Mal Suerte/Buena Suerte/Mal Suerte

Let me see if I can properly dramatize a relatively banal situation: I am writing this in a $12 hotel room in Cochrane, Chile, freshly released from the hospital. End paragraph. Cut to unconnected scene.
    From Puerto Natales, I bused to El Calafate, crashed the night there, skipped the glacier, and bused up to El Chalten, which lies on the border of Los Glaciares Parque Nacional, famous for Mt. Fitz Roy.  I’d had El Chalten circled on my map since I’d had a contractor, Ryan, over to look at my house and discuss my various schemes for it.  When timing for the remodel came up, our conversation got derailed because we both had scheduling conflicts due to planned extended trips to Patagonia.  He had me google El Chalten and said, That’s where you want to go, right there.  The mountains above El Chalten are the Patagonia logo (some googling showed that Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard climbed Mt. Fitz Roy and made a film about it in 1968, then used the outline of Fitz Roy as the logo).  He was a little hazy on when he’d be there, as was I.  And yet, that first night as I sat there in the hotel – one of fifty-seven, according to booking.com, which underreports – he walked in with his girlfriend.  It was less random than the time I ran into a friend from UNC, the only other person I saw out there the entire time, while backpacking in the backcountry in Denali – a truly startling coincidence – but I like coincidences so I made a big deal out of it.  They got some takeout and we reconvened in the hotel some time later.
    A few interesting things about Ryan and his adventures: 1) From what I gather, he organizes his life so that, for most of the year, he can work hard building sustainable homes and training diligently at Climb Nashville.  The rest of the year, he either goes to El Chalten (this winter and last winter), Nepal (this fall), Mongolia (some indefinite time in the past), Mexico (also indefinite), Hawaii, probably others.  2) He was motorcycling through Mongolia looking for a Buddhist temple when he fell into an icy river and became hypothermic.  A man appeared serendipitously but ignored his pleas for help and would not speak to him.  Ryan asked him in English, French, Spanish, Mongolian, if he spoke the language.  The man ignored him.  Ryan followed him and they came to a yurt.  Inside were 12 French tourists who were also out to see the Buddhist temple.  They took him in and warmed him up. I do not know if he ever found the temple.  3) At the Guatemala-Mexico border, he was detained because he was bringing in a car that he owned when the Mexican records showed that he’d already brought in a car and had not exited with it.  I suppose you cannot have two cars in Mexico as an extranjero.  He signed over the title to his girlfriend and they passed through. She was not tempted to keep the car because, as he put it, it was a piece.  4) The El Chalten climbing community, according to Ryan, is made up of about 50 sponsored pros, 100 dedicated “dirt bag” climbers who live in their cars and do whatever it takes – vacuum office buildings, clean bathrooms – to be able to climb at all times, and 50 or so people like him, who have real jobs but a maybe unhealthy passion for the dangerous sport of mountaineering.  All 200, however, are obsessed with weather.  There are few windows in which it is safe to attempt summits.  Furthermore, the internet is so horrendous that it is often impossible to load a browser page.  The particular page with the advanced meteorological data they need – wind direction and speeds, barometric pressure, etc. – is notoriously difficult to load.  The climbers therefore often get up before dawn to check the weather forecast before the masses dilute the wifi strength.  They then disseminate the information to the climbing masses.  If there is a window of a few days, they go.  5) Ryan made an attempt on Cerro Torre, a highly technical summit next to Mt. Fitz Roy, several weeks ago.  The forecast showed a window coming up and they jumped it, in retrospect a little too soon.  The approach requires you to hike up a steep grade to the base, rappel down a cliff to the other side, then climb up to the granite face itself.  Because they started just before the window actually appeared, they got lost on the approach in the clouds and wind.  Once they got their bearings, they encountered another barrier.  He and his climbing partner were roped together.  Several times, on the ice cap behind Cerro Torre,  one or the other punched through into crevasses, requiring the other to dig in with crampons and ice axe to prevent them both from being swallowed by the blue ice.  By the time they were ready to rappel down the other side and prepare for the ascent, they were both hungry and down to 1500 calories apiece.  It had been several days and would be several more days before they would be able to acquire more food, should they push on and attempt the summit.  His climbing partner suggested they rappel down, eat all their food, make a dash for the summit, and book it out of there.  After pondering it, Ryan wisely disagreed.  They left with a story, severely chapped lips, and no summit, but alive.  6) There are several bodies strewn throughout the peaks above El Chalten, including a guy at whose house Ryan couchsurfed last year. It would be too dangerous to attempt to remove them.  7) There is no search and rescue squad in El Chalten.  When someone needs to be rescued, the rangers ask the climbers for assistance, as they are the only ones capable of the rescue.  Unfortunately, as I already described, when the weather is amenable, the climbers climb.  That means two things: a) Rescue attempts are usually delayed; and, b) Rescue attempts are often executed by exhausted climbers recently returned from their own grueling, hazardous expedition.  8) Earlier this year, two women were climbing.  I’m not sure what peak, but I do know they were far from El Chalten, up a difficult approach and something close to 10 very difficult pitches of technical climbing.  A rock fell from above and struck one of them in the head.  She became confused and unable to climb, rappel down, or assist her partner in rappelling down.  Her partner began the strenuous and unbearably long task of rappelling herself down every pitch, descending the approach, hiking back to El Chalten, organizing a rescue squad, leading them back, and climbing the highly technical pitches of granite to where she’d left her partner.  When they got there some 2 or 3 days later, the rope had been cleanly cut.  They found her partner’s body several thousand feet below in a crevasse.  No one knows why she cut the line.  Did she become hypothermic and choose a quicker death?  Was the wait too excruciating, the uncertainty too great?  Or was it merely the absolute alien solitude? 
