26 October 2008

Huaraz, Peru

Expeditions hatch at breakfast in Huaraz. The influx of adventurers generates an electric air at eight o´clock in the morning, provoked by the panorama of peaks gazed upon with glazed eyes. As senses awaken with the steaming tea, so do the possibilities of floundering in the flanking faults. Ideas inhabit the narrow space between contours while the gamers assemble around the map, eager for outings that far exceed the expectations conjured over coffee. While our iron horses wait patiently in the stable, we´re able to partake in the pedestrian playground games, leaving the round rubber at rest. First up, Lightning Tag.

One morning, the blinding glare of the glaciated peaks spoke to us in tantalizing tongues, beckoning us to place where its whispers might be heard. The Bakers, a family with altruistic intentions of spreading love osmotically, proposed a potato planting outing that would unsuspectingly include a game of Lightning Tag. Had we known, we may not have signed up.

The rain ceased as the moon rose over the city lights of Huaraz that night, far below us in a half-assembled pile of Legos. The campfire slowly faded on the stone enclosures of the potato patch, sending us into our respective refuges for the night. With clockwork accuracy, the rain began again early the next afternoon, and with it came the featured activity. Sven, Soren, and I successfully dodged the electric jabs under a pile of boulders, but the Bakers weren´t so slippery. David, the father of the family, recalled nothing of the game. Apparently, the lightning knocked him out with one of its tags. Nature never plays nice. Thankfully, he suffered no lasting damages, but we´re still waiting to see what kind of eccentricities he gained from the incident. Early signs indicate a unnatural affection for vernacular plowing. After a quick trip to the nurse´s office, recess ended and we returned to the breakfast table in Huaraz to scheme another, less violent diversion: Hide and Go Seek.

Weeks earlier, Sven suffered a cycle-stopping knee injury that put a halt to our pedaling progression, so with his remaining days in Peru, we had to reorient our activities to include less leg revolutions. During a typically prospective breakfast session, we groggily gathered around our fruit smoothies to formulate a more relaxing reimmersion into the Cordillera Blanca, this time for a game of Hide and Go Seek.

Dylan, Sven, and I loaded onto a bus that took us deep into the mountains where we hid from Soren for days on end. Had Sven not experimented with the varying densities of wax and water boiling on an open fire, we could have hid for weeks, but the fireball from his rudimentary pyrotechnic display revealed our position with explosivity. Come to think of it, we failed to inform Soren of his seeking duty, so we waited at 4,800 meters for nothing, fireball notwithstanding. As we realized this, we ventured back to the road and flagged a bus back to Huaraz, ignorantly victorious. Over the next breakfast, Sven prepared for his return as we began drumming up another outing, later to be categorized as Stuck in the Mud.

With mouths full of fresh bread, Soren and I pored over the Huayhuash map, spitting crumbs at the 150 km of frightfully steep trail that circumnavigated a pocket of 6,ooo meter peaks. Despite the impedimentary season, we forged ahead with restless ambition. Dusting off the remnants of another successfully schemed breakfast, we prepared to make the market trip that would feed us for ten days on the trail, when, from over our shoulders, we overheard the token catcall for other interested parties, a sound much like the sweeping motion of a bristled broom. Jens, fresh off the overnight bus from Lima, glowed with the prospect of spending a week along the hem of Huayhuash´s gargantuan garment. With a few casual examinatory questions that ensured our compatability in uncomfortably close quarters, we sealed the deal. Stuck in the Mud would gain relevance soon.

Expeditions also end at breakfast. After months of cycling with six wheels in sync, we´ve downsized the circus act. Now, all that remains is the Sturlaugson Family Freakshow. Business might suffer without the Flying Dutchman, but with a few transient stand-ins, the show will go on. The antics of our clowny companion will be sorely missed, most painfully in the early morning hours when we´re faced with an incapacity to recreate his famed Dutch pancakes. Breakfast schemes will never be the same.

