“Well… I think I have everything I need for the next three months on this bike… Goodbye Illinois.”
Aaron Cooper’s Facebook status on August 31st, 2012, short as it was, exuded hope, confidence, and the special brand of optimism that one must possess in order to successfully navigate a daunting adventure. Aaron was no ordinary traveler though, and he and his brother Nathan were not embarking on an ordinary vacation.
Aaron, the older of the two brothers, is a veteran of the 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment. During his time at “First Batt,” he completed two deployments to Afghanistan, as well as two deployments to Iraq. For the uninitiated, Rangers are primarily used as the nations premiere direct action raid force, going after the most important targets and enduring the most dangerous missions. One such mission for Aaron was being apart of the rescue of Jessica Lynch and the recovery of her fallen comrades. He later went on to win the All-Army Combatives Tournament shortly after a surgery while he was an instructor at the Army Combatives School.
Aaron left the Army in 2009 due to medical issues, but he continued training and competing in mixed martial arts, and even made time to attend college. It was at this point that he began his transition into full time tumbleweed, searching for a new mission in life. He traveled abroad to teach mixed martial arts, going into more dangerous areas like Iraq in the process.
Nathan, the younger of the two, had taken a different path in life. After graduating from college, he moved to Asia to teach English as a foreign language. He worked in places like Vietnam and South Korea, and shared his older brothers passion for travel. He made his way to many countries in Asia when he had time off in between contracts, and at one point he took the trans-siberian railroad to Moscow. Not stopping there, he continued his way across Europe to meet up with Aaron on one of their earlier adventures together. “That was the first time we realized we could travel together as adults. It was a real eye opener.” Nathan said.
At one point, Aaron talked about how he wanted to ride a motorcycle down through South America. Nathan expressed his desire to join him, even though he wasn’t as experienced on a bike as his older brother. Before long, a loose plan was hatched to take two motorcycles from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, all the way down to Tierra Del Fuego. In 120 days.
Tierra Del Feugo is an archipelago that sits at South America’s southernmost tip, spanning across the borders of Chile and Argentina. It’s one of the most diverse landscapes in the world, with perfectly preserved ranges of snow-capped mountains, ancient glaciers, and pristine waterways. Isla Grande, the main island, is home to the Argentine resort town of Ushuaia – but many refer to it as “the end of the world.”
Darwin once described Tierra Del Feugo by writing, “A single glance at the landscape was sufficient to show me how widely different it was from anything I had ever beheld.” In that single sentence, Darwin said enough to entice any adventurous spirit deserving of the title down to the end of the world. The Cooper brothers were no exception.
But that’s not to say that they were driven by the destination. No, the adventure was just as much about the journey itself. After they announced their intentions on social media with a request for contacts along the route, they were informed of an orphanage in Guatemala. Selfless service would be a cornerstone of the trip, and volunteering at the orphanage was designated as their first volunteer stop.
They conducted a bit of due diligence on what they would need for border crossings, and then procured two bikes – a 2000 Kawasaki KLR650 for Nathan, and a 2000 Suzuki DR650 for Aaron. They hit the road on September 2nd, 2012, wearing their custom navy blue coveralls with ‘EnduroBros’ stitched in big, white letters across the back.
According to Nathan, the brothers had a strict “go where we like and leave where we don’t” policy. Rules are made to be broken though, and as soon as they took off they had to make 3,000 miles in thirteen days in order to reach Cabo San Lucas in time for a deal at a resort that Aaron had sat up.
Unfortunately, by the time they reached Denver, Aaron’s bike was already in rough shape. They were limping in to the mile high city with Aaron’s right leg drenched in oil and a white cloud that erupted from the bike every time they slowed down. Fortunately, Jim at Performance Cycle in Denver squared them away with practical advice on what they would need for the journey ahead, as well as a discount on the purchases they made – which still set them back six hundred dollars.
They were still on a schedule though, and had no time to waste. After grabbing a donut on top of 14,000-foot Pikes Peak, they gunned it for Utah. It turned out that Moab was pretty expensive, so they saw a variety of the arches the area is known for, got some rest at a hostel, and kept moving. It was an impressive state that still stands out to them though. “Utah is horribly underrated. It was a magical place. We weren’t ready for it. I wanna go back and spend some time there.” Aaron said.
They knocked off the Grand Canyon in Arizona on their way to San Diego, where they would cross the border into Mexico. There was concern about safety at any other border crossing into Mexico, and besides, the Baja is known around the world for its beautiful beaches and amazing weather. The plan was to push a few hundred miles into Mexico on the same day of the border crossing, but Highway 1 in Tijuana eluded them for much of the day. Aaron was in charge of navigation, and Nathan wasn’t too keen on getting stuck in a bad neighborhood after dark on their first night in Mexico. The brothers eventually found their way, but apparently not without a bit of frustration, “Aaron told me that, should he ever see me give him the same look I gave him in Tijuana, he would seriously hurt me.”
