Chapter 12:
February 20, 2017, 12:28 pm
Filed under: Adventures, Travel

My eyes snapped open and I pawed in the dark at the items on the bedside table:  maps, books, glasses, plastic cups, hotel keys, and finally my watch. New from Christmas, I hadn’t exactly figured out which button did what. I knew it was daylight out from the glow emanating from the edges of the drawn curtain, so I sat up, pulled the cover back and thrust the watch face into the pale light–7:34 a.m.

Within a few minutes I was cleaned up, packed, motorcycle boots on, and sitting at breakfast, enjoying a coffee. By the time I was loading the bike up, Ulf was just stepping out of his room. He craned his neck around the corner at me, and with his German accent, which was thicker in the early mornings said, “it takes a little longer for us old folks to wake up.” I sprayed oil on my chain and smiled at him.

As I checked the straps holding my bags to the bike, I tried to count how many days I’d been on the road. Nine? Ten? I thought, counting on my fingers. It had been ten days since I got to Pucon. Most of those with very little sleep, very few calories, and close to a thousand miles put on the bike, and on my tired ass.

Before too long we were on our way towards El Calafate, south on the infamous Ruta 40. South, always south, sur 180 down, south forever. According to the guide book we were supposed to travel 635 kilometers, or about 395 miles, which is a stretch for anyone in one day on a 650cc motorcycle, but Route Forty was basically the end boss villain of south american roads.

The first bit of road was beautifully paved twists and turns in a landscape that looked a little like the four corners region, a little bland, but the road was good, so no complaints. It wasn’t too long before we’d gotten in a groove, passing each other playfully, opening up the throttle, waving at tourists. I’d forgotten about how shitty Perito Moreno was, and I was just here, or there, as it were.

There’s a moment when every rider finds that the machine has become an extension of himself, and that the road is an extension of the bike, and that the entire universe is an extension of himself and I guess that’s what Zen looks like. Of course, like enlightenment, the moment you realise you are in this state, it is gone, and maybe it never was or always was.

Who knows, i’m not a fuckin expert on these things. I’m just a guy under a big sky on a motorbike going south south forever south, amen.

It was easy to feel meditative on this ride, until right around Chico Chile, the landscape had really taken the forefront of the experience, the ride being secondary (with some exceptions) but now there was no landscape to speak of, as what had been just slightly bland country had devolved into scrub brush and then dropped further, eventually, into dry, arid desert, inhospitable and empty.

The wind began to blow, subtly at first, as a reminder of life, of the elements in such an empty lifeless moonlike place, and eventually howling across the emptiness like standing too close to a freight train.

With the wind, came black swirling clouds that took up half of the sky and I remembered a tip the outfitter gave me my first evening in Chile in that German Restaurant: “Ruta 40 will flood completely if it rains. Check the weather before riding this stretch every day, otherwise you could lose the bike, and maybe your life.” I had checked the weather that morning. It said nothing of rain.

The clouds looked to be gurgling and burping, pregnant with rain, threatening to unleash it and ruin our trip. We had hundreds of miles ahead of us, not just until our destination, but to any destination. No gas stations, no garages, no houses, nothing. The wind was roaring so loudly that I couldn’t hear the engine over the sound. It was so bad that we were riding at a 50 degree angle just to keep from being pushed off our bikes and off the road. We had to slow down to 30, and then 20, and then 10 kph in some spots just to keep from flying away. I could feel the wind pushing my body off of the bike. They don’t teach you how to deal with this kind of wind in a motorcycle safety class. You don’t learn how to deal with this by riding dirtbikes on your buddy’s land.

With bulbous clouds rolling above us, the sky now completely black, it looked like dusk, even though it was midday. I was so frustrated from having to slow down because of the wind, knowing that every moment we were on the road could bring an impending flash flood that completely float our bikes. I was white-knuckling the handlebars, leaning hard into the wind just to stay on the road, screaming alone in my helmet at the meteorologists who are all liars and witches. Alpacas and rheas were running in packs along the side of the road, crossing the road in a frenzy, presumably knowing more about the incoming weather than I did.

But I kept calm, besides the screaming and the panicing and the wondering if I would die, and Ulf and I rode through the wind storm, with only a few drops of rain on our visors, making a detour to Gobernador Gregores to get gas. I unclenched my sore fists and my asshole and crossed the empty street to the visitor center to look at a map, and inquire if there was a place we could stay between there and El Calafate in case Ruta 40, or the rain, didn’t allow us to finish the trip.

