South of Nowhere: A Motorcycle Expedition Down the Pan Am In Search of Waves

Dashel Pierson

by on

Updated 7d ago

Jeremy was dead. At least he wasn’t breathing and he had no pulse. It was before dawn and blackout dark; his body was entombed by an avalanche near the summit of Chopicalqui, one of the tallest mountains in Peru. He was unconsciousness in a snowy grave.

James knew he had to move quickly to save his friend. He needed to follow the 90-foot rope connecting them, dig him out, and resuscitate him before it was too late.

“At 19,000 feet,” recalled James, “it feels like a bad dream. You try to move quickly but you can’t because you can’t breathe. I finally found him, and he was about six feet under the snow. I gave him mouth-to-mouth for probably five minutes before he started breathing. It was about as close as you can come to dying.”

The (relative) safety of lower elevations in the Peruvian Andes.

The (relative) safety of lower elevations in the Peruvian Andes.

© 2021 - James Barkman

They were nearly finished with their motorcycle odyssey down the Pan-American Highway. And if there ever was an appropriate time to end a trip early, this was it. But quitting was not an option. Even though someone had just died and come back to life, they weren’t going home. Not yet.

James Barkman, Allen Stoltzfus, and Jeremy Beiler– three twentysomethings and childhood friends from Pennsylvania – embarked on their two-wheeled intercontinental journey in spring of 2017. The plan: to trek from Alaska to Patagonia, passing through North, Central, and South America, and to do it as cheaply as possible; the purpose: to not die, mainly, but also to surf and mountain climb their way from north to south; their chosen mode of transit: late 1990s Suzuki DR650s.

Somewhere in the Bolivian salt flats.

Somewhere in the Bolivian salt flats.

© 2021 - James Barkman

“As adventurous as it sounds,” said Barkman, “it’s also a pretty economical and affordable way to travel. We each spent $1,500 on our bikes and rode 40,000 miles on them. I don’t know any other rig or vehicle that you could spend that much on, and also go that distance.”

Hence the “cheaply as possible” component of their journey. After all, they would be gone for a year and a half, and they were going to need every scrap of cash they could get their hands on. It also helped that Suzuki DR650s are manufactured virtually the same today as they were in the late ‘90s, which meant they could score parts easily and from wherever they were on the road.

© 2021 - James Barkman

But saving money and scoring spare parts were the least of their worries. This trip was about survival.

The Pan-American Highway stretches from the uppermost reaches of Alaska to the tip of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina. It’s often referred to as the longest “motorable road” in the world. And if you’re going to drive (or ride) the whole thing, why not start at the top?

After climbing Mount Denali and crossing Canada, they were in familiar territory: stateside in the Pacific Northwest. From there, the compass pointed due south along the west coast.

“If I ever did this trip again,” said Barkman, “I would surf the entire way. It was pretty heartbreaking to be riding down the entire west coast of the western hemisphere and to not have a surfboard. It was pretty rough, but I just had to come to terms with it. After that, I made a pact with myself that I was going to surf in Baja if it was the last thing I ever did.”

© 2021 - James Barkman

And coincidentally, the swell of the year began pummeling the barren surfscape of Baja just as they were crossing the border. What’s more, the trio had many friends heading south for the swell, so there would be boards to borrow. (With limited space on the motorcycles, they were forced to borrow boards along the way.)

“It was an insane swell,” said Barkman. “It was double-overhead, every pointbreak was firing, and it was probably the best waves of my life. Because everyone up north could see the swell coming, they were able to scramble down there. And it got pretty busy. There were a couple crews of friends, and a bunch of pros showed up, too. It worked out well, though, because I was able to borrow boards from multiple groups of friends.”

But aside from familiar faces and a plethora of surfing time, Baja was no cake walk on a motorcycle.

“It was chaos,” recalled Barkman. “It was like a war zone down in Baja. I think we had eight or nine flat tires. Going into town to meet our friends, we were getting flats. Going back to town to get water, we got flats. It was kind of like, when it rains it pours I guess. When we think about Baja, we think about all the tires we had to change.”

© 2021 - James Barkman

Additionally, the spear and snorkel, which were their designated means for food, were lost. And because the bikes could only carry so much sustenance, along with the fact that they were trying to conserve cash as much as possible, they resorted to the only food they could find: “we ended up eating clams for a week straight,” said Barkman. “I’d be happy to never eat a clam again. [Laughs.]”

And heading south from Baja, things were going to get tougher before they got easier.

Central America was a blur
After surfing in Baja and climbing Pico de Orizaba – a volcano and the highest peak in Mexico – they were in dangerous territory thanks to cartel-related violence. “The police were telling us not to stop,” said Barkman once they got off the ferry from Baja. “They said that we were going to get killed. So, we just ripped south as fast as we could.”

In Nicaragua, they barely made it out of the country before the shit of political unrest hit the fan. “We made it out like two days before the whole country turned upside down,” Barkman recounted. “It was insane. We had friends that were there who got stuck for months. We got lucky and got out right before they started roadblocking everything.”

And from Panama, they sent their bikes via cargo ship to Colombia and caught a plane to Cartagena. That’s because there’s a break in the Pan-Am Highway, caused by marshlands between Panama and Colombia, known as the Darién Gap. It’s only 60 miles, but the Darién Gap is undeveloped jungle and inhabited by guerrillas and FARC rebels, leaving it virtually impassible. Thus the need for a new mode of transit.

© 2021 - James Barkman

But once the bikes arrived in Colombia – albeit two weeks behind schedule – they were robbed. Not once, but twice.

