Roadside Intervention: Bikepacking With Keith Richards


Words and Photos by Logan Watts.

When you travel a lot, you see a lot of roadkill. When you travel on a bicycle, you see that roadkill in shocking detail. In our latest feature story, Logan and Virginia try to take matters of life and death into their own hands. Read their account of a roadside euthanasia gone wrong and the exceptional series of events that followed…

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Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco

As we pedaled along stretches of pavement in Mexico and Central America on our first bike tour, I started getting a little obsessed, almost excited, when I saw an animal corpse approaching on the distant tarmac. I’m not one of those morbidly curious types; I’m actually quite squeamish when it comes to blood and guts. But, it was like an exotic zoo… a colorful tropical bird, a menacing viper, a bloated dog, a furry lump of something unrecognizable. Some fresh, some already decomposed, and some, nothing but a greasy sheen ironed to the pavement. All of them as vivid as day. Ever since we started moving on that first tour, I was convinced that we’d encounter an animal that had recently been winged by a passing car and I’d have to do the unthinkable to relieve its pain. There is nothing worse than watching an animal suffer. I knew it would happen, one day.

Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco

  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco

On a road trip in Colorado about 15 years ago, Gin and I came around the corner and there it was, a mule deer that had just been hit. In pure agony, it was bashing its head against the pavement. Its teeth gnashed in pain, all too closely resembling the central figure in Picasso’s Guernica. My gut was already in my throat as we pulled over. The car that had hit the deer was long gone, and we were the only ones on a lonesome stretch of road nestled in an evergreen forest. It had to be done. How was I going to do it? With Ginny in hysterics, I proceeded to search for the tire iron and started trying to mentally prepare myself. As I was approaching the pained animal, a pickup appeared and stopped. To my great relief, a man emerged, rifle in hand. We were already speeding away before the shot was fired.

Then, in 2014, we experienced another close call. Pedaling a long stretch of road in Malawi, high grass flanking the shoulder, I saw a young goat in the road about 100 meters ahead, and assumed, or hoped, that it was just resting. It wasn’t nearly as terrifying as the mule deer incident, but it was certainly suffering. Luckily, another man was already in the process of finding the family that owned the goat. No doubt it was dinner that evening.

Halfway into our first day of cycling in Morocco, I was sure it would be my day. We were huffing up a fairly large climb on the approach to the Anti-Atlas Mountains in southern Morocco. There he was, a tiny white kitten, barely a month old. He was panting heavily, lying on the centerline of the black tarred road. When Gin scooped him up, he let out a painful cry. Something, or everything hurt. Placing him on the side of the road, it was immediately clear that this little guy had some major problems. His legs weren’t working. His hind end looked to be partially paralyzed as he staggered and drug himself about a foot from where she lay him. Was it a broken leg, or was he affected by some neurological damage?

We had no way of knowing how he had met his unfortunate fate. There were no houses or farms anywhere in sight. Maybe he was just tossed out of the window of a passing car? We gave him some water and tried to assess the situation. After flagging a couple of cars and being refused any help, we realized that we alone would be responsible for helping this little guy ourselves. No one was going to take him home. There were no emergency veterinarians to be found (perhaps if he was a goat or a cow, but certainly not for a cat). We weighed the options. We were still far from the next village, and the kitten was definitely going to die. We had no other choice. We would have to do the unthinkable.

With Gin sobbing, I looked around for the perfect rock. There were no “perfect” rocks. I stood there for a few minutes and contemplated other means of putting this little guy out of his misery. As it turned out, I just couldn’t do it. Then, Gin remembered that we had a couple of sleeping pills she had brought on the trip to help muffle early rising roosters. Maybe those would do it? We shoved two of the Halcion (and one Oxycodone for good measure) down his tiny throat and waited while he went to sleep. The sleep came almost instantly. After about a half hour, he started taking a big breath, followed by several seconds of nothing. The end looked imminent, but his tiny body just wouldn’t give in. The sun was getting low in the sky and we had to move. We didn’t have the heart to leave him without knowing what would be the final outcome of the pills we’d given him, and I didn’t have the balls to do it the other way. Gin wrapped him up in her sun hat and tied him to her handlebars in a sort of makeshift hammock, and the three of us pedaled off together.

  • Route of Caravans, Morocco Traverse South
  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco

After about 40 minutes of sleep, he woke up and started looking around as we rolled through rocky hills filled with scrub and argan trees. We arrived in a small village at dusk and found a cheap hotel. After checking in, smuggling the kitten past the desk clerk, we used a small end table and chair to make an enclosed area on the floor for him. He would try and walk around for a few seconds, stumble, run into a wall, and then fall asleep. Eventually, he slept all night. When I turned the light on before sunrise, I was sure he’d be dead. Nope. He was still breathing. Our first thought was to leave him in an abandoned lot next to the hotel with some food and water, but we knew this kitten could not survive on his own. After briefly deliberating our second idea, leaving him in a box with a note for the maid, we knew that euthanizing him was the only humane solution.

