After Mitch Olinger decided he was going to go on a motorcycle trip that would take him to the very southern tip of South America, he had to make some preparations.

Starting with learning how to ride a motorcycle.

"I bought a motorcycle in 2013, not having ever ridden one. I took my license test and I'd putz around learning how to ride. Then I took it on a short trip to Baja, Mexico, for two weeks," said Olinger, 31, a Mankato East High School grad, who was on the school's golf team.

He opted for a Kawasaki KLR650.

"A Harley would be a lot more comfortable, but you can't climb a mountain with them or go into the jungle or onto the beach."

After college Olinger became a CPA for a consulting firm, saving up money for a dream that had long been in the back of his mind. In his late teens his mom had sent him to El Paso in the summers to learn the value of hard work on construction crews. It was there he worked with guys from south of the border and became intrigued with their culture and impressed with their commitment to their families.

He'd read articles about people traveling to Argentina on motorcycles and decided it was an experience he wanted.

"I wanted to do it while I was young and able."

He and friend Justin Lewis started the trip together, leaving from Denver for what would become a 22-month, 30,000-mile trip.

"We met people all along the way. We traveled with an Italian guy for a few weeks. We met a French Canadian and he traveled with us most of the time. Anyone we bumped into with a motorcycle we bonded with, but it was the three of us in the main group."

They were not looking for a normal tourist adventure and prepared for all conditions. "We were fully equipped to be off-grid for a couple of weeks at a time with all our camping stuff. That's a lot of what we did."

A mom's fears

Olinger's mom, Mary Conley, and stepdad, Rich Coyle, live in Mankato as does his father Greg Olinger.

His mom, a vice president at Stifel financial services in Mankato, said that when her son told her what he was going to do, she had one thought.

"I was mortified. I was worried about drug cartels and corrupt federales," she said.

"My phrase the whole time he was gone was 'let go and let God.' I had to or I would have worried about it the whole time."

But Olinger said he never once felt afraid on the trip.

"My mom’s biggest fear was that I’d get kidnapped by some cartel in Mexico or something. But I think people are inherently good. People were willing to help us."

"People say you shouldn't go to these places, but you can get into trouble in Mankato the same as Lima, Peru."

The biggest danger, he said, was the inherent risk of being on a motorcycle.

"In Bogota I was passing between a bus and a semi. I was only going like 10 mph. The bus bumped me and I ended up in the wheel well of the semi. I pulled my bike out. It needed some repair. There are lots of stories like that," he said.

While the people were friendly, they were not always good drivers.

"In my opinion, the Peruvians and Guatemalans are the worst drivers. It's like they had no regard for anything."

Heading up a mountain pass in fog in Guatemala the bikers hugged the shoulder as buses raced past them. "A guy came running down the road waving his arms. There was a huge pile-up ahead. We saw some nasty things, people lying in the street," Olinger said.

Repairs aplenty

"Being gone that long there were difficult times and they usually were problems with the motorcycle," Olinger said.

"I was going 35 mph in Costa Rica and the frame snapped in half on a dirt road. We got picked up and found a local welder and he came and picked up the bike and welded it back together and put some new bolts in and off I went. "That one was scary," he said.

"I learned a lot of patience, for sure. But I never really had second thoughts about the trip. I was just trying to enjoy it and live in the moment."

One of his biggest cycle-related challenges was in the middle of Argentina when his engine blew up.

"I was stuck in a town no bigger than Eagle Lake. There was nowhere to get an engine and everything there was very expensive."

He found an online chat room of Argentinian motorcycle enthusiasts and wrote about his dilemma.

"This one guy said he had an engine and he'd ship it to me but he needed $2,000 to ship it. And he said he wanted me to deliver the bike to him in Buenos Aires when I was done with the trip."

Olinger, with no other options, took the offer. "I had to trust the guy. I deposited $2,000 into the guy's brother's PayPal account in the U.S. and he shipped the engine to me and I got it installed and down the road we went."

If it wasn't mechanical breakdowns, it was weather that was the most challenging.

The most difficult section was after hitting the southernmost point of Argentina and heading back north in the Patagonia region — a vast area on the tip of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile, with the Andes Mountains as its dividing line.

"We dropped out into the plains and the wind was blowing about 100 mph. We were fighting winds of 60-70 mph every day and it was close to freezing and it started raining. I will never forget that."

But it was the people and the stunning landscapes that fill Olinger's memories of the trip.

"The prettiest sight was probably Huascarán National Park in Peru. It was all-day, every-day, 360-degree amazing views."

Olinger ended his trip last month by going to Buenos Aires and tracking down the guy who'd shipped him a new engine.

"He gave me my $2,000 back and I gave him the bike."

Still wandering

Olinger is now spending some time in Chicago. He plans to go back to Colorado for a few weeks and then head to the east coast and into Canada in August.

"I'm deciding whether I want to live in Chicago or Colorado. I’m a CPA so I can always jump back into that field. I have some other small business ideas, too, but accounting and finance are probably the easiest way back in."


"Maybe I’ll move to Mexico and open a surf shop and live a simple life. My mom won’t want to hear that."

Follow Tim Krohn on Twitter @TimKrohn

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