“Listen mate, most important, remember to get off on the right side of your bike so you don’t walk yourself off a cliff.” I’m sitting on the saddle of a mountain bike at the Cumbre, the highest mountain pass in Bolivia at 15,500 feet above sea level, and am listening to my friend and guide, Allistair Matthew, give me some pre-ride pointers. Before studying abroad, I planned to do my month long independent study on Bolivian president Evo Morales’ nationalization of natural gas. But once I arrived here things changed. “Forget it, I’m going mountain biking.” I muttered that statement many times over the summer at my office job, when I had no academic obligations. But once I got to Bolivia and realized that I had fallen into the mountain biking world’s diamond in the rough I muttered the statement again. “Forget it, I’m going mountain biking.” What started as an independent study on the political implications of natural gas petered out into a study on the feasibility of adventure tourism by focusing on the mountain biking industry. Or, as I liked to call the project, “mountain biking for credit.” The whole scheme seemed like a stroke of genius on the grandest scale, a feat akin to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Mountain bike for a month, write a paper about it, get credit? A revelation. I signed up immediately, before any Wheaton authority saw through my plan’s gossamer veil of academia. But as I sit on my mountain bike fathoming that I am about to travel 62 downhill kilometers from a starting altitude of 15,500 feet and end at 3,500 feet, all on a road that is called “Calle de la Muerte,” my nerves kick in. I can already hear my mother saying, “Oh honey, what the hell were you thinking?” Calle de la Muerte, which translates to the “road of death,” was deemed the world’s most dangerous road by the United Nations. Their criteria for judgment: deaths per mile.
I take a deep breath. It burns; I’m trying to suck air through a cocktail straw. At 15,500 feet above sea level the air is sparse. Your body stings and behaves as if you have gone on a one-year cigarette bender, consuming upwards of five packs a day, and then attempted a marathon. I wheeze like some sick, dying creature and gaze at my surroundings. Cathedral spire mountaintops, some passing the 5000-meter mark, loom above with authority. Up here there is no vegetation. Just half dead grass and craggy, sharp granite formed in the Triassic period around 200 million years ago. 15,500 feet above sea level is a bitter cold, ghostly environment. The air is thin and frozen; it stands still and plays with light in a way that intoxicates your eyes and perception. What breaths I struggle out are pure vapor, they trail off and combine with fog that lazily sweeps the ground. The whole scene at the pass is haunted –nature’s way of reminding travelers of the dangers to come- fog, chilled air, unearthly light. When the fog clears I make out a large cross and plaque inserted into a pile of stones where the road begins to descend. Reading the plaque adds to the eeriness; “paz este con usted.” Peace be with you.
“Alright mate, pony up, let’s do it.” Owner of Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking, Allistair Matthew looks over at me and casts a hell bent grin. Allistair, an avid mountain biker originally from New Zealand, was an important figure in a New Zealand international business firm where he was “eeking his way through life.” About ten years ago, he visited Bolivia, went back to New Zealand, quit his job, and returned to Bolivia to start Gravity Assisted Mountain Biking. This action launched the Bolivian adventure tourism industry. Allistair is built thick like a rugby player and has short, choppy, fire red hair. He sports a horseshoe mustache that extends six inches off his chiseled face and resembles flames shooting from a tailpipe. His arms are tattooed. The ultimate bad ass. Allistair is ultra enthusiastic about everything in life, especially mountain biking and his company; this kiwi is impossible not to like. Speaking to him is to encounter a living contradiction. A hells angel crunching cost benefit analyses of tourism subsidies. Ghengis Kahn running a respectable business. He takes off down the mountain and shouts “look on the bright side mate, you can’t get trapped in a burning bike.”