    In El Chalten, I hiked up to Lago de los Tres and spent some QT with Fitz Roy.  The next morning, I went to the only agency, Zona Austral, that books the O'Higgins ferry, where a willfully unhelpful and incidendtally unattractive woman told me the O’Higgins ferry was sold out until Monday, which in turn led to me wasting a day trying all sorts of desperate plans that would allow me to complete the Carretera Austral and meet with Charlie in Brazil before he heads back to the states March 11 instead of hiking to Laguna Torre as I'd planned.  The next morning, I went back to go ahead and buy the ticket for Monday.  There was a different woman there, friendly and, incidentally, pretty (I almost started to buy into the Hollywood dichotymy of good/beautiful vs. bad/ugly).  I told her I wanted to a ticket for the O'Higgins ferry for as soon as possible and she sold me a ticket for Saturday no problem.  I hit the road Friday morning feeling optimistic.  I got 7km out, ripio (the word they use for any unpaved road, usually gravel) all the way, when a car pulled over beside me.  Tu mochila! the woman said.  Sure enough, my backpack had fallen open.  I had worn my Vans that day for some reason, so it was my Salomans – absolutely crucial for the next day’s bike pushing up the steep dirt trail – that were gone.  I backtracked all the way into town.  They weren’t on the road, nor at the café, nor at the hotel.  On the way back out I stopped every car I saw.  One of the first told me that she’d seen the shoes in the road.  A man had stopped and retrieved the shoes, then driven off.  Great.  I rode on, continuing to stop the cars.  Nadie habia visto los zapatos.  I had already gotten a late start, prioritizing the procurement of an egg and cheese sandwich and potentially the last good coffee for a long time over a comfortable arrival for the first ferry across Lago del Desierto.  Now, I had 3 hours to go 40km on ripio.  I had yet to ride on ripio but had been told that the road would take me at least 5 hours.  I time trialed all out, giving up the shoes.  Fuck the shoes! I thought.  It felt all right.  Puedes hacerlo, I kept saying to myself.  And fuck the shoes!  But then I’d round a bend and a short uphill and a headwind would knock me down to a crawling pace and I’d lose hope.  Ultimately, I made the ferry with enough time to eat the sandwich before it took off.  The camping area, which doubled as the Argentinian customs station, was spectacular.  The customs officers had horses for patrol, and they wandered across the green grass that lay between my campsite in the lake, posing magestically outlined against Mt. Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre on the other side of the lake.  I was sharing the campground with a German couple who had bicycle toured from Buenos Aires on a tandem, another German, middle-aged and grumpy, who was bicycling up from Ushuaia and did not seem to be enjoying it (the wind! he would say, and shake his head), a hiker from Canada, and another hiker from Switzerland.  A friendly cat kept me company as I cooked pasta.  He tried to score a member of a flock of geese but they saw him coming from a mile away, and he would have been fucked if he’d caught one anyways, being a little guy, like Samson with the deer.  He seemed determined to share the meal with me, though, because he showed up a minute or so later with a small bird, which he proceeded to eat in its entirety next to me.  I appreciated the gesture of companionship but felt sad for the bird.  At least he ate it rather than toyed with it.
    The next morning brought the infamous Lago del Desierto to Lago O’Higgins stretch.  Cyclists had talked about it on crazyguyonabike and in person down south as a truly formidable, trip-defining trek.  The hills will be steep, they said.  And the trail is rutted with erosion so that you and the bike will not fit through together unless you remove your panniers and carry them separately.  Many people take more than a day to do the 22km, they said.  I do enjoy a challenge.  When I awoke at 7:45, the German was gone.  I made oatmeal and coffee and hung with my cat friend a bit, and finally got started at about 8:45.  I carried my backpack on my back and pushed the bike with the panniers still attached to the rack, often needing to walk above the rutten center, some 2 feet above the wheels, with my weight half on the handlebars as I leaned over.  Overall, though, it was not too bad.  I passed the German within 15 minutes.  Four trips, he said.  Four trips I have to make.  He shook his head, as he was want to do.  I tried to be encouraging.  They say you only have to push for 5 kilometers or so, then you can ride, I said.  He was defeated.  But, he said, each kilometer is  4 kilometers to me!  He had all sorts of tarps and bags, none of which could be worn as a backpack.  Furthermore, whether because he was old and weakened or just pessimistic, he did not think he could push the bike with any bags at all on it, so he was taking one trip for the bike alone.  As TeTe would say, oy oy oy oy oy.  I got through the first 4km within an hour and a half, riding the singletrack where I could, while wearing the backpack, as I frequently had to stop and push and didn’t want to deal with the bungee cords every minute or two.  I ran into a couple of Americans from the south, North Carolina and Georgia, and we swapped some money, as they were heading to Argentina and I to Chile.  The guy tried to dick me over a little and charge me the street rate, but of course the street rate for each country applies to both of us, so we met in the middle, and I even got a little better of the deal.  We were all very amicable in the end and hugged it out, being pleased to find fellow southerners in such a faraway land.  He had bicycle toured Colombia and Peru and seemed to just be fucking around Patagonia with plans for Spain next.  At 6km or so, I hit the Chilean border and the path instantly became a dirt road that was easy to ride, except for the final few kilometers, which were a steep gravel descent that I was very pleased to not be climbing.  I had stopped along the way to make coffee and pasta and still arrived at 1:30.  The ferry was at 4:30.  At 2:30, I was sitting at the campground next to a few occupied tents when a ranger rode up on a four-wheeler.  The ferry is here, he said in Spanish.  You are going to miss it.  Is it not leaving at 4:30? I said.  Nope.  So I booked it down there with the people taking a siesta,  and we all got safely on the ferry.  My German friend and neither of the hikers made it, however.
