Editor’s note: Mr. Gerber completed the journey that was the basis for the story below in 1966. The writing was probably finished in the next year. At the time of his travels he was 21, on summer break from the University of Minnesota where he studied history and political science. Some may find the writing a little green but even at this early age he had a great sense of observation and he tells a great tale.
The journey to Panama was his first significant international trip and the fulfillment of a longtime fantasy to live out adventures similar to the ones he had read about as a teenager in Scootourist, an early U.S. scootering magazine.
John was on two-wheels (first with mopeds) by age 14. At 21 he had already traveled over much of the U.S. and parts of Canada. The Vespa GS 160 he used for the trip was purchased new from his local dealer Jerry Comers of Cushman Motors Minneapolis. By the time he left for Panama he had already put 34,000 miles on the bike. Elsewhere he said that his GS was the beginning of a life-long love affair with Vespas. He previously owned two Lambrettas, an LD and a Series 2 TV 175. Even though he logged many hours and thousands of miles on Lambrettas, he deemed them unreliable and parts too difficult to obtain for long-distance touring. The trip though Central America was the next logical step in his development as a world-traveling scooterist.
The impetus behind the creation of the Inter-American Highway, a sub-set of what was to become the Pan-American Highway, was to create a military land connection between the United States and Panama City during World War II. By the end of the war a vast amount of this work was completed and in 1946 there was at minimum a Jeep trail connecting the U.S. and Mexico with the Panama Canal. Below Mr. Gerber mentions that the highway was not finished until 1963. It is worth noting that current-day references to the highway say it was formally completed in 1967, a year after his journey. Even then, calling it a highway is generous by today’s standards. It would take many years to widen the roads and finish all of the paving.
The successful completion of his trip and the exposure to new and exotic cultures inspired Mr. Gerber to plan even more ambitious "scootours." In 1971 he competed a trip of the entire Pan-American Highway. This was followed by his epic journey across the Tran-Asian Highway in 1978. In between and after were many smaller trips, some impressive in their own right.
We are lucky to even see this story. Although many of his other travelogues were published, this remained a type-written manuscript buried among thousands of other papers in his home. It was submitted to Scooter World--then the world’s largest scooter magazine--for publication. Mr. Gerber still had the rejection letter. The magazine was interested in publishing it, but Scooter World had another submission from a Welsh writer/rider, who was possibly more-seasoned and who had undertaken an even longer trip. The Welsh writer’s story was serialized over a number of issues and a decision was made that there was not enough room for two epic travel tales. Scooter World’s loss is our gain.
To help celebrate John Gerber's life the Vespa Club of America is currently working on a special tribute issue to him in the club's member magazine, American Scooterist. The issue will collect some of his more note-worthy essays and travelogues and include remembrances from family, scooterists and fellow travelers.
South to Panama and Back
The snows of winter had melted, my university studies for the year were behind me, months of planning and preparation had culminated. To the south lay Mexico and the six Central American republics, areas co-habituating the same continent--yet, with the exception of Mexico, virtually unknown to the American people. The idea of a trip to Panama and back had intrigued me since the completion of the Inter-American Highway as far south as Panama City in 1963. Make no mistake, I had no illusions about the trip. Ahead of me lay seemingly endless miles and days of travel. Miles that would take me across burning deserts, steaming jungles, interminably monotonous prairies, and towering mountains.
My scooter was a 1964 Vespa GS, which had served me faithfully for over 34,000 miles throughout all sections of the U.S. and Canada. It’s greatest test lay ahead.
At last I was off! The route wound its way into Southern Minnesota along the gently rolling bluffs that lined the upper Mississippi River. A light drizzle began to fall. Just after crossing the Minnesota-Iowa border the drizzle turned into a torrential downpour and, much to my chagrin, I was forced to seek refuge in a telephone booth situated in a small Iowa town. After three hours, the rain showed no sign of abating. I reluctantly made a dash to a local rooming house for the night. The rain continued on into morning, and later I learned that the area had suffered extensive flooding. Being early July the Midwest was in the throes of a major heatwave. For the next six days the temperature hovered between 100 and 105 degrees. The monotony of the Midwestern prairies was broken by stops in Oklahoma and Texas to visit friends and obtain visas.
