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 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.

 

 

 

 

 



Chapter Six

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

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

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

“Esta un Flor”

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

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

She giggled and pointed up at my eyes.

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

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

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

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

“Estatos Unidos” They said.

She stared back in confusion.

The dad sighed. “Mickey Mouse”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Caminos de Patagonia: Chapter Five

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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