Photos above and below by Matty Hannon
Heather is riding a motorcycle carrying two surfboards, camping and spearfishing gear, and a ukulele, from Mexico to Patagonia, Argentina with her boyfriend, Matty. It’s not your typical love story. Heather met Matty partway through his solo journey from Alaska and it didn’t take much convincing to get her on the road, too. Learn more in the interview below.
Meet Heather Hillier
How Did Your Trip Come To Be?
Fifteen months ago I was winding down a busy summer of farming in Vancouver, feeling the effects of overwork and ready to move on, somewhere… My good friend had come up from California for a couple weeks to eat veggies and hang at the farmhouse, and we decided to take a rare weekend off and travel to Vancouver Island to surf and camp in the bed of her truck. We ended up meeting a dreamy Australian filmmaker, riding a crazy-looking motorcycle-sidecar from Alaska to Patagonia, surfing the Pacific coast and documenting his adventure.
The chance encounter ignited a spark that had been slowly burning, far in the background, during the previous four years of farming. The fiery desire for a world bigger than the small, self-sufficient one I’d been intentionally building for myself was suddenly roaring, and I couldn’t stop thinking about far-away places and absurd means of accessing them. Matty, the dreamy Australian fomenter of fire, visited the farm for a week after leaving the island, and after that we kept in touch for a couple months. After selling our little urban farm when the season ended, I drove down to Mexico and we spent two months in Baja, camping under the stars, spearfishing for our meals, and surfing.
At this point, the only logical thing to do was to drive back to Vancouver, spend two months getting my motorcycle license (I’d never so much as sat on a bike in my life), and fly to southern Mexico to meet Matty again and ride off into the sunset.
What is you vehicle of choice and why did you choose it?
I’m riding a Kawasaki KLR 650, which meant basically nothing to me when I started. It’s an adventure-style bike, good for long stretches of pavement and also for taking off-road. It would be an overstatement to say that I know what I’m talking about now, but the good thing about these bikes us that they’re inexpensive and extremely reliable, and relatively easy to fix on your own. One of the things I was looking forward to on this trip was learning, however basically, a bit about mechanics. A motorcycle is such a small, contained system that it makes the mechanical aspect more accessible than a car.
All practicalities aside, sometimes you meet a boy and he is riding to the bottom of the earth and it seems like a good idea to get on a motorcycle and do the same.
How far along are you in your journey?
It’s been about eight months, or 12,000 miles (19,000 kms) since I started in southern Mexico. Matty has been on the road a year and a half since Alaska.
What does an average day look like for you?
It’s quite different depending on whether or not we’re on the move. Due to the massive effort of unpacking everything and putting it all away again in the morning, we tend to situate ourselves in front of a wave or something interesting for a few days at a time when the swell is up.
On the move, we wake up in the tent, have cold instant oats with chia seeds and coffee, begin packing everything into its very specific place on the motorbike, and an hour or two later hit the road. Ride for several hours, think about the world all alone inside my helmet, no music because it’s too loud, stop for lunch. After another few hours, we start looking for a road leading off the highway, away from towns and people, with a little flat nest for the tent and space beside it for the bikes.
Once settled, we save several hours a day not packing and unpacking, during which time I might go for a surf, email my family, daydream about salad greens, butcher the ukulele, read about two pages of Anna Karenina, do some yoga, wander around a local market’s veg section, and do my best to consume said vegetables. And now that we’re in Chile, drinking good, cheap wine and watching the sun drop into the Pacific with my dreamy Australian is about the best life gets.
What about traveling by motorcycle do you get to experience that traveling by car would miss?
One of the biggest differences, especially in Latin America, is how open you are. There is no steel cage between you and the elements, or between you and the people. Plus, everyone rides a motorbike here, they’re cheap and very practical. We’ve had numerous times when, stopped on the side of a dirt road in the mountains to take a photo, or stopped at a light in insansely hectic Bogota traffic, upon seeing our ridiculously loaded motorcycles with two surfboards strapped to the side of each one, people approach us, shake our hands, and after the typical questions of where we’re from and where we’re going, invite us to their homes and urge us to stay the night, and the next night, and the next… It’s quite different from anything I’ve ever experienced in a car.
Motorcycle travel sort of feels like the back-country camping of the car-camping world. You definitely know when it’s raining, freezing, snowing, or 40 degrees celsius in full riding gear stuck in city traffic… Riding past dusty towns and dodging black smoke-spewing trucks, floral breezes change to wafts of burning garbage and roadside roast chicken. It’s the typical Latin American sensory overload times ten, so it’s much more exciting.
