RAISED WITH WOLVES


Chapter 11

When we crossed back into the Argentinian border the road turned back to pavement and we opened our machines up. I was dusty and dry, my beard a tangled mess under my helmet, and I was in a bad mood from being jostled around for four hours straight on gravel roads that meant to murder me. I could finally un-clench both my fists and my asshole, leaving the heightened sense of alertness and the constant rush of adrenaline behind me on the dusty roads of Chile.

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We stopped in Los Antiguos, which looked like a Mediterranean port city, but was really just an empty town on Largo Gran Carerra. We gassed up the bikes, having learned the lesson to get fuel every time you see a gas station, and pulled some Argentenian pesos out of an ATM.  I sat down and drank an Austrian energy drink with a donkey on it on the sidewalk next to my bike and watched stray dogs and Argentines saunter about.

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The sun reflected off the white concrete overwhelmingly, in a sense akin to snowblindness. Gulls hovered in the air and I wriggled my toes inside my riding boots uncomfortably as I squinted up at them.

I tried to walk around the shops and buy a postcard to send home, but despite there being no less than five tourists shops in Los Antiguos, none sold postcards. I also found that most of the shops I tried to enter were closed, with signs saying the proprietor would return in a few minutes. I’ve noticed this in a lot of South American towns. Besides the grocery stores and most gas stations, most shops will just be closed at random times with little to no explanation. There’s no point in looking at the posted hours, or checking online, because maybe Juan just didn’t feel like coming in, or maybe he is off at lunch for two or three hours. Ulf says it is because they are Catholics, and Catholics don’t feel as if they have to work for anything and  that Protestants never think their work is good enough. Ulf is old enough to remember the Berlin wall being erected, so I think he might know a thing or two about work.

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We rode through hours of rocky wasteland, our bikes eliciting side eyes from sheep and goats as we passed. The landscape was beginning to flatten out, the mountains behind us to the west, but the lake was ever present as the road danced in and out of its view.

We arrived in Perito Moreno, the town, not the divine glacial masterpiece, earlier than we’d expected. The hotel was small and sterile, but had hot water. There is something unsettling about the all-white hotel room after spending days in the patagonian cabanas, tending the fire, listening to the wind envelop the cabin.

After a quick shower, which left a ring of grey dirt around the white tub, Ulf and I went looking for something to eat. We passed shuttered storefronts, hotel restaurants, and a sparse city park filled with languished teens, and finally settled on a cafe that didn’t serve half of what was on their menu. As we ate a plate of cold cuts and sliced cheese, Ulf remarked that the grey, shuttered town looked a lot like Russia. The main activities seem to be sitting in fron tof abandoned store fronts with one or two of your friends and a dog on a leash, or riding around in cars so beat up the hood won’t close properly, blaring music out of the one speaker that still works, so it sounds like those greeting cards your little brother gives you for your birthday that play “bad to the bone” when you open them.

I saw the same boring chubby little black headed kid sitting on three different storefront steps, just watching the same 5 cars drive to the edge of town and back again.

Another option is sitting at the edge of town on the porch of a dilapidated burnt out building, trading kisses with your underage girlfriend.

Ulf and I continued to walk the street, the only street, looking desperately for a bar but there wasn’t one to be found. Ulf bought two pints of Cristal, possibly the worst beer south of the equator, and went back to his room. I joined the locals, and sat on once polished granite steps in front of a shuttered building that probably used to sell shoes or meat and watched the foot traffic.

There are, though, a number of gated well kept lawns, with impressive flower gardens, and here in the twilight, the waving trees and yellow flower bushes are quaint enough. And then there was a pale disheveled but pretty little teenage girl, sitting on a crumbling rick wall with her perky friend. Her stare lingered and her fever blistered smile was wry and telling. But teenager girls and flowers be damned, do not stop in Perito Moreno unless your bike is breaking down or you are dying of thirst ( and then don’t expect any decent cerveza). Keep going to Bajo Carjoles, 100 km ahead. They at least have a bar and a restaurant that serves more than cold cuts and salty pizza.

 

 

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Chapter 10

I stayed up reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, tending the fireplace in the 8×10 common room, and drinking Patagonia Pale Ales until the sun finally went down completely, leaving no trace of pink clinging to the mountains or the lake out the window.

I had decided long ago that I’d never read “Zen and…” because my ex was reading it at the recommendation of her secretly lesbian room mate with whom I assumed she was having a secret tryst.

