Oregon couple reflects on 20-month, 18,000-mile cycling odyssey

Kristen and Ville Jokinen stand by their bikes near their Bend home on last week. The couple recently completed a 20-month cycling journey together that logged more than18,000 miles from Alaska to Argentina. (Ryan Brennecke/Bulletin Bend/TNS)
Kristen and Ville Jokinen stand by their bikes near their Bend home on last week. The couple recently completed a 20-month cycling journey together that logged more than18,000 miles from Alaska to Argentina. (Ryan Brennecke/Bulletin Bend/TNS)

Credit: Ryan Brennecke/Bulletin Bend

Credit: Ryan Brennecke/Bulletin Bend

BEND, Ore. — They had endured grueling climbs while crossing the Andes six times, relentless rain and wind, endless desert, vicious dog attacks, scary crashes and an agonizing bout with dengue fever.

So it is no wonder that when Bend’s Kristen and Ville Jokinen approached the end of their 20-month, 18,215-mile cycling journey in Ushuaia, Argentina, they were an emotional mess: laughing, crying and singing all at once.

The adventurous couple had set out on June 26, 2016, from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, the northernmost location in Alaska that is accessible by road. They reached the southernmost tip of South America, at Ushuaia, on Feb. 16 this year.

The Jokinens admittedly were not accomplished cyclists before their trip. They had never even completed a bike tour of any distance.

“What people should get from our story is that we had no experience,” Ville says, sitting at the Jokinens’ home in Bend last week. “It was our first bike tour. People think you need all this crap and you need all the perfect equipment — you don’t.”

Hoping to inspire others to see the world and chase their dreams, the Jokinens, both 37, are writing a book about their trip (Kristen kept a detailed blog) and are planning some local speaking engagements, including one May 23 at Bend’s Mountain View High School.

After making it from Alaska to Costa Rica — about the halfway point — a year ago, the couple boarded a flight back to Bend to take a break before resuming their journey back in Costa Rica.

But Kristen became ill on their way to the airport to continue their trip, and instead of boarding the flight she visited her doctor. A round of tests confirmed that she had dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease she figured she contracted in Costa Rica. Symptoms, she says, included high fever, severe joint and muscle pain, fatigue and nausea.

Kristen — a real estate agent in Bend before leaving on the trip — recuperated at her parents’ home in Bend for three weeks, but she grew restless to get back on the bike. Against her doctor’s advice, she joined Ville on a flight back to Costa Rica for the second half of their odyssey.

It was hard to get back into a rhythm on the road, the Jokinens say, but once they did, there was no going back. They made it to Panama City, where they boarded a flight to Cartagena, Colombia — a flight they felt necessary because the border between those two countries includes the Darien Gap, a roadless, dangerous area reportedly teeming with drug smugglers.

Once back on their bikes in Colombia — after reassembling them in the Cartagena airport — the Jokinens learned quickly why the country produces some of the best climbing cyclists in the world.

“Colombia had really steep climbs,” Kristen says. “The Tour de France was going on as we were going through there. It’s a huge cycling country. So everywhere we went, the Tour was on every TV. People were cheering for us, people bought us meals, people were so incredibly friendly. But after biking in Colombia, you can understand how they win.”

Colombian rider Rigoberto Uran finished second overall in the 2017 Tour de France.

“He was the guy who locals said, ‘Yeah, he used to deliver potatoes from the valley to the top where you’re going, on this road by his bike,’ ” Ville recalls.

The couple continued through Ecuador and into Peru, where they had to make a decision: bike along the coast, which was flat and hot, or take the mountainous route through the Andes, which consisted of mostly long, precipitous ascents and descents along steep switchback roads.

They chose the mountains, climbing as high as 16,000 feet and descending as low as 300 feet as they crossed the Andes again and again. It took them 21/2 months to make it through the Andes in Peru.

“The climbing went from hours … to days,” Kristen explains. “At the top, you’re looking straight across at your next climb. You see the downhill and then you look across the mountain and see the scar of the switchbacks you’ll be going back up the next pass.”

