21 September 2009

26 September 2009

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.

02 June 2009

Waves, Chile

Open palms lurched beyond the dashes of slowly passing cars, excitedly toggling back and forth in response to my subtle head nods that have rarely received recognition. Had it not been for the broken, foggy windshields that protected the aged old trucks from the bone-deep windchill, my face would have been smothered with waves. They would have been surprised to find a handful of face fluids, but considering their enthusiasm, it wouldn´t have mattered. The eagerness with which people greeted gave me a sense of belonging like never before. We were mutually pleased to see each other.

Rarely did interactions last longer than the moments experienced in passing, but even in these fleeting meetings, connections were made. Occasionaly, one party stopped with an expressed interest in questioning the other and familiarity was achieved at once. Commonalities far outweighed differences given the amount of discouraging criteria we´ve endured to be in the same place at the same time. Navigating a sparsely serviced road with weak winter sunlight in below-freezing temperatures seemed to deter most folks. Because of this, our few numbers automatically placed us in a nuclear group where each participant played a significant role in the operation of the whole. My role in this relationship is slightly parasitic, but I´m a grateful wretch.

Carreterra Austral, Chile

Tales of the Carreterra Austral have been whispered around handfuls of campfires, reverently spoken by those who have ridden it, mesmerizingly listened to by those who haven´t. Until last week, I´ve been unaffected by its mystique, but now, after six consecutive days of flawless blue skies, blinding white mountains, and tantalizingly smooth gravel, I have realized its appeal. At the next campfire, I´ll be among the muses that pontificate its glory.

Huasos, buried under furry chaps, fuzzy jackets, and funny berets, trot. Chimneys, slightly cocked on rusty roofs, smoke. Trees, clinging to reddenning leaves, rustle. Frost, garnishing foliage in sun-deprived basins, chills. Mist, risen from liquids, wisps. Horses, thought to have lept off embossed belt buckles, graze. Pigs, mistaken for hovering Zepplins, wallow. Bulls, tired of munching, stare. Duck, duck. Goose.

25 May 2009

Plowed, Argentina

When the snowplow broke down, so did I. Its vice was a fallen tree. Mine was laughter. The hilarity of trying to cycle, fully loaded, on a road buried under shin-deep snow caused me to forget desperation and buckle with chuckles. Had I considered the situation from a survivalist´s point of view rather than a humorist´s, I might have panicked. Soaked to the bone, body and gear alike from days of grinding through pounding rain threatened to sieze me in a gauntlet of hypothermia, trenchfoot, or frostbite, but the novelty of the situation kept me warm with laughs. For awhile.

Soon, the survivalist in me kicked in. Laughing wasn´t going to build a roof over my head, and camping was out of the question, given the compounded cold induced by the treacherous pattern of a hovering phase change. But with nothing open in the off-season, where was I supposed to find shelter in the middle of a national park? Neither I nor the snowplower knew, so I did the only thing I could think of: frantically run through the snow, pushing my bike in the frozen tire track until I found something. Adrenaline was on red alert.

Earlier that morning, as the tent grew a lighter shade of gray, I had no indication that the rain had turned to snow overnight because the beachside spot I had chosen was comfortably tucked underneath a giant coihue tree that filtered the solidifying precipitation, sending it splashing onto my tent. So, when I finally managed to peel myself from inside the cool, damp confines, I was surprised to find a bleached beach. Just as things were packed, the snowplow went by, so for the first few kilometers, I was able to warm myself by spinning a few hundred revolutions. But then, the damned thing ran into a tree and my wheels became a burden.

Fresh footsteps leading through a gate left slightly ajar was my ticket to salvation. There, knee deep in galoshes, hunkered by the fire under six sweaters was Miguel. Astonished to see anyone out and about, much less on a bicycle, he sprung into action, seeing my convulsive shivers. There, tucked in a clearing, deep in the forest stood a huge dining room used by the flocks of campers in the summer. He threw the doors open, cranked on the heaters, pulled a picnic table in front of one, and sat me down. There I thawed myself and my regiment. For two days.

