RAISED WITH WOLVES


Chapter Six

I let the gaggle of kids from the table next to us ask me a hundred questions as Ulf laughed from across the table, enjoying his Lengua and rice. One precocious little girl pointed at every tattoo at my arm and asked what it was. Her little finger pressing into the lines on my skin and asking “Y este?”

“Esta un Mermaid.” I said “como…Ariel? Do you guys…have that here? Probably. Yeah you probably do”.

“Y este?” she said, not answering my question.

“Esta un Flor”

“Y este?” her little finger poking again, her eyes wide with curiosity.

“Esta un Zoro” I said, bearing my teeth, “Rarrrrrrr”

She giggled and pointed up at my eyes.

“sus ojos!” she exclaimed, looking back at her parents for verification and then pointing at he own eyes.

They nodded their heads, agreeing that, yes I did indeed also have eyes, and yes, they were a different color than hers.

“Si,” I said softly, “Mis ojos son blue…I mean…Azul”

She ran back to her parents with glee. Asking them where I was from.

“Estatos Unidos” They said.

She stared back in confusion.

The dad sighed. “Mickey Mouse”.

That one she understood, judging by the look on her face as she settled back into her chair at the table.

A little boy pointed at my beard and said “Santa claus!!!” All the children laughed. I went back to eating my beef tongue and washing it down with my fourth Hopperdietzel thinking that their Santa Claus must be much younger and more handsome.

Ulf and I rode back to our little suite outside of town and got ready for bed. I checked on my clothes that I had left wrapped around the stove pipe to find that a couple of my shirts had been burned from the stove pipe, and that basically everything was still damp, but damp and warm. I sighed heavily and hung them up all over my room, on whatever surface. I went down in my pajamas to put more wood in the stove, and then got into bed.

As I lay on the twin spring mattress, under an itchy wool blanket, I was finally still enough to feel the aching in my hands from white knuckling the handlebars, and the pain in my back from riding in and out of slipshod potholes on rainforest roads. I smiled as I fell almost immediately to sleep.

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A new morning in Patagonia meant new blue and sunshine pouring in through the paned window of my tiny room. I rubbed my eyes and stared out at grandstanding mountains jutting up in contrast to the clear sky. Everything seemed so pristine and full of promise.

We were leaving Cohyhaique and heading 220 kilometers south to Puerto Tranquilo, Chile. It was just another day of winding through Patagonia, a vast geological drama, and above all, complete spacial grandeur, on a kawasaki 650.

I began packing in between sips of instant nescafe in a styrofoam cup. My high-socks were still wet, so I put them back by the stove pipe, careful not to get them too close, and went on putting on the least damp clothes available.

We left early to get a jump on the 6 hour ride. Ulf said he’d spotted a petrol station on the way into town, so I followed him out and onto route seven. He passed two gas stations, but I kept following him 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes out until I realised he’d made a mistake.

In rural parts of South America, you don’t pass up gas stations. Even if you have almost a full tank, you go ahead and stop and you make it so that you have a FULL tank. So as we left civilisation behind and started climbing in elevation I just started praying that we’d make it to the next dot on the map, Villa Cerro Castillo, which was 100 kilometers from Cohyhaique.

I was only five days in and here I was trying to stretch out what little gas I had, in wet boots, talking to myself in my helmet over the noise of the wind and the engine, which at this point had melded. I felt like an astronaut so far from home, so far from anywhere, really. I felt alone.

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Ulf was a dot in the distance as my bike began to spit and sputter in that language that all irresponsible and absent minded motorcyclists know: Running on Fumes. I passed a sign that read Cerro Castillo: 10 Kilometers and started doing mental math while staying mindful of the Rheas that ran along the roadside in herds. The earth tilted upwards as I counted down the kilometers, and I prayed to whomever was listening inside that helmet that I would make it.

The bike sputtered and gasped and I coasted to a stop just before the CERRO CASTILLO: 6 KILOMETERS sign. Ulf was long gone down the road, and I sat there on the incline trying to start the bike up, rocking it forward, heel to toe, trying to get the last few drops of gas to ignite.

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The KZ finally screamed back to life and i kicked it into gear and rocketed up the hill long enough for the road to crest and reveal the beautiful Ibanez river valley beyond. I passed Ulf, who was parked on the left side of the road at an overlook, taking a picture of the most quintessential Patagonian postcard view I’d seen. Vast green valley surrounded and encrusted by snow capped andes reaching high into the Chilean sky, a massive, glowing glacier looming beyond.

My God! It was overwhelming, but I was in a hairpin turn and couldn’t slow down to take it in properly. I didn’t get a photo, but I suppose that in a zen way I lived the entire valley in that moment desperate not to run out of gas, corkscrewing down into it, the Andes standing on all sides like divine sentinels. I managed to get about halfway down the mountain before the bike died again.

I coasted at about 20 miles an hour, in and out of turns until she turned over again and sprang to life for another few minutes until it sputtered dramatically and I sat there in relative silence, left with only the wind in the valley and the sound of my tires on the pavement. I popped up my visor and took it all in as I coasted, corkscrew switchbacks tumbling down, all the way into Cerro Castillo.

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Caminos de Patagonia: Chapter Five

Coyhaique is nestled between two Andean ridges, and takes the saying “nothing more than a dot on the map” to such an extreme that we passed right through it, searching for the town. We had to turn around, still soaking wet, shivering cold, and frustrated. We found a nice bed and breakfast on a hill off a rural highway, and as I took off wet gloves and boots, Ulf went inside to inquire about a room.

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“un momento”, said the woman behind the desk. She had to call someone. He knew whether or not there was a room available. I sat on the concrete driveway patting a well groomed pup as she closed the door and walked away on the phone. I could see her through a slit in the closed blinds, talking emphatically with her hands, holding the phone between her shoulder and her ear.