  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco

We had heard about the hospitality of the Moroccan people, but we had just started riding and had yet to see it first hand. We definitely weren’t expecting the level of warmth that we would experience that day. There was a local medical clinic a few doors down from the hotel, so we thought we would ask if they could provide medicine to finish the job. The attending nurse didn’t speak English, so she retrieved her brother to translate. Once we told the story of how we came upon the kitten, they seemed very surprised that we had taken such effort for a cat. In a country where many people live in poverty, lacking proper nutrition and housing, much less good medical care, the management of an injured cat is simply not a priority.

In any case, Gin’s tears translated our differences. A friend of the brother stopped in and said he could take us to a local veterinarian. We piled in his car with the kitten in a used teapot box with Arabic lettering. After driving around the block, the friend of the brother got a call on his mobile and let us know that the vet was out of town. The two men spoke to each other for a while and we asked, using hand gestures, Spanish and French(ish), if they knew another way to have the cat euthanized. I actually asked if one of them would be willing to kill him (picture the classic finger across the throat hand gesture). Our new friend sheepishly admitted that he just couldn’t do it, either. He told us that that isn’t how it works in the Islamic faith. You don’t take the life of something that was created by the creator. Allah takes life when it is time. The driver then said he could take us to his sister, who was evidently an animal lover.

Roadside Intervention, Bikepacking Morocco

  • Roadside Intervention, Bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, Bikepacking Morocco

Roadside Intervention, Bikepacking Morocco

He drove us out into a small suburb, an ancient villa nestled in the scrubby hills above town where newer concrete buildings finished in traditional window dressings were built on top of old stone buildings that towered above the desert landscape. The gate to the compound was alive with purple bougainvillea and the gardens were full of olive and cacti. We were invited inside and sat in the main gathering room, placing the box holding the kitten on a small metal stool. It seemed like some kind of wake as everyone sat quietly around the box, each individually getting up to peer inside. The young kids all stood on their tiptoes, quickly looked in, then looked at us and smiled cluelessly.

The driver’s sister and two other female members of the family served freshly squeezed orange juice and a selection of cookies, the most interesting of which were neatly made rings carefully sculpted into ouroboros, the circle of life symbol represented by a snake eating its own tail. After awkward introductions and translations from English to French to Arabic, it was insisted that we stay for lunch. It was Friday (Jummah, the Islamic day of congressional prayer), and the women were working on a large meal to celebrate their annual family reunion. After a tour of the 200-year-old family house, also in the compound, lunch was served. It was a meal of traditional couscous with goat meat and roasted vegetables, all served in a large communal platter. Women in one room, men in another.

  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco

The remainder of the day was full of laughter, learning, and a beautiful family who embraced our differences and wanted nothing more than to ease our minds. The day almost ended perfectly… we would leave with smiles on our faces and the kitten would be cared for by the sister of the friend of the brother of the nurse attendant. But, it didn’t really work out that way. As we prepared to be driven back to the village and our hotel, we were saying our goodbyes to Keith—we named him Keith Richards because he survived a shitload of drugs—and he didn’t really look so good. He wasn’t dead, but he wasn’t very alive, either. He acted just like he had within that first hour of consuming all those pills. He was breathing, albeit very slowly, and would move if picked up, but we were convinced that he wouldn’t make it much longer.

Roadside Intervention, bikepacking Morocco

Later that evening we were taking a walk in the village when we ran into the friend of the brother (the brother of the sister who now has the kitten). He showed us his shop, and we thanked him again for the day in broken Arabic. Using hand gestures, we asked how the cat was doing. He wasn’t sure, but said in French, hand gestures, and minimal broken English, something to the effect of, “Today you are happy. If today he lives, then that is okay. If today he goes to sleep, then that is what happens. Life is life.

P.S. We received an email some time later from the one of the family members, letting us know that Keith was still alive and doing much better. We haven’t heard back since, but my bet is that he is alive and well… although he may be battling a drug addiction.

  • Roadside Intervention, Bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, Bikepacking Morocco
  • Roadside Intervention, Bikepacking Morocco
  • Route of Caravans, Morocco Traverse South
  • Route of Caravans, Morocco Traverse South

This story was originally published in 2014, and was revised and updated with new photographs for this feature story. If you’re interested in the route depicted here, make sure to check out the Route of Caravans, Morocco Traverse.

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28 Comments
  • :) great story.