The room mate had a boyfriend who was a motorcycle mechanic, so like every girl with few hobbies and a feminised liberal boyfriend who is too scared to erect some kind of relationship boundaries, she went out and bought a motorcycle too, and they were a perfect hipster austin motorcycle riding couple, I suppose. The room mate then convinced my ex-girlfriend to buy one as well, as she was entering her “anything a man can do, I can do” feminist jean jacket wearing stage, thus signaling the eventual death of our relationship. The ex rode that yamaha all of four times, wrecked it in a parking lot, lied about her scraped up knee, and then sold it for less than what she paid.

So for some reason I said “No, absolutely not” when she tried to lend me her tattered copy of Pirsig’s classic philosophical travelogue. But I suppose I’d grown up since then. I was taking my own cross country motorcycle trip, trying to write my own motorcycle trip story, and thought it would pair well with Chatwin’s “In Patagonia” at any rate.

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The sun took eight or nine hours to traverse the globe, and rise and bleed over the mountains behind my cabana: the same amount of time it would take for me to ride the 240 Kilometers to Perito Moreno, Argentina.

Ulf and I packed up, fueled up, and had a few coffees while using the Cafe’s rare wifi connection. The two coffees, plus the energy drink I’d chugged the moment I’d woke up, had me primed and ready to leave the lakeside village behind and head further, ever further, south.

We may have left Puerto Tranquillo behind, but the lake stuck with us for hours, its electric blue shimmering and flickering in the sun. We rode up mountain passes, back down to the lake side, back up and down, circling around the west side of the lake for about four hours before finally trudging up a rough gravel ascent and parting ways with Lago General Carerra for a while.

The road to Perito Moreno was gravel of varying quality from solid smooth packed clay, to unmanageable shifting gravel, that finally deteriorated into an absolute nightmare of slipping, then giving, then sinking  soft gravel.

There was a thirty minute stretch, sometimes at a 25-30 degree slope, that I had to put the bike in first, and almost walk it up and down the winding “road”, as my front end shifted constantly and tried to betray me. The weight of the bike plus all of my gear plus the grade of the road plus the thick shifting gravel was an equation I was trying to solve minute by minute as the variables changed, attempting to solve for “X” which was not tipping over.

In some spots, the road was one lane between a sheer tan, dusty cliff face rising to my right, and a 300-500 foot fall down to the lake to my left. Keep in mind that this isn’t the scenic route into Argentina from Rio Tranquillo: It was the only route. Ulf and I were sharing this “road” with tour buses, freight trucks, and family cars, all throwing dust into the air and leaving behind giant ruts in the malleable gravel.

All of this while trying to solve for “X” and trying to soak in some of the most undeniably beautiful sights in creation. It was almost unfair. It took a constant concentration just to stay on two wheels. One glance out into Patagonia beyond and below, and the bike would falter and slip.

Despite the sometimes terrifying Ruta 265, we were making pretty good time. Ulf was ahead of me, but not too far ahead, which was saying something since he had ridden from Germany to China on a similar bike, and all things considered, I felt pretty good. The road straightened out for a while, and even smoothed out a bit as we came into view of Lago General Carerra again, looking vast as the ocean. The lake, the far off mountains, and the sky were all blending together into a subtle three-hue striation of reality.

The road turned away from the massive patagonian lake, and away from those great snow capped Andean monoliths. We were in the high country now. I felt like I’d accomplished something, like I’d defeated that stretch of road with transcendental math and pure concentration and will power and maybe even a little skill.

The scenery slowly changed little by little from grand patagonian postcard welcome center panoramas to Arizonan tans and New Mexico browns. It looked like an old western movie, complete with barbed wire and flat-top mesas rising solitary from the landscape.

My hands were tired. Really all of me was tired. It had basically been three straight days of rough gravel, pot holes, and rattling and gripping and tensing and bouncing.

There was a cliff off to the left that overlooked a pastoral, almost Keatsian meadow, and a farmhouse sitting on the shore of lapping, pristine, Laguna Verde.  I slammed on my breakes, skidded to a stop in the gravel, pulled off the road and dismounted my bike. I went and sat with my motorcycle boots dangling over the cliff. Down below were ten or twelve horses grazing in the meadow. A few of them looked like foals, lying on their sides in the lush grass. The last Andes I’d see for some time stood gargantuan and opaque in the distance, and I prayed to God., thanking him for a moment before consuming the scene below me. I added the rocky overhang to my running list of possible ashes-spreading-sites as I mounted the Kawasaki again, looking over my shoulder one last time, heart heavy.

