14 July 2009

Paso Rio Mayer, Argentina

The conspirators against my southerly progress included rain, wind, snow, mud, ice, and rivers; but on my side were a handful of good folks that pulled me from my self-induced wreckage and escorted me through the inherently ferocious elements of a Patagonian winter. In the end, Paso Rio Mayer turned out to be a bite that I wasn´t able to chew. In fact, I´m still gnawing on the piece I tore off, at the moment in San Julián, Argentina, considering a northerly course on something with more than two wheels. More on that in a moment. Right now, I´m still digesting the sequence of experiences that explains why I´m looking at the Atlantic Ocean and not the Andes.

All is well, relatively, considering I still have all my fingers and toes. But I fear that when I go to the hospital, they´ll nip a chunk off my left foot. That, actually, is a remnant from the snowstorm last month in Los Alerces, but once skin freezes, it´s considered lost. Embarrassingly, the afflicted area is no bigger than a quarter, hasn´t been debilitating in any way, and won´t get me any dates at the bowling alley. But it´ll be a souvenir, nonetheless.

Crossing glacial rivers without shoes or pants probably didn´t help matters, but there I was, high on adventure and blinded by the beauty of late afternoon sun on the frontier of Argentina thinking I was invincible. Clearly mistaken (as I would soon learn) but understandably disillusioned when recalling the immaculate conditions of late. The humiliating account, diluted for purposes of censorship and brevity, follows accordingly.

Thoughtlessly chasing the seductive curves of the Carreterra Austral to its termination, I encountered the bitter reality of wintertime navigation in southern Chile: the roadless border-crossing that passes through Lago O'Higgins and over the mountains to El Chalten, Argentina on ferry boats and horse trails was closed due to infrequent activity and avalanches. This route is heavily trafficked by trekkers and cyclists in the summertime, but in the off-season it's highly improbable, verging on impossible. Undeterred, I put on my blinders and charged ahead like a senseless beast of burden. Improbability has yet to dictate my route, so why should it now? Hindsight would refute.

Approaching the end of the road, I pieced together the bits of beta I had collected along the way and formulated a narrowly convincing scenario: 1. the alternative border post at Paso Rio Mayer is open all year, but the sheep bridge that previously allowed pedestrian crossing collapsed a month ago, 2. there is no vehicular bridge, 3. consequently, fording is the only option, but it sounded challenging after hearing the story of a brave motorcyclist whose machine washed up fifty kilometers downstream after it was swept from underneath him, 4. storms were expected for Monday, so I was pressed to make it before bad weather hit, 5. a British cyclist that passed through Rio Mayer last July was kind enough to forward his vague, anecdotal account, but it did little but convince me that it was doable. From this, I somehow concluded that forging ahead was a good idea. Again, disillusioned to a blissful degree.

Outside the Chilean office, I listened to the officer that explained the shallowest route through the broad wash as he gestured with loose fingers that clutched a waning cigarette. He indicated a zig-zagging route that included no fewer than five crossings separated by swamps and stones. The Argentinian office, he explained, was on the northern edge of the notch carved out of the horizon, twenty-some kilometers away. He unconvincingly suggested that there would be some tire tracks as I approached, but since nearly all the traffic that frequents the border has hooves or paws, I shouldn't count on it.

Before I wheeled my bike down the bank, he told me I was the first gringo he´d ever encountered at this station (strange, considering the previous info about the Brit), and that should I fail, I was welcome to crash at the Chilean office. Nice offer, but not exactly a confidence booster.

Edging up to the first river, I carefully plotted a route through the whitest rapids (an indicator of the shallowest section). Boots off, socks tucked, pants rolled, bags closed, I eased into the water with methodical care. At first contact, the green, glacial flow bit at my feet, but after a few strides in knee-deep current, it neither bit nor gnawed. It didn't feel at all, actually. On the opposite shore, I robed and strode mere meters until reaching the next aquatic obstacle. Again, I de-booted, un-socked, and re-rolled. Moments after the initial nibble, all became wonderfully numb.

The next few crossings were made with like diligence, but midway through the last visible vein, the current became no less than ¨swift¨ and rushed no lower than my ¨package.¨ Thirty meters of water, flowing on the brink of a phase change, separated me from apparent refuge, but it might as well have been 12,000 kilometers judging by the urgency of the moment. If there had been a crux on this adventure, this would have been it.