  • Big Hank

    Caucasions roaming through third world 100% Islamic countries is not a good idea. How about referencing some of the State Department and CiA travel advisories?
    Where does responsible adventure begin and wreckless adventure end?
    Your good heart and harmless intentions should not be projected onto the rest of the world lest you discover some harsh realities…
    I read BikePacking.com religiously and am a serious but clandestine adventure cyclist.
    Without sharing my background and middle eastern travel history wearing a uniform; I beg the editors to please take the gloss and shine off adventuring in the middle east minus a military escort.
    A fifteen minute internet search beginning with Lawrence Olivier in the 1930’s to now with key words like hostage, ransom, beheading, rape, European, American, Islamic should suffice?

  • M.R.

    FYI:
    US State Dept. travel advisory for Morocco is currently at, “Level 1: Exercise Normal Precautions”. Level 1 is the lowest risk on a scale from 1-4 and on par with the travel advisory for Canada. Morocco’s current rating is lower, (i.e. safer) than the current ratings for several European countries including Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium, France, Denmark and the UK.

  • Thanks Miles!

  • Stephen Poole

    I’ve felt much more insecure in US cities than in Europe, India, Pakistan or Nepal, but the Oz government’s travel advisory site warns much more about locations outside the first world. They don’t seem too happy about Morocco, FWIW: http://smartraveller.gov.au/Countries/africa/north/Pages/morocco.aspx

    Still, if you’re sensible and respectful of local culture you should be safe in most places unless you’re unlucky.

    @ Logan: Nice article. ;-)

  • DamagedSurfer

    Thanks for sharing Logan. It’s always great to read real people’s first-hand experiences rather than believe mass-media induced hysteria about millions of people.

  • Drunken Interlocutor

    Caucasians generally roam in a mountainous region much further east than Morocco. Ironically, many of the countries straddling that mountain range are more dangerous than Morocco.
    Did you ever leave the Green Zone, soldier?
    If you’re such ‘a serious adventure but clandestine cyclist’, how do pedal in a djellaba? It’s a tricky endeavour. I’d love to hear about your solutions.

  • Drunken Interlocutor

    Exactly. Your account (and my experiences abroad) leave no room for the xenophobic nonsense provided by trolls.

  • Federico Sarnovich

    You’re showing signs of some pretty serious social & geographical ignorance, mate. Funny how you speak crap about ‘Islamic’ countries (as a bundle) yet you still follow BP ‘religiously’.

    PS: Great story. Vamos Keith!

  • Big Hank

    … okay, sure. I’m not a professional writer. Add “Jihad” and “Isis” to the aforementioned list of search terms plus North Africa and Morocco.
    Ten minutes of perusing should suffice in making my case.
    I love travel and our incredible planet. There are nice people everywhere. But I am giving a solemn hint to perhaps a few people reading this who may be naive or gullible concerning elements within the Islamic culture? (Especially females…)
    That’s it. No argument; just understand there is a paralellel universe with some horrific flavors👨🏽‍💻

  • Thanks! I agree 100%

  • Big Hank

    … thanks for sharing; I’m not here to fight nor “Troll.” This is perhaps one of my favorite website. Not everyone has travelled in muslim countries. A few high profile female news personalities learned some traumatic cultural lessons the hard way while naively galavanting in the aforementioned Paralellel Universe. There are adventure seekers who may not be fully aware of these points? That’s the person or persons I am trying to reach. Caucasions landed on the moon! Far be it from me to dogmatically limit anyone. Remember the Virginia college student who recently putzed around in North Korea and met a painful end? That’s it. That’s all. Understand the Alternate Reality and be wise about it 🙋🏽‍♂️ (by the way my experiences rarely traversed “The Greenzone.” My accomodations were in my backpack and a few GP tents…

  • M.R.

    I was countering your comments with some realistic perspective. You specifically mentioned US State Dept. warnings which is why I posted the actual facts.

    More facts: Murder rate per 100,000 population:
    – USA: 4.88
    – Morocco: 1.05

  • Indonesia is the country in the world with more muslim population. I have traveled to many different places on my own and using always public transportation, cycling, staying in basic lodging, hiking and climbing mountains alone… Never felt any danger and people are one of the most hospitable in the world. I have been insisted to stay at local homes many times and they will even insist to sleep on the floor for you to sleep in their bed.
    Iran, the same, one of the most friendly people I have ever met. Maybe government is not the best, but people are really friendly and polite.
    I am more scared or paranoic when riding Barcelona or Madrid underground than when traveling in these countries.
    Great article! :-)

  • Big Hank

    https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/morocco/terrorism

    … Middle east to North Africa Jihadi conduit; in Morocco; you’re being hunted. I was trying to be discreet and nice as a subtle nudge to the naive. I’m a messenger; don’t shoot me. This is the sanitized and bland civilian version of usuable Intel. Have fun🚵🏽 … it’s a cautionary word to the wise.

  • Big Hank

    https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/morocco/terrorism

    I’m just a whispering messenger….

  • Drunken Interlocutor

    https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/usa/terrorism

    Seems Morocco has similar dangers as the good ol’ US of A.