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Chapter 9

After getting the fire going , which heated our little hovel within minutes, I sat down on a tiny twin mattress on a hand-made wooden bed frame and drifted off to sleep staring at southern hemisphere stars out the window. I woke up to the bright morning seeping through cracks in snowcapped peaks, and spreading out over the astoundingly beautiful  glacial lake.

I rolled out of bed, feeling sore and a little decrepit from being banged around so badly on the road the day before, and went out on my bike in search of coffee, not intending to start day six the way I started day five. The little town was still asleep so early in the morning, only dogs scuttled from porch to porch. I  rode to everything that looked like it could be a store or cafe but all said they weren’t open until nine. Maybe Puerto Tranquilo was too tranquil for my liking.

I walked across the street to get some information on boat tours of the Lago Carerra. On the western shoreline was an island that boasts one of the most beautiful, sought after scenes in all of Patagonia: Las Cuervas de Marmol. The Marble caves are a group of caverns, tunnels, and columns that were etched out over thousands of years by the lake’s waves. As the romantic William C. Bryant put it, “A sculptor wields The chisel, and the stricken marble grows To beauty.”

I considered kayaking out to the caves, but I thought that on my “rest day”  as it was designated in my itinerary, I should do as little physical activity as possible. So I inquired at one of the many tour providers set up in little stands, and they put me down for a boat at 9:15.10501631_774528552616379_6608434018623710805_n

So after standing outside the only cafe in town until they opened, and slamming two coffees, I took off on a little motorboat with a family of brazilian tourists. The boat skipped along the waves, floating over the crest and slamming abruptly into the trough. The water was electric blue–like the color you usually only see in sports drinks.

We arrived at the caves in just under fifteen somewhat seasick minutes. The kayak probably would have taken me two hours or so of paddling. I was happy to let someone else take the wheel for once. The caves were as promised by the tourist companies: surreal marble formations crafted over thousands of years of sports-drink blue ebb and flow. The driver of the little boat began to slow down as they came into view, and we floated towards them.

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It was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever encountered. The boat drifted into some of the caves, carved straight into the mountain, and as the sun came out from behind the clouds, the cave walls came to life, sparkling blue like crinkled colored tin foil under a flash light. 10830902_774529455949622_8016662271245683202_o

We floated in and out of the caves that the boat would fit in for a good thirty minutes before trolling over to a marble monolith climbing independently out of the water with dozens of winding, arching legs supporting it. The huge chunk of marble was dubbed the cathedral, and it wasn’t hard to tell why as it glistened swirling blue beneath the sun.10856684_774529482616286_980133781659547876_o

The captain of the boat told us to say a small prayer if were religious, which I think its a great practice. It’s kind of like saying grace before you eat. It isn’t so much lip service to a God who probably doesn’t care what you are having for dinner, but a chance to slow down and really acknowledge the here and now.

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After the boat trip I sat down in a ramshackle streetside cafe the size of my parents kitchen. I ate a carne y queso sandwich and had a cup of coffee as the television in the corner of the room reported news from thousands of miles away in Santiago. The rickety screen door was propped open to let in some breeze, and every so often a squinting dog would saunter by, stick his nose in, and trot off again unimpressed.

I read a few pamphlets that were left on the table, next to a framed photo of Pope Francis ( the first pope from South America) and decided that since it was only noon, I had time to ride the sixty four miles there and back to the Leones Glacier, the father of Lago Carerra, and I guess the grandfather of the marble caves.

The road up to the Glacier was a dusty one-laner that snaked around two smaller lakes, beside a tumbling waterfall (where I stepped off my bike and said another prayer) and over
the rushing, ice cold, Leones River. before cutting into the side of the mountain and looping behind the glacier that can be seen from town on a clear day.

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On the approach I looked up at the deep, icy blue of the glacier as it peaked over the mountain, glacial fog reaching up like smoky tendrils. That dense ice was older than religion, older than man, older than Chatwin’s Mylodon, and its blue was a piercing hue that seemed a declaration of its nearly primordial nature.

As the gravel road led me to the back side of the glacier, I found myself hypnotized by the serpentine road, thinking of nothing ,coming to no conclusion, just astounding emptiness that carried me to the Leones Park Glacier Center.

