Pan American Highway

On this Day:

On June 13, 1987 Daniel Buettner, Bret Anderson, Martin Engel & Anne Knabe are the first to complete a cycling journey of 15,266 miles from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina along the Pan American Highway.

TIERRA DEL FUEGO, ARGENTINA — A lashing snowstorm stung my eyes and limited my field of vision to a few square feet directly in front of my front tire. I pedaled for four hours, watching the wheel cut into the freshly fallen snow, thinking myself into a trance. I had to feel the road because I couldn`t see it.

My rear cluster was a mass of ice and snow that reduced my 18-speed bicycle to a three-speed. Almost half of each pedal revolution was lost to the chain slipping over the sprockets and the other half to the tires slipping on the icy road. My hands and feet were numb.

The bike`s front rack had just broken off and it dangled precariously close to the spokes. It was too cold and too close to the finish to stop and repair it. I limped along at four miles an hour.

It was 308 days before that Martin Engel, Bret Andersen, Ann Knabe and I had left Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, on the northernmost shores of North America. Since then we had pedaled through 13 countries, including Central American war zones, Panamanian jungles, 13,000-foot Andean mountain passes and more than 3,000 miles of desert in Peru and Chile.

During the Argentine winter, we were just a few miles from the Ushuaia, the southern tip of South America.

Every day for the preceding 10 months I had climbed on my bike and headed down the road to a panorama of new faces, landscapes and experiences.

There were days when it rained or snowed; days when we woke up after 16 straight days in the desert and it was time to face a 17th; and days when, dehydrated and weakened by diarrhea, the last thing our bottoms wanted to feel was another 10 hours on that pointy little seat.

But memory edits out pain. There now are days when I`m back in Minneapolis selling corporate widgets that I`ll look out my office window and remember the raw adventures of those 10 months. And miss them painfully.

A horn blast startled me and I looked up. Blowing snow flakes immediately stung my eyes. I saw a four-wheel-drive pickup with chains barreling toward me and I swerved to the side of the road. The driver swiveled his head as he passed and seemed to say, ”What is that madman doing out here?”

The next time I looked up, the snow had stopped and I caught my first view of the Beagle Channel, a dark blue strip of water at the end of the road. I was surrounded by majestic snow-covered mountains and it was downhill all the way to Ushuaia: It was over.

A flood of adrenaline and emotion overwhelmed me. My memory focused on a parallel instance, on the northern extreme of the planet. Then, too, I cycled in pain, cold and over a surface loosely defined as a road. On that first day of cycling over the Arctic tundra, the image of actually rolling our front wheels in the Beagle Channel was an abstract, almost absurd conceit-like a management trainee pondering his first day as president of the company.

With the industrial buildings of Ushuaia fanning out below me, I coasted down the last mile of the trek. At the bottom of the hill, I squeezed my brakes before the final turn and the tires slipped out from under me.

Bam! I fell, slamming my hip on the ice and hitting my head.

I ended up hobbling into the empty town, through the mud- and snow-filled streets. It was a gray Saturday afternoon, June 13, and the people were all inside, the shops closed.

Throughout the entire trek, I had fantasized that there would be people to welcome us here and congratulate us for setting the world record. But I was profoundly alone.

Even my three partners, who arrived ahead of me, were nowhere to be seen. Is this what I had biked to Argentina for?

I limped through the dismal streets in ankle-deep slush, pushing the bike. I found the others huddled under dripping eaves, shrugging off the cold. They, too, must have felt woebegone. There was not a word of congratulations among us.

Silently and methodically we found a cheap hotel, peeled off our muddy clothes and went to bed.

The end of the trek had an air of indifferent futility. Our compulsive Minnesota work ethic that had pushed us through two years of preparing and pedaling (through a spectrum of hardships) robs us of the capacity to enjoy our triumph.

We awoke the next day to an unabated snowstorm and flurry of tasks. We went right to work, washing clothes, taking pictures for our sponsors and making arrangements for returning to the Real World.

Bret sold his bike for plane fare, Martin and Ann wrote to the medical school dean to re-enroll in the fall and I spent hours in the telephone office announcing our success to the national news media to what sounded like lukewarm responses.

Between calls I involuntarily made mental plans for how I would make my next expedition better.

The four of us regrouped for lunch in the unfinished lobby of our hostel. Martin and Ann sat on a piece of rolled carpet and Bret and I sat on wood boxes. In the middle, bread, canned fish, bags of lemon mayonnaise, a pound of soft caramel and green apples-typical bike trek food-covered a third box.

Our conversation was cheerful yet sober. (A mood reflecting the fact we didn`t have to bicycle in the snowstorm.) We asked our-selves the question that we had only answered superficially in the past:

”Why did we undertake this expedition?” Our trite response throughout the journey had been: ”To break a world record and promote amity among nations.”

Without hesitation, Ann offered: ”I did it to get out of a year of school and to challenge myself.” Then she looked at us for a sign of concordance.

Martin rested his hand pensively on his chin, thought for a moment and added, ”Yea. You know the sense of satisfaction you get after a good workout. Well, I figured that the trek would be the superlative experience of physical exertion.”

For Bret, the trek was a chance to experience ”a great adventure I can tell my grandchildren about.”

Perhaps we don`t have a profound reason for doing the trek. But do we need one?

In a place where success is all too often measured in dollars, it`s hard to convince anyone of a rationale for pedaling 15,536 miles through some of the most dangerous countries in the world.

We set for ouselves and accomplished a goal that makes the next step in life seem easy-whether it be medicine, business or another expedition. Meanwhile, we spent an irreplaceable year of youth on a great adventure and learned more about the world and its people than 16 years of formal education had taught us. Can you put a dollar value on that?


First, a Story:

One fellow is talking to his friend.

“I’ve really had it with my dog: he’ll chase anyone on a bicycle.”

“So what are you going to do?  Leave him at the SPCA? Give him away? Sell him?”

“No, nothing that drastic. I think I’ll just confiscate his bike.”

Second, a Song:

Unfortunately we can’t find a video about Daniel Buettner, Bret Anderson, Martin Engel & Anne Knabe’s cycle trek. But we have a Geographics video on “The Pan-American Highway: The Longest Road in the World”.  We hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“Marriage is a wonderful invention: then again, so is a bicycle repair kit.” – Billy Connolly

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Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2022 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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