LANDSCAPE & EXPERIENCE: A ROADS UNWOUND PROJECT – JUSTIN SMITH
When we dream up an image of a landscape it is often a two-dimensional scene, void of depth and texture. By experiencing a landscape we learn of the expansive latitude of its personality. Seconds can separate sun from snow, calm from a gale, bringing the wild and divergent of a landscape into view. To me, a wild landscape is anywhere foreign, unusual, and unknown. Adventuring into these environments reveals a person’s untapped capacities to interpret and learn; ultimately, opening one’s eyes to the world. Two years ago I set off to explore my unknown capacities in foreign landscapes by attempting to cycle from the Beaufort Sea in Alaska’s deep north to the island of Tierra del Fuego in Argentina’s deep south. Through experiencing the extremes of divergent landscapes, I wanted to filter the extremes within myself and extract a clearer perspective of my place in the world.
During the two years of dreaming and planning, I viewed the trip as a linear path simplified into essentials – bike, drink, eat, sleep and allow life to become an experience of the places I roll through. Between July 30, 2010 and May 5, 2012, 9 countries and 8,500 miles passed beneath my tires, seeing me from the Arctic Ocean down to Costa Rica. Viewing it as a linear and rational process was divorced from the reality of my malleable moods grinding up against the best our world has to offer. Landscapes dazzled and wildness growled, and the trip unwound with as many undulations and changes as the lands I was traversing. At times I was so filled with adventure and bliss and peace that I felt exposed to the intimacy of our earth, simultaneously tranquilized and enlivened – a Zen statement of extremely Zen experiences. Yet, at other times I was so filled with dread, fear, frustration, pain, and confusion that I felt pebbles were mountains and I was an ant on an impossible journey. My experience, exposed here, laid bare the power of every landscape and forced upon me a new understanding of the trip, my goals, and my dreams. I adapted, grew, and became open to the changes that unfolded. I stopped and started many times, as a response to my dual needs of money and emotional sanity.
I was reinvigorated, last fall, with an invite to ride Cuba with Nathan, a Brit I randomly encountered in the far north and traveled with through most of Alaska and Canada. Together, we pedaled through Cuba for a month, and then twisted across the Yucatan and Guatemala visiting the great vestiges of the Mayan Empire. Soon we both became ensconced in a high altitude Guatemalan city. Four months later I set off to see the trip out on my own accord. Isolation found me even on the most crowded Central American roads and in their cities, and I ultimately realized that the experience had been unwound, the process completed. So, in Costa Rica two months back, I saw the end of the trip in a much different reality than the one I initially imagined. Learning to interpret and adjust my life course in conflict with my distant and divergent goal was harder than learning to sit on a saddle and pedal for 6 hours a day. And, while the destination may change, the process of getting there is always the same, one pedal stroke at a time. Exposing my experience is about bringing life and dimension to the landscapes I witnessed, giving depth and texture to a bold concept, and humility to an adventurous soul.
Photography and Descriptions
Before I even laid down my first pedal stroke in the deep north of Alaska, I was exposed to a theme that would run the length of my trip. On a security guided tour from Deadhorse, for a ceremonial toe-dip in the Arctic Ocean, the rugged and expansive landscape was interrupted by the scraps of man. While listening to our Exxon-Mobil guide describe the gentle touch of the drilling behemoth and the high priority they place on keeping the environment safe and clean, we were driving through the scraped, dredged and scarred coastal plain to be placed next to these rusting oil barrels. No matter how hard I tried, or how much I imagined parts of my remote adventure being divorced from human contact, I was always tied to the thread of our roads and the reminder of our sweeping presence on our planet. These roads, sometimes paved bowling alleys 8 lanes across and sometimes dusty jeep two-tracks, were my connection to the world, my lifeline, my route, and also my enemy. My trip weaved together the large open landscapes with the societies and cities that sprung up in their folds. I witnessed first hand the interaction between the wilds and our meager attempts to tame it. More often than not, it looks like all we leave behind are rusted out oil barrels.
A breeze laps at my skin, keeping it dry of sweat, but neither forceful enough to burden my pedaling, nor to distract and obstruct the famous Alaskan mosquitos. I am fortunate to discover they are fading from their mid-summer glory just a few weeks past, but these helicopters are capable of out-sprinting me on my loaded bike. I am shaky with trepidation for the long and unknown road ahead, and I am shaky under the new burden of a bloated bike. The truckers plying the Dalton Hwy to service the remote oil-fields in northern Alaska are eager to wave and honk. I can’t take it all in, the significance of the trip, the importance of this first day, the landscape I now ride through. Like this expansive coastal plain, everything seems to go on forever with nothing to provide depth. If I was ever in need of an ally, I have found it in the steadfast grace of the pipeline, for it too is plotting its way south through Alaska. Because I want to explore this great big world, what better way to start than at the top terminus of such a great big landscape.
