Rider’s Library Review – Obsessions Die Hard: Motorcycling the Pan American Highway’s Jungle Gap

For a long time, I had wondered where the Aerostich Darien jacket got its name. Thanks to a fascinating book by the late Ed Culberson, now I know.

Look on the Aerostich web page that features their rugged Darien line of riding gear and you’ll even find Ed Culberson’s name listed there among the pioneers of adventure motorcycling. I had seen Culberson’s name there, but never understood how intimately linked Culberson and the Darien—as in Darien Gap in the Pan-American highway—really are.

Obsessions Die Hard: Motorcycling the Pan American Highway’s Jungle Gap (Review)That all changed when I found Culberson’s book, Obsessions Die Hard–Motorcycling the Pan American Highway’s Jungle Gap in an antique book shop in McGregor, Iowa. Turns out that “jungle gap” referred to in the book’s title is also known as the Darien Gap.

Culberson’s story is about riding the length of the Pan American Highway from its northern-most terminus in Alaska all the way down to Argentina. With all its branches, the entire highway system totals about 30,000 road miles. The more-or-less direct route from Alaska to the end of the road in Argentina totaling about 19,000 miles; the Pan American Highway is regarded as the longest highway in the world.

As remarkable as a motorcycle trip of that magnitude is by itself, there is a section of the Pan American highway that exists only as a dotted line on the map of Panama’s Darién Province and northern Colombia. That line represents about 80 miles of dense jungle that blankets rugged, unforgiving terrain where there was not only no highway; there were stretches where there isn’t even a foot path.

The obsession Culberson refers to in his book’s title is simple but daunting: to be the first motorcyclist to ride the Pan American’s length including the Darien Gap.

Culberson had some unique qualities that made him particularly well-qualified to make such an attempt. He was retired career military and had been stationed in the Panama Canal Zone for a number of years. He had the opportunity to ride motorcycles in Central America, including on some of the most rugged trails that passed for roads there. He understood the very tricky politics of the region, some of its unique hazards, both natural and man-made. Most important, he understood that while the entire Pan-Am highway could be a test, the Darien Gap was a place where fatal mistakes come easy.

His book describes the careful planning and research he did, including meeting with Guinness Book-recognized motorcycle-riding globe circumnavigator Danny Liska and reading everything he could find on previous mechanized attempts. They ranged from the impressive to the just plain weird.

For example, Culberson describes the 1960 Organization of American States/National Geographic Society expedition to the Darien, the 1971-72 Blashford-Snell Land Rover and Range Rover expedition that actually became the first overland mechanized crossing of the Darien, the 1973-75 attempts by Bob Webb and Ron Merrill to make the crossing on Rokon two-wheel drive motorcycles, which didn’t quite make it despite three tries (leaving the highway route to finish the third try taking the Atrato river to boat the bikes to the Caribbean), the American Motors Corporation-backed crossing by five Jeeps and the truly bizarre expedition General Motors sponsored to try to drive the Darien with the just-introduced rear-engine Chevy Corvairs.

In 1984, Culberson flew to Panama and took a reconnaissance trip by boat all the way to Yaviza—the last village on what had become the end of the road before actually entering the untracked Gap. What he learned on that trip was both helpful for his later expedition and was a cautionary tale. The crude settlement there and what he saw beyond raised questions.

“If this was Yaviza, I wondered what it could be like beyond here on the route to Colombia. Would it actually be possible to push on and make it to the border? And from there could I get the bike through the swamps and across the Atrato River to the beginning of the road in South America?” Culberson’s misgivings would prove to be well-founded in the next two years, but he was unbowed by the challenge.

Obsessions Die Hard: Motorcycling the Pan American Highway’s Jungle Gap BMW R 80 G/SIn 1985, Culberson took his first crack at the Darien Gap aboard his carefully prepared BMW R80 G/S and in the company of an experienced traveler, Loren Upton, whose expedition was using four wheel, not two wheel transportation. For Culberson, that grinding, winching, wrenching 33-day ordeal ended in the Panamanian village of Pucuru with an injured ankle, bee stings, exhaustion and the imminent onset of the seasonal monsoon. The Darien had won round one, but Culberson wasn’t giving up.

He returned to his home in Florida aboard his bike that bore the Florida plate “Amigo” more determined than ever to finish what he started. He returned in 1986 determined to do it solo, with only the guides and porters he employed and occasional local helpers. That part of the story is a crowning achievement in grit, using one’s wits and determination. It is a great story brought to life in a well-written narrative that will make you glad he made it and think twice about ever trying it yourself!

Ed Culberson died in 1995 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Book Data:

  • Title: Obsessions Die Hard: Motorcycling the Pan American Highway’s Jungle Gap
  • Author: Ed Culberson
  • Published: 1996. Paperback. 20 black/white images and/or illustrations. 261 9.0” x 6” pages.
  • Publisher: Whitehorse Press, North Conway, New Hampshire, 03860, USA. Whitehorse Press has ceased operations but some of their active titles may still be available through Quarto Publishing Group, 400 First Ave. North, Suite 400, Minneapolis, MN 55401. Books can be ordered by e-mail at: qds@quartous.com or call: 1-612-344-8100. See: www.quartoknows.com
  • ISBN: 1-8844313-06-X

Rider’s Library: Note to readers – many of the books that we’ll feature here may be out of print and some may be difficult to find. That could be half the fun. The Internet should make the search relatively easy but ironically, none of the books currently scheduled for eventual retro-review for the Rider’s Library section were found with the help of the Internet. They all were found at book stores, used book stores, antique shops, motorcycle shops, yard sales and so on.