I recall the magic of Cuenca in this moment from the perch of another grand colonial city in the Andes: La Paz, Bolivia. It’s been quite a Winter so far down South of the equator. Fantastic mountain biking, the ever-growing enormity of the Andes, full of varied adventures. Having taken a short stint off the bike in Cuenca it was time to strike the hot iron, in the form of a band of bikepacking gypsies all headed to Tierra del Fuego. We decided to form a grand depart from Cuenca and share the final few hundred kilometers of Ecuador.
Just around the corner from my kind host Rick’s apartment, in the courtyard for Cuenca’s central cathedral. This is the largest group of bikepackers with whom I’ve ridden so far. I’ve met many bike tourists along the way, but this group comprises almost all of the subset of off-road riders I’ve encountered since Alaska. Now in the same place!
(L—> R: Dang Huevos, Dean Cunnanan, Some dork in a sleeveless shirt, Joe Bedford, Tyndall Ellis, and Liz Ellis).
We began to climb directly out of town. The grand fool among us (who’s name shall only be mentioned as rhyming with Dot Trowker) decided to let his Garmin device plot a direct route South from the city, leading us up some extremely steep rocky footpaths, virtually impossible to ride. Joe in his grandiosity was kind enough to drop his bike and the top and give Dang a little extra horsepower to reach the top.
Hours later, our new friends Lorraine and Bruno caught us on a long slow climb. The gaggle was growing, how lovely!
Rolling into some random roadside town, we realized it was getting late and we would need a lot of flat ground to accommodate our miniature tent city. Kindly a woman at the corner store pointed us to the town volleyball court just off the highway. Ecuadoreans seem to LOVE volleyball. Whereas Colombia was all about soccer fields and Tejo courts, Ecuador uniquely demonstrates a patronage of another sport. Lucky no games were schedule for this evening, so we took over. I can’t remember when last I actually camped with another cyclist. clearly it’s been too long. We compared dinner menus (mine was by far the most barren, some of these people are true camping chefs!), tents, and other gear. Always interesting to see how others prioritize precious space and weight on the bike.
Big climbs and big decents heading South to the Peruvian border. Here crossing a large canyon and pausing for a snack before heading up the other side. Trying to keep a group of newly acquainted bikers moving CAN be like herding cats: So much to discuss. So many pee and snack breaks. But somehow it’s still lovely for me, enjoying every second of great company.
Dean and I had a lovely conversation about our natural competitive spirits as we unconsciously (and ironically) pulled ahead of the group on a long uphill.
Another evening, another search for large flat space for all our tents. Tonight we claimed the playing fields outside of Saraguro. The local kids seemed to have endless interest in our tents, poking their heads into each one in search of treats.
With fantastic luck, Joe discovered that included in the towns sports complex was an aquatic center, including jacuzzi, eucalyptus steam room, and sauna! $1 afforded us entrance to soak our weary bones for a couple of hours. Fantastic. And steamy enough to prevent a good photo.
Soaking in hot water quickly drove us to early slumber. Unfortunately for us, the people of Saraguro are VERY healthy. The whole town appeared to have inhabited the ball courts and soccer field late into the night, the cheering and yelling piercing through our thin tent walls and forcing us to count the moments until things finally calmed down for the night.
I awoke at first light the following morning as countless children flooded the fields, giggling at our miniature RV park. I packed up and set out a bit ahead of the group, hoping to reach the next rest town of Vilcabamba by nightfall. It was July 8th you see, and tomorrow I would be entering my 5th decade on planet Earth… Might as well take a day off of the bike to feel into the transition into my 40’s.
Powering up the climbs and bombing the descents, I passed this mural at high speed, glancing over my shoulder to take in its beauty. Upon noticing that the painter was actively working on it at that moment, I screeched the breaks and turned back up the hill to take a closer look. The artist was a kind man with piercing eyes and a tender smile. He proudly spoke about this being the 5th mural he’d painted in his small village, always with the help of his two adolescent sons. I was struck by the brilliant colors and imagery. I thanked him for leaving a beautiful and inspiring mark on this world and rolled on.
