Forget going around the world in 80 days — Lothar Schaefer went across America over four years.
Setting out with his partner and wildlife ecologist Debbie Wellwood in June 2015, the now-retired anesthesiologist always had a plan: to spend two to five years on the road in a cross-continent trip all the way to Ushuaia, the Argentinian resort town located at the southernmost tip of South America and nicknamed the “End of the World.”
Wellwood said she feels the idea for the trip has always been a seed in the couple’s heads, but that it was a chance encounter in the lineup for an Alaskan ferry after a three-month sea kayaking trip in 2007 that gave them the jumpstart.
“There were three young guys there with touring bikes and they were getting on the ferry to go I think from Juno down to Prince Rupert to take a little bit of riding off the distance for their trip — I think it was Deadhorse, Alaska … to Ushuaia — and we just looked at each other in the lineup and said what a great idea.”
Over the next four years the pair would face just about every element, terrain and kind of weather imaginable before reaching that destination on April 2, 2018.
Broken crankshafts too, said Schaefer, detailing a bit of luck the duo had from a kind Samaritan after the crankshaft on Wellwood’s bike broke in the high mountains of Peru.
Unable to continue on, the two were forced to hitchhike.
And while they were initially skeptical about their chances, they didn’t have to wait long.
“It was about the second vehicle that came along who gave her a ride,” said Schaefer, describing a nearly-brand new Toyota Hilux pickup that picked the pair up.
“He was a maniac driver but he was a great friendly guy, he made sure we got all our stuff loaded in, we strapped it all in and then off we went.”
Schaefer said the stranger drove them over 100 kilometres to their home town and connected them with a local bike shop where they were able to improvise a fix for Wellwood’s bike.
“Those guys just instantly took her bicycle, took the crank apart and improvised some kind of a solution … [she’s] still riding it, so it obviously worked,” Schaefer said with a laugh.
While the trip was a post-retirement adventure of sorts for Schaefer, Wellwood said it also doubled as a chance for her to learn about how climate change has affected different regions across the continent and the perspectives of various cultures on the issue, a personal interest of hers.
“When I rolled out of this driveway … I consciously — between here and the [Bulkley River] bridge wondered what I was going to learn on this trip and how it was going to change my life,” she said.
And while Wellwood’s initial goal was to learn about and find solutions to problems facing those across the continent, she said she was only able to achieve the former.
As Schaefer explained, one thing is for sure from their travels: the issue is a global one.
“People are already being impacted everywhere [and] usually it’s the poorest people who are impacted the most,” he said.
“It’s not a future problem, it’s a present problem and it will be in our future for a long time.”
In total, the trip would end up being over 45,000 kilometres and just over four years on the road for Schaefer, who pedalled back into town in early July (Wellwood returned back to Smithers on January 12, logging just over three-and-a-half years on the road).
In short: easier said than done.
Discussing the wildly-varying levels of cycling infrastructure, the duo noted some particularly-bad places, like the stretch of east coast from around Washington to Florida which Schaefer described as having a “strong anti-cyclist vibe.”
As soon as the pair made it based the border into Mexico, however, he said that drivers seemed to calm right down.
“People in Mexico are more used to slowing down because they have you [more] pedestrians and people on bicycles sharing the road with them and they’re just not as aggressive in their driving habits,” Schaefer said.
The culture was different too Wellwood said, describing a populous that was both intrigued and helpful towards foreigners.
The pair said the result was a much more intimate experience than that of the southeastern United States.
“Often [we’d] ride into a village and have kids join us — the girls would always crowd around me and the boys would crowd around Lothar,” said Wellwood.
“We’d ride in with [them] … and then we might camp in a schoolyard and you’d have all these kids gathering around and [they’d] … tell you about what’s happening in the community.”
While they did manage to visit a number of urban centres through their travels, the pair said it was an intentional choice to take the roads and backroads less travelled so that they could have as authentic an experience as possible.
Often times, Wellwood said, it was these lesser-known areas that provided some of the best experiences along their trip.
“One of the best conversations I had about climate change was with some potato farmers in Peru. We stopped to take a break and I asked them how their potato harvest was this year and they said it was really bad and it was because of climate change — and they brought that up.”
When asked about if they ever felt scared or unsafe on the road less travelled, Wellwood and Schaefer admitted there were times they felt a little uneasy, such as in the Chiapas region of Mexico, which is largely controlled by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a far-left libertarian-socialist paramilitary group.
“We definitely felt some hostility in some of those areas — they had roadblocks up and [it was] a bit threatening.”
But even in the most dangerous of places, the two said they could always find locals who gave them advice.
Wellwood said that, whether it was in eastern Canada eating entire blueberry pies bought off roadside vendors (gotta get those daily calories) or zig-zagging through the Andes back and forth between various remote villages, the kindness of strangers they experienced on the trip was a huge eye-opener.
“When you face somebody one-on-one and talk to them [you see] the kindness of strangers in every single country, even the most dangerous ones, is always there.
“People could always tell you, oh this is a good place [to sleep] … we’ve slept under bridges, lots, with semi-trailers driving over top all night long, we’ve slept in schoolyards, playgrounds, people’s backyards, in people’s houses — some people just plucked us off the street,” said Wellwood, adding that a major takeaway for her from the trip was the general kindness of strangers.
And while the trip’s winding geography gave it its literal ups and downs, the pair also discussed the emotional highs and lows of the trip, like one day on winding road in Argentina when Wellwood was convinced she might have to call it quits after falling off her bike.
“I saw Lothar disappearing out of my sight just as I fell off my bike and I thought that’s it, that’s the end of the trip. I honestly thought it was over and, like, I heard a crack. I couldn’t move.
Luckily it was another kind Samaritan to the rescue, with a small utility truck — nearly filled to the brim — stopping for the couple.
“It was a tiny Fiat utility truck and it was already full but they … got us and our bikes loaded because she was a rancher and knew how to tie stuff.
“She drove us into the next town and saved us three days of hard hard riding.”
About three quarters of a year after Wellwood and Schaefer made it to Ushuaia, Wellwood decided to head home (she said her knees had been swollen for close to two years at this point and it was time for her to head back) while Schaefer continued for approximately half a year with his son.
Sitting in the pair’s kitchen downtown as Wellwood serves up a warm slice of huckleberry pie (picked by Schaefer the day before) it’s admittedly hard to tell that the two spent the better part of a decade between them on the road.
And while he certainly enjoyed the trip, Schaefer (whose first stop after returning home was one — then the other — of Smithers’ new breweries) said he is happy to be home and, at least for now, doesn’t have any multi-year bike tours planned.
“We’re going to go out to the coast and go see kayaking down the Douglas Channel in a couple of weeks.”
They also have plans to bike to the Arctic ocean next summer.
Discussing the future, Schaefer said that one of the things the trip really highlighted to him is just how lucky he feels to live in the Bulkley Valley.
“We don’t realize how precious it is that we have what we have here. We have a lot of wilderness — more than we saw anywhere in the Americas other than southern Patagonia — but even there, it’s not as wild.
“Our big backyard, from our perspective, is some of the wildest land left on Earth. And that’s something scarce on a global scale.”