Mexico was my favorite country out of all 14 I went through, teen cyclist says
A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:
Right around this time two years ago, 17-year-old high school senior Liam Garner knew one thing for sure.
LIAM GARNER: I always knew that I wanted to do a crazy adventure.
MARTÍNEZ: Liam is from Long Beach, Calif., and didn't have much money to plan some luxurious trip. He is, though, an experienced cyclist who once rode from LA to San Francisco, so he figured, why not start there?
LIAM: I get the idea for a bike trip, and slowly and slowly, I pieced together more and more pieces, and so I'm like, OK, Alaska to Argentina. That's what it is. Here we go.
MARTÍNEZ: Yep. Liam started to plan a bike trip from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina, the so-called Fin del Mundo - a 20,000 mile ride. And even though Google can't calculate directions for that bike trip, where there's a will, there's a highway - in Liam's case, the Pan-American Highway, a network of roads connecting Alaska to Argentina. I asked him if there was a moment when he realized this adventure might be more difficult than he imagined.
LIAM: Yeah. There was a single moment on my trip where I considered skipping a large portion just because of the nature of the road and the weather. I had a friend for eight months of my trip, another cyclist that I just happened to meet by chance on the road. And when we were biking through southern Mexico, we had just been robbed a week and a half before, and we didn't have cellphones. We were using internet cafes for everything - no contact, no maps, asking around for directions. And at the same time, it was over 100 degrees every single day in the jungle for the whole time we were there.
And after a week and a half of biking through that, Logan talked to me and said, hey, if it continues like this and it gets any hotter in Central America, let's just agree to take a bus because there's no point in suffering. And so we agreed. We shook on it that if it got any worse in Central America, we would skip it. When we got to Guatemala, it cooled off a lot, and it was way, way more tolerable. And so we never ended up skipping anything, thankfully.
MARTÍNEZ: Now, when you went through Mexico, that was a bit of an awakening for you - right? - a chance to reconnect. Tell us about that part of the trip.
LIAM: Yeah. So I'm a first-generation immigrant from my mom. She's from Mexico, and so is my whole family on her side. All of my family on my dad's side is from Panama. And because of that, I have family all over Latin America. Mexico was my favorite country out of all 14 that I went through. And obviously, I'm a little biased. But something that surprised me was just the sheer diversity. When you would ask someone in the U.S. what Mexico is like, they kind of have one idea, and they're going to tell you that the entire country is one thing; it looks like this; people are like this. Mexico has over 20 different distinct states, and all of them are completely unique. I felt like I was practically going through Europe.
Like every state of Mexico was its own country almost. When you're on the bike, you're forced to go through these undiscovered places, and because of that, you really get to see a place in its entirety, like the real version of a place. And I just think that if people got to see the full nature of Mexico or any country in Latin America, it's a whole nother thing that you couldn't imagine.
MARTÍNEZ: For this interview, I was speaking to Liam while he was in Cali, Colombia, backpacking his way home to Los Angeles. That's also where things on his way to Argentina got seriously real.
LIAM: It's a crazy story - going down a hill, hit a pothole that I didn't see. And, of course, it's the one day I'm not wearing my helmet, and I landed right on my head, and I blacked out for, like, 10 minutes. I ended up ripping my ear in half. I went into surgery that night to get plastic surgery on my ear to stitch it back together. I got, like, 40 stitches on my ear and my shoulder and my hip 'cause I rubbed off all the skin.
LIAM: And because of that, I was basically stuck in Cali for a month and a half. So that was just a huge setback on the trip.
MARTÍNEZ: To me, Liam, that sounds like that's the fork in the road in terms of your resolve, 'cause you could have been forgiven by everyone that's been paying attention to this trip and tracking you if you just said, OK, that's it, enough. Did you kind of take it as like, this is, like, a test?
LIAM: I didn't. And that's because I knew no matter what happened, even if I lost an arm, I was still doing it. Like whether I was alive or dead, like, I was going to get to Ushuaia, and I wasn't going home until I did that. And so there was never a test for me. Like, I was dead set.
MARTÍNEZ: The end of your trip Ushuaia in Argentina, when you finally rolled up to it, what did you do?
LIAM: Oh, man. I mean, the last month, I would just think about the idea of finishing and what it would look like. And I would just start crying on the way. I would get so emotional over it. And then the day I rolled into town, it was pretty anticlimactic. It just wasn't what I expected.
LIAM: It was very touristy. There's a big Ushuaia sign in the front of Ushuaia, and the moment I rolled up there, I dropped the bike, and I, like, stood there, and I was about to cry. And then a group of 20 Brazilians walked up to me and asked me to take their photo for them. And then I was like, OK, I'm done. And then I just kept biking. There was a national park at the very end, and that national park is what actually has the official end of the road, like, where you cannot continue. And so I biked into that national park, reached the real end of the road, and then I camped there for two nights and just kind of dwelled on my trip. I was just happy that I got the closure of seeing the finish and could now, like, reflect on everything that happened.
MARTÍNEZ: In all, Liam spent 527 days on the road, getting by on a little over $400 a month. He was robbed five times, suffered that really bad accident and endured the pain of sitting on a bike seat for six hours a day. But he says it was definitely worth it.
LIAM: One hundred percent. That's, like, the most sure thing that I could ever say in my life. Like, without a doubt, I am not the person I was when I started this trip. And I think it's an incredibly unique thing. Obviously, everyone's coming of age after high school, whether it's college or working or anything along those lines. But my coming-of-age, not only did I feel it mentally, but I saw it physically passed by on the roads and the landscapes that I saw. Every week that passed, I would be in a new place. And I saw transition before me physically, along with how I felt as a person.
MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And for people that are listening - right? - that are maybe your age, that are wondering what to do, maybe they don't want to go to college right away and they want to do a crazy adventure but don't know what, how would you advise them to try and distill that and figure it out?
LIAM: I think people's biggest setbacks is not having confidence in themselves. People tend to have crazy ambitions and dreams, but they just don't think that they're the person to do it or that it's feasible. The way I planned my trip, I wanted to pick the most insane, impossible feat of achievement that I could pick. And I picked the most impossible thing because if I somehow managed to finish the trip - this crazy feat - that I would never be able to doubt myself again because from then on, I would have always done something that I thought was impossible. And so anything in the future that I considered to be impossible was now on the table.
And I think for people that have these dreams or ambitions, don't put it off as an impossibility. Just make a step-by-step list and do the first step. That's how it starts, you know? Just do the first step. And you might find that in a year or however long it takes you, you might actually get to the last step and be done, and it'll be this impossible thing achieved.
MARTÍNEZ: That's Liam Garner, who is hiking his way back home after completing a trip from Alaska to Argentina on his bike.
Liam, you're an inspiration, man. Thanks for taking the time for me.
LIAM: No. Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.