One of the things we heard over and over on our trip was the line, “Oh, it’s so good you’re doing this before you have kids” – as if having kids automatically spells an end to adventure.
If one family proves how false this idea is more than any other, it must be the Vogels. Nancy, John and their 11-year-old twin sons Davy and Daryl are a Family on Bikes… currently on a mission to cycle the Pan-American Highway, with the added twist that the boys want to become the youngest people ever to complete this epic trip.
Here they share with us a recent week in South America, when unexpected illness threw out the best laid plans… something that can and does happen to all of us somewhere along the way. Nancy starts with a little introduction.
There are few things that are predictable when a family of four takes off to ride bikes from one end of the world to the other. Each day we wake up wondering just what kinds of adventures will arise that day and where we might end up laying our heads that night. During our 29 months on the road as a family, we’ve slept by the side of the interstate with cars whizzing past our heads a mere 20 feet away, in a dead gold-miner’s house, in fire stations, and with some of the most wonderful people in the world. We’ve eaten a mountain of tortillas and beans, tangerines by the bagful, and more granola bars than I can count.
The vast majority of our 116 weeks on the road have been delightful. We’ve awoken to bright blue skies, crested passes and seen vast valleys spread out below like a massive patchwork quilt, and been privilaged to meet people from all walks of life. When I look back upon our time on the road, it’s not the struggles against headwinds or hills that come to mind. I don’t focus on the days when it was impossibly cold or blazing hot. What I remember most are the good times – of which there have been many.
But here, I will attempt to describe our last week on the road – which wasn’t one of those good weeks. This past week has been one of those times I would just as soon forget, but know I never will. It was a tough period in our lives, but fortunately, all ended well.
The prelude to this week goes way back to one day in Costa Rica when my 11-year-old son, Davy, told me his toe hurt. By the time we got to Panama, it was red and inflamed – which led to a visit to the doctor where surgery was performed to remove an ingrown toenail. Fast forward a month or so, and we were in Colombia and the other big toe was ingrown and infected. Davy had that toe operated on, and we figured all was well.
We spent a month in that village and were just readying to take off when we heard the words we had hoped we would never hear again – “My toe hurts.” The toe that had been operated on in Panama was ingrown and painful once again. I never knew an ingrown toenail could cause such problems. I’ve dealt with ingrown toenails my whole life but, I now realize, mine are nothing more than a minor annoyance. Davy’s, on the other hand, are a serious event. A massive chunk of nail – about 3mm by 4 mm – breaks off and embeds itself way down near the root of the nail. The only way of removing it is to cut out the nail completely and go digging.
We debated on whether to stay an additional three weeks where we were, find another village in Colombia, or push on to Ecuador where we planned to meet some friends. In the end, we made the decision to push on to Ecuador, knowing we had 800 kilometers through the Andes to get there.
All went well for the first half of the journey. Every night I begged for hot water from hotel staff or a nearby restaurant to soak Davy’s toe in epsom salts. Every morning I bandaged the toe with antibiotic ointment. In the back of my mind I knew the clock was ticking and it was only a matter of time before infection set in. Could we make it to Ecuador in time?
So that brings us to the week from hell. The week when our plan – so sensible and well thought out – unraveled.
Day 1 – Stuck in the Rain
We awoke in Rosas that morning to pouring rain. Stay? Or push on? One of the worst things a cyclist can face is cold rain, and we will go to great lengths to avoid it. We made the decision to wait out the rain and (hopefully) get a late start. A few minutes later, however, Davy announced that he wasn’t feeling good and made a nosedive back into bed. We stayed put. Tick, tock, tick, tock…
Day 2 – Hope that we’ll make it
The rain had stopped and Davy was feeling well, so we pushed on. It was a fine day and all was well. Maybe we would make it to Ecuador in time after all!
Day 3 – Cycling through the pain
I awoke in the middle of the night with the most intense back pain I’ve experiened in many, many years. I slithered off the bed onto the floor, where I spent the remainder of the night. In the morning, my husband and kids helped me pack my bike and I climbed on. Getting on the bike was torture; getting off was even worse. I stumbled into restaurants with a crooked Hunchback-of-Notre-Dame shuffle. By the end of the day, I was hurting – every pedal stroke sent bolts of pain radiating throughout my lower back. Decision time had come.
Day 4 – Time to change plans
My husband and kids stayed put for the day in order to help me get my bike and all our gear into a pickup truck for the ride up the hill to Pasto. They would follow on empty bikes the next day. Another day down…
Day 5 – Not quite making it
The boys set off bright and early for the 7000-foot climb to the city. Although they had hoped to make it in one day, the climb proved to be too much, and they called it a day 30 km from Pasto.
Day 6 – Legs of Jelly
It was 2:00 in the afternoon when the crew stumbled into our friend’s house in Pasto. They were wiped out. Exhausted. With legs of jelly. But that clock was ticking. Tick, tock, tick, tock…
Day 7 – Rest Day
Even though the boys were all exhausted and badly in need of a rest day, and I wasn’t sure if my back would hold out, we packed up and took off. Fortunately, fate intervened and demanded a rest day after all. We had a multitude of errands to run – which shouldn’t have taken long. I think the ‘forces that be’ knew we needed another day off, and dragged it all out. We stayed in Pasto that night.
Day 8 – Relaxing with friends
It was early in the morning when we pedaled out of Pasto and started climbing the hill out of town. A friend joined us for the ride, and led us to Pilcuan – where his wife’s cousin lives. We spent a delightful afternoon hanging out chatting with Doña Teresa and Leida, before falling asleep in our sleeping bags on the floor of an empty house.
Day 9 – Breaking point
Sometimes you’ve had enough. Sometimes you’ve reached the end of your rope and can fight no longer. There comes a point when you realize you’ve given it a valient effort and you’ve fought a good fight, but the forces of nature are simply too much. We reached that point this morning in Pilcuan. We had given it our all. We had tried to make it to Pimampiro, but realized we just couldn’t do it. Davy woke up and, once again, uttered the dreaded words – “I don’t feel good.” Davy and I left our bikes in Pilcuan and jumped on a bus for the remaining 150 km. Daryl and John continued on by bike.
And so it goes that we made it to Pimampiro before infection set in. In the end, we won the battle against time and Davy was able to get his surgery done. We are now hanging out in this small Andean pueblo high in the mountains while our son recuperates from his surgery. All four of us are enjoying our well-deserved break and will be ready to move on in a couple of weeks. All is right with the world once again!
All pictures on this page are courtesy of the Family On Bikes.