignoring them. (I guess you become immune to the cuteness of big, smelly, hairy animals when you grow up in South Dakota, but not me! I’m married to one!)
Muncho Lake, British Columbia. This lake was just as still as Boya Lake, but the water was a deep turquoise. It also made for beautiful pictures, and I’m sure sunset is truly a sight to behold. Maybe on the next trip…
This big fella was standing right in the middle of the road (which had again turned to dirt, but nowhere near as bad as the Dempster). He and his kin folk like to eat the seeds and things that are easy pickin’s on the road, and they really don’t care how many people honk at them while they do it.
Look! A bear!
Seriously. Here’s the story: For the second time on our trip, we saw a black bear cruising around next to the road. Another car had also stopped to take pictures, but we weren’t fast enough – he slipped back into the woods before we got the picture. I hollered back to Mike in my best redneck drawl, “Hey, Baby! Ya’ll want me to run into them woods and flush ‘im out sos you can git yer picture?” The guy in the car looked simultaneously disturbed, repulsed, and almost… hopeful. I don’t think I’d laughed as hard since we saw the giant mutant hopping beaver by Boya Lake.
Camping in Mt. Rainier National Park in Washington.
I like these two pictures. The one to the right is me at a stop sign on Mount Rainier on the way back from our honeymoon, and the picture on the left is me at the same intersection in June 2004 as I returned from a solo trip around the U.S. and Canada. Check out all that snow!! What a difference a year and a month makes!
We like to call this little series, “Why throwing your luggage off a third story hotel balcony to someone waiting in the parking lot may not be as good an idea as it first seems.” Don’t worry, ladies and gentlemen – he’s a trained professional. He limped away with only minor injuries.
I know we’ve said this before, but this time I mean it – this may actually be the absolute best picture we took on our entire trip. I mean, really. It’s hard to go wrong with Sumike vs. Wenzilla.
After a few days unwinding in San Francisco, we finally made the last short hop home to Pismo Beach. It was bittersweet; once you’re that close to home, it’s always nice to sleep in your own bed, scritch your own dog and wear some clean clothes. Especially if you’re Mike. Me, on the other hand – I told Mike I was going to keep on going to Tierra del Fuego. He wished me Godspeed and said he would send me text messages with the weather reports from his Official Command Post on the couch in front of the TV, as long as I didn’t expect updates before 11am. OK, I agreed to pass on Tierra del Fuego for now, but not for long. My goal was to ride to Inuvik before I turned 30. By the time I’m 40, I vow to have Tierra del Fuego securely under my belt.* And between now and then… Who knows? When adventure calls, I listen!
Thank you so much to everyone who supported us through our trip and shared in our adventure with us. Creating this website is very time consuming and we just didn’t have time or space for everything we would have liked to include. Like the huge Hell’s Angels raid in Inuvik. Or when we had to backtrack a hundred miles because Mike left his wallet in Hyder. Or standing up to a bully backwater cop trying to give us unearned citations. Or precise details on the giant mutant hopping beaver. Thanks to everyone who has pumped us for information on these neglected tales, and everyone who has emailed us with their own stories of adventure. Because of all of you, our journey will never really come to an end.
*2019 Post Script: OK, “not for long” actually became “too long”, but I’ve only missed my goal by a couple years. That’s tolerable; the interceding adventures have been beyond all expectations, not the least of which is this adorable little adventure right here. Like I said, I hope to start putting together some new #ThrowBackTravels on adventures like our Nova Scotia trip or the time a stranger broke into a motorcycle shop for me. Long story. Maybe I’ll write about it someday. 😉 In the meantime, follow along with Third Wheel Adventures to see what happens next!
This week’s blog is going to be relatively short because I simply don’t have enough hours in the day. I keep telling myself that I need to relax, that we’re far enough out from kickstands-up that some aspects of the planning might just have to wait. Handle what I reasonably can handle now, and attack some of the finer details later.
