Santa Cruz, Bolivia 7 Nov 06
Odometer 33,807 m 54,407 km

Getting nearly shoved off a cliff by a wayward truck was the first of several obstacles encountered along the scenic route to Vallegrande and on to Santa Cruz. I was riding once again with Allan Karl, the friend who had crashed in Tica Tica back in January. He had taken eight months off in California to heal his broken leg before flying back to Bolivia to rejoin me. It was a gutsy return, but one that quickly reminded us of how unforgiving Bolivia’s backcountry can be.

Not long after leaving the asphalt in the city of Sucre, we hit the dirt. Recent rains had left many low spots awash in running water; sound familiar? We stopped at a roadside pop vender for a cool drink and a pep talk. Allan was understandably nervous. As he sat alone at the table contemplating the wisdom of his return, I wandered off to give him some space and chat up the locals.

Word was, the road ahead was going to be bumpy and very muddy. I then began to worry too. Not for myself, but for my compadre. No one wanted a repeat of what happened in Tica Tica.
We met the first badly rutted and washed out section of road within a half mile of our break. After parking the bikes in the middle of the road, there was no traffic, we scouted the route on foot. Our bikes are heavy. Ruts of this nature are no problem for off-road machines when you can stand up on your pegs and dance from one bump or hole to another, but when fully laden with gear, a big bike's behavior can be slothful and erratic.

I chose a line and slowly piloted El Viento to the other side without incident, dismounted, and returned to help my friend across. He didn’t want to do it. So high was his anxiety he asked me if I’d ride his bike across for him. I had already guessed that this question was coming, so I was prepared with a measured response.

“Allan, I came here to ride my bike across Bolivia, a significant challenge in itself. I did not come here prepared to ride
two bikes across Bolivia, whenever the going gets tough. You can do this. You just have to buck up, forget the past, and get the job done.”

Before I could finish my spiel, a number of recently released school kids came walking down the rural road on their way home. Out of curiosity they stopped to see what was going on. I asked if they would help me run along side my friend’s bike, helping him stay upright through the gnarly stretch, so he could safely get to the other side where El Viento patiently waited. They agreed to help.

Allan hesitated, then jumped on his bike and without our assistance slowly motored across the divide. I hoped this would prove a confidence-builder and that the rest of our ride would go smoothly.

It was getting dark and we still had a long way to go. Our maps were less than accurate and failed to indicate the multiple water crossings we began to encounter. The initial crossing was perhaps the longest, wettest and muddiest. I went first, choosing a rockier line that kept me out of the meat of the mud. The rocks were wet, slippery and much too sharp to fall on, so I didn't.

Next, it was Allan’s turn. He decided to take a relatively shallow line through the water, but was unable to keep from sliding into the deepest part of the rut, which quickly turned into a muddy sump. In an instant his bike did a complete 180-degree flip and he was down. One aluminum pannier got ripped off its frame in the ensuing crash, but fortunately, he was physically unharmed.

I strapped Allan’s damaged metal box onto the back of my bike and helped him extract his machine from the mud. Darkness was imminent; we had to keep moving.

Soon we passed through a tiny village. Though both of our bikes are equipped with auxiliary lighting, off-road riding at night can be tough. Just past the village, another water crossing loomed.

By now, Allan was at wit’s end. “What are we going to do,” he cried out?

“I’ll ride down and check it out. If it’s not too bad we’ll forge ahead. Wait here until I get back.”

El Viento’s lights illuminated plenty of reflective water amongst the rocks, but I couldn’t tell if it was moving or just a massive collection of puddles. Either way, it was a long way across and choosing a line in such terrain, especially in my partner's state of mind, would clearly be a mistake. I decided to turn around.

Allan was relieved when I returned to suggest that we look for basic accommodations back in the village, and when we found none, that we ride out of town a bit to camp. Finding flat ground in this part of Bolivia is not easy, and with most rural houses lacking electricity (and light), it’s not easy to know when you’re in someone’s back-forty.

I had spotted a small side road on our way to the village just before it got dark. I led us back there and started up the hill before finding a nice spot to camp under some large trees. For all of our travails, it was a beautiful, half-moon night under the stars and we were ready for some well-earned rest.

