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2014 March-April issue

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STORY BY S MCKI LEY

PHOTOGRAPHY BY VAIN GAUJA.

J COURT RANO

MARCHIAPRIL 2014 /// ULTIMATE MOTORCYCLING 71

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ECUADOR FREEDOM BIKE RENTAL

ANO MDTORCYCLE TOURS ADVENTURE

ar above the tree line, though still short of where the sunlight begins, 1 cling to the side-cut slope of Guagua Pichincha, an active stratovolcano that soars 15,000 feet above the Ecuadorian capital of Quito. Although confident in my rudi­

mentary mountaineering skills, l'm not roped into a climbing harness today. l amona motorcycle-completely self-contained with the kit necessary to ride up cold snow-blown Andean peaks, traverse high desert plateaus, and survive the heat and humidity of the Amazon.

A loud ga p comes from my Husqvarna Terra, as even fue! injection is not enough to a pírate rhe 650c c engine in the oxy­ gen-depleted air near the top of the volcano . I decide to lean the bike against a basalt rock outcropping and continue the last 200 feet to the summit on foot.

I quick ly find that I have to pause every few steps to catch my breath as the altitude relegates both man and machine to che same fate. Kneeling down, the whirling clouds pan for a precious few seconds , providing an extraordinary glimpse of the expan­ sive cityscape in che valley below.

And so it happens , every few celestial cycles-a faint cal!, itchy feet, the burning need for priority realignment in life. Just three weeks prior, an older version of me was fully consumed by the proverb ial rat race , chained to the office by day and con­ stantly thumbing my sma rtphone at night. I was pursuing suc cess as out lined by the fraternal Amer ican yardstick I had adopted in business school, but I was light-years away from che vision I had of myself as a wondrous kid riding a minibike through che dry and dusty riverbeds ofSouchern California.

The difficulty of clearing two week from a busy schedule to mentally and physically unplug seemed insurmouncable and, a uming that could be done, how would cwo weeks be sufficient for the magnitude oflife adjustment I was in quest of?

Serendipity and providence often tend to work in ve ry pecu­ liar ways. o sooner than I am puc in touch with a man that claimed to have the cure I was seeking, do I find myself on a jet­ liner, descending through layers of altostratus clouds destined for the high-altitude landing at Q uito 's new Aeropuerto Inte rnacio­ nal Mariscal Sucre.

Disembarking the ai rcraft, it is hard to overlook a man in a well-used day-glow adventure jacket and road-grimed denim jeans ecurely tucked into off- road riding boot . He has a large

7 2 ULT IMA ![ MOTOR C YC LING /// MA RC H / APR I L 2 0 14

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Giant Loop dry-bag over his shoulder and greets me wich a smile, 'Tm Courc. Welcome to Ecuador. Ali your shit needs to fit into here," as he hands me che dry-bag.

Court Rand is a jovial New Englander who now resides in Ecuador and lives for the sole purpose of combining his !ove of motorcycle adventure touring and Andean culture, and sharing it with others. However, today, I'm under the iUusion that we will be riding two-up through rush-hour traffic with my entire lug­ gage collection expected to fit in a waterproof saddlebag!

Court puts my mind at ease as he hails a taxi cab, explain­ ing that there are driving restrictions on certain days in the city center and that he arrived by motorcycle and will guide the cab driver back to his shop in the heart of the city. By this time, we are joined by photog excraordinaire Sylvain Gallea , Court's business parmer in Ecuador Freedom Bike Renta! and Motor­ cycle Tours, and I have an inkling that we have the makings of a good team.

Two days and hundreds of miles have passed since I touched clown in Quito, and I can't help but to be utterly overwhelmed as I revel in motorcycling bliss; che variety of terrain and che sheer enormity of che landscapes are endless. Fortunately, I didn 't have the time to mentally prepare myself for such a visceral experi­ ence, which only helps to compound che effect.

High above the clouds, the su n is setting behind us, casting larger than life shadows as we descend clown a winding dirt path . We are headed toward the small town of Sigchos, in che central sierra, that promises a hot mea] and a warm bed. A mix of clay and imbedded igneous rock offer a fairly smooth ride, but my attention is drawn to che cloud formations as chey flow and con­ tort like gaseous glaciers slithering through the valleys below.