At what point will I reach my capacity for adventure? Each thrilling episode is somehow outdone by the next, feeding itself in a self-stoking cycle. As of yet, no challenge has been too great to overcome, but when that event presents itself, what then? Every time I demand the most of myself, I emerge feeling recharged to the degree a drug addict could identify with. Is this a healthy exploration of limits or am I in need of therapy?

09 May 2009

Aquatic Bodies, Argentina

Airbound aggregate that normally limited visibility in the early morning was too cold to show. In its absence, unobstructed clarity prevailed. Alpenglow faintly warmed the frozen landscape until the sun finally broke over the sweeping horizon, illuminating fragile, crystalline edges on everything, giving them a holy aura usually reserved for saints or tabernacles. I nearly fell prostrate at the sight of a seemingly burning bush. Actually, I thought more about making toast than worshipping.

Still liquid, the lakes hovered on the brink of freezing. These aquatic bodies glowed cerulean in the acutely angular light - sparkling irises of pristine composition backdropped by brilliant white summits and vibrant fall foliage. In between the imperceptible gusts that softly rustled the canopy, the scene became doubly magnificent in the undisturbed surfaces.

Well below zero, the red tones radiated by ancient oaks warmed the atmosphere to a bearable degree. So, fully threaded with every stitch I had, I braved the added cold of windchill and saddled up, stopping often to shake the blood back into my digits. The araucarias gave me courage, seeing their massive appendages flexing upward in masculine exhibition of strength, despite the cold. Expressions of awe were retarded by frozen face muscles, but if one could have read lips in slow motion through a snotstache, mine would have said ¨wow.¨

For good reason, this region has gained celebrity status in nature´s gossip. Softly banked corners dive in and out of thickets, often exploding into panoramas of muted colors. Purple mountains dusted in streaks of snow plummet through dense forests into huge bodies of water, and, contrary to its namesake, there are far more than Seven Lakes.

This time of year, the days feel like they're continually beginning or ending. It's hard to tell when it's actually arrived because at that point, it's already leaving. Anticipation grows as the clouds congregate, knowing that with a fraction more saturation, the particles would gain critical mass, but haste evaded me in favor of an idleness encouraged by the awesome consistency.Urgency in the air, countered by stillness of mind, balanced well.

Pucón, Chile

Upon reentering the Andes from the smog-clogged valley, white, conical incongruencies in the horizon perforated the division of heaven and earth; at times, when the light was just right, the two united. In between these divine synapses, ancient arboreals draped over the undulating terrain like a tattered tarp. Water collected in the depressions, trimmed with black-sand beaches around which only the occassional flock of birds perched. Somewhere under the tarp (the green part), among the hundreds of cabins tossed like dice across the forest floor, was a weighted pair that won me a fortune.

Pull came from an encounter years ago on the opposite side of the Pacific at the outset of a different trip; not surprisingly, the bicycle served as the catalyst (the magic in these machines is undeniable). Contact was reestablished on occidental shores at which point I learned the nomadic Chilean family had returned to their roots after eighteen years spent scattered across all seven continents. There, tucked under giant evergreens, they opened their doors to a road-weary, spirit-dreary pedal-pusher. Actually, they gave me my own doors.

Respite came in plentiful portions, served up with heaping garnishes of love. Breakfast huddled around a stovetop toaster, percolated coffee, and dinner simmering in cast iron on the crackling fire provided the material medicine, aided by the waning wine rack that grew leaner with each evening we spent captivated in converstaion. A Polarity session immediately reacquainted my body with itself after having destroyed it with poor nutrition and overexertion on the superhighway. My mind realigned as well after a few days ambling around the mighty Volcan Villarrica on an unloaded rig. Two-wheelers regained presence.

If magnetism hadn´t teamed up with gravity, we would have flown. Good company, both humane and tectonic, reconstituted my vitals with positive energy, propelling me into a heightened awareness that had been obscured for quite some time. The potential I felt was exceeded only by what molten substance bubbled beneath the white, conical nozzles. Until the next time planets align along dual, radiating axes, which, if experience dictates frequency, won´t be far off.