El Calle de la Muerte, or as it is officially called, the Undavi-Yolasa Highway, was built into the cliffs of the Cordillera Real mountain range by prisoners of the Chaco War from 1932 to 1935. The road connects lowland tropical produce farmers in the Yungas to the markets and populations of La Paz in the lofty Altiplano. The road is, on average, one and a half car widths wide. Its claim to fame is its cliffs, some of which are over 3,000 feet to the bottom; a fall from the edge of just about anywhere on the road would kill you. The road is two-way. Herein lies the conundrum that has claimed over one thousand lives, twenty of them mountain bikers. Passing tends to be a problem; cars back up for miles to find a spot in the road wide enough to squeeze by. Downhill cars drive on the left side of the road so their driver can nervously watch how close his left tire is to the cliff. The slightest miscalculation can result in disaster. In 1996 a bus carrying 130 people went off the edge. No survivors. The beginning 20 kilometers of the road is new, paved, and steep. The riding is quick. With the frigid wind at our back we hit somewhere around 40 miles per hour. Descending rapidly, my ears pop and the mountains become less menacing. Foliage begins to appear, there are trees interspersed between the cliffs and the sun even begins to shine. Light plays a huge role in this natural environment. Riding from a dark and eerie backdrop of threatening mountain peaks into bright scenery of misted cliffs and plants shifts my mood from edgy to euphoric.
My experiences with nature have always been active. For me, nature is one big playground. Mountains and cliffs are to be climbed, trails are to be biked, and snow is for snowboarding. Especially for my generation, outdoor activities have been a medium for many people’s experiences with nature. Really, how many of today’s people actually go out in the woods to sit and observe like Thoreau did? And how often do you see people bounding off rocks screaming absurdities like “NATURE IS GLORIOUS” such as Muir did? In today’s climate, Muir would be tranquilized and committed in a timely fashion, rightly so. Most of the people I know experience wilderness through activity. Nature has intrinsic value in our lives; it is a spot of refuge and escape, a place to get away from the modern. When we go into nature, our sanity is refreshed and rejuvenated. Today, recreation is an important medium for the experience of the natural. Outdoor activity carries with it important implications for man and the environment. For man, mental and physical health is restored, for the environment, recreation, which is generally low impact, can be used to conserve green spaces. Organizations such as the Access Fund and the Mugs Stumps award have effectively used outdoor recreation to save wild areas from development and resource extraction. Just this year, an area in Castle Valley, Utah was saved from development by climbers and mountain bikers.
The farther down the road we ride, the more plants, humidity, and heat greet us. The sun is still out when we come upon a checkpoint. Bolivia is similar to Robert Downey Jr. It has a serious cocaine problem. The country is the world’s second largest producer of both the coca leaf and cocaine. Coca leaves, the essential ingredient for the production of cocaine, are grown in the Yungas, our current destination. As we approach, three machine gun toting Bolivian soldiers stand at the checkpoint chewing coca leaves and tossing around jokes. Their faces are wind and sun burned; the products of constant proximity to the sun and dry down canyon wind gusts. The mercenaries wave us through. They aren’t interested in finding cocaine itself, they look for the acids necessary for large-scale production of the drug. “Vayan con dios gringos,” they holler after us. Soon after the checkpoint, we enter into ominous clouds and turn off the pavement onto the dirt. Calle de la Muerte is a perfect melding of man’s needs and natural environments. It integrates itself perfectly into the cliffs and jungle through which it travels; a beautiful blemish. We lean our bikes and bodies down on the grass, in the 4,000 feet of altitude we have lost, hearty broad leaf plants and trees appear, birds fly, and it rains. Looking into the beyond, the fog gaps for just enough time to see a line up of massive, sloping green hills in the distance; soldiers guarding their people and countryside. The air is thicker, breathing is easy, and the rain is cool. “You ready mate?” Allistair asks. “Well I guess it’s a tad too late to do anything about it isn’t it?” I answer sarcastically. Person to person bonding is best done outside in nature: around a campfire with a beer, on a hike through fall leaves, each attached to one end of a rope on a climb. Nature forces people into ease and comfort, comfort with themselves and others.
My tire rolls smoothly inside the muddy fjord that cars have created a foot away from the cliff. There are no clouds above, to my left, or to my right, but looking off the cliff yields only white. With white knuckles on the handlebars, I ponder if I am being ripped off by nature. Half of the allure of this bike ride is the epic views it offers. All I get is white. Damn the gods. Suddenly, my complaints are answered with an opening in the fog. I peer down. The two thousand feet to the ground send shivers down my spine. A fall from a height such as this would result in a paper-thin body and half-inch waist; an anorexic’s dream with severe side effects.