I parked my bike and walked, in my hiking shoes, not my motocross boots, up to the information center. the only person there was a young man with thick black hair and dark, bored eyes. He told me that during the summer he lived in a cabin just off the road and managed the store with meager provisions and guide books.

I asked about hiking into the glacier, and he said it wouldn’t be allowed without a guided group, which had to be scheduled well in advance, but if I really wanted to, I could hike the hour and a half up into the woods to the glacier viewing station. Disappointed, I conceded, and began my trek.

The dark trail to the viewing station cris-crossed through a thick canopy of massive ferns, moss covered branches, and enormous trees vying for sunlight. In fact, the only bigger trees I’d ever seen were California redwoods. The humid air reminded me of home, and as my little path broke the treeline and I found the sunlight I had to take off my scarf and jacket.

Navigating over a cascade of impressive lunar gray stones in my hiking shoes like a mountain goat, I made it to the top of the viewing station and rested against a splintery wooden handrail while my breath caught up with me. After all, it was my rest day.

Just beyond a boggy marsh was the glacier’s toe, spilling out from between two craggy mountains like a tsunami frozen in time. The wind was clean and cold and crisp and had another element to it that my language skills fail to describe. Alien? Isolated? Holy? Something else?

It  was a sight to be seen, for sure, but I was so far from the Glacier itself that I was a little disappointed. I wanted to be inside of the thing, to hear it creak and moan like I had in Alaska less than a year before. I wanted to taste the water rolling off the ice.

Ah well, there are more Glaciers in more countries and I’ll be fine.

On the ride back down to Puerto Tranquilo, I stopped at a flower-laden cliff that hung above one of the lakes. I put the kickstand down, took off my steamy helmet, and sat there on the cliff side, looking out past the lake at the blue fog covered Leones Glacier. I just sat there, exactly there, among the flowers, just existing, which is important for someone so constantly in motion on a horse or a train or a motorbike or a boat.

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Back at our little humble cabana on the lake, Ulf offered me a Cerveza Escudo, a chilean pale lager that he’d bought at the mini-mercado along with a lighter and some electrical tape. Ulf had actually taken a rest day, as it was in his itinerary as well, instead of taking a boat ride, riding 64 miles on a winding gravel road, and hiking three hours, he took a nap.  He said his back was sore from the crash the day before, and he’d suffered some kind of torn ligament. I forget that he a retired man in his sixties sometimes.

I drank the beer in my hand made bed and looked out the window that faced the lake, listening to the wind, and watching the waves break not far from the cabana. I drifted off to sleep with the empty bottle in my hand.

I awoke an hour later, hungry, and thirsty for more beer. I got up to get ready for supper to see Ulf standing in the bathroom in only his tighty whiteys, repairing his busted motorcycle helmet with the electrical tape.

Damn germans.

I put myself together without looking at the old wrinkly man and headed out the door with him calling out behind me that he’d meet me at the cerveceria.

As I hoisted my leg over the tall KZ-650, two dirty, pink and spotted pigs trotted up haphazardly to me. I bent down to pet one on the nose and the second pig bit my knee. It felt like two rocks smashing together on my knee cap and I jumped back in surprise.

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Two german bicyclists who had taken up residence in the cabana next door to us laughed from a wooden bench.

“In germany we have a saying, “Man so stupid he was bit by a pig!”

I stared at the man as he laughed with his dumpy, obviously bra-less female companion.

“That’s not a real saying” I said as I started up the motorcycle.

I passed a police officer who made an motion inquiring where my helmet was. I shrugged and pulled into the cerveceria. The helmet laws are very serious in Chile, and you can be fined a substantial amount from what I’m told. The last thing I wasnt is to be stuck in some south american police station having to bargain with a police officer.

The cerverceria was a black and blue bordered wooden building at the center of the small lakeside town, and as I walked up to the front door, I slowed down to listen to a group of women speaking english to one another on the porch. I thought of saying hello, but they were speaking with such thick Chilean accents I didn’t bother. I hadn’t spoken to an American since the day I left Pucon, and it was bothering me to a surprising extent.

The bar was empty except for the bartender, a shapely but tall, brunette with light skin.Her hair was long and not well maintained, not like a feral girl or anything, but natural and familiar.

She asked me what I wanted to drink, in Spanish.