    That night I stayed in Villa O’Higgins and identified the best wifi spot to be just outside of a panaderia on a side street near the plaza and spent a couple hours standing there like a big stupid gringo just asking for it with an iPhone 6 held about a foot in front of my face as the street grew dark and quiet except for some lurking (the negative connotation of “lurking” seemed appropriate at the time) SUVs.  I washed my bike and headed out in good spirits.  There were some headwinds, no small amount of boredom, and an intense battle with three horseflies at kilometer 50, but otherwise it was a good day.  Beautiful views and a very solid 96km covered.  I made it all the way to the first ferry but not in time to get across.  Just shy of the ferry landing, there was a small shelter with a tent in it.   A couple from Texas were camping there, and I spoke to them for a while.  Two years ago, they sold their house in Houston and all of their belongings and hit the road.  They rode first to Portland by way of Death Valley then south across Mexico and the Americas to where I found them there, on the side of the road, in the middle of nowhere in Patagonia.  They looked to be late thirties.  We have no plan B, man.  This is it!  Everything we own, right here.  He struck me a successful corporate type with a latent sense of adventure that suddenly burst to the surface one day, but that’s just speculation.  They are going down to Ushuaia and then will sell their bicycles and ferry up to Puerto Montt then fly back to Texas.  What are you going to do there? I asked.  No idea!  Like I said, no plan B!  We’re just going to see what happens.  I will not be surprised if they either do not make it back to Texas or do not stay there long.  Further along, at the landing itself, there was a larger shelter full of people.  5 French and 2 Chilean bicycle tourists, all southbound, 2 Chilean motorcycle tourists, and a car full of a very sweet middle-aged couple from Santiago, their daughter, their son, and their son’s friend.  The son was studying to be an engineer and his friend to be a veterinarian.  I’ve noticed that young Chileans, at least the college bound or graduated young Chileans, all speak very good English.  The generations above them do not. 
    I biked 75km the next day, limited by the 11am ferry, which arrived on the other side at noon, and the cheese empanadas at the other side.  I’d read that the day began with “a few steep hills,” one of which, at 22%, was too steep to ride, but it turned out there was one ultra steep stretch within 7km of 1100ft of elevation gain.  That ain’t a few hills, that’s a climb brother.  I, too, had to push a stretch.  My legs were feeling the previous few days’ efforts and I was just sandbagging to be honest.  But then I got over the climb and the rest was pretty easy.  I met a girl, early twenties, I’d say, solo bicycle touring from Buenos Aires and a French guy, late twenties, solo bicycle touring from San Francisco.  He’d worked there two years and then decided he’d just ride his bike south until he couldn’t ride it any more.  A lot of crazy people out in the world.  I camped that night beside a milky blue river.  It was very peaceful.  I finished reading The Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara as I drank coffee the next morning and waited for my tent to dry from the previous night’s rain.  I had done some research in Puerto Natales, trying to connect the empathetic narrator of the Diaries with the ruthless revolutionary of later years, and to reconcile the two divergent portraits of Che (and Cuba) that seem to dominate the public space.  Was he an idealistic dreamer who fought for peoples’ rights to a life of dignity and sustenance – the person who is reflected in much of the Diaries – or was he the megalomaniac with a blood lust and a will to power who executed prisoners seemingly with relish, often personally, often with little reason, as the final stanza of the Diaries could seem to indicate?  I found an account by George Plimpton, a famous editor who had interviewed Hemingway in Cuba in the early 1960’s.  Hemingway spoke of the beautiful purity of the revolution and his hope for the Cuban people.  But, he told George, there’s something you need to see.  He would not tell them what the spectacle would be, simply drove him to a field, where they set up lawn chairs and mixed cocktails.  Shortly, a bus unloaded a dozen or so prisoners, who were summarily executed via firearm and loaded back into the bus as corpses.  The account is vague regarding Hemingway’s intentions.  Did he enjoy the spectacle, as the daquiries and lawn chairs might indicate, or did he think Plimpton needed to see the dark underbelly and merely sit because the alternative was to stand and drink because Hemingway always drank and because it is probably hard to maintain a façade of worldly cool in the face of summary executions?  It’s a shame no one was live tweeting the Cuban Revolution, but I suppose even then you’d have conflicting Twitter feeds reinforcing whichever worldview one chooses to take.  The gray middle is a lonely place.
    After I finished my book, I biked on with the intention of hitting Cochrane (50km) at around 3pm, eating a late lunch and taking advantage of the WIFI, then biking another 30km or so.   I was very, very near Cochrane, in the middle of the long, steep descent toward the pueblo, when I suddenly found myself on my back in the road, looking up at two strange faces, unable to speak.  I have flashes of sitting in the bed of a pickup truck and insisting, No no todo bien, no necesito ir al hospital, solo un hospedaje (hostel).  They dropped me off in front of a hospedaje that had camping in the back.  I realized I had no idea where I was and that there was no way I was capable of putting my tent together.  I saw a woman walking toward me and asked her what I was thinking: Where am I?  Cochrane.  Where’s Cochrane?  I must have looked pretty rough because the next thing I knew she had called the police and they were escorting me into their car.  There were two large black dogs with grey beards that watched with brown eyes like swollen ticks.  I remember them because they were there when I got out of the hospital 24 hours later.  The funniest part was when my memory started coming back to me.  At first it seemed ludicrous that I had taken a leave of absence from work, had left my nice house and my main man Samsonite and the restaurants and music and comforts of home, to go suffer in South America on a bicycle by myself.  At first, I literally couldn’t believe it.  What a fool you are, I thought.  And to think I didn’t even realize it.  The nurses and doctor, a young, very calm and articulate woman, were all very attentive, friendly, and professional.  The hospital clearly had no money, though.  They had me shower before they cleaned the gravel from my scrapes, but they had no soap or towels.  The bathroom was a reeking mess, also with no soap.  It was amazing what they are able to accomplish with such an obvious shortage of funding, and that a tiny, dirty, underfunded hospital is able to attain and retain such talented, competent medical workers.  This morning, I discovered my bike and helmet are both messed up, though possibly still useable.  My shoulder and hip are swollen and hurt like hell if I move them.  My head feels fine and I believe I am lucid, although if you’ve made it this far in the narrative you’ll have your own feeling on that matter.  The doctor said not to ride for at least 3 days, but a week would be better.  The question is: what to do?  

