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Wrecking Crew Diaries
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1996 Panama - Mud of No Return

1996 Panama - Mud of No Return

What on earth can persuade four grown men to ride their V-twins to a place where for decades gazillions of mosquitos, free range guerilleros, sinister paramilitary, paranoid drug runners and desperate indigenous people have been doing their level best to prevent Panamericana’s last missing miles being built. Some call this white area on the map the ‘Darien Gap‘, to the Four who went there it is the mother of all roads, the Mud of no Return. What they did was to try and to close this last gap in the road connecting the two Americas. They were using Milwaukee machinery, mildly modified using stuff from the W&W Cycles shelves. The ride included police encounters, homicidal truckdrivers, lousy hotel beds, stampeding cockroaches, DIY river crossings, tropical downpours, Panama beer and forcibly removed distributors, and ended – in the mud. Mud beyond all imagination. Mud, so bottomless that only a four wheel driven Big Foot truck could rescue the intrepid riders. A specimen of this mud of muds is still sitting in a climatized W&W safe, a warning to the world that no road is as pitiless as the Mother of all Roads, the Panamericana.

Day 4, Thursday, January 4
At 08:00 sharp in the morning, which goes to say round nine, the riders get underway, Panamericana bound, headed for the pass of Death, the Cerro de la Muerte. But just as quick the first unplanned stop imposes itself in the form of the local Policía, doing routine traffic control as a measure against vehicle theft.

The encounter with these officers proves again that a derby cover sized wrist watch can never be too large, especially if the commandante has the same on his wrist. After a few minutes we are on the way again. The Cerro de la Muerte is one big mutha, and as we crawl up its imposing slopes, the temperature drops from tropical in town to some 0 centigrades @3,451 m (11,322 ft) above sea level. Which poses some interesting questions concerning rider wear and gives a good excuse for a change of riders.

Gerardo and Darius take the second stint and roar off, and before the suppoprt truck can catch up with them, they have time for a truckin' encounter of the unwelcome kind. Coming out of a downhill switchback they are faced with two trucks, occupying all the road there is. Luckily the ditch is wide and well padded, and the quick reaction of the two riders avoids worse. One of the trucks gives Gerardo a good shove, and by the time Wolfgang and Klaus arrive, the camionero is busy distributing pineapples among the casualties.

The biggest dents on the bikes get undented, the riders change again, and off they are, Darius and Wolfgang driving the big Pans to San Isidro de El General - right across the Rio Macho nature reserve.

Behind San Isidro the number of hair raising turns drops considerably, but this area seems to be a reserve for especially treacherous potholes. But who's to complain, and to whom anyway? No one in the border town of Paso Canoas, where the Pan-tastic Four leave Costa Rica and lay their well shaken tail bones to rest in a cosy 4-bed shoe box. The bikes get parked in the lobby...
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Day 5, Friday, January 5
Early next morning the bikes get kicked to life in the lobby and we head for the Panama border control. Very unfortunate for us, the stamps in our passports are yesterday's - which means another trip to Costa Rica, all our tales about „being just too tired to drive“, and couldn't they please turn a blind ojo – futile. So we go get new rubber stamps, and this time there's no problema – NOT. There are quite a few funcionarios who need to give consent to our entry: Migración, aduana, policía técnica (some kind of tech inspector, who's cool though). Policía tráfico. Last, but not least, Señor Fumador – who's less interested in what you smoke – he's here to smoke you and keep those little critters from entering the country.

After cutting our way across all that red tape we make for David/Panama, where we rent a Toyota Landcruiser, to carry the extensive photographic equipment and the fourth rider. Its slow going to PanamaCity, there's a lot of congestion, and 10 km outside the city limits everything comes to a grinding stop

The sun heated roads are steaming between the showers, and the chaos doubles and triples. Ancient american made buses without tail pipes race head to head, squashing everyone not quick enough to get out of the way. Overloaded semis and countless taxis are trying to occupy the same stretch of road at the same time. Not a very fun place to be, if you are riding a bike. If you had the time, you could notice that the invention of traffic signs hasn't been heard of hereabouts.

So it's a lot of left turns, right turns and straights, and before you know, they are in Panama Viejo. What sounds like a quaint Old Town bus tour, quickly develops into a short trip through a ghetto from hell. The Bronx looks like a childrens playground compared to this. After a lengthy slalom around security with shotguns and groups of heavily armed police the Four decide to check into the next hotel to come along. The rooms, let's call them modest, are populated by cockroaches having a welcome party for us.

