On the Run With Dan Walsh

The Most Beautiful Road in the World

"Sometimes I don't know why we bother." A supposed early morning start in Cusco, Peru, but eight-ish is becoming late-ish as we wrestle with clumsy hangovers, snapping bungees and rotten-tooth zips. Last night, The Kids raged against their Square but Nice reputation by celebrating One Year on the Road with a bottle of tequila and matching tattoos. Now we're suffering--panniers won't close, tank bags won't stick, Dick lost a glove while filling up and the Snappy Campers are bickering. "Days like these, I really think we'd be better on the bus."

We. After months riding alone, I've temporarily teamed up with Dick and Jane, mid-30s Londoners honeymooning across the Americas on their 1150GS. Nice to see that after so much traveling, Dick still loves Jane and Jane still loves Dick. Parked up, we make an odd team. My rag-and-bone Dakar dust cart versus their Touratech-catalogued Tonka. "Once you get used to the weight, she's a great ride," smirks Dick.

Happy with the company, concerned about the compromises, we're all prickling with, "Who's faster? Who's smoother? Will he mind if we stop to pee? Will they mind when I stop to smoke?" nonsense. Irrelevant meta-clutter that becomes just that--it all fades like footprints on a beach as soon as we stop worrying and start riding.

The sign reads El Camino Sinuoso-the winding road, but it could read "The Most Beautiful Road in the World." Ten minutes out of town and we already know this is gonna be special. Smokey ochre hills' concertina-like folds on a bulldog's neck, and as we climb into the Andes there are snowy peaks above, sandy desert behind and below, the road falling away like coiled rope.

This is the world's wild west where deserts, mountains and oceans collide with a jagged scream under skies so high it's disorientating--deliriously, delightfully dizzying. Yesterday, coastal desert day, this was a shimmering two-lane blacktop that cut up into buff sandstone mountains, then darted down to wind-scooped dunes by the roaring Pacific. Bridges leapt across paper-dry creeks full of dust and lizards, then wet-green stripes of linear oases worked by busy farmers. Today I'm staring at the snowline. Only in Peru.

Magnificent views, rubbish riding. The Dakar's understeering and vague. Stop for a smoke and kick the tyres. They're proper hot. "When did you last check the pressures?" asks Dick. Umm? He whips out a digital gauge. 16 and 21. He whips out a compressor. And the bike's transformed from squelching in wet wellies to strutting in slutty heels. Air pressure you say? Who knew?

The road levels out as it hits the Altiplano Plateau. We plane high, bitch. 4500 meters high, 14,000 feet up, where the sun burns, the wind chills and the colors glow like a cross-processed paint box. Everything that lives this high is woolly and fringed--the long-lashed llamas that have us cooing vowels, the kissing donkeys, the clever farm dogs, even the stone-walled, thatched cottages. Indigenous kids in woven ponchos and goblin hats stare from the roadsides, cheeks stained salty with last night's tears, top lips crusty with this morning's snot. They don't look very well.

We stop at the bluest lake I've ever seen. Miami-pink flamingoes strut out of place among the llamas. "That's rich," they squawk. The air's thin and I'm not. Gentle strolling leaves me wobbly woozy. Marlboro Lights hit like crack. So it's not all bad.

Up, down. Scoured yellows and cloudy whites become wet greens and woody browns in valleys of Alpine triangles, pointed pines and sloping roofs. Then the road dips from Austria to Mars into a valley thats pink as a cats mouth, as pink as lipstick kisses. Pink dust settles in pink mounds, pink water bubbles 'round pink stepping stones in a giggly pink river. Pink landslides tear soft pink gashes in pink cliffs. It's like riding through Mamacita Nature's secret smile.

Swooshing round easy open bends, bike rolling smooth as a pool ball on felt, black visor down, belly in, showboating past farmworkers walking home for their tea with that end-of-the day last rush of energy, chasing a too-soon afternoon moon, and I just can't stop laughing. This is a physical happiness that flows from nose to toes, that lifts like dancing to great music, that hums like sub bass somewhere behind my balls and somewhere above my eyes. I feel good.

And then the sun sets. I'm scared of the dark. South American roads that are dodgy during the day become dogshit at night. Too many too-dim donkeys and too-bright wagons. Too many potholes, not enough streetlights. If it was a book, I'd speed read this bit. But it's a bike, so I have to ride every word, every "I can't see" sentence. Even ghosting Dick's smooth lines and Jane's stickered box, I hate it. A long hour later we arrive in Scottish-sounding Abancay. Plot up in a transit hotel where no one's ever unpacked, eat dinner in a transit restaurant no one's ever visited twice, laughing at things that aren't funny. "You're rubbing off on us," scolds Dick as Jane collapses into snorting giggles.

It's a hundred miles from Abancay to Cusco. The buses take six hours. It takes six minutes to see why as we wallop over another pass and this time see the coiled-rope road spilling away in front of us. The traffic's light enough to let us relax, regular enough to reassure that we're not hopelessly isolated. Rusty orange Dodge Challengers, thirsty V-eights ripped out and replaced with organ-donor diesels turn family trips to the relatives' into Vanishing Point death rides. Quartz-hauling road trains with too many axles for the hairpins judder along in low-low, slowing me down long enough to read the "Randy from the Andes says Tigers Pay, Dogs Steal" slogans slapped below cargo doors barbed theft-proof with thorn trees, then air honk "Ola" as I slide by.

Fast boys find their drama on the dark side of 150, hanging off like bats at upside-down lean angles, fighting to stay on the black and out of the green. This is my drama. Flowing 50s, steady 60s, fast enough to feel alive, fast enough to feel the breeze, slow enough to see, slow enough to feel, slow enough to whoop and point and grin and tear up at the engaging, raw beauty of this open space place. If only I had brakes, it would be perfect.

Half an hour outside Cusco, I hear a clunk and a drag. Guess I lost the bolts in that last rocky river crossing, 'cause the backlight and number plate are hanging by a wiry thread. Gaffering it up, I watch a fiesta in the field below--indigenous women in felt hats and too many skirts playing football with teen-agers in Real Madrid shirts, while a pan pipe and squeeze box band croon country ranchero tunes. The MC spots me, switches from Quechua to Spanish and asks me to come on down. How could I say no?

They're celebrating a tap--first time they've had potable running water in the village. I'm expecting some interest, but I'm overwhelmed by the no-angle hospitality. The bike's surrounded by Who? What? Where? Why? questions, handshakes and hugs and I'm showered with shots of home-made chicha.

Halfway through my second cup of cold sick, a host tells me how this moonshine is made--the maize needs an enzyme to make it ferment. An enzyme only found in human saliva. Meaning? "Old women chew the grain for hours then spit it into barrels." A gurning gummy granny offers me a refill. How could I say no?

Richard and Jane follow me down, English hesitancy drowned in grubby kids' kisses. Three lads produce a table and chairs and we're sitting targets. Kids on knees, hanging off arms, climbing over heads. "Will you dance with me?" a pigtailed girl whispers in my ear. Why would I say no?

Exhausted by the high-altitude okey-kokey and half cut on granny phlegm, we hit Cusco just as the setting sun's backlit the red roofs like divine dashboard light. An hour later we're plotted up in The Norton Rats pub with a pie and a pint, wolf whistling at Jeff's '74 Commando and chuckling along to Easy Rider. "I never wanted to be anyone else." Stumbling back across the grand Plaza de Armas, we pass a line of backpacker squids squabbling onto a night bus. I've gotta ask. Why travel at night? "Because there's nothing to see between here and Lima." And they really don't understand why we're laughing so hard as we wink at each other and say--all together now--"That's why we ride." -MC