 

The 3 Zones of Pestilence and the Hungarian Horse Tourist

The 3 Zones of Pestilence and the Hungarian Horse Tourist

They were taking a break on the road south from Lago O’Higgons to El Chalten when they heard a horse approaching through the trees.  A man emerged on horseback from the forest and told them in crisp though distinctly accented English that he was from Hungary and he was on a horse tour and he would happily share the road with them for a bit if they would allow it.  They asked him if he had always ridden horses and he said, no, he had never owned a horse until he came to Chile a month or two back.  But it is easy, he said.  The horse he eat grass and shit grass and that is all.  We walk through yards and when he see a fence he jump it and if he cannot jump it he walks until there is a gap and then we walk through it.  They pedaled alongside him that day and marveled as he demonstrated his horse’s leaping ability over stumps and banks and ditches and fence.  You see this ditch? he’d say.  Now we jump it.  And he’d lock eyes with one or another of them and the horse would jump it and he’d nod and they’d all continue companionably on.  They came upon a beautiful Dutch woman hitchhiking south.  The Hungarian Horse Tourist picked her up.  That night, the cyclists laid awake late into the night as the Hungarian made love to his hitchhiker under the stars.  When they awoke in the morning, she had hitched a ride from a trucker.  The Hungarian Horse Tourist hopped a fence and continued southward, his horse dropping a stream of turds that glinted in the morning sun like gold coins.

The Bus'n'cycle Diaries

(Credit to Ryan Bailey for the title here.  Also, this is transcribed from my journal, which he also gave me and is noted for it ability to function in the rain.)

The ride from Tolhuin to Rio Grande was one of those character building experiences that Calvin's dad (of Calvin and Hobbes) is always going on about as they sit their miserably in a fishing boat during a downpour.  On the 3 types of fun scale, it fell somewhere between the 2 and the 3.  (If you don't know what I'm talking about, I was introduced to the concept by Sandy.  I think it comes from mountaineering or climbing but applies very well to my experiences biking or hiking.  Here's the rundown: Type 1 fun is actually fun.  As in, when you're doing it, you're smiling and genuinely enjoying yourself.  For example, sipping a beer on a sailboat as you wind through the San Blas islands, or lying on a beach or getting laid.  Type 2 fun is not always that fun in the moment, but you later look back on it and think, man that was pretty awesome after all.  Think of it as equal parts stress, discomfort, and genuine fun.  Pretty much every bike tour I've been on falls into this category.  The views are awesome and the feeling of triumph as you crest a ridge is sweet, but often you're wondering if the sore on your ass has rounded into volcanic form or has gone the less visually gruesome but more painful route of the buried landmine.  You think about pizza and wonder why you're not eating it right now.  You think about the most vanilla domestic duty and it begins to have a new allure.  But then you finish and you go back to the real world and find yourself plotting another similar trip.  Type 3 fun is the sort of thing you never want to do again, even after a few beers.  I fortuately have never ventured into Type 3 territory, but I imagine, say, surviving an avalanche on Everest would be Type 3.  The closest I've come is mountain biking 89 miles on gravel roads through Denali National Park with just 2 bottles of water and a cliff bar.)  

My personal name for the road between Tolhuin and Rio Grande is, "Muerte por Viento," which I believe means, "Death by Wind," but I don't have a Spanish-English dictionary on me.  After several hours, I'd made it exactly 16.2 miles.  I was averaging 8.8mph.  Morale was low, so I gave the troops what they wanted: a cup of coffee and the brisk, efficient disposal of all 4 of the granola bars in the rucksack.  I hunkered down on the leeward side of a hillock.  There was a copse of trees immediately below me, followed by an expanse of grass and thorny shrub, a strip of trees topped the hill on the far side of the valley.  I was firmly in the eastern rain shadow desert that haunts the mountain ranges of our western hemisphere.

"Hola!" I heard.  I turned around and there was a man about my height walking toward me through the grass in great friendly giant strides.  Upon reflection, I realized he was probably walking like that to minimize the friction between his doubtlessly chafed thighs.  He was wearing cycling shoes, cycling shorts, a cycling jacket, cycling shades, and a helmet.  I knew my man.  Este hombre was a cyclist.  His name as Rafael.  He was from Montreal but he'd spent two years studying at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore (though he said D.C.) and was currently working in Lima, Peru for the United Nations World Food Programme (he later confessed sheepishly that he was only an intern, but his boss, he said optimistically, had told him he was an ideal fit for the organization and he'd find him a place somewhere, maybe in Brazil or Argentina) and he had friends in strange places all over the world (Rio Grande, for example, and Ushuaia) and he was now finishing a 2000km bicycle tour from just south of Buenos Aires to Ushuaia on Ruta 40.  "Do not do that," he said. "It was so hot and brown and there was very little water.  Sometimes it was 200km between towns.  So I caught a bus through the worst of it."  He told me I had the right idea going up the western side.  "Plus," he said, "now you can say, 'I started at the bottom and now we here!"  I told him how I always hate bicycle tours when I'm doing them, swear off bicycle tours, say never again, and then within a week I start to think, "Well that wasn't so bad..."  We had a good laugh over that.  We were in agreement on that.

