For many Pacific Northwest bicyclists, the annual Seattle-to-Portland group ride is a major feat. Then there's Gregg Bleakney. He bicycled from Northern...
For many Pacific Northwest bicyclists, the annual Seattle-to-Portland group ride is a major feat.
Then there’s Gregg Bleakney. He bicycled from Northern Alaska to the southern tip of South America, about a 19,000-mile journey.
The 32-year-old Seattleite was riding for adventure, a young man shedding the 9-to-5 world. But he also was riding for a cause, raising money for the American Diabetes Association through the almost two-year-long bike trip.
Starting from Alaska’s Prudhoe Bay in July 2005, Bleakney pedaled across the Alaskan tundra and down the west coast of North America. In Mexico, he biked through Mayan ruins (and on bandit-infested roads). He traveled through Central America’s steamy rainforests and colonial cities; across the high desert of Bolivia and across dozens of mountain passes in Peru’s Andes, many higher than the summit of Mount Rainier. Finally, after adventures, misadventures and dozens of flat tires, Bleakney ended his epic bike ride this May in the southern Argentina city of Ushuaia.
He began his journey with his close friend and University of Oregon classmate Brooks Allen. They planned and saved for the trip for years, and biked with memories of Allen’s mother who died of diabetes-related complications a few years before they set out.
Veterans of fund-raising and long-distance bike tours — although nothing as ambitious as this journey through North, Central and South America — the two wanted all the money they raised to go to the American Diabetes Association, not to cover their expenses. So they biked on the cheap, carrying everything they needed on their bikes and staying in ultra-budget hotels, sometimes for less than $5 a night. So far, they’ve raised about $44,000 of their $50,000 goal.
But their trip didn’t always go as dreamed. In Southern Mexico, near the border with Guatemala, they were ambushed on a jungle road, assaulted and robbed at machete-point by a group of masked men.
After the violent robbery, Allen weighed the risks along with the knowledge that more than a dozen other long-distance bicyclists had been robbed, some violently, in Central and South America around that time. For him, the risks outweighed the rewards and he was proud of the thousands of miles he had already traveled. Allen headed home to San Francisco and kept the fundraising going.
Bleakney kept biking southward, battling his fears after the robbery. “That was the low point of the trip … I thought I was going to die,” he said. “It took me months to get through the shock.”
He joined up with other bicyclists, European and American. Old friends flew in to join him, he met new biking companions on the road, and Allen returned to ride with him in part of South America.
Toiling across the brutal, high desert of Bolivia, Bleakney’s wheel rims blew apart. His lungs burned as he rode through pass after pass in Peru that topped 15,000 feet. He lost 40 pounds on the trip: “You just can’t eat enough to keep the weight on.” But Bleakney was fueled by his love of traveling at bike pace, moving slowly and intimately through the landscape, history and people.
His wanderlust hasn’t been quenched by his ride through the Americas. Not long after returning to Seattle and a software sales job, he hopped on his bike and pedaled to San Francisco for Allen’s wedding. Later this summer he’ll be in Europe to photograph and ride in long-distance bike races.
Wherever he goes, he’ll take vivid memories of his Americas’ ride with him. One of those came near the end of the trip, in Southern Argentina’s Glaciers National Park. At sunrise, if conditions are just right, a craggy, iconic mountain called Fitz Roy and other peaks glow fiery red.
“I got lucky, right place, right time,” said Bleakney. “The ‘sunrise of fire’ was amazing; it became even more special when the full moon poked its head out over the top of Fitz Roy just as the peaks were ignited.”
He couldn’t bear to leave the mountain grandeur; he camped another night by the side of a road with a view of the peaks, watching in awe through the moonlit night and another fiery sunrise.
“That morning, while taking some pictures, I noticed the image of a road that I had drawn on my rear (wheel) rain fender in Alaska on the second week of the trip,” said Bleakney.
“At that time, the drawing symbolized the dream of the trip … I looked back at the road I had just come from and its outline was nearly identical to the one I drew on my rear fender two years before. At that point, everything made sense and I knew that I had truly taken the right road.”
Northwest Traveler is an occasional profile of Seattle-area travelers and companies by Kristin Jackson, firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2271.