• Prudhoe Bay, AK

    Amazing. After a full day in Fairbanks to recover, the pain of the climbs and the never ending harassment by mosquitoes is a rapidly fading memory, and I find myself eager for more. But for now it is a week and a half of luxury living to see Alaska with my parents.

    On June 19th I flew to Deadhorse, Alaska. It is the northern-most road-accessible town in the world, and it exists to support the Prudhoe Bay oil fields. Since a lot of the gear for my bike came together at the very last minute, I used the first day to ride around town and practice riding with a full load. I was a bit wobbly on the gravel, but everything checked out just fine.

    The next day I took the tour of the Arctic Ocean and decided to go for a bit of a swim. At 34 degrees, the water is just perfect for vigorous exercise. I got lost around town trying to find a public gas station where I could fill my fuel bottles, and also where I could find some bear spray. But after about 10 miles of detours, I was all set and ready to take off down the Dalton Highway.

    On my first day of riding, the road was flat, full of grazing caribou, and one grizzly bear which made himself scarce when I rode by. Fueled by dried pineapple and trail mix I rode until 10pm and felt great. The next day I discovered that my legs hadn’t fully recovered, and also that it was hot! Here I was wearing a sweater like a sucker. I got my first taste of sweet paved road that day which lasted for a good fifteen miles. And I found out that I was very popular with the mosquitoes. I got my first taste of steep grades with a loaded touring bike, and apparently 60lbs of gear makes a difference on my uphill performance. I ended the day camped under the pipeline with hundreds of new friends.

    The following day brought cooler temperatures and rain. And rain brought mud, and mud fouled up my gears. Still I couldn’t be bothered by that, because I was riding through some of the most beautiful land I’ve ever seen, and I’d also met some incredibly nice people who offered me food and fresh water. With Galbraith Lake capping off the entrance to a glacial valley whose walls were the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to the east and Gates of the Arctic National Park to the West, I thought I was in a Byronian paradise. I ended the day camped about 10 miles north of the Atigun Pass, which at 4800 feet is the highest pass in Alaska (I suspect that is only the case because they haven’t been very gung-ho on building roads up here). That evening, or maybe early morning I awoke to hear a wolf whining around my tent. Too tired to be bothered, I just lied in my tent and gave it a good yelling-at. Some of my choicest salvos were: “No wolf! No!” and “You better stay away from my food or I’m gonna make me a new coat outta you!” I went back to sleep, secure in the knowledge that my sass-mouth handled that wolf right proper. It did.

    So the next day, I climbed the Atigun Pass, crossed the Chandalar Shelf and after descending the other side I was welcomed by the incredibly sweet and invigorating smell of spruce trees. I didn’t realize how much I missed the smell of the forest until I’d come down that pass. I also discovered a public toilet, and even more marvelous than that was a man named James with a pressure washer. He let me borrow it to blast Clementine clean and get the caked mud off her chain, gears, derailleurs and brakes. I would later use my water bottles and face cloth to achieve a far inferior result down the road.

    Anyhow, back to the scene at the public toilet. After monopolizing the toilet for 20+ minutes singing praises to its inventor, I was greeted by a tour van full of people who were curious as to why exactly I would be bicycling here in this foul weather. After talking with them for a while, it became generally known that I was a man who enjoyed delicious snacks upon occasion, and through a generosity that propelled me 85 miles that day they loaded me up with all manner of food. I scarfed it down, and felt reborn.

    I ended the day just sort of Coldfoot after riding until a quarter till midnight, and darkness being nowhere in evidence. In Coldfoot, I stopped by the world-class visitors center and learned a lot about the various arctic habitats. I was also overjoyed to make use of facilities featuring automatically flushing toilets. Also in Coldfoot I found my first restaurant and decided that I would maybe take the day off to tank up on food. It was glorious.

    When I continued riding, the terrain changed from generally downhill away from the Brooks Range and became a series of hard climbs and knuckle-whitening descents through valley after valley. Coming into one valley, I saw a black bear foraging on the side of the road. I screeched my bike to a halt and called out to it to see if it wanted to maybe let me ride it. Rudely, it bounded off into the trees before I had my chance.

    I finally made my goal of the Arctic Circle past 9 at night, having run out of water an hour before. I met some people intending only to ask them for water, but they invited me to stay and eat dinner with them. It turns out they were all young Army officers newly stationed at Fort Wainwright. We spent the evening telling jokes, hunting one very vocal squirrel, and drinking a variety of wines. I had a great time.

    Thanking god for not having a hangover, I began bicycling the next day around noon, and reached the Yukon river after a long day of crossing still more valleys. I crossed the Yukon River that evening, and finally made camp somewhere near Pump Station #7 (for the pipeline). The following day I cursed and sweat through dry burnt-out forest, and up and down some of the longest climbs of the trip. When I finally reached the end of the Dalton Highway, and the beginning of the paved Elliot Highway, I kissed the ground. I rode a few miles along the Elliot, and made my camp in a bed of moss off the road convinced that it was all sweet-living to Fairbanks. A few more climbs made brutal by my absolutely dead legs, and 75 miles later I arrived in Fairbanks.

    The end of this portion of my journey saw me racing faster and faster as the sweet sweet promise of a shower and laundry became ever more real…

  • Alaskan Intermezzo

    I met my parents in Fairbanks on the 28th of June after having ridden down from Prudhoe Bay. We visited Denali National Park and took the tour of the park, failing on two separate occasions to see Mt. McKinley because of foul weather. We then went down to Seward, on the Kenai Penninsula and took a boat tour of Kenai Fiords National park, which despite foul weather was perhaps the most incredible boat tour I can ever hope to take.

    And we are currently in Anchorage, where my mother’s quest to see a bull moose has been sadly dropped, but my quest to see a 25lbs spawning salmon has been surprisingly fulfilled. Tomorrow my parents fly back down to Sunnyvale, and I continue my day trip bicycling from from Anchorage down to Tierra del Fuego.

