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Austral Diaries II: Cold Sunshine

I_was_expecting something different on the Austral; not from the road itself, but from my own state of mind as we close to within 1,000 miles of Ushuaia.  Every single day since the beginning of August has been leading towards where we are today, and every day hereafter continues that line bound for the end of the world in Tierra del Fuego.  I thought that by this point that we would feel swept up in the inertia of the thousands of miles behind us, as if the tantalizing closeness of our journey’s conclusion would alter our mental states and captivate our daily thoughts.

We are close to Ushuaia, yet there isn’t anything about that state of affairs that makes our oatmeal taste different in the morning, or the mountains less steep, or the harsh stones of the Austral any less sharp.  Nathan dented his rear rim yesterday after plowing through a rock garden.  Time and distance for us are not inextricably related.  We could have ridden 40,000 miles before this point and still the bicycles don’t pedal themselves or heal their wear and tear.  To make our miles here we have no choice but to go to bed early, rise early, ride hard, and try to find a kind sheep rancher with a barn before the sun sets.  It’s still a little surreal when we feel the chill and the sunshine on our backs as it traces an ever shallower path across the northern sky.  It wasn’t very long ago that we were chasing the sun in the southern sky every day that winter crept closer in Canada.  It’s a beautiful way to live these last days, and it’s fitting that it isn’t all that different from those that came before it.

There has never been a project like Bound South in any of our lives before.  A school semester requires half the time and effort of this Pan-American bicycle expedition, and every day is continuously apportioned to our goal.  For eight months we have eschewed holidays and weekends and all of the normal conventions of the lives we knew, sacrificing them to a single goal.  It hasn’t felt like a vacation or project, either; though it is temporary it has become a compelling mainstay of our lives.  We have changed since leaving home and will continue to do so when we return.  The simple, familiar work on our family farm will be no less extraordinary than these last days on bicycle.  To be sure, one is more conventional than the other; but both are good things worth doing.  We are fortunate that the road ends in Ushuaia, as Mother Nature provides us with a helpful nudge and wink saying, “That’s enough boys.”  Until then, we’ll keep bouncing along the stones of the Austral, freezing in our tent, and marveling at what great works have been done in these granite cliffs and spires that rise up so majestically in this part of the world.  Tomorrow is simply another good day worth the riding to get there.

Lago Puyuhaupi

Navigating

Nathan, straightening a few dents by the stove in this cozy restaurant.

Puppy: nemesis of Bound South, too cute for his own good.

Incredible rock formations

Autumnal colors coming down the mountainsides

Cool and frosty air found us in the shade.

Cascadas

Coyhaique

Austral Diaries I: Last Highway

If_Patagonia_is_the last land for Bound South, the Carretera Austral is the last highway.  Built in the Pinochet era, it is one of the most ambitious infrastructural projects in Chile’s history.  Winding through the harsh mountains, rivers, lakes, and fjords of southern Chile, the Austral runs over 1200 kilometers from Puerto Montt in the north to Lago O’Higgins in the south.

We began the Austral just west of Futaléufu, crossing on empty, washboard gravel from Argentina.  I wish that we had more profound stories or reflections from the past days, but the only thing that comes to mind at this very moment is humility.  This road has been humbling.  The washboard-like dirt has left our bodies sore and tired.  The constant rain and cold and freezing tent-camping nights have made us relish every single moment we have indoors with a heater.  Like right now as I write this blog post, or yesterday as we huddled in a woman’s home and asked for a basket full of warm, fresh-baked bread, after Isaiah ate the full basket prior.

