Julia Murph and Mori Hays at the end of Tierra del Fuego after a year and a half and about 12,000 miles on their bikes. (Photo courtesy of Mori Hays)

Just before Christmas this year, Mori Hays and Julia Murph found themselves in an unfamiliar situation: waiting in line to take a selfie. 

Most of the past year and a half had been spent on the saddle of their bicycles slogging through thousands of miles of rain and heat, or camped out in soccer fields or deserts at night. Now they were fighting other tourists for a spot to get a photo in front of the iconic sign that stands in Ushuaia, Argentina, a windswept tourist town at the end of the Carretera Austral. 

“It was a little surreal,” said 25-year-old Hays. “When the time came (for the photo) it was all really rushed and felt a little cheesy and anticlimactic.” 

Hays, who graduated Haines High in 2017, admitted he was tired, homesick and ready to be done with the trip. The two got their shot, and headed out for dinner, treating themselves to cazuela, a Chilean  beef soup with potatoes. They talked through memories from each section of the trip, from the cold, rainy start on the Dalton Highway in Alaska, to the llama-like guanacos and ostrich-like ñandús of their final miles of the Carretera Austral in Patagonia.  

“I just feel really lucky that we got to do it and that nothing bad really happened to us,” said Murph, 24. 

Within a few days they were back in the United States, celebrating Christmas with their families and preparing for the next portion of their lives. 

Rough beginnings

The touristy ending was a stark contrast to the austere beginning of Murph and Hays’ trip. 

In August of 2022 a friend drove them from Fairbanks, where they had recently finished up their university degrees, 500 miles to Prudhoe Bay. It was August and hovering just above freezing with rain. 

There was no sign of civilization around them, other than the silhouettes of the oil rigs behind them as they rode south over the bumpy dirt roads next to the swampy, treeless tundra. 

“I was terrified. I’d never done anything like that before,” said Murph. “We’re at the top of the world and there’s this this infinite sunset happening and I was like ‘what am I doing?’”

When the couple’s bike racks snapped, they were lucky to have the help of a man named Neil, who ground down the frames and reattached them using duct tape. The couple said they quickly decided to cut weight from their bikes, ditching their laptops and quarters they’d packed for laundromats. (Photo courtesy of Mori Hays)

The first day, they ran into three grizzly bears, which were only slightly preferable to the polar bears that are known to wander the area. At nights, they’d keep bear spray close by in their tents after carrying anything with food residue to the other side of the Dalton Highway. They’d eat their dinners 100 yards from their campsites to make sure the wafting smells didn’t attract any bears. 

The first days were brutal. At times they were off their saddles pushing their bikes through four inches of mud. 

“It was the hardest section we had in a year and half of cycling.” said Hays. 

The trip itself had been planned for almost a year. Hays had done some long-distance biking with his family, including a middle-school Golden Circle trip from Skagway to Haines, but living in Fairbanks, the couple started meeting other adventurers doing the Prudhoe Bay-Tierra del Fuego trek. Hays and Murph signed up for a crowd hosting app called Warm Showers that connected adventurers to locals, and soon they found themselves hosting Liam Garner, a 17-year-old Californian who would make international news for biking the route. 

“We thought, if Liam can do this, let’s give it a shot,” said Hays. 

But with school and work, the couple hardly had time to train, other than Murph biking to work. Two of their bike racks broke on the rattling roads. Soon their butts were sore from the nonstop rattling and the heavy loads on their panniers and racks. There were no towns for nearly days until they passed through the seasonal truck stop of Coldfoot, which has a few dozen people. The next town was Livengood, population 7. 

Still, they found the beauty of the experience, watching the drawn-out Arctic sunsets on their first night, and noting the vegetation change as they rode over the 4,739-foot Atigun Pass. On one side was shrubby tundra, on the other side were wind-battered spruce trees. 

After two weeks, they’d made it to Fairbanks, where they could offload some of their overpacked gear. Hays said they didn’t weigh their bicycles before starting, but figured they were packing in excess of 100 pounds. 

