Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Life after travel and "The Death Road"

In only 48 hours time, I went from walking the beaches of Lima, Peru to walking the aisles of Schnuck's Supermarket in Evansville, Indiana, surrounded by teenage girls wearing Uggs and red necks wearing camouflage coveralls. The change had been so abrupt, it left me questioning whether the last 2.5 months were real, or simply a fairytale I had imagined. Things were suddenly so normal that I felt just the opposite; completely abnormal. I had spent the last 2.5 months having a new and sometimes scary experiences nearly every minute of every day in a completely foreign land and in what seemed like an instant, I was back stateside as if nothing had changed. And the truth is that nothing had changed; except for me. To everyone else, I was and continue to be the same old Clay.

While traveling, I formed bonds with a handful of great travel mates. And they, like many other people I encountered while tramping around S. America were traveling for extended periods of time. Most people I met were traveling for at least six months, many were traveling for a year or longer: visiting India, Southeast Asia, S. America, Australia, New Zealand and more in single extended trip. We met these people with such frequency that I began to question why I was not doing the same? After all, what did I have to go back to? I had quit my job, rented out my house and stored everything away to find a new city, travel and start a new life. Even I sometimes forget that this is not a travel blog, this is a blog about starting over, hitting the restart button and creating a new life from scratch. Travel happens to be a part of my life right now, but the real adventure is yet to come. I've always wondered what happens to people who drop everything to pursue their dreams. It didn’t occur to me until recently that I am now one of those people. This acknowledgement came with a powerful realization: the only person in the world preventing me from doing anything is me.
When it came down to the brass tax on deciding whether or not to travel more, Christina and I were travel weary and hesitant to miss the holidays with our families. I was especially weary of missing Christmas because my family would not be together in its entirety for another two years. In the end, we decided to compromise; when we returned, we would pack my car and head due west for the ultimate cross country American road trip. I no doubt have traveled more extensively outside of my own country than within it. And, since I was a teenager, I had dreamed of doing such a trip. True, February is certainly not the ideal month to travel in the States. But, when presented with a once in lifetime opportunity, it's best not to let "good enough" be the enemy of "perfect". So, for now, I am delaying the start of my new life and deciding to hit the road once again. After all life will always be there waiting when I get back. So, sometime in February, we will be packing up my car and heading West. We plan to visit as many National Parks as possible and camp when the weather is reasonable. But, if you want a visit from Uncle Clay and Aunt Christina, please let us know. We'd love to see you!

The Death Road
One of the most memorable experiences of my entire life was mountain biking down The Death Road connecting La Paz and Corioco Bolivia. I first heard of The Death Road when I was fifteen years old while watching a documentary on the Discovery Channel. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I would be flying down it on a mountain bike twelve years later. It's called The Death Road for one very obvious reason: for more than a decade it held the title as the worlds deadliest stretch of road. Each year more than a hundred people would meet their maker on the death road, or more accurately, in the ravine at the bottom. The Death Road is a 56 mile stretch of gravel about the width of a full size van. It winds precariously through the mountains, it has two-way traffic and one side it has a continuous drop of nearly 2,000 feet to the jungle below. Thousands of people have died on The Death Road and the casualties are not the result of auto collisions, but vehicles plummeting off the narrow stretch of gravel to the jungle below. Four years ago, the Bolivian government began building a new stretch of road to replace the Death Road, eventually leading to the closure of The Death Road for all auto traffic. During that time, an enterprising New Zealander decided that The Death Road would make for a wicked mountain bike ride. He opened "Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking" and began weekly tours of The Death Road. Some four years later, there are over 20 companies that offer death defying mountain bike trips down The Death Road.

La Paz: 13,450 ft.

While traveling though S. America, we ran into quite a few people who had visited Bolivia and biked the Death Road. The reviews, however, varied greatly. While some people regarded the experience as amazing and once in a lifetime, other regarded the experience as reckless, dangerous and regrettable. The latter left Christina weary of signing up for such madness. I, on the other hand, was more excited than ever. In the end, the amount of positive reviews slightly outweighed the negative and, with some careful poking and prodding, I was able to convince Christina to do The Death Road with me. Luckily, while tramping through the Bolivian desert, we met two French girls who gave us recommendation on an outfitter. Biking The Death Road is kind of like sky diving; it is not a service where you want to seek out the best bargain, unless your willing to bargain with your life or all of your font teeth. We paid 400 Bolivianos a piece and signed up with "Pro Downhill" our 2nd day in La Paz.

