September 10, 2015 | by Jedidiah Jenkins
Bicycling from Oregon to Patagonia.
I was fourteen months into my bicycle trip to the bottom of the world. I’d started in Oregon, traveled through Mexico and Central America, through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and was now, in October of 2014, in Argentina. Mostly I went by bicycle. I won’t bullshit you, though: Sometimes a tire would blow and I’d hitchhike with poor farmers in fifty-year-old trucks held together by twine. Other times I’d hop a local bus to pass through an urban center like Mexico City, where the only available roads were freeways. I just want you to picture it correctly.
It was a filthy, patchwork travel plan, biking the back roads of the world, slowly making my way south. Often I’d sleep in thickets by the road; I’d push my bicycle through vines and disappear into jungle pockets and hide for the night. Some nights I’d ask a local shepherd if she minded a tent in her field; she’d nod and shuffle away with a shrug, as if I’d wasted her time by asking. I slept under bridges, in hammocks, and, once I reached the Andes, in tents. I slept in hostels when I could find them. I slept in the houses of people I met on the street, people I met on Instagram, friends of friends from back home.
But when I crossed into Argentina, finding a place to sleep suddenly wasn’t as easy—and neither was the riding. Two friends had joined me from Mendoza to Bariloche, a roughly thousand-mile stretch, and the terrain we encountered was mostly treeless desert. The winds blew so strong they often brought our bicycles to a halt. The small towns that crouched in the fields were wind-beaten and raw—and very far apart. Every ten or twenty miles, a tree would stand solitary by the road, and we’d stop in the shade to drink water, eat an orange, complain about the wind. The goal was sixty miles a day. This was doable on flat roads when there wasn’t much of a headwind, but it was hard in the hills and impossible in the mountains, when we were gaining elevation.
We left Malargüe early one morning and knew we’d be camping in the wild that night; the next town was too far to reach. We loaded up on water and cookies and fruit and salami and crackers. I bought a few boxes of the cheapest wine. Malargüe was walled in by poplar trees, which grew tall and thin, in a straight line like feathers stuck in the ground. They shield the town from wind, or so I was told. We passed through the poplars, reentered the treeless plains, and soon began a descent that lasted thirty miles. This was the longest continuous downhill of my entire trip—and it was an absolute delight. The slope was just right to allow for the perfect speed, one that lets you comfortably ride while sitting straight up, with no hands, threading your fingers through the air like water snakes. In moments like these, I couldn’t help but sing.
But then the hill ended, and so did the pavement. Ahead of us was a stretch of soft gravel; the state was repaving the only road through the area. We rode for as long as we could—hardly making any progress at all—until the sun started pulling the Andes up over itself, turning the sky purple. This was a reliable sign that we had about an hour to find a spot to camp, to set up our tents and settle in.
I’d become a camp-spotting expert over the past year. Bridges were ideal in the open desert. Thickets of trees were, too—when you could find them. The idea was to be invisible: no one should see you leave the road; no one should see you from a distance. Only light a fire in the most remote places. Use dry wood for minimal smoke. I almost always slept on private property, and I didn’t want to rouse any suspicions.
This particular night we found ourselves in a valley without trees, only shoulder-high bushes. In place of leaves were thorns as long as your pinky. It was an entire river valley of Jesus crowns. Any fallen thorn could puncture a tire, a lesson I’d learned in the deserts of Mexico and Bolivia.
We rounded the last hill and saw no trees all the way to the southern horizon. Our late-afternoon light was fading. To our right was the eastern edge of the mountains; the thorns in that direction were thick enough to preclude our passing through them. To our left was the river valley, perhaps two miles across. Halfway to the river, the thorn bushes seemed their highest, and a cross-stitch of cow paths offered up a trail. In the center of the valley, another two miles down, was a row of poplar trees; in all likelihood there was a house there. A farmer. The only house for fifty miles.
Not wanting to be seen, we dipped off the road into the soft dirt of the desert. Winding through the labyrinth of thorns was difficult. Even the slightest brush would rip my shirt or bike shorts. The bushes were so tall that to anyone else only the tops of our heads would have been visible. We walked halfway to the river and found a clearing in the bushes that was big enough for our tents. We gingerly laid our bicycles down, careful to avoid any thorns that might puncture our bags.
Despite our exhaustion, we decided to make use of the dwindling light and walk down to the river. About thirty yards from the water, the thorn bushes cleared and short grass and snow-white tiny thorn shrubs lined the marshy ground. From here we could see the house clearly in the distance. We saw no movement. Cows were all around us. The river was cold and flowing. We breathed the clear air mixed with the smell of cow patties. We talked about the day and the legendary downhill stretch. We reveled in the low light and headed back to the thorns, back to our camp.
