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Mendoza, Arg.


The rain has long since stopped bothering me. I remember a time my second year in grad school where I’d take the bus whenever it rained. Looking back on that now, it’s hard to imagine that person ever became me. I am crazy now, I’m certain of that. I know that the wind is a conscious force, and that it hates me. I know that there is a god that controls insects, and that he delights in directing them into my eyes or ears (but why beetles!? Those hurt!). I spend over 23 hours a day outside. In the rain, the hail, the heat and the cold. I sleep on the ground and compete for space with sharp thorns and curious goats. I know that man does not and cannot control nature. And I have given up believing that I can live my life seperate from it — it is too powerful. So of course the rain doesn’t bother me…

It was a day of rain and a day of climbing into the Sierras de Córdoba my first day out. It must have been a dream that my bags were ever water-proof. If they ever were, they’ve stopped being so long ago, and the memory of it is the same as a memory of a dream. All my clothes soaked up the rain-water and weighed down my bicycle. But as long as there was climbing to do, my body pumped heat into my torso and strength into my legs and I went on. Towards the top of the sierra the fog came in and I had trouble in searching for a camping spot along the side of the road. Finally I rolled past a tourist stop and asked them if I could camp on their lot. They offered the covered garage, and I was grateful to the core of my being.

I set up my tent, hung up some clothes, and tried prying apart the water-logged pages of Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland, which a friend from Córdoba gave me (in its dry state). I gave up after a few pages, and lied awake wondering what kept me going on. What does keep me going? I’m so tired and so lonely. I meet so many people who I can never meet again except through luck. That day I rubbed off all the skin on my knees and most of it on the underside of my thighs because my pants were so wet they clung to my skin. And the next day I would have to ride in excruciating pain, because what else could I do?

And I did just that the next day. And after 110km I had to call it quits to give my wounds a chance to scab over and I made camp next to a river in the town of Villa Dolores. It was the filthiest campground I’ve come across in my life, and the first one since Cafayate where they actually charged me money to pitch my tent. In fact, the next morning a 11 year old kid I talked to expressed his disgust at them charging me for that very reason. But whatever, I would forget about it in a few hours as the ground rolled on beneath my tires and that campground along with everything I could see from it rotated over the horizon and out of sight and out of mind.

And on this day, partly motivated by the ridiculous hope that I might have one last chance to see a girl I fell for in Córdoba before she left Mendoza, and partly motivated by that unknowable part of me that keeps going and is so much stronger than the rest of me could ever be, I rode for eleven straight hours and covered 210km against a cross-wind. This was the furthest distance I’d ridden on the trip to date, and the last time I even came close was in Alaska when I rode around 200km. I ended the day — for the first time on my trip — sleeping behind a police station on the border of the San Luis and San Juan provinces.

The police were really good folks. They let me use the shower and the stove, and fill up my water bottles for what I hoped would be another record day the next day (it would have to be, since Mendoza was 210km further on down the road). Knowing that I’d have to eat a lot to cover the carb debt, I cooked up 500g of pasta and set about eating it all. I failed, incidentally, and I guess my stomach isn’t what it was earlier on in the trip.

So the next morning I woke up and tailwind? A strong tailwind? I hadn’t had a tailwind in so long that I momentarily thought I was disoriented about the direction I had to travel that day. But I got on the road, in the correct direction, and sure enough I was blown down the road at the greatest speed I could manage. And that lasted about five miles.

Then the road started to curve and curve and curve, and curse it, my tailwind only lasted for a small stretch of the road which happened to head 90 degress off from the rest of the road. So now it was a sidewind and my joy was crushed in that complete way that the wind god delights in and draws strength from. And to pour salt on the wound, the road I had to turn onto later was 90 degress off again from the road I was on.