    The past eleven days have seen me eat more cheese and sugary foods than I ought in an attempt to fatten up for the 2900 mile stretch from here to Seattle. They have seen the strength return to and the soreness fade from my legs, only to return yesterday with the flu. I have finished crossing items off the list “Things I can’t believe I didn’t bring”, and finished jettisoning items from the list “Eric, sometimes you are an idiot…”. As far as I know I am ready to go.

  • Glennallen, AK

    Leaving Anchorage I had the incredible good fortune to run into a group of cycle tourists on a ride put on through Adventure Cycling. I spent the next several days comfort cruising with them from Anchorage to Glennallen, where I am now. Tomorrow they head North to the Denali Highway, and I head south to Valdez. I’m going to miss the easy pace and the camaraderie. I remember one day where along a 35 mile stretch of road I stopped and ate at every restaurant with them, some only three miles apart. This evening I saw a pannier transformed into a beer cooler, which I will surely use again once I begin my road hooching (thank you Kelly for that article). I also saw a ladderball performance which will surely be talked about for generations. Wally scored three consecutive three point shots within an inch of each other. I have never seen a truer display of athleticism, and probably never will again. I want to thank Wally, Kelly, Jack, Evan, Cory, Don, Sid, Jessica, Megan, Jeff, Mike, Gerda, and Randy for showing me that bicycle touring is not only about exploration, but about celebration. I want to thank them for their kindness in taking in a dirty solo tourist and making him feel like part of the group. Stay in touch and ride with me in South America!

    From Glennallen to Valdez is 115 miles with mountain pass in the middle. The pre-group riding Eric would tackle that in a day and a half, but now I am inclined to take it at a much more civilized pace. From Valdez, I will take a ferry to Juneau by Glacier Bay National Park, and the Wrangell-St. Elias Mountain Range. Mt. St. Elias is an 18,000 ft mountain only 10 miles from the coast. It will be spectacular.

  • Valdez, AK

    So forget what I said earlier about a civilized pace. It turns out that it takes civilization to civilize me, and where none can be found I just continue to ride. I did all 120 miles from my campground in Glennallen to my spot in Valdez yesterday. Along the way I met a solo tourist living in Whitehorse, who entreated me to visit on my way up from Haines, and I met another from Australia who informed me as to the ferry schedule to Juneau —non-existent— and how I might make my way there anyhow. It turns out that I must first go to Whittier, and then wait until the 19th to travel from Whittier to Juneau. That ferry only runs every other week, so I am rather lucky in catching it with so little a wait.

    The scenery along the Richardson highway was as spectacular as anything I’ve seen in Alaska, and I’ve given up trying to have a favorite spot in the state. It’s just too hard to decide between one set of gigantic mountains with glaciers flowing down their sides and another. It is impossible to judge distances or heights. Sea monsters inhabit the waters and giant animals everywhere else. Alaska exists on a scale that is completely beyond me and is of a quality greater than any I’ve experienced.

    There’s a saying here that Switzerland is the Valdez of Europe. I find that does not do Valdez and environs any justice at all.

  • Juneau, AK

    So I finally got out the the doldrums of Valdez, Alaska and took the 7am ferry over to Whittier. The ferry (the M/V Aurora) sailed through the Prince William Sound and on the way I got to see the Colombia glacier, and learn about the hilarious hijinks of Cpt. Hazelwood & co.

    While in Whittier I got a chance to hike the Portage Pass trail and see Portage Glacier. I met a guy from Homer who told me that when he was a kid it used to extend much further out, but it’s gone back quite a distance. That’s been the story with every glacier I’ve seen, and has been the case since at least the 1800s.

    Anyhoo, I ate ice cream at least twice that day waiting for the ferry. Also while waiting I met a few fellow travelers and we became super-friends for the two day cruise over to Juneau. The weather cleared just enough for me to see Mt. St. Elias, which was my main reason for the detour. While on the ferry I learned the rules to cribbage, which was a quite popular game, but I was denied the chance to play, because my potential opponents were afraid of my awesome card skills. 15 for 2, 15 for 4, a run for 7, and a pair for 9. See? I’m a shark.

    I’ve become so jaded as to the marine life up here that I don’t bother to get out of my seat for a lousy humpback whale. It takes an orca to get me moving.

    So on to Juneau. It turns out that the ferry terminal is 14 miles away from the city, so I was able to get some good exercise to and from the ferry. It was a good chance to utilize some of the calories I’ve been taking in in ice cream and milkshake form. With my two Canadian super-friends, Sarah and Julie, I went for a hike up Mt. Roberts and I got to see the cruise ships in all their splendor. After taking the tram back down the mountain, I got to see the wonderful Juneau public library. While browsing Smithsonian magazine, I learned that the Casbah is falling into ruin. So my shrewd real-estate investing friends, snap it up before it gets all gentrified.

    We (the north american friendship gang) had lunch at Valentine’s coffee shop (house?) across from the McDonald’s which I heartily recommend you visit the next time you’re in Juneau. Good pizza, good lighting, and I price that was entirely reasonable. We stayed at the Juneau Hostel, which was a marked improvement over camping in terms, but the midnight curfew and lockout from 9am to 5pm seemed rather severe.

    After going all around town, I finally found a place where I could buy a gold pan. Gold fever struck me pretty hard, and Julie and I set out to Gold creek to STRIKE. IT. RICH!!! Our dreams of vast wealth may or may not have been realized with some questionable flakes we pulled out of the creek. I plan to make further use of my gold pan when I make it to Whitehorse, Yukon and the vast gold fields of the Klondike.

    So, that’s all for now. I’ll put up pictures when I am able.

  • Haines, AK

    So I had planned on being in Haines only a couple of days, but fate has decided that I could stay a few more. During a routine gear shift while riding around town today, my derailleur decided to defect to the terrorists and crash into my gears. In so doing, it wedged itself in rather tightly and snapped off breaking my chain in the process. I have never seen such a spectacular component failure on a bicycle before, and I am in awe of the majesty of the event.

    I find that I am really not all that upset about it though. It broke in town near my campsite, there is a music festival coming up in a couple of days, and once I get a new derailleur, I’ll be all set. My serenity may be due to all that I have seen recently in Alaska, and the particular beauty of Haines itself. The architecture is a lot like the army buildings in the Presidio of San Francisco, but the location is so much more amazing (and I don’t say that lightly about the Presidio, it does have the Golden Gate bridge after all).

