“Stepping off the plane in Deadhorse, AK, at the top of the world, we could see absolutely nothing but fog in all directions. It was just surreal, like being lost in a dream. The first week of the trip we rolled out across the Arctic tundra, one of the oddest places I’ve ever been. The spongy, very wet and very alive flora stretched out endlessly without a single tree in sight across the horizon. Also, being in the arctic in the summertime, we experienced 24 hours of straight sunlight every single day for about a whole month.”
So began the Pedal South project: a storytelling,or rather, a story-capturing cycle ride down the length of the Pan American Highway, 18,000 miles from Alaska to Argentina. A fully self-supported media crew (comprising writer Dyar Bentz, photographer/writer Thomas Allison, and filmmakers Ricardo and Riley Engemoen), the riders had only one defining aim: to share the stories of the people and places of the Americas. These stories are woven into regular web updates from the road, and will feed into a feature length documentary to be produced after their return home. A brief toe-dip into the spread of the stories so far collected: they’ve spent time amidst indigenous Canadian communities deep in spectacular wilderness, documented some of Canada’s weirdest road signs, released sea turtles into the waves with marine conservationists in Mexico and studied the work of optimistic urban farmers, a visionary architect and a groundbreaking cancer research scientist who uses scorpion venom to fight tumours.
Dyar, the project’s lead writer, was inspired to undertake the trip after completing the Texas 4000, a 4000 mile charity ride from Austin, TX to Anchorage, AK which raises funds to fight cancer. “It was by far the most transformative experience of my life,” he says. “In addition to the outlet it provided for my stress and sadness over my grandfather’s fatal fight with cancer, I joined knowing I had finally found that grand adventure I’d always dreamed of. What I did not anticipate, and what has led me to where I am today, was how much I would fall in love with the lifestyle of touring cycling, specifically with its unmatched potential for meeting, being taken in by, sharing stories with, and being changed forever by countless people everywhere you go every single day.”
His only regret from that first ride was that he “let all those people go by without capturing those moments somehow.” And thus, the seed was sown for “a massive touring cycling ride focusing on finding and documenting the unique and interesting people and places out there. Especially the seemingly ‘normal’, ‘unimportant’ ones. All of us on the Pedal South ride have a background in storytelling through different media, and we all see the importance and value in capturing a good story for no other reason than that it exists and deserves to be shared with the world.”
That’s exactly the kind of talk that gets Boneshaker’s cogs whirring. And the stories have come thick and fast to Dyar and his compadres. There was the river-boat ride up in northern Alaska, “with a local homesteader and sometime tour guide who called himself Yukon Jeremy, a five-foot-five, Grizzly bear-poaching, birchwood jewelry-making son of an escaped convict on the run from the law in the ‘Lower-48’ (now deceased and buried out back). Jeremy was trigger happy, bottle happy, and the very first interview subject of our journey. Setting off into the river he tossed us a fifth of cheap whiskey and shouted “The more the crew drinks, the less the captain can!” Standing shakily in our tiny, bobbing motorboat, he showed off his bear rifle, a .375 Ruger I believe, by exploding some boulders on a nearby cliff. He drove full-speed towards a cliff-face then madly swerved back downstream at the last second to scare us (the first of many times we regretted bringing thousands of dollars worth of professional film and audio gear). A nice (terrifying) and interesting evening, overall,” Dyar recalls.
Like every encounter, it would play a role in shaping the team’s ever-evolving film and interview techniques for interactions to come, like the one where they were being escorted into the city of Guadalajara, Mexico, by a state senator and his posse of political supporters and the city’s huge cycling advocacy organization. “That was another strange turning point,” says Dyar. “We were treated like royalty, interviewed by all the major television networks and news outlets, and very much made to believe, for the first time, that we were something worth knowing about. It was a very odd yet encouraging feeling.”
This sense of ‘being something’, of the remote celebrity that a successful online presence can engender, is pleasingly at odds with the makeshift, serendipitous aesthetic of the Pedal South approach.
“We sleep anywhere and everywhere,” says Dyar, “except hotels. Part of the allure of our journey is the interactions with local people in communities we travel through, so we always ask people if they have a good idea of where we can sleep for the night.” If no one turns up anything for them (although very often they do), then Dyar and his riding mates simply ask the local police or fire department where they might best pitch camp. “This has 100% succeeded for us every time,” he says. “Often they point us to a nearby park or city-owned building where they can keep a safe eye on us; just as often they let us right into the building. On one of our more memorable nights, in Baja California, Mexico, we slept in the police station’s interrogation room and stayed up late into the night watching boxing matches with the emergency call dispatcher. They even went out of their way to be quiet when they brought in some drunk at 3:30 in the morning and locked him in the cell immediately next to us.”
The ‘no hotels’ policy – plus the sheer scale of the wide open spaces through which they’re moving – has meant the Pedal Southers have slept in old abandoned train stations “and been woken in the morning by an older ladies’ daily morning hip-hop music workout class – of course we joined in”, outside gas stations on the highway, in school gyms, on a football pitch “(I hung my hammock in the goal)”, in church sanctuaries and countless strange urban places, landscapes and geographies.
Adventure cyclists often talk about the sometimes overwhelming kindness of strangers, and about the intensity of friendships forged on the road, and this is a positive which glows from Pedal South’s regular journal postings and photo essays. “The bike is the perfect excuse for anyone anywhere to say ‘hey, howdy, where’d ya come from, where’re ya headed…say WHAT! Holy cow!’ and that’s our foot in the door,” says Dyar, “after which we devote our lives
to interacting with and knowing and capturing these people in writing, photography, and film.
It has only confirmed what we knew about society, and expanded upon it, which is that people are people, and they’re all exactly the same in that they are all exactly different and have their own story to tell about what makes them them and their home their home. Our purpose with all of this is to share that sentiment with the world the best way we know how.”
The nature of the project means that for Dyar and his companions, Pedal South has become more than ‘an adventure’ or a journey in the strict sense of the word. “Many cyclists go for years at a time, but they’re often just focusing on the ‘going’. We are working what I would call two, maybe even three full-time jobs all by ourselves: cycling the globe; constantly updating a professional content-based website; filming a documentary. More than feeling like this is a special, sensational time aside from real-life, this has become our real-life in every sense. And I’m quite content with that.” Filmmaker Ricardo Palomares leaves us with a thoughtful take on the ride and what it means: “I left home supposing I knew what this journey was about. In my mind I had a clear idea of the kind of people that we were going to encounter. I had a clear idea of the stories that we were going to tell. This past month I have been constantly proven wrong. This trip is much deeper, it has many more layers than I presumed.
“My error was leaving home thinking I was going to tell the world what it was instead of letting the world explain itself to me. I have slowly learned that if I want to tell true and honest stories the only thing that I have to do is listen… truly listen. I just have to be present, I just have to stop thinking. I have learned to slowly leave myself behind.”