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The Long Road
  • March 16, 2011 : 20:03
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Even as a disease steadily deteriorates his vision, a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast makes a perilous journey through South America and its notorious Road of Death.

The wind is unrelenting. We leave Chile and ride 500 yards to a Bolivian customs and immigration outpost. For eight hours we sit in a tiny building watching sand blow under the door. The power is out, and the Bolivian customs officials will not release our bikes. We get approval just as the sun goes down. We have to ride 150 miles in the dark, in the freezing cold, without our support vehicle.

With my eyesight, riding at night is an act of faith. I tuck my bike behind Andres and Rob, the most experienced off-road riders in the group, and go chameleon. I will do what they do, an act of trust unprecedented in my life.

I read their taillights for direction changes, hills, drop-offs, use the path of their headlights to illuminate enough road to match their speed. I stand on the pegs to lower the bike’s center of gravity, making it less squirrelly on the gravel, potholes, sand and ruts. The road deteriorates into what locals call ripa—miles of washboard bumps. The bike chatters like a white ball on a spinning roulette wheel. I try not to dwell on the rest of the metaphor. If I drop into a rut or pothole, my number will be up. My heart beats a mantra. Not me. Not yet.

I ride almost entirely by feel, letting the bike handle the details—its suspension is quicker than my quads. I commit to the throttle, to the physics of a gyroscope (stability provided by spinning wheels that disappears if you slow). I don’t touch the brakes. I force myself to breathe regularly. Adrenaline turns my mouth to cotton. Evidently my body knows it’s in a fight-or-flight situation. I suck on a plastic tube that runs to a bladder of water built into my riding suit. Nothing. The tube is frozen solid, as are the water bottles strapped to my fanny pack. The container of antifreeze in our guide’s top box freezes, explodes and leaks antifreeze icicles. The cold poses more of a problem than the dark.

At minus 10 degrees centigrade, if a bike breaks down, it will be a matter of moments before hypothermia escalates the mechanical to the mortal.

Hours into the night I crest a hill to find the wind has deposited six inches of sand between two embankments. The sand swallows our front wheels. Just like that, Andres is sideways. I follow, sideways. Rob sees what is happening, touches his brakes and goes down.

Almost in unison Andres and I ride out three whiplash turns, steering with our knees and foot pressure, like skiers in powder. We apply throttle to unweight the front wheel, and finally, as the sand gets shallower, we bring the bikes under control.

We flick on the hazard lights, put the bikes on their side stands and run up the hill. Rob is uninjured, but there are five riders behind us, stretched across the night.

I am halfway across South America, exactly where I want to be.…

In college I started a journal, and the first entry describes a motorcycle ride through the streets of Hartford, Connecticut, shifting through the gears, feeling the front wheel lift, seeing the slash of red as my taillight reflected off the chrome trim of parked cars. The motorcycle made me a writer. It is a machine for generating words, a tool for seeing. Kick an engine to life and I enter an altered state, one that turns highways into hymns, momentum into moments.

I ride a motorcycle to take my eyes places where I’ll see things I’ll never forget. Unfortunately, my eyes do not return the favor.

Chicago, 2003: I’m sitting in a darkened doctor’s office, staring at eye charts. In the space of a few months my eyesight has deteriorated dramatically. I tell the doctor I can no longer read headlines accurately.

“I don’t think I could pass the vision test for a driver’s license,” I tell him.

He laughs. “This is Chicago. Everyone has an uncle in the DMV.” Then he looks at the back of my eyes.

Blood vessels have done to the retina what tree roots do to sidewalks. The macula—the part of the eye responsible for fine focus, for details—is swollen, leaking fluid from tiny eruptions. If you project a slide onto a rumpled sheet, some parts will be in focus, some parts won’t. There will be gaps and blind spots. Weirdly, the mind takes the fractured information and tries to make sense of it.

Pick a word in the middle of this page. Focus on just that word. How well do you see the other words on the page? That’s how I see.

The retinologist launches a Star Wars battle on the inside of my eyes, cauterizing blood vessels with a laser. Two or three times a year he plunges a needle into one eye or another, injecting steroids to reduce swelling. It is not a cure, but it slows the deterioration.

I don’t talk about my eyes. If asked, I tell people I can still sit for hours at a computer, watching porn. At least I think it’s porn.

Someday soon I will be unable to ride. As a result, mileage is the only thing that matters. The road ahead. I start taking long rides, logging miles in South Africa, Canada, France, Spain, Central America, the American West.

Then one day my editor, a man possessed of a manic restlessness, contacted me: “I want a feature where you ride across Mongolia or Siberia or something like that Ewan McGregor TV special, Long Way Round. Something that really gets at the heart of what it’s like to ride and be out there in the elements, doing what every man dreams of. We’ll need frightening locals, harsh weather and loads of color—like across Afghanistan but not as dangerous.”

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read more: entertainment, magazine, travel, motorcycles, issue march 2011

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