They ended up making camp with a group of friendly Mexicans, communicating through Javier, the sole member of the group who was bilingual. The brothers were understandably cautious about their new surroundings, but Javier reassured them, saying, “You are as likely to die tonight as on any other night.” Sure enough, they made it through their first night in Mexico unscathed.
The next few days found the brothers alternating routes, linking up with a group on the Baja 1000, trading stories with an old dirt biker, dipping in hot springs, and sleeping under the stars. They quickly found out that many gas stations did not accept their credit cards, which made finding fuel a challenge at times. The brothers Cooper also discovered the charm of Mexican highways: De Vados.
Vados are severe dips that are built into the road to allow rainwater or flashfloods to pass, as opposed to pipes placed under the road in the United States. If you don’t know what they are ahead of time, or aren’t actively looking for them (or the signs that warn about them), it can mean serious damage to the vehicle you’re in. In Aaron and Nathan’s case, it meant going airborne at one point. “Aaron landed laughing. I was launched with the KLR in a way that brought my feet above my handlebars. Had I not been holding on tight, I’d have been ejected and KLR would have ghost rode into the desert.” Nathan said, recalling their near-disastrous Vados experience.
They pushed on though, still under deadline to reach the resort that Aaron had reserved in Cabo. The Baja wasn’t just going to give it to them lying down though, as the brothers had to endure brutal stretches of desert, hallucinations, hordes of butterflies (yes, butterflies!), and electrical issues. According to Nathan, Cabo did reward them with the fruits of their labor though, “Aaron’s veteran status gave us a great rate at one of the resorts and the reserved week had already started. This was really the only reason we rode 800 miles in one 24-hour period. When we arrived, we checked in and slept. That’s all we did that first day at Cabo. We slept.”
After Cabo, they boarded a fairy bound for mainland Mexico, where they would visit Mexico City among many other sites on their list. All told, they would spend a month in Mexico before heading in to Guatemala. But that would not be as straightforward as they would have preferred.
In Mexico, you have to pay a fee for motorcycles that amounted to $400 between the two of them, which would be reimbursed when you departed the country. That’s no small amount of money when you are traveling to the end of the world, so the brothers were insistent on collecting. Unfortunately, the border crossing at Frontera – which required a fairy to cross the river into Guatemala – only had an immigration office, not customs… Which is the office they needed to receive the refund. There was also a problem with the stamps needed to take the bikes out of the country.
This started a head-spinning attempt to actually take their bikes with them to the next country. So, Aaron and Nathan crossed the border into Guatemala, where they would then have to come back into Mexico to get their bikes, but it started raining hard, which caused the Internet to go down at the immigration office… No one said Central American border crossings would be easy. After finally negotiating their way through immigration officials that were either crooked, incompetent, or both – they were on their way to a different border crossing in Mexico.
Guatemala is a beautiful country of 16 million that can only be described as mythical and otherworldly. It’s surrounded by oceans and dotted with volcanoes surrounded by lush, tropical rainforests. It was once the root of Mayan civilization, but is now home to some of the best coffee beans on earth. Despite the country successfully bouncing back from a bloody civil war in the 1960’s, it still struggles with poverty, crime, and the effects of a vibrant drug trade. The Cooper brothers wouldn’t be able to solve all of the countries problems, but they were determined to be a part of the solution on their trek south.
They arrived at Misión Vida Nueva (Mission New Life) in Coban, ready to work on the new orphanage that was started by one of Nathan’s friends. The first project would be building a much-needed fence for the property, which they finished in short order. “When we stopped in Coban, it was the first time we were able to stop for a purpose, instead of stopping because of a broke bike.” Nathan said. The rest of their time at the mission was spent taking day trips to scenic areas – one of which resulted in Aaron being literally run over by a truck – and teaching English to young children that were relegated to playing in a dumping ground all day. The Cooper brothers both agreed this was one of the most rewarding parts of the trip.
Honduras was the next country on their journey south. Nathan and Aaron again dealt with issues at the border crossing, but soon were rewarded with excessively substandard hotels and riding with a local motorcycle gang called “The Iguanas.” Both made for memorable experiences, but one more so in retrospect. They were up against the clock at this point, as they knew they wanted to reach Tierra Del Fuego before Christmas. The infamous Darien Gap, and all of South America still lay in their path. “There were times we didn’t stop somewhere, because we had no idea how long we were going to be stuck in Panama because of the Darien Gap.” Nathan said.
In Nicaragua, they discovered one of the most useful pieces of travel knowledge on the trip up to that point. The Cooper brothers were to meet up with a friend of a friend in the brightly lit city of Managua, but directions were going to be a problem – an issue anyone who has ever traveled abroad can relate with. They did not have much luck with accurate directions thus far, and the language barrier didn’t help matters.
