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Posts by Isaiah Berg

Fruition

Missing_the_open_roads between Alaska and Argentina is easy at this point.  Since returning home we’ve been working on our family farm in North Dakota, praying for rain and driving tractors as we fly through the growing season.  The steady rhythm of farming, the planting and growth that leads so inevitably to harvest, is a life apart from the wild unpredictability of a day by bicycle.  One is rooted, the other nomadic.  For a summer, at least after so many months on the road, rooted is a good thing.

The central idea of Bound South was that we could not only seek stories, self-transformation, adventure, and brotherhood, but also contribute to a good cause.  That idea is coming to fruition this August as we begin building a house we have co-sponsored with Lake Agassiz Habitat for Humanity.  That all of those many miles and faces of the Americas would lead to a physical home for a family in need is truly humbling and inspiring.  We are so proud and thankful for the good that will be done through the generosity of so many family and friends.

Within the next couple of months, this chapter of our lives will truly come to a close.  David will travel to New Hampshire for college, Nathan will leave the farm to begin his own career, and I will begin training at the United States Marine Corps Officer’s Candidate School in Virginia.  The three of us will probably never experience this kind of an opportunity again, with all of us together, in the same place, chasing the same dream.  It was a beautiful thing to share as brothers, and it will be equally beautiful to recall and recount in the years to come.  We’re going to make for some mighty fun uncles someday.

For now we content ourselves with super fast rides on our skinny-tired road bicycles, reminiscing about all of the crazy stories from our journey, and continuing our work with Habitat and our forthcoming e-book.  Thank you for following us, and in doing so, becoming part of this story that is Bound South.  It is a blessing to see these dreams come to fruition.

Dad and Isaiah showing off some teamwork while on vacation. They made the shot.

Walleye fishing on the Lake of the Woods in northeastern Minnesota and southwestern Ontario.

The day’s catch.

Family photo

Waves of grain

Canola in bloom

Lightweight steel and carbon bikes, check. Honda Big Red to get us to pavement, check. Game faces, check. – We really like our road bikes.

July project: new shingles

Job done.

Ripened waves of grain.

The harvest crew.

Event 1 of the Berg Family Farm Olympics: the 800 meter combine dash.

 

Barley, barley chaff, and more barley chaff (this stuff isn’t fun).

Nathan and his workhorse

Dad and Jamie (a friend from Fargo who is working with us) were a part of the trucking crew. 

Mom’s flowerbed

Familiar roads.

 

 

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Familiar Roads

Hard to believe we’re home.  After nine months and 15,000 miles between Alaska and Argentina, the three of us have reunited with family and friends in North Dakota.  Daily showers, home-cooked food, fast cars, and comfy clothes are just a few of the wonders of life that we are growing re-accustomed to.  Meanwhile, the inevitable question lingers over us: “What’s next?”  We have been sharing our story with local media and we are so thankful for the outpouring of support that we have received since stepping off the airplane from Buenos Aires.  To be honest, we’re all a little worn out and looking for a few days of time off with family.  Our sister’s graduation day was a special time for us to be home.

In time, we’ll announce our plans to tour the state of North Dakota and Minnesota by bicycle.  We have many speeches and presentations about our 15,000 mile journey to deliver this summer.  David will look forward to college this fall.  Nathan is hopeful for employment in music teaching.  I am preparing for Marine Corps Officer Candidate School.  Somehow all this bicycling doesn’t help with pull-ups.

After months of life by bicycle, perhaps the hardest thing about coming home is the speed of an airplane.  We saw landscapes drift by at the steady, measured pace of our Surly Trolls.  We crossed international borders and mountain ranges and deserts in a manner that allowed us to acclimate to the steady changes and regional differences of the Americas.  Our airplane brought us across the same distance in one redeye flight from Buenos Aires to Atlanta, and beyond to North Dakota.  Stepping off the plane in Fargo, ND, we couldn’t help but feel like we’d been hastily transported to a foreign country.  We noticed especially the new cars filling the streets and the enormous homes that were so unremarkable to us before traveling abroad.  There is much we’ll never take for granted again, now that we are finished.  We’ve been changed in profound ways by what we have experienced, and we look forward to sharing that with local communities in the months ahead.