I ordered a pint in English and a smile broke out between her full, un-lipsticked lips.

We exchanged pleasantries in English as I sipped a coffee-tasting, earthy porter that had been brewed in a back room.

She looked like a girl with whom I’d known at college but taller and a bit fuller. For all I know that girl in Missouri has put on a little weight and looks exactly like her Chilean doppleganger. I’d loved that girl in Missouri. For years. And I honestly thought I was over it. As recently as that afternoon stretched out among flowers and turquoise waters and glaciers I’d thought I was over it, but now looking at her, well not her, but her, I thought, could you ever be over it? I sighed in a way that betrayed myself as I sipped the porter from the glass as she skittered away to help incoming patrons.

I was on my third heavy chilean backroom beer when Ulf sat down next to me and ordered fried eggs over french fries. I got a lamb sandwich and slumped in my chair as Toto’s Africa came on over the radio behind the bar. I was a little cut and a little lost in the goofy smile belonging to the girl who wasn’t the girl I’d known in college, and at that moment I suddenly remembered the wandering dirty pig that had bit me.

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I sat on a bench beside the lake, my feet hurting, as the sun set, casting a subtle pink haze on the snowy andes mountains. The lake glugged and the wind blew softly, coldly, and I drank a Cerveza Austral from a sixer I’d bought from the mini-market and brought back to the cabanas between my legs on the bike. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintainance was face down on my lap, the battered pink cover imitating the sunset, wondering if that girl from Missouri’s fiance had ever ridden a motorcycle down to Ushuaia.

 

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Chapter 7

My bike slowly and silently came to a stop in front of two old blue passenger buses that had been converted into a short order restaurant called La Cocina de Sole. One of the buses served as the kitchen, and the other as the dining room. They were both hand painted with whimsical designs, and a white dog sunned out on the wooden patio. The words CAFE CAFE were emblazoned on the menu, and I regarded it as a godsend.

Ulf parked his bike beside mine and took off his helmet.

“What happened to you back there?” He said as he dismounted the KZ.

“I ran completely out of gas about halfway down the hill” I replied, the wind whipping between us, rustling his nice moto-jacket.

“Did you run out of your reserve tank as well?” He asked me as we walked up to the front door of the bustruant.

“Well no.” God dammit. “No I didn’t even think of the reserve.”

Of course I hadn’t thought of the reserve. I ride a Harley sportster. When the tank is empty the tank is empty and you’re shit outta luck. I was kicking myself for all the internal drama and the praying and the coasting down a sidewinding mountain road.

Ulf just laughed that goodhearted German laugh. “It’s okay, Russ.” He patted my back as we sat down in the cramped bus.

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I ordered a cup of coffee and a pork sandwhich as the wind blasted through the valley, rocking the bus almost imperceptibly. I was more annoyed that I’d ridden 100 Kilometers without having my morning caffeine than I was with the almost-running out of gas bit.Of course panic-induced adrenaline is just as good as caffeine, and without the crash.

The bus began to fill up for lunch, it being the only place to eat in either direction for about 100 kilometers, and everything began to slow down. Ulf and I were no longer criss crossing patagonian highways and backroads on motorcycles in damp socks. Now only the wind was moving, and we sat still in a bus without tires, on a desolate road, overlooking an immaculate valley.

I watched a little pale french girl eat a pork sandwich (there weren’t many options on the menu, really) trying to liven up her meager meal with ketchup. Her squatty, windburnt, boyish face heaved a sigh out into nothing as she stared out the bus window, ignoring her family, with whom she was vacationing. She was wearing a blue hoodie, the hood framing her pensive countenance, and for a split second I knew everything I needed to know about her, and I loved her in a way that only those of us who have stared out whimsically painted remodeled buses can.

After our lunch and coffee, Ulf and I switched to our reserve tanks and rode into the village to look for the gas station that was denoted on our map. We independently rode our Kawasakis up and down each barren street, dodging stray dogs and listless villagers before meeting back up in the city square. There was a ramshackle store with a screen door that sold toiletries and ice creams and the sort, and Ulf tried to ask them in his best Spanish if there was a gas station ,but the woman behind the dusty counter didn’t seem to understand. I sat out on the covered porch, petting a stray dog, cursing Ulf under my breath for not stopping for gas earlier in the morning.

I asked a man walking into the little store if he knew where we could buy gas, and he told us “En la Forestero, por la calle a la derecha” and pointed down the street.

