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Until There Are No More Roads to Follow

30 Sep 2013

The planning started for me four years ago as I neared the end of my first motorcycle trip, which took me from Los Angeles to the end of the Pan-American Highway in Panama. By the end of the six tumultuous months of that trip I was exhausted of breakdowns, completely out of money, and inspired as never before at discovering my true passion and the knowledge that so much of North America and all of South America and many places besides were left to me to explore by motorcycle.


The plan was to do the next trip alone as I had done the first one and this time to have the right bike and the appropriate gear and the knowledge and experience to do it ‘better’ (whatever that I understood that to mean at the time). Then I met Jessica in South Sudan and we moved together to Liberia and one day she said she would learn to ride a motorcycle and do the trip with me if I invited her. So, of course, I invited her and the new plan became to do the trip together. This new plan started about a year ago when in Liberia I was struggling to engage with my new job and we were both feeling ready to leave Africa for a while and wanting to try something different than aid work. Then we grabbed hold of the idea of the trip and the researching and planning for it became as important as anything else to help get us through that difficult year.


At first the plan was to buy the motorcycles in Los Angeles and ride north to Alaska, perhaps as far as Anchorage or Fairbanks, and then south to Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of South America. Later, when we discovered from our very detailed projections that a couple more months of savings would better place us for a soft landing after the trip, we adjusted the plan to go as far north as Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory of western Canada if the weather and snow conditions allowed it.


I already knew which bikes we would get and I decided from the beginning that I would brainwash Jessica to make her see it my way. This turned out to be easier than I expected since she had a natural proclivity towards enduros – my preferred type of motorcycle – and crotch rockets – that is, sport bikes – and also because the Swiss in her blood gives her an innate appreciation for things that are well made. I decided that we should get BMWs because they are known to be the ideal adventure touring bikes and, after completely bucking the trend in choosing the motorcycle for my first trip, I had no qualms about conformity this time around. Also, on my previous motorcycle trip I had met a young couple from Seattle who let me ride one of their BMWs and I loved how it handled off road compared to my top-heavy and less agile cruiser. Incidentally, in meeting Megan and Marshall, this was the first time I had dared to dream that maybe I could meet a woman willing, able, and wanting to do a motorcycle trip with me. I also should confess to being terribly envious of Marshall then and for long afterwards for having found his Megan.


So, for Jess we got a G650GS, which is, but for a few changes to the aesthetics, that same motorbike that Megan and Marshall had introduced me to when we met in a small town in Belize several years before. It is an on road-offroad bike, which is classified as an enduro, with a 650cc single-cylinder engine nicknamed a ‘thumper’ for the drumming sound the lone piston makes. This bike as been made mostly the same for more than 10 years and, for performance and reliability, it’s among the best and most popular for round-the-world trips even more extreme than ours is like to be. Her bike is sunset yellow and black and she named it Moxie because for her preparing to do this trip has been all about summoning the ‘chutzpah’.


For me we got the slightly larger F700GS, which is also an enduro and has an 800cc twin cylinder engine slightly detuned but otherwise the same as the F800GS, which is every bit as beautiful but a bit too tall and expensive, and probably more geared for offroad than I need. My bike is silver and black and she, Penelope, is second only to Jess in beauty and dearness to my heart.


For those who care to know about more than just the make and model of our motorcycles, here is the rest of the gear-talk. We accessorized our bikes with a skid plate and crash bars – the former to protect the underside when bottoming out and the latter to protect the engine and side covers in case of a fall. We got hand guards to keep the projectiles and cold wind off our hand and a tall windscreen for better endurance on longer rides and at high speed. To Jess’s bike we also added fork guards to prevent rocks and other projectiles from doing damage to the front suspension. To my bike I also added a clear guard to protect the headlight assembly from those same rocks and projectiles that Jess might kick up when I am trailing behind her.


We each strapped a small, waterproof case on the part that serves as gas tank on most motorcycles – on ours the gas tank is under the seat to lower the center of gravity. The tank bag puts a few small necessities near at hand and places a square foot or so of map in view through a clear plastic slip over the top. We also added side cases called panniers to both our bikes to carry a part of our gear. Jess’s were the hard plastic type made by BMW to be adjustable so to extend for greater capacity. Mine were aluminum from Touratech with rounded, rubberized corners to better endure hard falls. In the panniers we planned to carry our clothing and toiletries, and in Jess’s our food and in mine our tools and spare parts.