Almost immediately after killing our engines and doffing our jackets to look for tent sites, we heard voices in the darkness. They were at some distance, but clearly their dogs were closing the gap. I slowly proceeded to re-don my protective riding apparel, and suggested to Allan that he do the same. If those dogs chose to do battle, we were blind in the darkness and would need every stitch of protection we could wear.

The voices crept closer until I decided to mount a preemptive strike. Into the night I cheerily called out, “
buenos noches (good evening)," to signal our benign intent.

After a long pause, there came a muffled reply:
“buenos noches.” Whoever it was called off their dogs and slipped into the ink.

We pitched camp, scrounged up some snacks, recorded our thoughts for the day and fell fast asleep.

In the morning we had a visitor. A dog quietly sniffed around our tents until I peeked out. Standing there was a young Bolivian
campesino, machete in hand, heading off to work in the fields. I guessed he was one of our visitors from the night before. We had a nice morning chat during which, surprisingly, he asked about the war in Iraq.
Early morning visitors in the Bolivian countryside.
Not a lot of room on that bridge. We await our side's turn to cross the Rio Grande.
Our spirits renewed with the sunrise, we tackled the first water crossing with ease. What had looked so menacing by night was by day just a long, twisty section of rocks, puddles and mud. In other words, nothing we hadn’t seen before. We successfully pushed on to Vallegrande and a couple days later, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia’s largest city.

A Bolivian friend we had met in Sucre had recommended that we make it a point to visit
Las Misiones, northeast of Santa Cruz. These are a number of ornate, colonial-period Jesuit Missions built in what was then the frontier, and designated World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 1998. The route out of town included crossing a particularly hair-raising train bridge that stretches over one kilometer across the Rio Grande.

When not transited by trains, the locals use the bridge to drive across the river. Without any traffic control, they share the one-lane bridge by straddling the single set of train tracks and driving from one side of the river to the other, then vice versa, in half-hour windows. The wooden decking of the bridge is poorly maintained and showing its age. Though it’s adequate for trains, cars and trucks, it can be rough on a motorcycle as there are many gaps in the rotted wood and abundant large, protruding bolts.

Allan and I jumped on the bridge first, with a long line of trucks and cars right behind us, when it was our side’s turn to go. Allan asked me whether we should go down the middle, between the train tracks, or to the left or right. I said I didn't think it much mattered. He chose the way and I followed. Unfortunately, that didn’t end well.

When we got to the opposite side, after having been blown sideways from a fierce down-valley wind kicking up all sorts of river dust, dodging holes in the decking and exposed bolts, we still had to get up and over the train tracks. Both ends of the bridge’s tracks are filled in with dirt and gravel to ease the transition on and off, but when Allan tried to make the jump--he crashed to the ground in a swirling cloud of dust right before my eyes!
Train tracks, rotted decking and exposed bolts make for hazardous motorcycling atop the bridge over the Rio Grande.
I pulled ahead and helped some locals raise Allan's still running bike, so traffic could resume. He was up, but limping badly, cussing, and ready to throw in the towel.

As the line of vehicles behind us passed on, we knew we had to immediately return to Santa Cruz. The vital clutch lever had snapped off in the accident and though we carried spares, Allan was much too shaken to continue our ride toward the misiones. Fortunately, some local motorcyclists happened along and one of them volunteered to ride his bike back to Santa Cruz with me, as Allan followed along with the motorcyclist's buddies in their car.

After another trip to the hospital for x-rays, I gently suggested to Allan that he spend a week or so soul searching while he allowed his body time to heal. Santa Cruz is a large city where I was sure he could find a physical therapist and a swimming pool to work out the kinks in his leg. I also suggested that he could avoid the treacherous Rio Grande Bridge and much of the off-road riding that plagued him by putting his bike on a truck to Cochabamba and from there on a train to Uyuni. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but one that might allow his trip to continue.

With nothing more for me to do, I wished him well and pushed on alone.
Inside the church at Jesuit Mision Concepcion.

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