Which goes by largely unnoticed, 'cos we're a mite tired. So we just crash on the „beds“, which haven't seen fresh linen for at least three generations of desperado landlords. A good dose of Baygon sorts the cuccarachas out. The best part of the evening are a coupla bottles of Panama beer, that roll down our parched throats to produce enthusiastic „Aaaahs“ and „Ooohs“.
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Day 8, Monday, January 8
We're done stocking up on provisions, our clothes are smelling fresh as a spring breeze, and the road calls. Let's go! We take off, direction Çhepo, and for the first 100km the going is good. Then, the tarmac stops. And the rain starts. And the first bike decides to not like the rain, and to kinda fire those two big cylinders on a rather arbitrary basis. Incidentally, it's the one that didn't do 1000km of test rides in Spain.

The guys get going and start wrenching. After they have removed with some finely timed hammer blows four troublesome cooling fins, the four precision engineers discover that the distributor they're trying to remove is of the kind that can be disassembled in situ. Well, who needs cooling fins anyway. While they're at it, they replace the points and readjust the ignition timing. Then it's back to the gravel pista. The small and large rocks that pose for gravel are a genuine pain in the ass, as is the rain. The ride starts to resemble an outing in a yellow submarine.

But, as submarines go, every once in a while they surface. Just the spot to do this is one of the open air snack bars that line the roadside. The dudes fill their well shaken stomachs with nice fried chicken and pork, and marvel at the 200 meters of tarmac road that is the touristic highlight of this one donkey town. After riding up and down the main street for a coupla times, so's not to forget what a great thing roads are, they get busy with the floater show: the guy who has the weirdest looking water-soaked fingers wins. Darius gets a score of 7.3 and wins hands down.

That's about it as far as pastimes go. In the tropics the days end at 18:00 sharp, as you surely know. So the Four get going double-quick, looking for a motel, a hotel, a garage, whatever. The only thing however that looks remotely like a place where a man can find a bed is a village of the Cuna tribe. Some quick haggling with the chief and a roof over the hammocks is secured. Payment is made via sugar, flower and tinned products, which works well in a place at least 250 miles from the nearest supermercado.

The by now traditional ceremony of reducing the beer stock at sunset, the chief being a welcome guest, is marred by the first contacts with heavy duty mosquitos and cockroaches. Very efficient on mosquitos is the US Army repellent, while cockroaches are best dispatched with targeted squirts out of the Baygon pump-action bottle. The thumb sized animals say adios to this world with a jungle-shaking KER-fffnzz! Best not try this at home. A memorable spectacle, which is however directly avenged by the Great Cockroach with a weird bad dream: Here goes: Slumbering, the Four writhe in their hammocks, when dull jungle drums come droning through the foliage. Woozily they try to open their eyes, only to see themselves cornered by a mob of giant cockroaches, armed to their evil teeth with Honda logos and Yamaha stickers. With ignition cables the Four get bound up and tied to giant Showa forks, stacked onto a mountain of rice. Now the torture starts: the two Panheads get smothered with the stickers, a big truck drives up and showers the bikes with gallons of Baygon. With a jungle-shaking KER-fffnzz! the big twins explode noisily, tearing the four sleepers from their torpor. Thank god the bikes are still where they were left the evening before.
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Day 9, Tuesday, January 9
For breakfast the chef de cuisine serves up goodies from the survival handbook. The grub slobbered, the Four guide their front ends towards Agua Fría. The ride is more than ever the ride on a steam hammer. The further south the track crawls, the wider the holes in the gravel get. Only superhuman control of their bodies allows the riders to keep their rigid framed twins on the road. Best forget the state of the road. A break and a beer every now and then feel almost like a rejuvenating miracle. Every mile is a mile of fighting with potholes, mud and hard rain. No wonder the Pantastic Four begin to think this road may lead directamente to Nowhere.

Night is falling in a few minutes, and some sort of lodging needs to be found pronto. A few miles off the track the Four find the Indio settling Santa Fe. The little detour rewards with two separate rooms and a shower. Well, almost. The rooms a kind of walk-in cupboard, and the shower is a open stall complete with water barrel and plastic cup. And free view from all rooms. No feelings of loneliness here. Showered and refreshed the Four retire to the snack bar nearby, where mouth-watering things roast on the barbecue. Nobody really wants to know - or could tell, the chef included, what that actually is. Who cares. Hungry is hungry, and the jungle is the jungle.

