A two-year bicycle journey from Alaska to Chile ends with a new career in photography.
In July 2005, two good friends from Seattle set out on a journey that was, from the beginning, meant to be life-changing. Two years later, one would complete the trip. His life would indeed be profoundly different from when he started. But not in any way he expected.
When Gregg Bleakney began his epic bicycle trek from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, he was a former software salesman who was crossing the threshold into his 30s, a onetime track star in the triple jump who had blown out a knee and missed competing for the Olympics. When he finished his trip two years later, at the southernmost tip of Chile, he had become a photographer with a brilliant eye for landscape.
For Bleakney, the trip was the culmination of years of pent-up wanderlust. While attending the University of Oregon he founded a dot-com travel company, thinking it would be his ticket to see the world. "Instead I was in the office doing all the business stuff while other people traveled," he recalls. He later went to work in software sales for Oracle and another company, but never forgot a promise he'd made to himself to one day take an extended trip ... somewhere.
An avid cyclist -- he took it up to rehabilitate his knee -- Bleakney came up with the idea of pedaling the entire route of the Pan American Highway. He enlisted a friend, Brookes Allen, to join him, and after four years of planning they began their journey. Bleakney rode a custom-made steel bike and carried a Fujifilm FinePix S7000 digital point-and-shoot. "I just wanted to take snapshots to remember the trip with," he says.
At first, on the road in Alaska, the two friends were most concerned with grizzly bears. "Brookes and I shared a tent, and every night I'd wake up thinking I heard a bear," Bleakney recalls. "I'd sit up and grab my can of mace. Then I'd realize it was just Brookes snoring."
Down the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California they rode. "Somewhere in Southern California I met all these surfing people, and they were doing a lot of surf photography, and I saw the creative options you could have with an SLR," says Bleakney. Just before crossing into Mexico, Bleakney visited a camera store and traded in his point-and-shoot for an entry-level digital SLR, the Canon EOS Rebel.
"On a big bike trip the one thing you have is a lot of time," he says. "I just took pictures all the time, playing with aperture, ISO settings, shutter speeds. Then at night in the tent I'd look at everything, to see what worked."
The trek continued through Mexico, and, Bleakney says, "It was like two good friends conquering the land." Then, on a lonely jungle road in the Chiapas region, the cyclists were ambushed by machete-wielding bandits. "They took everything we had, except the bikes, which were too heavy," says Bleakney. They also missed his camera.
Allen decided he'd had enough. "He didn't feel comfortable any longer, and I supported his decision," says Bleakney, who chose to go on alone.
From that point on, however, the purpose of the trek seemed to change. The idea of photography began to seem indistinguishable from the journey itself. "I had been terrorized, so I felt I had to surrender myself to the world," he says. "That is also when I started to become passionate about the camera. Photography became a way of accepting the otherness of the land, of looking outward."
Bleakney would go on to ride down the spine of the Andes, through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Chile, pedaling through mountain passes at 16,000 feet. He ended his trip in Tierra del Fuego, in the southernmost city in the Americas, Urshuaia.
On his return he decided to continue taking pictures. Last October he attended an adventure-photography workshop led by Corey Rich and organized by Rich Clarkson, the legendary former photo director of National Geographic. Clarkson was so impressed by Bleakney's images of South America that he decided to publish them in an upcoming book, titled The Bicycle Diaries. "I started the trip to see new places," says Bleakney, "and ended with a new life."
-- David Schonauer