Cycling the length of the Americas: From Alaska to Argentina

At 3300 metres on Marshall Pass, Colorado. One of the highest passes of the Great Divide, Rocky Mountains, USA.
Mark Watson, Highlux Photo

At 3300 metres on Marshall Pass, Colorado. One of the highest passes of the Great Divide, Rocky Mountains, USA.

One last mountain pass stood between Mark Watson and Hana Black and Wyoming when two hunters pulled up on the icy road beside them, looked them up and down, and told them there was no way they'd get any further.

A few months into their "bikepacking" journey from Alaska to Argentina, the Kiwi couple were cycling down the Great Divide – the mountain range that forms the backbone of North America, running from the Rocky Mountains in Canada into the US states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.

Idaho was shivering through the first snowstorm of the season and most accommodation providers and restaurant owners had gone into hibernation.

"For us, a feeling of doors closing firmly behind us prevailed as we made our way south," Mark, a photographer from Lyttleton, said.

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Early morning at Peyto Lake, Icefields Parkway, Alberta, Canada.
Mark Watson, Highlux Photo

Early morning at Peyto Lake, Icefields Parkway, Alberta, Canada.

Still, they were grateful to have the winter wonderland to themselves, and were commenting on how pretty the trees looked with their fresh dustings of snow when the rugged-looking elk hunters said, "no use carrying on with those – you won't get through".

The men told them there was two feet of snow on the pass and that their hunting vehicle had only got through with the help of chains. While one eventually conceded that they may be able to get through on foot, but not in their bike shoes, the other was adamant there was no hope in hell.

But even the suggestion that it might be possible was enough for the couple who, having previously ridden from China to Indonesia, were confident handling extreme situations. 

The snow on the track grew deeper the higher they climbed and, when it began to fall again, there was almost a complete whiteout as earth and sky merged into a single, swirling, disorienting mass. 

Following the hunters' tracks was their saving grace and Mark admits that, without them, they would have had to turn back.

"Most of the time we could ride, albeit with feet slapping through the snow either side of the rut and frozen pedals," he said. "When traction wasn't sufficient as the grade kicked up, we got off and pushed."

Alongside the Alaska Oil Pipeline, as we near the Brooks Range, Dalton Highway, Alaska.
Mark Watson, Highlux Photo

Alongside the Alaska Oil Pipeline, as we near the Brooks Range, Dalton Highway, Alaska.

By the time they reached the summit, the snow was up to three feet deep and they found themselves skidding down a slide of hard-packed snow and ice, crashing, getting up again and crashing some more. An elderly marten trapper told them they were "completely mad" as he passed in his truck before returning 30 minutes later to come to their rescue, saying he simply "had to get [them] out of there".

The pair politely explained they'd made it that far from Alaska and weren't about to give up now, and thought they were on their way again when the two elk hunters rematerialised.

Incredulous that they'd made it across the pass, the hunters rewarded them with four cans of local brew, Pabst Blue Ribbon, which Mark said reminded him of that old photographic adage "The best camera in the world is the one you have with you".

"This concept also works for beer and we made short work of one to wash down a late lunch," Mark said.

He and Hana set out on their mission to cycle the length of the Americas, a distance of more than 30,000 kilometres, in June 2016, opting to take back-country roads that would lead them through some of the continent's most dramatic, remote and unforgiving terrain. 

An autumn snowstorm nearly shut us down crossing high country from Idaho into Wyoming, Great Divide Route, USA.
Mark Watson, Highlux Photo

An autumn snowstorm nearly shut us down crossing high country from Idaho into Wyoming, Great Divide Route, USA.

Their journey began in the Alaskan town of Deadhorse, the northernmost part of North America accessible by road which, to many, is as dismal as the name suggests. 

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Built to extract the oil from beneath its frozen tundra, the community has a population of about 50 and sees few, if any, tourists.

In summer, the sun casts its weak light on the barren flatlands that seem to melt into the grey horizon 24 hours a day, inspiring tedium in some and rumination or a profound sense of peace in others. 

While many were surprised they'd chosen to stay in Deadhorse for one night, let alone two, they found beauty in the bleakness, revelling taking photos of the oil rigs that loomed on the horizon, ugly testaments to human habitation in an otherwise untouched landscape.

"It's an experience of isolation that puts you into perspective in terms of the size of the planet. It's very humbling," Mark said.

The flatlands eventually gave away to the Brooks Range, the highest mountain peaks within the Arctic Circle, home to caribou, musk oxen, wolves, wolverines and polar bears.

Hana with the Arctic-proof tent on their first night on the road in Alaska.
Mark Watson, Highlux Photo

Hana with the Arctic-proof tent on their first night on the road in Alaska.

At the end of their first day on the road, they got permission to pitch their Arctic-proof tent at a campsite for contractors working nearby. Camp manager Thom and his wife Macie were dream hosts, offering them showers, water and all the food the carnivorous contractors wouldn't touch.

Seasoned hikers and climbers as well as cyclists, Mark and Hana are a bit like Kiwi Bear Gryllses: born adventurers eager to immerse themselves in alien environments they believe will push them to their limits. 

But it was the nine-month, 13,000 kilometre bike ride from South West China though South East Asia to the Indonesian island of Sumatra that convinced them they had the stamina for a true odyssey. 