Unfortunately there are a few major things that I just can’t let go of. Primarily, I really REALLY feel like I need to firm up some idea of how the bike shipping is going to work, but it just isn’t coming together for me. Plane? Container? RoRo? Give up and just buy down there? I’ve made a dozen phone calls, sent out easily three times that many emails, and still… nothing. I’m getting very few acknowledgments to my inquiries and even fewer shipping quotes. The quotes that I have received are about double what I’d anticipated. And that’s not just some wild number I pulled out of the air; I’m getting quoted double what other people are being quoted for similar travels right now. I just can’t catch the right person on the right day, or I’m not asking the right questions, or… I’m not sure what the problem is. It’s very possible that we’re simply too far out to get a firm quote, or for the shipping agents to be too enthusiastic about helping. I fill out lengthy forms with VINs and dimensions; I supply our desired travel dates, points of departure and arrival, but also include that we’re highly flexible on all of those points. It’s hard to tell if people are interpreting “flexible” as “non-committal”, but honestly I’m hoping to catch that one agent who will reply “Those ports are good, but we can save you $500 and a week of shipping time if you ship through these ports.”
I’ve even been seriously contemplating just buying a bike (or both) in South America. Our requirements are meager – as it is, we’re planning on traveling with bikes whose value will probably be equal to or less than the cost of shipping them down there. We will probably sell the bikes in South America rather than pay to ship them home (unless I can con Mike into crossing the Darien Gap on the northbound part of the journey, in which case we’ll just ride them home).
There are just a few big concerns preventing me from throwing caution to the wind and trying to find bikes when we get there. First, there is potential difficulty with paperwork and border crossings. Some countries are better than others but in most countries, as a tourist, you’re not able to actually put the vehicle into your name. You need to carry what is essentially a power of attorney where the titled owner gives you permission to cross borders with their vehicle. Getting all the paperwork in order can be expensive and time-consuming, and even then there is no guarantee that everything will work smoothly. I often see where travelers are stuck at a border crossing because some “I” is not dotted or a “T” is not crossed. My next concern is the inability to fully mechanically vet the bikes ahead of time, and be prepared with vehicle-appropriate luggage and a reasonable amount of spare/service parts. I don’t need to go too wild on this point, but it’d be nice to know roughly how we’ll be packing the bikes, what size of spare master link and chain adjustment tools we’ll need to carry, and have a couple spare levers or whatever.
The last, and biggest, issue is the ability to find a sidecar rig. I’ve made inquiries and from what I hear, they are even fewer and further between than they are in the States. We would be taking a serious risk by flying down there without having a rig already lined up. We’d be randomly picking a place to fly into and just hoping to find a hack within a reasonable distance, within a reasonable amount of time, for a reasonable price, and in safe, comfortable and mechanically sound condition. Literally the two most important things in my entire world will be on that bike, and the three of us will essentially be living off the bike for a year. I don’t want to be settling for something sub-par simply because the pickings are slim.
I’ve come across some well-reviewed places that specialize in selling bikes to tourists. They handle all the paperwork so the vehicle is actually titled in your name, not just using a power of attorney. They go through the bike thoroughly to make sure it’s safe, serviced, and ready to rock. They install any accessories you want, such as saddlebag racks, taller handlebars, wide footpegs, etc, before you arrive. All you have to do is sign the title, hop on, and go. They’ll even buy the bike back if you want to sell it at the end of your trip. The only hitch is, once again, the sidecar. Everyone I’ve communicated with is pretty confident that they wouldn’t be able to find a sidecar rig for us “in the wild”. We’ve had one shop offer to build us a rig, but they want us to purchase a bike from them ahead of time and we’d be left hoping that the sidecar they built was up to our standards. And that’s not an unreasonable requirement, really, except that the bikes they’re selling that would be suitable for a sidecar are all newer and in the $12,000 range. We’re not looking to invest anywhere near that much, especially because they say there won’t be much resale demand for a sidecar rig down there. Plowing that much money into a custom-built hack with low odds of selling it at the end of the trip? That quite thoroughly defeats the purpose of trying to circumvent the expense and hassle of shipping.
I’m honestly warming to the idea of just shipping the sidecar and buying a second bike down there. There are always other travelers selling their bikes, often from the US. Transferring a US bike into our names would be way less hassle (in theory) but still take some time and effort. Plus if we had the sidecar, it would still be possible for the three of us to get around until we picked up another bike (as awkward though that would be. We’d have to arm wrestle to figure out who’d be the passenger. Monty would probably win, and she doesn’t have a motorcycle license yet.) I’d also be happy to buy a little dual sport from one of the specialty shops, with the benefit of a guaranteed buy-back at the end of the trip. But then the question remains: Who the heck is going to help us get the sidecar to South America?!?