    Getting to Haines was rather an adventure, however. I had to race 14 miles through pounding rain to get to the Juneau ferry terminal from downtown Juneau, and I boarded the ferry only 5 minutes before it untied from the dock. In my haste to leave, I must also not have strapped on one of my front panniers properly, because when I went over one very sizable bump, it shot off. Since there are no roads out of Juneau, and my two new Canadian friends were already on board, missing the ferry would have been the Big Suck. But Hooray!, I made it.

    My time in Haines has been very relaxing so far. I have continued to strengthen the bonds of international friendship with Canada. I will be sad when Julie leaves on her ferry tomorrow. She has taught me quite a lot of Quebecois in exchange for learning some totally awesome new English from me, and we have had a wonderful time.

    It’s now been a couple of days since I wrote the above. Both Sarah and Julie have taken the ferry across to Skagway, going where I cannot follow. Today I went down to the bike shop to check in on my poor Clementine. To my great delight I have discovered her to be as good as new, and if not that good, certainly better than before her terrible accident. For this I have nothing but thanks and kind words for Rick of Sockeye Cycles and Chad, who camps at a site adjacent to mine.

    My opinion of Haines has only improved with the two additional days I have spent here. I have found in the Fireweed Restaurant a top notch pizza (I am very particular about pizza), and I have found in Moseys some of the best (new) Mexican food I’ve ever tasted. The local brewer shows a devotion to his craft which humbles me in the reflection of my own love affair with beer brewing. Coincidentally, his beer is amazingly good.

    Add Haines to the list of places to look for me when I decide to drop off the face of the earth.

  • Travels in Alaska

    I have been incredibly lucky in every aspect of my travels in Alaska, including misfortune, including thirst, including famine. So to everyone I have met along the way: thank you so much for showing a kindness that rivals even the landscape in its pure and natural beauty.

    At the time of writing this, I have ridden 920 miles through the North, South and South East of Alaska. Every mile I have ridden has been one of the most scenic miles I have ever ridden. Everyone I have met has been one of the most kind people I have ever met.

    I have given up trying to describe Alaska in writing. It is beyond my ability completely. I think it is beyond the common experience to imagine that land and sea and ice can combine in so many different ways, and that each combination is an expression of natural perfection. The color of the light causes rock to glow with silver and golden fire, and the ice has a depth and blueness to it that entrances me.

    My body still bears the marks of a host of biting insects, whose bite would at times would drive me to madness, but whose sting would fade with the first sight of some new and stunning vista. And if that suffering was the price I must pay to experience everything I have, I do not begrudge the land my blood.

    I have entitled this section Travels in Alaska in deference to John Muir, who wrote a book of the same name. In the first few pages, I found myself thinking: “Yes, this is what I felt exactly. This is exactly what the land has been like.” He was a far better writer than I can ever hope to be, and I entreat everyone to read his book.

  • Whitehorse, Yukon

    After getting back on the bike for the first time in eight days, I was afraid that my body had gotten used to the sweet living that is to be had in south-east Alaska. Leaving Haines the road followed the Chilkoot river past where 1000s of bald eagles gather to feast on stupid spawning salmon in November. I was too early in the year to watch this spectacle, but I did get to observe quite a number of bald eagles who wanted to beat the traffic up here and get a good spot along the river. Anyhow, I sucessfully crossed the Canadian border, where I was amazed and delighted to discover that the road decided to gain 3000 feet of elevation across the next 20+ miles. Shortly after the appropriately named Haines summit, I stumbled upon the mythical emergency shelter and decided to call it a day.

    After fitful sleep in the emergency shelter I hit the road low on water and thinking I would take a nap somewhere down the road. When I came across my first clear-running creek, I used my tried and true water gathering technique of dip my water bottles into the creek to fill them up, and drink while praying that this won’t be the creek that gives me giardia. Although it is too early to tell, I think I have escaped illness once again and scored a major blow for the forces of convenience over safety.

    Further down the road, having greedily drunk all my water, I stopped by another creek (whose name and exact location shall never be revealed) to fill up my water. And what did I see in the sand along the bank of the creek? Was it… GOLD? I say yes. Later, some wet blankets told me that what I had collected was probably iron pyrite.

    Anyway, I made the final push into Haines Junction a bit over 100 miles after my start for the day, helped in part by a storm front that alternated between soaking me wet, and giving me a pleasant tailwind. All along the way I had gorgeous vistas open up behind me as a cornered each hill, cementing my belief formed the day before that I was riding the road in the wrong direction, if I wanted the absolutely best view.

    At the Frosty Freeze in Haines Junction, I enjoyed a milkshake, naturally, and a medium pizza. I also had some fries, which I am sad to report weren’t very tasty at all. I pushed on to the Pine Lake Campground about five miles past town, pitched my tent, and passed out.

    I woke up with the sound of rain pulverizing my tent, and I felt rather against starting any riding that day if it was going to continue to rain so hard. I moved all my gear into a covered area with an old-timey wood stove, and through creative hanging I was able to get most of my clothes and my tent dry. In this way I was able to unburden myself of about 10 pounds of water, and my outlook on riding began to improve. I met another cyclist who told me what I might expect in the way of services on the Cassiar highway —few—, and around 1pm guilt got the better of me, and I set off on the road.

    Having started at 1pm, I was convinced that this day would be a short one, maybe 50 or 60 miles tops. But the flatness of the terrain, and the complete lack of any wind one way or the other made the road seem considerably more inviting. A stop a gas station along the way to get tons of candy and soda sealed the deal, and I found myself rocketing down the highway at speeds approaching 22 miles per hour on the flat and staying north of 13 miles per hour on what hills I did encounter.

    Now I’m a fool, but I’m not a fool who sqanders miracle days like these. I used what must have been the last of my positive karma balance and went the full 100 miles into Whitehorse in just over 6 hours and 30 minutes. Of course, not expecting to actually reach Whitehorse that day, I found myself both without accomodations and any idea where they could be acquired. After asking around a bit, I discovered to my confusion (miracle days don’t come with miracle cognitive ability at the end) that all the hostels where full and I was gently directed to the campgound at the end of town.

