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How giving up everything to cycle 45,000km gave us the world

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November 2020 Issue

Mark Watson shares how a bicycle journey of 45,000km unfolded and what he learned from four years bikepacking from Alaska to Patagonia.

It was from Deadhorse, Prudhoe Bay on the north coast of Alaska that my partner Hana Black and I embarked on our 45,000km cycling journey through the American continents. Our bags were tightly packed with a week’s supply of food and equipment to survive arctic conditions. Our minds were full of anticipation for what lay ahead.

Deadhorse, the northern origin of both the 1200km Trans-Alaska oil pipeline and the dirt ribbon of the Dalton Highway, is situated on the edge of the Beaufort Sea. At 71 degrees north, it’s well inside the Arctic Circle. Northern Alaska is divided latitudinally by the Brooks Range; to its south lies land cloaked with spruce forest stretching as far as the eye can see, while to the north is the exposed tundra of the North Slope, an almost permanently frozen, treeless landscape with an average temperature of -4℃.

That morning in June 2016 dawned clear, calm and -2℃ as we made the first pedal strokes of what would become a nearly four-year bikepacking journey. The objective was to mountain bike the length of the American Cordillera, which is the collective name for the near-contiguous mountain ranges in the west of both the American continents. These ranges form the continental divide, separating the watersheds of the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans. As we headed south, we would cross the Brooks Range and then follow the Coast Mountains through Canada, the Rocky Mountains of the United States, the Sierra Madre of Mexico and the Andes of South America.

There’s an aesthetic to the concept of a trans-Americas journey that appealed to us: riding from the top of the world to the bottom, and incorporating climates as diverse as any on the planet; from the Arctic to the Equator, the Amazon to the Atacama Desert.

Pedalling out of Deadhorse that first day, the thought of cycling across Alaska and Canada to the Lower 48 seemed daunting enough, let alone what awaited us in Central and South America: countries that we had never before visited and knew little about.

We envisaged 18 months to two years for this undertaking, imagining the sense of achievement and discovery would come in equal measures from what we encountered along the way, and our arrival in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. But we soon discovered that the well-worn cliches of travel are true: two years on the road turned into four and we became enraptured by a journey of exploration that became much more important to us than the finish line at 54-degrees south.

This wasn’t our first long cycle journey. In 2011, we’d ridden 13,000km from Chengdu, China, to Sumatra in Indonesia, including the Tibetan Plateau, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. That nine-month ride was a life-changing experience that gave us the confidence to tackle something much longer.

But the seed for the Americas journey was sown by a chance encounter with some trans-continental road cyclists in Mexico in 2010. They were the first we’d met who were undertaking such a ride and we left a brief conversation with them inspired. We reluctantly returned to New Zealand at the end of our South East Asia ride with only a few thousand dollars in the bank, but also the realisation that, funds-permitting, we’d have kept going.

The Mars-like desert of the high-altitude puna in northern Argentina. Photo: Mark Watson/Highlux Photo

For many people, long self-propelled journeys are addictive. You become focussed on basic requirements: finding water, food and shelter. The sense of achievement borne of covering the countryside under your own power leaves you satisfied in a way that I can only describe as primeval and innate. Much of life’s clutter falls away as you focus only on the path ahead, interacting with whatever is in your proximity.

After returning to New Zealand from our South East Asia journey in late 2011, we retained a singular focus on leaving again, to ride ‘the length of the Americas’ as we dubbed it. In the intervening four years, we kept an eye on our spending and worked hard. Hana, trained in fashion design, spent most of those years working as a product technician for Kathmandu while I worked as a photographer and graphic designer and published three books, one of which required the commitment and indulgence of six months walking the Te Araroa Trail.

About a year before we finally left New Zealand, we set a departure date and from that point on, the thought of leaving was always at the back of our minds and dictated our life decisions and how we spent our money. Our commitment to leaving was total. We were fortunate to be nearly mortgage-free on our Lyttelton house, and after much deliberation decided to sell this much-loved home and invest the proceeds in other properties with investment potential – a pragmatic  decision driven purely by economics. After 10 years, Lyttelton would no longer provide a physical home. We were cutting ourselves free.

The shakeup of our property assets left us a chunk of cash which we’d live off on the road, along with a small amount of rental income and sales from my photography and writing. In the weeks prior to leaving, we began a massive clear out of everything superfluous that we owned. The items we considered either sentimental, recreational, or essential for remaking a home somewhere were packed into a shipping container which we left on a friend’s property.

We departed New Zealand with our own bikes. Almost all of our equipment was purchased either at home, or in several spending sprees as we outfitted specific equipment for the trip. Bear bells, bear spray and bear-proof food bags were priority items. We were lucky to leave New Zealand with sponsorship from Biomaxa (a New Zealand company making lanolin-based bike lube and chamois cream) and Alaska’s Revelate Designs, one of the pioneers of bikepacking bags.