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After ten minutes of Ulf and I sitting down in wet socks with the dog,  she came back out with a smile on her face. There were indeed rooms. They were reasonably priced, though we didn’t care at that point; we were shivering in the wind. The sun broke through the clouds as she led us to our bungalow.

Ulf put wood in the stove, which had a stovepipe that led up into the second story, right beside my bed. I unloaded my pack and tried to find something that wasn’t soaked, but everything was wet. My maps, my journal, my leather folio, my guide books, my shirts, socks, pants, my information for the border crossings: all soggy and wrinkled and musky.

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I carefully laid out the important information along with my journals and maps by the stovepipe, which was already emanating heat. I then took my clothes and wrapped the wettest clothes around the stovepipe to flash dry them. I then hung up the remainder of the clothes on every surface of my room, water dripping like a leaky faucet onto the wood floor.

Pato had urged us to eat at Casino de Bomberos that evening, saying that we absolutely could not stay in Coyhaique

without eating there. This exhortation is what led me to believe that we were staying in a large-ish town, and it was that understanding that caused Ulf and I to ride right past Coyhaique in search of a city center. After a warm shower, I reminded Ulf of the Casino, and once our clothes were somewhat dry, we went out in search of it.

If you ever are in Coyhaique you must go to the Casino de Bomberos. Pato was right. But don’t make the same mistake of looking for an actual casino. The restaurant is adjunct to the actual fire station, and is designated by a tiny sign in an alleyway that is not noticeable from the road.  Ulf and I both had the lengua, served on a bed of rice and vegetables,  and our fill of  Hopperdietzel lagers, which brewed right down the road (relatively) with patagonian snow thaw. We chugged a few beers in anticipation of our food. The smooth amber lagers were a godsend after the whiteknuckling, road crumbling, soul-soaking, ten hour ride.

There was a white guy sitting within earshot of us by himself, finishing up his meal as we sat down. I made eye contact a few times with him, as he seemed lonely, but he got up, paid his tab and went about his way without so much as a head nod.

I asked Ulf what he thought of it, “If i were traveling South America by myself, and I saw two white dudes speaking with American and German accents, I’d at least say ‘Hi’.

“He must be German,” Ulf said, slicing his lengua carefully. “Northern Germans would never approach someone like that. It just isn’t something that you do”.

“If i saw a white person at all, I’d be inviting myself to sit with him just so I could speak a little english,” I said.

Later that evening, a table of boisterous, happy Germans sat across the restaurant from us. Ulf played like he didn’t even hear them.

“oh my god, go talk to them. You’re being ridiculous. You’re a million miles away from Germany and those are your people! Go say hi!”

Reluctantly, after what looked like a lot of inner-monologing and self-convincing, Ulf got up and introduced himself. I stayed behind and entertained a table full of kids who were fascinated by the bearded white man. They asked in spanish about the color of my hair and my beard, and poked at my tattoos, asking if they’d hurt. When I explained to the youngest one that I was from the United States, she turned to her father and asked where that was. “Mickey Mouse” he told her. The kids erupted in elated laughs and screams at the thought of me living with Mickey Mouse.

When Ulf sat back down, the kids turned to him, A little boy with brown saucers for eyes asked for Ulf’s name. He leaned down and told him, “Ulf, which means Lobo, or Wolf”. He gestured at me and said, “And this is Russ, el Zorro, the fox.”



Chapter Four
March 23, 2015, 8:34 pm
Filed under: Adventures, Travel | Tags: , , , , ,

Ulf and I managed to find a bed and breakfast with two cabañas in the tiny town of La Junta. There were very few options for lodging, and no real options for food. There were restaurants, but all were either abandoned, or simply not taking customers. It is honestly hard to tell sometimes in Chile.

We pulled our bikes into the backyard, careful not to rut up the bright green grass. The two cabanas we were staying with were adjoined by a covered front porch, which afforded us a view of the proprietor’s lush gardens and white sheets flapping on the clotheslines. Towering above the cabanas, just outside town, was a green mountain, almost entirely concealed by the dense clinging fog.

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The cabins were rustic, but nice enough. There were fresh flowers on the blue tile kitchen counter, and a small stove with a tea pot. The three person table, which was squeezed between the empty mini fridge and the door, was covered with a dutch design table cloth with clogs and windmills. There was a small box fireplace with a stovepipe that puffed innocuous smoke as it heated the room. Next to the fireplace was a wicker basket already full of wood, ready to be burned. There were raspberries growing right outside my bedside window, almost within reach. I hung my flannel shirt up on the porch to dry it out (I had washed it the night before in a sink to get the dust out), clipping it to a bit of twine I’d brought along with my leatherman. As I sat down to admire the scenery, Ulf handed me a cold beer he’d bought at the gas station. A little bird flitted around in the yard with a worm in his beak, and horses snorted, nickered, and shifted restlessly across the street. There were hours of sun light left, and I intended to enjoy them.

As I began to unpack my things into my cabin, I noticed that my phone was nowhere to be found. I immediately began to panic, thinking that four days into the trip, I was losing my only method of contact to the outside world. I began unpacking each bag, pulling out every item I’d brought along, searching frantically, throwing t-shirts and maps and motorcycle tools out on the floor.

Ulf walked in to inspect the commotion.

“I lost my phone. It’s a disaster. Four days in and I’ve already lost it.”

“Oh that’s terrible, Russ.” He said, trying to sound empathetic. He went on to explain very excitedly that the cyclist he’d stopped to talk to spoke german, and even lived in germany, although he was of Chilean descent, and that he had invited him to have supper with us, and probably to stay in the cabin.

I hunched down with a sigh, sitting there on the floor among my things. “that sounds great,” I said un-enthusiastically. “I refuse to eat pizza,” I said, cutting Ulf a telling glance.

