Surviving Death Road (Twice)

I mountain biked for the first time the other day. With a few friends from my travels in Peru, I barreled down Yungas Road outside of La Paz, Bolivia, also known as “the world’s most dangerous road” and “Death Road”. It’s a twisting mountain road that hugs a cliff with incredible views for 40 miles of downhill.

Before tempting the curves, I had never really ridden a bike for an extended period of time. Sure, I had done a bike ride with my cross country team eight years ago, but nothing like the adventure of mountain biking. Needless to say, I was nervous about the ride at the beginning.

Then, a funny thing happened. Only moments into the ride, the fear evaporated. I got the sense that the ride was a lot about confidence. Not the reckless bravado that gets you into trouble, but a quiet comfort in your ability to handle the situation. When that realization settled into my bones, I shouted with joy at the scenery and let gravity pull me down the path with unsettling speed.

The first stretch was on paved road and gave me the chance to get used to the feel of the bike and to mold my muscle memory. By the time we made it to the unpaved and infamous road, I was ready. I quickly found the best space to rocket down: just behind the leaders of the group. My friend Jo was battling to beat the tour guide the whole time and had an experienced rider right behind him. I settled in behind the third rider and in front of the rest of the group. It gave me the chance to explore different speeds, be aggressive with some parts and to completely immerse myself in the experience without worrying about he other riders.

I was awash with adrenaline from start to finish. The rush pushed me through sharp turns, land-mines of rocks, waterfalls, and streams. Before I knew it, we made it to the bottom to enjoy a cold beer.

The adventure wasn’t over yet, though. About an hour into the three hour trip back to La Paz - back up the road we had descended - there was a problem with the bus. The headlights were causing some issues with the engine. The obvious solution? Tape a flashlight to the front of the bus, leave the headlights off and continue on slowly but surely. The bus driver took his time and often had the help of other cars’ lights, but to say the ride was nerve wracking would be an understatement. Nervous chatter occasionally punctured the silence as we successfully navigated back to La Paz.

In both directions on the road, fear was in the mix. However, the fear on the return trip was a different. It was fear without control. Unlike the ride down, my fate was in the hands of a (very capable) driver. The presence - or absence - of control makes all the difference.

I think a lot about what we take back with us from traveling. Recently, I’ve noticed a little more courage within myself, whether in hiking for days, repelling down buildings, or mountain biking. I think I’ll always be unsettled by the fear in moments where I don’t have control, but I think I’m beginning to handle the fear where I can change the situation. A lot of the fear of travel is unsettling but fixable: you only have to be bold. Unfortunately, I think some of the confidence we earn through travel dissipates on the way home. Something about the familiarity of home pushes us back to normal. Maybe through putting that realization into words, I can bottle some of that boldness and release it like those shouts of euphoria as I raced down the road. I know I will end it when I get back home.