They decided to take a different approach this time. “You pull up to a stoplight and ask the person next to you if they know where the Starbucks or the library is and they might shrug and point you in the right direction, if you’re lucky,” Nathan said. “If you pull up and ask them for the hospital, they get wide-eyed and start talking excitedly. They don’t just point you in the right direction, but ride in front of you to get you there as soon as possible.”
Magellan himself couldn’t have come up with a better way of meeting people when traveling abroad.
At approximately one hundred miles long, the Darien Gap is the last bit of earth that separates North America from South America. It’s one of the most daunting stretches of terrain in the world, with no roads, thick jungle, and oh yeah – it’s the main drug smuggling route between Panama and Colombia, infested with guerillas who aren’t known for their welcoming nature. Very few people have ever attempted to cross it; even fewer have done it successfully. It’s known as the least-visited place on earth.
For Aaron and Nathan, their options were to either fly – which wasn’t an option; or get their bikes on a boat. It seems like a simple solution until you find out that there aren’t many boats that make the trip, and the ones that do will give you quotes of upwards of a thousand dollars for the one-way trip… for each person.
Luckily, two Brazilians in Portobello just happened to have extra room on their sailboat, and were willing to transport the two bikes and their adventurous owners for a significantly lower price than any other option in the area. The brothers took advantage of the offer, and the next day, according to Aaron, they “Took rowboats through surf and lifted the bikes onto the sailboat.”
They were now on their way to Colombia by way of the San Blas Islands, bypassing the Darien Gap in the most cost efficient – and I would argue the most adventurous – way possible.
Entering Colombia was the start of a new continent for the Cooper brothers. It was almost expected that entering a country would be a pain in the ass at this point, and Colombia was no exception. After what one might call a day long, tough negotiation with the “Nike Man” and the “Launcha Man,” they were free to continue their journey into the Land of El Dorado.
They didn’t want to stay in Columbia for very long though, as beautiful as it was, and had already lost time due to Aaron’s wallet being left at a hostel. Ecuador was next on the itinerary, and they were driving through the dark to get there before the border closed, and so that Nathan could meet up with a friend who was waiting for them there. Nathan’s headlight was brighter than Aaron’s, so he was running point on the treacherous mountain roads.
Nathan, despite his brother’s warnings to slow down, kept up an ambitious pace on the bike. On one turn, he over corrected in an attempt to avoid a pile of rocks, only to come dangerously close to a guardrail on the opposite side. Again overcorrecting, the bike went down in a slide, pinning Nathan’s foot in the process. Before sliding to a stop, he heard the tell-tail sound of a crunched bone.
Aaron pulled over saying, “What were you thinking? This is why I wanted you to slow down!”
Nathan responded, “I broke my leg, and I can’t get this bike off me.”
Aaron, obviously irritated, said, “You don’t know that your leg is broken.”
Nathan defiantly replied, “Yes it is!” Aaron helped him to his feet, and upon seeing his foot flop around in an unnatural way, conceded that maybe it was broken. To make matters worse, Nathan’s bike was no longer drivable. Fortunately, a family’s homestead was a little ways up the road, and they were kind enough to clear out their dining room just so the broken Kawasaki had a safe place to reside while Aaron took his brother to the hospital.
In true Ranger fashion, Aaron wasn’t too keen on leaving any of his sensitive items behind. Nathan recalled that, “Aaron left almost nothing of his with them. Even though they gave no reason not to trust them, Aaron innately hates the idea of separating with any of his things.”
They finally arrived at the hospital in Pasto, but only after a feral dog latched onto Nathan’s broken leg for what seemed like an eternity. Murphy’s sick sense of humor seemed to reveal itself in the most robust fashion possible that night. Unfortunately, the injury was serious enough to require surgery the next day. This also meant that they would have to return to the United States a week later, and take a hiatus from the trip while Nathan recovered. Aaron was busy making local friends during that time though, and luckily found a place to keep their bikes while they were gone.
Nathan ended up enduring multiple additional surgeries back in the United States, and even had to deal with the threat of amputation at one point. Aaron finished his associate’s degree, and continued to improve his skills as an endurance racer. It would be two and a half years before they would be able to continue the adventure, but continue the adventure they did.
“In a way, Nathan breaking his leg breathed new life into the trip.” Aaron said. They were blowing through countries trying to make it to Tierra Del Fuego by Christmas on the first leg, and were losing sight of why they were on the trip in the first place. Now, they were ready to take their time and do the trip right on the second leg of the trip.
