The “self-guided” motorcycle tour of Ecuador sounded a little canned to my college buddy and me. Not for long.
Tom hit the dog and went down hard.
He was right in front of me, but I actually had time, as I swerved around the wreck on the wet mountain curve and looked for flat enough place to park the motorcycle, to think: And here I thought getting robbed two days ago in Cuenca would be the low point of our trip.
“Adventure travel” seems packaged and safe until you’re in the pouring rain in the Amazon jungle with an injured buddy and a bike that won’t start, a satellite phone that won’t work, and a 20,000-foot Andes mountain looming between you and a warm bed.
I don’t think I realized I was actually afraid of this trip until the weekend before we left, which I spent alone with my wife. Instead of excited, I was morose — drinking in an unsuccessful attempt to cheer up and show my wife love and gratitude for gracefully allowing me to take this birthday trip.
Instead, I must have worried her more.
I hadn’t felt this way before any of my previous sorties with my old college roommate Tom Gillespie: Not when we were in our mid-twenties and tore around Ireland in a rented car. Not when we were thirty, and drove to New Mexico with a pick-up truck full of motorcycles, returning home with two rusty International Harvester Scouts. Not even when we were forty, and rode motorcycles from Chicago to Nova Scotia.
In the middle of that last trip, though, came an omen that I chose to take as a warning, as I recorded then:
On our last day of scribbling around Cape Breton, the weather was discouraging, the scenery was monotonous, we’d been at it for 10 days and I allowed myself to forget the full-time emergency that is motorcycling. I settled into a numb motormeditation.
We were behind a car as we rounded a curve, and we saw two chipmunks on the side of the road. They made a break for it, together, ahead of the car. They must have been good friends. They must have been thinking, “As long as we’re together, nothing can happen to us.”
Boom-boom, and suddenly, both were lying twitching, in the road.
Yes, Tom and I have survived lots of recklessness before. But this probably wasn’t the first time the chipmunks crossed the road, either.
In Quito, we sat in the briefing room at Ecuador Freedom Bike Rental, feeling and probably looking like a couple of 19-year-old P-47 pilots. We received general instructions on Ecuadorian road rules, relevant cultural mores and other useful advice, like how to deal with the hundreds of stray dogs of various temperaments that we would inevitably encounter on the trip.
But what really gripped our guts during the more than four hours of briefings in the two days before we left was the sheer volume of knownday-to-day obstacles we would have to face every day: The hard-to-see huge highway bumps north of Quito on Day One. The need to get a very early start on Day Three or face the specter of finishing the mountain ride into Baños in the dark. The apparent walking bridge we would have to bring ourselves to ride across to reach our hotel in downtown Cuenca. The Day-Eight destination in Salinas, a town so steep that if you dump your bike the high end of town, it will slide down the cobblestone street all the way to the low end. But the Day Nine bunkhouse was the one with the steep winding driveway that you really had to watch out for. Not to mention the return to Quito, which would involve a 45-degree switchback cobblestone backroad into the city on which our young briefer — who leads guided tours when he isn’t scaring chipmunks — said, “I’ve lost a few guys,” before he hastened to add, “Not killed, just crashed.”
My daughter was five when Tom and I went on the Nova Scotia trip. Accidentally, a tiny little heart sticker she was playing with had fallen into my left boot, and stuck to the heel where I could see it. Of course, I came to regard it as a good luck charm, and a reminder of all that was precious at home. And of course before I left for Ecuador, my daughter and I had ceremoniously unstuck it from the old boot and placed it in the new boot, just so.
And at first, it worked!
Our early mishaps were few — a little surprising, considering I was riding a Triumph Tiger 800: a tall, top-heavy, powerful motorcycle that, though it handled beautifully in the mountains and surprisingly well on dirt roads, behaved at slow speeds like a three-legged buffalo. And on a slope, like a drunken one.