She says they made it through those climbs with the help of low gears, music, podcasts — and, of course, each other’s company. They also conversed with many of the locals they encountered, as they both speak Spanish.

“We were in shape by then,” Kristen says. “When your reality is turned into biking every day, there’s this calming peacefulness to it … like a meditation ride all day.”

In addition to the climbs, the couple had to deal with an unexpected threat — farmers’ and ranchers’ dogs, who would chase them constantly. Kristen estimates that they faced up to 20 dog attacks per day. During one such incident, dogs caused Ville to crash and he broke several ribs. Kristen also crashed in Peru — due to rain, not dogs — and injured her tailbone.

Along the way, the couple mostly camped in a tent and slept on thin air mattresses. They bought food from grocery stores and cooked it with their one pot and small cookstove, or ate at restaurants when it was affordable.

The kindness of strangers, they insist, at times was overwhelming.

“When we asked them to camp (in Peru), they always just wanted to help us,” Ville says. “That was the norm. Anytime we asked if we could camp, they said yes. No one ever asked us for anything — never.”

Once they reached Cusco, Peru, Kristen’s parents arrived from Bend and they all toured Machu Picchu — the renowned Incan ruins high in the Andes.

From Peru, the Jokinens continued on to the high plains and salt flats of Bolivia, often higher than 13,000 feet.

“Bolivia was the poorest country we went to,” Kristen says. “Most people were herding. People let us camp anywhere: on their farms, land, in churches … incredible kindness from people. We got asked more in the U.S. and in the developed world about why (bike so far)? I don’t think anybody ever said that to us in Latin America. They were like, ‘Wow, what a beautiful life, what an experience.’ ”

Once through Bolivia, the couple entered the seemingly interminable desert of northern Argentina in early November.

“Mentally, that was one of the hardest pushes for both of us, because it was so long of looking at nothing,” Kristen recalls. “So we decided to climb over to Chile. We had burnout after 21/2 weeks of desert.”

The Jokinens biked the Carretera Austral, a highway in Chile that runs about 770 miles through rural Patagonia, a world-famous region of the Southern Andes. Kristen says the mountains were beautiful, when they could see them — she notes that it rained about 80 percent of the ride along that route.

The couple took a break to spend a week hiking and backpacking in Patagonia with a friend from Bend who met them there. Then it was back on the bikes into Argentina and toward Ushuaia.

“The last day, the sun came out and it was absolutely beautiful,” Kristen says. “It felt like it came just for us. We came around this bend in the road and there were these huge towers that said ‘Ushuaia.’ We were just super emotional. We got there, and no one was there. A lady took our picture, and just walked away. It was really fitting, because when we started (in Prudhoe Bay) there was no one there.”

After 20 months of slumming it, the Jokinens were ready for some luxury. With the financial help of Kristen’s grandparents, they had booked a 30-day cruise from Buenos Aires, Argentina, around Cape Horn all the way back north to Los Angeles.

Now back home in Bend, they are both working on the book and Kristen is working again as a real estate agent.

“We just want to get kids inspired to do cool stuff,” she says. “There is a lot of the world out there to see, and that’s the message we want to portray, and plus how amazing people are. People want to help you. People are generally good. If you put yourself out there and you have a smile on your face, it is unbelievable how people will treat you and open doors for you.”

And, she adds, you don’t need to be a talented cyclist to have an incredible journey.

“You don’t need experience,” she insists. “You just have to do it.”


Gear and other statistics 

Kristen and Ville Jokinen completed their 20-month journey from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina, on Surly Disc Trucker touring bikes. Below are some statistics related to their bikes, gear, etc.:

— Miles: 18,215

— Tire punctures: 27

— Chains: 22, 11 per bike

— Tires: Ville five and Kristen four

— Cassettes: three each

— Chain rings: two each

— Broken rims: one

— Crashes: Ville two (broken ribs); Kristen three (injured tailbone)

— Least favorite food: oatmeal

— Favorite food: chile relleno in Guadalajara, Mexico

— Weirdest food consumed: live larvae (also consumed llama, alpaca, guinea pig, crickets)

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