RAISED WITH WOLVES


Chapter 13
March 9, 2017, 5:02 pm
Filed under: Adventures, Travel | Tags: , , ,

” I thought maybe I’d left you behind”, Ulf said with a smirk as he came out to meet me in the driveway.

“Is this Tres Lagos?” I said as I unstrapped my dusty bags from the side of my bike.

He nodded. “Tres Lagos must mean ‘Five Houses’ because I see no lakes here”.

He helped me unpack my bags and lug them into the room he’d reserved for us. Next door to us were a group of teenagers, some of whom were coming out of the bathrooms as I walked in.

“We saw you out there on the road”, said a boy with Shawn from Boy Meets World hair.

A black girl with short curly hair walked up behind him in the small dark hallway and confirmed his allegation. “Yes we could not tell if you were a man or a woman with your helmet on.” She pointed at my badly disheveled beard: “We thought your beard was long blonde hair coming out of your helmet!” she laughed.

The boy with Shawn hair smiled and agreed, “But your shoulders were so big we thought maybe you were a very big woman.”

Both of the kids had heavy Dutch accents and must have been eighteen or nineteen years old. I had seen some kids out by the road with their thumbs out earlier in the day. I’d slowed down and motioned that they get on the back of my bike, a joke I make every time I pass a hitch hiker, out of desperation for human interaction.

So trying not to seem too desperate in this moment, I laughed along with them and hurried into my dorm room, before I exploded at the chance to talk in English with someone younger than sixty-five.

I emptied my pockets onto the night stand, changed out of my motorcycle boots, and pulled out my road-weary patagonian guidebook–a shoddy, road battered pamphlet made out of a larger guide book that I’d torn out and then stapled back together to save on space and weight.

I flipped through the pages to the small entry on Tres Lagos to see if there was anything to eat. I’ve found that usually if a place is a dot on a map it will at least have a gas station and a restaurant–usually.

Ulf and I walked down the dusty street, which was empty except for dogs and one busted down economy car with a duct-taped side view mirror and a hood that was held on with bungee cords, in search for the only restaurant in the six block wide town.

Tres Lagos looked like it had been air-dropped from a passing plane. Or like it had sprung up in the middle of the desert in a puddle of water like one of those foamy dinosaurs you’d get in your easter basket as a kid. There was wide open blue sky above us, which was greying in the twilight, and desert everywhere beyond those six blocks– like the shittiest oasis you’ve ever seen.

The resturaunt was a ramshackle addition to a nice enough adobe colored house. There was a fence with a dog, and a garage with an old man working on a scooter, and a nice tended yard, and a concrete slab with four wooden walls which was obviously an afterthought. Ulf and I hesitantly pushed open the wire mesh door and stepped into the drab cafe that had five dining room tables and a bar.

I looked at the hand-written menus for fifteen minutes before making some sort of decision. Not because there were so many options, but because I had no idea what any of the options were. I finally settled on pointing at a blackboard where “Carne con Huveos” was written as the daily special and a ordered two large Quilmes for myself. Ulf ordered the same, for convenience’s sake, without the beer, saying that he was already “too tired” for a beer.

We sat there for about thirty minutes before our food arrived from, I assume, the kitchen in their house. I also assumed the man working on the scooter was also the cook. I also had drank both of my 24 oz beers and was working on my third by the time the food came. I still have no idea what kind of meat it was, but it could have easily been pork.

As our plates were sat on the table, the screen door opened and in walked the two dutch hitchhikers plus two. The woman proprietor seemed a little frazzled as she started to speak to the four of them in spanish, telling them that all that was available was the carne con huevos. She didn’t even bother giving them menus as they sat down at the table next to us.

“But yo no comer carne” pleaded a blonde girl with a tiny mouth and a tinier voice.

The woman looked at her blankly.

“you’re in Argentina, sweetheart” I said at her, “They don’t have vegetarians here”.

She conceded to eat the eggs and the side of peas, but would forego the carne.

Ulf and I chatted with the three Dutch teens, and their older dread-locked friend with crows feet and an accent too thick to understand, while they waited for their food.

The boy with the shawn hair, and the nice teeth I might add, was a galley worker on a cargo ship that had sailed from Holland down to Ushuaia, where he met with his friends. He went on talking about cooking with a big Swedish woman who had shown him the ropes, and how difficult it was to appease the tastes of their ship, which was manned by Vietnamese and Sudanese sailors.