At 6:00 a.m. on Sunday morning we blasted north out of Quito, crossed the Equator, bounced down a dirt road to a great green valley the likes of which we do not have in North America. It looked a hundred miles across. We eased down on a switchback road until it the valley became a canyon and the canyon became a gorge. Then a cup of coffee in a tiny mountain village and off on a narrow, ancient cobblestone road into another sunny lush green valley beautiful enough to alter one’s soul — we steered around the rumps of untethered horses eating grass saturated by the results of the just-ended rainy season — and then into the woods, on steep switchbacks, harrowingly tight first-gear turns right and left up the hill on the stones.
A fast, 45-minute cobblestone charge up the side of a volcano to a crater lake — then back down in a hard rain, gathering confidence in our motorcycles and ourselves. And lunch in a market town called Otavalo, at a restaurant on Plaza de los Ponchos. (Alas, it was too early in the journey to fill our saddlebags with los ponchos.) And then a short ride to Hacienda Pinsaqui, a 300-year-old hotel where Simon Bolivar regularly stayed, and where Dr. Seuss must have researched the possible shapes of trees.
I won’t describe every day’s ride in such detail, as long as you remember that the one I just described was the shortest of them all.
I posted a note on Facebook to tell concerned friends that we’d made it through the first day safely. “I have a patient from Ecuador, and I told him that you were riding motorbikes through the Andes,” a physical therapist friend commented helpfully. “He laughed, and then he stopped.”
A motorcycle is a daydreaming machine. It’s hard for people who don’t ride to understand that even as you’re downshifting into tight turns, leaning low and upshifting out of them — meanwhile stealing glimpses across canyons, up at snowy peaks and down at clouds — you might also be singing “Ripple” at the top of your lungs, or wishing your dead father was here, or thinking charitable or uncharitable thoughts about your best pal, the back of whose white helmet with the red racing stripe you’ve followed around so many bends, for so many years.
On the second day of the trip — as we crossed the Equator a second time, this time southbound, and crossed the cold Andes and descended into the steamy Amazon rainforest, I found myself making a list of reasons why my idea of a vacation is to endure the rigors of a relationship that regularly tests my patience, my generosity, my good humor, my morality, my self-regard, my courage and my honesty. Well, I guess that’s why. Also, because if I didn’t know Tom, I would never be motorcycling through South America. Also, because he long ago became my actual brother. Also, because he puts up with my bullshit, too.
Along the way I thought of just about everybody I love — because that’s what motorcycle engines make me do. I’d go as far as to say that if I didn’t have you tucked between my panniers on any of these roads over these 10 days, you probably don’t amount to much in my life. If my words did glow with the gold of sunshine and my tunes were played on the harp unstrung, would you hear my voice come through my engine? Would you hold it near as it were your own?
Over our decades of thrashing around backroads on dubious missions, Tom and I adopted a retort to people — most of the people made of straw — who told us we must be crazy to attempt this or that adventure. “Are you kidding? You’d be crazy not to!” Thus, my YouTube videos of these adventures are Crazy Not To Productions.
But we were sufficiently awed at this trip that we were not taking reckless chances. Before the modestly priced trip (our motorcycle rental and lodging amounted to $3K) each of us spent close to a thousand dollars on immunizations — Yellow Fever, Hepatitis, Typhoid, Malaria — and we poured on the Deet insect repellent whenever we got near the rain forest. On a boat ride in the Amazon, we politely declined an invitation to go “tubing” on the Napo River, even after being assured that piranhas swim further south. And in the riding, Tom led sometimes aggressively but never near the edge. “We have to come home from this one,” he said quietly one night. His son is 12 and my daughter is 15 and it seemed they needed us now more than ever.
So we were relieved when we reached each hotel without incident, and we often landed early in the afternoon, giving us time to wander around drinking Pilsener beer, to write in our journals drinking wine as our wet gear dried in front of the fire, to scrounge another bottle from the hotel owner, and to talk into the night, about everything.
