Seeing the world: An islander rides south

Ed Holmes traveled from his home on Vashon to the tip of South America by motorcycle.  - Courtesy Photo
Ed Holmes traveled from his home on Vashon to the tip of South America by motorcycle.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

For The Beachcomber

A dream held for more than half a century was realized this past March, when islander Ed Holmes arrived in Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost tip of Argentina, after riding his motorcycle the entire length of the continental United States and Central and South America.

Holmes will speak and show a slide show of photos from the seven-month journey — which covered 20,000 miles and 13 countries — next week at the Vashon Senior Center.

Growing up in Seattle, Holmes began to dream of the big trip when he was in junior high. Now 70, he still recalls how reading adventure literature inspired him to plan his own great journey: to ride a motorcycle all the way to the southernmost tip of South America.

By the time he was a junior in high school, he already had his route planned out, despite having never ridden a motorcycle.

Holmes eventually told some friends about his plans, and they thought it was a great idea, he said. So great, in fact, that they decided to do it themselves, leaving Holmes dejected.

“This was high school,” he said. “All I could think was, ‘They stole my idea,’ and I didn’t want to do it any more. I set it aside.”

Still, Holmes’ interest in the indigenous cultures of South America grew, so much so that he obtained a degree in Latin American history and Spanish at the University of Washington in 1966. While working toward a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary, he was able to spend a year doing research in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He also spent time in Mexico and lived in Ecuador for several years. All the while, he said, the motorcycle trip remained in the back of his mind.

“Maybe when I retire,” he recalled thinking to himself.

Holmes, who has lived on Vashon since 1970, worked in the mental health field for 10 years and public and private education for 25 years. He finished his career as an elementary school counselor at the Highline School District before retiring five years ago.

Four years into his retirement, he bought a motorcycle on an impulse.

“It was the right bike; I bought it. Then I realized I was committed,” he said with a laugh.

The bike, a used BMW 1150 GS, fit the bill for this adventure. It would work well in off-road and extreme conditions, was higher off the ground than a standard street bike, which would ensure better ground clearance, and had special tires that could withstand many miles of rough terrain.

Four months later and 56 years since the adventure first took shape in his mind, he was ready to go.

Taking a couple of extra gas cans and only what he could pack in to two aluminum panniers on the bike, including camera and camping equipment, about $4,000 in cash, a GPS, laptop computer and his cell phone, Holmes set off, beginning his ride in Canada and stopping back at his home on Vashon before heading south.

Taking the scenic routes, Holmes saw many local

riders but didn’t see other motorcyclists traveling until he’d reached the southern end of Mexico, which surprised him, he said.

“I thought I’d run in to others doing the same thing I was, but I was pretty much on my own until the Mexico-Guatemala border,” he said.

One place he did run in to quite a few other traveling bikers was the Darién Gap, the large swath of undeveloped jungle that separates Panama from Columbia. The gap is often referred to as the missing link of the Pan-American Highway since it is essentially impassable.

“With a motorbike, you really only have two choices there,” he said. “You can put it on a plane and fly it over, or you can put it on a boat.”

He and about a dozen other bikers reserved spots on the same 100-year-old sailboat to make the trip to Bogotá, Columbia.

Holmes did have company for at least one month of the trip when his girlfriend, with replacement tires for the bike in hand, flew down to join him on the ride from Ecuador to Peru.

Holmes describes his journey as surprisingly smooth overall. While on the road, he stayed in hostels or camped most nights, never got sick and broke down only once.

Along the way, he reconnected with a man he’d studied with in Argentina 40 years ago, who now has a sheep ranch in Patagonia. And while border crossings on the bike were complicated and time consuming, the biggest trouble he encountered was when his cell phone was pick-pocketed.

“Before I left, quite a few of my friends asked me if I was taking a gun,” he said. “I’m not a gun person, and I really didn’t feel like that would be necessary.”

Perhaps the biggest surprise of Holmes’ story came at the end, when he stopped at a cafe on his way from Tierra del Fuego to Buenos Aires.

Holmes struck up a conversation with a man and woman at the restaurant and told the couple about his trip. He explained that he hadn’t met a riding partner to make the return trip with, as he had hoped, and thought that while in Buenos Aires he may stay a while instead and learn to Tango.

As if on cue, the man pulled out his cell phone to show Holmes photos of himself dancing. As it turned out, he was a world-class Latin Dance champion.

Holmes spent the next three weeks in Buenos Aires taking Tango classes with the expert he met at the cafe before shipping his bike home and flying back to the United States.

Looking back, Holmes said that the biggest challenge of the trip was the desolation he sometimes experienced. At times, he was 50 miles from the nearest person, he said, and gas stations could be 300 miles apart.

“I had to carry extra gas,” he explained. “If I fell and couldn’t lift the bike or if I got a nail in my tire, it was a long wait for help.”

Still, Holmes said he would like to make the trip again, though he’s not certain that he’ll be able to, as growing older begins to take a toll.

“Energy is a factor, physical shape. You have to be able to sleep in a different situation every night. ... It’s very hard on the body,” he said. “But I would like to.”

In the works right now is a plan to take his son and his family to Ecuador in February. He added with a wry smile, “No bike this time.”

Holmes will present a slideshow of photos from his trip and talk about the experience at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 16, at the Vashon Senior Center.

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