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Posts tagged ‘cold’

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.

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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.

Away From Alaska

We learned our lessons after Whitehorse.  Surging through 100 mile days in the mountains, only to need frequent rest days and battle mental and physical fatigue, was not a sustainable way to move south.  We adopted the maxim “slow, smooth, and steady”; we have been covering ~100 kilometers each day since Whitehorse and have just left the Alaska Highway forever.  Originally a simple WWII supply route, the Alaska Highway taught us a great deal.

Here I will present a few of our new Rules as we have learned them:

Riding into the storm.

1.  The difficulty of a ride will be inverse to the beauty of the scenery.  The more spectacular mountains around you, the better.  The more endless timber-forested hills around you, the worse.  The Alaska Highway brought us consecutive days of bone-chilling cold and steady downpours.  The scenery  from Teslin to the Continental Divide was relatively unremarkable while the climbs and conditions were miserable.  The day after, the spectacular valleys east of the Divide made for beautiful and sunny riding. 

The Continental Divide Lodge saved us from the storm and inundated us with borscht, sandwiches, and more.

2.  You can only eat so much, and then some more.  Sometimes you arrive at dinnertime cold and hungry.  Wielding the appetite of a touring cyclist, you know you are capable of devouring 2,000 calories in a sitting like it was a handful of trail mix.  Your hosts seem to know this, and because they get some kind of sick satisfaction from this challenge, they do their very best to overfeed you.  Tragedy ensues.  You find not one, but two or three bowls of delicious Russian borscht in front of you along with sandwiches.  And just when you think you’ve vanquished the foe of hunger forever, a surprise attack of cinnamon rolls brings you to your knees.  Or perhaps strawberry rhubarb coffee cake; and don’t forget, you have to finish all of the meat loaf and potatoes.  Our Wonderful Hosts 1, Bound South 0.  Except everyone wins.

Teslin Bridge in the Yukon.

3.  The generosity and goodness of people rises in proportion to how wet and cold and pitiable you are, with few exceptions.  This rule is connected to #2; if you are ever asked, “How can I show love to a touring cyclist?” you can correctly respond, “By feeding them.”  But this is about more than that.  In innumerable ways, people rise to the occasion in the smallest ways to help you when you need it.  You don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.  Sometimes you’re looking for some shelter to set up your tent out of the rain or perhaps a simple furnace to dry out your boots.  The little gestures of kindness make all of the difference in the world, no matter where you are.

Mud Lake in British Columbia before night falls.

4.  Avoid riding a bicycle through a dark night in the mountains, but if you must, enjoy the ride.   Despite our best efforts we sometimes underestimate the terrain and overestimate our abilities.  The result is a dreaded late arrival.  When one has been pedaling since 9AM, you don’t want to be pedaling after 9PM.  Once darkness falls the headlamps come on and the world compresses to the patches of mountain road illuminated by your lights.  At first it is terrifying; one might pass by a bull moose or grizzly bear on the side of the road without either realizing it.  We yelled out a few songs to warn the wildlife and to lift our spirits.  We hurtled through the darkness of the Cassiar as the drizzle turned to snow.

This present autumn is fleeing the mountains.

One day off the Alaska, one day on the Cassiar.  One day is all it takes to be unforgettable.  Winter threatens the northern latitudes and we’re Bound South on the Cassiar as fast as our legs can carry us.