I caught up to Dean and Dang in Loja, about 50km from Vilcabamba. They’d left a couple of hours ahead of me with plans to stay in Loja. A little gentle prodding and they hopped back on their bikes to join me for the final push. We nevertheless met up with Jose Felix in Loja. Jose runs the casa ciclista in town, where countless cyclists touring either North or Southbound cross paths for a time.
CASAS CICLISTAS: The Gem of Latin American Bike Touring
Located in various countries around Latin America, these biker refuges started popping up in the late 1980’s and have multiplied in the years since. They often begin with a kind soul who encounters some cycle tourists on the street and offer them a place to crash. When things go well, they might end up crashing for quite some time, from days to weeks, even months. When the host find he/she enjoys the flow of bikers through their space, they invite their guests to pass on their information to others in need, and thus they community grows. Inhabitants are never charged for their stays, only invited to contribute to the daily chores of the house, perhaps offer what they can to help keep the lights on and water running. Historically the houses were only encountered through word-of-mouth as cyclists would meet on route. The advent of the internet has shifted this quite a bit as people can merely google the term to find any locales on their route, but the spirit remains the same. I have come to cherish the gift of meeting the gracious hosts of these open homes, to hear their stories. Unfortunately we only had a few moments with Jose Felix. Perhaps someday our paths will cross again, either way many more CCs lay along my Southbound path!
Vilcabamba. A little nugget of laid-back tourism, psychedelic cactuses and expat retirees. What better place is there to turn 40?
Speaking of turning 40…
This birthday has been looming over me like a proctor administering the SAT exam to an underachieving teen (not that I would understand how that feels…). Simultaneously I’ve been bombarded in recent months by a few loving friends and family, asking “What are you doing for your birthday? Big plans? Can we come meet you??” It’s been hard to deny those people whom I deeply love the chance to be together. But what if I don’t want to make a big deal of it? In years past I’ve used my birthday as an excuse to gather community — throwing barbecues, arranging camping outings, even roller rink costume parties. But that drive has faded in recent years. It now feels awkward to place myself at the center of attention, simply because I was born on a particular day some years back. Plus, how can you “do something special” for yourself when you’ve spent the last 2 years continuously following your dreams? Every day is already doing something special.
In addition, big round-numbered birthdays have a way of soliciting the big questions of life with overwhelming intensity. “Have I done enough with my life so far? Am I where I should be by now? Am I happy where I am?” Perhaps it’s obvious but these questions arise not from a gentle, curious place, but from an intense internal judgment that assumes the answer to all said queries is a resounding “NO”. The challenging but worthwhile response is to pause, asking in my defense, what ways the answers may actually be a peaceful, grounded, yes.
My current honest response to this line of questions is as follows:
Something has shifted in my experience when I share that my age is now forty. People treat me differently as if it means something really significant, but yet I don’t FEEL as I thought a forty year old should. Based on the hearsay I’ve absorbed, I should have, or at least had, a real home. I should be in a long-term relationship with someone I’d call a life partner. I should be well established in a career that fulfills a sense of purpose. I should be respecting my aging body and slowing down a bit. In short, I should be settled down.
With deep gratitude my body seems to still respond positively to the challenges I continuously place before it, with only rare pain. It doesn’t seem to be asking me to settle down. I do however notice that my energy wells have a little less capacity than they once did. No longer can I vigorously ride a 12 hour day on the bike, set up camp, then sit in my tent for a few hours writing or playing music. I now fall asleep within minutes. It appears to be an important message about how to respect increasingly limited internal resources, and that I must use greater discernment in spending them. This has been a big reason why my blog and personal writing has fallen away in recent months, and I am considering how to develop a better system for meeting my various internal needs, beyond just the physical.
