Mar 052015


Despite being 3 months in, I’ve realised that I’ve hardly begun the enormity of this challenge.  That I’ve been through to get here is merely the froth on top of my morning coffee or is it that the whole dream is really a succession of nightmares, with pockets of dreamland to connect them?

What have I begun?

The Isla de Chiloe was nothing short of brutal.  The hills were by far the steepest I’ve encountered on a loaded bicycle, the only saving grace was they didn’t last for long.  The scenic route on small ripio roads tore my quads to shreds.


One crazily steep piece of ripio claimed a piece of my pride, by tossing me into the dirt.  I had come to a stop halfway up, balanced precariously, rear wheel spinning as I tried to get going again.  Brakes hard on to prevent me and the bike tumbling backwards.  The front wheel slewed sideways, tipping me over.  Managing to catch an errant water bottle as it attempted to reach the bottom of the hill.

Now I was mad.

Veins popping, obscenities shouted at the hill, the road, the sky.

Try again.

Brakes hard on, engage one pedal, balance, weight on the rear, turn the pedal, try to engage the second pedal before I lose my balance.

Fail.  Try again.  Fail.  Try again.  The sequence repeated numerous times.

Eventually  I succeed and make the top of the hill with my heart jumping out of my chest.  Pride restored.

The island repeated the same trick plenty more times.  I would have ridden straight off it if I hadn’t been waiting for a package to arrive in Puerto Montt, a city just to the north.  A place that no one recommended spending any time in.  I laid up short in the town of Ancud at the top of the island, in a beautiful campsite on top of the cliffs.  A much needed few days rest.


Thankfully my package soon arrived and I made my way to Puerto Montt the quick way.  Straight up the Pan American Highway, Ruta 5 in Chile.  A day that was absolutely no fun, cycling along the hard shoulder of a separated dual carriageway.

Puerto Montt was not a nice place and I was in the not nice end of town.  I collected my package, did some shopping for amongst other things a new warm sleeping bag.  This was going to be my last chance to get decent quality equipment before I headed back into Argentina where quality foreign goods just aren’t available.  I wasn’t stuck with the paradox of choice in Chile either, making buying decisions easy.


Skirting around Volcan Osorno I headed for the border.  The banality of myself as a foreign cyclist having to queue up at Customs to get a stamp to say I didn’t need a stamp still making me chuckle rather than fume.

The climb over the Andes, just a bump at 1320m compared to what is ahead, left me exhausted.  A German woman in the campsite I stayed in, asking if I had come to South America for the Falklands before saying she thought I looked 18 (I’m 38)  leaving me exasperated, devoid of a pithy comeback.

I had crossed back into Argentina to take a less trafficked route north.  It will be slower but I felt there isn’t much point heading up a dual carriageway in Chile.  When I consider the options it always returns me to why am I doing this?

Is the point merely to reach Alaska?

I don’t have an answer to that question.  If I say yes, I attach my self worth to reaching Alaska, which is a dangerous precedent to set.  If I answer no, what is the point in what I am doing?

For now, the point is to head north on roads that are interesting to cycle on.

The day after I entered Argentina, dark clouds formed overhead, literally and metaphorically.  I read up on the route in front of me and the altitudes of the roads that plotted my course north.  Doubts consumed me.  I had struggled to get over the pass from Chile, a 1000m ascent.  There were roads four times as high ahead of me.

I entered the spiral of fears and worries.  Over 3000 metres, altitude sickness is a concern.  I’ve been higher than that a few times in my life and it’s hit me each time, although I’ve recovered after a few days.  I wasn’t riding a laden bicycle before though.

This is too much, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew.  How can I get out of this?  I don’t want to do this anymore.


All this running through my mind whilst I had managed to have a day off in a deserted campsite, having left Jan behind in Ancud, I was on my own once more.  Devoid of anyone to voice those fears too, they compounded until I bought a bottle of wine and allowed them to morph into melancholy.  Always a bad more but very difficult to break the habit.

The next morning I did the only sensible thing and got on my bike and road north through the Argentine Lake District.  Thoughts of giving up more prevalent than usual.  I do think about giving up a lot of the time, I also think about reaching the end of South America, entering the United States, reaching Alaska…..they balance each other out so far.


The only way I know how to keep going is to focus on today, tomorrow and maybe the few days after.  A few hundred kilometres north at best.  Where can I get food, water and rest in that distance?

I think this is why long journeys by bicycle are such a mental challenge.  It’s the monotony.  I don’t mean the landscape, I mean the way you compress your fears and worries into a very large box and open the very small one that says ‘basic elements to enable forward progress’.  And you do that each and every day.  It’s impossible to see the end of this repetitive cycle.  It’s impossible to fathom the energy it’ll take to get there.

