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.