20 October 2008

The Lone Road, Peru

Various circumstances have led to each of us blazing a solitary trail. The road that I pursued led back into the Cordillera Blanca on a seldomly trafficked route that approached a pass that flirted with 5,000 meters. As I rounded and early corner on the mud-caked track lined with sub-alpine vegetation, the glacier that hung at the end of the valley growled with ferocity compared to the complacent bull that stared dumbly at my passing. There appeared to be more life in the crevasses than in the livestock. Movements of such masses of ice and rock are perceived on a macro-scale, sculpting intricate valleys with such patience that they give the illusion of sedation. Cattle, on the other hand, are as empty as their eyes appear.

The climb wore on and the precipitation changed states a few times, disproving the Dutch theory that sneezing three times forecasts good weather. Squinting through splattered sunglasses at an ascending gradient of gray to white, I could imagine the peaks to be as tall as I wanted them to be. Topography be damned, I prefered fantasy. Later, when the stacked switchbacks alternated directions to and from the clouded vista, the cloudcover dissipated, momentarily revealing the cirque in its entirity. Surprises like these are fully appreciated at a pedaled pace. Topography be hallowed, I worshipped these peaks.

As the sun descended, the clouds cast a deceptively warm light onto the frozen landscape. While the light faded, a surge of a different sort grew. Thunder clapped from a great distance, and as it bounced off the canyon walls that drained the cirque, it sounded like canon warfare. The ricocheting rumbles instigated a rockslide that added to the chorus of chaos, and the avalanche gained a variety of aggregate as it tumbled down the precipice. When the last reverberations had been silenced by the growing density of fog, the full-moon revealed another phenomenon. From the northern knife edge came pouring a bank of clouds that resembled the diffusion of dry-ice over a dance-floor. The bank of clouds soon descended upon the cirque, enveloping everything in a churning, white broth.

Before this series of spectacles began, I had discovered a deserted shack tucked next to an eerily blue lake that collected the runoff from a niche in the cirque. Wrapping myself in layers of synthetics, I watched, partially numb, from the bouldered porch. The next morning, from between the cracks of the metal storm-shutters, I could see slivers of daylight reflected off my breath. It took courage to peel myself from the straw-strewn floor within the thick walls of dry-stacked stones, but as I did, my grogginess dissolved with the blinding light of a freshly painted landscape. White was the color of choice, excess was the idea. Snow-days are rare occasions to lounge around, and I couldn´t have asked for a more inspiring setting to cancel my activities. As soon as the stove cooled from one batch of tea, I fired up another, repeating the process more times than was necessary. Stillness prevailed.
The following day presented a similar dilemma, but when calculating my dwindling food cache, consecutive snow-days didn´t compute. The frozen road to Punta Olímpica was glazed with vapor as it sublimated under the morning sun, but as I pedaled the last remaining switchbacks, the track disappeared under a blanket of snow. If keeping my balance at 4,900 meters wasn´t difficult enough, the snow made it next to impossible. So, with moronic humility, I pushed my way through the slice in the rock, postholing through drifts toward the perfectly framed Huascarán, glowing with pride at being the biggest of them all. I, too, beamed with a bit of pride at having maximized the lone road around the Cordillera Blanca.

Cordillera Blanca, Peru

Chasms carved out of the western edge of the Cordillera Blanca offer an array of access routes for wheel-bound travelers into Peru´s monumental range of world-renowned peaks. Continuing our five-day, five-thousand-meter climb, we wiggled our way between Huasarán, Peru´s highest, and Huandoy, where we found the famously blue lakes of Llanganuco. After weeks of overnight confinement in semi-rectangular accommodations, we were finally back in our synthetic sacks. That night, our sleep was toxic.

Coinciding with our re-immersion into the Andes was our desire for solitude. Two months of sharing everything from toothbrushes to tire levers has inevitably brought us closer together, but at times, as with everything, change can be invigorating. Conveniently, our contemplative stints came in the Cordillera Blanca, a place saturated with restorative energy. The mountains scheduled their first private meeting with Soren, so he opted to bivouac at Llanganuco for a few more days and discover what the white giants had in store. After a few gear exhanges and a slap on the back, the group was severed in two.