The innkeeper at Hosteria San José welcomes us through the gates as we park che bikes and prepare to settle in for the night. The Husqvarna Terra may just be che perfect steed for this type of adve nture. Light and nimble compared to a large travel enduro bike , yet powerful enough to tackle steep terrain and fast enough to overtake just about ali other vehicles on Ecuadorian roads. The upright dirt bike riding position is comfortable while seated or standing, and che sea t material is surprisingly kind to the backside for hours on end.

My dry bag weighs about 50 pounds, as it is chock fu]] of cam­ era gear, chargers, converters, inverters, maps, Spanish books, laptop, and a set of street clothes. A handy tail-bag is perfect for items such as goggle wipes, steno book, point-and-shoot cam­ era, and a set of rain gear. With the rear shock pring pre-load adjusted a few turns stiffer, che rear sag is perfecc for che added luggage and the steering angle; the resultant handling is spot-on.

MARCH/APRll 2014 /// UlTIMATE MOTORCYCllNC 73

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UA OOR FREEOOM BIKE RENTAL

AN O M O T ORC YC L E TO U R S AO VE N TU R E

"After much banter and debate, we decide that the best plan is no plan at all. Let our senses be our guide, and experience every­ t_hing to the fullest."

74 ULTIMATE M0T0RCYCLING /// MARCH/ APRI L 101'

Thoroughly satisfied with my bike setup, we dig into a din­ ner and break out che topo maps to plan che expedition ahead. Although a bit smaller than che state of Colorado, Ecuador is named such because of its location at che equator. Unique to most other equatorial countries, its elevation ranges from sea leve! at che Pacific Ocean to over 20,000 feet atop che towering Chim­ borazo volcano.

The eastern slope of che Andes gives way to dense jungle, which becomes che Amazon Basin and the tropical environment one would expect to find at che equator. lnterestingly enough, weather and temperature are quite predictable year round, vary­ ing largely by elevation- snow and wind at the top, heat and humidity at the bottom, and every climate in between. This mandates highly adaptable gear in che form of waterproofing and warmth, as well as venting.

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After much banter and debate, we decide that the best plan is no plan at ali. Let our senses be our guide, and experience every­ thing to the fullest-a great advantage when dealing with a small tour company that can personalize your trip on the fly.

Morn ing breaks as we navigate our way around the rim of a two-mile wide volcanic caldera with jaw- dropping views of Quilotoa and the mineral rich waters that have filled the void. The rugged burro trails make for challenging terrain on a motorcycle; the visual payoff is amazing as the luminous emer­ ald gree n lake reflect s the images of the snow covered peaks of Co topaxi and the Illinizas in the background, absolutely devoid of people, save us.

Fully consumed by wanderlust, I turn on my helmet-mounted GoPro in an effort to memorialize the imagery as we ascend through thinner and thinner air. The high desert terrain sur-

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rounding the flanks of Chimborazo is harsh and inhospitable , yet filled with hundreds of delicate and agile vicuñas, a wild ancestor of the domesticated alpaca. They are curious about us, too, perhaps thinking that we are a less evolved version of them. Together we share each other's company for a few minutes, keeping a comfortable 50-yard buffer between us.

Winding through small Andean villages speckled with the colorful clothing and distinctive bowler-style hats of che indig­ enous Quechua people, we pass four large roosters tethered in front of a ramshackle hangout, che lucky win ners from che pre­ vious evening's competition. Ali eyes are on us as we rumble through the main drag, Jooking like two-wheeled astronauts vis-a-vis the normal passersby. Young mothers toil in the garden, with babies securely wrapped in ornate woven blankets arou nd their backs. I figure that we must be just as exotic to them as they are to us, which seems to be a fair trade.

Days and experiences begin to blur together as my cerebral faculties become saturated by che never-ending beautiful vis­ tas. The search for gasoline anda bite to eat are perennial. and the resulting long conversations often provide a unique insight into the local psyche.

Ramon, a local Quechua man, has a 55-gallon barre) outside of his eart hen dwelling with the letters "G-A-S" spray-painted across it. We asked if he had premium fue) and he confirmed that, indeed, he did, as he pumped che contents out of che barre) into an old laundry detergent bottle that had " Super" painted on the outside. I smartly surmise that he passes off the description as being accurate, regardless of the contents contained within.