Travel down this road on a mountain bike evokes two strange senses. The first, because you are traveling on two wheels at 25 miles an hour, 12 to 36 inches from a cliff, is a feeling of intense enjoyment overlaid with constant edginess; like skydiving without instructions. Mountain biking is, and always has been, my favorite sport. Cruising down hill I am reminded of a trip with friends to Southern Utah, the week of mountain biking we did was one of the most epic of my life. Heights, on the other hand, are my greatest fear. I remember the same trip to Southern Utah, climbing red rock big wall at 40 feet above ground, my courage vanished and I could go no further. My friends below wouldn’t belay me and unleashed a half-hour long slew of character assaults until they realized I really wasn’t going anywhere but down. Riding down the death road puts me somewhere in between these two moments. The second sense evoked by this trail is the unadulterated realization of the variety of natural settings. Rapid altitude descents are never undertaken exposed to the elements; we are always confined to the cabin of a car or airplane. Five kilometers of trail takes me from arid, clear, sunny conditions to humid torrential downpours. The border between the two is obvious, my ears pop, the constant sun and desiccation is blasted away by a shot of wet air, fog appears, and rain hits my face. A reminder that altitude and water ultimately determine our environment.
Crosses are sporadically placed on the side of the trail, post it notes that remind me to pay attention and take this ride seriously. Halfway down, I’ve passed hundreds. Allistair waves his hand up ahead of me and we break at a grassy spot on the edge of a bend. “Go take a look off that cliff.” Four iron automobile corpses lie below. The first, nature and its rain and acids have rusted down to a brown skeleton. The other two are partly decomposed while the final looks brand new, just driven off the car lot. I ask Allistair why Bolivians utilize this road and take the blatant risk it poses. “Bolivians either take the risk of the road to make a living, or barely subsist down in the Yungas. They could always get into the drug trade, but that is more risky than the road.” Economic realities, combined with natural dangers, often make life in the developing world short and harsh.
Fifty kilometers from the Cumbre, the elevation is around 6,000 feet above sea level and we have almost reached our destination. The cliffs subside, and we ride at a slight grade downhill. Humanity returns. We pass ramshackle concrete and wood houses held down by old men on porches. Children chase after us, chickens flock out of our paths, monkeys and tropical birds screech in the palm forest. The humidity is intense and inescapable. Many people claim that nature is perfect; I believe humidity proves that it is not. The moist, uncomfortable, clingy, sweaty, dirty, unnaturalness that is humidity is nature’s most hideous feature. I pedal faster to create a breeze and outride this wretched moisture.
We pedal on. Through lush jungle, heavy air, coca fields, banana trees, gigantic bugs, skittish dogs, and filthy children. Old women eye us with suspect. Men flip us off and laugh Teenagers yell to see our bikes. We have finished the road. A ride it was. The whole experience is highly unnatural; the change in environment that occurs over 12,000 vertical feet inundates the mind. Man is not designed to take that much sensory experience in five hours. Nature is awe inspiring and unforgiving on the Calle de la Muerte. For most it represents harsh reality, an obstacle blocking the good life. For me, it represents vacation, it is the good life. Is this fair? Am I taking advantage of the less fortunate? I ponder these questions and find solace in the fact that mountain biking on this road has given unprecedented economic livelihood to people with nothing. Tourism provides one in every fifteen jobs in Bolivia, a large number of these are in the adventure tourism sector. The town of Yolasa would barely exist were it not for the ride down the road bringing tourists and their money. Further, mountain biking will preserve this beautiful road and the natural environments that surround it.
After passing through a river, the final phase of the ride, we pull up to a grass hut selling lunch, bottled water, and beer. We both take the latter two of the three choices. “Dos aguas y dos cervezas por favor.” Allistair grins and strokes his beard “you thought that ride was dangerous? Eat some lunch made with the local water source, see what kills you first