Wanting to be prepared for the whole year and a half, they made sure to be well-stocked with quarters and detergent to use at laundromats, glass jars, and two laptops. By the time they got to Fairbanks, they were ready to ditch all those things, and by the end of the trip, Hays figures they were traveling with half the weight. 

From Anchorage, they flew to Seattle to avoid COVID restrictions through Canada. Before they knew it, they’d settled into a routine of riding through the day and searching for campsites on apps or through word of mouth as they meandered down the Pacific Coast of the United States. They avoided major mechanical issues and connected with strangers, who showed them astonishing hospitality. 

In Santa Barbara, Calif. as they ate sandwiches on the side of the road a man asked them where they were going. They told him they were headed down the Baja California Peninsula. Without a second thought, the man offered to let them stay at his vacation home there. A few months later, they texted him to let them know they’d arrived, and he told them where the keys were. 

“That kind of thing happened every once in a while,” said Hays. 

In Baja, they camped in deserts of towering Seussian succulents called Boojum trees and met up with other cyclists. They ended up in La Paz on the tip of the peninsula for about a month, staying with a host from Warm Showers who let them set up tents in a garage-like area with up to a dozen other bikers. 

Murph spent weeks at the marina in La Paz, Mexico, waiting for a sailboat to take them across the Sea of Cortez. (Photo courtesy of Mori Hays)

Murph sat at seaside coffee shops chatting with locals to try to hitch a sailboat ride across the Sea of Cortez before meeting a Californian sailor who offered to take them across. The wait slowed their trip down, but during the two night watches they were treated to bioluminescent Humboldt squid shooting across the bow. 

As they wound their way through mainland Mexico, the hospitality of strangers continued to astonish them. Once, they were setting up camp in a soccer field and a neighboring family invited them to their house, which was so meager it didn’t even have a toilet. But before they knew it, a woman was teaching Murph to make tortillas over a wood fire and Hays was sharing beers with the grandfather. 

A few weeks later, a similar thing happened in Guatemala that ended up with a late night of playing guitar and trading songs with a local family. 

Strengthening bonds

Hays said one of the most gratifying things about the trip was how it brought the couple closer together. In evenings when the sky was darkening and they were low on water, the couple had to rely on one another to ask strangers for help. 

“Having to solve problems like that — and sometimes really stressful things — it was great to find out we can work them out,” Hays said. 

The couple had been talking about getting engaged throughout the trip. Despite being on the road, Hays was determined to present an engagement ring, and found the opportunity when some friends flew to Peru to meet up with them. Hays surreptitiously asked them to bring down a ring Murph had seen on Etsy. 

That plan was almost upended when Hays left a bag — engagement ring and all — in a cab in Lima, the sprawling capital city of 11 million people. A frantic scramble to find the bag ensued. 

“All we knew was the guy’s name was Jesús, which is like everyone’s name down there,” he said. 

Murph, still oblivious to the ring, was confused about the overreaction as the group rushed to the airport and frantically asked individual cab drivers if they knew Jesús. As their hope faded near 4 a.m. they were in the police commissary filing a detailed report when one of the officers got off the phone to say that the bag was on its way. 

Hays and Murph on the Peruvian coast. The couple got engaged during the trip, despite Hays leaving an engagement ring in the taxi cab in the metropolis of Lima. (Photo courtesy of Julia Murph)

“We were just so confused — why was he driving at 4 a.m.?” recalled Hays. 

The ring was still inside, along with a camera. Murph said yes. 

Now that they’re done with the trip they’re still processing it, but are glad to have had the experience and glad to move on with their lives. 

“That was really a gift to get out there, you bike together for a year and a half,” said Murph. “I really loved it and I’m also glad to be done.” 

The couple is currently in Colorado visiting Hays’ parents before moving to Duluth, Minnesota for Hays’ job at an aerospace company. They’re planning to return to Haines later this summer for a wedding. 

The Haines library is organizing a Zoom event where the couple will recount their trip at 6 p.m. on Jan. 31.