I’ll be writing a separate blog about “information overload” but suffice to say I have reached out to a number of the resources I have at my disposal, and I’m finding that shipping from the US is just plain difficult. It’s expensive, there’s lots of red tape, and many carriers just don’t want to deal with us. We may end up having to find a way across the Darien Gap or buying a bike down there, because I’m just about exhausted with this endeavor already. I put out a few feelers today and got two new leads, so I’m off to compose a few emails. Wish me luck. And in the meantime, please enjoy this picture of the mountains of Peru courtesy of Montessa.
Here’s where the real fun begins! We rode for nearly 18 hours on the first day of the Dempster. It sounds impressive, but with the road conditions we only averaged about 25 mph (when we were moving). It was slow and tiring, but amazingly beautiful. We must have stopped for pictures about every 10 minutes! (By the way, that’s not a painted center line in the picture below; that’s the tire ruts worn in the dirt road.)
We thought these were snow-covered mountains when we saw them from a distance, but they’re not. They’re actually light gray, nearly white, perfectly smooth stone mounds. Very cool!
It was 7:30pm before we made it to the Arctic Circle, but since it was still light we kept on riding. Accommodations are VERY limited up here, so when you decide to keep going that usually means at least 4 hours to the next campground…
Did I mention there are only two gas stations on the Dempster? Better plan ahead…
One of my favorite pictures from the trip. A fire was actively burning near the road during our travels, and in this section it had burned one half of the road but not the other.
It may look well-groomed, but that is actually about 8″ deep of razor-sharp shale. Take my word for it, it does not make the ol’ tires happy…
Not quite. This is what it looked like when we stopped for the night (well after midnight) at Nitainlaii Territorial Park. The mosquitoes were so thick here that it actually sounded like it was raining all night as they tried to get in the tent. Note Mike applying 100% DEET – didn’t even phase ’em. It was kinda like being in an Alfred Hitchcock movie…
Day Two on the Dempster was a much shorter day, thanks to a marathon ride on Day One. We needed it, too, because 736 kilometers of dirt road by motorcycle really takes a lot out of you!
Waiting for the Mackenzie River ferry at the fishing village of Tsiigehtchic (say THAT three times fast!) An exceptional summer thaw left the river banks littered with logs and debris several hundred feet from the river. The Mackenzie River is massive – it drains 1/5 of Canada, and only the Mississippi and Amazon exceed it’s flow.
Crossing the Mackenzie River. The weather is notoriously unpredictable in this area, but we had managed to skirt the storm clouds yesterday. Today we were not so lucky. As soon as we disembarked the ferry, the sky unleashed a cold, pelting rain that would last for the next day and a half.
Inuvik, Northwest Territories, Canada, KM 736 of the Dempster Highway. Finally, the end of the road! This is the northern-most point in Canada that can be reached by roads* (unless you count ice roads, but we’re saving that for the next road trip). (Just kidding.) We only saw a few dozen other vehicles over the last two days, and only three motorcycles. We only saw five other motorcycle on our entire drive on the Dempster. We are one of a crazy… er,… brave few.
*2019 Addendum: As of November 2017, a new road opened which allows travel north beyong Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk on the Arctic Ocean. Road trip!
We had heard horror stories about how the road destroys tires, so we came prepared with enough plug kits and CO2 cartridges to repair a couple dozen punctures. We felt lucky to have made it all the way to Inuvik before getting the first flat on Wendy’s rear tire. It took us a few hours to find air (so we didn’t have to waste our cartridges) and repair the tire, but all in all we thought we got off pretty easy…
Dust, dirt, gravel, andrain combined to make a thick impervious paste on the faceshields of the helmets (and our bikes, and our gear, and every other exposed surface). In order to see, we had to ride with our faceshields up. This meant being buffeted in the face by wind and cold rain for the last 128 kilometers (over 75 miles) of the road. Our faces were chapped like we’d been skiing for a few weeks, but hey – that’s the price you pay for adventure.
Today was our first – and hard-earned – full day of rest. We stayed in a hotel for only the second time on our trip, and this one was pretty fancy. They didn’t even seem to mind the massive cloud of filth we brought in with us. We had hot showers, a comfy bed, and Internet access! Talk about spoiled! We spent most of the day lounging and staying out of the rain, but we did manage to wander out and snap a few pictures for your enjoyment. Inuvik has a paved road – our first one in two days – but most of them are still dirt. The nearly 4,000 residents live in these raised row houses with above-ground sewage lines to prevent freezing in the winter. Yummy! (You can see the lines in the postcard above.)