Bicycles being packed; the process took us all day in Ushuaia.

New and old friends in Buenos Aires.

Our sister’s pickup came in handy to get Angus, Sam, and Goliath home safely.

Family photo; at this point we still hadn’t showered or changed in days.

The Berg family farm has produced some unbearably cute kittens since we left.

Marta is all grown up now.

Since leaving, our parents have erected what I call “the Marta shrine”.

After graduation day, tragically, Marta’s face is permanently frozen in this posture.

We really, really missed being home.

Kids love the old trampoline in the backyard.

The famous “toppling cake”; a group of men were so busy loading up on pulled pork they didn’t even notice when it fell over.

Vegetables!  Real, fresh, delicious vegetables!

Note the stares of incredulity; this was pulled-pork-sandwich-#5.

Fruit!  Real, fresh, delicious fruit salad!

Did we mention how much we like food?  These are called oreo balls.

We love you Mom.

Flower for Marta.

The Berg family does its part to sustain the greeting card industry.

Rain and cars make for a muddy, messy farmyard.

Tierra del Fuego

The_road_signs keep telling us that Ushuaia is just a few kilometers away.  What does it mean to be this close to where the road ends, where we can go no further south?  The closeness of Ushuaia hasn’t made Tierra del Fuego’s famous winds any easier to combat on bicycle.  For reference, when the wind isn’t in your favor, it is quite easy for a strong cyclist to be humbled by the pace of a gaucho herding some sheep at a horse’s walking pace.  The rough, washboard gravel road that we took more than 100k from Porvenir to our final crossing into Argentina wasn’t made any smoother.  Our excitement and simultaneous bewilderment at how close we are to the end of this long road hasn’t kept our feet and hands warm while riding through wintry mornings.  Ushuaia is where we pack up our bicycles and fly home and say good-bye to this life of tent-camping and stove-cooking and unknown miles by bicycle.  Yet these last days with my brothers and Joe aren’t any more special or significant than the hundreds that came before them.  That first comical day out of Anchorage, struggling to get 100k finished as complete rookies in abundant Alaskan daylight, was no less crucial than the 100k that we covered yesterday and the 100k we’ll ride tomorrow to finish Bound South.  These last days on Tierra del Fuego aren’t special or different, and for that we are thankful.  These last miles are simply more sustenance for this moveable feast we will always know as Bound South.

Boarding the ferry to Tierra del Fuego.

Skewed horizons on the Strait of Magellan 

Our first day on Tierra del Fuego brought us to Concordia, a sheep farm of 7000, where we were welcomed by two gauchos.

They had four extra beds, a roaring stove, coffee and mate, bread and homemade “ruibarbo” jam. We were ecstatic and so thankful to be out of the elements.

We were told the gaucho on the far right is the oldest shepherd in all of Patagonia, having worked for over 80 years!

Patagonian wind.

Three days.

The Atlantic.

Life in the Vast Lane.

To celebrate Joe’s birthday, we biked 110 kilometers through the wind and rain. This is Joe 60 kilometers in.

Our destination that day: La Unión, a bakery in Tolhuin. We sang for our keep here. They housed us, fed us, and treated Joe to this much-deserved slab of cake.

Buen Provecho!

Miracle on Highway #40

When_we_aren’t riding, eating, or sleeping, chances are that we are planning.  The exercise of planning anything with my brothers will be one of the things I will miss dearly when we leave Bound South behind.  Countless times between Alaska and Argentina, I have found the three of us standing in a circle near our bicycles, bantering at lightspeed in barely intelligible English as we weigh the most efficient, adventurous, and fulfilling means to ride across Colombia, navigate a grocery store, or decide who has to do dishes and who will pack up the tent.  There is an loving contentiousness between brothers where the volume and intensity of argument can escalate to near-blows when everyone is tired and hungry and I want to stop for food before camping and Nathan wants to stop to camp before we get food.  Frequently, the best-laid plans go awry; the important thing is that everyone is heard and contributes to our course of action.

