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Road less traveled: Larry Davis sees the world from the back of a motorcycle

Sharon and Larry Davis are shown at a large temple in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I --

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference

-- Robert Frost

WORTHINGTON -- Larry Davis is the advance scout into unknown territory. When he decides on a new destination, he goes there first, comes back with enthusiastic tales about all he's encountered and talks wife Sharon into joining him on a second journey.

It's a pattern that's played out several times in recent years as Larry by himself and the Davises as a couple have explored South America, India and southeast Asia -- mainly from the seat of a motorcycle.

Although he's always returned home to Worthington, Larry, the owner of Davis Typewriter, was bitten by a severe case of wanderlust at an early age.

"I've always been a traveler," he reflected. "It started off at 15, hitchhiking to the West Coast. That got the juices flowing, and they haven't stopped."

After his first year of college, Larry spent eight weeks in Europe trying to find direction for his life, and the experience "made me realize I needed to go back to school."

Eventually, he took over the family business -- which celebrated its 65th anniversary just last week -- but his yearn to see the world never ceased. He's visited all 50 states, often via motorcycle, having bought his first bike in 1966.

Larry's road to international motorcycle travel began on the Internet, where he read accounts of people riding the length of the Americas, from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska to the "end of the world" in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. He became an avid follower of Horizons Unlimited, a world motorcycle club for people who share a passion for international travel.

His initial excursion in 2000 -- embarked upon with five other motorcycle enthusiasts, four from Canada, one from Florida, all met on the Internet -- was through Central America to the Panama Canal.

"We went all the way through Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama -- pretty rough areas, very poor countries," Larry detailed. "But it's beautiful country to go through. I wasn't sure I could do South America after that, so I changed my goal and decided to do the northern part. There are two roads that cross the Arctic Circle -- the Dalton and the Dempster highways -- and I did both of those, up to the Beaufort Sea. There are 500 miles of gravel on each one, so that was 2,000 miles on gravel."

With the northern leg completed, Larry began to rethink South America, but he couldn't convince anyone to join him in the adventure. In 2007, he flew into Santiago, Chile, rented a motorcycle, and traveled 6,000 miles to the tip of South America -- all by himself. He returned with tales about the engaging people he met and the amazing scenery.

"I was just so impressed with South America, I begged at my wife until she finally agreed to go with me," Larry said. "So we bought a new bike and shipped it to Santiago, and we did the same trip again, except for Route 40" -- one of the more primitive highways.

The Davises also took a detour in hopes of sighting killer whales, which were reportedly in a feeding frenzy along the coastline. They didn't see any of the mammoth mammals, but encountered lots of elephant seals and walruses -- the whales' prey.

Larry subscribes to a "seat-of-the-pants" philosophy, never planning ahead for accommodations. They traveled with minimal gear -- never camping -- but found decent lodging for as little as $10.

"We never had a reservation anywhere," he said. "We slept in some really bad places, but most of the time we had good accommodations. Sharon is a super traveler. ... She's very adventurous. To travel on a trip like that, you don't realize that you're forsaking everything you know."

Neither Larry nor Sharon speaks fluent Spanish, but they didn't experience any major problems due to the language barrier, and they encountered many fellow international travelers on the journey. On the first leg of their 2008 trip together, they spent a month covering the southern part of the continent, then flew back home, leaving the motorcycle in Santiago. A few months later, they returned for a second excursion through the north -- Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Columbia -- and were notified that Larry's brother had died while they were in Peru. They were able to fly home for the funeral, and then returned to South America to complete the trip.

The adventure wasn't without other mishaps: The motorcycle broke down a number of times, including one time in the middle of the desert. They crashed the motorcycle seven times in South America, the worst resulting in a severely sprained arm for Sharon.

"We got robbed on the street," said Larry about another unfortunate incident. "They ripped my pocket off and got my billfold. We learned that getting credit cards overnighted to you actually takes eight days."

With the Americas goal completed, Larry turned his eye toward a new continent -- Asia.

"I took off from Thailand, rented a bike there," Larry explained about his solo venture in January 2009. "It was unbelievably beautiful -- a great place to ride."

