Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Reflection’

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

Small Worlds

With_a_ribbon of road stretching back thousands of miles to Alaska, we have many stories to share.  Those we meet usually hope to distill the vast spaces and places into a few highlights.  It’s hard to comprehend what we are doing in any other way.  Upon meeting new people in new places, one of the first things they ask for is our “favorite part of the trip.”  They know and we know that this is almost an impossible question to answer, but we try nonetheless.  People are the highlight of Bound South without a doubt.

Waitresses in Colombia model next to David's bike, "Goliath" for a photo.

Traveling by bicycle is unlike any other kind of travel that I’ve ever done.  I’ve had my eyes opened to the endless possibilities one can grasp with a bicycle and a tent.  At this point, I do not know if I could ever go back.  We could trade country roads for train stations, tent sites for hotels and hostels, and would miss most of the amazing people that we meet along the way to Argentina.  It wouldn’t be the same.  In some ways I think our travel by bicycle harkens back to a more sentimental and perilous era of tourism.  Perhaps there were days before Lonely Planet, before the internet, before tourism was big business.  Travel was composed of much more discomfort, random searching, danger, inefficiency, and luck for better or for worse.  And perhaps the attitude towards travelers was different; they were less consumers and more students, people from a strange land who had something to learn and something to share.  This is not to idealize the past, because modern tourism has opened the world up in profound new ways.  To travel by bicycle channels the most powerful aspects of historical travel; in the modern age, it is hard to do this any other way.

Our camping spot at a local stadium near Pasto, Colombia gave us front row seats to this sword fighting rehearsal.

The pit crew at our roadside pit stop in Colombia.

We have noticed on this bicycle expedition that the most wonderful and hospitable people in the world are typically the furthest from centers of tourism.  We’re a little more extraordinary and less annoying that way, I think.  Based on the flocks of children that gather to stare at us while we eat at rural South American restaurants, we know we’re out of the ordinary.  The relative coldness of the cityscape is not a new stereotype, to be sure.  In Bogotá, we were just a few faces in a sea of people, a few cyclists scrambling to escape the freeways of the city.  We wouldn’t dream of approaching a stranger on the sidewalk and asking if we could set up our tent in his apartment.  These are simple realities of urban living the world over.  Only a few days later, when we were in the empty mountain roads outside of Mocoa, we didn’t hesitate to approach a farming family and ask for a place to camp for the night.  We are asking for help, and a safe place to tent is a gift of generosity that we never take for granted.  Deep down there is satisfaction from the knowledge of mutual benefit; we know that we have made others’ lives richer through our travels and stories.  Everything we do here on our blog is made more powerful and more poignant in the company of a few new friends.

We had much to teach these two children while we were staying with their family in Garzon, Colombia. Here they are showing off their "fist bump".

Jumping for Joy

Our journey is built upon the simple kindness of strangers, the humble and hard-working families of nine countries between Anchorage and Ushuaia.  They are of limited means but have more than their parents ever had.  They work hard and dream for the even better opportunities that their children will have.  They are farmers, shopkeepers, restaurant owners, storytellers, carpenters, mothers and fathers.  They are “authentic” as far as touristic parlance goes; but when we’re looking for a family in South America, that’s the last thing on our minds.  You realize how far you’ve come from Alaska only when you’re sitting in a family room in South America seeing kids’ eyes go wide.

One small hill separated this bus from a gradual descent to Cuenca. We (minus David; he supervised) helped them over the top.

If you would like to experience this kind of travel and learning for yourself and your family, we heavily recommend signing up for two online services: Couchsurfing and Warmshowers.  They can be an economical window to the world and a means to share your world with others.  Even if you can’t host us for a night on our journey to Ushuaia, you can help someone like us on their journey elsewhere.

Avenue of the (Hidden) Volcanoes

When_a_given stretch of highway is titled “Avenue of the _________”, we know great riding is in store (like our days on the Avenue of the Giants in Northern California months ago).  Thus, excitement was my immediate response when I heard from our host in Tumbaco that our route would lead us to the Avenue of the Volcanoes, a portion of the Pan-American Highway in Ecuador that lies between two mountain chains and their respective volcanoes.  And I wasn’t disappointed.  Leaving Tumbaco the next day, we familiarized ourselves with the cloud-shrouded Cotapaxi, the second largest volcano on the avenue at 19,347 feet, as we climbed up 6000 feet over its shoulder at 12,000 feet.  At the top of our ascent, we were treated to spectacular views of the volcanoes lining the highway ahead.  Before long, however, clouds rolled in and blanketed the peaks.

The Avenue

Nathan's rain gear: yellow rain jacket, orange dish gloves, blue rain pants, and black booties. Now that's style!

