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.