    Shortly after pitching my tent, I talked my way into a circle of people around a campfire, and found myself enjoying some of Canada’s finest beer. Camping really isn’t that rough at all…

    The next day I cruised on over to one of the hostels, and procured a bed for the evening. There I met some cyclists from Stanford whom I met on the Day of Miracles, and we decided to combine forces to cook dinner that evening. In the kitchen at the hostel I discovered to my complete rapture a sharp chef’s knife. I proceeded to slice and dice any food I could get my hands on, just for the pure joy of using a good knife. All of that culinary ecstasy resulted in one of the best meals I’ve had since starting out.

    Anyway, the hostel was full again the next day, so I had to go back to the campground. There I met two other cyclists who where going to ride the Cassiar highway, and I decided that I would join up with them.

    And that brings us up to date.

  • The Stewart-Cassiar Highway

    Wow. So I left Whitehorse around 12 days ago and I am now in Smithers, B.C., having just finished riding the Cassiar highway. I saw 15 bears, ate as many different kinds of wild berries and mushrooms and never stopped being impressed by the scenery as it unfolded before me.

    I met up with A.J. (from North Carolina) and Marie (from the Czech Republic) in Whitehorse, and we rode out from there together. The Alaska highway bummed us out with a combination of uninspiring landscapes and torrential rainstorms. We found shelter when we could, and tried our best to stay dry. My new favorite type of building became the abandoned building with a good roof. When we finally came back from our detour to Watson Lake and headed south into British Columbia, our spirits began to soar.

    It felt so good to finally be making serious southward progress! And our stop at Boya lake the first night only increased our opinion of the road. The next night, after a mere 50 miles, we pulled into the Dease River Crossing Campground. We came into the office and saw the lady kneeding some dough. We asked her if she was making some bread for the camp, and she said that she was going to make pizza for her family. Pizza! We went outside to confer. Maybe we could pay her extra to make some for us? I went in to ask. No, she didn’t have time to make another dough. Well, I said, I have some pizza making experience in my past. Perhaps you’d let me make a couple of pizzas and we could pay you for the ingredients? Well, she went for it, and it was all I could do not to jump up and down with joy! A real kitchen, and making pizza again! Had I died?

    The days progressed down the Cassiar, and one morning while I was riding I came across another bicyclist from Japan named Hiro. He decided to join our convoy to Stewart, and is still with us right now. I’m learning some basic japanese from him, and we’re all having a great time.

    In Stewart, I met some of the locals who gave me the scoop on where to do what I needed to do, and what to see. I followed their advice to the Salmon Glacier, and did not regret it at all. We decided to take a break day in Stewart to top off our stomaches with endless refills of coffee at the bakery and giant cones of ice cream at the sweet shop.

    The road continued on till Kitwanga, where because of a massive thunder storm which sounded like all the electric activity in the world was taking place above our heads, the power had been knocked out. We met some really great people who made us spaghetti for dinner and pancakes for breakfast and allowed us to sleep on their covered porch out of the driving rain. We also learned about the great mushroom bonanza that takes place every year around this time as you can sell pine mushrooms you find in the forest at $12/lb. We learned to our amazement that one year they were being bought at $350/lb. Now that’s a perfect job for Marie, our resident mushroom hunter!

    Now we are finally on the Yellowhead highway heading east to Prince George. I got my second flat of the trip today as I rode over a piece of a blown out automobile tire, and I bought new tire for my bike, since the rear tread had worn nearly completely off.

    I’m somewhere near 2,000 miles into the trip, and am only getting started. If the next 15,000 are anything like this, I will be in for one great year!

  • Prince George, B.C.

    The long trek out of the wilderness of Yukon and Northern British Columbia has finally ended. The past several days have seen the return of fast food franchises and exotic fruits from halfway around the world, the return of agriculture, and the pursuit of raising animals for fun and profit. As I rode east from the junction of the Stewart-Cassiar and Yellowhead highways, the coastal mountains gave one last attempt at grandeur near Smithers, and finally calmed into a landscape of rolling hills, grazing pasture, and thousands of ponds and lakes.

    For the first time since I raised rabbits nearly two decades ago, I smelled alfalfa on the fields. I saw grass being cut and hay being made, and I was reminded of an observation that John Muir made about how it rained too much in the South East of Alaska for hay making ever to be a profitable enterprise. I am in a new geography now, and apparently here the suns shines just enough.

    I don’t know how to react to the ready supply of goods and services. The balance of my trip so far has been through very sparsely populated country, some of it entirely wilderness. I see signs for A&W and Coca Cola and I am not appalled by them, but bewildered. When was it exactly that I left of forest? I can’t exactly recall. And I don’t know what it means that I am so disoriented by things that were so familiar as to be beneath notice only a few months ago. I have seen and done so much in the past two months of riding that I have filled my head with a year’s worth of memories.

    My face is slowly disappearing beneath a beard which I just can’t be bothered to shave. My hair has become long and my look wild. I realize that the only difference between me and a homeless man is purpose. But I am suited for this life. I have never been more certain of anything than that. This trip is absolutely the thing I was meant to do right now, at this period of my life…

    Tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, I head towards Vancouver and into the United States. I do not know how I will handle riding through my home state of California. Everything old will be new again, the distances recalculated as I arrive by bicycle rather than car. I find myself just as excited and fearful to be entering populated regions again as I was to leave them two months and two days ago.

  • Victoria, B.C.

    After parting with A.J. and Marie, I pushed on south towards Vancouver. The first day on the road saw me re-establishing my own pace as I rode through more rolling farmland and wooded hills to Quesnel. While riding out of town in search of a place to camp I came across my first roadside fruit stand. I walked up to the stand in a state of wonder, having never seen so many easily accessible berries in one place at once. I bought a pound and a half of blueberries, and proceeded to shovel them into my mouth with wild abandon and pure animal pleasure. I finally ended that first day in an undeveloped forested lot on the southern edge of town.

