30 April 2009

Superhighway, Chile

Freeway camping, as a matter of fact, is exactly as miserable as it sounds. Speaking of sounds, there's no lack of them when only a stone's throw from Chile's main arterial. If breathing diesel fumes and dodging careening blow-outs by day isn´t torturous enough, the drone of four-lane traffic continues throughout the night. Impenetrable fencing on either side of the highway forbids one to seek silence in acoustically dampened clearings, so as a result, screaming rubber on striated concrete tuned with loosely tied straps fluttering like reeds on unpracticed instruments lull one into an anxious half-sleep filled with chase-scene dreams until the faint glow of morning blows one's cover. Forget optimism, even my grandmother couldn´t spin this one favorably.

For a week, I practiced this routine with growing frustration. Excruciating decibel levels left a residual ringing in my ears, so whenever there was a fleeting break in traffic, silence went unvisited. Instead, the ensemble of invisible tuning forks on the upper registers vibrated hard and loud against my skull. Inside my skull. Headwinds also contributed to the inescapable noise and aggravation, not helped by the swirling vortex created by passing eighteen-wheelers hauling truckloads of ass. Horns, too.

The worst part of superhighway cycling isn't the burning throat or aching vertebrae; rather, it's the insignificance of the bicycle, like bringing an eyedropper to a waterfight. No matter how fervently I pedaled, I was inevitably doused by roaring engines with their immense capacities for making noise and pollution. There was absolutely no sense of belonging. There was so many people, probably hundreds per second, but I felt a lonliness like never before. At the occasional service station where I would fill my water bottles and sit in a chair, conversations with motorists never went beyond a simple greeting. They could probably see the emptiness I felt and didn't want to jump in. I don't blame them. Prone to the drone of the cacophonic cauldron.

Sidedish, Chile

Fruit salad filled the ditches after an overloaded produce truck smashed into an overpass at screaming velocity, sending vitaminal schrapnel hurling through the air like a SaladShooter from Tool Time. Fresh piles of purée lined the roadside, tempting my waning health with pre-chewed provisions that smelled like the Sun-Maid Lady. Vegetarian roadkill, for a change.

After the juices settled, workers piled the damaged consumables, shattered crates, and contorted steel into a compost heap that, I hope, didn´t include the body of the driver. Or me, for that matter, because had I not stopped to take a leak at the last overpass, I could have been mashed into the mix and thrown into the cornucopia as a protein supplement to whichever scavenger came scraping along after the incident. Thankfully, the roostertail of fruit juices on the back of my shirt was the only mark I carried away from this horrendous, admittedly hilarious accident.

15 April 2009

Bienvenidos, Chile

Thankfully, the switchbacks went downhill for me. All 70 of them. I felt sorry for the two Germans pushing their bikes uphill, but I couldn't slow my momentum enough to express my sympathy. Tears flying horizontally from my temples, I gave them a heartfelt salute. But they probably only heard the "yee" part, faintly catching the Dopplerizing "haw" over the screaming friction of speeding tires.

Headwinds and traffic made the incline toward the border gruesome, but once on the road to see Jesus, the wind died and traffic slowed. It was Easter, coincidentally, and since Someone had just woken up for the 1985th time, blessings were plentiful. Favorable weather, the result of a tumultuous microclimate or a miraculous resurrection, is always welcome. From the Redentor, the route wound down 40 tight gravel turns leading to the 30 asphalt hairpins that crippled the Germans. One can imagine the hoots and hollers.

Once windward, only a few hundred kilometers separated me from Santiago. Most of those passed through the sprawling suburban fabric of Chile´s capital, gradually densifying into the vertically stacked glass piles that disappeared into the thick, brown smog that hovered over the city like Pigpen from Peanuts. Blankets could be seen dragging in the gutters. Charlie was depressed upon seeing this, but handfulls of kind people favorably offset any ill feelings induced by the polluted basin, recharging my batteries for the gruesomely trafficked superhighway to the south.

05 April 2009

Harvest, Argentina

Dew droplets bulged meniscusly on the impeccably manicured grounds, reflecting the molten colors of an Andean sunrise like a lava lamp spilled across green shag carpet. Wispily stroked clouds and Falling poplars filled the middle hues of the color spectrum, prepping the vineyard with kaleidoscopic calisthenics for the pending pluck-fest. Droplets glowing, leaves yellowing, sky bluing, berries bursting: harvest loomed.

Coincidentally, our arrival at Casa Altamira fell on the eve of this year´s harvest. Not that we should be suprised at this fortune, given the nature of my first encounter with our hosts.

