Current Status: Eric is back in the US

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Ushuaia

2009-02-02

The ferry managed to cross the strait of Magellan without sinking, and I suddenly found myself on the island I’d been dreaming of for many months: Tierra del Fuego. I also found myself without enough money to pay for a hostel, so after the ferry docked around 6:30pm I headed off into the countryside to find a place to camp.

In Patagonia finding a place to camp involves all the usual concerns: are you likely to be run over by a car, have your property eaten by a wild animal, be attacked by bandits, etc. But additionally, it is impossible to camp anywhere that doesn’t have shelter from the wind. I eventually found a spot that miraculously had both a spectacular view of Chilota Bay, and was set deeply enough amongst some shrubs that the wind only harrassed the top of the tent.

This campsite selection proved successful and after enjoying a beautiful sunset over the ocean and undisturbed sleep, I woke up in the morning and decided to see how far I could go with the Patagonian tailwind finally fully in my favor. The answer to that question was 220km (140 miles), including long waits at both Chilean and Argentine customs. This was my longest-distance-in-a-single-day trip record, beating out the Glennallen - Valdez day and one of the days between Cordoba and Mendoza. The day finally ended in the surprisingly large town of Rio Grande.

About 40 miles before I arrived in Rio Grande, my rear cassette fell apart and the lowest three gears just spun loosely around my axle. Luckily, the larger gears still worked and I was still able to make my way into the town using them. This took away the advantage of the tailwind, however, and made it more difficult than I was expecting.

In town, while unsucessfully looking for a cheap place to stay, I ran into a local cyclist named Julio. After a short conversation, he offered a place to sleep in his house, and then decided that it would be okay for me to sleep in the house of a friend of his, which he was watching while they were away on vacation. In this way, I became good friends with Maluco the dog, and better friends with Julio and his family. They shared their meals with me, and I did my best to share what I could with them. I told stories from the road, showed them pictures from the length of the Americas, and finally offhand, offered him a bicycle light which I never use, since I don’t ride at night.

It turns out that he was looking for such a light for a long time, and this gift more than anything hit the spot for him. I was really happy about this, because I always feel awkward accepting the hospitality of other people, and being able to give him something he valued made me feel a whole lot better.

I stayed in the house two nights, and during the day in between, we went to the bicycle shop and had my rear cassette fixed. I additionally napped a long while, ate a whole bunch, and watched television. Ah! the good life.

Back on the road, the wind was resolutely in my face the whole distance to Tolhuin. But this was a weakened wind, and nothing like the Patagonian fury I know from further up the road. I was rather eager to reach Tolhuin because I’d been hearing about a bakery there since Coyhaique, and more specifically, about its wonderful quality.

The rumors were true. They even had churros! I decided to camp in a forest nearby so I could take advantage of this resource the following morning as well. In the morning as I was enjoying more sugar-laden pastries and some sugar-laden instant coffee, I ran into two Spanish cyclists whom I’d met before near El Calafate.

We tried riding together for a while, but I accidentally got away from them climbing a hill, and by the time I even thought to check behind me to see if they were still there, they’d disappeared. We reunited one last time during a food break, and decided that we’d meet up again in Ushuaia. I went off, up and over one last pass, and down into 42F rain.

This rain wasn’t as bad as when Travis and I entered La Paz, but it managed to painfully freeze my feet without going so far as to numb them completely, and in that way it was worse. After a good hour of this, it lightened up a bit and the clouds lifted enough for me to see what a gorgeous valley I was riding through. And the weather held as I went up and over one last hill, the Beagle Channel came fully into view, and I finally entered Ushuaia, 19 months and 13 days after setting out from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska and over 20,000 miles by bicycle from that same point.

Along the way I began to lose the sense that I was an active particpant in my journey. More and more, I began to feel that it had developed a momentum of its own, and that it would be more difficult to stop riding than to finish. I had control over what I did on a day to day basis, but the great pull southward was too strong to resist for long. Eventually the only thing that could stop me was severe injury or death. And even to that I came close. I was hit by a car in Honduras, mugged by five knife-wielding thugs in Bogotá, I flew into a tree at the southern end of the Carretera Austral, and hundreds of other events which have become so commonplace that I rarely notice them any more. Cold, heat, hunger, thirst. I became an expert at recognizing when these went from inconvenient to “will kill me if I don’t take action very soon.”

When I started this trip I was conflicted. Half of me wanted nothing more than to travel, to know what lay on the other side of every horizon, and the people who lived there. And half of me wanted a garden. To find a place where I could know every plant and rock. And so I set out on this trip, believing that I’d found something that was so ridiculous and arduous that when I finished I’d be done traveling and could settle on my garden with a quiet heart. But I didn’t find that.

When I set out, I thought that traveling would be constantly new. And on a superficial level it is. Every day I saw new things, met new people, and my view of the world subtly altered. But I didn’t realize how much like my daydream of having a garden it was. Every day I would see new things, and talk to new people, but the scenery changed in the same way and I had the same conversations with the people I met. I came to know how mountains would rise up and fall, how rivers would form and birds would find their nests, and cattle would find the long grass or the hole in the fence. I discovered that the underlying interests and aspirations of everyone I met were universal. And I loved it and I loved them. On a level beneath my mind, I recognized the world, and in my heart I recognized each of the people. Each new meeting and each new mountain, was the same familiar person and same old mountain all over again.

About half a year in or sooner, my body stopped changing too. I was a being for riding, and the riding steadied my mind from too much joy or too much despair. The sun would rise, I would break camp, eat, and ride until the end of the day when I set up camp, cooked my dinner, and slept — deeply and soundly — until the next morning. And within each day, my gear performed as it did the day before, and my body performed as it did the day before, and that rhythm too I came to know and love. And so like plants in growth everything changed according to its nature, and everything was familiar and I loved everything for itself.

And so I thought I discovered that my two conflicting desires were two manifestations of the same desire. And in a way that might have sustained me for many years, they are. I could have continued traveling around the world and I could have been content. But on some level traveling is selfish. Although to me every new person became the same familiar person, what was I to them? And although I may have found peace within myself, how could I ever share it with others? And most importantly, what place was there on the road for a family?

It was that realization, and not the Antarctic sea, which draws this journey to a close for now.