I went through all of my things three or four times in absolute defeat. Checking and re-checking each pocket and compartment and zipping and unzipping and swimming through all of my gear until my eye caught my camelback hanging from the hand made chair furthest from me at the little table. There it was all zipped up, untouched and un-rifled through. I sprang to my feet, unzipped the bag, and there it was in all of its un-lost totally accounted for glory: my phone!

I did a dance in the little cabin and came out high fiving Ulf in celebration.

He smiled warmly and said, “You know, at least once a day, I get to see you at your lowest low and highest high emotionally. It is quite interesting.

I went inside the main building, which wasn’t much bigger than our cabins, to use their wifi, and let my family know I was still alive.

The bed and breakfast was run by a very nice, graying woman who  has a green thumb, a special attention to detail, speaks zero english, and can not seem to understand my broken spanish. She did offer me tea, which I took on her front porch, sitting on a cushioned wicker bench.

Before too long, the Chilean cyclist showed up looking for Ulf. I introduced myself in spanish, shaking his dusty hand, and he let me off the hook immediately in decent English, thank goodness. His named was Pato, and he was a short statured man with jet black hair, mestizo eyes, and a chin that cascaded to a point. He spoke freely in Spanish, English, and German, and he and Ulf spoke in jubilant bursts of Deutsch. Even though I was left out of a lot of conversations, I didn’t mind. I knew what a relief it must have been for Ulf to be able to speak in his native tongue to someone. The three of us wound up visiting a “supermercado” which was small and ramshackle even by Chilean standards, and shopping for supper. There was little rhyme or reason to where or why foods were stacked. Crates of packaged olives were on the floor next to cleaning supplies. Austrian energy drinks sat behind the counter next to tomato sauce. Dust covered packages of noodles at the bottom of derelict shelves. I bought the beer and wine, and the two of them split the supper-makings.It was so much easier getting what we needed with Pato there to speak for us. It was also fun to watch him go between Spanish, German, and English all in one conversation in that little store. It made me feel like a real philistine, only knowing one language fluently.

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With our ingredients tucked in our arms, we walked back, calling happily to stray dogs in the sidewalk.

That night, as darkness settled in the valley, I sat back and drank beers and ate meager spaghetti and sausages cooked on the little stove, and I stoked the fire in the fire place and Ulf and Pato talked of Germany and told me about their wives and the horses across the street winnied nervously and dogs barked somewhere in the night.


The next morning I repacked my bags, painstakingly gathering up each and every item I’d thrown across the room in a mistaken frenzy. The daughter of the proprietress was outside my door with a tray of breakfast, which I took over at Ulf’s cabin with him and Pato.

The daughter was a strikingly beautiful girl, not just road pretty, but actually pretty. She had dark eyes and long black hair that wouldn’t stay out of her face as I spoke to her around a daunting language barrier. Her nose was a little too big, which is what I liked most about her. It betrayed her far away European descent.  As she walked back across the grass, barefoot, her clothes flowed in the wind, not entirely hiding her shape.

After a standard breakfast of cold cuts and cheese and a little bread with some dulce de leche on it, we paid the front desk, in cash, and packed our bikes. In Chile and Argentina, it is common for one to “deal with the ugliness” of the payment, in the morning before you leave. I kept trying to pay at the hotels, but was constantly brushed off with a “pagar en la manana” and a smile. It is a real shock to Ulf and I, who are used to being treated as potential suspects, rather than guests, at hotels.

We bade Pato farewell, as dark clouds began to roll in over the hills of La Junta. He would continue on for a few weeks on his bicycle, down to Punta Arenas. He had a long way to go, as did we. Ulf took the time to put on his rain gear before we left, but I thought that putting it on would be an act in pessimism, and chose to believe that the day had sunshine in store, just over the next pass, perhaps.

Ruta Siete, in that area, was under heavy construction. The road was exactly what I had expected Chilean riding to be. Beneath the pervading mist, not unlike Seattle’s, was a one lane dirt road, with a cliff on your right, and a river 100 feet down to your left. Zig zagging and switch backing up and up higher and higher dodging trucks, buses, and pot holes. There were holes in the road where men in orange and yellow rain slickers were excavating with dynamite. The river ran muddy brown beneath me as I white knuckled the grips in second gear.

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I should have noticed the day before, but was perhaps too tired, the enormous gunnera leaves that were springing up along the roadside as I entered La Junta. Now, they were ubiquitous, some bigger than my torso all along the road. I’m no botanist, but it seems like a plant would need a lot of rain to get this big. The soft dirt road, which had been cut into a cliffside, was now descending into increasingly humid and lush green, and snaking along the Río Cochamó. Just as it occurred to me that I was entering the rain forest, it did, indeed, begin to rain.

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The shifty one lane road, seemingly a superhighweay for construction vehicles and tour buses, quickly turned into a soup. I was down in second gear, mucking my way through smooth river rocks that were being used to fill up pot holes.

This was what I’d signed up for, I thought. The river rushed below me,the trees grew up lush and green and would have concealed the sky if the grey rain and mist wasn’t already doing the job. I kept having to raise my face shield and wipe it off with my gloves because it was so fogged up, leaving streaks behind.

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I was switching down to first when taking the 90 degree hair pin switchbacks up through the mountain, then back to second in the straightaways, passing SUVs in the rain, KADOOSH through mud puddles, with my visor up to see in the darkness. The road rose up out of the lowlying river valley until I was what seemed like miles above the Cochamó. I was cutting through the rainforest, through the mountain, on a mud and rock road riddled with potholes, which was barely wide enough for one truck, thick forest rising up on either side. The rain was coming down hard, with no intention of letting up, and I was soaked. Not only was I soaked, but I was freezing. When the road finally flattened out, and the landscape opened up a little bit, I pulled over to put on my rain gear. Through the clouds and the mist I could see three waterfalls rushing down a mountain across a valley from me. My motorcycle boots left footprints in the mud as I walked closer to the ledge and took my steamy helmet off to get a better look. Magnificence through the mist: for a moment, I didn’t mind being so wet and cold.

