Where The Road Ends: Alaska to Argentina Via The Darien Gap
How four military veterans made history with the motorcycle trip of a lifetime.
There’s no wind in your hair or sun on your face when riding your motorcycle through a whiteout snowstorm, especially in November when it’s -16 F on Alaska’s Dalton Highway. No, the only warmth you feel is the electric heat of your Arctic riding suit running off your bike’s battery, especially if it catches fire and melts the inside of its weatherproof fabric, which happened to Wayne Mitchell on the sixth day of his 6-month journey last year. Too bad it wasn’t the worst of his team’s problems that week.
Five days later, near Burns Lake, British Columbia, Rich Doering was steering clear of deep roadside snow banks, leery of catching one with the wheel of his sidecar, when a white Chevy Impala tried to pass him, spun out of control and crashed into Doering’s left side, pinning his leg against the bike. The 59-year-old Alaskan was shaken and in pain. Not even two weeks into a journey two years in the making, Doering’s trip was in jeopardy of ending before barely getting off the ground. Fortunately, his X-rays were negative and the crew of veterans rode on, not wont to leaving a fallen man behind.
With a few other roadside spinouts and mechanical failures, it was a dicey start to the Where The Road Ends team’s 19,000-mile continuous motorcycle journey from the origin of the northernmost road in America to the southernmost tip of Argentina. The four riders, plus one photographer and one videographer, had all served in the U.S. military and jumped on this opportunity to offset the boredom and void that so often come with reintegration to civilian life.
Retired army combat engineer Wayne Mitchell, the leader of the band, was a National Park Service employee in Colorado and the only rider with a wife and kids back home. Administrative office life was making the 43-year-old stir crazy, “like a Border Collie in an apartment,” and the prospect of another high-risk, seemingly impossible mission was all too tempting.
Simon Edwards, 54, had spent 20 years in the Special Forces as a medic before working as a physician’s assistant, though his own heart was on the mend from a bad breakup before the trip. Having raced in the Mexican 1000 Rally and set speed records at the Bonneville Salt Flats, he was the strongest rider in the group.
Gruff and bearded was Mike Eastham, 50, who served with Mitchell in Mongolia and now worked construction jobs in rugged Alaskan environments. He’d often talk about rekindling his youthful “cowboy and Indian days” of wild military exploits.
And then there was Rich Doering, the former satellite systems engineer who longed for the military’s camaraderie. At 59, Doering may have been the most intellectual of the group, but was definitely the slowest rider.
After the accident, the team cruised south along the west coast of the United States without any major hiccups. Once they hit the Baja peninsula in Mexico, the sense of freedom and adventure ramped back up as they sped down the empty coastline, making good time and taking in the warm glow of western sunsets. Mitchell’s father used to regale his son with tales of riding motorcycles through Baja and now here was Wayne Jr., feeling the hum of his own engine, with waves of salty air crashing down onto hot asphalt. Ironically, the end of the Mexican leg coincided with the end of Mitchell’s father’s life. Mitchell got the call from his family and ultimately decided that his dad, who suffered years of dementia, would have wanted him to complete the mission in lieu of the funeral.
Navigating sporadic roadblocks and long lines at border crossings are par for the course in long-distance adventure riding. But the team was preparing for a rather atypical speed bump. Instead of taking the usual ferry from Panama to Colombia around the roadless, lawless, 80-mile break in the Pan-American Highway system–known as the notorious Darien Gap–they planned to ride their 450-pound Kawasaki KLR650s right through the heart of the beast, though “riding” would soon take on a new meaning.
No one had ever done a continuous north-south motorcycle journey from Deadhorse, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina, through the Darien Gap in one uninterrupted trip. The absence of any road going through the thick, overgrown jungle is enough of a deterrent, as are the deadly snakes and insects, paramilitaries and guerillas, drug and human traffickers, and desperate migrants.
Yet the crux of the whole operation hinged on getting permission to even attempt the crossing of the gap from Senafront, Panama’s border police force. At a fortified compound in Panama City, with armed cadets lining the perimeter in camouflage and toucans squawking from the treetops, a giant, menacing eagle statue glared down on the team as they shuffled inside to plead their case. One ornery official in an off mood could stymie the entire venture, derailing the premise of their film and letting down their sponsors and the fan base they’d amassed along the journey.
Fortunately, they and their gifted bottle of a fine liqueur were greeted with a smile by Subdirector General Oriel Oscar Ortega, a decorated, stocky man who had surprisingly little reservation about giving the team permission to cross into the Darien Gap, despite the potential for political fallout if anyone were to get killed.