They finally made their way into Ecuador sans broken bones. The brothers climbed Cotopaxi, a mountain that stands at just shy of 20,000 feet. It was an ambitious climb, and exposed some of the lingering effects of Nathan’s ankle injury. “I try not to let it hold me back from doing cool things, but I was definitely worried that climbing Cotopaxi might be beyond my abilities now.” Nathan said. The Cooper brothers still summited the mountain successfully though, despite the shadows of past injuries.
Nathan and Aaron had one of their smoothest border crossings to date when they entered Peru. It wouldn’t be until they tried to leave Peru with their bikes that they would run into problems.
They weaved their way through mountain roads and enjoyed views of an ocean filled horizon, and even negotiated their way through a rather intimidating checkpoint. A boat ride with views of pink river dolphins swimming alongside took them deep into the Amazon, where they would eventually arrive at their next volunteer mission: The People of Peru Project.
The People of Peru Project is located at the headwaters of the Amazon River, near the city of Iquitos. The city is home to over 600,000 people, and is surrounded by thousands of square miles of jungle. Poverty, disease, parasites, malnutrition, rampant tooth decay, and premature death plague the area, and the project is devoted to delivering aid to those who have to live with those realities every day. For the Cooper brothers, the project would not just be their home, but their mission for the next month.
The brothers didn’t have the skills that could be used for more glamorous work around the project, so they asked to be given the tasks that no one else wanted to do. They were given two primary jobs: painting a boat and digging a sewage trench. They also took on a third task, which was raising money to help renovate a dormitory that housed disadvantaged girls. The entire first floor was under water when Aaron and Nathan arrived.
Aaron and Nathan completed all three of their goals while at the Project, and went on to their next destination at Machu Picchu. The Cooper brothers had mixed feelings about the ancient Incan site. “Of any landmark in the world that we’ve visited, Machu Picchu is the most monetized. They’ve built up the area for tourism and then there are the taxes and added cost of entry and train fare, etc.” Nathan remarked. But was the trip worth it? “Yeah, I’d say so.”
Unfortunately, motorcycle problems had once again struck Nathan’s bike. He had to have his entire top end rebuilt, but the bike was in even worse condition after the work was done. With his bike burning two quarts of oil every hour and Chilean winter ahead of them, the Cooper brothers made the prudent decision to stash their bikes with a friend in Lima and return to the United States with only a few days left on their Peruvian visas. They vowed to return though; they were determined to make it to Tierra Del Fuego.
In February of 2017, they returned to Lima, Peru to continue their mission south. This time they had teamed up with the Task Force Dagger Foundation, and would be raising money for them on the rest of their journey south. This non-profit was near and dear to Aaron’s heart as a veteran of the special operations community, and Nathan was enthusiastic about their mission to provides assistance to wounded, ill, or injured special operations members and their families.
After three weeks in Lima making repairs to their bikes, they again hit the road, making headway on their journey south. It was during a stretch of road construction that disaster once again struck the brothers. “I can say with confidence that it was the most violent motorcycle crash I have ever personally witnessed.” Nathan said, not leaving any doubt that Aaron’s crash was very serious.
In no time construction workers had surrounded him, asking if he was ok. A police officer showed up soon after, and started asking for their documentation. This obviously added unneeded stress to the situation, but Aaron was standing up now much to Nathan’s relief.
It turned out that Aaron’s ribs were broken, and he later contracted a case of bronchitis. “I saw him sneeze and fall to the ground like a fainting goat three or four times,” Nathan recalled. He finally went in to a hospital in Puno to get checked out.
As they made their way back to the Peruvian border to cross into Bolivia, the unthinkable happened. Peruvian customs agents confiscated their motorcycles and told them that there was nothing they could do, as the bikes had overstayed the ninety-day limit. Crisis had struck, and it wasn’t an easy fix this time.
In a Facebook post during this fiasco, Aaron said, “Every day feels like an exercise in futility. I am no stranger to adversity and this long journey has provided its fair share of obstacles, but this time things are beyond our abilities.” All told, it would take more than a month of legal battles before they finally got their bikes back. And even on their second attempt to cross the border, they almost had their bikes confiscated again.
Fortunately, they made it through. Before long they were cruising down Bolivia’s infamous “Death Road.” This particular route has seen more recorded deaths than any other route on earth. At the time of this article, the Cooper brothers are in La Paz, Bolivia – the highest capital in the world. They are not only determined, but experienced enough to reach any goal they set for themselves at this point. Nothing short of death will keep them from reaching the end of the world.
The American philosopher and Nobel Prize recipient John Steinbeck once said, “A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find that after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.” For Aaron and Nathan Cooper, that statement is not philosophy, but truth.
The brothers plan to reach Tierra Del Fuego sometime in July, hoping to reach their goal of raising $20,000 for Task Force Dagger along the way. You can follow the rest of their adventure on Facebook or on their EnduroBros blog.