In June 2008, Nancy Sathre-Vogel, her husband John Vogel, and their twin boys Davy and Daryl, (ten years old at the time) biked from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia, Argentina – a distance of 17, 300 miles covered in approximately three years.
My friend, Linda Cox, met Nancy and her family while couch surfing on her way through Boise, Idaho in 2008 just as Nancy and family were getting ready to leave on their epic journey. Linda told me about this family and shared their blog with me. I was hooked! Seven years later, when Linda and I were traveling through Boise on our way to Wyoming, we had the opportunity to couch surf at Nancy’s house again. This time we got the stories after the big ride. Needless to say, Nancy inspired me and helped me get my brain around the fact that we all have the power within us to accomplish any dreams we might have no matter how outlandish they may seem at first blush. The take away after talking with Nancy…let yourself think big and see what happens!
Here is my August 30th Skype interview with Nancy on some big thoughts and major revelations.
Q. Carrying food and cooking on the road can be tedious especially when you have to feed two growing boys. What ended up being your “go to” meal while camping?
A. This depended on where we were. What foods were available locally varied greatly. One thing I did on the road that I never do at home was buy boxed side dishes like mashed potatoes and Rice-a-Roni. These types of packaged meals gave flavoring for our food since I never carried a lot of spices. With these side dishes, I could just add meat and we had a flavorful meal.
Q. Is there any food that you can never eat again as the result of that ride?
A. Peanut butter! Although, this was more a result of our first year-long ride through the United States and Mexico rather than the Alaska to Argentina trip. That first year we practically lived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. On our flight to Alaska to begin our trip, I inadvertently packed the peanut butter in our checked luggage rather than carrying it on the plane for a snack. I promptly forgot about it. Eventually, that peanut butter ended up being a God-send! In Alaska, we rode 500 miles before we hit our first grocery store in Fairbanks. I found that peanut butter in my pannier and ended up spoon feeding it to our two boys almost as if I were a mother bird feeding her young. There were no grocery stores, but there were several restaurants for truckers. We were able to refill our empty peanut butter jar with a supply from the restaurants. Ironically, the peanut butter ended up saving us!
Q. Where was your most memorable night as far as accommodations?
A. In Bolivia. We found that hotels simply don’t exist outside the bigger towns and cities in Bolivia. One night it was getting late and we were at a loss on where to stay. We spotted a school building and decided to go over and ask if we could stay the night inside the school building if we got up early and left before the children arrived in the morning. The caretaker was at a loss. She didn’t know what to think, so she kindly said yes. As I was getting our things set up, I noticed that my husband was hesitant. Sure enough, a woman who was in charge walked in and said we could stay but demanded that we pay an exorbitant amount of money for the night. We were happy to offer something, and indeed we were prepared to donate to the school regardless of whether they asked us or not, but this was an outrageous amount of money that was not doubt going into her personal coffers. We simply gathered our things and left the school which left us in a very undesirable situation.
Now, we had no where to go. It was dark and the kids were tired. Suddenly, the man across the street from the school who owned a small village store motioned for us to come over. His indigenous family lived in a single room behind the store. He offered us the floor of his store for free. His children stared at us in amazement. They had never before seen blond-haired people with strange helmets on their heads. Before we knew it, their kids were wearing our kids helmets and our kids were wearing their indigenous woolen hats and they were laughing and dancing around and having the time of their lives!
Q. Was there any incident that nearly ended your trip?
A. Yes, tendinitis in my thumb. Again, this happened during our year long trip through the US and Mexico. My thumb hurt so badly that I could no longer shift gears. This was a problem because if I couldn’t shift, I would eventually blow out my knees. At one point, when the boys were just eight years old, they came running towards me for a hug or to jump on me as kids that age will do, and I instantly covered my thumb and turned away from them so they wouldn’t touch my hand. It was a very emotional moment for me, but that is how painful and debilitating the tendinitis became! Thankfully, before we left for our Alaska to Argentina trip, I was able to adjust things on my bike so that I could shift and brake without putting so much pressure on my thumb.
Q. Were there times when you asked yourself what the hell you were you thinking? If so, how did you turn it around?
A. John and the boys never waffled! I, on the other hand, questioned what we were doing several times. The first time was in Coast Rica. We were riding endlessly though this tunnel of green jungle which sounds great but got very tedious very quickly. Sweat was dripping down my legs and bugs were biting every inch of my body. We had to get up sometimes at 3 or 4 in the morning in order to get packed up and ready to go by first light because it was just so hot and humid to ride during the day. We had 600 miles left between where we were and Panama City. This was the first time I entertained thoughts of, “Is it worth it?” and “Should we continue?” But, I sort of never answered the questions.