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After about two more hours of riding in the pouring rain, I stopped for coffee and fuel at the first Punto Copec I saw. I sat in the tiny convenience store and tried to have a little small talk with the attendant as I ate a candy bar and sipped the cafe cafe. I used the same shitty spanish I’d been using all over Argentina and Chile, but she just could not understand me. I’ve noticed that the further I get into the rural areas, the harder it is for people to talk with me. I tried to talk to the girl at the hotel, but she looked at me like I wasn’t even speaking Spanish. I know my pronunciation isn’t perfect, but I promise you gas station girl, we are speaking the same language.

I guess its similar to when I’m sitting at a sushi bar with my Texas friends and the waitress asks them a question, in broken english, and they just look at me to translate. If you haven’t spent much time with people butchering your language, there are a lot of linguistic cues and pronunciations that you take for granted that just aren’t there, making it very hard to understand.

I thought about this as I watched stray dogs saunter around the parking lot. I was shivering with a pervasive chill. My teeth were chattering. There was standing water in my boots and my jeans were soaked through. The coffee was getting cold in my red hands, that were peeling from a sunburn I got on the Lao Lao loop, and stiff from the cold.  Ulf caught up with me at the convenience store (he had been lagging far behind all day) and after he warmed up for a bit, we headed back out into the rain, which showed no signs of letting up.

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The road leaving town was a tight paved innumerable waterfall on all sides kinda road that UIf and I glistened over side to side like black bugs in the mist. We stopped only once, to pay tribute to the Cascada de Virgen, a galloping, rushing waterfall that fell heavy on a flat rock, sounding like thunder. A few feet away was a beautiful, but humble, statue of the virgin, which was cut into the mountain side. Although it was protected from the rain by a canopy of thick tree cover, there was an enchanted halo of waterfall mist around the little statue.

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Back on the road we could tell we were nearing civilisation again. There were more cars on the road, more people, and every now and then a bridge or a tunnel crossing rivers and bypassing mountain sides. One such bridge’s exit revealed a wide pastoral irelandesque landscape below that simply dwarfed anything I’d seen in Ireland. Each day I’m more surprised at just how big this place seems.

Mist and rain clung to the surrounding mountains, but nothing can conceal Patagonia’s beauty entirely. From great southwestern ranchland mesa tops to cold Alaskan mountains down to Chilean rainforest to massive snowfed waterfalls like fingers to Irish pastureland in two days– that is why you come to Patagonia. Creation is undeniable here.


Songs stuck in my head:

Damn the Rain- Randy Rogers Band
Peace in the Valley- Dawes
Graceland- Paul Simon



Caminos De Patagonia: Chapter Three

Woke up in Esquel after my first true night’s sleep, with the window cracked and cool morning air blowing in off the roof. I methodically repacked my things and met Ulf upstairs for breakfast in a large open room, that likely used to be a ballroom. The red curtains were pulled back from the windows like hair tucked behind a woman’s ear, and refreshing morning sunlight flooded the room.

Breakfast was as meager as the day before: breads and jams, cold cut ham and turkey, slices of cheese, yogurt, and cereal. I laid out my maps on the table in front of me, trying not to spill anything on the white tablecloth. Ulf sat down in front of me with a big cup of coffee.

“Careful with the coffee,” he said as he settled into his seat, “The handle is for a garden hose or something, it is very hot”.

Outside on the sidewalk, we loaded our bikes back down. I realised I had packed too much. My thoughts were that I could overpack my ruck because, unlike previous trips I’d made, I wouldn’t be lugging it around from Plane to Train to Cab and walking miles upon miles with it. It would just be from bike to hotel to bike. But I’d taken that thought too far and I could tell when I took hard turns that the weight differential of the motorcycle was seriously off.

Besides my hulking rucksack, I now had to figure out what to do with everything that was packed into the left plastic sidebag, and the tank bag, both of which I’d broken in the spill. We’d tried, and failed, to reattach the bags; there was no use. I wound up strapping the olive green duffel bag my grandpa had given me straight to the luggage frame.

“I kinda like this better,” I told Ulf, admiring my work. “It looks much more Mad Max.”

He looked at me with a blank stare.

“Nevermind”.

I ditched the busted luggage there on the sidewalk.

“Fuck it,” I said with my hands on my hips. “They can just bill me for it.”

There was a sign there in front of the hotel pointing North and South. To the south it read 1,937 Kilometers to Ushuaia, Argentina and to the north it read 16.363 Kilometers to Anchorage, Alaska. I thought about sea kayaking last spring with the otters in Homer, Alaska and just how crazy it was that now I was in Argentina, hopped up on coffee, about to head forever south.

We hit the pavement hard, quickly cruising at 75 mph with a prevalent tail wind. The 650, all loaded down with my gear, was just about at its top end, the engine whining loud, but smoothly. The pavement didn’t last long. After Trevelin, it was back to gravel, and from the look of the map, it would be more of the same the rest of the day.

As we neared the border, to cross back into Chile, the wind came howling across the valley, slowing us down to about 20-25 mph at the most. The dust was kicked up so high in the air it blocked the sun, and the wind hit us so hard that it was pulling my helmet off my head, the chin strap choking me intermittently. The wind would die down for a moment, letting the dust settle, and then come again with a gust that threatened to knock us off our bikes. One gust was so strong it pulled the visor completely off my helmet, a second gust came and pulled my face shield out of the bindings. That’s what I get for buying a cheap moto-x helmet. But it had looked so cool. We pulled into the Aduana building, a wooden cabin in the middle of nowhere, and dismounted our bikes in the wind, a threadbare Argentinian flag whipping high above our heads.

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I pulled my helmet off and looked down. My clothes were completely covered in dust. I pulled off my gloves and noticed that my hands were beet red. I shrugged it off and walked inside.

