The_wonders_of the world are only made more magnificent when you approach them from the humble perch of a bicycle. We woke that cold, blustery morning in the horse stable we camped in for the night. We were surprisingly feted with free breakfast by an amazing luxury hotel with giant portions of succulent lamb, eggs, and bread. Riding west to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine we encountered the best weather we’ve seen yet in Patagonia. We did not deserve it and will never forget it.
Posts tagged ‘dirt roads’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Every_so_often, Bound South embraces its wild side. We leave the ease and surety of pavement for the uncertainty and doubt that coincides with the road less traveled. When we do, we get lost, fall off of our bikes, and endure steep climbs and rotten roads. Adventure is always available in the Andes. Leaving Trujillo and the north coast of Peru, we surrounded ourselves with it, wall to wall.
Cañón del Pato, translated “Duck Canyon”, is the product of two Andean ridges in Peru, the Cordillera Negra (Black Range) without snow to the west and the Cordillera Blanca (White Range) with snow to the east. The valley between contains the Santa River, which winds its way to the coast through the canyon. These two ridges parallel each other from Huaraz to Caraz, where they converge to form the canyon. Near the canyon’s narrowest gap, a mere six meters across with walls rising up to Cordilleras’ crests, the raging waters of the Santa River power the turbines of a Duke Energy hydro electricity plant. The Cordillera Blanca consists of hundreds of glaciers, lagoons, and hot springs. Eight of its peaks rest over 6000 meters, with its highest, Huascarán Sur, sitting at 6768 meters. Its nature is colossal which gives reason for the canyon’s grandeur.
Even more impressive is the road that winds its way through the canyon. Carved into the cliff walls, at times hundreds of meters above the river through tunnels and under overhangs, the road climbs gradually from barren desert at sea level to green mountain valleys above 3000 meters. Beautiful, yes. Easy, no. To this day, the inverse rule has held true. Established in Alaska, the rule reads: “The difficulty of the ride will be inverse to the beauty of the scenery.”
And challenging it was. Mango-sized stones and mud holes covered the single-lane canyon road. Dust coated our sweaty skin as drivers passed by. Shade was in short supply. Simply pedaling wasn’t easy; maintaining contact with each pedal over the bed of rocks was an unexpected challenge. It wasn’t the grade of the road that slowed our pace to 80 kilometers a day; it was exhaustion from riding through a bone-jarring sea of loose rock day after day in the heat. The conditions were tough. A different approach to riding was absolutely necessary.
Each watt of energy we apply to our pedals is work. Slick tires and smooth surfaces allow us to easily build speed and maintain momentum. On rough roads like the one described above, however, each rock or imperfection resembles a hill we must climb, which significantly slows our progress. Pedaling from Alaska to Argentina isn’t easy. I sometimes wish that there was only one mountain pass between Alaska and Argentina (unfortunately, the road south of the equator does not gradually descend to Tierra del Fuego) or that it could be done with a single pedal-stroke. These are impossible, though; I know that.
And I know the realities of the road. Challenges and pitfalls are everywhere. Jagged rocks will puncture your tires and give you a sore butt. Caps will come loose leaving you with no cooking fuel. Tunnel darkness will surround you. The road isn’t perfect. Yet I have learned to embrace all that shapes this experience – both the discomforts and joys – and ride with purpose knowing that what we ride for is good and just.
Rambling_through_the Palouse of Eastern Washington, many months ago, we came up with a maxim that has served us well to this day. “When in doubt, choose adventure.” Noble in its intention, “choosing adventure” is meant to ensure that we don’t shy away from the paths less traveled. They may be more dangerous or uncertain or difficult. Adventure is a big part of Bound South. In practice, however, this maxim is most often leveraged ex post to justify a poor decision by yours truly.
Here is an example from our past days in Ecuador: we were riding down the Pan-American highway. The road is spectacular, smooth, and mountainous. I hear about “the old highway from Salinas” and convince Nathan and David to explore it with me. The result? Epic, muddy dirt roads, stream crossings, five-way-dirt-intersections-with-no-signs, impossibly steep cobblestone climbs, and lots of getting lost in the country. We finally wound our way back to the Pana, exhausted and dirty. At least we traveled southwards, right? We press on, “adventure” the word begrudgingly gritted between our teeth.
Thankfully it doesn’t always work out that way. That’s what real adventure is about after all; it is not a steady and predictable set of wonderful experiences and surmountable challenges. As Robin Hanson writes, “This has a big lesson for those who like to think of their real life as a grand adventure: relative to fiction, real grand adventures tend to have fewer guides, and more randomness in success. Real adventurers must accept huge throws of the dice; even if you do most everything right, most likely some other lucky punk will get most of the praise.” They must “learn to see the glorious nobility of those who try well yet fail.” That’s real adventure; simultaneously sobering and satisfying.
Sometimes adventure works out and it makes all of the hapless searching and uncertainty worth its while. We found an old decommissioned railroad line outside of Quito that had devolved (evolved?) into unkempt dirt singletrack, winding its way through countless canyons and dark tunnels. Locals call it El Chaquinan and were shocked to see gringos attempting its passage by bicycle. It wasn’t particularly difficult riding, safe for the parts where we had to scale muddy walls by pushing the bikes, or where my tires washed out on some old rails and sent me diving over the bars. It was fun, like the first time you rode your bicycle through the rain and mud as a kid. It was the kind of riding I will remember for the rest of my life. The annual Carnival celebrations in Ecuador helped us clean off the mud; so many children had squirt guns to do battle with our water bottles. In the end, we arrived in Tumbaco muddy, tired, and excited for the time to rest with our fantastic hosts. Teachers at the British School near Quito, the Tober family hosted us and fed us and let us be a part of their family and community at the British School. The adventure continues now south of Quito as we ride quickly into Peru. Spending time with the Tober-Zambrano family made us all miss our own family and home. When you think about it, family is a real adventure with great reward and few guides. Our sights are set on that and so much more as we continue southwards on our bicycles.