The morning of our bike ride, we were picked up by Louis, a gregarious, short and stalky Bolivian missing one of his incisors. We were led outside to our minivan, which held five mountain bikes on the roof. Inside the van was Ana, a German med school student who would rounded out our group of three. After throwing back a banana and a chocolate bar, we began our journey deep into the mountains where The Death Road begins at 15,400 feet. After over an hour in the car, we had reached our destination. We would start our trip on the new road, in the freezing cold, amid jagged snow capped mountains and glaciers before entering the official "Death Road".

All geared up and ready to roll.

The beginning of the "New Road".
As we jumped out of the van, I was anxious to see our gear. Your gear and the quality of the mountain bike on which you are riding is what separates most tour operators, but the trip is the same for everyone. You begin at 15,400 feet before making your way down through the mountains and into the jungle, where you will eventually stop at 3,000 feet after riding 56 miles straight downhill. I was not interested in the pedals on my mountain bike, I knew I would not need them. I was however, extremely anxious to try out the breaks. If your breaks fail you on The Death Road, you will likely be one of the 40 people who have plummeted to their death while mountain biking on it. My bike seemed to be pretty nice, considering the abuse it had suffered. It had both front and back suspension and although the rear break was a little loose (understandably so) everything else checked out. We were all given helmets‘, elbow pads, shin guards and a protective suites to save our skin in the case of an accident. I checked Christina's bike to make sure everything was legit before snapping one last picture and hitting the road behind Louis. As we hit the pavement, I had to restrain myself from letting my bike top out. In no less than 20 seconds, we were cruising down the road at 40 M.P.H., my right hand clinched firmly on my back break. Unfortunately, the poor fool in front of me mistakenly tapped his front break and he paid for it dearly by loosing nearly all of his front teeth and suffering a serious leg injury. This was a wake up call, we were not on a ride at Disneyland. As granite mountains painted intermittently with hues of green and yellow, I tried hard to keep my focus on the road. I was smack-dab in the middle of one of the most beautiful landscapes I had ever seen, but I knew that sneaking a peak for too long had its consequences. After nearly an hour, with my body sufficiently numbed, we reached the entrance to the "Death Road". As we dropped in altitude, signs of life were abundant as the relatively bare peaks turned to lush green and suddenly, the environment around us had come to life. Once we entered The Death Road, the game changed completely and the stakes were much higher.
 The Death Road
A long way down...

The road was steep, the gravel was completely un-uniform containing rocks of all shapes and sizes and having not served traffic in over four years, the condition of the road was poor. On one side of the road was a wall of green mountain, loose rock and exposed roots jetting straight towards the heavens. And, on the other side was an 1,800 foot shear drop off to the jungle below. Though everyone was aware how costly a mistake could be on this road, we were all too consumed with the beautiful landscape to let fear creep into our minds. Yes, flying down 56 miles of road through the mountains and jungle on a bike is indeed exhilarating. But, the truly amazing part of The Death Road was not The Death Road at all, but the landscape surrounding it.

 Every inch of earth was alive with vegetation. Wispy clouds formed at eye level and then disappeared into the sides of green mountains. Condors circled overhead endlessly and the color green had never been greener. We stopped often along our route not to revel in what we had just done, but to contemplate the sights before us.

Look at what we have conquered!

Yes, the entire road was like this...


The entire journey took us around five hours with lunch and multiple stops in-between. Our journey ended in Corioco, a small town nestled in a holler between two mountains and removed from just about everything. We had gone from snow covered mountains to the deep jungle on bikes and all without out so much as a single turn of the peddle. The dramatic change in environments left my head spinning. Hours before, we were bundled up above the tree line fighting to breathe and stay warm. Now, we were sitting amongst banana and mango trees, covered in sweat and fending off army's of stinging and biting insects. After a lunch of soup (Bolivians love soup in spite of 95 degree weather) we loaded our bikes on top of the van and began the three hour up hill journey back to La Paz. Staring out the windows of the van as we made our way up an endless vertical road, the feeling of accomplishment was bittersweet. There are some experiences in life that are so unique, so memorable that you know they are truly once in a lifetime. This was indeed one of those experiences and that recognition made me both happy and sad at the same time.

Thanks for following along on this journey.


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