Out in the middle of a Mexican nowhere, the road suddenly forked. Which way? I hadn't a clue.
The Indian woman who appeared on the road seemed bewildered when I asked for directions, so I removed my helmet, assuming it was muffling my dubious Spanish. Startled, she smiled and took my hand. "Un milagro," she said, studying me with unmistakable delight.
"S�, es un milagro," I responded, smiling back. A blonde foreign woman on a motorcycle was clearly an exotic vision in this part of the world.
What had led me to that place and so far beyond? Well, when the video magazine I was working for in Florida folded in May 1988, logic and several years of persistent saving allowed me to indulge myself on a heroic scale. So I decided to take a motorcycle trip to the end of the world.
I was already a biker, having ridden a Triumph Bonneville for 15 years. I spoke a little Spanish and had earlier visited several Latin American countries. I had studied the geography of the area and knew that with the exception of a gap between Panama and Colombia, I could ride my bike all the way to the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, Argentina, at the coccyx of South America's spine. I figured I could travel for a year, if I kept my costs to just $20 per day.
"Are you crazy?" friends had demanded. "Those people hate Americans. And a woman alone?" It was useless to point out that "those people" were Americans, too, and that nobody else was begging to go along with me. At 53,1 courted only the approval of my mother, Elizabeth, who is in her 80's and lives in Michigan. My mother has taught me many things throughout my life. She taught me courage and not to whine. She taught me that being a snob about race, religion, income or ethnicity was wasteful; what counts is behavior. She allowed me to learn to rely on myself. And she let me see that no one, including herself, is perfect, and that dealing with imperfection is a part of what friendship is about.
She gave her blessing.
I dieted off 86 pounds, bought a secondhand 1980 Honda 250, made a will and rented out my Lantana, Fla., house. As I did these things, I never figured that what started as an almost whimsical exploration would turn into a two-year, 15-country, 28,756-mile odyssey during which my bike and I would travel in temperatures from below freezing to 125�. I would ride 3,200 miles through desert and over mountains so high that the clouds blew like smoke through the motorcycle's wheels. I would roll a thousand miles up the Amazon into the Brazilian jungle. At one point I would travel on 625 straight miles of dirt road.
I rode out of Lantana on Dec. 11,1988, heading west. Among my most vivid memories of the trip, the first was of that meeting with the Indian woman in nowhere Mexico. The next is of an event in the next country I saw, Guatemala. In the city of Quezaltenango, an ice-cream truck jingled the ragtime theme from The Sting as multicolored Holy Week floats cruised down the main street. A day's ride farther on, in the lake resort of Panajachel, I suffered an early bout of homesickness but was able to cheer myself by having dozens of narrow cotton pulseras, or bracelets, woven for me by an ancient Quich� woman with a face as creased as Georgia O'Keeffe's. Into each pulsera was woven the name of someone I loved. I wrapped the bracelets around my boots.
El Salvador was the place that my family and friends had most worried about, because of the ongoing violence there. The first child I saw there raised a crutch from the porch of his house and very smoothly, very professionally aimed it like a gun at my heart. I burst out laughing and gave him a salute. He giggled, dropped the crutch and waved back. In the capital city of San Salvador, other children played ball in the central plaza as helicopters whirred constantly overhead.