Sometimes you wish that you could rise above all the mortal limitations of bicycle travel and relish the magic of an open dirt road through some of the most majestic mountains of all of Bound South.  Lately it’s just felt like a real slog.  We’ve met a dozen bicycle tourists on the roads since San Martin de los Andes, each with their own unique story and increasingly ragged appearance.  One German, carrying twice the number of bags as us along with a kitchen’s sink worth of pots and pans dangling off his rear bags, was traveling around the world and had been on the road from Germany, the Middle East, Asia, Africa, and beyond for over 3 years.  An Alaskan woman was traveling solo from Ushuaia to Alaska; her words of warning about the steep dirt roads here in Chile came back to us as we slowed to a grind over the terrible hills on the road from Futaléufu.  It’s amazing how grim one’s mental outlook can get on a bicycle on a bad day.

The rain, rough dirt, cold nights, and all of Patagonia seemed to conspire against us and our goal pace of 100 kilometers a day.  So we’re behind on our pace to Ushuaia but fighting to make up the difference.  I wish we had something more inspirational to pull from these past hard days.  If anything I would say it is remarkable that even the hard days, the ones where you grit your teeth and bear it, still have us smiling as we sit around our MSR stove and cook dinner every night.  Each day has its small pleasures, like the respite from the rain and cold we got in a woman’s home that doubled as a bakery in the small Austral village of Villa Santa Lucia. Or the way that a sheep chased us around the yard of a woman’s home while we picked apples off of her apple tree.  Or the way in which a magical barn always appears between 6:45PM and 7:15PM for us to camp in the warmth of straw and the comfort of a place that Patagonian wind and rain can’t touch.  The road is rough, but we’re tough, and so we press on through the hints of an old-fashioned Chilean winter to the south.  Word has it that some cyclists further south on the Carretera Austral this week were stopped due to snow.  Sounds like an adventure in the making for us.

Roadside workout station near Esquel in Argentina. Nathan is "atletico" for this.

Brilliant sunrise before crossing the border

Rainy welcome to Chile

All suited up for rain.

We've slept in a barn every night since hitting Chile. Haylofts are fantastic. Hay fever?

Clear, blue rivers, the likes of which we haven't seen since Canada.

"Look guys, a waterfall and rainbow! Too bad it's not a double rainbow."

Reflections of Autumn

More apple trees! This one had a fierce guardian who charged us. We distracted it by throwing apples at it.

Big skies, big lakes.

Our new German friend, riding since 2008 through Germany, the Middle East, Africa, Venezuela, Brazil, Ushuaia, and now north.

Short climbs relative to the Peruvian Andes, but hard climbs nonetheless.

Incredible mountain views.

And more incredibly steep grades.

This Swedish family has been on the road since Ushuaia, traveling until July.

Last Lands

Patagonia._This is the place that has occupied our imaginations since leaving Alaska; not only for what it is, being one of the last wild places left in the world; but also what we would be on arrival.  Sometimes we think about what it would have been like to meet a parallel universe’s version of us, traveling from south to north, from Ushuaia to Alaska.  Had we met our counterparts as they entered Whitehorse in the Yukon Territory, many months since they had left Ushuaia, and so close to their destination…I reckon we might have regarded them as some kind of otherworldly being, almost as if the Fellowship of the Ring had met Tom Bombadil while he was casually riding his bicycle through Mordor to Mount Doom.

A day’s ride through this country can bring you through the diversity of an entire continent’s ecology.  Just the other morning we passed by Chilean mountain lakes and snow-capped volcanoes, in the afternoon we battled the unrelenting winds of the arid Argentine Pampas, and by evening we were surrounded by lush, autumnal timber forests that echoed Canada and Alaska in September.  For the rest of our lives, the memories of riding through so many diverse landscapes in a single day will never fade.

Patagonia evokes other memories as well.  Freezing in our tent at night, we are reminded of the bright, warm days and cold nights in Oregon and Alberta.  The long, empty, and windy stretches between places equate to those many kilometers we rode the Cassiar without grocery stores and gas stations to refuel.  It’s funny, but we miss Mexico with its air-conditioned Oxxo convenience stores on every corner, and Peru’s impossibly delicious, simple, and dirt-cheap restaurant meals.  We got two-course feasts in Peruvian cocinas for as little as $2.  Here in the beautiful, sylvan mountains and windswept valleys of Patagonia, you can’t get a restaurant meal for less than $8.  On $10 a day, our options are somewhat more restricted; and so our MSR stove has returned to its prominence in our lives in a manner unseen since North America.    The echoes of those first hilarious days of novice bicycle touring in Alaska will prove to be perfect closure for this last chapter of Bound South.

