Each adventure has its lows, each journey has its highs, and out of these there is always one that stands the tallest in our minds: the quintessential moment that justifies the months of preparation, the long hours of travel to get there, and the discomforts that can come from extreme heat, cold, or elevation while on the journey. On a recent motorcycle adventure in Peru, traveling with my girlfriend Andrea and my friends Christian and Will, we found it. Riding to the small town of Carumas, tucked away in a peaceful valley way up into the Andes Mountains, the high was so clean and so perfectly scripted it could have been written by some ethereal author for this band of mere mortals to follow.
Twenty years ago, I rode through these mountains with Father Giovanni, he on a Honda XL185 and I on a Kawasaki GPz550. We had met by chance, spoken, and spent three days together as a result. During this time he essentially downloaded his life story to me, and it’s one I’ve been telling ever since. After I left him in Peru, we became pen pals for a number of years, as we wrote letters in those days, and then one day the letters stopped. It wasn’t ’til some years later I learned he had been killed in a car accident. Over the years since his passing, I have often thought of him on the small, rugged Honda and wondered what happened to the bike—the last physical connection I have to the man who became my mentor and changed my life, as I went on to form a charity to help care for the abandoned Peruvian children he once assisted.
A couple of years ago, a rumor developed that a small red motorcycle had been seen in the village of Carumas where he had lived while in Peru. A year later some paperwork put the chances of it being Gio’s at more than 90 percent, but it required I make a special journey to confirm it was actually his. I had tried once before and been beaten back by altitude sickness and foul weather, and there is no easy way to get there without days of travel that I hadn’t been able to find the time for.
So earlier this year on a clear, crisp day, as I led a group of 15 people across the Peruvian Andes at 12,000 feet en route to our orphanage in the town of Moquegua, we came to the turn in the road that leads to Carumas. There was no way a big group could make a side trip like this and safely get off the mountain before dark, so the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. But it had crossed my friend Christian’s; in fact, he had been thinking about it for days. So as we took a break to rest and hydrate, he made one last run at me to go look for the bike. “It’s your destiny,” he kept hammering into my skull. I decided to go, and, leaving the rest of the group in the capable hands of my Inca buddy and guide, Flavio Salvetti, we split and rode in search of Father Gio’s bike. It was a seemingly impossible thought that it could exist after 20 years, but one we had to chase.
As we cut away from our group, leaving them saddling up in the rocky, high-mountain desert landscape, it was as if we left one movie set and entered another. The smooth asphalt dropped us quickly into a steep-sided valley, so lush, green, and abundant with vegetation and brightly colored wildflowers I almost had to stop to pinch myself. Inca terracing revealed fresh, fertile soil, or land swollen with crops. Not a single car passed us as we made the tricky 24-mile ride to Carumas. The road rivaled the Alps for switchbacks, hairpin turns, and stunning mountain views, and we kept our eyes peeled far down into the valley where distant rooftops eventually came into view.
This road would have been dirt when Gio rode here, alone, on his small Honda. He would be coming home after days, or weeks, out visiting other remote parishes, unsupported, on his small red dirt bike. My heart is racing now, and my senses are on overload at the colors, the views, and the challenging ride. The sight of Christian and Will ahead brings us to a halt to check in with each other, and the smell from my brakes reveals the steep descent. I have no idea how many churches there might be in Carumas, if anyone will remember Father Gio, or how we might be received. Clearly, a troupe of Gringos in modern adventure gear on BMW motorcycles is not something that shows up regularly in these parts.
It’s important to stay calm, absorb the scenery when safe to do so, and let the experience unfold. Now the finer details exist only in these forgotten folders, and as we carve our way through the most beautiful landscape, I think I can remember. I find myself moved to tears in my helmet from the beauty around me, the love I feel from my girl, the deep friendship from Christian, and the bond of insanity I share with our cameraman, Will. I’ve been telling Gio’s story for 20 years, and now I am with a team of people who have not only heard it, but also connected with it deeply enough to put themselves here with me to find this important piece. How can a man ask his God, or the universe, for more?