Sometimes, failure isn’t an option.  Bound South made some bold plans to ride across the Austral and Highway 40 in time to meet David’s best friend, Joe Burgum, in El Calafate.  Three would become four for the final leg to Ushuaia.  Yet stiff winds and washboards and cold conspired to put us 200k behind schedule.  After pushing our bodies to the limit, we rolled into a dead-end town on Argentina’s Highway 40 with no way to reach El Calafate on time.  We had not seen internet for a week.  We had no food. The town had neither, only a gas station with a few overpriced ham sandwiches.  And the last bus to El Calafate?  It left an hour before we arrived.  And due to the Argentine equivalent of Labor Day Weekend, no more buses would run for days.  So we were stuck, unable to ride the deficit in time to meet our friend, unable to notify him, and fearing that he would arrive to a strange town with no Spanish skills and no idea if we were dead or gone.  We stood in a circle, hungry, despairing, and had few ideas other than   dressing in all of our winter gear and waiting on the side of Highway #40 to pray for a truck to hitch with.

We ate some overpriced ham sandwiches sullenly.  The owner of the gas station explained that he had a friend who would be happy to drive us for the low, low price of $540 USD.  I politely thanked him for the offer, neglecting to tell him that this sum would pay for nearly two months of bicycle adventure.  We drifted around the parking lot aimlessly, feeling in our gut that we were in trouble but that somehow things would work out.  Three brand new Toyota pickup trucks rolled into the gas station.  Loaded to the brim with coolers of food, fishing rods, clothing, Argentine wine, and some of the most gregarious Argentine family that you could possibly imagine.  The details run long, but before we knew it we were hurtling across the empty, cold pampas in the back of a pickup truck, camping out at the ranch of an Argentine business mogul, and enjoying Argentine steak and wine and company in front of a fireplace.

The most indelible experiences of a bicycle expedition, just like the most unpleasant, can never be planned or counted upon.  We sat in a circle that night as a family, after being filled with steak dinner and a tired by a rugged moonlight hike.  Wine flowed and dessert of cheese and jam was served.  We sang for our hosts as is our brotherly tradition; a Lutheran hymn and a negro spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”  In a uniquely South American way, the men drank and smoked and held court with some of the most contentious, high-volume, and dramatic conversation that I have ever seen.  The topics of conversation were also among the most mundane and entertaining that I have ever seen; why the Argentine Patagonians don’t sing like these fine North Dakotan men, why gas prices are so high, why we don’t ride our bicycles during the night, and what handsome eyelashes David has.  The women, young and old, tended to sit to the side and laugh at the spectacle of Bruno, the patriarch of the ranch, shout “Lies!  Lies!  Lies!” during an absurd conversation about mothers’ insistence on musical lessons for their children, or fall asleep as the conversation thundered into the early morning.  North Dakota Lutherans don’t stay up this late, and perhaps we don’t always have as much fun, either.  And like a dream it was over too soon, with our bodies and bicycles dropped into the frigid air of El Calafate the next morning.

One of the family men, Jorge, refused to accept our offer to help pay for their generosity.  The women had left to use the restroom and do some quick shopping.  With the wisdom that can probably only be accrued through years and years of loving a wife and raising daughters, he said, “I don’t want you to give us anything, you have given us so much.”  With a wink, he said, “I don’t need anything, but perhaps the women might appreciate something…” and he gestured to the chocolate shop down the street.  He was a wise man, indeed.  We snuck off to the chocolate shop and purchased some of the most expensive and delicious chocolate that I have ever seen in my entire life.  We returned moments later, and as the women returned we presented our gift.  In twenty-four hours, we went from hapless gringos to pitied American bicycle vagabonds to charming, courageous adventurer-singers to golden-boys bearing gifts of fine chocolate.  The looks and kisses on the cheek good-bye said it all.  For a short time, we were a part of their family, and they were a part of our story.  The memories of our time with them and that unique, unplanned miracle on Highway #40 stays with us forever.

