Riding Motorcycles into the Wild Places

*Editor’s note: At the time of this publishing, Neale is back in Peru, visiting the orphanage his Wellspring International Outreach sponsors. So we thought this reflection of his from a previous trip to South America would be an appropriate beginning to the new year. Enjoy!


In the saddle of my BMW F700GS riding with my mad buddy Christian Scranton and our Ecuadorian friend Erik, I can’t keep my eyes off of her today any more than I could 21 years ago. Rising up out of the lush, green farmland, capped in brilliant white snow, and against a piercing blue sky, Cotopaxi stands majestic as she overlooks the city of Quito. This incredible 19,300-foot volcanic mountain, then as now, symbolizes a time in my life when riding the wild places of the world would mend my broken soul.

In 1995, I was finally strong enough to work, ride, and travel after brutal back surgery, the loss of a dream, and the failure of my long-term relationship. That ride to Cotopaxi from Guatemala, which saw some five weeks of hard riding had motivated me to change. On returning to the States I decided to leave my steady job and head to Europe to ride, where I would begin the path to becoming a moto-journalist, photographer, TV personality, and philanthropist.

All these years later, Cotopaxi (“Shining Peak”) looks down benevolently once again as I hope for good health, fitness, and happiness, this time after a badly broken leg, another failed relationship, and a dishonest business partner leaving me emotionally whipped, broke and in debt. My children are grown, the motorcycle industry I’ve known and loved is in decline, and our media world is changing so fast I feel no one understands it. I even wonder if anyone will be interested in my stories ten years from now as we click, like and wave to images not words. So my mind is asking the question, will this ride bring about the same kind of physical change as last time I passed this way, or will it be more about inner reflection?

Cotopaxi volcano standing sentinel over Quito, Ecuador.

Some hours after, night cloaked the mountains in a rich, dark veil, peppered with millions of bright pinprick stars to form the most brilliant canopy above us. At 13,000 feet, the thin air quickly grows cold and the way it cuts into my fingers and the flesh of my face through my open visor is as exhilarating as the steep-sided road that cuts and thrusts its way through the endless mountains. Riding on loose dirt, rocks, and gravel, my senses are on high alert, every available neuron for the task firing. Scranton’s gaslight comes on — adding another element to the challenge — and we try to calculate how far it is to the village ahead, and how much gas we have left.

Then it happens.

I find complete peace and calm in that perfect moment of altitude, adrenaline, and excitement as my brain overlays the experience from twenty-one years ago when I rode across these same mountains with a different set of friends. With no artificial light, the stars assisted our weak headlights then as now, as we make our way cautiously into the night. No cell phones, no support trucks, just a small motorcycle purring beneath me picking its way through the rough terrain.

The calm remains.

Suddenly, I’m back in the present as the road runs alongside a row of mud-brick houses, and our buddy Erik is calling out to two Quechan Indian ladies in traditional dress coming out of the shadows. From what I can understand, there is gas somewhere close, and as my eyes adjust to the darkness, I see a few more single-story houses lining the narrow, dirt road. There are no electric lights, cars or motorcycles. We ride on. The house with the gasoline is about a half a mile out of town but doesn’t appear to be open for business; either the residents don’t want to open the door to three mud-splattered riders after dark, or there really is no one home. Back in the saddle, the calm is loud inside my head, and the peace and stillness of the Ecuadorian night dominate my thoughts. Then my fuel light comes on, and the cold cuts deeper, the road gets rougher—but the calm remains.

BMW’s rugged little F700GS. Photo by BMW.

In 1995, we rode into a mountain town one night with some sort of military checkpoint before the road plunged two and a half miles down to the ocean in Peru. The musical sound of children’s laughter, the taste of the fruit snacks, and the warmth of the curious residents — fascinated to see three rough-looking gringos in their isolated corner of this beautiful world — comes back to me as if it were yesterday.

A large rock threatens to shake the bars from my hands and I’m back in the present, working the throttle smoothly and efficiently to manage my limited amount of fuel. My mind drifts again and I’m in a pizza restaurant filling my belly and warming my bones, talking animatedly about another wild day in the saddle. Thirty minutes later, the thought has somehow materialized into reality, as the town of Salinas appears out of nowhere, with a comfortable room and a pizza restaurant a short walk into town.

Sitting in front of a steaming hot pizza, I look across the worn, wooden table at two dirty, tired faces that mirror my happiness and all in the world is well. In my mind, I slowly close the leather-bound journal of that previous ride, and focus on the wrap-up of this incredible day of riding, thankful that I’ve done it again. And while this time I might be too old to change, I’ve made it through another of life’s storms and am right where I belong, riding motorcycles into the wild places, high up in the mountains of Ecuador with friends.


*Feature photo by &BEYOND

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