|A nomad stops by the Coastside on his bike odyssey|
On Christmas Day, Dirk de Maertelaere rode his bicycle across the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time in his life.
The 40-year-old Belgian was thrilled to see the famous iconic bridge, but he had already seen enough on his American bike tour to merit some boasting rights.
Starting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dirk has been cycling across the Western Hemisphere for the past two years, crisscrossing across Latin America and winding his way northward.
And on Christmas Eve, the Coastside was his ride du jour.
I encountered Dirk by random chance as I was meeting my girlfriend at her parents' home in Moss Beach. Her father, an avid cyclist himself, ran into Dirk at Peet's Coffee in Half Moon Bay and they started talking shop. Eventually Dirk was invited over to his house.
So when I came to visit my girlfriend, instead of heading out to get dinner, both of us were enthralled hearing Dirk's stories that he accumulated over the course of his two-wheeled journeys. After listening for a few minutes, I couldn't resist the urge to pull out my notebook and start jotting down his tales.
Dirk said he had been on the road since January 2007, flying out to Argentina from London with little else besides a trusty light-weight aluminum bike.
“I left Belgium only with a copy of the Lonely Planet guidebook of South America,” he said. “My friends said 'You're crazy, you're not going to come back alive.'”
Taking a pilgrimage across the world certainly gives an idyllic image, particularly in the nonchalant, easy-going way Dirk spoke. No big deal, he seemed to say, it was just an inter-continental odyssey.
The cheery nomad said he has had a severe case of wanderlust since serving on merchant vessels that embarked across the world when he was 22 and living in Flanders, his home region of Belgium. Attending a cycling exhibition in the early '90s, Dirk met a nomadic biker who told him about how easy it was to travel by bike across the continents.
“This guy had ridden around the world,” Dirk said. “And I thought, if he can do this, then so can I!”
In 1997, after saving up money, Dirk set off on a trip across the Asian continent, heading southeast from Europe, through Turkey and dipping down to India.
His says his first journey was a success despite many obstacles. In the long-disputed Kashmir region between India and Pakistan, Dirk remembers having to wait for several weeks until a peace treaty was signed, allowing him to safely cross the border. Journeying for three years, he finally reached Indonesia, his final destination.
Seven years after returning home from crossing the width of Asia, Dirk decided on a new venture, setting out to explore the Western side of the globe. On a whim, he bought a ticket to San Paolo, Brazil and decided to ride throughout Latin America before heading northward.
“I didn't have time to learn Spanish, so all I had was a dictionary” he said. “I learned how to speak from talking with students. After four months, I could hold a decent conversation.”
Riding around on his 75-lbs bike, Dirk says he had a regimen of riding about 60 miles a day, touring the extensive rain forests, coastlines and open valley of South America.
But there were hardships — many of them, Dirk admitted after being pressed. His devil-may-care wandering had nearly killed him on multiple occasions, he said. In the Andes mountains over last winter, he nearly froze to death in a blizzard from sleeping off road in only a modest tent and sleeping bag. By miracle he was saved that night by a pair of Australian tourists who were driving by.
One would think the experience of nearly dying of frostbite would be a lesson for Dirk, but he now has his eyes set on pedaling north to the most severe areas of the Arctic.
By February, he says, he will be in Western Canada, with time to burn riding around, waiting for Spring to come. But once the warmer weather arrives, he plans on heading straight west to Alaska and pushing on through the gigantic state, right on to the coast until he finds some way to cross along the Bering Strait and over to the Siberia region of Russia. Then it's south down through Mongolia and into China, and eventually back west over to India.
“India is very beautiful,” he said. “So far, it's my favorite place.”
Dirk estimates he might return back home to Belgium perhaps in three years, but he says he's leaving his schedule flexible.
That night on Christmas Eve, the weather services were reporting heavy winds and rain, so Dirk decided to deviate from his usual habit of tent camping on the side of the road.
Instead, he decided to splurge by staying at the hostel at Montara lighthouse and enjoying his first shower in three weeks.