The_beauty_of this bicycle journey is the way in which landscapes get burned into your legs. The Americas and the Andes are no longer an abstraction. Distance can be reformulated in terms of effort. All of the faint guesses at the road ahead are replaced by the tactile grip of hands upon handlebars, tires upon stone and dirt, and landscapes burned into your memory. In the remote mountains of the Colombian Cordillera Central the mountains shoot up, their lush vegetation contrasted with the jigsaw puzzles of farm fields, cliffs, waterfalls, and lakes.
There is one lonely road crossing these mountains from Mocoa to Pasto, a rugged road with few peers the world over. Our ride into a new world began at 2,000 feet outside of Mocoa, taking shelter from tropical rains and preparing our South American Trolls for their ride on the wild side. Since leaving Central America, we acquired some knobby Kenda tires and ditched our fenders other non-essentials to prepare for off-road adventures. Well-prepared, and somewhat well-rested, we pushed our bicycles out into the rain and began to ride uphill with fat, knobby tires and high hopes.
We weren’t prepared for what we would encounter. We climbed out of the mixed sunshine and clouds of Mocoa into the mist-covered mountains of the Cordillera Central. Within a few kilometers, our strangely empty paved road became a narrow, single lane of winding dirt and stone. Imagine if someone laid down a ribbon of mud, sprinkled sharp paving stones on top, and let it all dry to satisfaction. This was our road, the lone highway across the mountains between Nariño and Putamayo of Colombia? Absurd. Imagine if the one bridge from Fargo to Moorhead was a narrow pedestrian rope-bridge, or if the only crossing between California and Oregon was a dirt road somewhere below Crater Lake. As we were passed by countless death-defying trucks and combis on their five-hour, 130 kilometer sojourn through the mountains, I could hardly believe where we were. One moment we were climbing underneath overhanging cliffs, another disappearing into the mist, and soon reappearing in time to cross a stream that became a waterfall beneath our tires.
We climbed up and down to 10,000 feet on far too many cold mountain passes, each a victory with little fanfare as the stones would only punish us more as our speed increased on the downhills. Disheartened and hungry, we frequented many small roadside restaurants where a heaping plate of chicken and rice and potatoes would set us back a princely $2. We had surmised that a very early start would get us to Pasto in a little over a day. Three major mountain climbs and impossibly rough roads meant that we took a full two and a half days to complete the journey. The last forty kilometers to Pasto brought us smoother dirt and even some long lost pavement, which made up slightly for how worn out our bodies were from bouncing across the stones for two days.
Reaching Pasto, finally, we struck up a conversation with some firefighters outside of the city center. Soon we were talking to the chief of the bomberos and we had a place to camp for the night. Camping and asking questions can take you a long ways in this world. And now as we are days from Ecuador, already the pain in the legs is fading and the memories call us back. This was easily the hardest ride we’ve faced since leaving Alaska. Roads like this call us to continue and maybe, if we’re lucky, to one day return.
Get_lost_with_someone_that_you_love_when_you get the chance. Saddle up and ride someplace unfamiliar. This place does not have to be a world away. A different part of town could suffice, maybe one state over. Keep in mind that this is not some New Age quest for self-knowledge. It is about getting to know one another better, loosed from the constraints of familiarity and the status quo. There’s the saying about character being who you are when nobody is looking. I’d add that brotherhood is about who you are when you are all hopelessly lost in the dirt-and-rock mountain roads of Guerrero.
A typical conversation from our Guerrero odyssey was as follows:
“Isaiah, where are we?”
“I don’t know, heading towards the sun?”
“How do we know we’re going the right way?”
“We don’t. I can’t even read much less pronounce the road signs. Tequesquipan? Huitzoltepec? Xochihuehuetlan? Ahuehuetitla?”
“Isaiah, go ask that guy for directions.”
“He said we are a long way from Taxco, much too far to ever ride by bicycle, and he couldn’t place us on a map. He suggested turning left?”
We’ve been through a lot together as brothers, both before and during Bound South. Wrong turns were a surprising first for us in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Moving south of Valle de Bravo we had finally shaken off our serious bouts of illness. We meant business. When mountain climbs can take upwards of three or four hours to complete, these mistakes can prove very costly. On more than one occasion we found ourselves backtracking or getting navigationally creative in order to reach Taxco. As the Bound South maxim goes, “When in doubt, choose adventure.” What they don’t tell you about adventure is that the real deal is awfully stressful. You quickly learn how important it is to guard yourself against your own anxieties and frustrations and exhaustion lest they spill over and affect your comrades. It’s easy to take family for granted, especially when they are stuck with you on bicycles for a year. Sorry, bro, no escape.
We got lost but we found a little more about ourselves and each other in the end. We made it to Taxco, the hidden silver city of Guerrero. The Spanish came here for the silver centuries ago, and now that the mines have long since shuttered, the city thrives on tourism and the unparalleled artisan jewelers that have plied their trade here for decades. We managed to meet a couple in a market; the husband a contractor and the woman a jewelry dealer. Before we knew it we were camping in the shell of their unfinished garage on a hillside overlooking the city, and staying up way past our bedtime with a giant Mexican family and singing mariachi songs over a campfire. Get lost and some magic might find you as well.