Later that year, he embarked on another solo trip -- this time to India.

Larry returned to Worthington and tried to convince Sharon to join him on a second excursion to Southeast Asia. Initially she agreed, but about a month out, changed her mind. So Larry set off solo once again in January 2010, e-mailing home with daily updates. Shortly afterward, Sharon reconsidered and hopped on a plane.

"She came to Thailand and met me, and we rode together for three weeks in Thailand. I went to Laos and Cambodia before she got there."

Later in 2010, Larry and Sharon spent a month touring India.

"I went to India alone in 2009 and rode a British Royal Enfield motorcycle in northern India near Manali in the Spiti Valley," Larry detailed. "I loved it so much I wanted to take Sharon there to see the beauty, even though it was a very hard trip."

Their travels were particularly difficult due to flooding that had occurred, washing out roads. The biggest hardship, however, was dealing with the Indian motorists.

"The terrain isn't the thing," Larry explained. "India is just so mind-boggling that you're not prepared. ... India is by far the toughest. The traffic is unbelievable. ... We had a hundred near-death experiences in one afternoon. We almost got killed our first night there. We were in a cab, and the driver suddenly slams on the brakes. On the road in front of us, there's no bridge, the tires are over the edge, and it's probably 30 feet down to the water below."

Because of such experiences, Larry is doubtful they would ever return to India, but he and Sharon happily revisited Southeast Asia just a couple of months ago, traveling through Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and back into Thailand.

Larry considers Southeast Asia to be safe for travel, as long as the traveler goes about it sensibly, and he relies on his "extremely good internal compass" to get where he needs to go, although it occasionally goes awry.

"We came in on the night train to Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), got there at 5 in the morning, and somebody had siphoned the gas from the motorcycle," he related about one incident. "The station was right in the middle of the city, and we got 10 to 15 blocks into the ghetto before we ran out of gas. So we pushed it until we found a gas station."

Using that internal compass, Larry was able to get his bearings in the city of 9 million people and found the hotel where he'd stayed on the previous trip. When their travels took them to Siem Reap, Cambodia, he also managed to find the bar where he'd met a young girl selling bracelets on the street.

"I was sitting in a bar drinking beer, and she wouldn't leave me alone," Larry related about the first encounter. "She wrote me a note in English, and I was impressed by her. She gave me her e-mail address, and I corresponded with her."

The young girl, named Sokha, was 16 at the time, although he would have guessed her to be several years younger. When he and Sharon returned to the same watering hole, he saw some boys selling bracelets and asked if they knew her.

"They thought they knew her, but she now worked at a shop ... I told her I would reward them if they found her, and half an hour later they came back with her," he said. "I gave them each a dollar.

"Sokha works from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, seven days a week, and gets paid $50 a month," continued Larry, turning to the calculator on his desk to figure out her hourly wage. "That's 14.8 cents an hour, and she'd just gotten a raise."

Because she had American visitors, Sokha was able to arrange time off from her job and served as their tour guide to the local sites. She also visited their hotel, taking her first ride in an air-conditioned vehicle on the way and experiencing swimming in a pool and a hot bath for the first time.

"She comes from a family of six," Larry detailed. "Her dad had gone out to buy a water buffalo. When I asked her how much it cost, it was $20 -- that's a lot of money when you only make $50 a month."

While in Cambodia, the Davises also visited the Killing Fields, where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime during its rule of the country after the end of the Vietnam War. The memorial site contains 8,995 skulls that came out of one field -- one of 3,000 estimated sites. It was a grim and sullen reminder of the tragic history of the land they visited.

With the recent Southeast Asia trip still fresh in his mind, Larry hasn't decided where his wanderlust will take him next. He's mulling over a couple of possibilities -- Australia and New Zealand, Russia, and he'd also be game for a return trip to southern South America -- but has largely ruled out Africa, although his mind could be changed. It's happened before.

The only certainty at this point is that Larry will be on the seat of a motorcycle -- perhaps with Sharon behind him -- taking the road less traveled.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at http://lagniappe.areavoices.com/.  

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