For a brief period that morning, I thought that the demon in charge of making my life difficult had fallen asleep on the watch. Surely such a tailwind on the day I needed it most, on the day that it would offer me the greatest benefit could not possibly happen. And so I rode those first five miles in disbelief and in the state of joy that comes in realizing that what you’re doing is so good it should be wrong, but somehow it isn’t. Those five miles…

But back to the wind. It howled fury though my ears and into my brain and thousands of tiny claws scrapped across my face and drew tears from my eyes. I thought that this wind might continue to mount until it competed with the day I entered Los Angeles, or the day I tried to climb up to Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapas. But it knew it didn’t have to be that bad to demoralize me completely, and it saved its strength for another day. I finally just gave up and found a spot on the side of the road to pitch my tent, crawled inside and finished off the book, hoping that somehow the wind would die off in the night.

Well, thank god, it did. And it turned out that the forsaken spot I’d chosen to camp in was just a few miles from the start of lovely wine country, and the remainder of the distance into Mendoza was a pleasant stroll along poplar lined rural roads. So now I rest, and begin to think about Chile.

After a few days in Mendoza to recuperate and to take a leisurely ride through wine country, I left town with much higher spirits than I entered. Mendoza is a beautiful city with mature trees shading every street and I had a very pleasant time there.

But the bicycle called, and I headed up towards the border. There are two routes from Mendoza to the town of Uspallata. The southern route follows a river valley and receives the brunt of the traffic, and the northern, longer route is mostly dirt and climbs 7000ft before descending down into town. Of course, I took the northern route.

One the road became dirt, I switched into my guatemala gear and spun away for hours as the road wound and wound up the side of the mountains. I saw a few guanacos off in the distance, and heard the sentinals call to alert their companions of my approach. When will animals learn that the bicycle tourist poses them very little threat?

At around this point the clouds gathered enough to drop some rain on me, but I could tell that their hearts weren’t in it. I think that it only rained at all because it was the day I started back on the road after a few days of rest. Every time…

Anyway, the road kept winding, and at one point I encountered a couple of french people doing the same trip in a landrover. The ran into another cyclist that I rode with from Cuzco to Puno, and the social world seemed to shrink. Near a giant opening in the earth called El Balcón, I saw a fox investigating things and watched it for a while. When that got boring I got back on the bike and finally summited the road.

Riding down was a bit of an adventure, because loose gravel and steep grades equals more adreneline than I like to produce, but the pavement eventually returned and the valley opened up revealing snow-capped peaks and colored hills. I stopped frequently to take pictures, and found that the views along the descent made the previous several hours of climbing well worth it.

I made it to Uspallata about an hour before sunset, found a campground and prepared to set up came. Then the manager told me that he wanted around $10 for the night, and I just laughed and rode off. $10 to sleep on the ground? He said it was because the bathrooms had hot water, when what they had was a giant wood-fed boiler that produced lukewarm water. Anyway, I went over to the municipal campground and found no one there. I set up my tent anyway, and spent the night for free. Bitches…

The next day I started climbing up an old glacial valley. Around ten in the morning the wind went from calm and nothing to take notice of, to the wrong direction in a wind tunnel. It was like a tsunami of air came down the valley and it stayed that way for the rest of the day. I talked to some locals about it, and they said that it always starts like that around noon. Today it was early… How strange that it should be early the day I decide to climb it!

Anyway, I reassessed my distance goals for the day, and when I found a small hostel with small prices at Puente del Inca, I paid up and relaxed. Well, almost. At first I figured I might make it the 8 miles to the next little town, but after I got about a quarter mile from Puente del Inca the rain came down off the mountains, and conspired with the wind to send cutting droplets at my face and hands. Immediately numb, I turned tail and found the hostel.

Best decision ever. The next morning the weather was clear and I had time to explore the national park which contains Aconcagua. Since I wasn’t anywhere near high-season, no one bothered to charge me, and I basically had free reign of the park for a few hours to hike around and marvel at Aconcagua.

That was great, but it meant that the wind had a chance to really start roaring, so the next six miles of climbing were again against a tsunami of wind. But it was worth it for sure.

I made it to the border tunnel, was told that it was too dangerous to ride through and that I’d have to wait for a service vehicle to come and ferry me across. I guess they didn’t really wonder at how I’d made it through the last several tunnels (which, btw, were like trying to ride out of a vacuum hose). Anyway I wasn’t too bothered about a short ride through a tunnel, and got a cup of tea while I waited. That was delicious, and marked the end of this chapter of Argentina.

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