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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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.”