Ribbon of road in the highlands

We were treated to hot cocoa, juice, bread and hard-boiled eggs for breakfast with the Ambato family

Our time on the avenue after those brief glimpses was one of hidden volcanoes and inclement weather.  Rain, hail, and lightning fell from the sky.  Clouds enveloped us in fog on high mountain climbs and descents.  In spite of these daily trials, our time was also filled with incredible encouragement.  Honks, cheers, and waves became common, and increased in regularity with each additional rain drop. Even our favorite “two hands off the wheel thumbs up” was deployed by one very enthusiastic truck driver.  A family gave us space to sleep sheltered from the rain.  Kids showed us shelter near their favorite soccer field.  A restaurant housed and fed us.  After each rainy night, we started the next day energized and dry.  The conversations, food, and laughter we shared with the people along the avenue contrast with the challenges we faced while riding it.

Roadside panaderias (bakeries) are trending for Bound South. Fresh buns and pastries for a dime each hit the spot. Plus, Jif from Miami is still in good supply.

Approaching the clouds

So many roads to explore

The clouds created a nice backdrop for this monument in Alausi

Caution was absolutely necessary in the fog.

Mariella and her mom

One night outside of Ambato especially stands out.  A family of eight brothers gave us an unfinished home to lay our sleeping mats and sleepy heads down for the night.  Handshakes and greetings abounded while we were shown our sleeping quarters.  It wasn’t long before we were seated around their dining table enjoying coffee, bread, and conversation and joined by their sisters and daughters of similar age (it’s funny how that works).  I sat next to Mariella, one brother’s one-year old daughter.  With a growing vocabulary, her parents solidified us as her new friends.  At first, we were her “nue-ego”.  With a little practice, though, it wasn’t long before we became her “nuevos amigos”.

Our second-most favorite sign

Into the fog

Wait, someone is missing.

Found him!

This boy and his friend insisted on hanging on to our bicycles as we rode out of town. The push up out of town was appreciated, but it became a bit dangerous as we started descending. Even after Isaiah sternly told them to go home, they chased us down the main highway.

When I look back on the road from Alaska, people are what I remember most (and maybe the food, too).  Mountains, lakes, coastlines, deserts, roads, towns, and cities blend together to form a vague painting of the americas in my mind.  Only when I reflect on our new friends does that painting gain clarity and color.

Owned and operated by three sisters, this beautiful restaurant took very good care of us. La Escondida, just south of Chunchi, has delicious food (especially grilled cheese), groovin' 80s american tunes, and friendly staff. A big thanks to them for giving us shelter for a night.

Our bike alarm for the night outside the restaurant

Cold drizzle beaded on our skin, eyelashes, and hair in the fog. Here's me, being all serious.

Sunlight breaks through the clouds near Chunchi

Friends in High Places

People_define_our time on the road.  Each day we wake with the sun, ride against its flight across the sky, and fall asleep with its departure.  Each day we manage to taste, smell, hear, and see a glimpse of local culture aside from simply getting from A to B.  People are what we remember most.  After our time in the Sierra Nevada of Mexico, I am overjoyed to say we now have friends in high places.

Our route from Guadalajara led us to Lake Chapala, Mexico’s largest freshwater lake, where we encountered some incredibly steep cobblestone roads.  From there, we traversed volcanic and agricultural highlands to the city of Pátzcuaro, where we met Bruno, a young and well-traveled architect.  Well known for its lake and Day of the Dead celebrations, he had much to show us.  We visited Tzintzuntzán, home of  the Tarasco empire’s pyramids and decorated cemeteries, had carnitas at a local hot spot, and encircled Lake Pátzcuaro.  Later that day, we sat in his home and played music together.  Over the strum of his guitar and beat of his drum, he told us about his dreams to build a ecological home for himself in the mountains and to continue to travel the world.  He told us the importance of dreams, that without them it is hard to find purpose.  We shared much with him and rode on into the new year.

Dance performers in Patzcuaro

A mini Jack-O-Lantern we found in a cemetery

Leaving Pátzcuaro, we entered the Michoacán state, where we met Highway 15, Mexico’s principal north-south artery.  Upon entering, we began to climb and didn’t stop until we crossed half the state.  Temperatures dropped as we gained elevation.  Cold nights in highlands required clothing that had not seen use since Oregon.  Despite the cold, we found warmth with a logging family along 15.  They welcomed us to their home and place of work, and gave us a much-needed flat area for our tent.  Their children had numerous questions and found interest in our dinner preparations and Melodica.  Sitting around their campfire, we shared dinner and gave a few music lessons.  Tired legs soon beckoned and with the warmth of the fire transferred to our sleeping bags, the night found us sound asleep.

