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Hell or High Water | 30,000 miles on the Pan American Trail

By: James Barkman

Hell or High Water | 30,000 miles on the Pan American Trail

“I’m pretty cold. Let’s stop at the next pull off,” Allen’s voice shouted over the comm system.

“Roger that,” I replied through chattering teeth. “Haven’t felt my toes since this morning.”

Actually, I hadn’t felt my toes much at all over the past 4 days.

We pulled over onto a muddy shoulder along the Dalton Highway for a much needed rest. I skidded to a stop and cursed my frozen fingers as I fumbled to turn the key. It had been quite a while since I could feel my hands, or my feet for that matter. Hours of riding in freezing temperatures will turn your extremities into worthless pieces of flesh and bone. Using my teeth, I pulled off my gloves and burrowed my bare hands deep inside my jacket, steeling myself for the nearly unbearable stinging sensation that would inevitably come as they began to thaw out and regain feeling. Jeremy and Allen did the same.

Pan American Highway

I’m no stranger to cold weather and in fact prefer it, but this was no joy ride through the neighborhood. We were several hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, and as far as I was concerned, it was sure living up to its reputation. Alongside two friends, I was riding to Deadhorse, Alaska, the northernmost road-accessible town in North America and the official start of the Pan American highway. We’d tossed around the dream of riding the Pan-Am for years before doing it and finally, the day Allen graduated from college, we hit the road and headed north.

I’ve lived in a van for a while now and thought I had the whole minimalism thing down pat. But it turns out a motorcycle doesn’t have quite as much space as a VW van and when we set off, I was in for a bit of a learning curve. There are many things that a motorcycle trip will force you to give up, the first of them being comfort. On a motorcycle, there’s no AC, heated seats, cruise control, or coffee cup holders. I quickly learned that the wind can become a close friend or an arch enemy, the sun your saving grace or an accursed foe, and the hours seemingly endless or not nearly long enough. Exposed to the elements, living off a bike will leave you hot, cold, wet, angry, exhausted, or a hearty mix of all of the above.

Roadside stop

After our quick pit stop, we hit the road again only to ride fifteen minutes before Jeremy’s chain snapped in two in a shower of sparks and steel. Our spare links didn’t fit with his chain, leaving him hopelessly stranded in the middle of the Arctic. As if by divine intervention, some passing caribou hunters eventually hauled his sorry ass 450 miles back to Fairbanks on the back of their pickup truck.

Allen and I were left to race against an encroaching snowstorm, which caught up to us at the top of Atigun Pass, quickly knocking our bikes off their wheels and forcing us to walk them two miles through ice and snow. As if that weren’t enough, Allen’s chain also broke outside the small god-forsaken town of Coldfoot, leaving him stranded and alone for five days while I rode 250 long solo miles through unrelenting freezing rain in order to find parts for his decommissioned bike.

Broken chain

All in all, there aren’t many happy thoughts or good things to say about our 800 mile ride to and from Deadhorse. In fact, it was nothing less than pure misery. But we didn’t start this trip because we wanted something easy or comfortable. We left because we wanted a real adventure, come hell or high water. Ask anyone, I dare you, and the greatest memories they possess aren’t the ones where they sat on a couch, watched TV, and ate Doritos. It’s the memories birthed from hardship, difficulty, and often mishap that will stick around and stand the test of time.

Since Alaska, I’ve had the privilege of riding through dense jungles, barren deserts, and freezing high alpine passes. Over the past 30,000 miles, I’ve watched the leaves change color from the saddle of my motorcycle, rode under painted skies alongside herds of galloping elk, slept with scorpions, been caught in torrential downpours, and witnessed countless moments of unspeakable beauty.

It’s funny, because although our Deadhorse mission was possibly the most miserable ride of my life, it’s solidified in my memory like concrete, never to be forgotten. Sometimes the most challenging and stretching experiences are the most profound and memorable. Living and traveling by motorcycle isn’t easy, but it is rewarding. I don’t want to live inside the confinements of comfort, and I’m thankful for the places that my motorcycle has taken me, both physically and mentally. I want to live a story worth telling, one mile at a time.

Makeshift shelter

James Barkman is a documentary and editorial photographer who is inspired most by the mountains and the sea. Born and raised on an ostrich farm in rural Pennsylvania, James is a seeker and gatherer of genuine stories and experiences, and has a soft spot in his heart for anything analog. A tendency to live on the grittier side of the fence, he would probably rather be dusty than clean, cold than warm, and values risk over comfort. At the moment, James is living off his '96 DR650 and riding from Alaska to Patagonia. Follow his adventures here.

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