In Panama City, we were equally struck by two imponderable facts: 1. We had ridden continuously on our beloved, if bedraggled, beast of burden from San Francisco to Panama, excepting, of course, the ferry across the Sea of Cortez which delivered us on the Mexican mainland. And 2. Having navigated so many miles over pavement, stone, and dust, through detours, protests, roadblocks, and rockslides here it came to an end, decisively and without question, at the very brink of an incredible new world.
The Darien Gap, “the world’s worst roadblock”, is sixty-six miles of untamed jungle isolating South America from Panama. Despite the continuous landmass that forms the American continents, only the brave and the foolish can cross it entirely by land and without the help of boats or planes. We have heard numerous theories as to why this stretch of land in the middle of the world’s longest roads remains virtually impermeable. Perhaps Panama needs a natural buffer between its border and the cocaine highway. Perhaps the CIA needs the gap to control how much cocaine is exported from Colombia. Or perhaps there are still frontiers that are simply too wild to yet be conquered by even our best engineers.
There was a time in the not so distant past when only a few brave men and women would have attempted what we accomplished with relative ease. For, while our journey was not a walk in the park, it never approached impossible. The biggest roadblock was always in our own mind—our own fears could make roads impassable and place criminals around every bend. In spite of these phantoms, or perhaps, in a twisted way, because of them, we ventured daily onward. We were challenged by these fears just as a child who, waking in the night, throws open his closet doors to prove to himself what he knows in his better judgment to be true, the bogeyman is not real.
Nonetheless, at the Darien Gap we met a true impasse. I savored the thought that in the 21st century true wilderness still holds court over a piece of this planet. A natural kingdom of inhospitable jungles and swamps reigned over by inhospitable creatures: jaguars, vipers, poison frogs, drug runners, and guerrillas still fighting a civil war that no one knows how to end.
Undoubtably, one day pavement will connect the whole of America. In many ways this must be an improvement for humanity, but when the Darien Gap is conquered for the masses one more mystery will be put in the grave and its obituary will become the material for legends of a world that was.
Since we couldn’t cross the Darien Gap by land, we decided to cross by sea.