< Carretera Austral | Ushuaia >

Southern Patagonia


The ferry crossed Lago O’Higgins successfully, and so started the last remaining physical obstacle of the trip. Leaving the port, it was a steep uphill to the customs office where I remembered to get my passport stamped (unlike at Chile Chico/Los Antiguos), and then eight more miles of uphill on a road that would give a 4wd vehicle a lot of difficulty. I rode when I could, and fell into thorn bushes, got up cursing, and began pushing my bike when I couldn’t. Whenever I would stop to rest, I would be tormented by horseflies. I didn’t stop very much.

The road flattened out a bit as it entered a forest and I started to make decent time. Soon I came to a washed out bridge and had to solve the mystery of The Way Around The Raging Torrent. Following hoof prints that led to the right, I eventually came to a foot bridge that in normal circumstances I would only cross if I lost a bet, but since it was obviously the only way across the river I made the sign of the cross and went for it.

Now I had to solve the mystery of Where Did The Road Go, which in due time fell to my orienteering skills. From there, it was only a short distance to the Argentine border and the end of the road. What began on the other side was the dreaded horse trail that I’d heard so much about in the leading weeks. But thanks to some residual upper body strength, and a complete ambivalance to getting my feet soaking wet, I was able to haul my bicycle over the many fallen trees and across the many muddy streams. And after a while, I actually found myself enjoying the whole thing.

So with an hour to spare before the next ferry left across Lago del Desierto I arrived at Argentine customs, got my passport stamped, and started sunbathing on the lawn while my socks dried on a fence post (oh yeah, I was fortunate enough to make the crossing during a rare day of gorgeous sunny weather. I talked to someone who made the crossing a few days later during a blizzard, and he didn’t have the same impression of the crossing as I did. His description of it involved bad words).

Across the lake and then 25 miles further on, I arrived in the town of El Chaltén, and in full view of the amazing Mt. FitzRoy. When I first saw the moutain, I couldn’t actually believe that what my eyes were seeing existed. I’d never seen any natural thing so impressive as that in my whole life, including during the previous 20,000 miles on the bicycle. And so I settled in to a campground and spent the next several days hiking around the park and seeing FitzRoy from all it’s various angles.

When I was finally ready to leave, the blizzard I mentioned rolled into town, and so I stayed put for another few days until the weather improved. Coincidentally, just before the storm hit, the zipper on my rainfly finally decided to fail completely, and I resorted to using saftey pins to hold it together. This actually worked quite well.

Anyhow, the weather finally cleared enough for me to make a break for it, and I rode the first 55 miles with the wind at my back in three hours, and the next 30 miles against it or with it coming from the side in six hours more. As darkness was setting in and hypothermia was becoming a very real possibility, I found a road maintenance facility and asked for permission to sleep in their garage. Thank god it was granted.

The next morning I beat out 35 miles before the wind had a chance to really get going, and the final 20 miles into El Calafate against 50 knot wind. I arrived in town, but my mind was still somewhere else, swept away across the steepe by the howling wind.

From El Calafate I rerode the distance back to a junction with a tailwind that felt unfairly mind as compared to the headwind I’d had to beat against just the day before. Then the road began a climb up and out of the valley I was in, and the tailwind was just strong enough to match my speed exactly and thereby allow a multitude of very small insects to make daring passes at my eyes and nostrils as I climbed.

Eventually I reached the top and watched condors soaring over the valley until the newly strengthened wind drove a chill through my sweat-drenched clothes. I pressed on with this wind at my back at rediculous speeds until the junction that would lead me to back to Chile and Torres del Paine. The wind met this dirt road as a cross-wind and I rumbled along trying to navigate stupidly large rocks.

I was saved from the worst of the wind for a very long while as the road followed the course of a protected valley and in that time the immensity of the patagonian steepe impressed itself deeply into my mind. I’d often heard other riders describe it as boring and empty, but I found it otherwise.

