Motorcycle Touring in Central America | On the Run - Kilometer Zero

There are sexier, noisier, quieter rides, but no matter how sexy, quiet or noisy, they are just rides, and this is a journey.

Oye, Hasselhoff, you are nothing without your robot car! Sunny December morning in Central American Costa Rica and I'm chuckling into a spiced rice and runny eggs campesino breakfast with Paul The Good Gringo, wondering why there's a signed photo of The Hoff sharing the double-espresso "Wake up!" view that tickles our noses as the caf veranda collapses into a volcano valley that funnels vision past the comical peaks, across the coffee plantations and distant-down to the crashing Pacific surf. A view we've spent the last week riding in, running-in a dozen KTM 640 brand-spankers, ocean back and mountain forth, up and down this particularly pretty stretch of the Pan-American Highway.

"I hate that damn road." I love this fucking road. Paul's a dirt squirt who only tolerates tarmac when it leads to more innaresting trails. But I'm a road toad, and the never-ending Panamericana is my sweet eternity, first found when I turned left off Wilshire onto Santa Monica Boulevard, last lost somewhere around Kilometer Zero in the slum suburbs of Buenos Aires. In between, nearly three years of my life lie smeared like flies on a visor across its bars and beaches, bends and beers, beds and boobs. Three years? Puta madre. "Who the hell is that poodle-lookin' mofo, anyway? The poster boy for Gay Nazis for Peace, eh brother? Brother?" Sorry Paul, I'm miles away, dreaming the Pan-American Dream.

Welcome to the Panameri-cana, the nearly network of nearly 32,000 miles of interstate, two-lane blacktop and dirt-track that nearly runs from the Alaskan Arctic Circle to the Argentine Tierra del Fuego tip, via 15 countries, via everywhere you've ever dreamed of and never heard of on this side of the Atlantic: Hollywood and Huehuetenango, Rio de Janeiro and Riobamba, Acapulco and Atenas, all joined by this best of all possible roads.

There are sexier, noisier, quieter rides, but no matter how sexy, quiet or noisy, they are just rides, and this is a journey. More than the road-movie truck stops and toll booths, more than the Amazon, Andes, Atacama Desert National Geographic encyclopedia backdrops, this highway is a spine, a nervous system that links the history and culture of a thriving, swirling, changing continent, connects a dreamscape of cowboy and conquistador archetypes, links Francis Drake to El Dorado, Che Guevara to Pancho Villa, General Pinochet to Secretary Kissinger, Kurt Cobain to Carlos Mendel, Tupac Amaru to Biggie Smalls, the Cali Cartel to the Californian credit-card choppers...

This ain't working. How the hell can I describe three years' travel across a continent in a single paragraph? I can't. And even if I could, it still wouldn't be right. The difference between reading and riding is as vivid as the gap between "sex is a pleasurable encounter that provokes euphoria" and getting your Cialis-addled brains fucked out by a stripper from Suriname with pierced nipples and the kung-fu grip. And I think I've just talked myself out of a job...

Let the route speak for itself. Starting in chilly Alaska, the Panam runs down into the west of Canada, becomes the Pacific Coast Highway in the States, passes through Big Sur and L.A. en route to San Diego, where it cuts east across the desert and south into Mexico. And south into Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama until it dead ends into the jungle of the Darien Gap, reemerging across the border in Medellin, Colombia, cuts west through Bogota to Ecuador, where it opens its legs and shows its class as it begins the long drop south, plummeting through Peru and into Chile. Done? Nope. In Santiago it switches east, across the Andes, past Aconcagua, at 22,840 feet the highest peak in the Americas, across the vast pampas, all the way into Buenos Aires.

Despite the Kilometer Zero signposts, it doesn't really stop there. Like all weary travelers, the Highway takes a well-deserved B.A. break, enjoys a step of tango and a couple dozen bottles of cheap red wine in The Gibraltar pub, and eventually gets its shit together, jumps on the ferry across the River Plate to Uruguay and it's off again, racing through Rio de Janeiro, up, up, up to Caracas, Venezuela, back west to Medellin, Colombia, and Finnegan begin again. This is the journey that never, ever ends.

Too good to be true. No, really: The Panamericana doesn't actually exist. This is no Panama Canal. No pith-helmeted project manager ever threw a "one hand on cocked knee, the other shielding eyes from the Alaskan sun" catalog shape and hollered "Buenos Aires or bust, boys!" This International Highway is nothing more than a scribbled sequence of local roads that inevitably, obviously, meet at borders. This is no feat of engineering. This is a metaphysical marvel of genius, praxis and poetry.

The genius came in 1923, when the Conference of the Americas decided to name the barely there route from Dos Loredos on the Tex-Mex border to Santiago, Chile, as The Pan-American Highway. A show of soft-hands, a container full of signposts, an updated map and suddenly the continent was united. Genius. But until it's used to cross borders, it's just a theory. The road stays still, it's the travelers that move, and the actions of these travelers, commercial and recreational, on two wheels or 10, on donkeys and bicycles, that make this highway truly international. Praxis. And the poetry? Maybe that's in these travelers, when they stare down into their futures, back into their pasts, and almost, sort of, realize their role, kinda understand that until it's traveled, this road is no more than ink on a map, notes on a score, words on a page, that need to be felt, whistled, read into life. "I didn't realize you wrote such bloody awful poetry."

"Nothing feels nice as tits, but this sure is a close second," laughs Paul, and he smiles his chipped-teeth, wild-dog smile. Fresh December evening in Atenas, Costa Rica, and we're chuckling into our glasses, goofing off this garage full of black-and-orange scramblers, rusty-red Snap-On tool chests and black-and-white photos of an early-'70s AMA racer Paul getting his Harley XR750 flat-tracker slideways round a half-mile; photos that are 20 years older than their boy-racer star. "You're right, that is kinda odd."

Work's done for today (Ha! Bloody luxury!), and the evening's getting deliciously degenerate as we get dizzy on Nicaraguan rum, Cuban cigars and unlicensed guns. "Someone better call ATF, 'cause we got a full house here," says Paul as he lets two fly from his .38. I try to join in, but who the hell knows how to arm and load a Soviet SKS assault rifle? "I do. And now you do, too. We'll make an American of you yet, brother."

"Somos todos Americanos," said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. "We are all Americans." He's right-despite the linguistic hijacking, American doesn't just mean from the U.S. It includes anyone and everyone from Alaska to Argentina, and the Panamericana proves it every day. Not only, but also, "Somos todos Panmericanos." Long live this Pan-American dream. MC