Max Stanley and Kanaan Bausler climbing up the mountains of Guatemala on an intense day.
Kanaan Bausler in the pine forest, resting, T-minus five minutes from when he started cramping up.
Story last updated at 5/17/2013 - 8:34 pm
I've recently acquired nicknames such as "Tortuga" (Spanish for tortoise) and "Abuelo" (Spanish for grandfather). My younger cycling companions have given me these names, either because of my patient and careful demeanor, or due to my whacked-out perception of time and duration. I generally prefer the former.
It's true; I do enjoy the slow and steady lifestyle. I feel that I'm able to maximize my appreciation for all of the details of each day if I take it easy and let distractions steal my attention. I suppose that if I take twice as long to do something it probably means that I'll be better prepared to adapt fluidly when a change comes.
It's funny because this approach seems so different from the way I lived when I was younger. Absorbed in the action-sport athlete, punk-rebel image; I was a pretty reckless kid. It proved to be a pretty hazardous way of life, as I ended up spending a lot of time healing injuries and making apologies. I don't know when the transition occurred from my high school title of "Most Accident Prone" in the yearbook to my current role of the cautious caretaker, but these days I generally try to avoid unnecessary risks. Perhaps it's a sort of rebellion against my former self.
Still it's inevitable that many people will see what I'm doing now, bicycling the Pacific Coast, as a highly risky activity. I understand the perception; we are almost constantly in the unknown, interacting with cultures and people that we can't predict. We have to trust that every driver who passes us is paying attention and doesn't want to knock off some random gringos on bicycles. And we are often exposed to conditions that would be considered unsanitary or unsafe in the United States.
But I would definitely not consider this trip extreme. We move slow, eat well, and sleep secure. Other than the tropical heat that we are slowly adapting to, it is very rare that we experience the sensation of discomfort. If we aren't feeling satisfied, we change our situation so that we are. When the goal is easy living, one day at a time, there's no reason to push ourselves past the path of least resistance.
However, for a few days in Guatemala I couldn't help but wonder if all those people calling us "loco" might not have a good point. Our first days in the country were unavoidably intense. After crossing a border that was swarming with thieves and tricksters, we were immediately greeted by ridiculously steep hills.
It soon became evident that the Guatemala Department of Transportation has a much higher maximum incline grade than any other place we'd been. Whenever we arrived at the bottom of any uphill section, we automatically knew that we would be pedaling the next bit in our lowest gears. With the elevation came fresh new mountain environments, which we slowly passed through leaving only a stinky trail of sweat behind.
Our second day in Guatemala was easily the hardest work of the whole trip. Starting at San Rafael Pie de la Cuesta or "Foot of the Hill" (already 1,000 meters in elevation) our mission was to get to San Marcos at 2,400 meters. When rising 1,400 meters over 22 kilometers, there's no easy way out. It was essentially four hours of sustained steep climbing. We hydrated, nutrified, and took many breaks, but there was no way to avoid pushing our bodies past their comfort zones.
My technique for confronting this challenge was to give lots of attention to my breathing and to limit my exposure to the direct sunlight. Weaving slowly up the curves, I harvested shade pockets on either side of the road, utilizing the zigzag method taught to me by my father so many years ago. It brought back memories of the dusty dirt road that leads up to my house in Douglas. Funny to think that all those days on the paper route were just training for this.
Working our way up into the mountains was exhausting. And I absolutely loved it. It felt so good to enter that familiar mindset that had been hiding in the back of my memory box. With muscles and bones operating at near full capacity, I was able to achieve a clarity of mind promoted by endorphins and adrenaline and all those great chemicals of the nervous system. I was thoroughly enjoying my forced discomforts.
After hours of hard work, I found a beautiful second lunch spot. It was only about 20 minutes from the summit of the road, but at the time I didn't know we were so close. It could have been halfway for all I knew. I tucked into the shade of a pine forest; generally a rarity in the tropics but then again we had been sticking to the coast throughout Mexico. The familiar-looking hearty evergreen trees served as yet another reminder that we were gaining some serious elevation.
Looking down at the layers of ridges and valleys disappearing into the hazy atmosphere below, images of Switzerland came to mind. The Guatemalan cows must be of the same variety as those in the Alps, confusing themselves for mountain goats as they cling to awkward pastures hanging above cliffs. And here again in the humans I could see a culture of mountain people, developing unique pieces of earth to support their lives and continue their existence.
I sat down on a soft bed of needles, supported by a flat rock with a tree trunk backrest, and dove happily into my mangos and carrots. In the state that it was in, my body was craving good nutrition, especially of the orange and sweet kind. The breeze riding up the valley chilled my sweaty skin and raised goose bumps. For the first time in months, I was actually getting cold!