    The second day saw the return of a long day of riding as I rode south to Williams Lake, past it to 150 Mile House. I fully intended to camp there, but for some reason, I just could not stop riding, all the while telling myself I’d stop just after this hill or at the next good spot to camp. I finally found an abandoned lot and called it quits near dark.

    It was also very hot that day, and some of the tar on the road seeped into where I was riding. The combination of tar and small rocks coated my tires, and made riding a very interesting experience. Some of the rocks would dislodge themselves from the tire at the apogee of their orbit on my tire and variously fly into my face if they were on the front tire, or into my drive train and touring gear if they were on the rear. It was a new experience for me, adding small rocks to the list of items that my tires might throw at my face (water and mud being the other items). This increased my desire to buy fenders as soon as possible rather a lot.

    The next day as I was leaving my clandestine spot, which turned out not to have been abandoned at all, my chain decided that it would prefer to not be a loop anymore, but would be much more satisfied if it could be something with entirely useless ends on both sides. We had an argument for a while, and through the use of tools, cleaning rags and spare chain links, I temporarily convinced my chain to become useful again.

    This debate, spirited as it was, put me in no mood for vigorous exercise that day, so when I found myself in Lac la Hache, I decided I would take my time eating breakfast at a local eatery. I struck up a conversation with the table next to me and I learned that it is wise to ride the mule and pack the horse if you intend to be safe while you ride in the bush (horses being easily convinced to do stupid things, mules being otherwise), and that if you intend to turn a profit on junked cars, you need to collect a few dozen and then rent a flat-bed truck to haul them. The wisdom of both of these things is readily apparent.

    I pressed on and bought yet more blueberries at another fruit stand and some cherries for variety. While stopped for an engorgement session, I learned from some locals that the Chartreuse Moose in 100 Mile House is a cafe not-to-be-missed. I went and they were right. The next time you find yourself in 100 Mile House, I recommend you go.

    Well, it begin to rain again as I climbed up to 4200 ft (precisely: 1232m), and I decided to pay $12 for the privilege of sleeping in a shed in 70 Mile House. I was not very happy about that, but it was pouring buckets, and I was somehow able to rationalize paying at the moment I forked over the money.

    That evening I stared at my map and was tantalized by the prospect of a shortcut to Lillooet, and despite warnings against taking the road, some amount of hubris led me to it. The road in question is the Clinton-Pavillion Road, and as it rolled along for about ten miles I became increasingly confident in my choice. But then the dirt started. “No sweat”, I thought, “I’ve seen all this before.” But then I saw a sign which concerned me rather greatly. And that sign said: “14% grade next 5km”. Now, what that means is that in 5km of riding (3 miles), I was about to gain 700m (2333ft), and the fact that it had been raining and was, in fact starting to rain again, and that the road was dirt (well, mud to be exact) gave me pause. So, over the course of the next 50 minutes, I embraced my granny-gear and pushed on up the hill. At one point I had to stop to take off my rain gear (I had become too hot to wear it, and thought I should prefer the rain to sweating). I found that I could not get my bike going again. So I walked up to an inflection point in the road, and gunned it, barely preventing myself from falling over.

    The other side of the hill was washboard and large rocks and more moderate 12% downhill grades for the remaining distance into Pavillion. At the bottom of the hill, my bike and my body were covered in mud, and I was thankful to have escaped injury and equipment damage. All told though, I think I did save some time taking that road…

    So I pushed on and arrived in Lillooet, where I collapsed into a deep sleep after eating a large pizza and setting up my tent. The next day began the road from Lillooet to Pemberton, which started out with 12% and 13% grades, but thankfully also pavement and dry weather. This road turned out to be a lot of climbing and my chain decided to break again (leading me to suspect my previous arguments had not convinced my chain very well), but I was rewarded with 8 miles of 11% grade descents at the end, which wiped away all fatigue and restored my high spirits. I free camped in a secluded field in Pemberton that night, and was rewarded with a sky bursting with stars.

    The next day saw me ride up to Whistler and then down to Squamish and finally to Porteau Cove Provincial Park, where I camped the night. The riding on this day was made notable by the fact that there was a ton of construction going on leaving me with poor margins for riding and a lot of dust. Despite descending all the way to sea level, I still managed to climb as much as the previous two days.

    In Porteau Cove, I met another cyclist with whom I shared a site. We talked about riding alone versus riding with other people and found we had many similar opinions about each. We discovered we had differing routes, so we went our separate ways the next day. While the scenery at Porteau Cove was absolutely stunning, round the clock road construction nearby made sleeping quite difficult.

    I was up early the next morning to complete the ride to Horseshoe Bay, where I caught the ferry to Nanaimo. Something about the island, perhaps the lush blackberry bushes, the beautiful land- and seascapes, or the knowledge that I was finally out of that nightmarish construction zone just put me in a wonderful mood. I took my time alternating between the highway and side roads just taking my time and enjoying every moment. I ended the day about 25 miles north of Victoria, and shared dinner and conversation with some Australian bicycle tourists I met at the campground.

    The next morning I finished the ride into Victoria, promptly did my laundry and took a long hot shower, and felt human once more. Victoria is an absolutely gorgeous city, whose combination of natural and architectural beauty make it a serious contender for the Where to Look for Eric When He Vanishes Off the Face of the Earth List. I am taking a couple of days here to give my legs a chance to air out their grievances and to restore some fat to my body. From here I intend to take the ferry to Anacortes and then push on to Seattle, where my family is eager to pamper me with unlimited food, opportunities for regular bathing, and a bed with sheets. I still remain convinced that this trip is the best thing I’ve ever undertaken to do.

  • Sleeping in Seattle

    First off, sorry about the title; I couldn’t resist the chance for a terrible pun.

    After leaving Victoria, I rode up to Sidney and took the ferry over to Anacortes. Unsurprisingly, I was able to get through customs without any hassle, and in paying for my ferry ticket I was able to use exactly the rest of my Canadian currency, with the exception of my souvenir dollar coin depicting a giant cyborg running through the forest on the back (or possibly, but far less likely, an amputee athlete with a prosthetic leg).

