Riding - and climbing –  <b>The Pan American Highway</b>

Riding - and climbing – The Pan American Highway

In 2017, James Barkman and two friends set out to travel the Pan American trail in a different way - by riding and climbing it. Read about the (literal) highs and lows of their journey, from the peaks of Denali in Alaska to the Peruvian Alps, all on a set of Suzuki DR650s.



James Barkman is a photographer, climber, rider, and thrill seeker who has called the road home for the last 5 years. His work and travels have taken him from the Arctic Circle to Afghanistan, and he has no plans of slowing down anytime soon. Living out of his 1976 VW bus, James is no stranger to life on the road and aspires to continue pursuing climbing expeditions and riding adventures around the world.


James Barkman

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For years, the idea of riding the Pan American Highway was tossed around between myself and two of my friends. In the spring of 2017, we hit the road on the backs of $ 500 USD Suzuki DR650s and pointed them north. Armed with a shoestring budget and a determination to ride from the top of Alaska to the bottom of Argentina, my two friends and I carved out a year and a half of our lives to ride the world’s longest continuous road.

The Pan Am Highway stretches from Deadhorse, Alaska, a seemingly forsaken town several hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in South America. Aside from riding the 30,000 some miles (approx. 48,000 kilometers) from the Arctic Circle to Patagonia, our goal was to climb (rock climb) as many mountains as we could along the way.

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Pan American Highway 1
Pan American Highway 2
Pan American Highway 4
Pan American Highway 3

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Loading our bikes with high alpine climbing gear was quite the challenge. From Mt. Denali in Alaska to 20,000-foot (over 6,000 meter) peaks in the Andes of Peru, the climbing objectives on our route required a specific arsenal of technical ice and cold weather gear. By the time we loaded our ropes, ice axes, tent, sleeping bags, and rest of our climbing gear, we wondered if we’d even be able to fit in a second pair of underwear.

In addition to the climbing side of things, we would be riding through some of the harshest conditions and environments, which would also require appropriate equipment and a carefully planned selection of gear. The sub-zero temperatures of the Arctic Circle, the freezing rain of the Canadian Northwest Territories, the hot and sticky jungles of Central America and the high elevation plains of the Andes - just to name a few! - lay before us.


Pan American Highway 5

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Leaving for a nearly two-year trip was a huge commitment - this was no ride through the neighborhood. As trip preparations piled up and our leave date grew closer, it was hard to know what to expect. The possibility of injuries, breakdowns, and failures was intimidating, but also exciting. The mystery of the unknown and the open road ahead was invigorating.

Through North America, we lived on a religious per day food budget, pinching our pennies and eating too many bland oatmeal breakfasts and bean burrito dinners then I care to remember. When night caught us, we camped beside our bikes in remote deserts, surrounded by coyotes and cacti, or on empty beaches far from anyone or anything.

We used our riding jackets as pillows and drank bitter cowboy coffee by morning. We bathed in rivers and streams and jumped in the water holes or the ocean to cool off. One night, while camping near a city, I remember finding it odd when I wasn’t able to see the Milky Way.

So much time spent in remote areas and wild places made it feel abnormal to be around civilization. We were living like (gypsy) kings albeit kings on a very strict budget. Growing up, I would read books about cowboys, and although that era has since passed, I couldn’t help but think of ourselves as modern-day cowboys, only we swapped horses out for motorcycles.

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Pan American Highway 6

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Pan American Highway 7

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In Latin America, every country greeted us with new experiences and unique memories; the delicious fish tacos of Baja, Mexico, the friendly monkeys of Costa Rica, the angry dogs of Colombia, the lush jungles of Ecuador, the hospitality of the highland Peruvians, and the challenging high alpine climbs in the Andes mountain range.

On a trip that stretches out over such a long period of time, there are many high moments, but plenty of lows ones as well. There is nothing easy or fun about logging 500-mile (800 kilometer) days in below-freezing temperatures, or riding all day in pouring rain, only to wake up and do it all over again. If I had a penny for every morning I woke up with a hundred mosquito and bug bites, I’d be a wealthy man, and I’d be lying if I said I never got homesick.

When it comes to climbing expeditions and motorcycle trips, a fair amount of “type 2 fun” is unavoidable. Like any adventure worth remembering, there is an element of hardship and suffering that is a crucial ingredient. There may have been a little more pain and suffering than we anticipated, but the memories and stories are etched into my memory all the more.

Real adventures aren’t all sunshine and roses, but that’s why they’re called “adventures” and not “vacations.” Riding through flooded Bolivian salt flats, passing flocks of flamingos in Patagonia, and witnessing more sunrises from my sleeping bag than I can remember seem to always make up for the long, cold hours and miserable miles.

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Pan American Highway 8

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Pan American Highway 9
Pan American Highway 10
Pan American Highway 11

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Pan American Highway 12

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After 17 months and 38,000 miles (almost 61,000 kilometers) under our belts, we arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina on a wing and a prayer. Riding from Alaska to Patagonia was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

But probably the most rewarding too, and I’ll never forget the memories made, miles traveled, and mountains climbed on the road or the mountains of the Pan American Highway.



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