Just as we approached the edge of the thicket, we saw a rising plume of dust coming from the house. We squinted toward it—and made out six men on horseback racing toward us. The horses were running so fast the dust was funneling behind them like a tornado. In unison, as if in a choir, we all said, “Holy shit,” and ducked into the thorns.
“Maybe they didn’t see us,” I said optimistically. “Maybe it’s their routine for herding the cattle at sunset”—as if that were a thing. We raced through the maze back to our tents, which now felt much more exposed and visible than before.
We crawled in and sat, completely quiet. We could hear the hooves. We could hear barking—a lot of barking. There must have been twenty dogs running with the horses to smell us out, to track us. We could hear distant men shouting commands at one another. I knew they had seen us and were going to find us.
And then it hit me: we should never have gone for a walk. We’d been seen. I broke the first rule. At best, we’d be booted from our campsite and left with nowhere to sleep. At worst—
That’s when my thoughts turned to Harry Devert.
I first heard about him several months earlier, near the southern border of Mexico. “#PrayForHarry,” someone had commented on one of my Instagram posts. I clicked through the hashtag and started piecing it all together.
Harry Devert was thirty-two years old (just a year older than me), a former stock trader who’d given up his job to travel the world. He was posting photos from his motorcycle journey on Instagram. His last post was on January 25th, in Morelia, the capitol city of the Mexican state of Michoacán; it was a photo of a cathedral—one I had marveled at just a few months earlier. I Googled his name and found a news story: Harry had been missing for a week. His mother was terrified.
I checked his Instagram every day for months, hoping he’d surface from a remote ayahuasca ceremony or some digital-detox retreat. I added his name to my Google alerts. I saw from his writings that he was headed to Zihuatanejo, the beach from the final scene in Shawshank Redemption. He, like me, had always wanted to go there.
Months passed without any real leads. Then, in July, while I was passing through southern Bolivia, my Google alerts went off. Six months after Harry’s disappearance, an anonymous caller directed authorities to a body found on a dirt path just south of Michoacán—a path that leads to a beach near Zihuatanejo. A week later, DNA tests confirmed that the remains belonged to Harry. His body had been dismembered, the pieces placed in several plastic bags. The VIN number on the motorcycle found near his remains matched that of his green Kawasaki. Alongside the motorcycle and body, small bags of marijuana and cocaine had been discarded.
The dogs found us first. They rounded the last few bushes and surrounded our tent, screaming into the dusk.
The sound of hooves came next; the horses were slowing to a trot. We peered out and saw a massive brown stallion with blond hair and a blond tail, dust matted to its sweating skin. On its back was a dark-skinned man—deep wrinkles, a cowboy hat. He towered above us. In his arms was something bright, something ... pink.
He was holding his little girl. She was small, probably three or four years old, and was wearing a jumpsuit as bright as an Easter Peep. She looked so out of place that I almost couldn’t comprehend the sight of her.
The father said something I couldn’t understand and the dogs got quiet. The three of us stared out from the mesh of the tent. The daughter said something in her high, sweet voice. The father said something to her in reply. Then he turned to us and said, in Spanish, “It’s very cold here at night. I think you should come sleep in our house. Or camp in our barn. You’ll be more comfortable.”
I looked at him in silence for what felt like a very long time. My heart was pumping so hard I could hear the blood in my ears.
“Thank you, we are good,” I said in my broken Spanish. “Are we on your land? We are sorry. We are riding bicycles to Patagonia. We are good at camping outside. We are okay. We are sorry.”
He didn’t smile or show any emotion. “Okay. If you get cold, come to the house at any time. It’s okay—you’re welcome.” He turned his horse and called the dogs. The little girl in pink held up her hand and waved good-bye.
When I talk about my trip, people want to know—more than anything else—if I felt safe. And my answer is yes; for the vast majority of the trip, I felt incredibly safe—as safe as I feel on the Santa Monica Pier. But I struggle to make sense of my own safety, especially when I think of Harry.
Harry and I had a similar mission: to convince our friends and families and followers that the world isn’t half as scary as they think. By the time I finished my trip, in late December of 2014, I’d been on the road for sixteen months and had covered ten thousand miles—and I had felt safe the entire time. Even the strung-out cocaine pushers in Cartagena, Colombia, responded with a smile when I declined their offers. My theory, before I began, was that human beings are innately good and, more often than not, would help me if and when I needed help. For me, that theory held up.
But now and then, I think of Harry, and of the fear I felt when the men approached me on horseback, and of the fear Harry must have felt when he was run down on his motorcycle. I think of how my journey ended in a kind of communion with the world and left me only more confident in the kindness of strangers—and how Harry’s faith in humanity, in those final seconds of his life, must have floated away with his soul.
Jedidiah Jenkins (@jedidiahjenkins) lives in Los Angeles and is at work on a book (his first) about his trip from Oregon to Patagonia. His parents, who embarked on a five-year walking trip across the United States in the 1970s, are the authors of A Walk Across America and The Walk West.