This is part 1 of my interview with Andre Sólo.
Andre is an author, philosopher and professional adventurer. Since 2012 he has traveled across the Americas with nothing but a bicycle. He believes that a journey is a powerful way to discover your purpose in life, and that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. He writes about heroism, introverts, and exploring the world. His book Lúnasa Days has been described as a masterpiece of magical realism. You can be part of his journey at roguepriest.net.
Give us a brief overview about the goal you achieved and why it was so important?
The idea of adventure and travel has always been important to me, even during the years that I put it out of my head. When I was a kid I grew up on these stories where people would go on grand adventures across the world. I guess some part of me always just believed that I would get to go one too. I wanted to discover things that most people don’t see, and explore. I’m in love with the sense of exploration.
That doesn’t template into the “normal” adult world very well. So after college I kind of suppressed those ideas, but it was bad for me. It was bad first of all because I never felt happy with my job or my life. And it was also bad because I never seemed to fit in. I felt like I was always off by a beat somehow, like I wasn’t in the right place.
Part of me never did give up on the dream. I remember I would say to my friends or my ex that one day I was going to hike to South America. It bothered me when they didn’t take it seriously. But as time went on I realized I either needed to take action or it really would be just a dream that never got accomplished.
To help clarify the goal you achieved, was it the idea of adventure and travel in general or was the goal to hike to South America?
It was both. I just always knew I was going to go on one of these journeys. But I was 12 when I fell in love with South America. It was in world history class. It was silly things, like I liked the photo of the giant waterfall in the jungle, and there was a section called “Bustling Caracas” and suddenly I could picture myself in these markets. Even just the name “Caracas” sounds cool when you’re from Wisconsin. So I decided I really wanted to go to South America, and especially the Amazon. (Caracas is not in the Amazon, by the way, but that waterfall is.)
Anyway, as I got older I only pined more for a life of traveling freely. I started to confront the reality that travel is sometimes expensive, and that people need these things called jobs. I wasn’t sure how I could afford to fly all over the place and stay at hotels. That’s when it occurred to me that the US and South America are connected by land the whole way. Like you could literally walk there. And I love camping, so I figured I could camp out. The idea was born.
With time it transformed into bicycling rather than walking. But I still liked the idea of going on my own body power – not taking cars or buses or a motorcycle. I must have been about 19 when I decided for sure I would “one day” do this. But ten years went by before I got started.
It sounds like you and I would get along well with each other. I’m an Eagle Scout and enjoy the outdoors lifestyle especially when it comes to hiking and camping. That said, I’ve never done anything like this before… WOW! I think it’s clear that you’ve always had a strong desire for adventure and travel. Tell us how you actually turned this idea into reality?
Well, there’s s ton of things that get in the way. The biggest one is mental. I had to accept that this dream would never, ever happen if I didn’t choose to make it happen and start carving out a place for it in my life. I had to make it a priority alongside other things like finances, work, personal obligations, and friendships. I had to accept that I may need to take time away from those other things in order to plan a journey.
Then there is the social side. You start talking about this with friends and at first no one really believes you. Then if you start sounding serious, WHAM! Everyone you know claws at you. Don’t do it! It’s crazy! It’s dangerous! You’ll ruin yourself financially! I had one friend tell me I would die if I tried this. The more serious I got, the more people grilled and belittled me. Much later, some of them admitted they were jealous and that was why they reacted so strongly. But in the moment, it seems like your friends have turned on you and no one believes in you. It’s harrowing. But it tells you a lot about habit and how frightened we are of big dreams.
Anyway, for me the biggest thing was money. I think this is the big thing for most people. There are a lot of ways to finance a long journey, but I don’t like most of them. Some people save up, but that means that after your journey you’re right back where you started. Still dependent on a job. Other people live off the kindness of strangers, and there’s something beautiful to that, but it’s loaded. I wanted to be independent. I wanted to travel freely and have income on the road. So I learned how to freelance.
I have been a writer all my life but I had never worked as one professionally. It wasn’t hard to get started, but it was hard to build up a steady income. There are lots of ways to freelance—chances are that whatever your current career is, there’s a way to do it as an independent contractor, especially if you work creatively. The most established travelers I know all have real jobs: one designs logos and ads, several do computer stuff, one does marketing research. It’s a trade off because you have to work every week during the journey. To me it’s worth it, because I can travel as long as I want and I have spending money. I’ve been on the road 3 years now nonstop.
Let’s dive into the last 3 years that you’ve been on the road. Walk us through the journey and tell us where you’ve been, what you’ve done and what you’ve seen?
There’s so much. The actual journey began with a ride down the Mississippi. I figured I would go from the source of the river (near the US/Canada border) to the end of the Amazon (in Brazil). I started with nothing. A friend gave me an old road bike from the 80s and together we got it back in decent shape. He had to teach me how to do everything; I was clueless. I couldn’t afford real bicycling equipment, other than a helmet, so I got some cheap tote bags and strapped them on the back of the bicycle with zip ties. They started ripping apart right away. Everything I owned was in those bags.
My first day I did 32 miles. By the third day I was up to 56 miles, but I almost died of heatstroke. My body adapted, though. A few later I did my first 100 mile day, and by nightfall I felt so good I could have gone 20 more.
