Summer roads trips are a family tradition for many Americans, but no one I know ever took a trip like Garry Sowerby and Tim Cahill did in 1987.
Sowerby is a Canadian long distance rally driver from Moncton, New Brunswick, and Tim Cahill is an adventure writer from Montana and a founder of Outside magazine. In Road Fever, the challenge was to drive the length of the Western Hemisphere along the Pan-American Highway from Ushuaia, Argentina, on Tierra del Fuego island to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and do it in record time.
At the time the Guinness Book of World Records had recognized only one speed record, a 56-day drive by a Frenchman with less than perfect documentation. Sowerby aimed to beat that and prove it. The real key, according to Sowerby, was OPM—Other Peoples’ Money. Cahill had magazine and book advances, but a lead sponsor had to be found to convince other donors to contribute.
Fortunately General Motors was looking for a way to publicize its newly redesigned GMC Sierra pickup and they agreed to donate a truck, ship it to Argentina, and put up a considerable amount of cash. They also enlisted GM dealers and factories all over Latin America for servicing and other support.
With General Motors on board, tire, fuel, and beer sponsors soon signed on. A small Canadian dairy even agreed, in exchange for their decal on the truck, to donate a number of cases of long-life milk shakes for sustenance underway. The Canadian government also alerted its embassies and consulates along the route to ask local tourism and immigration officials to assist with border crossings and transit permits.
Before hitting the road, Sowerby spent nearly two years pulling all this together. Much of that time, and GM’s cash, was spent on reconnaissance trips to Guinness in London to negotiate written rules for a record and to cities along the route for meetings with key GM reps and local government officials. “Adventure driving” is Sowerby’s duly incorporated business and he’s a thorough professional; Cahill on the other hand was amateur relief driver, cheerleader, keeper of food supplies, and trip documentarian.
Finally, all was ready. With their logbook time and date stamped by the local Ushuaia police, Sowerby and Cahill headed north over a mountain road of snow and muck into the pre-dawn darkness.
They crossed into Chilean Tierra del Fuego, took a ferry to the mainland, crossed back into Argentina, and raced north—windy desolate Patagonia, Alpine lovely Bariloche, a hair-raising pass across the Andes into Chile, and ever north. They drove day and night, taking turns sleeping a few hours at a time in the pickup’s crew cab back seat. With snacks (mostly beef jerky), cases of milk shakes, and 90 gallons of extra diesel in the capped payload bay to add to the regular 30-gallon tank, they figured they could go nearly 2,000 miles without refueling the truck or themselves.
Their first major tech stop was Santiago to service the truck (courtesy of GM Chile), mount new tires and spares (Patagonian roads ruined two of the originals), and get a hot meal, showers, and a few hours sleep. Then back on the road—the Atacama desert, the beauty and poverty of Peru, more hair-raising Andean roads in Ecuador, and then the banditry and drug gangs of 1980s Colombia.
The Pan-American Highway through the impenetrable Darien Gap has never been finished, which meant the truck had to be shipped by sea from Colombia to Panama. Much of the dash through South America was keyed to the scheduled rendezvous with a freighter at Cartagena. After a quick rest and clearing the truck through the officious Panamanian bureaucracy, it was off over a foggy 10,000-foot pass into pleasant, peaceful San José, Costa Rica, followed by a dicey, nerve-wracking crossing of Sandinista Nicaragua.
It seemed like the home stretch after Central America, a breeze through Mexico and a 3-hour scheduled stop in Dallas for a GM publicity event. Sowerby also had a phone installed in the truck here so he could do radio interviews as Cahill drove the prairies of the U.S. and Canada.
So now the SPOILER ALERT: Yes they made it to Prudhoe Bay; the two adventurers drove the length of the Americas in 23 days, 22 hours, and 43 minutes and indeed set a Guinness World Record. And as far as I know, it still stands.
As many travel books as I’ve read over the years, I’ve never read one by Cahill. In fact, I only found this one because it was mentioned in Eric Rutlow’s history of the Pan-American Highway, The Longest Line on the Map: The United States, the Pan-American Highway, and the Quest to Link the Americas, the book I had originally intended to write about this month.
But the two books couldn’t be more different. Where Cahill’s book is a breezy, irreverent, page-turning adventure, the Rutlow account is a detailed, well-documented, but dry as dust history of endless schemes and negotiations to build the highway in the first place. Both books suffer for their maps, Cahill’s for having none at all and Rutlow’s for the crude, nearly unreadable ink drawings it calls maps.
So if you want a fun and funny read, with surprisingly evocative descriptions of the places they sped through and the people they met, as well as hints on bribing border guards with milk shakes and Maple Leaf lapel pins, start with Cahill’s account. If you’re still curious about how a road from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska came to be, read Rutlow’s very thorough history of the Pan American Highway.
Another sharp-eyed reader has spotted a second error in my May “Bookshelf” item. In the penultimate paragraph beginning with “Rule Three,” it should have read “. . . to avoid it,” not “. . . to avoid a split infinitive.” I must have subconsciously been tryin to prove Dreyer’s point that copyediting is both important and hard.
Ed Guest lives and reads in East Burke.