Music by fire light

Frisbee in the morning

Before leaving for the school the next morning, the kids joined us for a game of frisbee.  Laughter and smiles ensued.  Saying goodbye was difficult, but a 30 kilometer descent greeted us thereafter and brought us to Ciudad Hidalgo.  By chance, a father and son we met on the ferry ride to Mazatlán spotted us in the city and sent family members to retrieve us.  An hour later, we were being fed home-made enchiladas in the family’s home in Tuxpan.

The stillness of the night at Los Azufres

It didn't take long for my soccer "touch" to come back

The family (9 adult brothers and 4 sisters, several cousins, and dozens of kids) was gathered for the holiday season; add three gringos to the mix, and commotion is guaranteed.  An unplanned excursion to the hot springs of Los Azufres proved relaxing (the cramped ride on windy, mountain roads to get there, not so much), even after an intense game of Marco Polo.  Our departure the next day was delayed for hours as we gave rides to kids on our bicycles and played keep-away games of soccer.  The kids loved it, and so did we.  Once again, we mustered the strength to say goodbye and rode off.

Joy

We felt the monarch butterflies in the area were a must-see, so we set our sights on El Capulin, a reserve outside of Zitácuaro in the Mexico state.  Each year, monarch butterflies migrate to this area of Mexico from Canada and the United States for the winter months (one commonality we share).  Between 60 million and 1 billion butterflies fly to high mountain sanctuaries in Mexico annually.  We arrived at the reserve late in the day, and a local guide showed us to a camping spot on his property where our gear would be safe while we hiked up to see the butterflies the next morning.  His sons helped us make camp and daylight provided an opportunity for more frisbee fun.  A campfire provided warmth for dinner and we were tucked away in our tent soon after in anticipation for a sunrise hike.

Making camp with some new helpers

What you can't see in this photo is the frisbee flying towards me and the camera!

Following the guide the next morning was more than challenging.  First, he was on horse and we were not.  Second, the trail was comprised of loose rock and pine needles.  And finally, the trail was extremely steep.  Stumbling behind the guide in the darkness (we began the hike before first light) we ascended 2000 feet to a foggy meadow.  The early morning light combined with the fog was spectacular. And so were my newly blistered feet!  A short trail from the meadow led us to a roped off outlook.  He pointed to the trees and all we saw were trees.  We were bewildered.  Seeing our confusion, he waved us across the rope closer to the trees.  Upon closer look, we began to see clearly.  In the cool of the morning, the butterflies were clinging to the trees. Together, they created a textured blanket on every tree, top to bottom.  It was amazing.  We stood in awe as we attempted to grasp the number of butterflies in the sanctuary.

Foggy meadow in the morning

Marisposas Monarchas

Sliding down the trail to our campsite, I reflected over the days leading up to that moment. Circumstance allowed people to touch our lives. Only when people enter our world is it possible for us to share this amazing journey.

Affirmation

We_know_why we ride.  You know how you help.  Yet it wasn’t until a few days ago that we truly understood why we share.  More specifically, I didn’t fully grasp the value in parking our bicycles in an unfamiliar city and stumbling through countless streets and Spanish conversations in search of an elusive internet connection, known in these parts as WiFi (pronounced wee-fee).  To be certain, we love the opportunity to sit in the comforts of a café or restaurant and connect with the world.  Yet from the very beginning of this journey I had a tinge of uncertainty about Bound South as it exists on the web, sharing all of the minutiae of a Pan-American bicycle expedition.

WiFi with a view in Taxco

This uncertainty was a part of my broader discomfort with social media and internet culture as it currently stands.  We live in a world that is increasingly about copying rather than innovating, and  sharing rather than doing.  I was afraid of how the act of posting our photography, writing, and experiences would color how we lived each and every day of this journey.  Would we act differently, write differently, or change the nature of our journey for our audience?  Would our connectivity isolate us from the people and places we encounter?  As I sit in a café and write this post, I see countless people streaming past the window in front of me, each offering their own story or portrait of the world they inhabit.  How much richness will I miss between Alaska and Argentina while fumbling through my memories and sensations?  The thoughts and conversations of one day spent riding with my brothers through these strange lands are enough to bury my feeble attempts to log them.  I gave up journaling before I even started (David’s religious consistency with nightly journaling continues to amaze me).

Climbing through a valley in the western highlands of Mexico

I gave Bound South a chance.  I reasoned that the social pressure to assure family of our survival and to share our experiences with the world would ensure a rigorous schedule of reflection.  I was willing to bear the costs to our “authenticity” whatever they may be.  Five months later, I know we made the right decision.  Our connections with the outside world are limited to a couple of times every week when we stumble upon an internet café.  This is simply not enough time to distract us from our experience (or to assure our family of our daily safety).  Our time spent writing in comfort has been a necessary respite from long mountain climbs, navigational uncertainty, exhaustion, and the nitty gritty of our adventure.  Our website is also our vehicle for collecting donations and advancing our cause.  A few days ago, WordPress decided to feature us as among the best of the 700,000+ posts that are shared on the web every single day.  Comments and traffic and messages have poured in, and we are overwhelmed with a sense of humility and gratitude.

