RAISED WITH WOLVES


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 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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