Slipping never entered my mind because had it, I would have. And after succumbing to the flow, recuperation would have been unlikely. So, what had to be done was, and I marvel at what drove me in that moment. Synergy drawn from the surroundings injected me with unthinkable strength, propelling me above daunting odds. Left hand on the cockpit and right arm wrestling the saddle, I surfed the loaded bike on its impermeable panniers until miraculously reaching the opposite shore. Frozen feet postholing through a hypothermic bath barely gaining traction on the slippery stones beneath somehow carried me diagonally across. Refuge, at last? Not quite.

Still unable to curb my adrenaline, I shakily dried myself and dressed again, unfathomably gazing across the trackless expanse that laid behind me. Clothed, I almost mustered a jubilant shriek at having emerged, but my release was retarded by a faint whistle. Holding my breath and damming potential volume with curiosity, I tuned in to find its producer. There, twenty meters upstream floundered a pair of dogs on a diagonal trajectory in the wake of a confident horse ridden by a weathered warrior - whistling.

As he approached, I could see we were equally surprised to see each other, but after explaining how I managed to arrive at where I was, props weighed in my favor. To impress a cowboy of his stature takes either great courage or stupidity (often confused), and judging by the reaction on the narrow exposure of his grizzly face, I had gained his respect. The greeting he extended looked more like a paw than a hand, and the rest of his figure similarly exhibited more bestial traits than manly ones. His heart, thankfully, was unmistakably human. From there, he motioned toward a tree grove at the edge of the clearing where I would find a trail that would lead to the Argentinian office. Supposedly. Off he trotted and onward I hobbled.

As I approached the indicated grove, it got dark, the road disappeared, and it started snowing. I wasn´t able to pedal due to worn chainrings that no longer maintained the crisp butte profile that they´re supposed to have, but instead, eroded to look like carnivorous teeth, ready to devour any attempted pedal stroke. The mud deepened to impossible depths and the cold began seeping through my armor of adrenaline. Cows stood motionless with their backs to the wind, un-phased by my directional inquiries. Sheep were just that, ready to follow me toward shelter. Little did they know, I knew nothing of our whereabouts.

Trudging through sludge for what seemed like an eternity took me through expansive pastures and leafless forests. Every so often, I would reach a fence and follow it until finding a gate where I rediscovered the trail. I would follow it until the darkness consumed it and proceeded to aimfully wander eastward until reaching another fence. Trail appeared, trail disappeared. Snow fell, wind blew. Anxiety ensued.

Sound like a world of shit? It was. But among the shitheap was a bunker of border officials tending a crossing that didn´t have a road. Curious, eh?

Once I saw the glow of their firelight, I could breathe again, but it wasn´t until five days later that I could move. Clarification: my body was able but the terrain was impassable. The snow had piled high overnight and continued to fall for the following few days, trapping me indefinitely. This time, it wasn´t my comfort that relied on the kindness of strangers as has been the case in the past - it was my life. If this sounds like a traumatic experience, I should clarify again; transformative, I would say, and invigorating.

Still three-hundred kilometers from substantial population, I was by no means saved. Never have I been closer to experimenting with the Spot 911 and recooperating my World Nomads insurance plan with a thrilling helicopter ride, but thankfully, it didn´t come to that. Instead, my shitheap was unloaded on another group of kind folks. Ranchers, with whom I helped herd sheep across another snowy river (this time with a bridge) happened to be heading for Gobernador Gregores, Argentina within a few days time. Seeing my desperation, they offered to take me there. But not before shoveling our way through more than a meter of snow in minus fifteen degrees. Without windchill. In the dark.

As I recount this, I sigh with relief at having emerged intact, but as I said before, my salvation had nothing to do with my own devices. Rather, responsibility lies in the open arms of people who care, enormously, for others whom they have no obligation to. Lying awake during one of the many sleepless nights after the experience, I decided that continuing southward would only complicate matters, most likely resulting in another helpless episode that would depend on pinning another set of wings on unbeknownst angels. Thus, I´ve decided to give up the Patagonian ghost-chase and turn my horse north.

Since Surely has been limping for over a month now, we´ll jump on a bus and limit the frustration to ticket vendors and sore tailbones for the forty-hour bus ride to Buenos Aires. I´m not certain where or when we´ll ship out, but I´ve dropped the idea on my brother (currently in Mendoza), thinking there´ll be a chance to meet in the capital before he heads back. There, I´ll confirm my pilgrimage homeward (which I still consider to be Rapid City, South Dakota), at the beginning of August. This year.