These delicious gifts gave us full tummies and big smiles.

Inside our shack at the ranch.

Dinner’s ready!

The shack.

“Whiskey!”

Bruno

Mt. Fitz Roy on the road to El Calafate

Austral Diaries IV: Billion Dollar Wilderness

The_most_important commodity for Bound South is not food, clothing, shelter, or even paved roads; it is information.  And unfortunately, when we go off the grid we can’t Google for every contingency.  We found ourselves amongst the  most spectacular portions of the Carretera Austral; glacial peaks and turquoise rivers, all connected by a wicked, washboard road with no respect for the tired legs of three hungry cyclists.  Since winter is here, the ferries across the southern lakes of the Austral don’t run and the only way to leave the Austral was for us to press east of Cochrane for a little known road and crossing known as Paso Roballo.  Empty dirt passed through a mountain valley for hours and hours of riding, and for a second time on the Austral, we unexpectedly ran out of food and supplies.  Perhaps it was hubris about our riding abilities or confidence in the size of the small-named-pueblos on the map of Patagonia, but either way we found ourselves riding alone in the mountains with nonexistent road traffic and no supplies for hundreds of kilometers in any direction.

Suddenly a new Jeep SUV pulled up behind us and without hesitation we flagged them down for some information.  After initiating the conversation in Spanish, the man in the driver’s seat responded to me in a thick British accent, “Would you prefer to proceed in English?”  I flagged Nathan and David over, explaining that my dirt-encrusted, haggard-looking brothers were even more charming when they could join in the conversation.  The driver asked, “Do you know who Douglas Tompkins is?”  Admittedly we had no idea.  “Well, you happen to be on his property.”  There are few fences, signs, or man-made demarcations of any kind in Patagonia, and it wasn’t as if Mr. Tompkins had acquired a small plot in southern Chile for a vacation cottage.  Tompkins owned everything as far as the eye could see; over 2 million acres of Patagonian wilderness, purchased from families and sheep farmers and businesses with the goal of creating some of the largest natural reserves in the world.

Just a few kilometers later we stumbled on his village.  In a place with no electricity, no plumbing, and only one very bad single lane dirt road, we found beautiful stone chateaus and lodges being raised up out of the Earth.  We were hopeful that they would have some food and water.  After striking up a conversation with a construction foreman and office lady, we suddenly had new friends.  Within moments they had showered us with bread, jam, tuna cans, cookies, and a bag of instant chicken-flavored-rice.  Manna descended from Patagonian heaven.

And so we pressed on, only to find more washboards and hard riding, and soon out of food once more on the Argentine border.  And again, the border guards had mercy on us, taking us in out of the cold, putting us at a kitchen table in front of a wood stove, and giving us all of the hot coffee and tea that we could drink.  They also gave us a tip that a lady and her son lived fourteen kilometers down the road in Argentina, and that she could sell us a few pieces of fried bread, potatoes and onions.  We had no spare food to speak of, with our only goal being survival of the 125-kilometer-dirt-road to Bajo Caracoles, a small town in the pampas of Argentina.  We found still more washboards to accompany the famously brutal winds in this part of the world.  We found more difficulties and miracles to answer them; just wait for the wonders that come after the Austral Diaries.

We don’t always get what we want, but we get what we need.  So now we ride together, with the Austral behind us, brimming with the inevitable confidence that infects us as we approach the end and new beginnings.

Lago General Carrera

Confluence of Rio Baker and Rio Neff

Riding til last light.

Evening reflections at Puerto Bertrand.

“My rights are my freedom”

On the road to Paso Roballo.

Weaving our way across the billion-dollar wilderness.

Stiff climbs are the rule, not the exception.

One of Tompkins’ lodges overlooking the valley.  Construction foreman said, “That’s where rich people will stay.” in typically blunt fashion.

Sun rings and silhouettes

Riding up to our campsite for the night.