Sometimes the volcanic landscapes of the Andes reminded Mark and Hana of home, except in this case Mt Taranaki's Chilean cousin, Volcan Parinacota, tops out at 6348m. Photo: Mark Watson/Highlux Photo

Our route through Alaska and Canada, as far as Banff, was mostly on wide gravel roads and pavement. But in Banff, we joined the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route, which by means of bridle paths, dirt roads and 4WD tracks carried us south over some of the Rocky Mountains’ highest passes to southern New Mexico, where, within a half day’s ride of Mexico we turned west and traversed the borderlands of the American South-West to San Diego. In San Diego, we joined the Mexican Baja Divide bikepacking route, which, with its mix of very rough and sometimes sandy tracks, set a fresh tone for the journey and provided a new set of challenges with its cultural differences, desert environment, heat and lack of water.

As we progressed south through Mexico, Central America, Cuba and South America, we followed a combination of established bikepacking routes such as the relatively well-travelled Trans Ecuador Mountain Bike Route and Peru Divide, while researching and exploring our own linkages between them. The purpose was never just to get from A to B but to find the most interesting – and often most remote – way reasonable. It was sometime through Mexico that it dawned on us that this notion was what was most important to us: the value of the day to day experiences, and not the end goal, which was really just an abstract idea, we decided. The ‘goal’ provided an overall theme and some guidance in decision making but in the end, our planning came down to making each and every day on the road as valuable as possible.

This approach led to a series of quite profound chapters that each stand out as powerful experiences. Mexico was themed by navigating our way through remote regions and experiencing villages that had never had a gringo visit before. Guatemala was a revelation for its highly visible indigenous culture and tradition and a great place to stop and improve our Spanish.

Encountering villages that were not on any map became a theme. The high Andes taught us how to deal with altitude, climbs that lasted all day, and how to be comfortable existing in freezing conditions on a nightly basis for weeks at a time.

As we rode, we blogged, breaking the ride down into one- to two-week chapters that communicated our experience and observations. We also documented some of our own trail discoveries and published these on the global home of bikepacking, bikepacking.com and on our own website. In this way, we established enough of a profile that more equipment sponsors came on board, including USA bike manufacturer Otso which gave us a couple of their Voytek plus bikes, and New Zealand’s Kathmandu.

In some remote regions, children often fled or cried when they saw Hana’s pale skin and blond hair, but in other places curiosity overcame inhibition. Photo: Mark Watson/Highlux Photo

The zenith of our long-distance bikepacking experience were the weeks we spent on the high altitude puna of northern Argentina. We’d seen nothing like this desert, which is often compared with Mars. Typified by volcanic cones, lava fields, pumice formations, salt flats and sandy surfaces it’s a challenging place to ride a bike. The ‘road’ is often nothing more than two tyre tracks cutting through an ash-covered landscape of red and yellow-hued mountainsides. There are no villages or resupply for nearly three weeks, and only one small farm with permanent inhabitants, necessitating that we carry food for 18 days and sometimes three days worth of water at a time. The remoteness and consequences of a mistake or accident put a big demand on our decision making and self-reliance, so it was an experience that tested everything we’d learned and the conditioning we’d gained in more than three years on the road.

The heights of the puna gradually led us down to the lowlands of Chilean Patagonia and it was there that the novel coronavirus began to unfurl its tentacles around the planet. The closure of the Chile-Argentina border and cessation of interprovincial travel in Chile made further progress impossible. We made the decision to return to New Zealand.

Aside from being time and money well spent, our 45,500km ride taught us many things. One of them was how to deal with the curveballs and unpredictability of daily life in developing countries, and perhaps that’s why returning home due to Covid didn’t seem so bad after being so close to the theoretical end of a journey during which we’d faced sickness, storms, mechanicals and navigating cultures unknown to us.

But we’ve grown in other ways, too: we’ve learned another language, become more patient, more adept at dealing with adversity. We have a greater estimation of what we’re physically capable of. We’ve seen geographical and cultural wonders we’d never imagined and tried inedible food in places whose names we couldn’t pronounce.

We’re more empathetic, too. Travel by sustainable overland modes, such as cycling, puts you in contact with local people and encourages your interaction for the purposes of resupply, shelter and human connection. We discovered that the people who own the least, tend to be the ones who give the most. That was humbling.

Interaction with diverse people and cultures throughout the Americas has given us invaluable insights into how people live, and that in turn has made us more understanding. We care more about the world and the people who live in it, which is perhaps the most important lesson of all.