Friday, August 18, 2006

Motorcycle rider completes 45,000-mile journey in Ketchum

Express Staff Writer

Bill Shum stands with his BMW 1150 GS Adventure motorcycle that took him through 18 countries. ?Ten of them twice,? he said. He has sold the bike to a Ketchum resident. Photo by Chris Pilaro

Forty-five thousand miles of dust came to rest in Ketchum last week.

Dirt, stickers—including one from Lefty's Bar & Grill—and a miniature Guatemalan doll affixed to the front of a motorcycle pulled up along side Shum's Frenchman's Place condominiums in Ketchum.

Bill Shum, the brother of builder and longtime Ketchum resident Michael Shum, dismounted for a final time. He dusted himself off and took a parting glance at the BMW 1150 GS Adventure that was his stalwart companion through 18 countries.

"It's beyond a lot of people's comprehension," the 57-year-old said, kicking back in his brother's condo. "It's not for the faint-hearted."

On the table before him lay an atlas that showed tiny, squiggly roads, vast expanses of flatlands, blue patches of sea and a flood of reminiscences that every square inch brought forth.

Shum and his bike—named "La Cuenta," Spanish for "the bill," like its owner's name—were accompanied by two friends on the 14-month trip.

The journey took them from Los Angeles to Ushuaia on the southern tip of South America, back north to the upper reaches of Alaska, and down through Idaho to Ketchum.

The non-traveling public might ask, "Why?"

The short story is, "Because it was there," he said.

Years ago, Shum, an Australian, was in Mexico and Cuba, and something clicked.

"I fell in love with the whole Latino thing," he said. "I planned to come back, then a friend of mine suggested we do it on motorcycle."

"People were so generous, and it meant so much because they have so little," he said. "People here (in North America) are generous and friendly, too, but it's easier for them."

Hospitality ranged from welcoming words, places to stay and nights on the town.

"Buenos Aires," he recalled. "You'd have to trip over not to have a good time. And there's always Tango. When you see Tango, it's so sexy, such an extraordinary dance. On the street, they'll just put down their boom boxes, dance, and pass the hat."

Talk of Uruguay evoked recollections of old vehicles from the 1920s and '30s.

"It's old-car heaven," he said.

It's also a divine site for dining—for meat eaters.

"It's a vegetarian's nightmare," he said. "You get a steak the size of a house brick and a beautiful bottle of red wine, all for $13."

"They say Uruguay is the New Zealand of South America," he said. "Small, beautiful and really laid back. It's just fantastic."

Not every memory was without regret, however.

"One of the downsides is everywhere I've been, I've missed more than I've seen," he said. "We had a long way to cover and not a lot of time."

Most days, the group would ride three days and rest one.

But even the driving days afforded much to take in.

"I never knew there was snow in Venezuela," he said. "And it's just a drop kick from the tropics."

Roads were generally good—even great in countries like Mexico—but Shum called on his driving skills more than once.

The wind whipped across the Argentinean Pampas so harshly, he said, he had to ride at an angle into the wind to keep from being knocked over.

Traveling from Creel to Batopilas, Mexico, though the Copper Canyon, the road dropped several thousand feet.

"It's a long way down," he said. "I was petrified. (My friend) got his license a month before we left, and the second week of the journey we were going down the road to Batopilas."

The journey was full of superlatives: the Copper Canyon's depth exceeding that of the Grand Canyon, the world's highest waterfall in Venezuela, and South America's arguably coldest beer in Brazil.

"For an Australian, that's very important," he said.

Taking a break from beer in Brazil one evening, Shum partook in caiparinhas, a cocktail made of fermented sugar.

"At one stage I was feeling really drunk," he said. Only later would he realize he'd been drugged.

Despite being in a foggy haze as he made his way back to his hotel room, he felt the pawing of hands on his clothing.

"People came up from behind me," he said. "I could feel those hands coming all around."

The thieves didn't get much, since Shum didn't have much to get.

"That was the only negative experience," he noted. "It doesn't stop me from going to those places. You just have to use common sense and have a bit of luck."

In all the stops and while on the road, his motorcycle remained safe.

"I've become less worried as I've been traveling," he said. "No one ever touched it."

A road trip such as Shum's is invariably rife with adventure, but Shum got more than good stories out of the journey.

"When you're riding, you're very isolated," he said. "Crazy things go through your mind. The bike—it's almost like a meditation."

Three lessons were ingrained into Shum's traveling philosophy: Travel with an open heart—"I try and I can't always do it;" never take anything with you that you can't afford to lose—"or get stolen;" and never carry more than you can pick up and run with.

Now, Shum has lightened his load even more by selling his bike to a Ketchum resident who's a Chilean native.

"It's been one of the most satisfying relationships of my life," he said of his motorcycle. "And one of the longest."

But, he added, "I'm getting tired."

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