From the customs line, I looked out the window at our bikes, cloaked by the dust storm. Ulf’s bike was suddenly on the ground, all 500 pounds of it blown over in the wind.

The rest of the day I was fighting with my helmet. The binding for the left side of the face shield was now completely gone, and wind was coming up through the bottom popping the shield out of what was left of the bolt into the helmet. Thankfully, after we entered Chile, we had some mountains around us blocking the wind. We also immediately hit a narrow two lane paved road that snaked through a river canyon, bobbing up and down hills, around smooth but sharp turns. For the first time the scenery took a back seat to the riding, which was perfect, for about ten kilometers.

We stopped at a bridge in the Futafelu canyon and listened to the rapids rush loudly beneath us. The canyon rose high above, striations in the rock revealing a violent geologic past. I pointed out how the trees were growing off the side of vertical canyon walls, looking like moss clinging to a rock.

“It is the struggle of nature,” said Ulf stoicly.

After a much needed breather on the bridge, it was back to god damned gravel.

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The gravel conditions vary widely on the route to the bottom of the world. I can’t find a rhyme or reason for why solid packed gravel suddenly gives way to loose murderous rock. You learn to judge the conditions of the gravel, and therefore your appropriate speed, by color and, to some extent, texture. For it to make any difference, and keep you rubber down, you have to be constantly looking ahead 12 to 15 seconds just to make sure your clay/gravel solid ground isn’t going to turn to a pile of river rocks and force you down. According to the billboards put up by the Ministerio del Interior, Chile is undertaking a massive public works campaign to pave all of their main roads, so I apologise for cursing them so much.

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As we neared our destination, I took advantage of a few kilometers of solid gravel, to think about the scenic grandeur of Patagonia. It was like all of the beauty from every place I’d ever been– Switzerland, Alaska, Ireland, California– dropped under the same southern sky, and here I was completely immersed in it.

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I watched Ulf in front of me, dipping down with the gravelly road, stop to chat with a cyclist. We’ve seen quite a few of these guys on the route. Ulf calls them the “real heroes”. They always look exhausted, like zombies pedaling with blank expressions, eyes fixed on the horizon. I feel bad for them when I pass at 50 miles an hour, dusting them as I penetrate their panoramic view.

I stopped in La Junta, named after the famous Chilean coup d’etat of ’73, and waited for Ulf to catch up. The scenery had gone from the wide open golden plains of Trevelin to the tapering Futafelu canyon, and now to the green foggy mountains of La Junta.  The road coming into town was so bad it was almost impassable. I keep thinking about access roads to well heads out in West Texas, and how the big semis left pot holes and craters and how miserable they were in a truck and how now I’m on a motorcycle dealing with worse, and how when the wind picks up I just have to sing something in my helmet and white knuckle the grips and hope I don’t take a spill.

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Songs stuck in my head:

Survivor Blues- Cory Branan
Matt Aragon- Dogwood



Los Caminos De Patagonia: Chapter 2
March 2, 2015, 4:33 pm
Filed under: Adventures, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I walked four blocks down and two over. I kept repeating the street names in my head over and over until i’d reached the ferreteria, which as a Swiss biker later explained to me was like “wal-mart but tiny and shitty”. I asked for bandas de elastico, and mimed a bungee cord in the air. The woman behind the counter squinted, and then her face lit up, she ducked through a curtain to a back room. I could hear her rummaging through packages on the ground, until she came back with a set of ratchet straps.

I handed the Chilean pesos to the dark-haired woman like an open ended question. She counted out the change as she laid it in my palm and I headed back to the German Resturant, where Ulf waited with the bikes. I used my new ratchet straps to latch down the last of my luggage to the bike, and away we went, without breakfast. I had already held up our departure by having to get more money from the tarjeta automatico in the supermarket, so I didn’t want to complain about my rumbling stomach, or the lack of caffeine. The adrenaline of novelty and adventure would have to get me there.

We rode up to the Argentinian border with few problems, the villarica volcano rising above us us like a diplomat puffing on a pipe. I was still trying to get used to the dual-sport, which was a new experience for me entirely. Thirty minutes into the ride the smooth civilised pavement gave way to switchback segments of loose gravel that rose up through the Chilean woods.I routinely had to squeeze my tank with my thighs to keep the bike from getting too squirrely in the white gravel.

I had been very anxious about the first border crossing. I was sweating in the cramped customs office, surrounded by Chilean and Argentinian families and their diapered kids and chatty teenagers and I was just hoping all of my papers were in order. The man behind the desk had a beret on. I practiced my spanish over and over in my head until it was my turn. The man stamped my papers, looked at my passport, looked at me, stamped it loudly, and away I went.

There are two border crossings, two customs lines, two immigration lines, two stamps, per border. The entire process takes about an hour or more, depending on whether or not you get stuck behind a tour bus full of elderly Germans. Between the two offices, can be anywhere from two to three miles of what seems like no man’s land– a place between the two countries. I envisioned it as the big black line on the map.

We passed over rolling Andean foothills beneath a imposing mountain– smooth riding into San Martin. San Martin was a beautiful, but perhaps slightly disingenuous, ski resort town. The little resort town sat on a lake, and during the summer it was teeming with life.  I had exactly zero Argentinian pesos, so I began searching the main strip for a cambio exchange, finding nothing. I went into a few banks, only to be denied. When I met back up with Ulf, he had found a “private exchanger” in an alleyway and offered me half of his pesos. As he sat on the sidewalk eating ice cream, I bought two yogurt bars and a energy drink from a mini-mercado that was smaller than some people’s walk-in closets.I was eager to get back on the road.

As we rode out of San Martin, the lake jumped out from behind a corner. It was suddenly breathtaking, and as blue as the garment of the virgin. We rode up our first real mountain road. I looked over my shoulder at the shimmering lake, framed perfectly by green Andes and thought “Here we are. Patagonia is probably paradise.”