A little break in the rain convinced us to do a little exploring around town. This is the famous Inuvik Igloo Church. It was all hand-built without blueprints. We’ve seen pictures of the inside and it looks gorgeous, but it wasn’t open to visitors when we stopped by.
This is a common “trademark” statue of the native Inuits of the Mackenzie Delta. They were used to mark the coastline of the delta rivers and the Arctic Ocean. Travelers and fisherman used them as reference points and they navigated the surrounding waters.
This is probably tied for our favorite picture from our trip. As you can imagine, Inuvik is a very small town. The main store in town in the NorthMart, which is kind of like a WalMart. Unlike WalMart, the NorthMart is counted on to carry absolutely everything and anything that the townsfolk may need, including off-road vehicles. We were surprised to walk in the door and see three quads – one with an outboard motor on it – but when was the last time you saw a Honda CRF50 on a men’s underwear display? This has truly been a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Day Four was off to a great start. We certainly weren’t as apprehensive about the road as we had been on the way up, but we weren’t nearly as excited, either, because we knew what we were in for. We were up and ready for an early departure, and we walked outside to find that my rear tire had gone flat again. Oh, goody. Rather than chance a slow leak, we decided to track down a shop where we could repair the tire properly… Whew! Glad we won’t have to do that again! (Ha Ha) None of the shops in town handled motorcycles tires, but the owner of this shop was kind enough to let me use his machine so I could do the work myself. Nothing wakes you up like a little grease in the morning!
Back on the Mackenzie River Ferry. We hit the road about 5 hours later than we intended, but we were confident we made the right choice. After all, we don’t want to spend the entire rest of our ride dealing with flats, right?
This shot kind of gives you an idea of how slow mike is – I’m that speck waaaay off in the distance. (OK, he’s not usually quite THAT slow…) You if look closely, though, you can see the razor-sharp shale laughing at us from the roadway.
We made it almost to Eagle Lodge, the half-way point of the Dempster Highway, before Flatty reared it’s ugly head once more. All of our plug kits were useless, though, because these weren’t punctures – these were big ol’ slits. We managed to cram enough sticky strips in there to hold a little air, and I made it to the lodge’s tire repair shop just as it officially reached “Completely Flat”. Once again I had to do all the work, but no matter – we want it fixed right so we don’t have to deal with any more flats. Right?
Remember that fire I mentioned earlier? Not only was it still going strong, it was now frighteningly close to Eagle Plains. It was already 9pm so we really should have called it a night, but we were worried about where the fire would go. We decided to push on for Engineer Creek about 100 miles to the south, and it turns out we made the right choice: Just hours after we passed through, the fire overtook the road and it was closed off just south of Eagle Plains.
This is the scene from the road at about 10:30pm. The fire makes it look like a sunset, which it rightfully should have been long before 10:30pm, but it wasn’t because the sun doesn’t set, but it kind of was because it was covered by smoke. See? Or maybe that’s just the extreme exhaustion talking – We didn’t reach the next campground until 1:30am.
Good News! When we reached the campground, it was completely full. On a Tuesday. At 1:30am. The same campground that was completely empty the previous Friday. The next campground is 80 miles south, so that’s not an option.
Now Day Five of the Dempster was off to a bad start, that much was true, but if you had told me that my day would end sleeping in the trunk of a car in Fairbanks, Alaska, I still would have called you nuts. Boy, would I have been eating my words…
Luckily there was this picnic shelter with a potbellied stove, tables, and fully screened to keep the bugs out. This is actually pretty luxurious – why hadn’t we thought of this before? Probably because the rangers are likely to wake you up and make you move out in the middle of the night, but hey – desperate times call for desperate measures.
And what’s this? We woke up to find yet another flat tire! By my count, this makes four flats so far. Are we done yet? Haven’t we paid our dues? To make matters worse, we had used up all our CO2 cartridges on the last flat. We had a backup plan – a hose that screws in to your spark plug hole so your engine acts as a air compressor. It does the job, but it takes a LOT of work to get at our spark plugs. Well, better get started.
