What do we do when we fall off the bike? We get back on! And what do we do when we completely wipe out time and time again, mere feet from endless sheer cliffs, while biking down Bolivia’s Death Road? We question our sanity and keep going in order to save face so the 20 or so other people ahead of you don’t think you’re a wimp.
My day out on El Camino de la Muerte, as the locals call it, was by and large the single most challenging day of my life. Try as I consistently may, I’ve never been much of an athlete; even walking can be tough (re: I’m a massive klutz, and have taken more trips to the floor than to any country), so of course cycling 64k from a starting altitude of 4600 meters was not going to be easy. To be honest, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, only that it was the thing to do if you were looking for an off the beaten path adventure while visiting La Paz, and that I was. Ah, that blissful ignorance; gets me every time!
The day started out bright and early, sun shining, the thin air crisp and inviting. It had snowed the night before in the mountains, causing a road block preventing us from reaching our starting point for a couple of hours, as well as leading to the purchase of overpriced Pringles and Twix bars at the roadside bodegas set up near where we patiently waited. When we finally got through, we drove down curving roads, utterly in awe of the scenery as we weaved through the powdered Andes to our Point A.
Having already changed into our provided gear for the day, we jumped out of the vans and tested out the bikes that were to safely get us to Point B, many moons away in the sub-tropical jungle town of Coroico. Mine was the smallest one they had available, and although it still felt slightly too big for me, I had been riding bikes and taking names for years at that point, and didn’t think it would be a problem in the least. During the first part of the journey, that assumption was correct; we rode with the wind, mostly downhill, faster than I’ve ever cycled before. The mountains beckoned us on, and I had never felt as alive and exhilarated as I did in that moment, on top of the world on the open road.
When we arrived at the beginning of what’s famously known as the ‘World’s Most Dangerous Road,’ I was excited and confident in my abilities. Within seconds of setting out, though, my attitude quickly changed. What we had just previously cycled was smooth pavement; what we just began was rocky and uneven. The command over the bike which I had felt up until that point was gone, instead replaced with a desperate attempt to keep it straight as we bumped along. All confidence was gone, my head hurt from the rockiness of the road, and it became abundantly clear that this little cycle that could, which so faithfully served me just moments before, was entirely too big for me. Almost immediately I was eons behind the rest of the group, as per usual in my athletic endeavors. With my bike skidding every several yards because my weight couldn’t hold it down, I luckily was able to catch myself, feet planting firmly into the ground.
I wanted to give up. Like, really wanted to throw in the towel. I’d like to be able to say I kept going because I didn’t want to quit, but in all honesty, I was far more afraid of going down this insanely narrow, cliff-side road in the van that followed behind us, especially knowing how many hundreds of people have died going over the edge in a moving vehicle (plus, hello, Top Gear!). So I continued on, and after a while I even began to gain some of that old confidence back, picking up speed and adjusting to the discomfort. Then I had my first major crash. I say first, because there were four. Each time I lost control of the bike, and each time I wondered how in the hell I was still conscious/alive. Let me outline them for you:
1) Skidded ’round a curve, toppling heavily over and sliding on to my side. This was my intro into the dance of bicycle destruction.
2) Gaining speed, another skid, this time face planting into a ditch.
3) I honestly don’t remember the events leading up to this, but managed to fly over the handle bars with my legs in what was described as a perfect ‘V’ position, landing squarely, and harshly, on my bum.
4) In an attempt to avoid colliding with another rider, I again lost control, this time somehow getting my feet tangled and flipping over the side, landing this time on my back. Opened my eyes to find a gaggle of rural Bolivian farmer men crowding over me, making sure I was alright.
Included with these are far more slips and spills than I was able to count. I felt terrible holding up the group, and there were a few moments when even the van looked appealing. But something happened between having my face in the dirt, and my ass over my head; beyond proving to everyone else that I could make it to the end, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. I might’ve been the weakest link in the bunch, but I was far from weak. With the poor guide who got stuck rounding up the back of the group by my side (ok, he was actually a few minutes ahead of me – even he couldn’t move that slow, bless his heart), I got up after every fall, and kept going. People told me I was crazy for continuing on, and maybe I was; I actually think my body was in some form of shock at the time, because the agony of my constant tumbling didn’t surface until much later that night. There was a great deal of self-encouragement in the form of self-directed pep-talks and sing-a-longs for one (hey, I was out there alone, and you know we all do it), and even a near show down with a trio of emaciated, ravenous looking Doberman Pinschers, but I made it to the end, a full 30 minutes after everyone else, earning my “I survived the Death Road” t-shirt tenfold.
Although I later had many scrapes and bruises to show for it (and what was in all likelihood a minor concussion), there is not a thing I would change about this day, and suffice it to say, I am unbelievably lucky that I didn’t get more seriously injured given the severity of my many impacts. Not only did I learn so much about myself, and just how far I am able to push both my body and my mind, but because I crept and crawled my way to the bottom, I wound up on top. I experienced this infamous road on a much deeper level than I would’ve had I been able to properly ride my bike like everyone else, and I saw Mother Earth’s glorious nature in ways that this city girl never could have previously dreamed of. I laughed, I cried, I sang, I swore like a sailor, and cried and sang some more. I saw scenery so beautiful, it’ll bring you to your knees. I kissed the ground when I finally reached the end.
This memory, this adventure of mine, serves as a testament to the very essence of our human nature, of our capacity to get on with it and persevere through any obstacle. We are all survivors of our own stories, and we all have the ability to surprise even ourselves every now and again. There will always be times when we fall and don’t think we can possibly get back up, or even want to for that matter. But look at what splendor we can be rewarded with when we do! You may feel like you’re facing a mountain, but keep on going and you just might find yourself in paradise.