    While waiting for the ferry to arrive, I met an incredibly nice lady who bought me coffee and a scone from the shop. She was about to embark on a bicycle adventure through the San Juan Islands, which from her description, is something I shall have to do in the future. I want to thank her here for her generosity, and thank everyone again who has helped me along the way…

    So, I rode down Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands and continued to stuff my face with perfectly ripe blackberries. While climbing up to Deception Pass, my sunglasses decided to fall off my shirt collar and jump in front of my rear wheel. The poor things never had a chance. At Deception Pass, I met a lady whose father had been stationed in Juneau in the 1930s, and sailed up to Point Barrow taking color pictures along the way. She said that he captured an erupting volcano, native children boarding the ship to be taken to school, and tons of glaciers and other natural wonders. I hope I get the chance to see those pictures some day.

    I rode on a bit further and finally called it quits for the day somewhere outside of Coupeville. The next day, I decided I would take my sweet time making my way off the island, and I arrived at the ferry terminal in Clinton just as it was starting to board. I could not have timed it better if I tried. The ferry arrived in Mukilteo, and with it my last real climb before I arrived at my sister’s house in Seattle.

    After I finished the climb, I noticed that I now had a rather stiff headwind to deal with and that lasted all the way into the city. It was pretty disheartening to see street debris tumbling toward me at 20+ miles per hour, but I guess the benefit of having airborne debris flying at my (now unprotected) eyes was that I was only rarely actually able to see. But eventually that portion of the ride ended and I suddenly realized I was in Greenlake. I hadn’t even known I was in Seattle yet, but when I suddenly realized where I was, the foul mood from the last two hours of riding lifted completely. Navigating off of a hunch as to where I thought my sister’s house probably was, I made my way through the city. I arrived at the Ballard bridge in time for it to raise and let boats sail under, and after that it was a short ride to my sister’s neighborhood. I didn’t actually remember her address, or what street she lived on, but I knew a bus went along her street and I knew what her house looked like. And that was enough to get me there. Ending two months on the road since my parents left Anchorage, I was with family once more.

    The next ten days were spent visiting family, deciding the way south, putting on weight, repairing and re-outfitting. I read three books and only rode my bicycle three times. I ate waffles (!) and drank coffee. I showered regularly, and was able to flush the toilet every time I went. To my mother’s disappointment, but my comfort, I shaved off my beard, but as a concession I have left my hair long. I finally got glasses, so I could see the stars at night, and I’ve started to get serious about learning Spanish. And I am now invulnerable against the yellow and typhoid fevers, tetanus, and hepatitis A and B. I finally gave my bicycle the attention it needed a month ago, and it now shifts and rides like a dream. I got those fenders I always wanted, and many other small things.

    The rest has been great and I’m starting to think I don’t want to leave. So, of course it’s time to go…

  • Brookings, OR

    It was very hard to start back on the road again. It seemed that my body tried to actively forget what being in shape was during my break, and I forgot the rhythm of eating and drinking which makes the miles roll underneath my tires.

    For the first time on my trip I was pulled over for riding my bicycle on the highway. It turns out that highway 18 near Tiger mountain (a huge mountain bike area) is off-limits to cyclists. I found this out about 500 ft from the summit when I was made to stop riding and wait for someone to give me a ride down the moutain.

    I eventually did, and continued on through the greater urban Puget Sound to south of Tacoma. While riding I met a road cyclist who showed me a good route into Tacoma, and also gave me water and a sandwich (thank you very much). If only I had the sense not to get lost by his directions. I wound up riding around the industrial area of Tacoma for half an hour before I found my way south, and it was unpleasant.

    I eventually made camp in a field near Ft. Lewis Army Base, where the sound of their night exercises kept me awake and in terror for my life. But eventually the sound of automatic rifle fire became just another noise, and I drifted off to sleep, wondering what could possibly have possessed my to leave my warm bed.

    The next day I managed to find interurban trails which got me off the highway quite a bit, and a day of riding in cold and oppressive weather found me camping just outside Rainbow Falls State park, because I wanted to use their bathroom facilities, without having to pay their usurous $14/night rate.

    On the third day, I finally made it out to the coast at the town of Raymond, and shortly before my arrival, it began to rain hard for the rest of the day. I also met a couple who were riding down the coast, and I wound up camping with them and another couple in Bay Center.

    I got a chance to get pretty good and lost the next day when I beach trail went from pavement, to small gravel, to large gravel, to sand. So I had to turn around. I eventually made it up to Cape Disappointment, where I was disappointed to find that it was gorgeous and scenic. I could see Oregon off in the distance across the Colombia River, and I knew that I was almost in bicycle friendly territory. I crossed the bridge to Astoria, which was not nearly as bad as some had made it out to be, and a short while later I was at Ft. Stevens state park. There I got my first state provided hot shower, and I stayed up well past dark talking to other cyclists. It was definitely good to be amongst other cyclists again.

    The next day I rode through Cannon Beach where I got my first taste of Tillamook cheddar in a grilled cheese sandwich, and on to glorious Tillamook itself, where I took the tour of the facility can got to see tons of cheese be processed before my eyes. It nearly made me weep, it was so beautiful. But it started to rain, so of course I had to press on further to find a place to camp. I eventually made it down to Cape Lookout, where I stayed in what has to be one of the most scenic campsites I’ve been in yet. But during the night, it decided to dump so much rain that the ground flooded and my things became soaked. I decided I would take it easy getting going that morning and try to dry things out a bit. I also shared coffee and a campfire with a couple from Portland and a couple of other cyclists. It was a fantastic experience at that site, despite the rain.

    I took it easy that day, and only went the 45 miles into Lincoln City and decided to call it quits. On the road, I encountered a group of three pairs of tandem cyclists, who despite being of retiring age, managed to leave me in the dust on several occasions. They also told me more about RAGBRAI, and it seems that this is a ride I’ll eventually have to do.

    In Lincoln City I ran into a couple I’d met at Ft. Stevens, and they treated me to dinner (which had I known they were going to do, I might have had another beer :).

