The quality of the air, the clarity of the light.… This is as far from the eye chart in a doctor’s office as it is possible to be. Up here I can see farther and in greater detail than I have in years.
Day 22, Bolivia: We arrive in Uyuni around midnight to a hotel without power, heat or lights. We sleep in our riding clothes for the second night in a row.
The power outage lasts three days. Cars and buses line up at the two gas stations, waiting for the pumps to light up. We tour a graveyard of rusting trains abandoned in the 1950s. The sand drifts halfway up the steel wheels, burying the tracks. On blood-red metal someone has painted the phrase My heart is burning alive.
Standing on a downtown corner, Andres and Newts make a sign that says in Spanish “Will pay twice the going rate for gas.” Within five minutes a guy leads them to a 50-gallon drum in his backyard. We suction fuel through a hose and pour it through plastic Coke bottles cut into funnels.
We leave town for another day of gravel, construction detours, water crossings and animal hazards, arriving in Potosí, a 400-year-old city built on mineral wealth—silver hauled from the ground. Three weeks into the journey, my riding suit has developed a personality. I picture the end of the ride, standing the suit at a bar, buying it a drink, slapping it on the back and saying, “You’re on your own.”
We buy dynamite from a street vendor, a young woman who cuts fuse cord and short stubby sticks of explosives. She reaches into her apron for blasting caps. Total cost: about $2 an explosion. One of the Aussies who have joined our group sniffs the dynamite and says it doesn’t smell of cordite like the stuff he buys at home.
“What do you use it for at home?” I ask.
Our guide helps us set off one of the sticks in a stone field. The concussive fist of air triggers something in each of us.
That night Newts makes another sign, drawing a stick figure of a woman with large breasts and a bottle with xxxx, the universal sign for booze. He flags down a taxi and gives the sign to the driver. In the morning the survivors can barely recall: a flashing neon sign, a dance floor, women and someone, Newts probably, saying, “Wanna bet I can get thrown out?”
Day 26, Bolivia: On the outskirts of La Paz we roll past a block of stores with steel grates on their windows. Out of the corner of my eye I notice an effigy—a human figure fashioned from gray fabric, filled with rubber blocks or garbage or something more dreadful, strung up by the neck 20 feet off the ground. A phrase is painted on the chest in red paint. Looking down the block I see an effigy on every lamppost.
I ask someone at the hotel about the effigies. The answer: “Theft is a big problem in Bolivia. The police are corrupt or inefficient. The merchants know if you hand the thief over to the authorities, he will be back the next day, angry. So they hang them. Or burn them.” Thirty-five thieves have been hanged in the preceding year. At a festival at a nearby beach resort, eight youths followed a woman into an alley. They grabbed her necklace and tried to pry the earrings from her ears. Two boys saw what was happening and ran to the town square. The community descended on the youths and, angered by the marks on the victim’s neck, poured gasoline on the thieves and set them afire.
We store our motorcycles in a secure compound, then take a taxi to the hotel. I walk the city. The shoe-shine boys, ashamed of their profession, wear ski masks to hide their identities. At intersections citizens dressed in zebra costumes leap about. Actors in donkey suits follow jaywalkers. A museum diorama shows one of the heroes of Bolivia being drawn and quartered—pulled apart by horses.
Rob and I visit the witches’ market, a narrow street lined with stalls selling totems that promise to protect you on a journey, bring love and prosperity and make your pecker grow. Outside are llama fetuses hung by the dozen and dried piranha, their mouths gaping, arranged on spikes to be used as offerings to God.
We are looking for something else, a map to the Road of Death. We hire a taxi driver to guide us through La Paz traffic to El Camino de la Muerte. It’s just me and Rob. No one else in the group will go.
Day 28, Bolivia: The Road of Death was constructed by prisoners of war from Paraguay in the 1930s. It is a ledge strung across a nearly vertical swath of the Andes, a slippery strand of mud and gravel, barely a car and a half wide, prone to landslides and fatal rockfalls. Above the road, a steep, overgrown, almost vertical mountain. Below the road, a 2,000-foot precipice. No guardrails between.
This very morning I read a news story about a bus plunge that took 17 lives. The reporter used an odd phrase, saying the bus “fell off the Andes.”
I turn on the helmet cam and head downhill. The government has closed the route to trucks; it is now maintained as a thrill ride for oxygen-starved mountain bikers. Without the oncoming trucks or the taxi drivers adrift in an alcoholic stupor, the Road of Death is just another road with an incredibly steep drop-off.