“I’m envious that you got to cross the equator on a boat,” I told him, after a swig from my fourth quilmes.

“You must have crossed the equator too,” he said.

“Yeah but its not the same. I did it on a plane. I was probably asleep. You know, you should get a turtle tattoo. That’s what the sailors did back in the day. God I wish I could get a fucking turtle tattoo.”

Ulf, who looked absolutely exhausted, chimed in, “you can still get one russ. No one will stop you.” He started pulling out his billfold and motioning for the old black haired woman behind the counter, but I stopped him.

“Put that up, Ulf. Ahh’ve got ya.”

He thanked me and excused himself, saying he’d let the young folk have the night to themselves.

I wasn’t feeling especially young, though. I watched the Dutch kids, and their friend who probably was my age, and also looked tired as hell, goof and laugh and chow down on their goopy eggs and “carne”, telling me about their, “how do you say it in english, gap year,” and how they were all trying not to think about what they were going to do with their lives as adults, and I just kept drinking. I felt like I had been so wound up all day long, with my hands white knuckled and the dust in my eyes and the wind barraging me for hours and the storm threatening my measly life, and I just needed to un-tie  a hundred knots in my shoulders and my brain, and that Quilmes was the swill to do it.

The boy with the shawn hair was lamenting that he hadn’t been with a woman since he’d left Holland.

“Not that I’m trying or anything, but the women down here don’t seem to be interested in me. I mean I have a woman back home in the states, but it’s nice to be noticed by the opposite sex anyhow, you know? Especially after a long day on the road.”

The black girl spoke up, slowly to get it right, and pedantically, as if she spoke for all womankind: “The reason that most South American girls do not find you attractive is because you look dangerous. It is very western to think that danger is sexy. These girls are in actual danger from time to time. They don’t need a man to make them feel unsafe. They are unsafe.”

“Yes. you look like a character from a Coon brothers film,” the dutch sailor said.

“Coon brothers?” I asked, still trying to wrap my head around what the girl had said before.”

“Yes, you know, The Coon brothers. The Dude? Fargo? No Country for old men?”

I suppose that was a compliment. I’d had five twenty-four ounce shitty lagers and I had been yakking these Dutch kids ears off for hours. I bet they wanted to relax back into their native tongue. So I left them to it, shaking their hands and wishing them safe travels.

The wind finally died down to a calm as I walked drunkenly, one flat foot in front of the other, down the streets of silent Tres Lagos, silent but the sound of barking dogs. I was feeling good, feeling high, feeling hopeful for the Dutch kids and their gap year, and for Ulf and his retirement, and for me and the whole damned world and feeling good that i’d beaten Ruta forty, for now, even though it had broken me a little inside.  I’d made it alive to walk down the dusty streets of “five houses” beneath a desert moon, wondering how many more gap years I’d need before I was an adult, too.

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 



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 8

The route from Cerro Castillo down to Puerto Tranquilo was a 100 kilometer pockmarked, grey gravel engagement with more potholes than road. It looked as if someone had taken the circumference of the moon and cut it in half like a ribbon and laid it out south to Puerto Tranquilo. The roughness of the ride made me think that literally any port off this road would seem tranquil in comparison.

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Route Seven did have it’s redeeming qualities though:the gravel was very manageable, and as you can probably guess, it immediately descended into overwhelming beauty on all sides. Ulf left me behind pretty soon after we left. I found it very hard to ride on the shifting gravel and keep my head on a swivel as I downloaded each scene into my hippocampus, hoping I hadn’t drowned the little guy in years of beer and coffee, and that my short to long term memory processors were still intact, if not a little buzzed.10984214_774528329283068_8720649011507307677_n

We began to gain altitude again, leaving the river valley. I say we in the royal sense, I guess, or in the sense of me and the Kawasaki, because Ulf was so many curves ahead of me I’d lost hope of seeing him again. The rode rose above a lake that was the truest example of turquoise I’ve seen in my entire life, though I’m told I will see many more like it.

For a while, the road stretched straight toward two massive verdant shoulders, rising up above the landscape, that were West Virginia green, they were Ireland green, and peaking up from behind them a perfect snowcap, all together resembling an ancient golem with a snowy halo.