It’s also a big lesson in minimalism, meaning I don’t have a backseat full of shells and rocks and pinecones that I’ve collected for uncertain future art projects… which might be a good thing.
What has stood out to you the most during your time traveling through Central and South America?
That the grass is, and always will be, greener somewhere else. We blonde people are generally seen as extremely rich here by just about anyone’s standards, no matter what our actual financial situation. Television sets in the smallest of villages have opened up a glimpse of what everyone must live like in places like Canada, the US, Australia, and Europe, and I think it’s a generally negative relationship. Just as social media can be a distracting and powerful force of wanting someone else’s perfect life, the narrow televised view of things in the ‘developed’ world is obviously attractive because you can have all the money that falls from the sky, willing women, and cars that you’ve ever desired. Then you’ll be happier.
I think it’s part of the human condition to dream of something better, it’s what religions are made of, and I personally can’t ascribe a completely negative meaning to the ‘grass is greener’ expression. A truly healthy pasture lays fallow certain areas, moving to bright new growth from time to time. Sometimes it really is greener. Dreams are a big part of being human, and saying yes to them is what makes our hearts sing and the juices flow. It’s keeping it all in perspective and enjoying the fruits when they’re ripe that’s the most important thing.
What has been the most memorable place you’ve visited?
I love Baja for the ability to be away from towns, camping wherever you want and exploring the wild desert. But I think the most unique experience for me was arriving in a tiny town in southwestern Colombia after seeing a crappy photo of a huge waterfall on the internet. We roughly mapped it out, but only after stopping in every village along the rough dirt road to ask for directions did we find it. Turns out there are community-owned hot springs right below the waterfall, which plunges from a crack in the cliffs, above which forms a perfect rainbow every afternoon.
We camped for a couple nights, with a constant flow of curious visitors who insisted on us coming to their homes because it’s silly to be sleeping outside in the cold. Apparently we were the only people from outside who had actually come to stay for a few days. It was a tiny farming community set in gorgeous green mountains, where the only income stems from quinoa and opium poppies. They extract the milky sap from the seed heads and someone comes to take it for further processing. These people, and the Colombians in general, are by far the most outgoing, friendly and hospitable I’ve ever met. They were touched and genuinely interested that we had come all the way from our homes to explore theirs, and wanted us to have a beautiful experience of their country. It’s like a national identity of being genuinely lovely, and it seemed so powerful coming from the people of a country riddled by violence and fear.
Take a photo of your five must have items for road travel.
1 – My motorcycle gear. Because where would I be without skin and a brain?
2 –Tweezers, by far the most important personal grooming tool for someone with my eyebrow genes.
3 – A ukulele, because when will I ever have this much free-time to learn a new instrument ever again!?!
4 – A mason jar for making sauerkraut, for the days on the road when peanut butter and fried chicken are the only meals. Also a powerful tool in combatting the strange digestive occurrences of Latin America. I have an almost religious belief in food’s ability to make us healthy, and fermented foods are like the gods. I was legitimately worried about how I could continue to be healthy without my farm veg diet, so sauerkraut is the solution for a motorbike with no refrigeration to keep greens fresh.
5 – My journal that my brother made for me for Christmas a couple years ago. It makes me cry with homesickness sometimes, which I think is a good release; also writing in it, pressing flowers, etc.
Do you have any safety tips for Panamerican travelers?
Just stay off the Panamerican. Kidding! But seriously, there are so many trucks. We try to avoid it where we can, but usually it’s the quickest way south for those days when we’re trying to make some distance. Don’t drive at night, and trust the people. They are so open here, and mostly want you to have a nice time in their country. Let yourself be open, and they’ll keep you safe it seems.
Where are you now and where do you hope to be in a month?
As of today, December 13, we are in Pichilemu, Chile, soaking up the beautiful countryside that looks a lot like wine country in California, back to the cold water and consistent swells. We don’t really know exactly where we’ll be in a month, somewhere on our way to Patagonia… Preparing for the last leg of the journey to Tierra del Fuego. We have a bit of a surprise coming, but I can’t tell you about it yet, you’ll have to stay tuned to the instagram/blog or wait for the film in a couple years!
Photos (C) 2016 Matty Hannon