Robert Higdon in South America, Part 1

John Burns
by John Burns

R. E. Higdon has been a motorcycle pen pal for as long as I can remember, whose best prsose is the fan mail he occasionally sends. But he’s in fact a better writer than most of us. A retired D.C. atttorney, he’s written for all manner of motorcycle publications on the side, most recently for the Iron Butt Association’s magazine. When he let drop he was undertaking a big trip to South America, naturally we asked if we could ride along.


In a few days I fly to South America. The plan is to ride a motorcycle from the top of the continent to the bottom. I will be joining a dozen other riders in Cartagena, Colombia for the start of this adventure. It is a well-organized, take-no-prisoners tour that will last more than two months. I’ve tried four times in the last 22 years to make this ride, either alone or in the company of a few friends. Each attempt quickly went pear-shaped, half the time before we even crossed into Mexico. Now I’m hoping to buy myself a finisher’s medal. To do so in this fashion, much like being carried by sherpas to the top of Everest in a chaise lounge, is the last resort of an aging scoundrel.

Apart from being a thing undone, irritating enough in its own right, there’s a box I need to check off here. The ride concludes in Ushuaia, Argentina, a town that bills itself as the southernmost inhabited spot on the continent. It isn’t, but it’s close enough. Should I make it, I’ll have ridden to where the road ends in South America, North America (Prudhoe Bay), Europe (Nordkapp), and Africa (Cape Agulhus). Theoretically, I suppose, that would leave some frozen hellhole like Magadan in Siberia as the northernmost town to be bagged in Asia, but I rode across Siberia once and I’ll never be crazy enough to go there again.

The tour’s leader, Helge Pedersen, will be setting up a web journal for our group soon. I’ll post a link when it becomes available. I hope to be able to post some notes of my own from time to time, depending on the web’s mood and mine. If you’d rather opt out, drop me a line. You won’t hurt my feelings; I’m a lawyer. Here’s a link to my Spot tracker: . It won’t become active until I reach Cartagena late Saturday.

Wish us luck. 😎

The first installment involved an airplane:

Due to unrealistic scheduling optimism last night, my spousal equivalent, Chris, and I managed to get about four hours of sleep before three separate alarm clocks went off beginning at 0300. Ninety minutes later I was being picked out for secondary inspection by the Kabuki Theatre players at TSA in Baltimore. My fear was that they would target the 35 packets of Crystal Light lemonade that I’d methodically emptied into an innocent-appearing plastic container as a crafty form of gelignite that my ISIS supervisors had smuggled to me by way of a submarine hidden off the coast of Daytona Beach. But they waved it through, only to rescan my computer bag where I’d falsely declared at check-in that I had no lithium batteries. There’s something about the word “lithium” that sets off red alerts among the TSA cast of players, possibly because half of them pre-medicate themselves with it before coming to work. But they missed all four of the lethal AAs.

A couple of hours later I was en route to Miami for a plane change to Cartagena. The carrier was American Airlines, who advertises, “We’re not as bad as United!” But seat 13F was something the Inquisition could have used to convert heathens. I drifted off to a fitful sleep about 0630. At 0715 I woke up saying to myself, “Bobby, you’re going to puke.” I haven’t vomited since 1966. Shifting around in the seat didn’t help. There was no objective reason for my unease. The flight had been uncommonly serene. I opened my eyes. The cabin was alit with the rising sun. I could see the light, but that was about all I could see. In the course of 45 minutes, I had become effectively blind.

I sat back. My stomach continued to churn. A few seconds later I slowly opened my eyes again. Everywhere I looked was a hazy, whitish, impenetrable fog. I slid open the plastic shade covering the window. I had a seat just in front of the right wing. I couldn’t see it. I turned to the guy in the middle seat to my left. I could see a grayish shadow, but in truth I couldn’t tell if it was a man, two little girls, or a regiment of bagpipers sitting there.

Again I closed my eyes and returned to my ‘tray table closed and seat in upright position.’ ABC, they teach the paramedics: airway, breathing, and circulation. No obstruction in the airway; the breathing was not labored or raspy; and my heart rate didn’t seem elevated or absent, but I couldn’t see my watch to make anything but a guess. I still wanted to throw up, but wanted not to throw up even more.

And then a kind of quiet peace settled in. The only conclusion remaining was that I’d blown out a big artery or vein in the occipital lobe of my brain, it had nailed the optic nerve, and I would be dead before I could finish the thought. I’ve always wondered what would eventually get me. I never thought it would be a crappy seat on American Airlines.

At some point I remember smiling. What a marvelous run I’d had. For five minutes or more I sat with my eyes closed, peeking now and then. Mist, nothing but white, miserable mist. This went on for more than 20 minutes. Finally, mercifully, the fog seemed to be dissipating. I tried to sleep, perhaps to extend the hope. When next I opened my eyes fully, the world had returned in its customary form. No bagpipers sat next to me.

I’ve got three physicians on this bcc: list and I’m sure they’re eager to weigh in, so to speak, right about now. My initial thought that this was somehow diet-related. I’d recently lost 15 pounds on a rigid, low-carb diet, so much so that on New Year’s Eve I weighed 165 pounds,exactly what I’d weighed when I was a sophomore in college. I’d even stopped drinking soft drinks with caffeine, once an unthinkable proposition. I was willing to head to 157 pounds, my high school weight, when Chris looked at me with Those Eyes and asked me to stop. I did. In the last week before today, I gained four pounds. This wasn’t a weight issue. I know it.

Mike Kneebone [Iron Butt Master] has been my motorcycle trip psychiatrist for almost 30 years. We have ridden everywhere together. He has kept my psyche stuffed in one sock more times that I want to remember. I called him when I got to the hotel in Cartagena.

“You had a panic attack,” he said. “You’ve been putting this pressure on yourself to complete the ride south for almost as long as I’ve known you. It has to be that. And now you’re on the way. It’s behind you, just like it was in Siberia. You’ll be fine now.”

Maybe so. When I got onto the plane in Baltimore, I crossed, as did Caesar a few years ago, the Rubicon. There was no going back now. In the plane my choice was to jump out of a door at 38,000 feet or go on. My sleeping brain, whatever the hell that deranged thing is, evidently didn’t like those choices.

You’ve carried me through the hot coals before, Mike. I hope you’re right once again.

Addendum: Was the earlier Spot URL hacked by the Russians? We don’t know. So we’ll foil them with

this one:

Ride like the wind, Bob!

John Burns
John Burns

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2 of 10 comments
  • Alan Golightly Alan Golightly on Jan 29, 2018

    wife is from barranquilla. always warm there.

  • Rob Mitchell Rob Mitchell on Feb 01, 2018

    Bob, I've missed reading your prose and look forward to following you on this journey. I still smile at the memory of your daily reports from AMI in Daytona all those years ago.