So Ulf and I walked, in our damp socks and motorcycle boots, down the dusty street and knocked on the door of the Forestero, which claims on a handwritten sign to sell “Provisiones Y Combustibles” but no one answered. Dogs barked, the wind howled, our socks smelled, but no one answered. So we sat and waited, in frustration.

A few people in busted old cars parked, ran past us, up to the door, and knocked repeatedly. I told them “nadie aqui” and they shrugged and went back to their vehicles. Finally someone told me, in spanish, that the man who ran the place goes up to Coyihaque (the place we should have fueled up in) every other  day to refuel, and that he would be back in an hour or so. So we waited some more. At least we had an answer.

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One of the hardest things for a person like me to do is to wait. Especially after two or three fresh Chilean coffees. Ulf, meanwhile, is “having a nap” on the other side of a broken fence, in an empty pasture adjacent to the Forestero.

I sat in front of the ramshackle, informal gas station ,as the wind blew through the quiet, empty streets. Six or eight boxers slept in the dusty backyard of the gas-shack, discouraging any would-be gas thieves.

I pulled my crumpled itinerary from my pack and went over my bulleted schedule. I was a full day ahead, so it wasn’t like this was the delay that was going to break my trip, but it did mean I couldn’t lose another day due to engine trouble or a flat tire, and it definitely meant I couldn’t afford to get lost on the road. It was such a preventable error that it made my brain vibrate, or maybe that was the coffee.

I took out Chatwin’s “In patagonia” and read in the town square that doubled as a small park. I considered lifting entire passages of description from his book, as I traveled through some of the same mountains and valleys as he had 40 years before. Patagonia couldn’t have looked much different then.

I eventually nodded off in the park, despite the Andean mountain wind howling. the sun was nice and warm and I was full and Chatwin and the whole thing finally put me to sleep. I woke up to the sound of a truck turning off Route 7 onto the gravel road of the village, and got up thinking it was our gas-man, but no luck.

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I’d taken off my wet boots and socks and let them out to dry on my motorcycle after Ulf laid out in the pasture, s o I was walking around barefoot through Cerro Castillo drawing stares from children pointing at the tattoos on my feet and my dirty, disheveled beard. I walked back through town to the Bus-turaunt to find the dining room empty. I ordered another coffee and finished my paperback Chatwin alone.

I hate to finish a book too fast. It’s nice to control the speed at which its characters must leave you. And Chatwin is a good character to have around– an englishman with whom I’ve been glad to converse in English, no matter how one sided the conversation.

As I sipped my coffee, wishing Chatwin hadn’t finished his journey while I was still only on my fifth day, a family got out of their little hatchback and sat at the front of the bus. I listened as the pug nosed, black haired, red lipped little daughters slurped and smacked on hot dogs covered in guacamole, while their high cheekboned parents, both with jet black pony tails, talked to each other lovingly in spanish.

A tiny gray bird, the same color as the gravel, flitted about looking for provisions, and finding none, as skinny threadbare trees bowed over in the wind, and I figured in my head how many hours we had until sundown. Ulf and I had six hours left of rideable daylight, so it was feasible that we’d still make it to Puerto Tranquilo by sunset, but not probable. Not to mention the fact that most, if not all, of the rooms would be booked, and we’d still have to find a place to eat.

As I stepped out of the little blue bus for the last time, a small brown mutt with a bandaged foot lay lazily in the sun, his leg shaved, looking pathetic but wagging his tail–thumping against the dusty sidewalk.

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I found Ulf back at the gas station still sitting in the shade, with no change in our situation. So we waited some more. A parade of characters and dogs came to our little Forastero and I told each one “No esta aqui, iraba a cohayaique” in an unenthused monotone, but they rang the door for the absent shop owner anyway.

The gas man finally returned triumphantly in a jalopy of a red pickup truck with the gas from Coyhaique. He parked around back, penned up his six or eight dogs, and filled three green five liter glass jugs in wicker baskets with 93 octane gasoline from a tank on his truck.  As he walked smilingly  out to our bikes, the jugs hanging from a wooden rod that he carried across his shoulders, he looked like an italian boy returning home with fresh wine.

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“YO TENGO SED” he said with a toothy grin as he poured glug glug glug into my Kawasaki’s tank.

We were back in business.

 

 

 

 

 



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 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.

5


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