I kept making deals with myself as the wind continued to try to push me back to Tolhuin and the landscape became progressively more brown and baren.  Just go to mile 30, I'd say, but then at mile 27 I'd spy a marginally more attractive angle on a brown hill and find my bike suddenly in the gravel and my feet on the ground.  I'd told Rafael about the crazy sons of bitches who do the Race Across America, how they only sleep a couple hours each night, how they hallucinate and zig zag crazily and have to have minders to keep them pointed in the right direction.  I'd think about those insane perdidos and then I'd get back on the bike and spin through another weak 5 or 10 miles.  I stopped at mile 32 behind a natural dugout of hill and made rice and beans and another cup of coffee.  This time no friendly face appeared.  I was now averaging 8.5mph.  I was becoming nervous about the hour.  My right knee was beginning to hurt.  I ate a Justin's chocolate hazelnut packet.  I examined the land around me for the best place to set up a tent.  I listened to the end of a book on tape, "The Magicians," by Lev Grossman and grew unreasonably angry beause I found it wasn't very good.  I shouted my gripe to the wind.  "This guy is the fucking Time magazine book critic?!  And this is the shit he comes out with?!"  I biked on.  Cows, guanacos, sheep, two foxes the exact color of the brush, birds that stood upright on two legs like ostriches.  Broad expanses of earth.  The mountains were far out of sight, lost behind in the desert.  

The sea came suddenly like a glittering vision.  There was an abandoned restaurant, all wood and glass, all alone on the shore.  It appeared fairly new but the sign said, "se vende," and there was a plank across the door.  Across the street, dilapidated ruins of cinder blocks tattooed with graffiti. An old shanty.  The road turned away from the sea.  I could see the road always ahead, curled out of reach.  Always another hill.  If you didn't pedal downhill, you would stop and fall over.  Distance signs contradicted one another.  Rio Grande - 33km.  And then, a thousand pedals later, Rio Grande - 32km.  

When I arrived in Rio Grande, it was dark.  The sign read, "Rio Grande: La Ciudad de Tus Suenos." Ha!  A joke, at last.  I biked past a Ford dealership, a Toyota dealership, an auto repair shop, unisex - they were always very clearly labeled unisex for some reason - salon, many ominously dark industrial buildings.  Cars whinged past.  This was the main road, Ruta 3, through the largest city in Tierra del Fuego, and yet where were the hotels? the restaurants? the bars? the cafes?  I spotted a jogger.  "Right on San Martin, right on Estrada," he said.  

The hotel was a dump but cheap and available.  The shower sprayed down over the toilet and bidet.  I forgot to wear my flip flops as I showered and felt that I should regret it but was too tired.  My right knee was stiff but I was feeling rejuvenated as I walked to the restaurant.  There seem to be three types of restaurants here: those that serve meat, those that serve seafood, and those that serve pizza.  This was of the pizza variety.  The woman there only spoke Spanish but looked like a gringa.  Probably one of the many Italian immigrants who had made Patagonia their own.  I ordered a pizza and "la cerveza mas barata."  (The cheapest beer.)  She brought me a truly enormous Budweiser.  A sign on the wall said, "Cerveza - 35 pesos."  In my tired state, I merely noted how strange it was that 40 ounces of Budweiser only costs 35 pesos.  I hardly drank any of it, maybe 12 ounces, as I was dehydrated and mainly wanted water.  The pizza, too, was giant.  Does she think I have a family joining me? I wondered.  I ate half of it and was not tempted to overeat as it was not very good.  Like all the pizza I've had in Patagonia, it was all bread and cheese and olives.  I asked for the bill.  280 pesos (roughly 24 dollars).  That was a lot more than I'd been paying for meals.  At a fancy restaurant in Ushuaia, I had a heaping plate of roasted vegetables and eggs and a large Beagle beer and agua con gas and flan for 200 pesos.  This was a hole in the wall with shit food.  There was a Mastercard sign on the door.  I pulled out my Mastercard.  She said she didn't accept Mastercards from "extranjeros."  I did not have enough pesos.  I asked her how much the beer had been and she said 100 pesos.  I was taken a back.  I told her I'd asked for the cheapest beer and it says right there 35 pesos for a beer.  She said she thought I wanted a large beer and the only large beer was Budweiser, so this was the cheapest.  I said I didn't want a large beer and hadn't drunk it.  She said that usually men mean a large beer when they say a beer.  I told her I'd give her $10US in addition to the 100 pesos.  She physically blocked my way, put a finger in my face, and told me she'd "llama la policia" if I didn't give her $20US in addition.  I had justice on my side.  Truth and reason.  Rightness.  But I had no words for any of it.  I opened my mouth and all I could think to say was, "Puta madre!" I threw the $20 on the ground and grabbed the $10 from her hand.  I walked out in a rage.  I wanted to break the restaurant's windows.  A man passed me in the street and I wanted him to try to rob me so I could punch him.  I wanted to ruin that gringa's business.  I wished I'd taken the leftover pizza and beer.  I wished I'd knocked the beer over so she'd have to clean it up.  I wished the cook would tell her how dishonest she'd been.