A few days later I crossed the International Bridge at Laredo, Texas into Mexico. The trip had begun in earnest. The first impression one gains of Mexico is a dismal one. Nuevo Laredo, on the Mexican side, like most Mexican border towns is a sleazy vice-ridden slum pandering largely to the American tourist. As far as the rest of Mexico is concerned these towns are a relative anomaly. For the first couple of hundred miles I rolled across the dry northern tableland with its purple and gray mountains and vast stretches of wasteland. Further south the countryside became richer, the villages more picturesque, and the highway curved up into the mountains. The 700 miles to Mexico City was covered in two and a half days.
This cosmopolitan and sophisticated capital far exceeded my expectations. A week was spent doing the usual tourist circuit: the pyramids, Nation University, National Cathedral, Chapultepec, National Archaeological Museum, bullfights, and other things. I was somewhat dismayed to learn that Vespas and Lambrettas can no longer be imported because the Government fears unfavorable competition with the Mexican-made Moto Islo and Carabela machines. Nevertheless, three-wheeled machines are still imported and there are two dealers left for parts and service. The week spent had been a pleasant one, and it was with reluctance that I left for the lands to the south.
Moto Islo scooter
Early on the second day out I reached Oaxaca, my first major stop. The remainder of the day was spent viewing the famous market and the world renowned Mayan Indian ruins. Fifty miles south of here I met a young Costa Rican riding a Vespa 150 heading north for San Francisco. Two days later I reached the Talsiman Bridge on the Mexico-Guatemala frontier. The border officials proved more officious than severe, and soon I was heading on towards the Guatemalan highlands.
Perhaps of all the countries I traveled through, Guatemala qualifies as the most interesting. Towns bearing exotic and romantic sounding Indian names such as Huehuetenango, Mazatenango, quezaltenango, Retalhuleu, and Chiquimulilla become realities rather than names on a map. Indians in colorful dress unlike that of anywhere in the world were in evidence everywhere, from the streets of the modern capital of Guatemala City to the most remote mountain village. On a typical market day they could be seen stoically trudging up the mountain roads that seem to tilt up into the sky, carrying on their heads heavy loads of pottery, fruit, corn vegetables, textiles and handicrafts to the nearest market town. One interesting feature of Guatemala s that 96 percent of its population is of Indian descent. Although deep in the tropics, Guatemala is a cool mountainous land of quiescent volcanoes and lofty lakes. Certainly the most beautiful of its many lakes is Late Atitlan, whose clear waters are flanked by long dormant volcanoes, their smooth sides gently plunging down to the water’s edge. Legend has it that there are twelve surrounding villages, each named after one of the twelve apostles. Less romantic observers have found considerably more than twelve, and only six bearing names of the apostles. After a short stop at the old colonial capital of Antigua I continued on to Guatemala City. Perhaps the most interesting sight of the capital is the public market located just behind the cathedral. Here Indians abound with items of every description for sale--often at unbelievably low prices. The tranquil atmosphere of the church and plaza belie the bustling activity that takes place here.
Two days later I left for El Salvador.The highway ascended still further into the pine covered mountains and then gradually began to descend. A few hours later I crossed the border into El Salvador. Of the six Central American Republics, El Salvador is the smallest and most populous. This fact soon becomes self evident by the large number of people seen walking alongside the highway. The road wound its way through gently rolling countryside dotted with neatly tended small farms, each with its own red tile-roofed dwelling. Villages were so close together that they almost overlapped. Gently sloping volcanoes dominated the scenery. I was told that one cannot lose sight of them anywhere in the country. By evening I had reached San Salvador, the capital. San Salvador, a rather drab and listless town of 250,000 lies cradled in a valley between the feet of two towering volcanoes which, if nothing else, provide a note of contrast to most capitals. The next day, a Sunday, I spent viewing the sights and made a short 25 mile jaunt to the famous beach at La Libertad which is noted for its fine black volcanic sand.
The first rays of sunlight found me heading towards Honduras. The remaining 160 miles of winding and hilly road to the border was covered in a relatively short time, and by noon I had passed through both customs. I proceeded to start the scooter. The engine ran a few seconds and then went out with a loud groan. Pushing and kicking proved to no avail. Villagers gathered around and lent a hand in dismantling the carburetor and ignition. After two hours work the engine still failed to respond. I had no other alternative but to secure the Vespa to the rear end of a rather dilapidated wooden framed bus of unknown vintage for the remaining 125 miles to Tegucigalpa. With a population of less than 100,000 Tegucigalpa is the smallest of the Central American capitals. Though with its narrow twisting, and tilting streets, its colonial architecture and red tiled roofs that climb up into the mountains, it is certainly the most picturesque. Naturally I had some trepidation about finding a major Vespa dealer. These fears were dispelled when early the next morning I spotted a row of shiny new Vespas gleaming in the showroom window. The engine was dismantled and examination revealed that both rings had become fused to the piston. Moreover, there were several large deep gashes in the sides of the piston, and a large chunk had been taken out of the cylinder wall. The situation was further compounded by the fact that the dealer, although carrying nine Vespa models, never carried the GS or SS models and consequently stocked no parts for them. However, Latin American mechanics are noted for their resourcefulness and the head mechanic proved to be no exception, with considerable difficulty these obstacles were overcome. The cylinder was bored out and a sleeve was machined to fit inside. The piston was welded and machined down, and a set of similar-sized rings was obtained from a Renault dealer. After four days the scooter was ready for the road again. The dealer and mechanics were extremely friendly and the four days were among the most pleasant spent of the entire trip.
