Secondary roads are preferred. Paved county roads are the best,
state highways are next. Freeways are the worst. We want to make
good time, but for us now this is measured with emphasis on
"good" rather than "time" and when you make that shift in
emphasis the whole approach changes.
--ROBERT M. PIRSIG Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
This is an article from the Oct. 13, 2003 issue
The epiphany for Chris and Erin Ratay came in late September 1999,
as they rode their motorcycles out of Prague and into the forests
of the Ore mountain range, the Czech Republic's northwestern
frontier with Germany. They were headed to Berlin, and, as usual,
they were in a hurry. They had been on the road for four months,
since May 20, when they had flown with their BMW bikes from New
York City to Casablanca to begin a 15-month ride around the
globe. Now, 19 countries and nearly 14,000 miles into their
high-octane odyssey, husband and wife were struck with the same
realization: We're going to need more time.
The Ratays thought they'd already had their Zen-like moment of
clarity 11 months earlier, when they'd decided to quit their jobs
and sell their one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan to finance a
round-the-world trip. They closed the sale on May 18, netting
$100,000. Two days later they boarded a plane bound for Morocco
and zoomed around that country, then throughout Europe as if on a
two-week holiday. On a swing through Germany, they ripped off
more than 700 miles on the autobahn in a single day. "When we
left Prague, we'd had it," says Erin. "I was cathedraled out.
Everything was becoming redundant, and we were kind of ho hum
about it all, and Prague is not a place to be ho hum about. We
knew we had to slow down."
Chris and Erin had dubbed their trip "the ultimate journey," and
now they set about making sure the expedition lived up to its
title. They stuck to secondary roads the rest of the way, riding
shorter distances and making longer stops, including a 7
1/2-month layover in New Zealand. The final numbers that describe
their circumnavigation suggest motorized Magellans: 50 countries,
six continents, 1,539 days, $110,000 in expenses, 48 tires used
(19 front, 29 rear) and 101,322 miles traveled, 44,000 miles more
than the existing Guinness world record for longest ride by a
couple on two motorcycles. When the Ratays finally rolled back
into New York, in August, they were a full three years behind
schedule--and way, way ahead in state of mind. "We were yuppies
when we started," says Chris. "We thought we were going to have
this amazing experience and then come back to New York and pick
up where we'd left off. Now we want something different."
In 1999, while Erin, then 34, was working as assistant director of
career services at Columbia's School of International and Public
Affairs, Chris, 32, was earning "in the low six figures" in the
cosmetics industry, peddling counter displays to Revlon and
Maybelline. Though a born salesman, he was growing frustrated by
the constraints of urban life. On their honeymoon, in 1996, Chris
and Erin had made a three-week cross-country excursion on Chris's
BMW K100LT. Erin had bought a cycle of her own near the end of
that trip (a BMW K75), and the two had been skipping town as
often as possible, but they had little time for breaks of longer
than a few weeks. "We weren't unhappy, but we thought if we went
away for a year, it would be worthwhile to quit," says Erin.
Paring down the essentials of their lives to a few changes of
clothes, their riding gear and some camping equipment, the Ratays
loaded their bikes and set out, determined to get by on $40 a
day. They rarely spent more than $15 a night on lodging. "We
learned how to be frugal," says Chris.
They learned also to adapt in far more significant ways--to
conditions and traffic alarmingly different from any they had
seen on weekend jaunts over the backroads of New England. Riding
through India in December 1999, they were regularly run off the
road by motorists who seemed content to trust their fates to
karma. "It was the only country where I thought I was going to
die," says Erin. "Every day, we'd see two or three major truck
and bus accidents. Crumpled, you know? Where people died."
Then there was the Nullarbor Plain, a vast limestone desert in
South Australia traversed by a highway known as the Ninety-Mile
Straight, the longest unbent piece of tarred road in the country.
The Ratays crossed the Nullarbor in January 2001, at the height
of the antipodean summer, and the temperature ranged from 117° to
127° for three days. Rationing their water, they stayed hydrated
by drinking salted 7-Up.
The scariest moment of the trip came in Malaysia in July 2000,
when Erin was hit by a truck and thrown from her bike, sliding 30
meters down the road--crumpled, you know?--into the face of
oncoming traffic. Amazingly, both she and the bike emerged with
only a few scrapes. The accident deepened the Ratays' resolve.
"If that had happened in the first year, we probably would have
gone home," says Erin. "At that point we were almost two years
into the trip and were past the point of thinking that a broken
bone was going to end things."
Almost as an afterthought, Chris and Erin had built a website
(www.ultimatejourney.com) before they left as a way to keep
family and friends informed of their adventures. They regularly
updated the site using a digital camera and a laptop computer. To
their surprise, they began receiving e-mails from other bikers
curious about the planning necessary to make an international
journey. The site grew to include not only the journal and photos
but also a maintenance log, an itemized cost breakdown and
detailed cargo information for each country from which the Ratays
shipped their bikes. "The Internet developed into something
bigger just in the time we were gone," says Chris. "The site
caught on, and people began finding us."
Many of the people the Ratays heard from were fellow enthusiasts
offering everything from maintenance help to a place to stay. In
Istanbul during the first year of their trip, for example, Chris
and Erin were treated like visiting celebrities and treated to
dinner by the local BMW club after merely asking for
recommendations on routes and hotels. When Chris's bike broke
down in India, he got his hands on a vital repair manual by
corresponding with a fellow biker in Arizona, who faxed him pages
from his copy. Such moments were routine. "We found," says Chris,
"that the more trouble you're in, the more people want to help."
The Ratays had always relished the rush of motorcycle travel, the
sense of being a part of the environment, not cooped up in a
car--a "cage," in Chris's words. Now they gained an appreciation
for what they call the "approachability" of motorcycles. "If
you're on a bike, people are always coming up to talk to you,"
says Chris. "In Asian or Latin American countries, they see
backpackers all the time. With a bike you're doing something
different. People came up to us bursting with information. It was
like taking a cute puppy into Central Park."
For all their obvious pride in their son's accomplishment, Robert
and Gabriella Ratay are wary of Chris's fascination with the blue
highways of life. The elder Ratays, natives of Budapest, fled
Hungary as young adults during the Soviet crackdown in 1956 and
made their way to the New York suburb of Manhasset, on Long
Island. Robert, 66, still consults as a structural engineer,
while Gabi, 64, just retired from a 27-year career teaching
mathematics at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. For most of
their marriage the Ratays worked to give Chris and his sister,
Andrea, the kind of stability they themselves had never known.
Which makes Chris's decision to throw his career away confusing
to them. "As clever as he is, he will not be able to make up the
financial security that he lost in the last four years," says
Robert. "I'm not saying that it's going to be better or worse,
but I think they've made a permanent change to their lifestyle."
That was the point, say Chris and Erin. The couple are applying
for residency in New Zealand, where they plan to enter the field
of motorcycle tourism. The current plan has Chris working in
Queenstown for Ayres Adventures, a new venture based in Plano,
Texas. "We want to use all our experiences to make a living,"
"One of the things I've always believed is that things have a way
of working out," says Chris. "The trip has reinforced that. Now
we'd just like to try out a life somewhere else.