At the beginning it was familiar territory. I would stop and visit friends and family as I crossed Minnesota and Wisconsin. After that I was on my own. I quickly learned I had to talk to people and make friends, that living as a loner was too rough. Travelers survive by being friendly. It’s all you’ve got.
I came through Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Mississippi, and finally Louisiana. I rolled into New Orleans and felt like a king. I couldn’t believe I’d done the first leg – 1,800 miles. And I fell in love with that city. It’s the best place for artists and misfits in the whole US. But I wasn’t done. I continued down to the end of the river, where she meets the Gulf, and a friend came with me for the first time. After that I rode solo to Texas, another 700 miles. Texas was rough. Everything is spread out and not biker friendly. At one point I walked my bike over a train bridge in the dark, covered in rattlesnakes, and of course just when I got to the middle here comes a train. I learned to run.
I made great friends in Texas, though. For the last little leg to the Mexico border, two friends joined me. For three days we were a pack of wild dogs wandering the roads. Adventure is best with a friend at your side.
Then Mexico. Everyone said I’d get my head cut off. I did my homework and planned it out. I had one friend bike with me, while another drove a car behind us. This is where it’s a good thing that I work on the road, because most backpackers couldn’t pay for a car escort. The border region is spooky. Abandoned highways and bullet holes in the stop signs. But we traveled by day, hunkered down at night, and three days later we were in Saltillo, past the main drug war zone.
After that it was just me again. I adore Mexico. I’ve seen white deserts covered in endless fog, I’ve hiked to forgotten ghost towns, I’ve climbed pyramids and fled the policía and gone over mountain passes 9,000 feet tall. At one point the road just ended so I shrugged and walked the bike blindly across a desert. Most Americans do not understand Mexico, and it’s a shame because it’s wonderful.
I made it across Mexico and now I’m in the Yucatán, hanging out with Mayans and getting ready for the next leg of the trip.
What have you enjoyed the most about your trip so far, and what do you have planned for the next leg of your trip?
I think the answer most travelers give is “the people I’ve met.” And in some ways that’s true. I’ve made amazing friends from many walks of life and often the people I’ve met have been what made a particular city or place so special.
However, I’m an introvert, and a writer. I find joy in solitude. Often what I enjoy most are places – just soaking in a landscape or an old building or a crowded Colonial plaza. I like to get a sense of place, not by talking to individuals but by standing back and looking at the whole. You’ll find that in my writing too. A lot of times the place itself is sort of a character and I try to whisk people away to this place they’ve never been. (At least in my fiction. The road logs on my blog are more like journal entries.) So what I enjoy most is basking in the mood and energy of a place unlike any I have ever seen before, or a place that clearly has a story. That can be a dramatic view of a volcanic lake glimpsed through the jungle, or it can be a rundown little cottage that doubles as a convenience store, with its shutters open and light spilling out at sunset. That’s the stuff I’ll remember forever.
My plans for the trip have changed constantly. I consider this year a “year of career,” a time to focus on writing and publishing as much as possible, so I stay in one city for months at a time. But by the end of the year I will be ready to bike through Central America. After that I have to plan how to cross the Darién Gap, an impassable region of mountains, jungles and terrorists where Panama meets Colombia. Most people fly over or take a boat around because going overland is considered suicide. But if I am going to stay true to the dream of powering everything with my own body, I will need to get a local guide and hike it.
At this point, it sounds like you’ve had to overcome a lot of obstacles along your journey. You mentioned that you are going to be crossing the Darién Gap. I’ve heard it’s EXTREMELY dangerous and that it’s only been crossed a handful of times. Can you give us any insight into how you plan to cross it?
I wish I knew. It starts with researching it—the terrain, the history, the political situation, past crossings by others. That research has already started. Next I will reach out to people who have done it, or who are experts on the situation there, and ask for their advice.
From that advice a plan will take shape. It will likely involve requesting official permission from the government of Panama and hiring guides who know the area well. It may involve other steps as well. The goal is to go in with the most preparation possible and keep the risk to a minimum.
The hike itself will be “easy.” Travel writers make a big deal out of the risks of the jungle but those risks are similar to remote jungle anywhere. As an experienced outdoorsman, and with appropriate equipment and a good guide, I have few worries about poisonous animals or jaguars. That’s not because I’m ignorant of the serious threat they pose, it’s because training and common sense mitigate that threat.
The real danger is the human element involved and the violence in the area. I will have to become an expert on the political situation there and then gauge when (or if) there is a good time to go. Remember that in the recent past, tourism companies actually offered paid hikes through the Darién Gap; it’s quite doable if no one is shooting at you.
To me the most interesting challenge is doing it all by my own body power. Most people who cross the Darién gap use SUVs, motorcycles, etc. Even those who wish to hike it typically take (motorized) boats along rivers for much of the distance. That’s not an option for me. I’m intrigued to learn whether there are footpaths the whole way, or if I’ll paddle a canoe. I’m especially eager to see what kind of guide I can find that will be crazy enough to do the whole thing without motors.
I’m not sure I’ve heard of anyone crossing the whole thing without vehicles or motorboats, so it’s a fun challenge.
End of part 1…
I will follow-up with Andre for part 2 of the interview to discuss biking through Central America and crossing the Darién Gap.
September, 2015 Update from Andre: Back in US. Next leg of ride will be Central America which will happen in 2016 (not sure when – either before Feb 2016, or after Nov 2016 to take advantage of the cool season). Darién Gap will be 2017 I imagine.