Upon crossing into Nicaragua the countryside became a patchwork of large coffee fincas. Several hours after dusk I arrived in Managua, the languid capital which is cupped on the edge of a beautiful lake bearing the same name. Nicaragua, because of its low altitude is the most tropical of the six republics, but the heat is moderated somewhat by two large lakes, Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua, which actually deserve to be called inland seas. Lake Nicaragua, the larger of the two, is over one hundred miles long and forty-five miles wide and is noted for its fresh water sharks and island volcanoes complete with villages on the slopes.
A day later I was in Costa Rica. Of all the Central American countries I found Costa Rica to be my favorites. Its long rolling green hills, its innumerable rushing rivers, its mountains and deep valleys often veiled by a drifting mist, combine to make it something of a paradise. Indeed Costa Ricans take pride of their country as the “Switzerland of the Americas.” This analogy applies to political, economic, and social factors as well as climatic and scenic. Unlike most Latin American countries there is virtually no standing army, the system is entirely democratic, literacy is almost one hundred percent and the standard of living is comparatively high. Costa Rica also has the highest percentage of Vespas, and the riders are not confined to any particular age, sex, or economic grouping. The following morning I reached the polished and modern capital of San Jose. One of the high points of the journey came the next day with a trip to the summit of Irazu Volcano--one of the few active volcanos in the world where such a trip is possible. The twenty mile paved road to the top was steep and winding, requiring first gear most of the way. Once at the summit superlatives abound in the description--magnificent, stupendous, mighty, marvelous, unbelievable, beyond the imagination--they are all justified. The chasm is virtually bottomless, filled with steam, smoke, and ashes being disgorged from its innards, a dull hissing sond reverberates throughout the air, and the fetid smell of sulphur pervades the atmosphere. Through gaps in the mist both oceans can be seen.
After two days I was ready for the challenge that lay ahead. Until now the Inter-American Highway had been entirely paved. But between San Jose and Panama City lay 300 miles of unpaved road, much of it over 11,000 foot mountains. The condition of the road confirmed my worst fears. In many places it narrowed into a single lane replete with blind hairpin curves. Foot-wide boulders and foot-deep pot holes were the rule rather than the exception. Miscellaneous odds and ends began to bounce off the scooter. As the altitude increased it became progressively colder. To make matters worse a steady rain began to fall and the road was soon enveloped in fog. The sharp curves and steep ascent limited the top speed to 10 mph. By mid-afternoon I had crossed the mountains and decided to call it quits for the day at the small town of San Isidro del General. Total mileage for the day: 80. From here on the road was now level but the potholes and boulders were still present. Fifty miles later a slightly battered silencer departed, broken at the stem by a large boulder. I was now in deep primeval jungle country, with strange growths, lush vegetation, python-like vines crawling about trees, and dark impenetrable thickets. Exotic tropical flowers often added a light fragrance to the air. Beyond the jungle lay endless miles of banana plantations, many recently cleared out of the jungle.
A few days later I was in Panama City. Exhausted, I spent a week resting and sightseeing before starting the trip back. The return was comparatively uneventful as I was mostly focused on making time. The piston, badly weakened by the work done to it, gave way 150 miles north of Panama City. By the next day a replacement had arrived by bus from the Vespa dealer in Panama City. Sixteen days later I was home. The trip had taken over two months. My scooter had taken me over 11,000 miles. Total mileage on the GS now exceeded 45,000 miles.
This by no means represents the end of my travels. For the upcoming summer, a 8,000 to 10,000 mile tour through Europe and parts of North Africa is already being prepared. In the more distant future, trips through South America and Africa, not to mention a round-the-world tour, are envisioned. But for the time being both the Vespa and its rider have earned a well-deserved rest.