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Posts tagged ‘desert’

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.

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Away from the Andes

I_like_mountains.  Having grown up on the flat, windswept Upper Great Plains, the mountains always captivated me growing up. I’ll never forget the first year I ever saw the Rockies, when I was in 7th grade, after sitting in our family’s Suburban and driving 12 hours to reach Bozeman, MT.  Sitting in a bucket seat and looking out of the window, it seemed otherworldly to see majestic, snow-capped peaks rising out of the Earth.  To this day, the scale and grandeur of mountains has that effect on me.

One of our last high altitude views of the Andes in Ecuador

Low lying clouds and dramatic light are the cause for this other worldly scene.

Needless to say, the Andes of South America have certainly impressed us.  Yet we have left them for a time, trading long climbs through alternating cool rain and blistering heat for the consistent headwinds of the Peruvian coast.  The gateway to Peru from Ecuador in Macará brought us to a new country and people but also to a new climate and terrain.  Lush mountain vegetation turned to a lowland jungle of sorts, flat as a plate of glass aside from the ominous spine of the Andes that stretches beside us to the East.  Moving south of Tambo Grande, the soil soon turned to sand and the trees to sagebrush and chaparral.  Soon we were in Peru’s long coastal desert, fighting strong headwinds from the south and with no apparent end in sight.  It is amazing how quickly a bicycle can transport you between different natural environments.

At face value, it doesn’t seem like riding through a flat and windy desert would hold much appeal.  Why trade the cool mountain air and spectacular mountain vistas for a hot headwind?  A simple answer would be: “it’s easier”.  We fought all day, every day to maintain our pace through the mountains, climbing over consecutive mountain passes and breathing a sigh of relief if we managed to get 100k done in a day.  In the flatlands outside of Chiclayo, even with a headwind, we got a 9AM start and rode in a motivated paceline throughout the day, with the front rider rotating and breaking the wind for the others.  We had nearly 100k done by lunchtime, and 180k done by the time darkness fell and we found a cheap hostel to shower and sleep through the desert heat.

Terraced rice patties in northern Peru

The desert flatlands are conducive to a different kind of bicycle touring.  It’s about more than just how easy the miles are.  Mentally it is almost a totally different riding experience with my brothers.  In the mountains, it is as if each of us are fighting an individual battle against gravity and wind.  We are thoroughly alone with our heavy bicycles and the sound of rhythmic breathing and the feel of sweat and exhaustion.  It is as if the mountains put your mind and body in isolation, not only from the world but also from one another.  In the mountains, Bound South is an ensemble split into rooms of overworked soloists, working alone, together.

Straight, flat, quiet, and calm conditions equate to new speed records. 180 kilometers

We had to leave the mountains to regain that feeling of a choir again.  Suddenly the miles come easier, and the hum of the tires and the whistle of the wind molds three bicycles into one organic whole.  The effort of one on the front is the shield of the two behind, with each pull an individual strength that is sacrificed to move the group forward more quickly than we could ever accomplish individually.  It’s kind of cool and a luxury that most bicycle tourists cannot afford.  Yet the flatlands are about more than the speed of the riding as well.  We are afforded more time to talk by the loosened constraints of miles and time.  In Tambo Grande, we met a wonderful and gregarious woman named Gloria who soon introduced us to her accomplished nieces and nephews, all studying a variety of engineering at the local university in Piura.  We had time to sit and talk for hours and over lunch the next day.  She begged us to stay another day so that we could meet her other niece, the one with “strong, muscular legs and a thin waist who made all the men go crazy when she danced the samba (and her overprotective mother).”  Unfortunately, the time had come to go.  The experiences we have with people are made richer when we can afford to spend more time with them.

The desert around Trujillo

We won’t be here long.   A remarkable canyon road to the highest mountains of the Andes will take us soon to Huaraz from the coast.  But for the time being, we relish the togetherness and the speed that comes from bicycling through lowlands.

Highway One Diaries: Land of Pointy and Mean

The_urgency_of_crossing borders propelled us quickly through the borderlands of Mexico.  We figured that the further south we were, the safer we were.  Furthermore, as the traffic and city lights of Ensenada and Tijuana were left behind us we regained our familiarity with empty landscapes, quiet roads, and a date with Mother Nature in a new dress.  Welcome to the desert, the “land of pointy and mean” as I coined it outside El Rosario.

Clear desert skies

This desert was the real deal.  We were warned to fill up on water and supplies at El Rosario before pressing on into the 400k of desert separating if from Guerrero Negro.  Water conservation and carrying capacity was of paramount importance in desert heat and pronounced isolation.  Replacing our staples of bread and jelly were new staples of tortillas, rice, beans, and whatever else we can find cheaply and in abundance.  Lots of desert camping and desert lessons lay ahead, yet we had little idea of what to expect as some people warned us of a desolate desert with no civilization for over 140k; others said we would be just fine and would see spots to replenish food and water every 60k with little trouble.  Local knowledge can be comically unreliable which is why one must learn to laugh.

