"Two Wheels Through Terror" is a first-person account of Glen Heggstad's 2001-02 motorcycle journey from his home in California through Central and Southern America to Ushuaia, on the southernmost tip of Argentina.
The book is most-known (and named) for the harrowing middle section where Heggstad describes his month-long stint as a hostage of Columbia's National Liberation Army (the Ejército de Liberación Nacional or ELN).
While riding along a desolate jungle road between Bogotá and Medellin, Heggstad comes upon a small group of ELN combatants. The ELN funds its operations through extortion and hostage ransoms, and sees Heggstad as a typically wealthy American whose family could be coerced into paying for his safe return.
Despite knowing in advance that Heggstad survived his ordeal of beatings, starvation and mental intimidation to write the book, this part of the story maintains a nerve-wracking level of suspense.
While Heggstad generally refrains from placing judgment on his captors' behavior, he paints a picture of human behavior at its worst.
The ELN group appears to have only a loose organizational structure and a lot of free time. The terrorists randomly inflict physical and psychological pain seemingly as a way to stave of boredom. Behind every taunt and reprieve, there is a continual threat that at any moment, someone will aim a gun at his head and pull the trigger.
Heggstad conceives a series of deceptions to stay alive in hopes of being released. He feigns mental illness, he paints a picture of poverty, and he tells his captors that he is dying of prostate cancer, producing blood (from self-inflicted nose bleeds) on his pants each morning as proof. He plays each day one moment at a time. He keeps going.
Heggstad's weight drops due to starvation, while his "cancer" worsens to the point that he is released to the Red Cross. After a short recuperation, he is offered a trip home by the U.S. State Department. Instead, he heads to Ecuador to pick up a replacement motorcycle and to continue his planned journey.
His explanation for doing so is astoundingly simple: abandoning his trip would mean the terrorists had won. He chose to refuse to be afraid.
Throughout his Columbian ordeal, his reporting is straight-forward, in unadorned and almost-too-calm phrases. This point-and-shoot style works with such compelling material, but causes the rest of the book to fade somewhat.
The opening section documents Heggstad's initial preparations for the journey and his trip through Mexico. The post-hostage section covers the rest of the journey to Tierra del Fuego and (in very brief form) the trip home.
The vignettes in these sections are generally interesting, but suffer in comparison to the Columbian section. They also lack the rich, immersive detail that makes good travelogue emotionally-rewarding reading.
Instead, Heggstad's journal entries are blunt reactions to the day's events. He encounters strangers both friendly and suspicious, and labels both types as being "typical". He eats, drinks, sleeps and rides. He keeps going.
Overall, Heggstad is not a particularly inspired writer, but he has one amazing story to tell, and tells it well.
Note: The story of Heggstad's Columbian odyssey was made into an hour-long documentary as part of the "Locked Up Abroad" television series.