We stopped to take a picture at a little mountain side pull off. Not to capture the beauty, which I believed to be impossible, but just to prove that we were there.

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The road cut through verdant rocky forest and wrapped around the lake like a hand around a pint glass. Moss grew infinitely like the Buddha over large stones. Shrines to the saints littered the road side looking like little red dog houses, visited by pilgrims in flip flops and swim suits.

At every other curve, an immaculate snow capped mountain burst into view. It stood tall among the others, Christlike, outside of time and forever out of reach.

the road plunged down into a valley, and we hugged the mountain like missionaries. The wind howled around the mountains in some places, threatening to push me off the road. Sometimes it rushed through the mountain roads, sounding like an approaching truck as it cascaded down. It reminded me a little of Wyoming, but in color.

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The lake in San Martin was the first of many oases along the road to Bariloche, where we would stop for the night. Students and families swam in the sapphire waters, soaking up their summer vacation. Hitch hikers were staggered along the road. I jokingly offered a seat to all the girls as I passed, making faces at them from behind my helmet and face-shield. Goats adn cows grazed along the roadside contentedly, jaywalking as they pleased. I wondered where the hitch hikers were going. Why would they want to leave such a paradise. Maybe the cows and goats had it right, I thought, as I passed at sixty miles an hour.


Ulf and I went to a pizza place in Bariloche around eleven pm. It was my first meal of the day, but I was feeling fine, settling into my oversized wooden chair. The temperature had fallen with the sun as we entered town. we managed to find a lakeside hotel before sunset, complete with gated parking. I’d rather sleep in my own room. but it definitely beats my Pucon hostel that I shared with twenty people the night before. I feel like maybe I’m getting too old and grouchy for youth hostels.

Ulf ate a cheese pizza, each individual piece with its own large green olive basking in the cheese. I went for an Empanada and a home made “cerveza rojo”, which was all they had on tap. Ulf told me of his trip five years earlier from Germany to China on a dual sport bike. He had to ditch his bike in Kurdistan after gangsters sold him bad gas that destroyed in engine.He walked the bike to a farm house, the only one within miles, and just gave the bike to the family without words, then continued on into China.

The retired German is sixty six years old. Although much separates us, he is good natured, we have similar riding styles, and his English isn’t bad. Thank God for Ulf. After my first day riding, I can tell you that God exists in Patagonia, and I intend to praise him for his creation: turquoise lakes, beautiful south american women, ancient mountains reaching to the sky, safe travels, microbrewed Argentinian lager, and for Ulf. Its heavy handed but Patagonia is heavy handed.


I only had 100 pesos left from the money Ulf had loaned me the day before. I went out that morning as he loaded up the bikes and tried and failed to find an exchange house. I ate breakfast in the hotel, overlooking the lake and lloaded up on coffee to ready me for the 270 mile day ahead. Before leaving town we rode the Lao Lao loop, which loops around the lake. The zigzagging lakeside road rose and fell with the 360 degree postcard zen panorama.

Just before the panorama opens up outside town, there is a humble little church, looking like a playhouse compared to the towering peaks around it and the infinite waters down below.  I dismounted at a wooden catholic church on a grassy hill and trudged up the 20 or so steps in my clanky motocross boots, which were stiff Italian leather. A  student group on a field trip  stood outside, taking selfies in front of the church. Not one, but two, giant St. Benards sat on benches, posing with tourists for a few dollars. I thought about when Jesus chased the merchants out of the church with a whip as I ducked inside the humble sanctuary.

The cabin-cathedral must have been from the thirties. It was simple, but it was gorgeous inside. I took a splash of holy water from a dispinser on the wooden wall that reminded me of a hand sanitizing station in a gas station restroom. I made the sign of the cross after observing a catholic to make sure I had it right, and kneeled at the alter.

I walked back out into the sun, almost startled at the patagonian mountains, and the almost oceanic lake. Ulf, who waited by the bikes, made a comment about the Chinese worshiping every god when they travel, just in case.

“I’m always a Christian when I travel,” I said as I put my helmet back on.

3


South America is full of stray dogs. Happy, frolicking, chasing motorbikes, napping on stairsteps in the sun, trotting out of the woods dogs. Even if people down here don’t put ice in their water and men kiss each other on the cheeks and there’s a bidet in my hotel room, Patagonia is the land of stray dogs and I feel at home.


Rocky mountain picturesque Patagonian S curves after S curves for hours until El Bolson, a typical South American lazy town seated beneath a gargantuan peak.We detoured down ruta setenta y uno into the Las Alerces national park, which houses five beautiful iridescent blue lakes.

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The road into the park quickly turned to gravel, which at first wasn’t so bad. Caballeros moved to the side of the road as we approached,, probably looking like horsemen of the apocalypse,  a cloud of dust rising behind us. I was starting to get used to the bike, and the constant give of the gravel. We were riding side by side at about 45 mph over the gravel road, which rose high above the lakes and in and out of deep dark forests.

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My confidence level was rising, and my whiteknuckles loosened up a bit. We rode under a thick canopy that blocked the sky completely. Sunlight bled through the , illuminating the dust that we were kicking up. I began to overtake an economy car that wasn’t much bigger than my bike, going about 35 mph. The sun burned white through a break in the trees and the lake suddenly appeared down below, the road dropped down over a hill and before I knew what was going on, I was down, sliding across the gravel, still holding onto the throttle, the bike whining as it slid away from me. Ulf is also down, his bike sliding past me.

I immediately jumped up, like a skateboarder recovering from a spill, and examined the damage. Side bag was broken off completely, but otherwise the bike was fine. Ulf strapped it to his bike, just barely leaving room for himself on the seat. I had a bit of road rash, but neither of us had any real injuries to speak of. Kids got out of the car we’d passed and helped us get the bikes back up on the road.

