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 ‘mountains’
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Dizzying._It_is hard to fathom just how many places we have seen since leaving Alaska. These aren’t necessarily hotbeds of international culture or tourism; simply the view beyond the next bend in the road, or perhaps the mundane spaces between where we are and where we are going that are suddenly lit up by the sun or by a joke or a kind word. There’s an index of thousands in all of our brains now. Riding through a Latin American street at night can remind us of everything from Los Angeles to the first time we rode through the darkness in British Columbia. Sometimes I wonder if we’re harder to impress now that we’ve been at this for so long.
Huaraz was up to the challenge. Nestled in the most spectacular Andean valley in Peru, between the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Negra, Huaraz is a jewel among Peru’s cities. The city itself is hardly beautiful; a devastating Ancash earthquake of 1970 has left the city scarred to this day without most of its beautiful colonial architecture and urban vibrancy. It’s still a gem of a city, however, because of what lies outside of it; breathtaking glaciers and snowcapped peaks lie in wait for anyone with the time to trek through them. The next time we are in Huaraz, we will not leave before trekking at least a week through Huascarán National Park. The rigorous schedule of a bicycle expedition such as ours unfortunately permitted only a few sojourns in the mountains around Huaraz.
After overcoming a daylong bout of food poisoning, we went on a mountain biking loop near the entrance to Huascarán. We were guided by Julio Olaza of Mountain Bike Adventure. Julio was a godsend for us. Not only did he lend us his shop tools to do some needed repairs on our Trolls, he also shared his story with us. “Mountain biking saved my life,” he said. He was battling alcoholism as a young man, decades ago, and he took a chance as tourism was just beginning to pick up in Huaraz and “mountain biking” was just recently born in the late 1980s. Years later, he is clean and a successful businessman, not to mention an animal on his mountain bike. Muscling our bicycles over the stones of pre-Incan trails above Huaraz, we could barely keep up. For the most part we embarrassed ourselves and found ourselves pining after a front suspension fork. David flipped over his handlebars once. We had a blast.
The finale to our mountain biking adventure was our arrival at a high altitude field above Huaraz where a crowd gathers every Friday to play ultimate frisbee. We joined Peruvian kids, European trekkers, American volunteers, and a host of colorful characters for some exciting play. There are many disadvantages to a bicycle expedition, among them tan lines and diminished cleanliness. But a nice advantage is that our cardiovascular systems are borderline Olympic. We could run all day up at the high 12,000 feet+ of Huaraz, which made frisbee somewhat unfair to a few of our competitors. In the end, we all had a blast and enjoyed the fellowship of a good meal at the California Cafe when we were done. There are a few rare, restorative places on this bicycle expedition where we can forget the pressures of our pace southward and enjoy the richness of a place. Huaraz, you will be missed.
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.