But we never got really drunk, until the itinerary gave us a day off, in the stately Spanish colonial city of Cuenca.
After a beery walk around town and wine at dinner, we found the only pool table we would ever see in Ecuador. It was hogbacked, but we played until the bar closed, and began walking back to our hotel. Next to our hotel, Tom spotted a nightclub. I groaned. He charged in. “Come on, one beer!” I acquiesced.
I never saw my cell phone after that.
Outside on the sidewalk, police. A woman pulled up in a cab and offered to get my phone back for a hundred bucks. The police nodded to us to take the deal. Tom realized he suddenly didn’t have the two hundred bucks he came in with. The cab drove away. The police shrugged, and walked away.
One night in the summer of 1992, Tom and I once lost a watch, a pocket knife and fifty bucks in a shell game on a Chicago el train. Let’s just say we took it better at 23 than we did at 50.
“It’s going to be hard for us to come out of this,” Tom told me unnecessarily the next morning, as I struggled and failed to stop sobbing at the thought of an Ecuadorian thief looking at my daughter’s honest face, smiling on my cell phone screen. We both felt bad because our well-grooved push and pull, which has served us well for 35 years of friendship and given us a sense of a kind of golden, graceful destiny — we have developed a lot of faith in that, maybe the strongest kind of faith we actually have.
The chipmunks, twitching in the road.
At Cuenca, we were as far from Quito as we would ever be. The last four days of the trip, we could smell the barn — and we were determined to reach it as carefully as it is possible, while riding motorcycles on narrow mountain roads, to get.
So we were not riding fast up the mountain road two days later in the steady rain as we climbed through the cloud forest toward the highest mountain in Ecuador.
And when the red-coated dog leapt out from the trees on the right, Tom and I assumed that encounter would end like dozens of others had: the dog barking and running alongside the bike, and we both barrel past with a little twist of the throttle. But this rabid fool ran directly in front of Tom’s bike. Tom slowed down — we guess from about 50 km/h to about 30 — and then tried to skirt behind the dog. But he hit the teeth-bared creature amidships. The front wheel spun left, the bike went down on the right side with Tom under it, landing on his shoulder, knee and ankle. He said he heard his helmet hit, and we found a scrape on the back. And his right bootlace was torn to little bits.
I have no recollection of what happened to the dog, and we never saw it again.
Now Tom is limping and groaning in the gathering rain, directing me to get the satellite phone, the tools, the bikes under a streaming rock. Even injured, Tom is infinitely more capable than I am in practical situations. (I am handy with gerunds, and a seven-iron.) The bike isn’t badly damaged — the handlebars are just a bit cockeyed to the left — but it won’t start. The kill switch is stuck. After trying and failing to bump start it down the hill, Tom takes the mechanism apart and unsticks it. Still won’t start. We trudge to the top of the hill and finally get through on the sat phone to the owner of the rental agency, reaching him at home on a Sunday morning. He makes a suggestion, which leads to our finding a solution and the bike starting and — after an hour’s soaking — our miraculous ascent from the forest, into a big yellow valley, and toward Chimborazo Mountain, the “King of the Andes.”
We endured the cold crossing, over a 14,500-foot pass, then rode down through where Tolkien must have conceived the grassy-hilly home of the Hobbit.
And into the badly listing town, Salinas, where one tentative turn on my drunken three-legged buffalo could have meant the end of the good motorcycle, too. Somehow I got it parked at the hotel, and after a halting and grunting walk for food and beer—Tom thinks his ribs are cracked and he whimpers and cries every time he shifts his weight—we brought a bottle of wine back to the unheated room and got under the thick covers of our beds at six in the evening. Where we would remain for 12 hours, alternately sleeping and stewing about the three hard days remaining between us and that fucking rental shop in Quito. All night, the hill outside the door kept getting steeper, and the buffalo kept getting bigger, and more tipsy.
