End of The Road
In 2012 Franziska and her partner Jona set out on an around the world bike trip. After many countries and countless miles, somewhere amidst the rugged dirt roads of the Ecuadorian Andes, slipping her way through a quagmire of rainy season mud, Franzi began to question the very essence of what she’d set out to do…
I can do this. I am repeating it like a mantra over and over again, as though if I think it hard enough I might finally start to believe it. I keep pushing my bicycle along the muddy track uphill. Jona is far ahead of me, I can hardly make out his neon green rain jacket in the mist of clouds and rain. I’m wet, cold, and this whole thing is damn stupid. Stop. I can do this – Focus! I am trying not to give any space to my negative thoughts, even when I am on the verge of bursting into tears or losing my temper completely – or both. Right now I’m not sure which one sounds more appealing. However, I remind myself for the thousandth time that throwing my bike in the mud and sobbing with self-pity won’t help me climb this hill either. Here I am, desperately clinging to reason while another part of me just wants to yell at the rain and the mountain stretching ahead of me, as loud as I can, using a wide range of inappropriate and multi-lingual swear words. Right now, the only way out of this shit is to push forward. So instead of wasting my energy getting angry at a situation I deliberately put myself into, I save it instead, using all of it to get my damn bicycle up the steep climb.
We are in Ecuador, in the midst of the rainy season. Most trails and dirt roads are flooded, muddy, or washed out. I haven’t had dry shoes for what feels like forever — and our tent is a soggy mess, together with the rest of our gear. Our plan is to follow the Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route all the way across the country from North to South. Before we booked our flights from Guatemala to Ecuador as part of our ride across the Americas, we had known that we would be hitting the rainy season here in full blast. As so often happens when looking ahead, everything seemed so much more glamorous in theory, and now the reality of the situation was hitting us like mud slung from a passing car. Even though I have cycled many times in miserable conditions, I had still been able to romanticize the thought of cycling across Ecuador in the pouring rain. I guess at the end of the day I am glad for this faulty brain mechanism of mine, because if I always remembered how hard situations could be, I would not have done many things I am now glad I did. Like this.
I am repeatedly sinking ankle deep into the mud, trying my best to drag my bicycle along with me without getting my shoes stuck, when a man rides past me on his horse with ease, giving me a compassionate smile.
This whole moment feels like a sadistic wink of fate – the world is laughing at me, telling me “wrong time, wrong place.”
Jona must still be ahead of me, I can see his tyre tracks molded into the sodden ground. I wonder how he is doing. He always seems so much calmer than I feel. When things get tough, he turns silent. In many ways that seems like a better coping strategy than my impulsive outbursts of frustration.
All of a sudden the clouds part, and I can see the top of the mountain for the first time. It’s a steep track ahead of me, but it isn’t far now. Maybe 15 more minutes if I concentrate on pushing hard. My mood shifts, I feel a wave of energy. All of a sudden the mantra seems to work its magic. I can definitely make it!
Jona is waiting at the top for me, squatting behind his bicycle trying to shield himself from the gusting winds and rain. He doesn’t smile like he normally does when I catch up with him at the top of a climb. I see him point to the other side, and my face falls too. What should have been the reward of this climb – the easy way down from the top – will be nothing more than another test of our endurance: the trail is completely flooded.
I would not have chosen a bicycle to explore the Americas if I was afraid of being uncomfortable. Instead, I probably would have booked an all-inclusive trip to Mexico with nothing to worry about but avoiding sunburns and tap water, while I lounged at a poolside bar with my fellow white-skinned northerners. I had known that there would be challenges waiting for me, unexpected ones and others well-anticipated. It is probably one of the biggest reasons why I love to travel by bicycle. These hardships we are facing are as much part of this trip as the beautiful moments of perfect trails and gleaming sunshine.
But facing challenges is never easy, otherwise we would not call them challenges. They are meant to push our boundaries test our confidence. The thing I love about the challenges we face on these trips with our bikes is that they are less complex than the challenges we often face in real life. We are pushing our emotional and physical boundaries, and yet at the end of the day it is just you and your bicycle. Countless times, I have cursed at the road wishing it were better; less muddy, more flat, less steep – but of course it’s not the road I can change, it is only my attitude towards it.