Echoes of western North Dakota in the Pampas.

The beginning of the "Seven Lakes Road" from San Martin de los Andes

Cooking before the cold

Early morning visitor

Lakeside.

Apples and berries have returned; Isaiah climbed 20 feet up for the upper branches.

The Gang - These gregarious Argentinians stopped to chat with us multiple times.

A cold and wet morning after a rainy night - We cooked dinner in the bed of this old Ford the night before.

Living and Leaping

Borders_are_a_big deal.  Crossing them is one of Bound South’s biggest thrills.  Between Anchorage and Ushuaia we’ve got fourteen international border crossings, each of them their own kind of victory, greeting, leave-taking.  Objectively, borders are probably the least romantic places we’ll visit on this journey southwards, full as they are of people who invariably want to be somewhere else.  Yet there is a romance in the way the stamps accumulate and the old roads move behind us with a new country ahead of us.  So it was that we crossed the border from Peru to Chile in the coastal Atacama desert, full of great hope and excitement for the final two countries of our long journey.

Yet this crossing in particular was tinged with a little bit of anxiety.  We treasure the privilege of bicycle travel while we can enjoy it; and for us, that privilege must end with our return home in May.  And so we looked at the 5000+ kilometers separating us from Ushuaia and figured out that we weren’t able to make it on our own.

We begrudgingly hopped a bus to central Chile and since then we’ve been riding like the wind.  I have always relished the consistent pace of bicycle travel, the way we can enjoy every mile and see the gradual progression of the landscape under our own power.  This time, the window of an overnight bus transformed the endless earthen tones of the Atacama desert into the Mediterranean green of pastoral Chile.  Now we ride through pine forests, ranch lands, dairy farms, and apple orchards.  It almost feels like we got here too quickly; the changing landscape is an uncomfortable reminder that the end in Ushuaia is so close.

We have no regrets.  No adventure is perfect.  Riding into Ushuaia in May and coming home will be close enough to perfect, as far as I am concerned.  If anything, our recent weeks have reminded us once again what a privilege it is to travel by bicycle, and to treasure this last chapter of our long journey from Alaska.

New favorite food recipe: Oatmeal, dulce de leche, walnuts, peanuts, almonds, granola, honey, powdered milk.

David disrespects his elders and their loss of a real hat.

Argentine-Chilean volcano serves as a border marker.

Granite cliffs herald the beginning of Patagonia

Just another passerby on a long and empty road.

Nathan trades his North America "bear-stick" for a new Patagonian bamboo model.

Brushing teeth on a frozen early morning.

Climbing some rough dirt near the border.

New volcano for a new country.

Argentina! Not the last time we'll see this sign.

Argentina

Autumn blooms in Argentina.

Lonely Road

When_we_look at a map it is natural to see the highlights.  Bigger cities get bigger names on the page.  Country borders rise up to delineate an otherwise unbroken horizon.  To see great cities by bicycle and to check another country off of our list is a tremendous thrill.  Yet often the best riding in life is unexpected, and the most exciting roads are those that have no names and no signs and few people.  Just a few days from Chile in the Peruvian city of Arequipa, we set out on some lonely roads to Lago Salinas and beyond.  It felt like a ride around another world.

Climbing away from Arequipa, Volcano Misti in the background

Looking back at our road through the clouds

Dreamscapes

We found respite from the hail and rain in this tunnel.

