I tried not to think of Ushuaia as the ultimate goal for almost the entire length of this bicycle journey. After all, it should be the bits between Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and here that really count. Yet, rolling around that final snow-lined corner to see the southernmost city in the world neatly spread along the shores of the Beagle Channel inspired such a rush of emotion it’s hard to believe that it will ever just be a normal town for me again.
I have a very distinct memory of cycling in chilly weather close to the Kluane Range in Yukon Territory, Canada last year. It was the first day I borrowed Lee’s IPod and to the sound of Mumford and Sons I imagined what it would be like to lay eyes on Ushuaia for the first time with many months, countries, people, environments, good days and bad days behind. This place never seemed so far away yet now after a few days reflection in Tierra del Fuego it very much seems as if I just blinked my eyes to appear here.
Knowing what influence the trip will have on me is something I won’t discover at this very minute. I’m pretty sure a return to home and readjustment to the pace and demands of life will decide that. However, I’m certain that my way of thinking has been altered from experiences with others and the reading of a real-life story of people and place that played out before me every day. As my good friend Michael emailed me recently – “A man travels the world in search of what he needs and returns home to find it” – George Moore, The Brook Kerith. 15 months on the bicycle is sure to bring with it even more questions once I reach Ireland again.
I cannot doubt that I’ve seen more aspects of the world and more specifically the Americas than many others could dream of and have been extremely privileged for that. As I stood down by the listing ship San Cristopher in Ushuaia’s harbour just after arrival with the southern Fuegan mountains on the horizon behind, that was probably the dominant thought. I know how lucky I am to even have developed this as a seemingly crazy idea in Denver in 2010. If I hadn’t attended that work meeting and initial ice-breaker session where a representative from a Wyoming conservation group replied he would take a man called Goran Kropp for a drink, I would never be here. If I had zoned out for a minute, not kept that initial intrigue or lived so close to the library I may never have borrowed Kropp’s book and become inspired to get out here and do something about it. The sliding doors aspect and fortune of just about everything in life always fascinates me and that was one big moment that hit at exactly the right time.
And what about the bicycle as the means to take this all in? In short, I’m convinced there can be no better way to see the world. Although it involves a lot of hard work in all sorts of climates, topography and terrain, you are repaid tenfold for the efforts. After all, life is nothing without a challenge and the bicycle gives you just that. Travelling at your own pace, stopping when you want, leaving when it feels right and visiting places the tour bus can’t or won’t go to is a very liberating feeling. There are no schedules to abide by but just the want or need to move on again and go somewhere new. It also brings you into contact with others you couldn’t meet unless you were walking or running (and I’ve met a few of these!). In northern Colombia at a little town called Sahagún last May, a crowd of about 20 people gathered around me on foot, motorbikes and bicycles just a minute after one person stopped me to see what I was doing. I had breakfast, met the grandparents and received a half-hearted marriage proposal in one of those family’s homes by 10am! The intrigue of a rather burnt looking European cycling through their town was enough to cause a stir in a place where the bus will never stop and that, in essence, is the greatest advantage of bicycle touring. It’s also very disarming to see someone with 35kgs of gear pedal past as the bike is a common denominator in perhaps every country of the world and definitely in developing nations which can do nothing but place you on the same level and encourage conversation.
I could talk and talk about experiences and what I’ve learned from this journey but that may take alot longer than the attention span could handle. However, there is one overarching thing/observation/lesson that I have seen repeated on enough occasions to draw the conclusion that it must be true, although others may disagree in part or in whole; and that is realising the world is not as scary as it’s made out to be. Too many times I was strongly advised – and on another shouted at – for my decision to cycle through Mexico, Central America, Colombia and other places. The scare stories that cloud our perceptions of these areas do an incredible injustice to the human warmth, generosity and culture of their people. I cycled through these three aforementioned regions over a total of 6 months and the only threat I ever faced was poisoning by beans or chicken from the countless meals people would buy me whenever I stopped close to a restaurant. The fear factor we have come to accept as reality is normally driven by those in western society who on many occasions have never visited the area in question – yet, this is easy for me to say as I’m privileged to have the time and resources to do just that. But, I was scared at first aswell and thought drug wars before Aztecs or Mariachi when I pictured Mexico. I’m glad to have broken down that barrier.
A secondary observation to these places was put very plainly and truthfully by Buff3y, my good Pan-American cycling friend a few months back when remarking that those who seem to have the least are often the ones that smile more and appear happier. That’s a pretty big assumption I’ll grant and maybe it’s just a Latin American thing but one can’t doubt that the willingness of these people to share with each other or the importance of family and local or regional culture has the air of a very rich way of living. And not that it’s doom and gloom or our side but thinking back to before this trip and getting caught up in the insignificant, meaningless everyday problems seems pretty silly to me now after spending time with people that live with far less than us.
I’m readying to leave Ushuaia right this moment. The bike has been disassembled too which just seems plain wrong after the service it’s given and personality now attached to it. Putting her back together will be a first day job at home and who knows where the road will turn next? I should touch down in Dublin on the 18th to see family and my girlfriend Áine once again – words can’t describe the excitement! I plan on keeping the website active and will be updating it over the coming months with a full photo gallery and videos from every stage of the trip. I will mostly likely write one more blog entry after some time at home and share any more news from Ireland once the ‘settling in’ part is over. The big project I really hope to start soon is writing a book based on some frequent thoughts banging about my head on the road over these past 15 months rather than a chronological diary of the actual trip. I’ll be sure to post some updates in this through the 350South website, Facebook and Twitter.
Finally, I want to thank every person who has ever contributed to the beginning, middle or end of this trip. That includes everything from financial donations to myself or The Carer’s Association, words of support, comments on the social media or the friendly face on the road. The journey would not have been the same truly exceptional experience it was without these. Thank you so much.