As a side dish manioc roots are being served, easily recognized by their distinct taste of soaked socks. The gluey aftertaste is best washed off with generous quantities of PANAMA beer, which comes in handy 3/4 litre bottles. On his return to the room Wolfgang discovers that the temperature would make this an ideal place to raise chicken. He opts for a bunk in the 4x4, where the last two bottles of wine hold the promise of sweet slumber. Half an hour later Klaus has the same idea and joins Wolfgang in the car, the two of them working hard at the last bottle. The darkness mercifully hides the larges pools in the swamp, doesn't however keep the Mosquitos out of the car. WTF. Sleep is sleep, and the jungle is the jungle.
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Day 10, Wednesday, January 10
After a short night waking up is torture, but the road to Yaviza, where the Panamericana ends, is long. It doesn't get shorter by a wobbly looking tire, that in the next mud hole decides to call it a day. The Pantastic Four discover a valve stem has parted company with the inner tube. Good when you have a super special touring Easy Lift on board that doubles as a gas canteen.

Danger zone! A leak in one of the Easy lift canteens results in a strict No Smoking zone during the tire change. After a sweaty half hour it's back to the road to Yaviza. And back to the holes in the road, that get bigger until the road consists of only one hole, filled with bottomless mud.

Painfully slow the bikes crawl through the mud. The 4x4 is becoming more and more a liability when the 50 to 150m long mud passages are to be passed. The road is being patrolled by "El Tractor", a converted BigFoot Toyota acting as police car/taxi/truck/emergency/rescue vehicle. Its huge wide track tires leave deep furrows - wide enough for the bikes, but too deep for our 4x4. Only with the help of Indios, tons of rocks and cut down trees can it be pushed out of the mess again - at 40° and 200% humidity, mind you. This repeated procedure cuts the vmg down to 5 miles in 6 hours.

There are some 20 more to go to Yaviza, the last human settlement on the way to the colombian border. Our calculations see the end of the trip in the year 2027. So a decision is taken to go with bikes only, Gerardo and Darius stay with the 4x4 and organize it getting towed to safety by El Tractor.

For a while the two big twins make good progress. Repeatedly trees are fallen across the road, covered by mounds of dirt. As what is behind is invisible, Wolfgang and Klaus divide their party further: One biker rides up the hill, takes a look and comes back to report. Wolfgang is first to look over the last one: Pure terror lies behind it: Mud, mud, boundless, bottomless mud to the horizon, and no trace of El Tractor. Wolfgang doesn't want to believe it, so he returns and sends Klaus up the hill, who sees the same: this is the end.

No time for tears of disappointment, the way back isn't much easier, and sunset isn't far away. Just in time the two riders reach the 4x4. The other two have rounded up an Indio in the mean time, who lets them hang up their hammocks in his grounds. The water canteens are empty, a nearby brook gives much needed refreshment to the riders. With the Katadyn filter they try to produce drinkable water, but half an hour of pumping produces just half a liter of water, not enough for four thirsty dudes. All warnings are ignored as they drink directly from the stream. Amoebae? What amoebae?
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Days 12-14, Friday-Sunday, January 12-14
Today no breakfast. We just kick 'em and go. We're under way again, and the rain is back. Even the ignition of Panamericana II starts to cough again, but this time nobody cares. All we can think of are the luxurious rooms in the El Panamá. It hurts to hear the big engine run on just one cylinder, but we know: you can't beat cubic inches. You just need enough of them.

It tells of the indestructibility of the W&W built engine, that the 6 hours to Cañita do no damage. In Cañita we descend on our favorite cantina and get some serious grub into our system. While we wash down the food, the rains calls it a day, and three trouble free hours later we arrive in Panama-City at the pre booked hotel.

Day 13

Pre booking definitely is a boon now, 'cos the four not only look like the Family Of Swamp Things, they smell the part too. Readers, just be glad this is no scratch-n-sniff website here. 9 rain soaked hours on rigid framed Harleys do wonders for your handwriting, and the pen to sign the credit card has to be guided with two Showa-shaken hands.

At last the concierge can be goaded into relinquishing two of his luxury rooms. The ensuing cleansing activities take several hours, ending in the ceremonial handing over of several bundles of “laundry“. Never before has such foul, malodorous and plain stinking stuff been smelled, except maybe in a windowless 12 square meter bullpen filled with musk-ox in heat. After the outside cleansing the inner parts need a quick wash too, so the Four go get some local brew and get down to it.