The pace of travel on a bicycle is exactly that of the pace of advancement of fall as it signals the cold edge of winter. Colors began to diverge from greens, tans, and blues a month back while rolling through northern British Colombia. Yellows, reds, and oranges are now burnt into the landscapes of my mind. Even with so much change in the air, a cold death approaching, fall is a sedate and peaceful time.
The local rumor was that the early Autumn snow in Banff and Jasper National Parks had scared all but the steadfast locals into hiding. Those same locals, an adventurous and gracious couple in Prince George, redrew our map to detour through the parks following reports of a perfect week of weather. The 3 week and 750 mile detour down the Icefields Parkway transitioned the trip from a point-to-point undertaking to one of exploration and adventure.
The West Coast and all its scenic vistas, crashing surf, and towering redwoods only stirs up soggy memories. I cannot separate where I was from my experience; I was washed down the coast, my nightly solace atop my dry sleep mat was more like a raft than I care to remember. It began with a freak snowstorm in Washington that had me riding through 6 inches of slush on my way across the Colombia River to Portland. And, it finished with a drizzly ride across the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco to ring my self out with a friend’s hospitality. For all its glory, the West Coast was a grey and lonely place for me.
I quickly learned that we often can not see the bigger picture within the fog of our current situation. Knowing that with each pedal stroke I was one closer to another small goal, was frequently the only way forward. My time was reduced to the key essentials of movement and survival (water, food, and shelter), but I found solace in this routine. When these small achievements were no longer enough, it was the greater goal of an arrival in windswept Patagonia that burned a passion to keep moving forward.
It is hot on the high plains of southern Wyoming under the relentless scorn of the summer sun. Having taken a small break from the trip to resupply my bank account, I was now on a quick ride from Idaho to Colorado in hopes of re-sparking the fire for my bike adventure. I struggled on the West Coast and dreamed of a new awakening when I snaked my way through the rugged Rocky Mountains. There were dusty roads weaving over sage covered hills, steep grades climbing between towering forests of Aspen and Fir, and remote landscapes tattooed with the ink of flash-floods. I rode through the Great Divide Basin perpetually parched and more isolated from human contact than at any other point on the trip. Sleeping in the dry desert air is humbling, doing so after 80 miles in 90 degree heat is invigorating. By the time I reached Colorado I had found my strength but not my reason, and I considered laying down the bike indefinitely.
Havana is a step back in time to mid-century glory. Aged american cars roll far past their last days. A city slowly decays with the neglect of time. People infuse the air with a vibrant latin energy. At night, parts of the city feel like remnants of a war; buildings crumbling, streets dark and deserted, life dripping out of doorless hovels like a black and white film of another time. In the old quarter, day or night, the city breaths a caribbean charm, dances on your ears with latin rhumba, and presents itself like an advertisement for rum and cigars. Cuba’s tumultuous history was hard to grasp through the clouds of exhaust in the air or on one of its many beaches, but on a bike by day, and in someone’s home by night it slowly revealed its stark story.
The Yucatan Peninsula – in which I include Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize – was a flat and hot oasis of eclectic villages and cities, simple hotels, and some of the richest archeological history in the world. Editing out the chorus of Mayan sites to a unique blend of four was a practice at appreciation without over-exposure. Tulum lay two mellow days (including a flat front tire that sprawled me across the roadway) away from Cancun, and was a picturesque sea-side tourist resort, complete with lifeguards and a beach. Chichen Itza was a few scorching days west, and contrary to its newly acquired wonder-of-the-world status, was overwhelmingly fake. It felt manicured and polished in the best Disney aesthetic, making it a struggle to uncover and appreciate its importance. However, down the road and into the foothills of Mexico was Palenque; resplendent as its buildings climbed up and down hillsides and carved out pieces of jungle. It was at once grand and overwhelming and remote and secluded, revealing the best of Mayan planning and a landscape’s interaction with a city. Visiting the Mayan ruins of the Yucatan cycled my life interests of architecture and design into the folds of my trip.
Looking out at the Pacific Ocean, I reflect on the 8,500 miles that got me here. They did not unfold the way I imagined, which is exactly how I imagined the adventure would be. There were great vistas, beautiful sunsets, stunning beaches, and towering mountains, but I have recently felt that these landscapes are losing their luster and I am losing my passion to cycle on. Riding the emotional swells of the trip is becoming commonplace. This time, however, I watch as the waves are breaking through my motivational clutter and I realize that the trip has fulfilled me. Instead of dreaming of my South American goal, I am looking on towards new adventures.