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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

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.