I have no doubts that integrating back into life at home will be difficult after so long leading such a simple life.  The contradiction jarring.  That isn’t a thought that worries me too much at present.  What I have considered is that no one (bar those who have done the same thing) will be able to empathise with what it’s actually like.  It is why I appreciate the kinds words many have expressed and continue to do so.

Today I’m resting.  My right knee is sore and I got a lot of sun yesterday (unavoidably) and felt drained.  I sat in front of the ingredients for my dinner last night and wished for it to be cooked and placed in front of me.  A sure sign of fatigue.

Tomorrow, or maybe the day after I’ll continue north, hoping for serendipity to cross my path.

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  13 Responses to “Hoping for Serendipity”

  1. Hi Iain,

    thanks for the great writing, and stories of tough times, mentally and physically. I remember those daily feelings of giving up when I had 2 weeks of very bad weather cycling around Spain and got a bit ill. For you it’s a different scale, really magnified because of the enormity of the challenge, the distance and terrain, and I guess the remoteness.
    Maybe the thinking too much about the ‘big goal’ is not helping that much, maybe just keep that big box shut for now, and enjoy the little box of the present moment, with all the daily hardships but lots of joys too? Your photos really capture some of the magic of the trip – amazing!
    Wishing you well for the next bit of road ahead – may good things lie that way 🙂

    • Hi Geoff,
      I do try not to think about the ‘big goal’ but I have plenty of time to think so it becomes hard for it not to creep back in!

  2. Find a nice spot with good food and views and take a week off :), Sadly the two rarely come at the same time 🙂

    • Hi Shane,
      I have recently had a week off and then a bit more after a few more days. Not an abundance of affordable good food in this part of the world. You can’t eat steak every day….
      Thanks for the tip none the less!

  3. Why are you doing it? Don’t know, but you are and that’s what matters. You’ve already achieved more than the vast majority of us could dream of. If you packed it in tomorrow I’d still be proud to shake your hand and buy you a drink. You’re no quitter. Destination Alaska? Well, if you don’t have a plan how do you know which way to go? Take your time, enjoy the view and “Carpe Diem!”

  4. Fantastic as always. Keep going. Just remember what you would be doing if you didn’t do this. Just doing what everyone else does! That is not you. Looking forward to seeing you in the US or maybe even mexico.

  5. I’ve no experience of cycling any further than the nearby shops or over to the next town but last year, for the first time ever, I undertook a long distance walk. I’d never walked more than a day or two, but over 6 weeks last summer walked 424 miles* zig-zagging across Scotland from it’s southern edge to Cape Wrath in the north. I know that this is nothing in comparison to what you are doing but I gained experience in the mental battle that you’re going through. I’m 50 and my fitness levels aren’t great so the process was extremely hard. Not that you’ll have much time to read it but my blog recounts some struggles and probably hides a lot of the ‘giving-up’ feelings that you’re experiencing. Don’t give up & do keep going. There are easier sections up ahead too. Come visit when you reach Seattle. Cyclists here call it “RSVP” which is code for “Ride from Seattle to Vancouver and Party” and it’s fairly flattish I’m told. As may be apparent from my blog I’m a Brit, but live in Seattle with my fiancée. Keep up the good work and I love the writing and the photos. Bob A. *some long distance trails stitched together

    • Hi Robert,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment. I’ll be sure to read your blog, always good to read another perspective. If I make Seattle I’ll be sure to take you up on your offer, very kind!

  6. The best part of what you are doing is that you are doing it. That you are doing it on your own is both a blessing and a curse. You can take it a day/week at a time, the next 100 milesetc, like Dad said carpe diem.

  7. It is so hard to comprehend the enormity of what you are doing or to understand how daunting the challenges of everyday life must be, but you just have to keep doing what you are already doing. Battle the demons one by one and stop and enjoy the moments of awe. You aren’t the same person you were three months ago, every bump in the road is shaping you into a stronger and wiser man. And while it might be hard to see the changes now, you embarked on this journey to push yourself and tackle the great unknown and that’s exactly what you are doing. It’s not about the destination right now, but about you taking care of you and to just keep moving forward, whatever forward means to you.. Approach each obstacle on it’s own and celebrate each victory. I am proud to call you my friend. Keep living the dream!

    • Thanks for your very kind (and wise) words Jenni. I couldn’t disagree with a word you said! You write very well. I have obviously got myself in a rut and couldn’t see the wood for the trees. It was never about the destination and there’s me getting myself in a pickle about exactly that. Thank you for reminding me.

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