Challenge by Choice in Bolivia

24 10 2011

The title of this post was the subject line of an email I received 2 weeks ago.  It was sent by Laura Beko, a former volunteer and staff member with the River House Outdoor Program and the Spencer Butte Challenge Course.  Needless to say, it caught my attention. 

Laura and Erich are on a biking tour from Alaska to Argentina that they have dubbed “Polar Bears to Penguins.”  I hope you enjoy reading her letter as much as I did.  — Robert Brack, Spencer Butte Challenge Course Director

Dear course staff and other RH staff that enjoy a challenge,

Though two course seasons have gone by and I have not been around as I have been riding a bicycle from Palmer Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina, the challenge course and its teachings are frequent items crossing my mind. Challenge by choice, my next break and food are maybe the three things I think about most. Never has this philosophy been such a part of this trip as it was in Southwest Bolivia.

For some background, I left with my boyfriend in July of 2010 to fly to Anchorage, where we took off from a friend’s house in Palmer on August first. From there, we rode through Canada, Washington, Oregon, California, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and now Argentina. By the time we hit Bolivia, we were seasoned touring professionals, capable of outeating most people we came across and able to climb passes all day long on gravel and dirt roads on hundred pound plus bikes. By the time the Southwest of Bolivia came around, we thought we were ready. This section of the PanAm is for most riders the most difficult. It involves riding across the Salar de Uyuni, a salt flat, to a mountainous section with altitudes up to 16,000 feet through multicolored lakes, intense winds and storms, flamingo flocks, all on dirt, sand and rock roads, having to carry food for nine days and water for up to two days. A cyclists dream. Beautiful landscapes, no people, no traffic, endless camping and no noise. This is what I was expecting. To some degree, this is also what I got.

Thirteen months into the trip, we had braved enough sweatyness in Mexico for about ten years, wind strong enough that we actually could not ride without instantly falling over, stomach bugs at few times in every country, dog chases, crossing the Andes countless times, living off cookies because that is all you can find in some Peruvian villages, offroading on horse trails because we got lost, getting not so politely bumped by taxis in cities, scorpions, tarantulas, sunburns, you name it, we probably rode through it. I spend a lot of time telling myself that I have chosen this.  However, none of this prepared me for the conditions that Bolivia brought. I can honestly say that this section of riding was the hardest, both mentally and physically, thing I have ever done. Beginning with riding up a road that looked more like a dry riverbed that was so steep I found myself pushing my bike more than riding it. My already heavy bike was filled with food for nine days, which is a ridiculous endeavor in Bolivia because this means nine days of food in its original form. Trail mix? Yeah right. We are talking more like carrots and potatoes, garbanzo beans still in their shell, canned tuna that might have actually been for cats and an MSR bag with ten liters of water. Not the most fun situation.

However, the road improved slightly after this point. The uphill turned into sand, so instead of pushing uphill we were pushing through deep sand at times, but more or less we were riding. There were mountains surrounding us from both the Chilean and Bolivian side of the valley, some interesting animals that have somehow managed to survive this climate there and a few tourists here and there in Landrovers thinking we were crazy and filming us. Then night comes. Howling wind, freezing temperatures, nowhere to camp or cook out of the wind and certainly not enough warm clothing. Packing for a year and a half for conditions such as this and carrying it all with you on a bike when most of the time you could be in a swimsuit is a bit tough. Wearing everything I had to sleep, I woke up the next morning with an ice layer on my sleeping bag. This is all with top of the line mountaineering gear too, so it was not like we were unprepared.

I would imagine this is a similar story to what many of us have experienced on outdoor adventures and have all lived through, but at what point do we have to stop and ask ourselves, why are we doing this? Is it the views, the physical hardships, the fact that I can tell people I rode through the Bolivian desert at 16,000 feet or simply just to see if we can do it? We choose to challenge ourselves at times like this, but I, like those on the RHOP staff, am no stranger to challenges.But, at some point along the way, I had to ask myself another question: is the real challenge giving up? This might be harder than putting up with the extremes, than admitting that you are having such a terrible time that all you think about was why you did not take the jungle route to the east and instead you are stuck way up in the middle of nowhere. There were times when all I wanted to do was quit and go home, after thirteen months on the bike and only two more countries to go. But going is all I know now. Quitting was not something I could do. Needless to say, I was up to that challenge. I made it through. I saw the flamingoes. I saw the red lake and the green lake. Then I rode into Chile and ate chicken enchiladas like the previous two weeks never happened.

Sometimes the challenge is to not accept the challenge. It might be alright to change plans. Not quit maybe, but pick a new route, regroup and remember why it is you are doing what you are doing. I would like to thank the challenge course staff for helping me with this. My training for the course and experiencing others on the course had been worlds of help to me on this trip. Though I have not been on a course for quite some time, it sticks with me wherever I go and really helps me out when I need it most.

Now, in Argentina where it is much easier to be a bike tourist, I am reminded that I would not appreciate campgrounds and grocery stores as much if I did not spend time without them. There are still amazing views of the Andes, but now the weather is warm, there are steaks and fantastic wines. I am taking a break from challenges and waiting till later in Patagonia, where I hear a few hardships await.

Again, greetings to all out there taking on challenges and playing in the outdoors. Hopefully I will be joining you back in Eugene next spring.

Laura Beko


P.S. we have a lot of photos and a blog at if anyone is interested!


There are also more photos here on Erich’s Flicker page.


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