Adventurer Tom Connell says it is difficult to know exactly when he got the idea to cycle 35,000km through the Americas. “I had always enjoyed riding bikes and I suppose there was some temptation to simply keep going,” he says in the introduction to this, his debut article for Bicycling Australia.
It is hard to pinpoint exactly when the idea to cycle the Americas came into being. I had always enjoyed riding bikes and I suppose there was some temptation to simply keep going and see what would happen.
For two years I pedalled with eyes wide and senses heightened, yearning to absorb every detail of two continents rolling by. The soaring Andes Mountains, Alaska’s frozen tundra, swollen rivers, infinite pampas and steamy jungles rendered before me in vivid colour and surround sound.
Each morning began with the promise of the unknown. Within the rhythm of daily riding, the diverse landscapes, wildlife, people and culture guaranteed that a single day was a unique adventure nested within the greater story.
This fluid, overlapping collection of experiences defies distillation into a “best-of” list. It is the Bayeux Tapestry of cycling; a thousand interwoven scenes too numerous to consider at once, yet not complete in isolation.
Patagonia had begun to thaw when I set forth across Tierra del Fuego in October 2015. The notorious winds pummel cyclists from every direction, slowing progress to a crawl and occasionally sending riders sprawling to the ground. Washboard ripio roads rattle bikes and bones alike.
A fisherman named Carlo gave me shelter on that barren coast near the Strait of Magellan and prepared coffee on the wood stove in his tiny shack. With the little Spanish I possessed at that time, it is doubtful that he understood or believed my intention to continue to Alaska.
I rode alongside the barren, naked peaks of Torres Del Paine and Mount Fitz Roy before the Carreterra Austral delivered me North to Argentina’s Siete Lagos. Santiago, Buenos Aires and Montevideo passed by and suddenly I was drinking cold cane juice in the hot Brazilian sun. I found the disused and overgrown back entrance to Iguazu Falls National Park and hoped that there were no Jaguars nearby.
In Paraguay, fate dictated that I got a flat tyre as I rolled past the town of Nueva Australia. This community was founded in 1893 as a cooperative settlement comprised of several hundred Australians who left their homeland to create socialist utopia in the heart of South America. Later I rode through the “green hell” of the Chaco and was amazed to find towns of blonde-haired and blue-eyed Paraguayan Mennonites who had emigrated from Europe and Canada in the early twentieth Century
For the fans of hill climbing, there are few places on earth that can rival the Andes Mountains. Visible for days before the climbing even starts, they grow larger and more impressive as you draw closer until finally they seem all but impassable. With roads at altitudes more than twice the height of Mt Kosciuszko, it can be a challenge to fill lungs with enough air to keep legs pumping. Forget about energy gels, the supplement of choice here is a chewed up wad of coca leaves.
Roads range from smooth, easy-rolling concrete highways to rocky, mountainside tracks and sandy 4WD trails that require cyclists to hike-a-bike. Near Uyuni in Bolivia, cyclists leave the road entirely and squint eyes against the glare of the alien landscape of Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. The sense of scale is mind-bending as the edges of land fade from view and you are left to ride alone in a parched sea of white.
It is natural to feel a little smug as the tourist jeeps whizz past, but the feeling quickly fades when the wind picks up and progress slows to single digits per hour.
Large sections of the Andes can be traversed on quiet dirt roads that service tiny mountain hamlets and the high altitude mines. On one such road, I whistled at what I thought was a dog walking ahead of me, but the animal that spun around turned out to be an adult cougar. Thankfully cyclist wasn’t on the menu that day and the large cat ran off down the mountain.
Later, I was surprised again by an ornately carved and painted Italian Monastery, staffed by Italian monks in the mountains of Peru. I was given a bed in a dormitory with views of the Huayhuash mountain range and supper of fermented potato mush.
Toward the equator and beyond into Central America, the heat and humidity reach nearly unbearable levels. Each day must be capped off with a plunge in a river, dip in the ocean or squat under a gas station tap to wipe off hours of sweat, dust and grime. The heat lingers through the night and tents become personal saunas, everything remaining permanently damp.
On the Californian coast, Big Sur had been closed since May 2017 after a huge landslide obliterated a section of Highway 1. I camped in a stable near the road closure and waited until the middle of the night before setting out into the inky dark, listening to the waves hammering cliffs far below me.
I became lost on the landslide for some time, but eventually emerged north of the debris and set up camp in the early hours of the morning. Next day, I had that famous road completely to myself and meandered lazily across both lanes, watching the long ropes of kelp bob dreamily in ultramarine.
When I reached Alaska and Northern Canada, winter was fast approaching and the tourists had gone home for the season. Dark, cold and lonely days on the Stewart-Cassiar and Dalton highways were broken up by occasional wildlife sightings. Bears, lynx, wolves, moose and caribou watched me with indifference before continuing their preparations for the coming freeze.
At the end of it all, there was no finish line. No cheering fans or ticker-tape. Camp was packed away for the final time and the odometer left at a few ticks over 35,000km.
By far the most humbling aspect of a journey like this is the incredible kindness and hospitality that is given on the road. Gifts of food and drinks handed out car windows, invitations to stay in people’s homes or simply the joy of connection with someone whose life is vastly different to your own.
In addition to the cycle hosting network “warmshowers”, Latin America has a network of casa de ciclistas where cyclists can stay for free. It is truly remarkable to be able to arrive in a town or city and not only be received warmly into a home, but to have an instant network of new companions with similar interests, route advice and sometimes spare parts and tools!
Travel by bicycle is the most immersive way to explore the world and I like to think that the quote from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance rings even truer without the motor:
“In a car you’re always in a compartment, and because you’re used to it you don’t realize that through that car window everything you see is just more TV. You’re a passive observer and it is all moving by you boringly in a frame.
On a cycle the frame is gone. You’re completely in contact with it all. You’re in the scene, not just watching it anymore, and the sense of presence is overwhelming.”