Since the beginning of time the open road has elicited daydreams of freedom in many minds. As modes of transportation and travel have progressed, the convenience of reserving and booking your adventures and stepping off an airplane into a different world are what get most of us through a year of the daily grind until it’s vacay time. But what about the wonders in our own backyard? Or the means of discovery with an unknown end destination? What about seeing how far you can go by the power of your own body and mind? Choosing this enjoyment of curiosity over progress opens you to the rewards of expecting the unexpected and can be highly addictive. I found this out when I finally took the leap to follow my longing to connect with people, culture, and nature that I would never have encountered in my daily life. Pedaling to mountainous high altitudes, lush jungles, hostile deserts and beckoning forests opened the doors to my mind, my heart and the homes of strangers who treated me like family.
I began my tour (my first trip by bike) setting out from California and headed for the tip of Argentina with another woman that I had never met in person before. Together we discovered cooking outdoors, camping, learning Spanish by trial and error, navigation, and the power of instinct. All of these tools became our way of life for 2 and a half years. Admittedly, I wasn’t an experienced cyclist or traveler before I began this journey but had always dreamed of the unique perspective of solo experiences. So in El Salvador I went off on my own. The challenge of taking a step further outside of my comfort zone taught me higher respect for the road beneath me and the routes I chose to places that provided me with somewhere to sleep, communities to exchange knowledge, and an appreciation for the simplicity and abundance around me. I found these riches in villages and rural towns with little in the way of material items and countries portrayed in a one sided view as as dangerous.
On a bike I feel limitless, that there is no end to the possibilities. To surmount difficult circumstances and maintain physical endurance based on the fulfillment of my surroundings caused me to look at life differently. In your mind if you can get to a place where you want to be, the challenges are pleasurable. Where I had dreaded Sierra Giganta in Baja Mexico I was now traversing The Andes and and not wanting the climbs to end. I’ll never know if it was the offerings of fruit or wisdom from roadside farmers, the gaggle of kids with their assaults of questions and laughter, or the daily warm acceptance of calling the unknown home but on my bicycle this tremendous source of resonation had little to do with escape and everything to do with finding the depths of kindness in the world.
In Colombia I discovered backroads and the thrill of smaller dirt tracks. Evolving the routes I took was a huge liberation. The discovery of options for more remote wilderness fueled my passion for riding on a new level. An admiration was built between local people who knew their terrain and they were downright impressed by a foreigner who had gotten to know it as intimately as one does on two wheels with a tent. Places too small to be marked on a map are burned into my mind, distinguished by the moments spent there; sometimes comically bizarre, or endearingly welcoming, quaintly surreal, or bustling with a chaotic injection of energy. Most people didn't actually believe how for I had ridden but a mutual curiosity always seemed to break down barriers and even with my family and friends so far away I felt the harmony of belonging even though the lives of those I met could have not been more different. An unexpected invitation or when someone shared a story from their life was the greatest gift. These generosities wowed me throughout my entire trip.
I had the opportunity to cross paths and cycle with other travelers bursting with character from all over the world. On the road less traveled, sleeping under the stars, the humbling strength and beauty of the wild, having all the possessions that I needed to survive with me in nature I felt like I was exactly where I should be even when geographically I was in the middle of nowhere. I was afraid at times but just as my outlook had proved to turn bad luck into good, I grew to realize the control I had over this. Experiencing ways that other people live, their family bonds and optimism despite struggle expanded my own beliefs on raising children and the meaning of happiness and gratitude. I reached Ushuaia in May of 2015 after 14,000 miles of riding in 13 countries and am currently living in Peru, expecting my first child and writing a book about my travels by bike.
Leah Manning is the real deal. She pedaled away from her home in Orange County, California on her first ever bike tour, and never stopped. That tour turned into two years of living on the bike traveling across South America. She's kept a blog throughout the experience, and you'd do well to dedicate a few hours to reading it. Leah's also raising $5000 goal to fund a book of her amazing adventure. By all means, help her reach her goal.
Check out Leah's instagram to follow along with her life in Peru, her steps towards motherhood, and the progress on her book.