The rest of the ride was gut wrenchingly stressful. The gravel, which had been manageable, gave way  to loose rocks that could barely be described as a road. We had to ride inside of tracks cars had left behind. These are VW Golf sized tracks, not big ford Texas sized tracks. So about two feet of grace, with white rocks piled up on either size begging for your tire to drift into it.

The scenery was beautiful, but I honestly couldn’t enjoy it.

Once we exited the park, and hit pavement, I wanted to get off my bike and kiss the road, but it was already eight thirty. We had about two hours of day light left.

Out of the woods, away from the lakes, off the mountain side, down down down smooth forgiving S curves into a valley. Sundrenched like honey, the great southwest before me with Alaskan snowcaps behind in my side-views. I breathed easily and heavily, hugging the turns like old friends.

We made it to Esquel in gray twilight, and I had a platter of what seemed to be lunch meats and cheeses that the hotel’s resturant was trying to pass off as Picadillo. Kids screeched and played as their parents ate at 11:30 at night, and I tried to enjoy a Cerveza Austral.

The key to my room was large and victorian and I couldn’t get the damn door open with it. So I went out the window, onto the roof, and into my room to bed. I was exhausted, hands aching from gripping the handlebars so tightly.

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Songs stuck in my head for two days:

Burn- Alkaline Trio
Open Road Song- Eve 6
West Coast- Coconut Records
Best Deceptions- Dashboard Confessional
I Will Play my Game Beneath the Spin Lights- Brand New



Los Caminos de Patagonia: Chapter 1
February 17, 2015, 2:31 pm
Filed under: Adventures, Travel | Tags: , , , , ,

06-01-2015

When I was young, and even on into my college years, flying was a thrill and a novelty. Now I have twenty eight years on my belt, and a beer gut above it. Nothing about sitting in a commercial airplane is exciting to me anymore. When I was a kid I always requested the window seat. I didn’t think it was possible to lose that child-like wonder of staring down at the earth and watching the landscape change, but I definitely have.

Like when I was thirteen, sitting on my bedroom floor, trying to squeeze another ounce of fun out of my micro-machines. Trying and failing to hold onto a relic of my youth, but the feeling was gone.

These days I try to sit in an aisle seat because my bladder seems to have mutinied against me.

I blame it on my summer in Laredo, surveying million acre ranches for the new wind farms. Way out there in the huisache, we would just hop out of the truck and piss as soon as the urge presented itself. There was no one around for miles but buzzards and jack rabbits.

Now every pee is an emergency– conditioning, I suppose.

I pissed myself last winter looking for my car in the allegheny courthouse parking garage. It wouldn’t have been so bad, except that I had to walk through the snow, back into the courthouse with pissed jeans.

I don’t know why opening with this story. Or telling it at all. Those weren’t Chekov’s pissed jeans. Those jeans are completely gratuitious and I suppose that makes me a bad writer. Or maybe I’m trying to humanise myself. Do I need to do that? The reader assumes I’m flawed and human, right?

God, I’m rambling because i’m nervous. I’m flying down, on a whim really, to ride a motorcycle through the Andes, through Patagonia, down to Tierra Del Fuego. My Final destination is Ushuaia (which I have no idea how to pronounce), otherwise known as Fin Del Mundo.

I’m going down there alone, which is probably a mistake. But I’ve learned that if you always wait until your friends and family are ready to leave, you’re likely to  never arrive– so it’s three weeks alone in rural Chile and Argentina.

A woman at a bar asked me a few nights ago if I was going there to “find myself”, which I really hadn’t considered. I leaned in closely, so she could here me over the music and replied, “If i didn’t know who I was, do you think I’d be doing something like this?”


07.01.2015

Pucon, Chile sits nested between a lake to the north, a spine of squat Andean mountains to the east, and an active volcano to the south. It is a South American tourist destination, but for me, it was just the kickoff point of my trip.

After sleepless flights from Houston, to Miami, to Santiago, Chile, to Temuco, then an hour and a half shuttle ride into Pucon, I was ready to go to bed. My overstuffed rucksack collapsed onto one of the sixteen beds in my no frills hostel. I was tempted to flop down on top of it, but I still had to get some Chillean currency (the ATMS at both airports were out of order, and there was no currency exchange open at either), and attend to the fact that I hadn’t eaten all day.

It was nearly five pm by the time I sat down for a beer and an empanada. Girls with jet black hair and pumps walked up and down the streets in pairs. Teenage boys skateboarded down the sidewalk. Tourists bought sunglasses and wine. Stray dogs sauntered carelessly across busy streets– all beneath the silent, snowcapped Villarica Volcano.

I finished the last of my beer, a refreshing golden ale, and gazed out onto the active sidewalk. This must have been what Pompeii was like up until the end.

Villarica Volcano

Villarica Volcano

After supper, I walked down to the beach to relax. The scene there was no different than Madrid’s beaches, or any beach side town along the med: girls sunbathed, staring into books; families splashed in the tide; teenagers played volleyball in sandals; and merchants sold juice and fruit, navigating the jungle of multicolored umbrellas.

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The stark difference here was the sand, which was black as onyx. Sand like this is created when a lava flow meets the water, and is slightly magnetic. The black sand created a beautiful contrast to the bright blue sky, and the bronzing South American bodies laid out beneath it.

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I walked across town to meet the men I would be renting the Motorcycle from, who operated out of a German Biergarten and restaurant. The owners of the business were not present, so the new mechanic, a stocky boy from Connecticut, sat me down and did his best to ease my reservations. The co-owner’s wife, a buxom German woman in an octoberfest outfit, poured me a big, heady Pilsner and sat it in front of me with a thud and a toothy smile.

The kid had only been in country for three weeks, and had done some of the route that I would be taking. Public speaking was obviously not his forte, and he had very few tips or suggestions.