Everywhere I’ve been I’ve always seen mundane or monumental scenery, but the rolling vastness of the steepe is different. The hills and the grass anchor the incomprehensible infinite in human terms, and for the first time on my trip I found myself viewing the landscape in negative space. Here I thought “I am so small and insignificant in the face of all of this”, whereas everywhere else I would always think “that is gigantic” or “now that is impressive”. It was a profoundly moving experience.

I ended that day back in the full fury of the wind and rain. The rain didn’t fall from the sky, but came across the land like bullets from a mechanized gun. Quickly all the warmth in my body was torn from me, and the only motivation to keep me going were some lights in the distance, and the impossibility of stopping where I was without shelter.

After an agonizing and intermable struggle with the wind and cold the lights attached themselves to buildings and the buildings grew doors and windows. Finally I arrived at the door and knocked, desperately asking for permission to pitch my tent in the garage. This was denied me. “But”, they said, “if you pitch your tent behind those trees, you’ll be protected from the rain”.

So I walked the final 100 yards, and found rows of trees grown bent with the wind. And under their long and leeward branches I found that the wind and rain could not penetrate, and so in that space I was warm and secure while the growing storm howled and crashed all around me.

The next morning neither the rain nor the wind had diminished, but only gathered strength. But what should I do? Did I dare wait out the day in my tent, held prisoner by the wind, hoping that tomorrow would bring better weather? Or should I ride anyway, knowing that another day might see the storm grow even stronger? Of course I rode anyway.

And what an ordeal that day was! While the rain soon passed my by, the wind never stopped. I would ride maybe a mile or two miles against it, and then have to seek shelter in a drainage ditch or road culvert to regain my mind and steel myself for another try. In this way I covered 25 miles in 8 hours, and finally found relief in a random roadside shelter, perhaps built to store snow equipment or other maintenance machinery.

The floor of that building was covered in the filthy remains of things I couldn’t identify, and others that I wish I hadn’t been able to identify, and I did my best to clear a space to roll out my ground pad and sleeping bag. Just as I’d finished making a home for myself and was settling into some cyclist-level snacking, a northbound Swiss cyclist noticed me in the shelter and swung around to chat. She remained there a while as a fresh rainstorm blew through, and through our conversation we discovered a common acquaintance in my friend Jeff (Japhy) from UCLA whom she’d met in Huaraz, Peru. How small the human world is compared to the world we inhabit!

Eventually the storm cleared, she took off, and I was left with my food and my filth. I made the best of the rest of the time there, and during the night I prayed that the shuddering of the building would not lead to structural failure, and that the wind would blow itself out.

It never did, but in the morning it was greatly diminished, and I made a push for the ever growing mountains in front of me, knowing that if I could reach them I could find shelter from the wind. I followed the road south along the border to Rio Turbio and into the protection of a deep river valley. From Rio Turbio, I had only to climb out of this valley and down the other side back into Chile and then to Puerto Natales. And after dealing with more crosswinds, I eventually arrived.

I found myself in Puerto Natales with an eye towards visiting Torres del Paine. I checked the weather forecast and that seemed promising enough, so I rented a backpack, loaded all my camping supplies into it, and bussed on up to the park. What followed were three perfect days of weather, minimal horseflies, and scenery that had me shaking my head in wonder and laughing at the absurdity of it all. How could something so majestic exist on this earth? Why do places like Torres del Paine, FitzRoy and Yosemite exist at all? No, they’re all too perfect to exist and I for one, just didn’t believe the evidence my eyes presented me.

So, back in Puerto Natales I spent the day recuperating my unused walking muscles (I need to do my cross-training, I guess), recovering what’s left of my sanity, and socializing with another hiker I met en route to the park. That day passed too quickly, and the following morning I dragged ass and only finally left town after 11am. But with the aid of the wind I made it to Morro Chico that day, slept a peaceful night in a barn, and the next morning pushed on the rest of the distance to Punta Arenas.

In Punta Arenas, I stuffed my face, and prepared everything for taking the 9am ferry the next morning. But the next morning I woke up with rain splattering on my tent, and abdominal pains which threatened diarrhea splattering everywhere inside it. Clearly this would be a rest day, and the boat to Tierra del Fuego and the close of this chapter would have to wait until tomorrow.

< Carretera Austral | Ushuaia >