What It Took to Complete the Pan-American Highway: 17 Months and 30,000 Miles on a Motorcycle

Moto Camping
Photo: Courtesy of James Barkman

The Pan-American Highway is the world’s longest continuous road system, stretching 30,000 miles from the northern tip to the southern terminus. Starting at the very top of North America in the small arctic town of Deadhorse, Alaska, the road ends at the bottom of South America in the city of Ushuaia, Argentina. It crosses a dozen countries and hundreds of ecosystems, while following a mix of pavement and dirt roads. For many road warriors, it’s not just on their bucket list, it’s at the very top of it.

James Barkman, a good friend and fellow dirtbag, spent a year and a half riding the entirety of the route on a motorcycle, with two of his closest friends. They stopped along the way to climb some of the tallest and most challenging peaks in both North and South America, including Denali, Robson, and many in Peru.

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Inspired by his journey and sense of adventure, I sat down with him to learn more about the trip and lessons he learned along the way.

Riding Salt Flats
Photo: Courtesy of James Barkman

Where did you get the idea?

I credit the whole idea to Allen, who for years had dreamed of riding from Alaska to Argentina. The day he graduated college we hopped on our bikes and headed for Alaska.

Who came along for the ride?

My fellow riders were two friends from childhood, Allen and Jeremy. We grew up together; I’ve known both of them almost as long as I can remember.

Moto Camping Snow
Photo: Courtesy of James Barkman

What kind of skills did you have going into the trip?

None of us had done anything longer than a week-long motorcycle trip prior to leaving, although we each had years of experience on bikes. It’s hard to prepare for something like the Pan Am. I started rock climbing when I was around 17, but had only started pursuing alpine and mountaineering objectives a few years before.

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When it came to climbing, I was the most experienced out of the group but it’s safe to say we were all relatively green – the trip was very much a maiden voyage for all of us.

Broken Chain
Photo: Courtesy of James Barkman

Did you ever get close to quitting and just flying home?

A few times, for sure. Going into the trip, I knew it was going to be hard, but I didn’t know how hard. I was always determined to finish come hell or high water. Climbing back to back mountains off a motorcycle for 17 months is exhausting physically, mentally, and emotionally. Allen suffered from some weird health issues in South America, and relational dynamics can get pretty challenging especially when you’re dealing with dangerous and stressful situations. Carving out a year and a half of my life for the trip required a lot of energy and sacrifice, and I think that kept me motivated to actually finish and make it worthwhile.

Motorcycle Waterfall
Photo: Courtesy of James Barkman

What about some highlights?

Man, there are too many highlights to choose from, but some favorite memories are riding through flooded salt flats in Bolivia, crossing high elevation passes in South America, bathing in the freezing Yukon river, sleeping under the northern lights, camping at hot springs in the fall – moments that made you forget the rest of the world existed. Those types of moments are so much more rewarding when so much effort went into creating and discovering them.

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Moto Flats
Photo: Courtesy of James Barkman

Any bad moments?

The bad? Too many as well! We got caught in an avalanche in Peru and I had to give Jeremy mouth to mouth for 5 minutes until he started breathing. That was a terrifying experience. The ride to Deadhorse in the Arctic was probably the most miserable thing any of us had ever done due to freezing temperatures, challenging and dangerous riding conditions, breakdowns, and fried nerves. I think any type of intense situation that burns everybody’s ability to stay patient and understanding leads to some heavy moments, and there were plenty of those.

Moto Fixing
Photo: Courtesy of James Barkman

What were the most useful pieces of gear?

Traveling through so many different climates makes choosing the proper sleeping gear a tricky one. Therm-a-Rest’s ultralite gear was a total game changer, as paired together they form a zero-degree setup but can be used individually, and still take up less space than most zero-degree bags. The Hyperion 20-degree bag and Vesper 20-degree quilt gave the versatility to stay comfortable in sweltering jungles or at 18,000-foot high camps in the Andes.

Death Valley Moto
Photo: Courtesy of James Barkman

How many showers did you take when you got home?

Showers were almost becoming a distant memory when we got back. I think I’ve taken a hot shower every day since I got back to the states, and I’ll never take them for granted again.

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Summing up a year and a half is nearly impossible, but give me a few things you learned?

One life lesson I think I really walked away with was that without the right people, experiences are often shallow and won’t leave you fulfilled in and of themselves. Adventure is best found in the context of community and relationships, you need both. It’s a little cliche I guess, but as someone who has often tended to pursue experiences over people, the trip helped me balance out the scales a little bit more.

Motorcycle
Photo: Courtesy of James Barkman

Would you recommend the route to others?

I would absolutely recommend it. Riding the Pan Am was the craziest thing I’ve ever done. You could spend a lifetime in every country or area along the way and not even come close to experiencing everything that it has to offer. And if I did it all over again, I’d choose the same bike (1996 Suzuki DR650).

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