Ramon asked if we were riding to che Val­ ley of Longevicy, and tells us of a

village called Vilcabamba where locals believe che waters of che Foumain of Youth flow. A lit­ tle taken aback, I was overcome with the feeling that Ramon and I had crossed paths before, perhaps in a previous lifetime. I quick ly dismiss che notion and we hurry on, needing to fill our bel­ lies before departing.

MARCH/ APRIL 2011 /// ULTIMAIE M0T0RC! CLI NG 75

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ECUADOR FREEDOM B I KE RENTAL

ANO MOTDRCYC L E TOURS ADVEHTURE

7 6 ULTIMATE MOTORCYCLING / // MARCHIAPRIL 2014

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An old wom an with a well-weathered face, yout hful eyes, and a broad smile peers out of an open kitchen window and waves us over. There is no menu to be had, so we kindly ask what she's cooking today. Pan-fried chicken with yuca (a pota to-like tuber) is absolutely delicious, which is fortunate, as it's our only choice; with a small bottle of sugar-sweetened Coca-Cola to wash it down, I am 100-percent satiated. I also take no small comfort in knowing th at, apart from the juice cart proffering up fresh squeezed juices and ice cream bars, American-style fast food has not infected its way int o the Central Andes.

The terrain begins to dissolve away from volcanic rocks to softer clay and sand as we descend, literally for hou rs, from the Andes towards the Amazon basin. Mountainsides are seeming ly bleeding water as snowmelt and tropical rain coalesce into rivers, lured by gravity into cascadni g waterfall crescendos. As we ride through misty and wet conditions, rain gear becomes the order of the day on the relatively good tarmac roads we ride toward the small river town of Puerto Misahuallí.

Despite what should be rush hour, car and bus traffic seems to dwindle the closer we get to town. This is soon explained by the fact that the asphalt comes to an abrupt end as it is swallowed by the sandy shore of the Río Napo, the western-most tributary of the Amazon River. Local fishermen are mooring their canoes and shooing away mischievous capuchin monkeys that are seek­ ing an easy mea!.

The jungl e comes alive at night, and I have a backstage pass in a mosquito- netted tree house bungalow just a few steps from Rio Napo. A quick huddle over breakfast seals our fate- ou r only viable option of navigating through the jungle to the nortern route near the borde r wi th C olombia , is to take che only road available, the river itself1

The ow ner of the hoste! overhears our plans and brings us a

hot mug full of an herbal concoction made from coca leaves. It is stron ge r than coffee and supposedJy wards off snakes, includ­ ing the anaco nda. I take it al! in stride, of course, and toast the others, trying to mask any apprehension behind a nervous smile. I can't help but savor a bucket-list moment as eight of us, sometimes more, wrestle the big Husky up and over the gunwale of the canoe. Indi scern ible expletives are yelled abo ut, as our Good Samaritan helpers figure out the hard way that hot header

pipes and folding foot-pegs are not effective grab handles.

Our river guide hands me my helmet which I had set down on the ground, and he warns me that in the jungle, you never put your "hat" on the ground, as it only takes a moment before it's filled with a plethora of nasty little crawlies. I make a men­ tal note, but I probably should have written it on my helmet, as I made the same mistake multiple times.

We wave goodbye to a beach full of enthusiastic villagers as

our fully laden canoe depares for the town of Coca, 80 miles and a ful! day downriver. The canoe's manifest includes three motorcycles and al! of the gear, two boxes of iced river-perch destined for market, a mother with suckling infant, the skipper, his younger brother as lookou t and navigator, and Co urt, Syvain , and me.

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ECUADOR FREEDOM BIKE RENTAL

AND MOTORCYCLE TOURS ADVENTURE

The headwaters of che Rio Napo are filled with sections of swirling rapids and uprooted crees, o che young navigator kneels vigilantly on che bow of the canoe. Via a series of hand signals and shouts, che skipper is able to pull into che right currents and to circumvent dangerous obstacles.