The first mugging happened while they were sleeping in hammocks on the beach. The damage? Barkman’s phone was taken. Spooked, the next night they stayed in a hotel and locked their bikes up. But still, their luck was running thin. Jeremy’s bike got cleaned out, including about four grand in climbing gear.

“Everything we had on the bikes we absolutely needed,” explained Barkman. “When anything gets lost or stolen, it’s a heavy hit. That was our first two days on the road in Colombia, robbed twice, so we were like: ‘damn, let’s get out of here!’”

From there, the only place to go was south.

© 2021 - James Barkman

Allen’s knee was getting worse
They were ripping through South America, and they chalked the swelling up to the frequent crashes they had while riding unpaved roads. But it was much worse than just a bump.

“We pretty much wrecked twice a day,” described Barkman, “because we were always doing these technical, off-road trails. At the end of the day, your ankle would be all swollen and you’d just assume that it was from wrecking. And we assumed that’s what was going on with his knee. But it kept getting worse and worse. It got so bad that he had to ride with his leg stretched out for probably 1,500 miles.”

By the time they got to Peru, the doctors were stumped. Allen flew home to the states for proper medical attention and, as it turned out, he had contracted a nasty case of Lyme’s Disease. But he’d be back; he would return to finish their journey in about two months. In the meantime, James and Jeremy busied their time by climbing in the Andes. And that’s when Jeremy nearly died.

© 2021 - James Barkman

“Nobody had climbed it yet that season,” said Barkman about Chopicalqui, a 20,000-foot peak in the Cordillera Blanca region of the Peruvian Andes. “We had already done a few climbs, which we were the first to do for that season, so we were feeling kinda confident. We got stuck at high camp – about 18,200 feet – for three days. Then the storm let up and we basically could’ve gone down, or we had a quick shot at the summit. We were out of food, so it was either leave or hail mary it.”

And although they barely made it out of that situation with their lives, that wouldn’t be the last near-death experience of the trip. There was still the wild roads of lower South America to survive. But as a saving grace for their harrowing time climbing in Peru, they headed for the coast. Their primary stop there? The mythical lefthander, Chicama.

“The same guys that I surfed with in Baja were down in Chicama, chasing another swell,” Barkman said. “I was able to use boards and we surfed Chicama for probably three days. It was insane. The wave is hard to explain, it’s just so trippy. It doesn’t even seem real.”

They were on the final stretch. And even though the end of the road was a welcomed sight, the nether regions of South America are some of the world’s most punishing, in terms of weather, and especially on two wheels.

“We were all pretty much ready to come home at that point,” Barkman said about the last leg. “We were so far south; we were only 700 miles from the tip of Antarctica. It’s so cold on the bike, money is running low, it’s either raining or snowing every day, and it’s crazy windy down in Patagonia. On the Chilean side you’ll get rain, and on the Argentinian side you’ll get crazy wind. There were many times that we almost got hit straight on by a bus or a truck. The wind is blowing you all over the place. We were steering into it as much as we could, and we were still skipping across the road.”

© 2021 - James Barkman

And aside from the constant threat of becoming Patagonian roadkill, there were other issues coming to a head towards the end of the trip. Namely, the quarrelling amongst each other was getting worse. The trio wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye on everything; just like it is when you spend a lot of time with anyone, but even more so when it’s a year and a half, and while trying to survive the Pan-Am Highway.

“Anything that was hard, physically, we could push through,” Barkman admitted. “But relational stuff is always the trickiest thing. There’s a relational element that comes into play when you’re in such high-intensity situations. It’s hard to explain but it’s really intense and it pushes you to the limit and kills any kind of filter you have between each other.” It’s pretty easy to do so long as you’re willing to give up some conveniences

But this is what they signed up for. They knew it wasn’t going to be easy. And despite all they had been through – nearly dying, getting robbed, testing their friendship, depleting their bank accounts – they wouldn’t have done the trip any other way.
“It was one of those things where, if you never do it you’ll always wish you had, or you’ll wonder what it would’ve been like,” said Barkman. “It definitely wasn’t a vacation, but it was an adventure.”

So, why do this? Why subject yourself to pain and suffering, instead of “vacationing” like a normal person? What’s so bad about hot showers, plush hotel room sheets, and all-you-can-eat buffets anyway?

© 2021 - James Barkman

For Barkman, it’s because of something called “type two fun.” It’s that special brand of fun that comes from doing something miserable while it’s happening but rewarding and, therefore, fun once it’s over. Running a marathon could be considered “type two fun.” And for most people, the payout is even more gratifying than “type one fun” – or something that’s enjoyable all the way through.

“My whole life I’ve been drawn to those types of experiences,” Barkman said. “I don’t want to live easily; I want to live fulfilled. Anything that’s fulfilling is often just hard work. So, when it comes to hobbies and interests, that’s kinda the way I approach it. My life isn’t about having fun in the moment; it’s about living fulfilled.”

Hence why, before the trip down the Pan-Am Highway, Barkman has been living, surfing, and mountain climbing out of his van for years. It’s not an easy life, but it affords him the ability to do what he wants when he wants. And for him, the lack of everyday amenities is counterbalanced by an abundance of experiences.

“It’s pretty easy to do so long as you’re willing to give up some conveniences,” Barkman said. “It’s always awesome to me to see how much I can do for how little I can. I have a lot of friends who, right now, are on surf trips and living on their motorcycles. It’s so easy – all you need is a bike, a surf rack, one or two boards, and some camping gear. That’s about it.

“The bottom line is, you can do anything with a little bit of ingenuity and the willingness to be a dirtbag. But you’ll never know unless you go for it.”

This piece originally appeared on Surfline.