Two Wheels Through Terror: Diary of a South American Motorcycle Odyssey [Review]

Two Wheels Through Terror

At first glance, the title of Glen Heggstad’s book, Two Wheels Through Terror, may seem a little melodramatic. I’ve read several books about extreme adventure touring including those ranging through South America and they all had their hairy moments—but “terror?” I mean, how bad can it be?

So, I admit to being a little jaded about the tribulations a rider is letting themselves in for in such journeys. But, in the case of Heggstad’s story, the term “terror” is correct. It is not melodrama or overstatement.

Heggstad set out for a trip-of-a-lifetime solo motorcycle tour to run from his home turf in southern California, through Mexico and Central America, down the west coast of South America to Land’s End at Tierra del Fuego, back up the east coast of South America, up the Amazon, and eventually back to California.

The timing was unusually ominous in itself—he departed on October 1, 2001, less than a month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.—travel abroad not advised. Hurricane Julia had just finished ravaging parts of Mexico he would have to traverse leaving roads buried or flooded, bridges wrecked and traffic chaotic.

Hurricane Lorena was swirling offshore Mexico waiting to make landfall and the leading edge of Hurricane Michelle lay ahead. All that is over and above the routine challenges of crazy drivers, intense heat or cold, widely varying road conditions, occasionally shifty locals, cops and border officials, language limitations, and so on.

Two Wheels Through Terror: Diary of a South American Motorcycle Odyssey [Review]

Yet, daunting as all that is, it pales next to what lies ahead in Colombia. On Nov. 6, 2001, as Heggstad rode from Bogota toward Medellin, he was stopped at a roadblock on a lonely stretch of highway.

It was not a government roadblock—it was manned by heavily armed members of the ELN—a Marxist rebel group opposed to the Colombian government. In their view, Heggstad as an American is a rich capitalist; no matter his station in life and he is, therefore, an enemy to be taken hostage and held for ransom—or shot on the spot if he tried to flee or fight. His belongings were booty to be taken as tribute in their private war.

Heggstad would be, in essence, a prisoner of war from that moment until finally released to the care and custody of the International Red Cross on December 10, 2001. However, unlike a uniformed POW in a declared war between official government combatants, he would not enjoy the protections of the Geneva Convention.

Beatings, starvation, thirst, death threats, constant exposure to the elements, psychological warfare—mock executions—and isolation were used against him almost non-stop throughout his captivity.

Despite what would appear to be a hopeless situation, Heggstad is able to turn the tables on his captors, creating a strong incentive for them to negotiate his release—before they have nothing to negotiate with. The period of his captivity and how he coped with it and ultimately overcame it is a testament to his individual physical and mental toughness and the resilience of the human spirit.

Despite that experience qualifying as a nightmare by any standard, Heggstad comes away from it stronger, wiser, and surprisingly sympathetic to those involved—and more determined than ever to make the entire journey. He declines to take a flight back to the U.S. from Colombia and with a little on-scene financial help from a surprising source and a lot of help from his friends back home, does, indeed eventually get back on a motorcycle and back on the road.

The rest of the journey takes on new meaning; its significance to one man going far beyond what one would usually ascribe to any motorcycle adventure tour, no matter how challenging. Plenty of problems and challenges lay ahead, to be sure, but Heggstad overcomes them and despite many obstacles, it all is part of his recovery.

In the end, the rebel beat-down in Colombia becomes a personal triumph for its intended victim, moving him from the victim to ultimate victor. He persevered, regrouped and went on, refusing to let his captors end the journey of his dreams.

Amazing as his journey was, perhaps the most amazing achievement of it all is Heggstad’s personal and philosophical growth as a result. One could argue he would have every right to be bitter toward many of the people and countries involved in the adverse incidents that occurred. Heggstad went the other way. In his travels, he met many kind, selfless people—and it is those he chose to remember. And, he came to understand himself the better for it. Not long after he was freed, as he continued south through Bolivia, he wrote:

“If I can survive these trials, I’ll be more capable than ever of succeeding in life’s challenges. This journey was never intended to prove something to anyone else. My intention was to better understand the real world and my own character, as well as to explore my own limits.”

As his saga finally neared its end, he reflected on it:

“I sought the pulse of mankind, encountering spirit-tingling extremes tempered only by the blind justice of mother earth. I came to experience life as South Americans do, and in times of despair, often recalled the saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ I still would not trade this experience for anything.”

Heggstad’s book is superbly written and, together with its maps and color images, takes you along on that remarkable experience.

Book Data:

  • Title: Two Wheels Through Terror—Diary of a South American Motorcycle Odyssey
  • Author: Glenn Heggstad
  • Published: 2004 and reissued 2010 hardcover, 275 9.0” x 5.75” pages, 40 color and black & white images and maps.
  • Publisher: First published by: Whitehorse Press, 2004
  • Second edition: ECW Press, 2120 Queen Street East, Suite 200, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M4E 1EC;
  • ISBN: 978-1-55022-922-6
  • MSRP: $18.95 CAN