    Oh, and for clarity–Josef Stalin was Caucasian from Georgia. In the Caucasus.
    Neil Armstrong–he was not Caucasian, but European of Scots, Irish and German descent.

  • Big Hank

    … as a highly educated big and muscular Brownish American who is well travelled; my use of the word “Caucasian” was for a reason? As soon as a “White” person gets off the airplane in a brownish or other than white country; you stand out like a neon sign in a Miami night club.
    We can exchange mitigating statistics all day except I’ll go to the UCR first and not waste time afterwards.
    “White People” by and large stand out in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia and many; without the incessant briefings that military members undergo are often clueless about the clear and present dangers. Some don’t take the Threat seriously until it’s too late. That’s it. I did not anticipate such a dust up from my sleep induced comments…

  • I appreciate you being a reader, and I hope you continue to visit the website, but I couldn’t disagree with your comments more. I will also add that the reason this story was shared—and actually much of my personal intent with this site as a whole—is to dissuade irrational and overhyped fear, which is the polar opposite of what you are implying in your thread of comments here.

    I honestly feel safer traveling by bike in most foreign countries than I do in the US. I have traveled in many countries throughout northern Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Asia, and find people in Muslim-majority countries to be some of the most friendly folks in the world; in fact, these cultures show an unprecedented level of respect and graciousness to travelers. Ask a group of world-touring cyclists what their favorite country was and many will answer the Sudan or Iran—believe me, I have asked a lot of people. Yes, there are hot spots that people shouldn’t go, but there can be issues anywhere in the world with terrorism, violence, etc. And, these instances are far less likely in Morocco than they are in most of Western Europe and probably even the United States.

    Fear is not the answer.

  • M.R.

    Curious, has the majority of your travel been in a military uniform? That would undoubtedly have an impact on your perceptions. As an American who has traveled to a couple of dozen countries over several continents, I’ve learned first hand to take the boogie man threats with a grain of salt. And as you’ve probably noticed, there are many contributors and readers here who have also traveled extensively. Not exactly the naive crowd you to claim to be addressing. Bottom line, bad things can happen anywhere, there is an element of risk just walking out the front door. Knowing that, I base my travel decisions of objective facts and personal experience. I believe most other forum members would do the same. Writing off others who don’t share your view as simply being naive would be a mistake.

  • Jake Dean

    What a rollercoaster of emotion!

  • Amedio

    Not that it really matters, but technically most people in Morocco is Caucasian.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hamites

    I agree about the necessary caution before traveling to a foreign country. But the “Muslim country” classification is not enough to judge it. I would rate Morocco as a safe destination. One of my favorites too.

    You can get in trouble anywhere, for instance this guy was arrested 40 days without charges visiting USA.
    https://us.blastingnews.com/news/2017/06/spanish-man-falls-foul-of-donald-trumps-travel-ban-for-vacation-in-syria-001771549.html

  • Jake Dean

    Right? To instill fear and keep people in their homes is pretty much the textbook goal of terrorism. The biggest F U you can give to terrorists is to keep traveling and enjoying every piece of the globe. Sure, you need to exercise common sense, but to write off an entire continent is broad strokes. I feel bad for the people that buy into the idea that Muslims are bloodthirsty and waiting around every corner of the non-Western world. Fuck, they’re just trying to live their lives as best they can, just like us.

  • Lucas Winzenburg

    Everyone,

    Now that the author has weighed in, I think it’s best if we could refrain from further engaging with “Big Hank.” He’s either a troll (with roughly 900 posts on his Discus account; I made the mistake of skimming them) who is hellbent on leaving senselessly incendiary/xenophobic comments from behind his anonymous handle, or someone who has a regrettably distorted view of the world and is beyond helping. This is, after all, a thoughtfully written story about the lengths two travelers went to to care for an injured cat they’d found on the side of the road (in Morocco, we’ll say 5,000ish km from the Middle East, but that’s been covered).

    There’s a reasonable conversation to be had about the dangers one might face while traveling anywhere, from my home city of Minneapolis, Minnesota, to my current home in Tbilisi, Georgia, and everywhere in between, but “Big Hank” sent any chances of that happening straight down the proverbial shitter with lines such as “in Morocco; you’re being hunted.”

    So, if you’re here, I hope you had a chance to enjoy the excellent writing and photography above, but l propose we call it a day on dignifying him with any more direct responses.

  • Great feature Logan. This scenario is something I also dread facing on a trail or road, and am not sure I could handle with the mental fortitude that you and Gin did. My partner and I both would have flipped out and been frozen in that situation. Glad to hear other people can stay calm in the face of a mini-crisis like that, even if it is just a kitten. :)

  • Thanks Ben!!

  • Good lord those photos are phenomenal!

  • Thanks!!!