Looking back at Chilean Patagonia before crossing into Argentina.

We crossed into a new world at Paso Roballo.

Fact: in Patagonia, there are way more sheep than people.

“Last one there is a rotten egg!”

Big skies

Our new friend, Kent, has been with us since the Carretera Austral.  Sadly, he lost his right arm on the road shortly after this photo was taken.

More brief divergences in the lonely road to Highway 40 in the pampas.

Snowy Chile still behind us, stiff headwinds in front of us.

We encountered Chilean Flamingos, Black-necked Swans, and ostrich-like Rheas upon crossing back into Argentine Patagonia.

Argentine Sunset.

Cold camping at night has been a constant.

First light on the Argentine Pampas

Pampas and accompanying headwinds made for a brutal first-full-day in Argentina

Austral Diaries III: Of Mice and Mountains

In_the_Austral lands of southern Chile, the rhythms of the days astride our bicycles seem to follow the harsh contours of autumn’s heat and cold.  Predictable and mundane pleasures provide sustenance for the spirit on this hard road as consistently as sunshine.  Never discount the catharsis of the ignition of an MSR stove and the promise of morning oatmeal for a frozen morning.  Or the magical feeling of sitting down in a warm room with a cold bottle of Coke after riding washboard gravel for hours on end.  And for the record, empanadas de carne in this part of the world deserve their legendary reputation.

There are low points too and they are as necessary to our growth on this journey as a freeze is to a thaw.  Our parents once asked us in a Skype call what the hardest part of each day was; if there was a typical point of each day where we would usually be most despairing or discouraged.  I jokingly responded that it’s the moment I wake up and see Angus lying expectantly on his side by the tent.  But really, the hard times don’t schedule appointments.

For months we’ve taken the good and the bad together, simultaneously, and learned to take a big serving of both with a smile on our face.  Riding the serrucha (meaning “saw blade” to connote the jagged washboard surface of the road) of the Austral for an entire day makes you feel like you’ve been forced to ride a two-wheeled jackhammer for six hours.  Yet even as rock gardens dent our rims and the endless washboard gravel makes us want to throw our bicycles off of a cliff, we look up and cannot help but be swept away by the sheer beauty of the places and people we are encountering here.  Patagonia is like God’s sandbox, a wild place of  unearthly forms and mercurial weather.  One moment we see castles in the sun; tomorrow we’ll feel like we are living through a child’s temper tantrum with a garden hose.

One night, after riding hard all day across the serrucha we found an abandoned house in which to camp for the night.  The chill of a 20 degree (F) night was made more bearable by the shelter indoors.  Yet the next morning we discovered that a family of mice had taken to destroying our livelihoods.  Shifter hoods, water bottles, saddles, and clothing were all partial casualties.  When your life fits entirely into three bags you tend to be very protective of what you’ve got.  We found ourselves to be lucky and blessed the next morning that we weren’t more harmed by the terrors of Patagonian mice; we reflected on stories we’d heard of mountaineers climbing cliffs in the Himalayas at altitude, where a simple slip can drop a crucial tool or item down thousands of feet into the abyss.  We’re not quite at that level yet, but every day brings reminders of our own frailty and mortality.  No things of this world will last forever, and we didn’t need mice to prove that maxim to us.  In the end both our bodies and bicycles will make it to Ushuaia, but nothing will be as intact as the memories and lessons of the Austral’s ups and downs.

They were a little bit peeved when we took their barn for the night.

Brand new, absurdly red PVC rain and wind gloves.

A rare paved portion of the Austral.

More red gloved fist pumping on the road to the magical Villa Cerro Castillo.

Ribbon of road.

Cerro Castillo bidding us good morning.

The Austral in its rough, washboard glory.

Patagonia.

Disappointing to the taste, pretty to the eye.

One of countless rivers.

Reflection.

Steep ups, steep downs.

Cold camping in the village of the Mice.

Assessing the cosmetic mouse damage.

Cold, cold, cold, cold mornings of riding.

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