The road curved away from him toward the river it was mirroring, and I stood up and bent my knees to help absorb all the shock from the potholes. I thought, “I’m getting the hang of this! I got it!” Which of course meant I’d either fall on my face in loose gravel, or run into a bus around a blind curve.

As I rode along the river, more huge elephant ears growing on the road side, and tall waving trees stretching toward heaven, I considered the scenery I’d experienced so far: Innumerable waterfalls, lush forest, terrifying snowy peaks, picturesque Andean ranges, rushing rapids beneath humble bridges, aquamarine paradisaical lakes. It was as if I were racing and bouncing through the background of the most beautiful Tex Avery cartoon God ever created.

If I stopped at every panorama photo opportunity I’d never make it to my destination. It was frustrating that I wasn’t able to capture some of the scenes to indulge my friends and family, but that wasn’t the point of this trip. I’m not a photographer. I didn’t go to Patagonia to take pictures. That’s what they make postcards for.

About halfway through the ride I stopped at a picturesque bridge, water flowing robins egg blue below me, dismounted the kickstand and parked. I walked down to the rocky shore and thanked God, listening to the shhhhhh of the water and the frshashhhh of the wind and not my 650cc engine and stock suspension creaking.

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The potholes on the route had eased up a bit, but lest you think the universe was going easy on me, the gravel had become much less forgiving, taking a lot more mental and physical exercise to stay upright, and to keep my tail end from slipping, or for that matter, my front end from collapsing.

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I walked back up to the bridge after letting my brain cool off a bit, and sighed, looking out at the frigid mountain range beyond, and got back on the bike, feeling very small.

I think Ulf senses my inexperience with the KZ and it makes him nervous. To be fair, this is my first experience with a dual sport. But go big or go home right? That’s what people say. Course, that’s how people get dead too.

I guess I’m always afraid I’ll get cancer or some kinda disease or get a Christian girl pregnant. The first time I did a cross country road trip, it was in a school bus I wasn’t qualified to drive. the first time I left the country and really encountered other cultures? It was three months in Europe at 21 years old. My first adventure bike trip? Through Patagonia to the end of the earth without a guide.

I just don’t want to be lying awake at night thinking “I wish I’d traveled more” or “I wish I’d taken that trip through Patagonia” or “I wish i’d made love to more girls when I was young”.

Of course, all that said, I do have regrets:

  • I regret having spent my entire time in Ireland boozed up on Guiness, following around some Canadian-Inuit girl that would never love me.
  • I regret not going all the way to the top of the Eiffel tower. It was only fifteen more euros!
  • I wish Seth and Bob hadn’t left Paul and I in Mexico. Seriously you guys ruined that trip.
  • I wish I HAD made love to more girls when I was young.

I could go on forever. I didn’t say it was a perfect philosophy, but it’s all I’ve got.

I finally rode up on Ulf, who was sitting on the side of the road, clearly shaken up. He had wiped out going too fast into a curve, winding up in a grassy ditch on the roadside, just a few feet from an old rusted up, overturned, burnt out car. His old german bones couldn’t have lifted the heavily packed bike on his own. I couldn’t have either, honestly. The bikes are heavy enough by themselves to be picked up from the ground, but with all of our bags and cases, it was almost impossible. Thankfully a bus coming north stopped, and five men got out and helped him not only get the bike back on two wheels, but pushed it up the ditch back onto the road. South American hospitality, I suppose.

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The rest of the day we didn’t get too far from one another. The road hugged an arm of Lago Gral Carrerra, the turquoise jewel centerpiece of a snowy peaked rugged crown of Andes Mountains. It was a long hour of the two of us staring out into heaven from our bikes. I could have thrown myself into it, disappeared into the lake, given myself to it completely. Crazy talk, I’m aware, but it’s no hyperbole. It’s an unmistakable feeling I’ve felt a few times before that looks a lot like what Sunday school teachers tell us Salvation feels like.

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Ulf and I arrived in Puerto Tranquilo feeling strangely refreshed after such a long day. We had enough time to find some humble little cabanas right on the lake that were just big enough for our gear, our persons, and a wood fire stove.

 

 

 



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.

 

 

 

 

 



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