Midway through our amphibious journey, che banks widened and che water calmed, offering a peek into another way of life. In a time before che combustion engine, telephone, and Internet, a village on che Rio Napo was a major conduit of communica­ tion. Time stands still as I gaze upon a family rnining operation, simply consisting of a shovel, bucket, and a homemade sluice box, while teenage boys in dug-out canoes set nets with two­ liter soda bottles fashioned for buoys. There is something inher­ emly peaceful about canoeing clown che Rio Napo; I close my eyes and drift away to che hum of che boat motor, and a welcome respite from long days on che motorcycle.

"We're taking on water!" Court yells, interrupting my 30 sec­

onds of mental solitude. Sure enough, there was water bubbling up like you would picture in a comic strip, through a knothole on che wooden floor.

The skipper stoically grabs a machete, che Swiss Army knife of che jungle, and deftly whacks away at a large stick to form a spear-like point that roughly matches the dimensions of che breach. He then pounds che point into che knot on che leaky plank, breaking off che poim imo che hole and plugging che leak. The whole repair takes under a minute, and I am thoroughly impressed at che ingenious and simple solution. He then men­ tions that leaks are pretty common on the maiden voyage of any canoe. With chis newfound information, I decide to discretely tighten the strap on my life vese.

78 UlTIMATE MOTORCYCLINC / / / MARCH/APRIL 2011

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We arrive ac a small muddy boat ramp in the boondocks of Coca and reverse che loading process with che same leve! oflocaJ fanfare as our departure in Misahuallí. Coca is a bustling porc city with al! types of people, a fair bit of industry, and the cell­ tale sign of oil and natural resource exploitation in the form of red Halliburton trucks. We stay the nighc, leaving early the next morning with our sights set on heading north to beautiful and remoce scenery along che Colombian border .

Apare from keeping che bikes ful] of gas, che maintenance rou­ tine consists of chain lube and che occasional 50 cents worth of air at a roadside garage-che currency of Ecuador is the US dollar. In the event of a flat tire, the going price of a hot vulcanized tire pacch is $3, which is cheaper and easier than carrying spare tubes. Just when I thought ali of our boat rides were behind us, we loaded up on an old rusty ferry to cross the Rio Coca. The name ofthe vessel is Mi Pequeño Titanic, which does noc instil l a loe of confidence; che locals don't seem to mind, so neither do we. The tarmac on the other side of the river is old and gravelly, bue it felt good to be back on the motorcycle, where I feel most comfort­

able and in complete control.

Crossing the border from Ecuador to Colombia is as simple as a uniformed official manually lifcing a wooden gate and waving us through. The border area is considered a free rrade zone, so, although we were singled-out and asked for our passports, there is no official immigration or customs office. The biggest concern eemed to be Colombians driving into Ecuador to fuel up on state subsidized gasoline, which is about $2 per gallon for premium.

Dinner in Ipiales was strictly local Colombian fare- vegetable stew and cuy, which is guinea pig roasted on an oucdoor rotis­ serie . Needless to say, as I gnaw through the salty, gamey meat, I do not have che same bucket-list feeling I had experienced previ­ ously, bue ic still provides a moment of reflection.

Dual-sporting throughout che country of Ecuador is a life­ altering experience. The immense beauty of che landscape is humbling and provides a rich context to the importance of Mother Earch and our dependence upen her. The people and their way oflife serve as a reminder to keep things simple, and to focus on what's impo rta nt.

Riding back to Quito, che sun begins to set on the urban plateau below. 1 can't help thinking back to Ramon, che Quechua man that spoke of che Fountain of Youth as a physical place-a village that exists on a map. The next time I cross paths with Ramon, I will tell him that the prize is in che quest itself, and to enjoy the ride.

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The roads in the city center are snarled by craffic, but some­ how it's beautiful. I'm grinning and talking to myself undec the helmet, overcome by a feeling of victory, which is ironic because this adventure was not de igned to be a competition . In fact, its genesis was an escape from normalcy.

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The feeling evolves into one of renewed balance, and the sen­ sacion ofbeing presenc and aware, and empowered atop a motor­ cycle to experience all that is. I realize that Courc was right; motorcycle adventures are the cure-especially when they starc in the middle ofthe world, anda company such as Ecuador Free­ dom Bike Renta] and Motorcycle Tours makes that possible.

"The people and their

way of life erve as a reminder to eep things simple."

M RCH/A PR I L 1 014 / // ULTIMATE M0T0RCYCLING 79