I awoke the next morning and caught a bus to Puerto Natales.  I booked a room at Wild Hostel on the way.  It looked like it'd been outfitted and designed by West Elm or Ballard Designs - all natural wood found in Patagonia and hand made into bars and benches and tables.  Driftwood spelled out, "Wild Hostel," on the wall.  Inside, there was a middle aged man with blue eye and a swarthy, younger woman, both wearing matching, vaguely nordic red wool hats.  The man's name was Jari and he was from Finland.  I forgot his wife's name, as it was even more exotic than Jari, but she was an architect from Santiago.  They'd met in Indonesia and moved to Patagonia to open this hostel several months before.  In Helsinki, Jari had owned two businesses, a flat in the city, a vacation cottage in the country, and two cars.  But he'd gone deep, he said.  He'd changed.  "I was tired of the shit," he said.  "For everyone, it's the same fucking thing, you know?"  I nodded.  I was not totally sure what he was talking about but I thought it had something to do with materialistic malaise.  So he sold his cars, his businesses, and rented out his flat and cottage.  He filled a backpck with what he had left and hit the road.  He'd seen the whole world.  He'd sailed to Vietnam, traded his boat for a motorcycle and biked the Ho Chi Minh trail.  He'd been through Europe and Australia and the U.S. and South America.  He also made damn good pumpkin soup.  After we'd talked, I walked up to my room, flanked by their dog, Hijo.  I opened the hallway door and was greeted by the backside of a blonde girl wearing nothing but a t-shirt and a tiny pair of underwear.  "Hallo," she mumbled and walked into a dorm room.  I had a room to myself.  As I laid there unsuccesfully trying to get the internet to work and listening to the girls laugh in foreign musical voices and thinking of Lena far away in Guatemala and my house sitting empty in Nashville, it seemed that the world was a large, lonesome place.

El Fin del Mundo

El Fin del Mundo
I had planned on building my bike right there at the train station, imagining (and telling my eventual taxi driver) that it’d take about 20 minutes.  Cabs were cheap, though, so I decided to take one instead.  As a side note, I got ripped off by the taxi driver.  It cost $10 US for a ride to my bed and breakfast, which was only 8km away.  Later, when I asked a different taxi driver if I could pay him in US, he said, sure, each $100 Argentine pesos is $3 US.  The actual exchange rate is $100 - $8.  I paid that second driver in pesos; the first had already made out like a bandit.  After I checked into my hotel on Monday, I wandered down to the main drag, San Martin.  It was fairly chaotic.  Only one way traffic so it wasn’t the cars that made it seem that way; it must have been the mish mash of empty shells of buildings with graffiti mixed in with warm boutiques of cedar.  Every restaurant boasts king crab, every outdoor store seemed to have some random brand like Reef and definitely Converse or Vans but none had Patagonia or North Face or any of the others that you’d expect to find in a place as epic and romantic as the southernmost city in the world, on the doorstep of Tierra del Fuego.  The name alone – Tierra del Fuego – makes my hairs stand on end.  I ate at a place called Banana, recommended as a quick place to eat by the owner of the bed and breakfast.  Service was piss poor, there was a soccer match on tv between Argentina and Peru with literally no one in the stadium (was it an exhibition? Why would it be tv worthy if it isn’t spectator worthy?), and I had my first taste of the local beer, Beagle.  It was shockingly good, and not in the way that Belikin or Pilsner or Gallo or Cruzcampo are good; it was good in the way that, say, Rogue Dead Guy Ale is good.  The sandwich, not so much.  Arabe vegetariano, they called it.  It was slimy – roasted red pepper, roasted eggplant, sundried tomatoes, thick slathering of aioli, slices of cheese.  Demasiado. Solo podia comer media.  The café con leche wasn’t bad, however, I read later in the guide book that café con leche is only for the morning; you drink cortados in the afternoon.  My mistake.  I decided on a whim that I’d give Glacier Martial a go, even though everyone, including the guide book, said to allow for 2 hours in each direction, and it was already 7pm (sunset was at 9:45).  I had hardly slept the night before, being on the plane, and had just had that half of sandwich, but, sliminess usually equates to highly caloric, and I was feeling revved up and ready to charge that mountain, which I did, crushing slow bovine couples as I made it to the base of the glacier in 50 minutes.  The clouds were wafting down from the shadowy mountains above and it was at times, at the top, difficult to tell if it was raining or if I was just feeling the clouds themselves.  This is misleading, I can tell.  The views were still there, glorious, Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel below, the mountains of Chile rising up in serrations beyond.  It was a wafting of clowd from above and behind.  A hint of something ominous on its way.  

After writing in my journal at the top, I headed down.  The chair lift was not working, but the tea shack across the street at the base of the chair lift was open.  I entered just as a downpour started, intending to buy a cup of tea and ponder my options.  A couple from Israel  that had been descending from the top as I reached it was sitting at a table.  They proved to be the best option, as they had a taxi on the way.  We shared it with a German girl, and, as it seems to happen while traveling in South America, they were all on inspiring trips.  The Israeli couple was near the beginning of a 4 month tour of South America, the German girl in the middle of a 3 month stint of working in various places in Argentina.  I got out of the cab on San Martin and got overpriced gnocchi (rookie mistake: you had to pay for the sauce and the pasta separately, which doubled the cost that I expected).  Got into the hotel at 11, tried to sleep.  The room was hot as a furnace and the guy in the room next door was blasting a soccer game.  A million Spanish words per second.  Intermittent howls of Goooooooooollll.  I periodicalyl knocked on the shared wall, what I assumed to be the universal signal for, Pipe down bud I’m trying to sleep over here.  Most times, I’d hear his feet on the floor, then the rattle of the skeleton key in the door (the rooms had finicky skeleton keys), then silence, then back to the game.  I must have drifted off at one point because I suddenly found myself jerking the skeleton key back and forth in my own room and knocking on his door in a rage, with no recollection of any sort of decision making process.  It was 1:40am and the announcer was going fucking nuts in there.  It was like there were no walls at all.  I heard his feet, then waited the ten seconds or so it took for him to get the door open.  Si, he said.  A guy about my age or younger.  No puedo dormir, hombre, I said..  Puede abajar la television?  Mucho rudio.  Mucho.  No puedo dormir.  I’m sorry, he said with an accent that, I suppose was better than the equivalent of mine in Spanish.  He seemed genuinely sorry, actually, and I realized later that I think he was actually sleeping himself, despite the noise, and had been generally confused as to why someone kept knocking on his door and disappearing when he answered it.  20 seconds later we had both managed to lock our doors again, waking everyone else up, I’m sure, and the sound was gone.  