    And the last three days have seen me reestablish my rhythm finally, as I pounded out consecutive 70+ mile days. I’m amazed that I am nearly done riding the Pacific Northwest, and I’m starting to really hit the books hard on learning Spanish. Mexico’s coming up, and I feel like I know nothing at all!

  • Sunnyvale, CA

    I started this trip just over 100 days ago by disassembling my new bike, packing up my new gear and flying up to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. I had never been there before, and until a few months prior to the start, I hadn’t even known where Prudhoe Bay was on a map. But I was sure that this trip was something I was capable of doing, and the more I thought about it, something I had to do.

    I’ve been asked many times what made me decide to do this trip. And the answer is that I don’t know. For the past several years I’d been fantasizing about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, or traveling around the world, or bicycling from Vancouver, B.C. to Tijuana, B.C.N. I don’t know why I started to dream of doing those things. But as the process of my life continued on, I felt more and more that I needed to do something. When I finally read about this trip, I immediately recognized it as being right, as fitting. I don’t remember the exact timing, but from reading about it to deciding I would do it took about two days. A week later I had started to take inventory of what gear I needed, and a month later I had already purchased my plane ticket.

    So I don’t know what made me decide to undertake this trip. But it wasn’t a hard decision at all.

    Anyway, when last you heard from me, I was in Brookings, OR. I am now back in Sunnyvale, CA. I was so excited to finally be back in California. A few miles after crossing the border I saw my first redwood tree, and the smell of it was so evocative of all of the hiking I did in the Santa Cruz mountains growing up, that I couldn’t help smiling. This was finally my country!

    Around the time I reached Eureka, my 26th birthday rolled around. To my great delight, my parents, my brother Brian and my aunt Joanne all came out to help me celebrate. We had a great time, and my birthday cake was even larger than I could eat. Well done on the cake, Mom!

    After they left on the 27th, I continued south into Humboldt Redwoods State Park and rode along the Avenue of the Giants. I went to the founders’ grove and paid my respects to the fallen Dyerville giant and learned that the Rockefeller grove has more biomass in it than any equivalent patch of rain forest. I finally made camp at Burlington State Park. At the campground I met Bill and Lynn again, who I originally met just north of the Washington/Oregon border. It was really great to see them again.

    The next day I made the push over Leggett hill, and the hill after that to arrive at Westport Beach on the Mendocino coast. When I got there the wind was so strong that I couldn’t make a fire, so after finally getting the tent staked in and everything set up, I ate peanut butter sandwiches. By morning the wind had died down, and I headed south again. I think that I did more climbing on this day by going up and down along the coast than I did the previous day by climbing first a 2000 ft hill and then a 700 ft one. The whole day felt like climb, climb, climb, sharp twisty descent, 150 degree turn, and repeat. I feel that my technical descending skills improved greatly on that day. But there were places where the road flattened out, and they usually coincided with small or medium-sized towns. I stopped in the town of Mendocino to eat and check my email. The architecture there was beautiful, and it compares well with the stunning land and seascapes all along the Mendocino coast. I remember thinking at the time that I was unsure if Oregon or Mendocino had the better coast line. I’m inclined to believe Mendocino (of course they hardly compare to the Kenai Penninsula or the Alexander Archipelago in Alaska).

    The next day I rode into Sonoma county just after the town of Gualala. Down the road at Fort Ross, I toured the rebuilt old Russian fort, and paid my respects the the southern-most extent of Russian Alaska. Fort Ross was built to grow grain to supply the operations up in Alaska. It failed in this, because the coastal climate is poor for growing wheat. But it succeeded wildly as a place for otter hunters to decimate the California Sea Otter population. I pushed on after a while, and ended the day at Bodega Dunes State Park.

    After washing my underwear under a faucet, I hung them out to dry on a tree near my tent. I was all set for this to work out wonderfully (it usually does), but then I was surprised by rain during the night. I was too warm and dry inside my tent to bother about it, so I figured I’d let them had an additional natural rinse. In the morning I wrung them out as best as I could and packed them away. I had also left my matches out the previous night to let them dry further (they’d mysteriously gotten wet a few days before), and the rain made starting any sort of cooking fire with them a hopeless prospect. So I rode into the town of Bodega Bay, and went to see what the day old bread section of the supermarket had on offer. While eating breakfast outside the supermarket, I talked to a man who was employed as either a crab fisherman, or the local crazy (maybe he held both offices) about various fishing and otter related topics, and I learned of the theory that the California Sea Otter was actually hunted to extinction and the Sea Otters we have now are actually Alaskan Sea Otters. He may be right. I have no idea.

    While riding down the road I passed a couple of cyclists ahead of me. When I looked at them I was surprised to see that they were the Belgian and Dutch cyclists that I’d met way back in Stewart, B.C.! We stopped ahead at the local market to catch up and discuss plans for further down the road. In case I didn’t mention it way back then, they are doing the same trip I am. It was fun to hear them speak Dutch with each other, and continually surprise them when I would agree or disagree with what they were saying. But we had different goals for the day, and so we finally parted ways in Point Reyes Station.

    As I was leaving Point Reyes Station, I passed a bicycle shop. Figuring I’d stop in and check on whether they had the type of tire I wanted (a favorite activity of mine ever since my rear tire wore so thin it started to get flats like that was its job), I was delighted to learn that they had exactly what I wanted. The new tires handled so much better than my worn out ones and I could go over small bits of glass without busting out the patch kit. I was so happy!

    And the day ended when I arrived in San Rafael to meet my brother (the same brother who came up for my birthday). He volunteers at a wild animal rehabilitation center called Wild Care, and it’s really neat. We went out for dinner at a local restaurant. On the menu they had the options of ordering a regular pizza (ideal for two people) or a mini (ideal for one), so I went for the regular. I guess the waitress couldn’t believe I’d want a regular because when the food came out I got a mini. I asked her about it, and she said she’d made a mistake and would put in the order for the large. After she walked off I figured I’d just eat the mini and another mini rather than letting it go to waste. When I ran this idea by her, she seemed relieved to have a solution that didn’t involve wasting the pizza and brought the original mini pizza back out. But after I’d eaten half the mini (a task that took no more than a couple of minutes), she said that it was too late to cancel the order for the large pizza, and she’d be bringing that one out as well. What’s this? A chance to prove to my brother that I could eat as much as I claimed I could! Alright! So I made short work of that second pizza and we retired to Berkeley to go play billiards and darts.