Sven and I carried on, leisurely pedaling beside cerulean lakes until we spotted a cattle-groomed field amid a splattering of glacial erratics. Since Sven had ignored the screaming pain receptors in his patella since climbing from sea-level, he tended our camp like a lame bouncer, scrutinizing the most persistent cows from defacating on our temporary home. I trekked onward, without wheels, heeding my own appointment with the mountains. After hours of adrenaline-induced hiking that insufficiently oxygenated my brain, I doubted the reality of what I found, thinking it hallucinatory. The Cordillera Blanca had apparently suffered a mild flesh wound that bled streams of ice-cold, neon-blue blood. This sacrement appeared to glow compared to its desaturated surroundings. The gray tones of the glaciers had miraculously birthed a blue that tasted just as the color should, that is, if colors tasted.

Later that night, under a full-moon, we saw the upcoming pass glimmer with a jagged path of headlights that clued at the steepness of the slope. The next morning, as we hovered over a pot of steaming oats, we wagered on how many switchbacks were in store for the day. At number 18, my guess had already been exceeded; at number 32, Sven´s had passed; and at number 35, we stood woozily at the coattails of 5,000 meters, proudly atop the Puertochuelo.

After cooking a hasty batch of avocado spaghetti, we tightened our jaws for the long descent into Yanama where we spent a disrupted night camped next to a pigsty. Sven woke with the pains from the pass screaming in his knee, which led him into wisely deciding to trace our path by bus, back to a place more prone to recooperation than a slop bucket. The characteristic magnetism of an uncharted road pulled me onward, into another chasm that pierced the Cordillera Blanca, this time on the east side. Solitude, on all fronts, led us each to unique experiences, something we could hoard all to ourselves.

09 October 2008

Mountainbound, Peru

As we poured over the endless literature at the Casa de Ciclistas, we found a graph that mapped the route from Trujillo to Cuzco. Apparently, a technologically savvy cyclist felt compelled to share his wealth of data in a painfully detailed manner, a priceless gift for southbound cyclists. The only problem with acquiring this information was now knowing the brutal reality of what´s to come. What we found resembled a electrocardiogram after resuscitatation, showing a flatline until the defibrillator shocked the subject back into rhythm. At that point, the graph indicated convulsions, all the way to Cuzco. If we had measured our heart rates at that point, it may have shown similar spikes.

After nearly two weeks of procrastination, we rode out of Trujillo hesitantly, approaching the climb like poorly behaved children on their way to detention, taking every opportunity for a bathroom break; but as our fate drew nearer, our expectations shifted gears. The dreadful pitches indicated by the Andean heartrate went unnoticed as we slowly churned our way upward. Instead, our attention rested on the immensity of topography that we so humbly occupied. Nothing, save for a few cacti, inhabited this magnificently harsh environment.

After resting for the night in an outbuilding at a remote gas station, we followed the track along the south bank of the river. Up to this point, the road varied between washboard gravel and mediocre asphalt, but according to the station attendant, Sanchez, the road deteriorated from there. How right he was. Fist-size stones buried in patches of sand felt like riding through a sandbox filled with Tonka toys. The tailwind that blew with generosity now stirred the loose dirt into a cloud that hovered at eye level until we emerged from the sandtrap with wrenched facial features. Once we were able to open our eyes, the setting reminded us why we were here. The day grew increasingly rough, as did our emerging ailments, but when the sun set over the gigantic gorge and painted the clouds with shades of eighties funk, the pain withered like eighties music. Another hour of riding under the waxing half-moon brought us straggling into Huallanca, beaten but not defeated.
From Huallanca, the route follows a terribly steep canyon with a precipitously engineered road, evoking fear in those that entrust their lives to ramshackle buses. As usual, we opted for the self-reliant mode. Six switchbacks led us out of town and into the asscrack of the Andes. At one point, the Cañon del Pato, as its called, measures 100 m down, 500 m up, and 10 m across, leaving only a sliver of blue sky above. To provide passage through such narrow confines, the road passes through thirty-seven tunnels in less than 15 km. The visionary that sparked this construction project must have had San Pedro for breakfast because the physical constraints of such a setting would deter even the most optimistic contractors; but thankfully, someone had the hallucinogin-induced plan so that we could satisfy our adrenaline cravings. Emerging from this terrestrial crevasse, we sailed past snow-capped peaks on smooth asphalt with a tailwind sent from an encouraging source which reignited our high-altidude lust.