The second time I ran into these same questions was in Northern Peru. Within
about 30 miles of leaving Ecuador we found ourselves in the Peruvian desert. It was a stark transition and a world apart from Ecuador. We no longer had a mild climate, green rolling hills, friendly truckers and good affordable food. In northern Peru the hotels were expensive, the food was atrocious and the drivers were rude.
In addition, we were suffering from winds that blew sand into our legs so hard that it felt like little bee-bees blasting us. There were continuous cross-winds, head-winds and tail-winds. One day we were all sick with diarrhea after eating something bad in a restaurant. Again, I asked myself if it were worth it. I would have called it off at this point, but I was part of a team that was motivated to continue. When we pulled into Trujillo, I was completely fatigued and mentally done. It was my 12 year old son, Daryl, who said to me, “Mom, you’re not going to solve anything by complain. All you can do is keep going and things will turn around.” I’m not sure I believed him at the time, but I was willing to continue on to Lima before I made a decision. By the time we got to Lima, I was able to shift my attitude. Now, I saw the unparal
leled beauty of the desert. The desert didn’t change; I did!
The final meltdown happened in northern Argentina. No one told me about northern Argentina. I was told about the difficulties of Patagonia, and I was prepared for that but not for northern Argentina! We pulled into the small town of Zapala and I was bone-tired. I never really fully understood what that meant until that moment. I was physically and emotionally exhausted. Day after day after day of having to tap into my reserves had completely drained me. Now, after being back and reflecting on that time, I know that my adrenals were depleted and I was on the verge of pneumonia. But at that time, all I understood is that I was utterly and completely beat. I never wanted to get back on a bike again. We had come about 15,000 miles by then. Argentina was our last country and we had about 2,300 miles to go. Again, I asked myself those same two questions, “Is it worth it?” and “Should we continue?” This time the only thing that I wanted more than never getting back on my bike was to make it to Ushuaia. At that moment, I made the decision to continue and finish our goal.
Q. After being back now for over five years, and having had time to process the sheer magnitude of this epic journey, how has this adventure changed you? How has it changed your family?
A. Well, there is no control group of the Vogel Family who did the journey and the Vogel Family who didn’t, so it’s hard to say how we are different. That said, my sons are now 18 years old and starting to understand how extraordinary this adventure was. If they could do that at 10 years old, there isn’t much that they couldn’t do. Last summer we visited M.I.T. Davy was really excited and I had to tell him that only 7% who apply are accepted. His reply was, “I have just as good of a chance to be part of that 7% as anyone else.” Now, how much of his attitude is because of the ride and how much is just his innate personality we will never know. For me, I feel like it’s given me the courage to tackle some other goals that I’ve always been to afraid to try. For example, now I am making and selling jewelry. I never had a business bone in me before. I never had any idea on how to run a business and now I’m running a business and it’s doing okay. I’m still blown away by that! Maybe the journey gave me the courage to do this or maybe I simply would have done it eventually regardless of the journey. I don’t know!
Q. Is there any advice that you’d like to tell families or individuals who are contemplating a ride of this magnitude?
A. Don’t over plan! More dreams die from over planning than anything else. In the end, this is what will kill you. Don’t dwell on things that might go wrong. It’s true that they might go wrong, but it’s more probable that they will go right. Don’t focus on details that in the end don’t matter!
Q. Is there anything else you’d like to say that I didn’t ask?
A. Don’t fear! Our American society is a very fear based people. The reality is that the world is a good place. People are good. There are very few situations that you just can’t get out of. People will bend over backwards to help you and you will need help so don’t be afraid to ask for it. People want to help and if you let them know how they can help they will do it. We are raised to think we are imposing on people but that’s just not true. Our website got hacked down in Ecuador. We were trying to figure out how to fix it but our internet access was slow and we just couldn’t figure it out. Via Twitter this guy who had been following our journey told us what it was and how to take care of it. He said I could take care of this very easily and quickly but you’d have to give me your password. We decided to trust him. Sure enough, an hour later he had it up and running. We were grateful, but he was so happy he could help us on our journey in his own unique way.
You can read more about the background and day to day details of the Vogel family adventure by reading their blog at http://www.familyonbikes.com Enjoy the ride!