Lessons learned from life on the road
On June 6, 2016, Mark Watson and Hana Black began one of the biggest adventures of their lives – a transcontinental cycling journey that followed the length of the Americas. The two began their adventure on the stark flat expanse of Deadhorse, Alaska and are finishing in the windswept town of Ushuaia at the southernmost tip of South America. As of early 2020, they were still on their journey, having crossed every imaginable landscape, leaving behind them only two thin lines in the dust and the sorts of experiences that many of us dream about in the quiet hours of the early morning. As they continued to explore Argentina's many cultures and disparate landscapes (California fits into Argentina seven times), we asked them what they had learned along the way.
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This isn’t your first taste of adventure, even if it might be the largest. How has your relationship with adventure changed over time?
Ever since we were children the outdoors and adventure have been critical parts of our lives. We’ve both tramped and camped since we were very young. When we became a couple back in the early 1990s, our first big trip together was a five-month cycling journey to all four major capes of the North Island of New Zealand, with a bit of rock climbing along the way. Over the years, many hundreds of outdoor excursions have followed both in NZ and overseas, whether it’s an afternoon mountain bike riding or a week climbing in the Fiordland mountains.
If we were to focus on how our relationship with adventure has changed, we’d say it’s the quality of those experiences, and that is something that has become particularly salient during our Alaska to Patagonia journey. Firstly, we’ve been repeatedly shown that the deeper we go, the more we learn and the richer the experience. That is to say that the greater the physical and mental challenge is for us — and the less prior knowledge we have — the more we discover about ourselves and each other. These throwing-ourselves-in-the-deep-end challenges have had the result of resetting our estimate of what we are capable of. Another way of putting it is: what we might have thought of as obstacles, were actually opportunities.
"We’ve been hosted in remote villages, given food and roofs over our heads by people with very little and barely enough food to feed their own families."
Attempting to reach the Amazon jungle via the eastern Andes in Peru in 2019, we pushed our bikes on a mountainous, abandoned Inca trail for three days in pouring rain, while carrying all the food and equipment we needed to survive. It was extremely slow going and very physical as we slogged through mud and lifted our loaded bikes over rocks, 600-year-old inca steps and along flooded trails. But that experience reset our expectations of how long it might be reasonable to expect to push and carry a bike. Had someone warned us what we’d have to do to get through it, we would have said “no way, that’s too hard”. But once you’ve wrestled a bike through jungle and mountain passes for three days, the thought of having to push a bike for half a day more does not seem unreasonable at all. This has the benefit of opening up more opportunities for you to explore and connect backcountry trails and roads, which has generally been a theme of our Alaska to Patagonia ride.
Secondly, as we get older and spend more time outdoors, we appreciate even more how special the wilderness and backcountry places are. The experience is a little less of looking for the thrill of zooming down a single track and a little more about cherishing nature and acknowledging how amazing, diverse and precious our planet is.
How have you related with the world back at home while you have been on this adventure?
Social media, keeping up with the news and in contact with family are all very important for us, but we don’t long for these things when we don’t have them for weeks at a time. You could say that social media has shrunk the world, in that it’s so much easier to keep up with people we know back home and overseas. That has the effect of making us feel less distant and more up-to-date with our friends and family which, despite the downsides of social media, has definitely been a positive for us — it’s better for our relationships with people that matter. We’ve also made many new friends and inspired people along the way during our three-and-a-half-year ride, so it’s great to have people stay in touch, even if we only met them once in a village in Mexico or on a mountainside somewhere.
Are you the same sort of travellers as you were before embarking?
Aside from maintaining the overall picture of getting from Alaska to Patagonia, the only planning we do tends to be week-by-week, and that’s only as far as planning where we will ride, not right down to the nuts and bolts of nightly stops and resupply (unless it’s critical to survival). We do a bit of bigger-picture planning to make sure we are in the right place in the right season, but not at a detailed level. Something that contributes to the synergy of our partnership is that we both have the ability to be spontaneous and completely change plans on a whim if we see an opportunity arise, and this is something we have done repeatedly on this tour. We keep our minds open to all options and maintain the agility (i.e. not being too heavily loaded and riding the right kind of bikes and tyres) to keep lots of route possibilities open.
Has the way in which you approach people and cultures changed?
There are two themes that have kept us engaged with this journey since day one. One is geography and the other is culture. As long as one of those two things is changing as we travel south then our experience retains its sense of discovery, education and anticipation for us — it keeps us interested. We have always approached people and cultures with an open mind and a willingness to learn and adapt if need be. If anything has changed, it’s our level of trust and our faith in the human race: people throughout the Americas have shown themselves to be kind, good-natured and trustworthy, which I think is an inherent human condition.
One gesture we have consistently witnessed in the rural regions and mountains of Latin America is that the people who have the least tend to offer the most. We’ve been hosted in remote villages, given food and roofs over our heads by people with very little and barely enough food to feed their own families. Much of Latin America has a strong tradition of welcoming outsiders and sheltering travellers.
How does your photography inform your adventure?
Because Mark is working towards a book as an outcome of this journey, our decisions often consider the photography aspect. We research potential locations for photography as well as ticking off some of the obvious sites such as Machu Picchu and the bigger alpine regions. We also base a lot of our planning and riding around getting good light in the morning and evening, or being at good locations to camp. We do try to strike a balance though of both ‘being in the moment’ and focussed on getting good shots when conditions and situations are ideal. Often the camera has been a catalyst to break the ice with locals and have good interactions with people.
You guys have been travelling together in close quarters for so long now, do you think you have changed much?
After being together for over 28 years, we know each pretty well! But that said, this journey has challenged us in ways we’ve not been challenged in before, which highlights one another’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s in those situations that good teamwork and synergy comes to the fore and gives you the opportunity to take leadership or be the strong one when the other is down.
What have you learned about people these past two years?
That there is little to be afraid of. The media and film industry would have us believe that the vast tract of land between the United State’s southern border and Ecuador is full of drug traffickers and people who would murder you for a dollar. We can report that the vast majority of people down there are actually very nice.