The script keeps us on track as it calls for the gringos to ride into town and pull up outside the church. I then park the bike, remove my helmet, and within a minute greet a friendly local who approaches. The kindly middle-aged man remembers Father Gio and takes us to the rectory, where he leads us to a small room with an earth floor and a small red Honda XL185. There is a twist in the plot for the gringos though, where another man enters the scene and becomes protective of the bike, and the moment of joyful revelation is paused.
Not for long though, as Padre Carlos enters the scene: a warm, excitable priest from Colombia who went to the Father Gio school of happiness and outgoing behavior. Padre Carlos embraces each of us with hugs and handshakes and talks a million miles a minute as he invites everyone in for coffee, so we leave the old Honda for a time. We immediately love him and he loves us, and in those moments I realize God, or the universe, is giving my small group a chance encounter that will change their lives forever, the way Gio changed mine.
After coffee, we return to Gio’s small red Honda and excitedly take photos. Then we tour the church, and, while we are on the roof, a small band plays somewhere in town as if the script called for music for this scene. Priests lifting and hugging cameramen, gringos ringing church bells, and locals taking photos, our emotions soar as I look at the stunning mountains that ring the village, resplendent in their verdant beauty. A few dark clouds moving in remind me of stories I’ve heard of Gio and his people, cut off from the outside world by heavy snow, rationing their meager food stores to ensure survival. How Gio had ridden up into these mountains, against the advice of his family, to put himself between his people and the Shining Path guerrillas who were raping and murdering the women. Every remembered story leaves me humbled as I recall his life of sacrifice and service.
Sitting in the church, huddled around Padre Carlos as he prays, I hear him thank Gio for his love of the children in Peru. The rest of his long prayer was lost with my limited knowledge of Spanish, but his tone and passion were not, as his melodic voice swirled around the old stone edifice. There are so many different opinions on religion in this world, but on a day such as this even a nonbeliever would surely have to think twice. Outside in the village square, we start processing our riding gear and making a move to leave. We have 80 difficult miles ahead, the possibility of rain, and by the time we hit 14,000 feet to begin our descent to Moquegua it will be below freezing and dark. Our scriptwriter is not done with us though, as Padre Carlos appears in thick pants and a padded jacket calling to the villagers for a helmet. Half an hour later, exiting Carumas, we are five.
I’m trying to hold back tears of joy as we climb past local Indians, laden donkeys, random dogs, and small farms. In the most incredible physical déjà vu I’ve experienced in my time here on planet Earth, Padre Carlos is suddenly off the bike, yelling at the top of his lungs, and jumping over a wall into a small llama farm. I see Gio as clear as day jumping off the little red Honda and diving into a crowd of locals 20 years ago. The scenes from these separate movies merge to become one, as the camera pans out across the small herd of llama, over the dry stone walls, to the multicolored layers of light the setting sun is casting in the deep valley below. My heart flies with it, carried on the back of a black-winged condor down to Carumas, where Gio’s memory still lives, anchored to the church and village by a small red motorcycle.
Andrea is holding a baby llama, and he is making all sorts of strange noises as she scratches his ears. I am quickly back in the present. The dirty-faced smiles from her, Christian, and Will, after a long day in the saddle, mirror the beauty of the sunset scene we are enjoying. The sound track of Carlos’ excitable voice fills the moment, as he talks to the old lady who lives here alone with no electricity or running water. Her house is a small brick building with a tin roof cemented on top to keep out the weather. It’s always inconceivable to my spoiled Western mind how anyone could survive out here alone, but she is clearly happy to have company, and the few Peruvian sols we leave with her for allowing us to take photographs hopefully will ease a little of her burden, even if only for a short time.
We finally tear ourselves away, hit the turn for Moquegua, and start descending as the last of the day’s light leaves us. It could be the perfect last scene for the play we’ve acted out today, as there is a grand finale waiting to take place. As we pause to watch the burning sun descend behind the distant horizon and the temperature drops to freezing, Padre Carlos sinks to his knees and raises his arms in prayer. In minutes it leaves us alone at 12,000 feet in the Andes Mountains of Peru with our thoughts—a place and moment nearly identical to the one where I met Father Giovanni on the little red Honda all those years ago.