Lakeside exhaustion

We climbed from the moment we left Arequipa and didn’t stop till we found winter.  Starting in the hot sun at 7600 ft, we climbed a grueling dirt road for a day and a half until we arrived at Lago Salinas, a mountain-stream-fed lagoon in an eternally frigid, windy, Peruvian drizzle that can only be found above 13,500 ft.  The road was deserted and alternatively bumpy, sandy, muddy, or inundated with water at the top.  We were hungry and under-prepared.  We arrived to a small cluster of buildings on the southeast corner of the lake, a small pueblito known as Moche before nightfall.  There was a single small tienda run out of the front room of a woman’s home.  No simple restaurant or hostel existed, and the prospect of tenting in rain and sub-freezing temperatures was disheartening.  I had had one of the worst days of my life on the bike, bonking in the cold and struggling to turn the pedals over for the last few hours of the ride.  We begged for the storeowner’s help, and in short time we had a place to stay in the spare room of her friend’s home, as well as hot plates of rice, eggs, and potatoes.

Mountain sunset from Moche

Our ribbon of road over the tundra

Snow blanketed our path over this 15,000 ft. pass

Thick mud and a lake of water forced us up and around the adjacent hill in this section.

Patching a pinch flat on the descent from Lago Salinas - moss covered rocks for seating

We hardly slept due to altitude sickness.  Piercing headaches kept us up unwillingly while we craved the sleep we needed to recover and heal from the past day of riding.  We were in the middle of nowhere, and despite our tremendous blessings and good fortune, we felt very alone and somewhat daunted.  The next morning we woke to snow.  Pressing on that next day we took the old road south of the lake, determined to descend out of the high altitude Peruvian winter we had stumbled upon at Lago Salinas.  “Road” is such a strong word sometimes.  Perhaps “trail” or “pathetic vestige of mistaken vehicular activity” would have been more appropriate on this occasion.  We struggled to climb the sandy path that slowed our wheels to walking pace.  At times the road would simply disappear or become submerged under a lake or stream.  This gave us the rather fun opportunity to simply ride out into the tundra-like snow and rock fields at nearly 15,000 feet of elevation and make our own trail.  We are confident that vehicles do not pass that way for days at a time.  It’s entirely likely that if the rain and snow were to stop, our tire tracks would be there waiting for the next set of bicycle adventurers to find.

Climbing once again, from Puquina this time

Terraced fields covered the valley floors and walls near Puquina; years of incredible physical labor were visible here.

Cliffside roads became the norm.

So did sweeping descents.

And sand.

It’s tremendously humbling to struggle all day against slow, sandy roads and steep climbs and only manage a walking-pace accomplishment of fifty kilometers.  It can be disheartening to ride through empty places with no towns or tiendas to buy a simple Coke and sit in the shade to rest.  These lonely places don’t have names or even the recognition of existence on Google Maps.  This is flyover country, the space between where travelers find themselves and where they’d like to be.  We relish that solitude, the intoxicating sense that we might be one of the few people to ride a bike here, ever.  And though we might only see a handful of people, our interactions with them are that much more meaningful.  Simply seeing another face on these roads is reassuring; for the Peruvians who see gringos riding these terrible, random, Andean dirt roads…we must be terribly peculiar.  We descended goat paths out of the wintry mountains and after braving some tooth-rattling descents into the desert valleys below, began our many sandy, steep mountain passes on the road to Moquegua.  We ran out of water and discovered that in over a hundred kilometers of consecutive 4000+ meter passes, there are no towns and we were lucky to see three vehicles…and even more lucky when those vehicles donated their half-consumed bottles of Inca-Kola and bags of bread to us so we could survive.

Down to the desert canyon

Roadside donations.

Climbing out of the canyon

Looking back at our road on the canyon floor.

Late afternoon shadows.

No water or food meant a hitch with a couple guys and their fruit truck to the nearest town.

Now we leave Peru and all its goodness behind us.  As you read this, we’ll be setting our tires on Chilean soil for the first time.  The finish in Ushuaia has never seemed closer.  Yet for all of the highlights ahead and behind us, our minds still flock to the solitude of the empty, unremarkable, and yet still extraordinary worlds we are privileged to explore by bicycle.