Rob wills himself not to look at the edge (on a motorcycle you go where you look) and rides close to the cliff face. I ride with the helmet cam aimed at the edge. It catches details that in my focused state I miss. The soundtrack picks up the sound of my breathing, the rattle of water hitting the bike as I pass waterfalls, a muttered prayer: “Don’t look down.” The wide-angle lens imposes a frame on the view, a frame that magnifies the blur of details that indicates speed. When eventually I see the footage, I crawl out of my skin.
Day 31, Peru: On the road from Puno to Cuzco, we gallop across the landscape at 90 to 100 miles an hour. We pass beneath the relics of glaciers hung out like skins to dry in the sun.
And then we hit a traffic jam. We edge past a long line of stopped gas trucks to where large rocks lie in rows across the road. The hills are covered with locals out for the entertainment. This is a roadblock, the first of many.
No one can tell us the cause of the protest—natives close the artery to express discontent over the outcome of soccer matches, the price of gasoline, government attempts to regulate the coca industry. Strikes can start on one side of Lake Titicaca and sweep the nation. We may be stopped for hours or days.
Our guide, Micho, negotiates with the locals. I take their laughter as a good sign. A deal is struck. We will carry villagers to the next roadblock. Two girls climb on one bike; an old guy climbs on behind me, giving a toothless grin to every person on the side of the road as we move out. It is a great frolic, until the last roadblock.
The organizers (oddly, all women) deny us passage. They scold the girls, who reluctantly climb down from our bikes. The mood changes in an instant. The women, all jowls and crossed arms, threaten to stone us, douse us with gasoline and set us afire. The threat needs no translation.
We backtrack and run a small roadblock guarding a side road. It is a rumor of a road, a blade-cut swath up the side of a mountain that supposedly leads to Cuzco. We crest the mountain and find ourselves in unspoiled Peru: farms, sheep, schoolkids pushing bikes, cattlemen on horseback. We buy gas from a woman in a cowboy hat who goes into her house and comes out with a pitcher filled with fuel.
Somewhere in this mad passage we lose Rob. Riding ahead, he takes a wrong turn and ends up back on the highway of roadblocks. He plays dumb, riding past the protesters, saying, “No entiendo” (“I don’t understand”). A boy throws a wire net under the wheels of the motorcycle, which wraps around the chain and brakes. Rob cuts it free with his Leatherman and beats us to the hotel.
Day 39, Peru: I depend on my cameras. They have autofocus; my eyes do not. At night I review the images like a pilgrim counting prayer beads:
A girl with cutoff shorts in a bar watching a soccer game, the flag of Brazil worn like a garter on her lean, tanned thigh.
A young boy leading blind musicians home at the end of the day, one hand on the shoulder of the person in front.
We sit at a café in Arequipa, comparing images on our digital cameras. Independently we have each taken a picture of a policewoman directing traffic on the town square, her motorcycle parked nearby. She is a striking figure, wearing the skintight khaki stretch pants and high boots favored by CHiPs. A policewoman with visible panty lines makes an arresting authority figure. None of us photographed her face, just that perfect ass.
I retire to my room to edit the picture. I have been on the road too long.
Day 40, Peru: We descend toward the coast. For three weeks the bikes have been starved of oxygen. Now they romp.
The road out of Arequipa twists through a lunar landscape where nothing grows. The colors—gray, tan, white—are the dust and rubble from ancient volcanoes, worn to stumps. The shrines begin almost immediately. In one 95-mile stretch I count 147 crosses. They are easy to spot. Other than the power line to our left, the black-and-white kilometer posts and the shards of truck tires, they are the only man-made objects in view.
Here someone went off a corner through a guardrail. Here someone didn’t see the oncoming curve and augured into the mountain. There are shrines at almost every service station and store. And then there are those that dot the long straits. Every point where someone asked something of their vehicle and it failed. This is the real highway of death. And at each shrine I hear my heart beat its mantra. Not me. Not yet. Not ever.
We crest the last range of mountains and feel the cold breath of air coming off the Humboldt Current. John, Rob and I split off from the group for a private celebration. We set the bikes loose in the sand, performing burnouts, sending rooster tails skyward. But quickly we become subdued. How will we describe this journey to friends and family? I set the timer on a digital camera for a group photo with motorcycle. Every day of the ride is visible on our faces. Below us the Pacific applauds.