Once, Tom sneezed, and screamed.
At 6:30 the next morning — his leg feeling a little better but his ribs feeling worse — Tom painfully threw his leg over my bike and took it up the hill to a flat spot, an act of chivalry for which I expressed my pathetic gratitude.
If I lost my pride as a motorcyclist, Tom lost a bunch of stuff: a pair of winter riding gloves, a flashlight, a pair of prescription glasses, a Joseph Conrad novel, a can of mace, a stash of antacid. Mister Magoo came up, and I kept thinking of old sailors I’ve known, who claim to suffer from a brain disease they call CRS (Can’t Remember Shit). The good news was, most of the things he lost, he later found in another bag, which gave us hope that everything we’ve ever misplaced might turn up at some point — in this life, or in the next.
At this point in the trip, we only felt safe and competent when we were actually in our motorcycle saddles, riding at speed. Carefully but confidently we made our way out of The Shire, across a high desert plane, into a deep gorge, over a high mountain pass, down a cobblestone road and through the big city of Ambato, up to the rim of the Quilotoa Crater Lake, which was created in an explosion 800 years ago that covered all of modern-day Ecuador in a thick layer of dust.
And finally to the mountain lodge whose dangerous driveway we’d been warned about back in Quito but which did not scare me anymore.
Any single one of the 10 days of this trip could be a motorcyclist’s ride of a lifetime. I often rode, in fact, with a gnawing sense of frustration at the overwhelming beauty — and the overwhelming amountof beauty that I knew I would forget like a drunk at an all-night party. All the treed canyons, green valleys, high mountain passes, forest roads and isolated villages would morph in my memory into one of each. The alpacas, llamas, monkeys, cows, wild vicuña, one of each. Those brown, wind-cut and rain-smoothed faces of those tiny little old men and women staring or glaring or smiling or waving from the side of the road: one of each.
And the uniformed school children who hailed us from the backs of buses and the sides of roads and at whom we smiled and waved back like Charles Lindbergh and Neil Armstrong: one of each.
From my journal, the night before we rode our last leg, to Quito: “People might legitimately react to our homesickness, our fear, our discomfort and other emotional and physical problems on this trip by pointing out that it was all entirely voluntary — more than voluntary, actually: self-indulgent and privileged and even monstrous, if you consider the collateral damage a disaster would cause. All granted, 100%. But the truth is that once you’re on a trip like this — whatever reasons you had for going, and expectations about the thing — you’re fucking on it, bringing to whatever circumstances you encounter, whatever emotional and mental resources you have — and whatever the dynamic you have with your fellow traveler. And you see what happens — and you see — with honest curiosity — how you handle it. And that is the point. And, from an honest adventure — and I’ve been on many — it is wonderful to come home. I’ve never been on an adventure quite as arduous and wonderful as this — and I look forward very much to coming home to the people who were generous enough to let me go, despite their own fears, which they suffered with no personal benefit at all.”
And then we were at the rental shop in Quito, accepting congratulatory beers from the staffers who receive survivors of profound and unique adventures every day of the week. They do their best to offer a hero’s welcome anyway: complimentary beers, a helmet sticker, a t-shirt and a handshake. But inevitably it falls a little flat, and so we got out of there, happy to spend one last day buying ponchos and hats and earrings for the people we owed, before the redeye back to Houston, and home.
Before we began the trip, the young tour guide at the rental agency had been making small talk before we rode unsteadily out.
“So, are you guys retired or something?” he asked.
We are so not retired.
We both plunged immediately back into our businesses and family lives and urban social existences, hoping not to feel in a week as if the trip had happened years ago, to two other guys.
As I write this, though:
My Triumph Bonneville rides like a Vespa scooter.
My wife loves the poem I wrote to her from Ecuador more than los ponchos.
And for the first time I can remember, I’m literally grateful — because a little bit astonished — just to be alive.