“Joy Ride: A Bike Odyssey from Alaska to Argentina”
By Kristen Jokinen; Hawthorne Books, 2023; 290 pages; $19.95.
Once in a while, someone makes the news rolling into Prudhoe Bay on a bicycle, having ridden all the way from the tip of South America in Argentina. People going the other direction get far less publicity, but they face the same challenges. Kristen Jokinen is one of them, and if you’ve ever wondered what such a trip is like, her memoir “Joy Ride,” an account of a couple’s trek across the length of two continents, offers insight.
In the summer of 2016, Jokinen and her husband, Ville Jokinen, began a journey that would consume well over a year of their lives. “Our excitement at the beginning of our adventure eroded ten minutes from Prudhoe Bay on the muddy gravel of the Dalton Highway after the heavens poured on us,” she writes. “We cursed through every single mile. It was pure hell.”
Fortunately it got better.
Jokinen and her Finland-born husband are congenital adventurers who met while scuba diving in Vietnam and dedicated their marriage to the next big adventure. Cycling from one end of the hemisphere to the other was a natural fit, although being impulsive, they didn’t train for it. They just bought bikes and flew from their home in Bend, Oregon, to Deadhorse, where they got their feet wet in the Arctic Ocean and headed south, figuring things out as they went along.
The Dalton Highway is one place to master the fine art of bikepacking. The trip through Alaska fills a disproportionate section of this book, as Jokinen recounts the rain, snow, winds, ice, mud, gravel, excruciating climbs, clogged water filters, frozen extremities, mechanical malfunctions, and other obstacles on their long journey to Fairbanks. Even for the well-conditioned, riding that road would be an accomplishment in itself. For the Jokinens, it was merely a prelude.
“We grew accustomed to dismounting and pushing our burdensome bikes up long, steep hills followed by kamikaze descents in loose gravel or slippery clay trying to keep our speed up so we could fly up the next hill,” she writes. It’s experience that would serve them well much later in Patagonia.
The Alaskan section of this book sets the stage in another important way. In that remote and nearly unpeopled region of Alaska, they encountered occasional travelers, including truck drivers, tourists, and an extremely colorful miner named Leroy, who offered food, conversation, places to sleep, and more. Similar encounters greeted them in every country they passed through. “Simple acts of kindness when least expected were sacred aspects of this adventure,” Jokinen writes.
From Alaska they headed into Canada, by which time the rhythm of the road had lulled them into a trance abruptly shattered when a sow black bear and two cubs dashed out directly in front of Jokinen. It wasn’t their last wildlife experience. “On this bike ride, we encountered black bears, moose, macaws, alligators, musk ox, and now king penguins,” she writes late in the book.
The couple entered Washington state via the San Juan Islands and headed to Oregon, visiting family before moving on. California passes quickly in the book, if not in the trip itself. Jokinen ruefully remembers the hundred miles urban corridor known as Los Angeles. But soon enough they cross into Mexico, and the storytelling resumes again.
Just as in Alaska and Canada, in Latin America the duo was welcomed into one home after another, granted space in someone’s yard or house to sleep, given food, and taken sightseeing (along the Cassiar Highway, a middle-aged couple took them over to Hyder and Stewart, one of many side trips offered by strangers met along the way). They traveled down Baja before catching the ferry to Mazatlán.
Central America, with its small countries playing host to a dizzying array of cultures and ecosystems offered a constantly changing environment. Upon reaching South America, the Colombian city of Cartagena was a contrast of heat, traffic, and persistent flat tires.
Rather than take the coastal route, the Jokinens opted for the Andes. Beginning their climb in Colombia, they followed the continent-spanning mountain range nearly all the way to the southern tip. In Ecuador, they “climbed and climbed for sixty-seven miles.” On the cusp of Peru, with the option of heading for sea level or continuing upwards into the mountains, she asks Ville, “How bad could it be?” as they choose the high road.
Climbing into the Andes took days, but also offered breakneck descents. Jokinen’s account of outpacing a semitruck while passing on the left while hurtling down the canyon road into Medellín with another semi in the oncoming lane will make any reader sit up.
The Peruvian Andes proved even more challenging than the Arctic, she determines. “It made the ten days we had spent biking on the Dalton Highway seem like a joyride.” After traveling the highlands of Bolivia, they began weaving back and forth between Argentina and Chile, slowly approaching their goal. “Conditions in southern Chile and Argentina were comparable to Alaska’s,” Jokinen writes. “Although we had chased summer since leaving Alaska, we found that summer in southern Patagonia was cold, with weather patterns that changed every fifteen minutes.”
The Dalton had indeed prepared them well.
The couple arrived in Ushuaia, the Western Hemisphere’s southernmost city, nearly 10,000 air miles from Deadhorse, and thousands more by road, a bit battered but otherwise healthy. Aggressive dogs, indifferent drivers, crashes, gastrointestinal infections, an unknown tropical virus, and a few other mishaps slowed but never stopped them. Amid the worries of friends back home, they never encountered a hostile person.
“We must have been followed by an army of guardian angels working overtime to keep these two circus freaks safe,” she writes while in Peru, words applicable to the entire trip. It was quite the adventure, and Jokinen, who is a very funny writer, keeps it moving along as she and Ville’s karma holds across two continents and 15 nations. “Thanks, guardian angels,” she writes, “you all deserve medals. And maybe a raise.”