A Q&A with the Two-Wheeled Wanderer: Welcome Home, Ted! | Medicine

It’s not every day you can come face to face with one of your real-life heroes.

That’s what happened when Ted Kunz, aka the returned Two-Wheeled Wanderer, was feted by some of his true-blue fans at a welcome home reception on May 1. It was spearheaded by two of Kunz’s most ardent followers and readers of his adventures that had appeared monthly for two years in Idaho Press. Jim and Vicki Asbury opened their home and Kunz accepted the gracious gesture on the stipulation that all the donors who chipped in on the Castlewood Laboratory in Livingstone, Zambia be on the guest list, turning it into a combination homecoming and thank-you event. The Asburys were also major donors of the project.

Mayor Robert Simison of Meridian stopped in to warmly welcome Ted back home. Gov. Brad Little sent a letter of appreciation, as did the first lady, Teresa Little. In a hand-written note, she applauded his column, saying it “certainly expanded the horizons of readers. What a gift to live vicariously through your experiences, especially during the time of the coronavirus.” And “what a blessing it was for the students and school in Zambia that you would pivot, along with your readers, to raise a great deal of money to build a science lab. Science is leading us out of this pandemic so your work was most appropriate.”

The reception lasted for several hours as Kunz happily answered questions from the crowd of around 65, gathered with permission from Central District Health. The party was whooshed indoors by a late afternoon gusty thunderstorm and guests dutifully donned face masks and socially distanced inside.

All were in thrall of Kunz’s storytelling. At one point, near the end of the Q&A session, Kunz was detailing the construction of the science lab — “it was the pinnacle of a miracle” — and ruminating on the journey overall. “Everyone in the world is just like us,” he said. “We’re all on this big rock and we’re all alike more than you’d ever imagine.” An attendee shouted: “You’re my hero, Ted!”

The final question of the day came from Jim Asbury, who asked “Who do you want to play you in the movie version of the Two-Wheeled Wanderer?” Laughing, but not skipping a beat, Kunz came back with: “Brad Pitt, of course.”

Here are some of the questions and answers from that event, as well as others sent in by readers.

Did you have your journey mapped out beforehand, for either going to the tip of South America, or when you were traveling up through South Africa and beyond?

During the years spanning 2010-12, I went off on my first big hiatus, which I thought at the time was the greatest adventure of my life. I traveled close to 40,000 miles, mostly alone, from Canada to Cape Horn (the bottom of the Americas), and back again to Idaho.

On that journey, I was on a truly original route, no real plan, following the spine of the extended mountain range that is the Rockies in North America to Panama. Then, I transitioned to the Andes, the world’s longest and second highest mountain range, for a winding route through South America to Patagonia. Then, back again on another unique route through those same mountains.

In 2019, this time as the “Two-Wheeled Wanderer,” I went in search of new discoveries in the Americas, beginning with original and challenging routes all the way from the USA to Colombia. Once there, with Venezuela closed, I arranged for a cargo plane to drop me into an inaccessible part of the Amazon forest, a truly roadless wilderness, accessible only by air or boat. After hopping off the plane, I hopped onto a riverboat for 1,000 downriver miles on the mighty Amazon.

Once back on land, I started riding on a road again, through northern Amazonia, up to the Guyanas, then the long drop south through the heartland of Brazil. All of this terrain was new to me. I mostly made it up as I went along.

After a month of new scenery in Argentina and Uruguay, I transitioned across the South Atlantic to Africa. This time, northbound on a bicycle. Knowing next to nothing about Africa, I simply researched the routes of some minor-league adventurers who preceded me. From that, I plotted the easiest path from Cape Town to Cairo, or about 7,500 miles, but aiming only for the most politically stable countries. Everything was working until the pandemic hit, of course.

Do you have any personal rules you follow as you travel in unfamiliar country, “Ted’s Rules of the Road” such as “I never go out at night” or “I always stop riding by 4 p.m.” or things like that? And if so, can you share them?

Mostly I am concerned about the risk of traffic accidents. Whether on a bicycle or motorcycle, I never ride at night. On the motorcycle, I appreciate going slow, because it’s safer but also because it is more pleasurable when traveling with no real timetable.

When I would camp in the Americas, I would be well hidden in the bush. When I camped in Africa, which was less often, I made certain the animal risks were extremely remote in that particular region.

Lastly, I rarely stay out late. Dumb stuff seems to happen well after dark no matter where we live. I recommend avoiding all of it. Nothing like a good night’s rest.

Most of all, my “rule” is be affable in social situations, but always with the right mix of confidence. This is highly effective. Getting there takes practice.

What three things did you learn about yourself and others while on your journeys?

About others, I learned how similar we homo sapiens are when our provincial customs like language, religion, and politics are stripped away. Naked, it’s easier to see us in all our glory and all our frailties, a lucky bunch of bipedal hominids sharing a tiny rock in an incomprehensibly vast and probably entirely uninhabitable universe.

About me, I learned to just see myself humbly as a talking monkey with OK social skills, hobbled occasionally by fits of toxic impatience.

I see myself and others together as one awesome scientific accident, bound by a life force I could only call “infinite love.”

If only we all could see it this way. Nobody is getting out of here alive. I believe it’s better to make the best of the life that will remain after we’re gone rather than being obsessed with the present and an imagined afterlife.

Did you keep a separate diary or journal?

I did keep a separate journal. I could only fit so much into the space of those monthly dispatches. I keep a third journal in my head, too. That one reads less like Ernest Hemingway and more like Henry Miller. (Laughs.)

Did people wear masks, were they aware of COVID-19 in Africa?