The girl behind the desk, with her jet black hair and puggish nose, told me, in spanish, that for the next fifty kilometers, up Route 40, the road was very dangerous, with rocks as big as–she held her hands up in such a way as to describe a turtle she’d caught in the bayou– and that I really ought to be careful on my motorcycle because people had been hurt recently. She also pointed to a small dot on the map “Tres Lagos” that would have a gas station, and a hotel, in case we needed it for the night.

Comforted that the wind and rain wouldn’t be the only things trying to knock me off my bike, I drank an energy drink that was literally called “cocaine”, and tried to calm my nerves.

As we left town, on our way back to route 40, the accommodating municipal pavement gave way to gravel, which then gave way to barbarous dirt and clay. I understood the packed dirt, unlike the ever changing ebb and flow of loose gravel. The skies were pregnant with the ever-threatening flood, and the wind never let up. For 280 miles there was ubiquitous ever present howling ,murderous wind.

The wind determined how fast we could go, and in which lane we could ride. There was little traffic to speak of, besides the rare passing truck, so on the nice packed dirt and clay this wasn’t as much of an issue. But in the areas that were more gravel than dirt, it was a nightmare. The trick to these gravelly roads is to ride in the tire tracks that have been left by weeks and months of sparse traffic, all of whom basically drove in each other’s tracks. This meant that within your lane, on a two-way road, you had basically two places you could ride, and both were about one to one and a half feet wide. In between these two tracks was piled up loose gravel that was not exactly conducive to motorcycle tires. This is an especially difficult tight-rope to walk on a nice day, but when you add harrowing wind to the equation, it can really wear down a person’s sanity.

As the wind blew and jerked and pushed me into loose rock piles and trucks passed throwing up so much dust that I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me, I put the  bike in neutral and let Ulf pass and took a deep breath because I knew I was about to break.

I was exhausted, hands arthritic and hurting, beard caked with white caliche dust, thrashed around all day just trying like hell to stay upright, the simplest of all human desires, denied to me by the concussive wind. Sliding around gravel, being pushed here and there, helmet broken by the gusts, couldn’t even hear my damn motorcycle engine to hear when to switch gears– I began to scream inside my helmet “FUCK YOU, WIND!!!” in the most remote place I’ve ever been, antarctic ocean winds howling across desolate landscape. A gust pushed me off the road entirely, and I put my feet down instinctively to keep the bike from tipping over.

I put the kickstand down, dismounted the bike, and stood in the middle of the road feeling defeated. I closed my eyes and began to fall asleep standing up, white dust enveloping me. I just wanted to get to El Calfate before the rain got to me.

My mom always consoled me if I missed a flight, or got really lost, or stuck in traffic, that “You never know what you missed, there could have been an accident or something. It was probably supposed to be that way”. She either had complete faith in God’s sovereignty, or was just trying to make me feel better. Either way, it was a comforting sentiment. Voltaire is supposed to have said “Everything happens for a reason.”  But I always thought that maybe the only thing that can happen is that which has happened, and that maybe God is probably indifferent to missed trains and traffic jams, or maybe I’m just simple minded.

So maybe the best is for the best, but either way I didn’t want to deal with a flood.

I opened my eyes to see nothing nothing nothing nothing and a group of Alpacas, standing completely still in the wind, sent there to keep me sane.

The next few hours of white-knuckled, shoulder to the wind riding more gravel punctuated by turtle sized rocks in the road. Rocks so big that they would end your nice little motorcycle trip to the end of the world, just sitting in the middle of the road. Potholes like craters and gravel that you’re starting to think was put there by the devil himself.

Just so we’re clear, the road wasn’t under construction. This was just  the road, or really, the idea of a road. In The United States of  America you wouldn’t be allowed to drive on something like this, and yet in South America it is a thoroughfare. Route Forty has so little resemblance to a modern road that if it were a fetus, you wouldn’t feel bad for aborting it.

I slid and stumbled and screamed and dodged potholes and rocks and quicksand gravel all the way to Tres Lagos-468 kilometers. The sun was going down when I found Ulf’s bike parked outside a bare-bones hostel three blocks into the six block village. Dogs barked and chickens clucked and as I pulled my helmet off I thanked God I was still standing on two feet. Darkness fell, and the rain never came.




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