"We just wanted to keep riding," Mark said.

Meeting two cyclists in Mexico's Copper Canyon who'd ridden there from Alaska, sowed the seed for their American journey.

"Their gear was worn and weather-beaten but they seemed very at ease and in the moment. They looked like they had been through an epic [trip]. At that moment, my curiosity piqued: what would it be like to be in such an immersive journey for myself?"

Autumn colours and a fun singletrack on the Great Divide route, Montana, USA.
Mark Watson, Highlux Photo

Autumn colours and a fun singletrack on the Great Divide route, Montana, USA.

Returning to New Zealand in 2011 after nearly three years of travel, they spent four years working – he as a photographer and she as an outdoor clothing designer – and musing over how they would make their dream of cycling the length of the "pure, uninterrupted" American continent come true. In 2015, they started making serious plans, selling their house and reinvesting the proceeds in other properties, quitting their jobs and researching bikes and equipment.

For Mark, nothing matches the thrill that comes from seeing the world by bike, watching entirely new landscapes slowly unfold around him.

"On a bike you are very attuned to, and cognisant of, your surroundings – the temperature, the smells, the sights and sounds. In developing countries transport is often slow: bicycles, donkeys, scooters. So you are moving at a similar pace to the world around you."

Cycling among cardon cacti, the biggest cactus on Earth, in Baja Peninsula, Mexico.
Mark Watson, Highlux Photo

Cycling among cardon cacti, the biggest cactus on Earth, in Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

They were enthralled by the dramatic changes in the landscape, deriving a powerful sense of pleasure and pride from carving their own path through the Arctic Circle, mountains, forests, deserts and long stretches of coastline.

Now in Mexico, Mark said the Dalton Highway that marked the start of their journey, the Great Divide and Mexico's Baja Peninsular have been highlights. But they've derived perhaps the greatest satisfaction from making it through the thickly forested and suffocatingly humid mountains of Guerrero, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Chiapas, passing through isolated pueblos where, as the sole tourists, they are treated either as instant celebrities or potential druggies. 

The trip has reinforced Mark's view that all humans are essentially good at heart: They've been amazed by how many people have welcomed them into their homes, or let them pitch their tents in their gardens when there are no campsites for miles around. 

Camped in very windy conditions in the Great Divide Basin, Wyoming.
Mark Watson, Highlux Photo

Camped in very windy conditions in the Great Divide Basin, Wyoming.

Navigating uncharted territory for cyclists has been their biggest challenge but Google Maps, backed up by some sage local advice, has always set them straight – eventually.  

The Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, the remotest part of Mexico they've encountered so far, has proved one of the most difficult places to traverse as pueblos are typically linked by foot or mule trails through thick jungle. 

After passing through San Miguel Quetzaltepec, where the drug warnings posted about the town and furtive glances from locals made them think they might be in cartel territory, they found themselves on a jungle trail that seemed impassable by bike. A couple with a rifle and machete who suddenly appeared behind them confirmed as much but pointed them back to Quetzaltepec, where they said they could pick up another route south. Google Maps showed no trace of the route but, finding it on a government state map, they decided to follow it.

Cactus tree, Mexican altiplano, Zacatecas.
Mark Watson, Highlux Photo

Cactus tree, Mexican altiplano, Zacatecas.

Winding through canyon country, they passed a group of policemen doing their laundry at a waterfall, submachine guns still slung over their shoulders, before finally making it to Chimaltapec, where the first villager they met found them a place to crash for the night.

That place turned out to to be a rooftop where an expressionless man picked kernels from corn cobs to be ground to make tortillas as another man – rake thin and wearing only one sandal – drunkenly attempted to sweep the husks away. Dossing on a single mattress, they were regularly awakened by invisible strangers coming in to get clothes or bedding and the raging thunderstorm hammering rain on to the tin roof. Finally falling asleep, they were awoken at dawn by the sound of beating drums followed by a fusillade of trumpets and singing. They ate, packed and left shortly after sunrise, more eager than usual to get back in the saddle.  

On their final night in the Sierras, they rolled into the pueblo of San Isidro Platanillo just in time to see a group of villagers vigorously hack up a cow with an axe. Asking them about lodging, they were directed to Roberto, who lived three houses away. Roberto welcomed them into the home he shared with his wife Elisabetta and the quartet enjoyed tortillas and eggs as they discussed everything under the setting sun in somewhat broken Spanish. Mark and Hana slept in an old camp bed upstairs among corn and coffee sacks, amazed, as usual, at how the day had panned out. 

In the jungle of the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, Mexico. The first really humid conditions of the journey.
Mark Watson, Highlux Photo

In the jungle of the Sierra Madre de Oaxaca, Mexico. The first really humid conditions of the journey.

Mark is a firm believer that pushing yourself outside your comfort zone is the best way to learn about yourself and acquire the knowledge and skills that will lead to still greater adventures. 

Strong survival skills, self-reliance and a willingness to embrace the unknown are among the traits he believes any would-be bikepacker requires, along with a relaxed attitude towards personal hygiene. 

"A lot of the time we're caked in dirt and sweat, and feel pretty feral, but it's all part of the fun. We love the way each day can be an adventure in itself. You never know quite what the road or terrain will be like, who you might meet or what might happen."

 - Stuff

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