A treacherous 1,700-mile motorcycle odyssey from desert sands to Andes peaks unfolds Sunday as the final original production of Charlotte-based Speed channel, which is morphing into Fox Sports 1 in August.
Motorcycle journalist Neale Bayly of Charlotte leads the three-part extreme expedition on “Neale Bayly Rides: Peru,” 9 p.m. Sunday, Speed channel, focusing on Troy Rice, owner of STM Support in Charlotte; Dr. Laura Ellis, an Asheville surgeon; and the Rev. James Johnson, known hereabouts as the Whiskey Priest, a spiritual adviser without a congregation.
Johnson, who was born in the Bahamas and moved to the U.S. at age 11, has been riding motorcycles since age 9. His first visit to traffic court was for going 60 mph on a sidewalk before he was even a teenager.
But the rigors of the trip required a lot of preparation. Johnson, 43, quit smoking, lost about 25 pounds and took training at TNT Motorsports Park in Chester, S.C., and BMW Performance Center in Greer, S.C.
His first challenge was traffic in Lima, a chaotic environment where you use your horn not so much to censure other drivers but to let them know where you are. “Wild and wooly,” he says. “Traffic signs there are really just suggestions.”
From Peru’s capital, the group rode their BMW R-800-GS bikes, well suited for off-road use, into the rugged countryside. For a day, they fought sand and wind in the desert of Paracus National Park, an arid environment beside the cold Pacific.
“Riding in the sand is always tough with a heavier motorcycle,” says Johnson.
“We were riding at a 45-degree angle because of the wind with your weight in the back. It’s a fine line between panic and excitement. We all laid the bikes down in the sand at least once.”
They also gained confidence in their riding skills, which were soon tested by the pot-holed, rock-ridden mountain roads of the Andes. On a blind curve, Johnson says, he encountered an 18-wheeler coming at him with another driver passing the truck.
In a single day, they climbed from sea level to 14,500 feet, where freezing mist cut their vision to about 20 feet. They had to keep their face shields open because of condensation buildup from breathing. It was so cold, Johnson says, that when they paused, he put his gloved hands on the motor to warm them up.
A philanthropic sidelight to the trip was a two-day visit through Wellspring International Outreach to the Hogar Belen Orphanage in Moquegua, which is rebuilding from an earthquake. There the group labored and provided medical aid.
“I was struck by the natural beauty of the people of Peru and the kids in the orphanage,” says Johnson. “You’re confronted with this when you travel – the people have so much less than we do, but seem so much more centered.”
Three months later, Johnson says, he’s still processing the trip and expects to do so for a long time. It fit well with his philosophical mission of seeking insight through experience.
“It allows me to get to the places I find nourishing, ‘further up and deeper in’ as in the J.R.R. Tolkien line,” he says.
He calls himself the “Whiskey Priest” after the reference in Graham Greene’s 1940 book, “The Power and the Glory,” symbolizing the contrast between the moral weaknesses of the priest and the power of grace in his message. In Latin, Johnson notes, the word “whiskey” translates as “water of life,” or aqua vitae.
“I’m a whiskey priest, so I kind of get to be whacko,” he says.
“Neale Bayly Rides: Peru” is produced by Charlotte’s Linda Midgett. Also working on the trip was Charlotte chef Brandon McDearis of Your Way Cuisine.
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