By Kira Rubenthaler
For many people December is a flurry of shopping and preparing for the holidays, but Erik Wallbank will spend most of the month traversing the Andes Mountains on a motorcycle.
This is Wallbank's second motorcycle trip to South America, and it came about as a direct result of his first trip, which took him from Ashland down the West Coast to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina.
For this trip, Wallbank, a builder and former president of the Ashland Food Cooperative, took a 13-hour flight out of Los Angeles to Santiago, Chile, on Wednesday.
There he was scheduled to pick up a brand-new BMW 800 GS motorcycle and ride south to Punta Arenas, Chile, crisscrossing the Andes for about 4,000 miles on a scouting trip for a company that leads motorcycles tours.
An avid motorcycle rider, Wallbank, 64, was excited to try a bike "that I haven't even been able to sit on here. It just came out this year and it's supposed to be an incredible bike," he said in November before he left.
He was also looking forward to exploring the territory.
"Some of that mountain riding is the most fun of all," Wallbank said. You can wake up in the morning at 12,000 feet and be at sea level four hours later. "The Andes are not like the Rockies. They come right out of the ground."
Understanding how Wallbank embarked on this trip requires going back to last summer, when he rode from Ashland to Inuvik, 400 miles beyond the Arctic Circle in Canada's Northwest Territories.
Having gone as far north as the road would take him, Wallbank — who has ridden in all the states and Canadian provinces and twice to Mexico — decided to see how far south he could go.
With one map and limited supplies strapped on his bike, he rode from Ashland to Ushuaia, in the Tierra del Fuego province at the tip of Argentina, in six weeks before selling his motorcycle and flying back to the United States.
"When people go on a trip like that, they usually have a destination," Wallbank said. "My destination was wherever I was on the Pan-America Highway."
Near the end of his trip, in Tierra del Fuego, Wallbank stopped to help a man with a motorcycle broken down on the side of the road. The man said his son — riding the same BMW 650 GS as Wallbank — was up ahead in town buying parts.
When Wallbank got to town, he saw a man with that motorcycle and told him he knew his father. As it turned out, this man had no idea what he was talking about and was coincidently riding the same BMW model.
Anibal Vickacka owned Patagonia Backroads, a motorcycle touring company, and the two became friends. Nearly a year later, Vickacka called Wallbank up to recruit him to scout a motorcycle tour route.
Despite having already driven through the Andes, Wallbank said he'll have a different experience.
"This is totally new," he said. "I probably will not be on a road that I was on last time until I get in Punta Arenas."
He expected this trip to be safer than the last, when he traveled through countries with histories of political unrest, dealt with corrupt officials and was approached by men with brass knuckles and machetes.
"Being an American is not such a great thing down there," he said.
As an extra precaution, Wallbank, who was born in Canada, planned to have a Canadian maple leaf tattooed on his arm before leaving.
"But most everybody I met were really wonderful people," he said, and he's still in touch with many of them.
He'll keep in contact with his wife, Toni DiLeo, and their 14-year-old son, Hudson, through e-mails and phone calls.
"It's kind of amazing that he'd want to do it again after what he went through," said Hudson, who is nervous about this trip but thinks it's "definitely better than the last one."
It's fun to get phone calls from his dad and find out where he is, Hudson added.
DiLeo said she's always worried about her husband riding a motorcycle, but she's feeling okay about this trip.
"It's a lot easier to see him do this," she said. "I'm very supportive of him."
Wallbank is happier and more reflective when he comes back from trips, she said.
"He's kind of a better person," DiLeo said. "He has a lot of time to think."
And he's very respectful of their concerns, she added. He said he would be back in time for Christmas, which is important to Hudson.
But odds are it won't be long before he's dreaming up a new trip.
"I never thought I would do something like that," Wallbank said. "Now I think it's in my blood."
Kira Rubenthaler can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 225 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashland man rides motorcycle to S. America
By Kira Rubenthaler