We strapped a large, waterproof duffle bag across the passenger section of the seat and over the panniers on either side. In this we planned to carry our sleeping bags and sleeping pads, kitchenware, tent, camp chairs, and a few other necessities. The duffle bags would be enveloped in a PacSafe, which is a web made of steel cable that can be secured around the duffle and locked to the bike’s frame to make it harder to cut into or to steal. For our immediate protection, we got armored riding jackets and trousers, both with vents to unzip when it is hot, space to layer for when it is cold, and a waterproof membrane for when it rains. We also got riding boots with armed shins, and cold and warm weather gloves, and fullface crash helmets with vents that open to allow air to flow around and cool the head.



After the many months of planning while we earned the money to make it come true, Jess left Liberia in June and went back to Toronto to get her motorcycle license. I left a month later and, when we met in Los Angeles, we made our first visit to a BMW dealership the very next day. Within a week we had struck what we thought was a fair deal and a few days after our bikes arrived at the BMW dealership in Thousand Oaks. Thirty minutes into the ride home from the dealership on my new motorbike with my dad and Jess following behind in the car it suddenly felt like all the long months had gone by very fast and that I had really gotten myself into it now. Realizing that I was into it and it was all happening now, I welled up and became very excited.


Jess’s excitement grew much more gradually because she was very nervous about what she had suddenly over long months gotten herself into. Her new bike was much larger, heavier, and more powerful than the small one she had learned on in Liberia. Also now the thinking about it was giving way to the much harder doing it and she was practically faced with the demands of growing herself to endure long days of riding on freeways and windy highways and through twisty mountain roads. Jess is very sensible when counseling others and considering things outside herself but when she is part of the equation she is an obstinate pessimist. She found a thousand half-truths to convince herself why her experience riding in Liberia was insufficient, inconsistent with, or inapplicable to the riding she would have to do on this new bike and for the trip. Thinking about the need to adapt to this new bike and the effort required to grow her riding skill to meet the demands of the trip brought her a great deal of stress. Anyone who knows Jess knows that, when she gets stressed, she gets fussy. So you can guess she was quite fussy for the first several weeks and this was difficult for us at the same time as I was becoming so enthusiastic in my excitement.


For the first 1000 km we rode around town and stayed off of the freeways. Common knowledge says that to break in a new motorcycle engine you should maintain low RPMs and change engine speeds often. This is best done on surface streets and particularly on twisty mountain roads.  We also took this time to collect our gear and to do other important things like take a course on first aid and CPR. After the first servicing, we broke onto the freeway, which Jess had long feared and almost instantly mastered. A week later we took the first of two practice trips, which were intended to allow us to adapt to the weight and balance of the loaded bikes and determine if we had packed appropriately before leaving for the real thing.


For the first practice trip we went north up the cliff-lined California coast along the twisting Pacific Coast Highway to Monterey and then back south inland past the farms and sun-bleached meadowlands. This went very well despite the long stretches of twisting highways that had given Jess so much anxiety when tracing them on Google Maps and had made her as fussy as ever before.


For the second practice trip we went north again but this time we took Highway 395 through the dusty plains on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range to Rock Creek Lake just below the better known Mammoth Lakes. My dad followed us up in his car and we camped for three nights and fished for two days before returning the same way. Jess caught a small one and my dad an even smaller one and I only had a fish take the fly off my line. On the third night the wind brought the clouds in and it was so cold that the rain fell as hail.


After these two trips we took a final week to make adjustments to the bikes to accommodate the new taller windscreens, to buy a few more items to round out our cache, and to install and test the video cameras on our crash helmets. This was also much needed time to rest up and to say our goodbyes, and to trace a route onto our maps that would takes us through as many of the highlights as possible during the trip. The day before we left to begin the trip was a Sunday and we rode Mulholland Highway to the Rock Store, which is where all the bikers in the area go to show off their rides. Riding there that day on our beautiful new bikes in our riding gear and feeling every bit as much a motorcyclist as the mostly older hands that haunt the place, I experienced an important moment of growth after years of never having the stones to go there.


​​The new plan had been to leave at the end of August but with everything there was to buy and return and modify and learn to use and modify again this proved overly ambitious. By the time we and our bikes were fully equipped to begin, it was the third week in September and the dog days of summer were growing further and further in the rearview. So, setting off on Monday, 23 September, we decided that the new new plan is to go as far north as snowed in passes and our tolerance for cold weather riding will allow us and then, when we cannot hold out any longer, to swing back south and from there make a dash for Mexico and Central America and then chase the summer into the Southern Hemisphere until there are no more roads to follow.

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