03 October 2008

Trujillo, Peru

Trujillo itself offers nothing in general but everything in particular. The strange cravings we´ve accumulated over the past few months have been satisfied by a handful of hosts in a variety of settings. Lucho, first and foremost, has provided us with a semblance of home. Disbelievers will be convinced of the existence of altruism after staying at the Casa de Ciclistas, but as products of our respective societies, something inside of us was uncomfortable with receiving something for nothing. After a few days of pampering, we got the urge to upset his non-reciprocal policy with an installation on the rooftop terrace that would serve as an enduring gift for the Casa de Ciclistas.
Later that evening, the downstairs came alive, not with paint, but with music. The Dutch bassist teamed up with a Nepalese guitarist and a Peruvian drummer to create the ¨Most Diverse and the Best Bicycle Band in the World,¨ or so it seemed. Guest artists included two Dakotan percussionists and a Seattleite harpist. The record contract is still pending.

Peeling ourselves out of bed the next morning, we hobbled over to Café Alemán where our resident German chef prepared his usual recipe for rejuvinating our post-party aches: Bernd´s Bicycle Burger. Without a doubt, this magical recipe was the key to our recovery, as well as one of the magnets that kept us in Trujillo. Each time we stuffed ourselves and made to hobble onward, he grudgingly calculated a bill, which he then square rooted. If it was within his means, he would have gladly sponsored our visits, but knowing the reality of the situation, we cubed his requests in a game of mathematical jousting.
The days at the Casa de Ciclistas slowly accumulated as the wealth of compelling events carried on. On our last day, as we often projected, Trujillo celebrated its annual festival with an internationally themed parade. As vertically endowed gringos, we enjoyed unobstructed views from the back row, watching tractor-drawn floats flaunt beauty queens from Latin America and stilted clowns dance with costumed tamales as the various marching bands kept time. Our culture-meters peaked in Trujillo, given the authenticity of our interactions and the hospitality of our hosts.

01 October 2008

Casa de Ciclistas, Peru

His reputation preceeds him by thousands of kilometers. His talents resurrect lame machinery. His home welcomes the smelliest of guests. His friends concoct delectable pizza. His enthusiasm peaks after midnight under neon light. His archives record decades of gripping adventures. His trophy case overflows onto the workbench. And yet his fame is only matched by his humilty.

Over twenty years ago, Lucho began welcoming two-wheeled travelers into his home, repairing neglected bicycles, extending his knowledge of local delights, and sharing his passion for cycling with vagabonds from around the world. Since then, he has hosted 1031 cyclists, making us his prime priority. Every aspect of his life is oriented on the promotion of cycling, whether it be the racing circuit in South America or the touring community around the world. His library of bicycles strewn around the house indicate the depth of his love, including one aged mountain bike with a car-seat mounted on the back. His two-year old copilot´s name, not surprisingly, is Lance.

Above the door hangs a banner announcing the ¨Casa de Ciclistas,¨ but with Lucho´s notoriety, no sign is needed. Strangers pointed the way before we had the thought to ask, figuring that gringos on loaded bicycles were headed for Lucho´s haven. Under the banner is a mural depicting two cyclists, one slick, the other grimy, carrying the globe over their heads. Between them, ¨Amistad.¨ The moment we met Lucho, we understood this life-long commitment that sought to brighten the journeys of weary cyclists. We arrived after a recooperative beach-stint in Huanchaco, planning on spending an afternoon looking at maps and tinkering with our broken bikes, but after feeling the warmth with which we were welcomed, it was impossible to continue along the cold road that lie ahead.

The days hanging around the Casa de Ciclistas have accumulated with little awareness of the passing time. Nights are spent racing around the city in reckless fashion, Lucho leading with a heavy pedal stroke. The sprint usually ends at a pizza joint where we´re received with familiarity, along with bottomless wine carafes and divinity pizzas. After dinner, we wander purposefully into a dimly lit, mirrored nightclub where all the female employees seem to have forgotten their clothing. Later, as we bed down, we have every intention of cycling onward the next day, but come morning, we find plenty of reasons to stay. So until the reasons run out, we´ll enjoy the fruits of our pilgrimage to the Casa de Ciclistas.