Yes, Africans wear their masks. It depends a bit on what region and which country. Tanzania for example had very few mask wearers. Their President told everyone on his daily scream that “GOD PROTECTS TANZANIA. THE VIRUS IS NOT HERE.” His government even stopped reporting all COVID statistics in April 2020.

For a long time COVID didn’t seem to be a big problem in Tanzania, or in central Africa for that matter. Then it took hold. In March 2021, Tanzanian President Magafuli died after a two-week disappearance. Many think it was COVID. Officially, it was a heart issue. I count myself among the suspicious.

Since Magafuli’s passing, I read that Tanzania has adopted all the customary COVID deterrence protocols, including masks and strict border restrictions.

Other than that bizarre story, the African leadership that I saw on television, that being Zambia and Kenyan mostly, were responsible and set good examples. Most people followed. Especially more so in the bigger cities. In the countryside, understandably less so, but still people mostly take the pandemic seriously.

There are many theories as to why central Africa hasn’t seen too much of the bad news. One is their population demographics are highly skewed to the young. Few old people because life expectancy is, quite sadly, not high. Another is there is far less obesity in Africa, generally. People are active by structure and they eat more natural foods. Another is the fact that most people don’t move around much, there are few cars, less mobility. Another is that there are so few sealed buildings with conditioned air. As a result, Africans are almost always outside even when they’re inside.

Another theory is that they are dying in villages but the deaths are unreported.

The last theory … the disease is just not there yet. I departed Kenya when it was barely registering. Now, it’s accelerating. The US State Department just issued its strongest DO NOT TRAVEL on Kenya.

Did you see many women out there who were traveling?

Yes, met traveling women everywhere in the Americas and less so in Africa, but that is probably pandemic-related. I remember meeting an Austrian woman who’d been roughing it alone in Brazil for months. There were too many examples of confident women traveling freely in the rougher parts of the Americas to list. Mostly European women.

In Africa, pre-pandemic, I met a team of independent women doctors working in the bush of north Namibia. I met a Muslim woman traveling alone on a motorcycle around east Africa. Later, I met several German women living and working freely in Kenya.

Did you ever fear for your life or feel in a potentially dangerous situation — aside from possible infections and diseases including COVID-19? From people or wild animals? 

Americans in particular seem conditioned for fear and drama. Too many movies; too much news; too many possessions.

We may not perceive it, but we are a product of the ideology in which we unwittingly live. Old joke: Two fish are swimming along. Another swims by and says, “How’s the water today, boys?” The two fish look at each other, baffled, and one says, “What in the heck is water?!?”

But seriously, I never once felt afraid. Mildly unwelcome maybe for a moment, maybe twice in two years. That’s in large part because I’ve been getting out of our big lake for a long time now. I see our lake for what fills it, with the benefit of time and distance.

There was a time in Zambia when I encountered a family of five elephants crossing the road. In search of a better photo, I got a tad too close. The daddy made that clear, on terms as polite as a potentially raging elephant can offer. That got my attention. No hard feelings. He was just doing his job.

About eating — was the most delicious dish, the most terrible? The most surprising?

Most delicious: Really everywhere, but especially almost anywhere in Mexico. Oaxaca state, famous for its brilliant gastronomy, is a delight.

Most terrible: An American fast food joint in Mexico. Nothing wrong with it, the burger tasted exactly the same as it does here. Engineered food was just more of a shock after weeks of truly natural eating. I haven’t made that mistake since.

Most surprising: Kenyan regional cuisine served in a modest roadside shack. Tribes there are not only creative in their vegetable dishes, they’re natural entrepreneurs and restaurateurs.

Did you ever feel out of your element — and if so, can you describe what you did to remedy that?

I’m almost always out of my element. I’ve been reaching for anything out of my comfort zone since graduating from Meridian High in 1992. Maybe that’s why I love traveling. I relish a constantly steep learning curve.

How important was having a sense of humor while on the road? 

Well almost everything is hilarious if we’re observing it right. In two years of travel, just too many to list. We’d all be better off if we looked at ourselves and others with more humor and humility.

What positive or negative experience (or one of each) are so lucid and clear in your mind that 20 years from now they will come back in recall like they were yesterday?

There really were no negative experiences. Every human treated me well. Plus, maybe miraculously, I was free of accidents and illness.

As for positive experiences, one I am sure I’ll remember in 20 years is the school science laboratory that we all built in Zambia. That 3,300-square-foot building will last a century. It will produce a huge number of productive humans over its life. Those graduates will in turn pay it forward. The ripples will go forever perpetually. Now that’s a legacy for all of us.

Now that you are home, in what way(s) will you be changed as you go forward with everyday life?

Tough one. It’s hard to fully detect how oneself changes slowly over time. Everything I see here in the USA seems ridiculous sometimes, silly gadgets and machines everywhere, a nursery-like ambiance, luxury leisure classes poisoned by petty, pointless politics. Now I see it all with fresh eyes once again. Americans are a bit of a cult, but isn’t every society to a small degree? I suppose that’s the nature of culture itself. It’s “cult-ure.”

Your future: What now? What’s your dream?

Now THAT is the question! Really, nowadays it feels like anything is possible. A family of my own would be a true adventure and I’m certainly open. Barring that (or perhaps in addition to that), a career in public service would be welcome. A total dream would be hosting my own travel show. Think, Rick Steves gone wild, or perhaps Anthony Bourdain in the backcountry. Just a show about what I do best: “An Obscure Man Out in Obscure Places.”

I truly feel a sense of community since I’ve returned. It’s been a whirlwind of social activities. I’m rather amazed how folks sincerely cared about my well-being out there.

I’m excited about our Two-Wheeled Wanderer book coming out next month. At over 60,000 words, it may very well be the first book ever written by meticulously pecking into a mobile phone. Thanks again to the Idaho Press for all the expert support.

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