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Honduras passed in a four-hour flash; the sight of 200 or more gutted cars and buses—the apparent result of continued fighting—along the 100-mile Honduran thoroughfare was all the motivation I needed to keep moving. When a Nicaraguan border guard asked me how to say "rock 'n' roll" in Spanish, I replied that rock 'n' roll was its own language. He stamped my passport and volunteered the name of a cheap hotel in Managua.
"Your dentist uses lousy glue," snorted Costa Rican dentist Melvin Jojas as he popped into place a bridge that had been pulled free by a caramel. Lucky for me, health problems during the trip were few: a bout with bad pork stew in a Mexican ghost town, the occasional two-day trots, a battle early on with leg cramps.
There was an advisory at the time from the U.S. State Department that cautioned citizens about the dangers of traveling in Panama, so my motorcycle, which I had named Mojo, and I took a plane to Colombia. I had been to this country before, but not since 1977.1 learned that it's possible to go home again. "Catarina!" Twelve years after my first visit, Flora Torres remembered my name when dog-tired and dirty from miles of rain and a muddy shortcut, I stumbled into her small hotel in Villa de Leiva. On my last night there, Flora invited me to a birthday serenada for her friend Margarita. Just before midnight, guitarists and guests tiptoed into Margarita's darkened living room. At midnight we broke into song.
One rainy Saturday in Tulc�n, in the middle of a weeklong wait while Mojo's permit papers to travel through Ecuador were processed, an amiable cabbie suggested a tour of the city's topiary-filled cemetery. No thanks, I had seen it in 1977,1 said. "Ah, yes," he replied, thinking fast, "but it's so much bigger now!"
Next came Peru and the prospect of more than 3,000 miles through desert, even as Mojo was beginning to overheat. But a savvy mechanic in Trujillo discovered a worn idle adjustment and fixed it in minutes. Two days later, I rode from the Pacific coast to Huar�s on what would prove to be my expedition's loveliest road. All around me were black peaks, linen-white clouds and burnished-gold fields of aloe vera. The two-lane highway wound and doglegged and occasionally went to gravel, and the mountain views were constant and heart-stopping.
Chile's Atacama Desert was so cold that even swaddled in six layers of clothes and a pair of deerskin gloves, I found it hard to ride for more than an hour at a time. I would climb off Mojo and begin shivering, teeth chattering, at every wayside stop. The women who ran these places—small buildings with a counter and some tables—unfailingly offered me shelter. They would warm my boots and gloves under their stoves. It was hard country: During the 44 days I spent traveling 3,200 desert miles, I saw precious few signs of life—not even road kill.
I was in Chile in December 1989, during the country's first free election in 16 years. On election night when the returns were in, suddenly the roads of Punta Arenas were filled with buses, taxis, farm trucks, cars—anything on wheels—each vehicle packed with cheering people. They displayed their brightly inked thumbs, proof that they had voted. Only one month earlier, while photographing a human rights demonstration in downtown Santiago, I had narrowly escaped being teargassed.
On Dec. 17, a year and six days after I'd left home, I entered Argentina. There were only 300 miles of unpaved road left to the end of the world. Two days later I rode into Ushuaia, a city so far south it didn't get dark until after midnight.
That night I called my mother to tell her I had finally made it to the city that had been just a dot on a map for so long. I felt calm until I heard her voice; then my voice broke, followed by tears and a feeling of tremendous pride.
A week later, Ushuaia's mayor, Carlos Manfredotti, told me that I was the first woman ever to solo a motorcycle from the United States to Ushuaia. But I wasn't finished yet. There were still—in my latest plan—another 14,000 miles to ride and another four countries to discover.