In the end this isn’t about us.  This is about our journey and our cause.  Yet Bound South will always be bound up in who we are as brothers; David in his youthful boldness, Nathan in his calm mentorship, and myself in my sharp wit and incredible good looks.  What we are doing is compelling, dangerous, and uncommon.  We can’t deliver you stylized and idealized travel guides, or depictions of heavenly Latin American cuisine.  We can only promise you our world, a world that is raw, mortal, and perilous; but it is shot through with love, courage, and the laughter that only brothers can enjoy on a long road to Argentina.

Thank you for sharing that world with us.  We take so much joy in this journey and the privilege of sharing it with you.  Your donations, messages, and comments sustain us whenever we have the chance to see them.

New Year, New World

We_awoke_in_our tent to the gentle rocking of a cargo ferry with mainland Mexico and the port city of Mazatlan on the horizon.  Impossibly thick ropes soon flew from the ship to secure it to the numerous huge pylons anchored on shore.  Following dozens of big rigs and their sleepless drivers, many of whom had slept on the cold hallway floors of the ship the night before, we rode our bicycles off the ferry and into the gateway to mainland Mexico.  We stopped at an auto garage to ask for directions to the Malecon, the shorefront main street of many Mexican port cities where we were meeting a North Dakota connection.  After receiving directions and some words of caution, we were assured by the mechanic that Mazatlan was a “satanic jungle” and that he would pray for our safety as we traveled through.  Someone should put that on a billboard or something.

Mild confirmation bias is our saving grace.  It is certainly possible that Mazatlan was the most dangerous city we’ve seen yet in Mexico.  We’re not so sure.  Our hosts in the city did drive me by a restaurant that had been shot up by the local mob after it didn’t pay its protection money.  The traffic and people were far from menacing, though they may have been in more of a rush than those on the Baja.  We’ve received dire warnings from other Mexicans about Mazatlan, and when we got to Mazatlan we received dire warnings about the places we passed through to get there.  Were it not for a careful optimism on our parts, we would have never braved the border at Tijuana.  We continue to absorb as much information as we can, even if it does little to alter our route or our conscious optimism about the road ahead.  If Mom and Dad are reading this, don’t worry, we’ll totally consider hitch hiking or something if a Latin American civil war breaks out in 2012.

I miss home and our family a great deal, accustomed as I was to spending this season with them.  The New Year has us all reflecting on the past year, especially the way that countless families have taken us in and made us feel like one of their own.  The Catholic Diocese of Whitehorse, the Coopers of Coeur d’Alene, the Pfeiffers of Portland, the Samuels of Santa Monica, the Taylors of San Diego, and the Salazars of Guadalajara are just a few of these.  Thank you all for what you’ve done for us.


December has foreshadowed the rest of our journey in 2012.  We’ve climbed some tremendous mountains in Mexico’s western highlands, and we respect the toll that it takes on our bodies.  The Andes will only be bigger, more challenging, and more spectacular.  I’ve dealt with illness for the first time since leaving Anchorage.  A dreadful headache became a cold and ear infection; sadly, I’m still recovering and the illness has cost us some time and miles.  Rest and health can’t be compromised, and once I’m healthy we’ll be riding strong once again.

The human and geographical diversity of the mainland is incredible.  Megacities and rural farming villages and beautiful lakes and mountains rise up at every turn.  Most of North America, even the Baja, has been defined by the vast, empty natural landscapes between places.  This New World brims with life and a constant human presence.  Riding a few mornings ago beside Lake Chapala, we struggled up an impossibly steep cobblestone climb for seven kilometers.  Every turn had us greeting another farmer or laughing child or family with a breathless “Buenos Dias” and a smile through gritted teeth.  It’s almost as if we’ve been practicing piano in the family room since leaving Alaska, and finally we’ve reached our recital and constant audience in the new world of mainland Mexico.  Sometimes we’re self-conscious, but most of the time we’re smiling, inspired, and excited for our next opportunity to inspire a stranger’s day with our story.

Hemingway once recounted in a conversation with a friend, A.E. Hotchner, that “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”  If there ever was a moveable feast, it is this bicycle expedition.  The sights and smells and sensations will linger and move with me long after we reach Ushuaia in Argentine winter.  In the meantime, I hope that you all find richness and love and a moveable feast of your own in 2012.

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.