Day 14

Great, a free day. The Four use the time to do some laid back service on their trusty machines: chains get lubricated and adjusted, ignitions get dehumidified, oil gets changed, the beds get checked, the snore factor is fine-tuned. A street gang can, after some serious haggling, be hired to clean the 4x4 inside and out from half a ton of mud brought back from the jungle.
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Days 15-16, Monday-Tuesday, January 15-16
The rain is beating down hard for a change. It feels like being on the bottom of the Panama Canal. No wonder we have to pull straws after breakfast to find out the two lucky bike drivers. Only 100km later the Pantastic Four leave the rain behind and ride in bright sunshine. On the border to Costa Rica we have a world premiere: Under a big sign for the worst beer in the world, W&W presents the new license plate side mount system.

The fun is over, when outside of Paso Canoas Gerardo gets shoved out of the way by a taxi, into the lane of an oncoming 16 wheeler. Gerardo first hits the brakes, then the ground, before the Pan stops the truck and slices open on of the truck's tires. Gerardo comes away with minor bruises, but the Pan is less lucky this time. The guys being nice guys first help to change the tire on the truck, then drag the Panhead from the wreckage.

For today the crossing into Puerto Rico is cancelled. Gerardo and Klaus drive off to locate a place for the night, while Wolfgang and Darius start to tear the Pan apart. A compassionate panamanian biker offers his garden, the fish restaurant next door its welding equipment, and the gas station helps out with the heavy stuff: hydraulic press, tube bending machine and heavy hammers, needed to straighten out the brake rotors.

By midnight the carb is back on with the help of some silicone, the fork's been straightened out, new footpegs have been fashioned from scraps of steel and the hog is idling happily again. Old Harleys never die they say. A bottle of rum brightens the evening, and all fall into a well earned slumber.

Day16

One large Alka Seltzer breakfast later the Pantastic Four get on their way to the Costa Rica border. Looking for a new rental car, they get diverted some 60 km off the Panamericana highway to a sleepy port by the name of Golfito. A former busy banana terminal, Golfito has sunk back to dreamy freakdom and has no rental cars, but a french restaurant named "Chez Gott". A frenchman who years ago found a home in this backwater town offers clean beds, decent wine and the best fish for miles around. The guests have a choice between small, medium and large animals. "Large!" hollers Klaus "El Paparazzo" Hagmeier. What gets served up a little while later has the dimensions of a Sportster™ tank, but is way more tender and delicious, posing no problem for the starved photographer. From here on its the same procedure as every night: bed, sleep.
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Days 17-20, Wednesday-Saturday, January 17-20
After a good night's rest the Four decide to stay another day in quaint Golfito, dreaming of a Panamericana sans the pot holes. Waiddaminit, isn't that a runway lurking among the palm trees? The Four locate the owner of a vintage Cessna, and for a few dollares they get airborne. First it's along the Río Fixaola, and then, grazing the tops of the jungle giants they follow the Panamericana highway, no pot holes, no oncoming trucks and buses, just heavenly peace. Their spinal disks relax together with the badly beaten muscles in the seats of their pants.

After touching down in Golfito the guys get back to the fishy business they left unfinished yesterday, and its the same all over again: a fine meal, bed, and sleep as deep as the pot holes that are still to come.

Day 18

No one is in a big hurry to see the washed out track too soon. It takes some time to get the caravan consisting of 2x2 cylinders, 2x2 wheels, the riders and a car in motion: San José is calling. But the jungle gods have other ideas: between us and San José the have put torrential rain (again), a couple of hundred kilometers of pista, and a little extra surprise: the "short cut" to the Panamericana turns out to be a dead end. The suspension bridge spanning a 30 metre deep canyon is afflicted with the Panamericana disease: holes, holes, holes. Holes in a wooden suspension bridge are bad news, more so, when the material surrounding the holes is wood of the rotten kind.

The Four manage to replace some of the timbers, but still no one wants to cross on a bike. So it's about turn, and back to the Panamericana highway on more conventional tracks. The little town of San Isidro sports a First Class hotel, and the Four check in, grateful and tired. Even the pink Daiquiris can't spoil the evening with their chewing gum taste now. The beds are fauna free, and longer than the usual 160cm. Good night.

Day 19

The Panheads thunder into a new morning, up the Cerro de la Muerte, the other way this time, no close encounters with trucks and finally past the clouds into bright sunlight.

Back in San José at last, early in the afternoon. True to the old Costa Rican saying: "When you drop in by chance into San José, and it's not too late, why don'tcha walk over to the corner bodegón. Wouldn't that be great, muchacho?" So that's what they did, drained a bottle of Centenario and found themselves ready to hit the best bar in town, old colonial style, good vibes, good rum, fine girls, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, almost like home at W&W, only there's no rum. De puta madre!

Day 20

The morning dawns, before the way home can be found, so the guys just sit down for a righteous breakfast, grab another beer and before you can say suicide clutch, the next night is over.
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