As for the other “shoulds”, they’re honestly still a source of confusion and anxiety.
This life I currently live is filled with both conscious choices and semiconscious reactions to those shoulds. I love the freedom and wonder that every day brings. I love the chance meetings with spirited strangers that pepper my solitude with lessons of connection and kindness. I love the feeling of propelling myself through a discovery of the natural world, and the insights that arise from hours alone in spacious grandeur. I’ve come to learn that these insights are fleeting however… If I don’t unpack them, consider their implications and apply them, they are simply carried away by the next oncoming distraction of sight, sound or conversation. More on that in my next post…
The downside of this life is that, after over 2 years of travel, I’m still in the mindset that this journey is a temporary one, a search for what I really want to do next. Of course that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. But after 2 years I must acknowledge that I’m not really doing the active searching, seeking and testing of possibilities to discern what that may be. Instead I live as an ascetic hedonist, stretching my limited resources to allow for minimal stress and responsibility, leaning on the identity of a world bike traveller to smooth out the inconsistencies in my self-concept. This is where the contradiction cuts deep: I still love riding my bike every day and discovering the world, but without another purpose it’s not leading me anywhere except South, and that’s not enough anymore.
The truth is that I know what I must do next. Independent of “figuring it all out”, there is something inside of me that I must express, and I’m only now learning what it is and how to do that. The biggest challenge is committing to the intense work that is required to bring this thing out of my head and into the objective world. The discipline, determination, and grit it will require are immense, and I can’t do it at the same time as riding all day, every day.
So, for now, this knowledge sits next to me like a knowing mentor, gently reminding me to consider what inevitable changes are coming, when the time is right.
— But Back to Vilcabamba —
Dean, Dang and I rolled into town and promptly ordered a fancy espresso drink from a frufru tourist cafe and considered our options for lodging. The group of cyclists we’d left in the last town would be arriving tomorrow (on my birthday) and we’d hoped to all stay in one place. Luckily Jose Felix told us of a great campground just outside of town, Rumiwilco.
Following a rocky dirt track across the Rio Vilcabamba, we rolled into the perfect space. Rustic cabins for rent in a huge open field by a river with a large shared kitchen. I rented the cabin as a birthday treat and purchased all the beer, rum and tequila I thought we might imbibe for the night, and found a blender for making mojitos, daiquiris and margaritas. Amazingly all the cyclists, most of whom I’d only just met, took control of cooking an enormous celebratory potluck.
The food was decadent. The drink was plentiful. The company: divine.
As is my recent birthday tradition I took the following day to walk alone, stopping to appreciate every bit of this beautiful landscape I could. From flowers to cacti to rolling mountains, the trails above town were perfect for simple introspection.
Reaching a high ridge above town, I sat for an hour to meditate and explore melodies on my flute. As the sun’s rays began to reach their golden hue, a man huffed his way up to the ridge and sat by my side. We began talking about our lives and quickly realized we had a great deal in common. This man had not only studied Afro-Cuban percussion, in Cuba, but actually ended up learning from one of my master teachers, a man that few other people have studied with in depth! He shared tales of his life and how he came to live in Vilcabamba for the time being, and while he was talking I somehow saw a piece of myself in him. Perhaps 20 years my senior, I wondered how it would feel if I were to find a similar fate…
The most striking feature of his life was that he was alone. He’d not been in relationship for many years, and had found comfort in solitude… or so he said. I couldn’t discern if my disbelief in his resolve was due to it not being particularly convincing or simply an insight that I myself don’t want to be still alone in 20 years. There was a hardness to his demeanor that I know I have the potential to adopt, of which I’m quite weary.
We ended up sharing a meal and lots more conversation, but I never learned his name and never got his contact information. While I doubt that our paths will cross again anytime soon, I appreciate his presence on an important day in my life.
“Love today.” Inscribed on the bridge, visible as I crossed the river back into town. Simple and true.