…And just look how excited Mike is about it! Boy, by that long face, you’d think HE was the one doing all the work! More than the work, the dirt road was very draining and we were ready to be back on the pavement. (Or, as I was singing, “On A Road Again”) We were about half way to our spark plugs when, from across the camp, we heard the tell-tale droning of an air compressor. We’re saved! They let us borrow it, and it cut our labor in half. That cigarette lighter charger we installed in Mike’s bike really came in handy today!! A few more sticky strips and a quick fill, and we were heading for the highway.
Alas, the excitement did not last. We were less than a third of the way to pavement when Mike caught up and asked how his rear looked. I said “Flat”. He clarified that he meant his rear tire, but unfortunately the answer was still “flat.” Upon inspection we found that my rear tire had also gone flat again, bringing us to a total of six flats.
We started work to remove the spark plugs, and we found that we didn’t have all the tools we needed to get at them. (Now before you give me a hard time, we had the right SIZE tools, but the bolts were too tight for the tools we had to loosen them.) A few people stopped to help and a tour bus gave us some extra box lunches they had, but no one had the tools we needed. It took quite a while before someone stopped by that had a compressor. Now it was a race against the clock to reach pavement before we were stranded for the night. Where we averaged 25mph on the way up, we averaged over 50mph on the way out. It was do or die time, and we had run out of options. We were flatter than flat and running on the rims by the time we eventually reached the Klondike Lodge, but our day’s adventures were only beginning…
*2019: And that little cliffhanger is where we’ll be leaving off for this week. Tune in next week to find out if we end up in the trunk of a car, jail, or both!
Montessa is getting really amped up about everything having to do with our trip. She loves looking at pictures of South America, pouring over maps, and working on her Spanish. She also loves pitching in on our blog content. Unfortunately her passion for storytelling surpasses her ability to transcribe those tales in a format that is understandable by… well, pretty much anyone. But she sure does love pulling up a blank Word document and pounding away on the ol’ keyboard. Which, now that I think about it, really describes my creative process as well. Anyhow, Montessa was very clear that she wanted to write her OWN interview, so I let her write her answers on the laptop while I translated for her on the desktop. Here it is: Montessa’s very first Adventure Kid interview!
Wendy: How do you feel about our trip to South America?
Montessa: Happy about seeing new people and being with you and daddy.
W: What are you most excited about?
M: Spending time with you and daddy.
W: Are you looking forward to seeing or doing certain things?
M: Swimming and going to new hotels. And swimming at new swim places. Making sure everyone stays with me that I love, and visiting people in their society. (I have no idea where she picked that up!) There are more things that I want to do than staying in a hotel too.
W: What other kinds of things?
M: Making sure our pets are having a fun time at home, and also swimming in new swim places. (I’m sensing a theme…)
W: Do you think anything will be weird or scary?
M: No, just weird.
W: What’s going to be weird?
M: Spending time with you. (Can’t argue with that.)
W: What kinds of animals do you think we’ll see down there?
M: Elephants, giraffes, monkeys and little-sized elephants.
W: What about birds?
M: Yes, birds and elephants. (I’ve never mentioned seeing elephants in South America, yet I feel like we’re somehow setting her up for disappointment with regards to our anticipated interactions with animals…)
W: What kinds of birds?
M: Animal birds.
W: Like maybe flamingos?
M: Uh-huh. And giraffes.
W: Are you excited about doing so much sidecar riding?
W: What do you like most about riding in the sidecar?
M: Being with my family.
W: Do you like it better than riding in the car?
M: Because it’s so cool!
W: How are your Spanish lessons coming?
W: Can you tell me something in Spanish?
M: Hola! Soy Montessa!
W: Hola Montessa! Soy Wendy.
M: Hola Wendy! Buenos noches!
W: Muy bien mi hija! Do you have anything else to share about South America?
M: I want to ride on an airplane because we can sleep on an airplane (definitely her dad’s kid.)
W: What about camping? Are you excited about camping?
M: Uh-huh, because we can camp any place that’s beautiful.
W: What do you want to say to all the people who are reading your story?
M: Good main and I hope you have a good season!
I did confirm (twice) that she said “Good main.” I don’t know what that means. Let’s just all start using that and make it mean something awesome. So there you have it, folks – Montessa’s first South American interview! Good Main y’all!