From the frozen fringe of the Arctic Circle in November to the roadless jungles of the Darién Gap, and on to the ends of the earth at the tip of South America, four U.S. Army veterans took a ride of a lifetime. Better yet, they made a great film about it.
The feature-length motorcycle adventure film, “Where the Road Ends,” follows the four as they take on the challenges from Alaska to Argentina on Kawasaki KLR650s. Subscribers of RevZilla’s Rider Plus Membership (RPM) program got exclusive early access to the film, but it is now available to everyone.
Former combat camera operator Jake Hamby follows Simon, Mike, Richard, and trip leader Wayne as the team relies on each other to overcome challenges of life after the military. The formidable route takes them through blizzards, deserts, and the infamous Darién Gap — a brutal section of jungle without roads between Panama and Colombia. The 14,000-mile trek puts the riders, their motorcycles, and their skills to the test as they attempt the adventure of a lifetime.
Common Tread interviewed Wayne Mitchell for a look behind the scenes of this epic journey.
Common Tread: Tell us about your background with motorcycling. How did you start riding, and what are you riding now?
Wayne Mitchell: Like a lot of people, I got into motorcycle riding when I was young. My dad was a rider, and early on, I had a little Arctic Cat minibike. That turned into a Honda Trail 90 and on up. The KLR650 was one of my favorite all-around bikes. I really liked the first-gen KLR. Nowadays, I ride an old Goldwing on the road and a Honda XR650L, but I really have my eye on the new Yamaha Ténéré 700 World Raid.
CT: What was the genesis of the north-to-south trip idea, including the Darién Gap? To folks unfamiliar with using motorcycle trips as an opportunity for healing, it might seem like such a challenging journey could harm more than it would help.
WM: I first learned about the Darién Gap back in the 90s. I was at a party and met a guy named Tim Stigens who had been the youngest member of the 1978 Jeep Expedition that crossed the Gap. My wife is from Colombia, so I guess it just sort of stuck in my head. Quite a few years later, Mike Eastham and I were sitting around a tent in Iraq talking about things we would do when we retire from the Army, and the conversation came up about taking motorcycles from Alaska to Argentina — and going through the Gap instead of around it.
It wasn't until about 2015 when Mike and I both retired that I started to really plan the logistics of the whole thing. We realized really quickly that because of other commitments we could only take about five months to do the whole trip. Given the short time frame, we also realized that in order to get through the dry season in Panama we had to leave Alaska and cross Canada in the dead of winter. We chose to go North to South because most of us either lived in Alaska or knew enough people to make Alaska a solid starting point for the trip.
CT: How did the film become a part of this trip? The cameras, crew, equipment, and extra logistics would only add to the difficulty of your ride, but telling the story was worth the struggle.
WM: Around 2016, we met Jake Hamby, a young Combat Camera Operator who was fresh back from deployment and wanting to make a motorcycle film. He was a KLR rider, so the whole thing came together really nicely. I sort of took on the role of "producer," but I say that sarcastically. I had no real formal training and really just did the logistics to help him out. We were lucky to know some people in various industries that were interested in the social media aspect of the trip. We had some people from the Combat Camera community in the Army Reserves volunteer their time and money to help film in Alaska and a little in Argentina, but the rest of the movie was filmed by just Jake and his backpack full of camera gear. On the road, Jake followed up in a big van.
We made quite the sight traveling down the roads of Central and South America. The Darién Gap was such a cool part of the trip that we were really excited to be able to get it on film. We were inspired by the likes of Helge Pederson, Antonio Braga, Ed Culbertson, and the Uptons; they all had photos of their crossing the Darién Gap but we were really excited to get some video. I think it was worth the added effort.
CT: Here at Common Tread, we’ve seen organizations and individual volunteers stepping up with programs to help veterans using motorcycles with transformative results. Why do you think motorcycling has such a profound effect on life after the military?
WM: I think motorcycle riding is a really interesting hobby and lifestyle for military people. There’s just something that is really relaxing about it. It's like playing a musical instrument or flying an airplane. There’s something about having to focus your attention, but also being able to take in all the sights and sounds that are going on around you. We did some events with a group called the Motorcycle Relief Project based here in Colorado, and that's their focus: to get vets introduced to the ADV riding community.
CT: What elements of your military experience were built into your adventure, and why did you include them? For example, your radio communications sound far more organized than what you’d find on an average group ride.
WM: I don't think we intentionally tried to make the trip a military-style expedition, but in the end, we sort of couldn't break old habits. When we planned the trip, we made sure to have a "commo" person and a team "medic" assigned, and we semi-officially assigned roles to the trip. In planning for the Darién portion, we found ourselves doing a lot of "what if" scenarios. It’s pretty evident in the radio communication that we really slip back into our old habits. We used PTT Rugged Radios instead of Bluetooth, so the military speak on the radio really did help control talking over one another when there are five people using one channel. Plus, it's just really fun to say "roger" and "out" and play Army again.
CT: Now that the film is complete and the adventure is behind you, what moments and accomplishments stand out the most to you?
WM: For me, the best point on the trip was at the Panama-Colombia border, celebrating with our guide, Isaac, and the villagers of Paya. Isaac had been in Paya and helped out when Antonio Braga crossed the Gap many years ago on his motorcycle, and I know Isaac was really looking forward to doing something like that again. It was a really great moment that is in the film celebrating at the border marker. He gave me a big hug and a smile.
But honestly, now that we have been home a while, for me the best moment was coming home. Both of my kids have since asked me to teach them how to ride. My son and I did a father-son trip on the Colorado Backroads Discovery Route, and for his graduation we rented motorcycles and rode around Iceland for a week. My daughter has just started working on getting her learner’s permit, so I am really looking forward to some good road trips with her. So, I guess I’d have to say that after that long of a trip, my best memory so far has been the homecoming!