That evening, if Jona hadn’t volunteered to cook, I probably would have just chewed on some leftover chocolate bars. The amount of energy I have left is only sufficient for pumping up my mattress and wrapping my sleeping bag tight around me. I feel so incredibly tired, and in a way it feels good. It had been a harsh day, but I had managed to make it through. Jona stumbles into the tent, handing me the usual steaming bowl of pasta. He looks extremely tired as well. “Today, was shit” he mumbles between spoons of pasta.
We discuss (not for the first time) the option of retreating to the paved roads. We had chosen to fend our way through these ill-maintained muddy tracks in the wilderness, and we could still go back to the highway.
“I don’t want to ride on the highway” I declare. I had touched my limits today, had considered anything a better option than pulling my bike across puddles of mud up a steep hill, but now in the comfort of our tent at the end of the day, I find some more endurance and courage. “Let’s see” Jona suggest, “Maybe tomorrow will be better”.
What each person perceives as a challenge is deeply personal, and different from one person to the next. Traveling as a couple, we often encounter challenges at different times. This is one of the times that Jona and I agree. This trail is a huge challenge, it is testing our limits, but at the same time neither of us has reached the point of surrender. The next morning looks promising. The hammering rain that had beat down on our tent all night is transformed into a light drizzle. By the time we have packed up our tent and are sipping our coffee we are happened upon by three passing shepherds. They want to know where we come from and where we are going. We tell them in our broken Spanish about our plan. After a quick discussion amongst themselves, they point towards the horizon. We can make out a faint dirt road, carved into the side of the mountain. They tell us that the route we had planned to take would be very difficult, and that we could take this alternative instead. We thank them for their advice and wash out our coffee cups.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines the word ‘challenge’ as: ‘The situation of being faced with something that needs great mental or physical effort in order to be done successfully and therefore tests a person’s ability.’ Dictionary definitions are stiff and analytical, lacking the real emotion of what they describe. I have often wondered, what if I fail the challenge? What if I lack the mental and physical abilities and don’t complete it successfully? The dictionary says the opposite of ‘success’ is ‘failure’, and to be honest, I don’t like those words. They seem to lay out a perfectly defined goal, one which you either completely attain or completely miss. I can’t deny that sticking to a trail and fully completing it feels good. It makes me happy and proud of my achievement. Nonetheless, we have also had to accept the times that we have stretched our limits too far, and have had to back out of something we had planned to do. I refuse to call this a failure. I think there should be a better word. There is not only one direction to grow towards. Being able to recognize what isn’t working for us and staying flexible enough to reshape our path is just as valuable as be able to stick at something to fulfill a dream.
Which route did we take that day? Did we take the mountain track as the shepherds suggested? Did we stick to our original route? Or did we give up on the back roads and head back to take the highway? It doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that we are out here, trying.
About Our Trip
Our journey began five years ago, when both of us decided one day, that quitting our jobs and explore the world was a fabulous idea. Soon after, we booked two flights to New Zealand and hiked 3,000 kilometers across the country along the TeAraroa trail. After that our journey took us to India and Nepal, but soon we realized, that being squeezed into hopelessly overfilled busses, only to see the world swooshing past the dirty windows, wasn’t our thing. When we met our first pair of long-distance cyclists in Nepal, we knew we had to try it. Two cheap hybrid bikes, equipped with self-made front and rear panniers, have taken us on our first trip from the deserts of Iran to the vast open plains of Mongolia. After living and working in Canada for over a year, we are now fourteen month into our second jaunt: zigzagging across the Americas.
Franziska Wernsing is a blogger and photographer from Germany, who has been roaming around the planet for a while now. Her favorite places are the ones which are far out there. Remote, isolated and still a wee bit wild. Follow Franzi and Jonas trip via Instagram @talesontyres and on their blog, tales-on-tyres.com.