The road wound all the way to Argentina, but I rode above it, the wheels turning and engine growling underneath me. I’d always wanted to travel by motorcycle to Patagonia at the very tip of Argentina, to pack everything on my back and take off from Baltimore, Maryland. Two months earlier, I had all my gear spread out on the floor — it covered an entire room— my tent, sleeping bag and pad, hardened steel chain and lock, two dry bags of clothes, camera gear, torch, flashlight, headlamp, camp stove, climbing gear, tools for the bike. I packed chain lube, extra oil, oil filters, o-rings for the oil filters, an air pump, air pressure gauge, and motorcycle bags. My family and friends told me to be careful as a woman traveling alone on such a long journey.
I had been on the road for two months, stopping in every beautiful place and mountain town throughout Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
The road wound through small pueblos and mountains, over bridges and down ascents and up, up, up again. The road would be asphalt, then gravel, sometimes smooth and dark, and sometimes pitted with cavernous holes.
I rolled around turns and opened the throttle, racing up mountains and down again, passing 18-wheelers and weaving in and out of traffic. You can’t be timid on a motorcycle — there’s no room for passivity or second guessing on the road. You either take the lane, or stay toward the edge and endanger yourself.
To be safe, you have to take up space.
“Aren’t you afraid?” the Guatemalan receptionist asked me.
I had just arrived in Antigua, Guatemala after a grueling ride from Rio Dulce. I had spent the night before in a wooden warehouse filled with bunk beds perched on a river, with warning signs not to bring food into the rooms and attract the rats. After leaving that morning, the roads were so terrible, they meant I had to change my approach to riding a motorcycle. Instead of being able to look far ahead in the distance and create a cushion of time to anticipate obstacles, I also had to look directly at the road in front of me and from side to side, looking for potholes as much as the stray dogs that would wander out into the road.
There were plenty of times when I felt afraid.
When I was thrown from my bike in the mountains of Belize, and again on a slick clay road in Guatemala. When I was chased by a pack of dogs in Mexico, and when it started pouring in the landslide-prone mountains, and rocks were falling onto the roadway from the water-laden cliffs.
“Yes, I’m afraid sometimes,” I said. But I do it anyway.
I had only been riding a couple weeks when I hit 6,000 miles on the bike and needed to change the oil. My next stop was Monterrey, Mexico, and although there wasn’t a garage or quiet place, there was an empty spot on the street in front of the hostel. I set up camp on a section of the cobblestone road, lining up my tools and new containers of oil that I’d bought just before crossing into Mexico. I pulled out my funnel from my ziplock bag and wiped it clean, and proceeded to get incredibly grimy, grabbing one tool after the next, loosening one thing then tightening another. I was covered in dirt and oil streaks, my hair sticking to my neck and bandana, I couldn’t have gotten more attention if I were performing surgery on a dinosaur, but I ignored all the stares and calls. I knew what I was doing, and it didn’t matter what anyone else thought or saw or wanted to say.
It took my lifetime and two months on the motorcycle to realize it didn’t matter what assumptions other people held about what I could do, what I should be doing, or whether I knew as much as they did. It didn’t matter if I was intimidating. It didn’t matter because, regardless, I was doing it. No one could take away what I had done or where I was going.
No matter where I was or how anyone else felt about it, I could pull over on any road, in any place, change dirty oil for clean, and the bike would run well for another 3,000 miles.
The Motorcycle Safety Foundation defines good risk offset as when one’s skills are greater than the risk taken. When you’re traveling alone, you assume there won’t be anyone else to help along the road. You find out how to clean your own chain, then you do it again, and again, and again. You watch videos, you read books, you ask questions and you learn everything you can, and then you learn more.
You learn to value failure more than success, to keep one eye on the road in front, but one in the distance too.
You learn to keep riding, always riding — no matter what anyone says or who they believe you to be — because the wind is at your back and Patagonia is calling.