Camping near chicken coops isn't always pleasant. Early morning for us in El Rosario.

Laughter has sustained us through what was easily some of the most miserable camping of Bound South.  Who could forget the night outside of Guerrero Negro when we decided to sleep under the stars during a pleasant, cool night in the desert, only to find a dense fog descend upon us in the early morning and soak us and our sleeping bags.  Lesson learned: even when the sky is absurdly spectacular to look at, don’t bother sleeping outside the safety of a rain fly and a good tent.

Fierce winds howl through a desert valley near Punta Prieta.

We fought vicious crosswinds through much of the desert and mountains south of El Rosario.  Usually we maintained our high spirits by reminding one another that “thousands of people envy us” and that if bicycle expeditions were easy and fun, everyone would be doing them.  One evening, after battling through hard crosswinds (enough to throw us off the road on numerous occasions) we decided to take a cattle road up through dirt and stone into the hidden desert brush of an august plateau above Highway One.  A strong but manageable wind was blowing as we set up camp and ate our simple dinner of rice and beans on our MSR stove.  The wind began to intensify.  As we were reading and preparing to sleep, David and Nathan noticed that the wind was still increasing in force and that the tent was slowly collapsing around us.  What followed was a feat of brotherly teamwork and haphazard desert camping ingenuity.  With 40mph winds and plunging temperatures, Nathan and I shivered as we assembled outside of the tent to hold it down.  David pulled stakes in order to rotate the tent to more aerodynamically face the wind.  Stakes once more in place, the tent was still collapsing.  Undaunted, Nathan had the idea to throw our bicycles into the brush and then anchor bungie cords to the bicycles and the tent in order to reinforce it against the fierce winds.  The wind and the sound of the rain fly was nearly deafening.  We slept safely in a reinforced tent that night, but everything we owned was covered by dust the next morning and the wind was blowing just as fiercely.  We were reminded of a warning from a restaurant owner we had met the day before: “We don’t waste money on paint here in the Baja.  Any of our sandstorms will blast it off in a matter of days.”  Lesson learned: camp in places well sheltered from the wind.

Desert winds whip against our reinforced tent.

There have been other lessons, less dramatic but no less poignant.  After taking care of business 50 yards away from our tent one night, I discovered that my headlamp was out of batteries and my steps suddenly painful.  Desert thorns and native species of cacti had successfully sent 3/4″spikes through the soles of my flip flops that stabbed me with every step.  I walked back wincing on the balls of my feet, praying that I didn’t walk into a cactus or step onto some other godforsaken member of the kingdom Plantae.  Why anyone would choose to live in a place like this remains elusive to me.  I am reminded of what most of my friends think about North Dakota.

Land of pointy and mean

The desert is an austere, beautiful place.  We had to learn to respect it.  I still have no love for the sand, the harsh vegetation, the nonexistent wildlife, the terrifying insects, or the pitiable donkeys and cattle that graze the scraps of green scattered across the brush and cacti.  It is probably best for the desert to simply be feared, but if it is to be loved, it should be loved for its constancy.  No amount of human ingenuity or force of will can wring water from its ground or bring rain to its hills or people to its vast empty spaces.  It is a landscape in beautiful stasis, defying the frenetic cycles of life and offering a great empty space for the mind to explore.

Mailbag Monday #3

Today_we_continue our Mailbag Monday series…

Dear Nathan,

Hey do you know how many miles long your trip is all together?  Do you want to know one of my favorite things is biking.  My favorite color is red.  What is your favorite color?  I live in a yellow house.

Your friend,

Gage

Hello Gage,

I hope all is warm and well back in North Dakota. My brothers and I are over halfway down the Baja, and the temperatures seem to hover between sixty and eighty degrees. In each town we pass through the people seem be wearing double or triple the amount of clothing that we are, especially when wearing our tank tops.

I don’t think I could give you the exact mile, foot, and inch where we are setting down the bikes and running into the ocean holding hands. Hitting the seventeen thousand mile mark is probably a reasonable goal. Even though I didn’t cover the same amount of distance as a kid biking around the farm was a blast. Ramps were erected from blocks of wood to spare tractor parts. Once upon a time there were thoughts of riding down a slide in the backyard, luckily we decided to bike on safer terrain later in life. My family went on annual camping trips, bringing a fleet of bicycles for bike path and trail use. These vacations were times of rest away from the hustle and bustle of the farm. My favorite color when I was a kid was blue, and I’ve decided that it is currently closer to a teal color.  I hope you can sleep soundly with your house being any other color than your favorite.

Thank you for taking the time to write me and tell me about yourself! I hope you enjoy the rest of school and have an amazing Christmas break. We are planning on hanging ornaments on some form of vegetation and having a little party of our own. It will most likely be in the Mexican desert, so we’ll make the most of it.

Nice to hear from you!

Your friend,

Nathan