Chasing Che

by E. "Doc" Smith on March 3, 2005

A Motorcycle Journey in Search of the Guevara Legend, by Patrick Symmes

As I prepared for my cross country drive from D.C. to San Francisco 3 years ago, I stopped at the home of my old friend Brian Symmes in McLean, Virginia, to purchase his mom’s 1987 Volvo 740 wagon. In the garage next to my newly acquired Volvo, was his younger brother Patrick’s mud-encrusted jeep and motorcycle, left at his mom’s while he embarked on yet another journey. Patrick of course, is a writer for Outside, Wired and GQ magazines. “Before you go” she said, “I want you to take Patrick’s new book with you. It’s all about Che Guevara.” Familiar as I as was with the story of Che, I was instantly fascinated by Patrick’s journey to South America and his insights into the legendary icon, by retracing the entire route of the fabled “Motorcycle Diaries”.

That motorcycle trip in 1952, marked a turning point for Ernesto Guevara Lynch de la Serna, a medical student returning from a journey into poverty and oppression with a vision of guerilla-style change and a new name, Che Guevara. Going on to help overthrow the Cuban government, aligning himself with Fidel Castro, and to be elevated to martyred hero status when he was executed in Bolivia in 1967, Guevara’s likeness is now commercialized and captured on T-shirts, castanets, and watches. When I was 13 years old, I had watched the 1969 film “Che!”, (with Omar Sharif as Che, and Jack Palance as Castro), my first introduction to the Cuban revolutionaries. I had suspected there was much more to that story, and after finally getting my hands on the “Motorcycle Diaries” years later, confirmed my young suspicions.

Patrick Symmes embarked from New York City with his BMW R80 G/S motorcycle, tracing Guevara’s route through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Cuba, seeking insight into what Guevara experienced and what his political movement wrought. Meeting with those who knew the young Che, among them a lover, a leper, and ultimately Che’s motorcycle traveling cohort Alberto Granado, proved both interesting and insightful, even though some were children at the time. Some were confused, and others refused to talk openly. Also revealing were Symmes’ travels on his bike, nicknamed La Cucaracha. He winds through both Buenos Aires’ high society and Peruvian poverty, finding a fragmented country where revolutions have brought mountain peasants fleeing to shanty towns, and where blind idealism coexists with blatant denouncements of the violent tactics used by Cuban Communists, even by Che’s most respected soldiers. Symmes’ tome is beautifully written, and the stories that unfold reflect the complex contradiction that endures in Latin America, three long decades after Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s death.

Symmes retraces the future revolutionary’s entire path, and on the way he runs out of gas in an Argentine desert, meets the multi-millionaire Douglas Tompkins of the Patagonia clothing line, talks a Peruvian guerrilla out of taking him hostage, wipes out in the Andes, travels to Bolivia to the place where Che was wounded and ultimately executed, arriving in Cuba for the long awaited return of Che’s body, and finally, drinking himself blind with Che’s travel partner, Alberto Granado.

Symmes’s book is also an unforgettable story of a wanderer’s quest for food, shelter, and wisdom. Here, too, is the portrait of a continent whose dreams of utopia gave birth to not only freedom fighters, but also to the tyrants whose methods included torture and mass killings. Masterfully detailed, insightful, “Chasing Che” transfixed me with the “glory of the open road, where man and machine traverse the unknown in search of the spirit’s keenest desires”, and provides another glimpse into the life of the extraordinary man known to world as simply “Che”.

Chasing Che: A Motorcycle Journey in Search of the Guevara Legend, by Patrick Symmes. Vintage Books, $13.00 U.S., $19.95 in Canada.

E. “Doc” Smith is a musician and recording engineer who has worked with the likes of Brian Eno, the late Warren Zevon, Mickey Hart, Jimmy Cliff, and John Mayall among others. He and guitarist Brian Symmes met while both performed and recorded during the 1980’s with Madonna.

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