But the celebration of refrigeration was short lived. I looked down to see my quad muscle flexing delinquently and suddenly my calf and thigh seized in pain, cramping up with confusion. Dancing around on crippled legs, I slowly worked the muscles into ease by walking carefully forwards, backwards, and sideways.
I realized that I had to get moving; the chilly air was endangering my condition and I really wanted to make it to the top without having to hitchhike. Resorting to the aid of a vehicle was an option, but it was far from ideal and would have sucked the stoke out of a radical day.
I hopped on the saddle and started pedaling, but after about 30 seconds the cramps came back. I pulled off to massage my legs, do some dynamic stretching and calisthenics. After a while the contortions seemed to diminish. Resolving to give it one last try, I was confident that I had cured my condition for a moment. But then I felt another twitch. Turning disappointment into will power, I decided to just try riding it out until I couldn't go any longer.
But then I rounded a corner to see, as if being sent on a miracle, a red truck with two elder Guatemalan women sitting in the back. We had seen the same vehicle at the beginning of the day, broken down on the side of the road. Here again they were in the same position, it seemed that these two old ladies and their husbands up front were making about the same progress that we were.
I pushed slowly past them with a "buenas tardes... otra vez." We exchanged smiles and then I noticed a full bunch of bananas in the bed of the truck between the two ladies. Hearing my legs cry for potassium, I pulled over to ask if I might be able to purchase a few. At first they pointed me in the direction of the nearest roadside store, but as I turned toward the hill they called me back. The old man who was under the hood must have recognized my nearly desperate state, as he handed me four big bananas and denied my attempts at payment. Communicating my thanks, I grasped their loving hands in gratitude. One of the old ladies, with deep dark eyes and gold stars imprinted on her two front dentures, pulled my hand in and squeezed my forearm. The old man groped my bicep curiously, and they both delivered loving admiration with words that I didn't comprehend. I gulped down three of the bananas and did my best to return the good vibrations.
I can't say whether those beautiful yellow fruits went straight to my legs or if it was the positive energy from the elders, but my muscles instantly felt good again. Pumped up by love and potassium, I arrived at the top 20 minutes later feeling fully content.
Just when I was starting to reconsider my status as an "extreme athlete," biking-the-Americas-against-all-odds, an experience like this put me right back in my place. I'm not as tough as I thought I was becoming, I can't even keep up with the kids. Just as I was about to consider training for the Tour de France, I had to get saved by abuelos. What would I have done without the busted support vehicle of 70-year-old superheroes?
Yet the experience reminded me of the value of pushing my body into uncomfortable conditions. I'd still hesitate to put bicycle touring in the same category as skateboarding or rock climbing, the inherent risks are of a different nature and the physical talent is much less precise. But on some level it's the same process of stepping out of your comfort zone and thriving in extreme conditions. Biking up the mountains of Guatemala reminded me that I am one of those types of people that need an uncomfortable challenge every now and then. I can't deny that my wellbeing depends upon the benefits of risk-taking and adventurous pursuits.
There is a controversial issue in the snow sports community right now regarding the regulation of helicopter skiing in Alaska. In March The New York Times published an article called "Extreme Grief" which cited the recent deaths of two personal friends of mine, Christian Cabanilla and Rob Liberman, as support for accusations that the snow sports industry is recklessly out of control in the lifestyles that it is producing and the tragedies left in its wake. Filled with happy memories of recreating in beautiful places with Christian and Rob, the article provoked some striking questions that made me wonder; "Why do we do this to ourselves?" I was pleased to gain some deeper insight when Steve Casimiro, editor of the Adventure Journal, wrote a response to The New York Times publication called, "In Defense of Taking Risks."
Casimiro says that The New York Times article is itself a dangerous piece of journalism because it uses "reactionary, emotional responses" to suggest an oversimplified solution to a complex problem. The exposure to risks involved in adventure sports take an incredible amount of personal attention by the practitioner, and the conditions to which one is adapting are never the same. Casimiro says that we need to constantly be learning from mistakes and improving our methods of risk management, "but to tighten pursuits that are by their very nature liberating," he writes, "well, that needs its energies redirected elsewhere."
For myself, I recognize that there is a great deal of personal responsibility involved when engaging in activities that involve obvious elements of risk. But the possibility of danger can't be the sole reason for restricting the boundaries of my comfort zone. Pushing the body to uncertain conditions gives life flavor and depth. Of course, my top priority is always to stay alive, healthy and safe. But with this understood, I can't forget the value of occasionally dipping into the extremes.
Kanaan Bausler is from Juneau. He and local friends are taking a kayak/bicycle trip from Juneau to Argentina. For more on their progress, visit www.atripsouth.com.