“There is peace with the Colombian FARC,” he said, referring to the armed revolutionary guerilla movement in conflict with the Colombian government since 1964. “All is quiet, so you can go. But [once you get to] Colombia, it’s your problem….Welcome to Panama.”
As soon as the Pan-American Highway literally ended in the seedy town of Yaviza, Panama, the gap began smacking the team with setbacks left and right. Isaac Pizarro, their Guna Indian guide, wanted more money for his services than originally agreed. The Senafront soldiers stationed in the river town of Paya did not get the memo to let the men pass and would have turned them back were it not for a satellite phone call from their superiors. “Muy peligroso,” one said. “Bien viaje. Muchos mosquitos.” The dry season that the riders had aimed to hit by leaving Alaska in November never came and the jungle was one giant mud pit under a lush canopy of treetops.
Doering was the first rider to burn out his clutch trying to ride up a hill while sinking his tires straight into the mud. His spokes, sprockets, chain and brakes repeatedly caked with thick sludge, dirt and vegetation, completely locking up the rear wheel. He made the tough decision to abandon his bike in the jungle and retreat back to Panama City before rejoining the others later with the support van.
The troubles continued. Food and tools went missing as the young local porters–hired to cut a path with machetes and carry camping supplies–slowly disappeared into the bush. By the afternoon of day two, the other riders had burned out their clutches and drained their batteries trying to navigate the steep ravines with slick roots and unstable ground. They ended up having to push, drag and cable-hoist their bikes the rest of the way through the jungle with the help of enthusiastic-yet-disorganized porters while torrential downpours made regular appearances. “Getting one bike up this hill could take 16 people, let alone four,” Mitchell said at one point.
“Just a few more hours,” Pizarro kept assuring them. “Then Colombia is all downhill.” Neither statement was true. The men spent three more days trudging alongside their lifeless bikes, the most physically intense thing any of them have done in at least 10 years. Bugs devoured them through the undersides of their hammocks at night. Mitchell’s blistered trench foot was so bad that he could barely walk. After countless Africanized bees’ (a.k.a. “killer bees”) nests, paralyzing bug bites and pricks from long black thorns, they managed to find even more bees, bugs and black thorns. Each day was stickier, sweatier and itchier than the last.
Once they made it to the other side of the gap in Colombia, where a network of rivers would carry them out via dugout canoes called piraguas, there was trouble looming with a local paramilitary group not keen on surprise gringo visitors. Fortunately nothing escalated.
The Cacarica River and Atrato Swamp were so low that they had to spend a day pushing bikes through shallow water while shoveling mud out from under the heavy piraguas. After eight days and 80 miles of grueling jungle slog, they found themselves recovering in the port town of Turbo with three mangled bikes awaiting new parts from Kawasaki.
Having conquered the greatest objective of the ride, they still had an entire continent to cross on rowdy South American roads. While triumph reigned, frustration and broken down communication among the team chipped away at the stability of their mission’s leadership. Spending six to eight hours on a motorcycle staring at the horizon brings a lot of time to ruminate on personal quips. A few group separations and mechanical issues occurred, causing delays.
They cruised through the scenic roads to Machu Picchu, and ripped across sand dunes under the wide-open skies of the Atacama Desert before climbing up in elevation to mountainous landscapes where they once again encountered snow. In Chile, they took the famously scenic Carretera Austral coastal road with three large ferry crossings. They lucked out with pleasant weather for a few weeks until it switched to incessant rain in March.
Then time became a factor. Mitchell’s request to extend his leave of absence at Rocky Mountain National Park was denied. If not back in time he’d lose his job, which he needed to support his family, including his mother, whom he’d just found out was diagnosed with cancer. He’d be cutting it very close to get to Ushuaia in time to make it back to Buenos Aires to catch a flight home hours before work started. The others were running out of money and needed to get back to work themselves. As real life came knocking, they were all reminded of just how much we sacrifice for the feeling of freedom that riding motorcycles around the world gives us.
Along with the relief and accomplishment of finishing the ride came a mounting fear of the inevitable comedown–the empty purposelessness of not having a complex expedition to coordinate every hour of every day. Edwards considered turning around and driving back just to have something to do.
While no one left the trip claiming to have uncovered the meaning of life on two wheels, the ride instilled in them a realization that it all might just be about making it over the next hill, taking things one turn at a time, no matter what the destination.
When they finally reached the anticlimactic parking lot at the southern tip of South America in Tierra del Fuego on March 27, they gazed farther south across the Drake Passage, wondering what was next to come. After some silence, Mitchell pointed out, “Nobody has ever ridden motorcycles across Antarctica before.”