The next morning, I slept through breakfast and had to catch a cab to the dock in order to make the sailing trip.  The trip itself was largely unevenftul.  The woman who booked me made a big deal about how trips frequently get canceled because of the wind, and of course there was so little wind that we didn’t even put the sails out.  Fool me once and all that.  This isn’t the first time I’ve prioritized sailing only to more around on a sailboat. Well, as W said, You fool me once you can’t fool me again.  That’s probably not true.  I did, however, get to see some beautiful views that recalled Puget Sound, if the mountains were close the to sea, and Seward, Alaska, and one island claimed by birds (Isla de los Pajaros, claimed by cormorants) and another claimed by sea lions (Isla de los Lobos - sea lions = wolves?).  The male sea lions get up to 650lbs. and keep a harem of 15 or so women.  They mostly seemed to lie there with their women draped over them and cuddling with each other.  Occasionally, there'd be some likely territorial barking.  Apparently, after they feed on fish, they lounge for a couple of days.  Not a bad life.  OK, so then I built my bike which was a bitch.  I thought, for some reason, that I’d just have to put the pedals on, drop the seat in, put on the handlebars, which TN Valley bikes showed me how to do, and throw the front wheel on.  BAM! Done.  Ready to roll.  They forgot to mention they were going to take the brakes and deraileur off.  Fucking through me for a loop and confused the shit out of me.  Of course, wifi was down in all of Ushuaia and my cell phone was reception was weak at best (not to mention expensive), so it took me a solid hour and a half of messing around with it to finally get everything all good.  I only realized I had the fork turned around backwards because you couldn’t turn the wheel without it thunking into the pedals.  Idiota.  So I took it for a casual spin to Tierra del Fuego national park.  It was raining when I started and picked up steam for the first 10 miles, then disappeared altogether.  Suddenly the roads were all dust and winding through the forest like a path on Whidbey.  The trees would fall away suddenly and the mountains would be there looking more ferocious than their 1500m, valleys below with a surprising allotment of orange.  The clouds would grow suddenly from a peak like some malignant tumor or mushroom, a reminder that this, at heart, was a hostile environment.  I don’t care that the natives supposedly lived naked year round, merely rubbing seal fat on their skin when they swam.  This was not a particularly friendly place.  I took a picture at the end of Ruta 3, symbolic to me for being the southernmost connected road in the world.  I was not, unlike some people I have met, biking north from there to the top of the world.  I got lost on the return, losing faith in my path even though I was on the correct road.  Ended up wandering a bit through the slum section of Ushuaia.  Even at the end of the world, in a place that conjures Norway, it feels like Latin America.  Houses, habitated at their base, with spires of steel poking up, a preparation for a second story that did not come to fruition.  Little shacks with endless teeming masses of dogs dogs dogs.  Barking and loud blasting music and people roaming on bicycle on foot in car in bus.

This morning, I packed up and hit the road late at around noon.  There were two distinct climbs, the second being a true pass, Pasa Garibaldi, after which there was a huge drop down toward the lake.  I met three cyclists, Marcos (Mexico), Gustavo (Brazil), and Mikah (Holland).  All three had cycled a ways, but Gustavo had cycled by far the most.  Three fucking years.  Plus four months.  He’d been cycling so much that the 4 months is hardly worth mentioning, even though that’s 4 times as long as I’m going to cycle.  He started in Buenos Aires, tooled around South America, flew to Miami, biked to Alaska, biked down from Alask to Ushuaia, and was headed back up to Buenos Aires.  Que loco.  I got my ass kicked today.  Legs are trashed.  Bike is heavy.  Glad I’m going to have to bus to Puerto Natales the day after tomorrow in order to get it all in.  Not that the Torres del Paine Circuit will be easy.

So I finally got to Tolhuin at 9pm and go to the Panaderia La Union.  I asked about camping and the woman mumbled something incomprehensible, then disappears to the back.  A little guy comes out and inquires suspiciously about my bike.  Yes, I say, I’m touring by bike.  Where is your bike, he says.  Right over there.  We look at it.  Vale.  He told me that bike tourists sleep there and shows me to a gym area around the corner.  There were bicycles and camping shit strewn about.  6 other bicycle tourists are sleeping there, including two French women, a man, and their baby.  It’s unclear whose the baby is or if the foursome is a family unit.  In the U.S., I’m fairly confident CPS would have picked that baby up by now.  But to the people that thought bike touring Patagonia was dangerous, exhibit A: a baby bike tourist.  I had heard there was nice camping, but I decided to crash with my brethren instead.  Plus, it was down by the water, and I couldn’t stomach a mile of climbing to kick off tomorrow.  Just crushed no less than 6 empanadas of two varieties, queso y cebolla y verduras, and drank 3 beers.  Feeling nice and full.  Feeling like I got some sun. Feeling like my legs are trashed.  Feeling like I am a pissant compared to that son of a bitch who has been touring for 3 and a half years.  This world is full of crazy people.

Lifes moves fast.  Travel slow.