Another rider was there, getting the same ill-prepared speech I was, and just happened to be leaving the same day as me, with a similar itinerary. He was a tall, retired German in his sixties, who looked very spry and able for his age, but reserved and stoic, true to his north-German heritage. We decided it would make sense to ride together, at least for the first few days.

“Will you join me for supper, so we can talk over the details?” the German, named Ulf, asked me.

I was exhausted. My eyes bloodshot and heavy, but I accepted.

We sat at one of many sidewalk cafes and I tried to be engaging and attentive, despite my weariness. He was a vegetarian, which severely limited his options in Chile and South America, but he ate fish, which as we all know have no souls, so he ordered a salmon and a beer.

“I’m a vegetarian, but I do not preach,” he said as he sliced his salmon.

“Fish is an animal,” I responded, as I dug into my pork loin. I don’t mind preaching.

We discussed our route plans, which were similar enough to combine, and beautiful chilean women an the economic benefits of not having children early in life, and though there was a slight language barrier, it was thin enough that we could get by.

I walked him back to his hostel and we made plans to meet at the Biergarten in the morning to pick up our bikes. I was forcing myself along at this point. My entire body was already travel weary, but there was still daylight. Instead of going back to my hostel, I passed it up and found myself back on the beach.

The sun was finally setting, casting a subtle pink glow that was not bright enough to penetrate the black lake. Tinges of cobalt rolled in with the waves, as they sloshed on the coal-black shore. I didn’t take my shoes off as the volcanic sand wasn’t so easy on my tender feet.

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A group of teenage boys rode up on their bicycles, rid themselves of their t-shirts, and began to splash in the quickly cooling lake. The rest of the tourists had cleared out, leaving only a few friends picnicking on the black shore. I stood alone, listening to to the glub-glub of the tide, for a while, before deciding it was time for bed.

As i left the shore, i felt the gravelly rocks in my shoes, and it reminded me of sliding down the municipal gravel dump on highway 2004 with my friends as kids. We’d found a car hood at the nearby park and ride, and would trudge up the gravel hill, just to slide back down on it. We’d come back home with tar and gravel in our pants and shoes and hair, smelling like a road crew.

As i Fished volcanic rock from my converse, a pack of stray dogs strolled behind some children. The brindle mutt in the back was limping slightly, and there was smoke rising from the volcano in the distance.



Los Caminos de Patagonia- Preface.
February 16, 2015, 11:53 am
Filed under: Adventures | Tags: , , ,

My Spanish isn’t very good. I bought a spanish to english dictionary at Barnes and Noble that I never took out of my pack. Every ounce counts when you’re backpacking, and that little book was dead weight. By all accounts, My Spanish poderia ser mejor. I don’t even know if that’s right.

This is one of many of the issues i didn’t even consider when planning my trip through Patagonia on a motorcycle. I knew I wanted to go to the southern hemisphere for winter, and I knew I wanted to ride a motorcycle. I drew a Venn diagram, x’d out Ebola stricken Africa and went from there.

My three previous winters had been spent in Pennsylvania, and after the record setting lows of 2013-2014, I felt like I deserved a little break from the cold. I was in Wyoming when I started looking for “vacation” destinations, and before thanksgiving temperatures had already reached -20. The southern side of the world promised sun, warmth, and a good old fashioned escapism.

I eventually decided on South America, specifically Patagonia, because of the sheer grandeur of the scenery.Being plunged into that mysterious, awe-inspiring land scape would be good for my teetering mental health, and serve as a sort of year end baptismal. I’d been on the road working since mid 2011, and while much of it was very dramatic and adventurous and I’d seen a lot of the country, my passport hadn’t received a new stamp  since Europe in ’09 and that seemed unforgivable.

So in a coffee-fueled, manic frenzy, I chose a Motorcycle outfitting company, planned my route, sent the check and bought my plane ticket. No going back (without a considerable cancellation fee of course). I would be spending three weeks of January riding a motorcycle through the Andes, criss crossing through Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia, down to Ushuaia, otherwise known as Fin Del Mundo, the end of the world.

I consider myself a somewhat experienced motorcycle rider, but I had never done adventure riding. At that point, i’d never even been on an enduro bike. But how hard could it be? I’d been riding my Harley all over windy Wyoming and down into Colorado all summer. I’d ridden in 20 degree weather that fall. I’d be fine. And if I wasn’t fine, I’d get over it.

As I wrapped up the job in Wyoming, spent a week snowboarding, did Christmas with my girlfriend and her family, and came home for the new years, the reality of my trip started setting in. The days started counting down, and Jan 6th felt ominous. I started calling up my friends: “Let’s just go somewhere quiet. Lets watch hockey and drink some beers and just talk. We never talk anymore”. The underlying sentiment was that it might be the last time I saw them. Its not like I was shipping off to war, for god’s sake, I was just going on vacation. But the world felt bigger– more daunting. I could already feel the mountains rising up around me and pressing down on my shoulders. It seemed dark down there, and I’d be all alone with a motorcycle and the road and honestly I considered the fact that I might die down there.

It seems dramatic as I write it out. But it was like a rock in my gut: this could be the last time I see you people.

I made my rounds like a man who secretly had cancer. I tried to keep my fear subdued as I spent time with my friends and family. I went to my grandmothers for breakfast the day before I left, and on the counter there is a calendar with daily bible verses and inspirational quasi-spiritual quotes. She hadn’t flipped it in a few days, but the proverb that showed was: “The greatest sin is fear”.

Depending on the day or hour or positioning of the sun in the sky I have been known to be a deeply quasi-spiritual man. On this day, I took what was probably the baader-meinhof phenomena, or self-affirmation bias, and accepted it as a word from God. The right transcendental threads were pulled tightly to support my self-confidence, and it helped, quite a lot.


I’ll be updating this blog with entries from my travel journal, and pictures from my trip, as time permits. Hope you enjoy:

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