Years ago, while pedaling through the Rocky Mountains, I met a few folks roaming around in a Westfalia Volkswagen. Through conversation that only happens around campfires, I learned that the wine we drank that night came from one of their vineyards in Mendoza. Without the slightest knowledge of the present adventure, we exchanged contacts that would eventually lead to Casa Altamira. Once again, an open mind and an able body has led to an irreplaceable experience.

Anxiety grew on the first morning of scheduled picking when the truckload of laborers failed to show. The worry was that we´d miss the time slot in which the grapes must be plucked from their vines before they begin to shrivel and rot. This time of year, temperatures plummet at night, cooling the grapes into a bitter, acidic balance with the sun-sweetened juices that simmer inside by day. Too long on the vine and the balance would be upset. Nerves were rightly wrought when no one showed.

As we discovered, yesterday´s holiday marking the defeat in the Falkland Islands War left the crew haggard; spirits often accompany lamentations. When duty called, the truckdriver did his best to rally the troops, but an untimely (but not unprovoked) breakdown stalled the process until the following day; accidents often accompany hangovers.

Early the next morning, a heavily compensated crew came earlier than expected. By the time we arrived on scene, pickers were hustling through the narrow rows, hoisting forty kilos of raw crop with one hand, violently waving pruning scissors in the other. Sixty workers competed for a finite yield that paid quantitatively, economically explaining their hasty habits. Soren and I conjured our latent farming genes and helped a few lagging laborers, but our efficiency paled in comparison. In less than three hours, they plucked 1,300 baskets equaling 72 bins of 300 kilos each. Forget calculations, that´s a hellofalot of grapes. And that was only a fraction of the malbec.

Later, stained hands cupped last year´s yield as the sun balanced on the jagged horizon moments before disappearing, casting warm tones on the vineyard in an amber bath of therapeutic quality. Like the grapes, we felt ripened to a perfect balance. Pick us anytime, we´re ready.

04 April 2009

Flash/Crack, Argentina

Vibrant colors, glowing in shades warmer than normal, drew me into a beautifully carved canyon at the end of a sweaty day. Slivers of shade soothed my salty skin as the sun projected a declining azimuth that embossed every nook and cranny into enhanced dimensional proportions. The few trees that found nourishment in the hot, dry sand exploded with greenery in sharp contrast with the red backdrop. Bones cooled while dinner simmered.

The intensely glowing, thinly trimmed fingernail from the previous night projected a new moon, and since the present setting showed no signs of habitation, the stars would be blinding. With that in mind, the tent took the night off. Bag in the sand, I slept with my glasses on. The stars twinkled rhythmically.

After a few hours of gazing, my periphery picked up some activity in sharp, blinding bursts of washed, white light. Clouds began bumping into one another, discharging their agitation in frequent blasts (flash/crack). I held onto the last visible strip of stars as the eye hovered directly above me, but soon, the cycloptic storm lost its vision and closed in with blind fury. Delirium prevented me from taking protective measures against the impending storm because logic detracted the chance of rain in such arid terrain. Nature proved itself, once again, as an unpredictable, viable force, worthy to be reckoned with.

Light rain began to fall, easily shed by my sleeping bag, but as the drops grew globular and cold, I began to feel seepage inside my cocoon. Like an anxious caterpillar halfway through metamorphasis, I poked my head outside to survey the situation. Spooked by what I saw, I burst from my wrap prematurely, naked and wingless. Small, muddy rivers had formed around me, growing more voluminous with each compounded drop shed from the mountains above. The island on which my stuff sat was slowly washing away, as was my bike, leaning on the rapidly eroding bank. Hindsight mocked my ignorance with bellowslike laughs (flash/crack), illuminating the brutal truth of camping in a dried-up riverbed in the middle of the desert. Flash flood, idiot.

Splashing knee-deep through the thick, bubbling river, I heaved my bike halfway up a solid embankment. Too low and I'd be washed away. Too high and I'd be lit up (flash/crack). Hurriedly wading back to the island, I rescued my marooned sleeping gear, totally soaked and useless, of course. A quick scan of the basin through wet, foggy glasses convinced me that I had gathered everything. Back at the bank, I had to find shelter. The coat of adrenaline that had dampened my shivers withered in the pouring rain as I crouched, fetally, next to some spiny bushes.

Scrambling through cold, muddy gear-stew, I tore out my tent and carefully assembled the tent poles with one eye on the sky (flash/crack). Hilariously pitched on an uncomfortable slope, I nestled into the sticky, crackling embrace of an emergency blanket. From inside, as the river lapped at the vestibule, I laughed, humbly acknowledging my error, gratefully realizing my fortune at having escaped the vomitous discharge of an overwatered landscape.