 

Packing Up

In 2012, I was living in Seattle while working remotely for my family's company, The Bailey Company, acutely aware of the cyclical pull of adventure when a friend from Bike and Build, Jen Dvorsky, invited me to cycle the Adventure Cycle Association Sierra Cascade route with her.  I agreed, procured a touring bike, did no packing until the night before, which happened to be the Fourth of July, meaning I packed up at midnight or so, buzzed up, then caught a 6am flight down to San Diego.  I did almost no prep - mental, physical, or logistical - and it was like stumbling into a surreal dream where suddenly, without even realizing how you got there, you're sitting on a truly unbelievably hot bus next to an older Mexican woman who is telling you in spurts of seemingly disinterested bursts that in the town where you will be staying the night, Tecate, people regularly get their fingers chopped off by the cartel, that her daughter lives in North Carolina, that the cartel demands things - cars, payments, etc. - and if you fail to meet their demands, true honest to god digits are collected instead and then BLAM! a bullet to the head maybe or the arm or something, that her daughter loves North Carolina, the people are muy simpatico, si, muy simpatico, that you should not walk around the streets of Tecate at night but that the hotel, too, might set you up to be mugged or worse, that she rode a bicycle as a child, pero no nada mas.  I was not prepared.

This time, I have done some actual research.  The primary difference of course is that I will not have Dvorsky planning the march like a general with a particular fixation on logistics and (preferably painful) motion forward.  There is also the language factor (I speak Spanish, my second language, about as well as most Europeans speak their third or fourth), the difficulty surrounding the ferries, and the greater variety of gear needed, since I will be backpacking in addition to cycling.  All that is to say that the list I have settled on has not come without some research.  Here is my packing list in its entirety, along with some photos.  I will not be getting ultralight cred.  I am pretty sure my 60 or so Starbucks Vias remove me from contention for any sort of UL award.  Not to mention the Justin's Almond Butter.  

  • Bike:
    • Salsa Fargo
    • Pedals - regular with cages
    • Helmet
    • Helmet mirror
    • Panniers - Orb
    • Rear light
    • Bike lock
    • Salsa Anything Cages
    • Fairweather Handlebar Bag
  • Tools and parts
    • Multi-tool
    • Chain breaker
    • Chain links
    • Spare break pads
    • Chain lube
    • Grease rag
    • Mini bike pump
    • 2 x spare tubes
    • Patch kit
    • Spare tire
    • Tire levers
  • Electronics
    • iPad w/ keyboard
      • Lonely Planet South America and In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin downloaded into the Kindle app
    • Solar charger
    • Backup battery charger
    • GoPro
      • Tripod
      • Helmet attachment
      • Handlebar attachment
      • Spare battery
      • Spare memory card
    • Garmin Fenix
    • Fenix charger
    • iPhone
    • Ear buds
    • iPhone/iPad charger
    • Headlamp
    • Extra batteries
    • Blow up solar lamp
  • Miscellaneous
    • Copy of passport
    • Passport
    • Swiss Army Knife
    • Proof I paid the Argentina entrance fee
    • El Alchemista by Paulo Coehlo
    • Motorcycle Diaries by Che Guevara
    • Waterproof journal
    • 2 x pens
    • Camping towel
    • Wallet with cash
    • Zip ties
    • Bungee cords
    • Water reservoir
    • Water bottles
    • Starbucks Vias
    • Sunscreen
    • Glasses
    • Duct tape
    • Twine
    • SteriPen
    • Water filter straw
  • Camping
    • Tent
    • Jetboil
    • Matches
    • Sleeping pad
    • Sleeping bag
    • Osprey backpack
    • Stuff sacks
    • REI Flash 18 pack
    • Spork
    • Mug
    • Bowl
  • Clothing
    • Saloman shoes
    • Booties
    • Vans
    • Havaiana flip flops
    • Patagonia khaki shorts
    • Columbia zip off pants
    • Black Levi's
    • Waterproof pants
    • Running tights
    • 3 x boxers
    • 2 x long wool hiking socks
    • 2 x short wool athletic socks
    • 1 x Swiftwick short sleeve quick dry shirt
    • 1 x t-shirt
    • 1 x short sleeve button down
    • 1 x Novara long sleeve button down shirt
    • 1 x Swiftwick long sleeve quick dry shirt
    • 1 x North Face long sleeve quarter zip fleece
    • 1 x Marmot Essence rain jacket
    • 1 x Marmot wind proof fleece
    • 1 x Mammut puffy coat
    • Full fingered cycling gloves
    • Cycling beanie
  • Toiletries
    • Toothbrush
    • Toothpaste
    • Deodorant
    • Contacts
    • Saline solution
    • Mirror
    • Plastic baggie with ibuprofen, allergy medicine, melatonin
    • All purpose soap

Life moves fast. Travel slow.

Nailing Down the Itinerary

The trip is coming up and I am slammed trying to secure a little sponsorship, put together the website, plan the journey, acquire the gear, and get my ass used to the saddle.  Not to mention my day job.  So here's a brief note to kick of this here blog.

The proposed agenda is as follows:

  • Fly into Ushaia – January 25
  • 2 days in Ushaia
  • Bike to Porvenir (267 miles – January 29 to February 1 @ 66.75 miles/day)
  • Boat to Punta Arenas
  • Bike to Puerto Natales (154 miles – February 2 – February 3 @ 77 miles/day)
  • Torres del Paine Circuit (~7 days – February 4 to February 10)
  • Bike from Puerto Natales to El Chalten (268 miles – February 11 to February 15 @ 53.6 miles/day)
  • 3 days in El Chalten (February 16 – February 18)
  • Boat to Villa O’Higgins (February 19)
  • Bike to Chaiten (534 miles – February 19 to February 26 @ 66.75 miles/day)
  • Ferry to Puerto Montt (February 27)
  • Fly to Buenos Aires (February 27)

1223 miles of cycling, plus over a week of backpacking.  Can't wait.

Life moves fast.  Travel slow.