    I spent the night on his sail boat, and in the morning he dropped me back off in Sausalito, where I made the ride across the bridge, through the beautiful city of San Francisco and down the coast to Half Moon Bay. There I turned inland and began a very long climb up highway 92 and Skyline in the sun, and met my Dad in Woodside for lunch. The day finally ended here in Sunnyvale. And now it’s break time again.

  • Los Angeles, CA

    I finally left Sunnyvale with my friend Justin as we rode together to Big Basin State Park. 11 days of relaxation had left me with very little of the strength I had when I arrived, and it was tough going getting over the Saratoga Gap and down into the Santa Cruz mountains. But we made it, finally, at dusk and were informed that all the campsites had been taken.

    After talking with the camp ranger about our options for a while —none— a very nice couple offered to let us share their campsite with them. Saved! Another example of the overwhelming kindness of strangers when it is least expected and most needed.

    A little while later, Justin’s brother and his brother’s girlfriend Brenna came to join us at the camp, and we all had a fine time. Unfortunately, in a moment of thoughtlessness, I left my daypack full of oatmeal on the picnic table, and when I woke up in the morning all the oatmeal had been pillaged by raccoons, and my daypack had been ripped apart. It wasn’t the best pack in the world. It had large holes in it which already caused me to lose things, the zippers jammed constantly, and it had a sort of anti-padding which made wearing it occasionally painful. But despite all that, or maybe because of all that, I had grown fond of it and was sad to see that piece of crap go.

    Anyhow, we went to Santa Cruz for breakfast that morning, and I had my first taste of sourdough pancakes. They were delicious. And after what would have been a tearful goodbye if I weren’t too manly to cry, I was on my way south.

    The ride itself that day was uneventful. Rather it was full of the events that always seem to occur when I ride: I got lost a bit, and found my way; I had some headwinds; I ate some fruit which I found lying on the ground in these big fields; etc. And I felt surprisingly good considering how I felt climbing the day before. I eventually found myself at a city park in Monterey, which was placed sadistically at the top of a steep climb.

    The following day my brother and my father came down from Sunnyvale to meet me, and we went to the Aquarium and drove the 17 mile drive. I was unable to ascertain whether the sea otters were Alaskan or Californian in origin, so that mystery remains unsolved. But the more I learned about the otter at the aquarium, the more I suspect the guy I met in Bodega Bay might be right.

    Anyhow, the next day I rode south from Monterey and into Carmel, where I took the tour of the mission, and saw the final resting place of father Junipero Serra. I rode to Point Lobos and into Whaler’s Cove for the post-brunch pre-lunch meal, and did a bit of hiking around there. I eventually made it to Big Sur, and started the sharp climbs and descents of that region, and it started to rain (no surprise there, I guess).

    I eventually reached my camp for the night, and was able to set up my tent in a brief lull in the rain, and remain relatively dry throughout the night. The hard rain that night gave way to a beautiful clear morning, and I continued along the steep coastline until the San Luis Obispo county line, where it suddenly flattened out and I breezed down the road with a strong tailwind.

    I saw sea lions in their hundreds sunning themselves in the beach, and barking amelodiously. I never knew that they could use their flippers to scratch themselves, and I was amazed to see how dexterous they were.

    Just south of the Sea lions, I came to Hearst Castle, and took the tour (#1). It gave me quite a few ideas on how I might decorate my tent.

    The next day was made considerably easier when I ran into a local bicycle club who showed my the way past Morro Bay and through San Luis Obispo. In Pismo Beach, I pioneered the combination of black cherry vanilla and chocolate-fudge brownie on a single cone. I could tell from the look on the ice cream man’s face that he thought I was either a genius or a madman for that combination. It was fantastically delicious. He said I’d have to ride ten miles to work off the calories in that cone, and I told him the point of the cone was to get just those calories back. Plus extreme flavor.

    After Pismo Beach, I forged ahead into Santa Barbara county. I got lost figuring out how to get out of Orcutt, but eventually found myself on a frontage road which joined the highway later on. Unfortunately, that highway was being freshly paved as I rode on it, and hot tar from the road coated my tires, and then rocks and glass and small sticks followed shortly. My tires looked like a giant sprinkled donut, but like the rare kind I didn’t want to eat.

    I eventually solved the problem of the tar coating my tires by putting my foot against them while I’d go downhill. Given enough time I was able to clear off all the debris, and after doing this procedure several times, I seemed to have gotten rid of the tar as well.

    Eventually I rode into Buellton, and knowing that this was the home of Andersen’s famous pea soup, I set my appetite to kill. I sauntered into the restaurant and was delighted to see an all-you-can-eat traveler’s special. It turned out that all I could eat was five bowls of soup and three baskets of bread and a complementary milkshake. I walked out of there supporting my stomach, ashamed at my meager showing and wondering how I would be able to ride with my knees hitting my belly all the time. But through a small miracle, I pushed on to Solvang and then eventually to Cachuma Lake for the night. I was kept awake that night by some of the worst smelling flatulence I’d ever produced, and I could only thank the soup for that unholy miracle.

    The next day I climbed up over the San Marco pass and down into Santa Barbara. The colonial architecture was beautiful there, and I had plenty of opportunity to see it, since I got thoroughly lost trying to ride through town. After a while I just chose a direction I thought might lead to the beach, and when it did I turned left (a technique I had employed a few times previously). The day ended in Ventura, on the four month anniversary of the beginning of my trip (the 20th).

    The next day can be described as the hardest most dangerous riding I’ve done the entire trip. It seems that the Santa Ana winds decided to whip up to category-2 hurricane speeds overnight. And being a very stubborn fool, I decided to ride anyway. At times the wind blew me to a stop, and at times I had to get off my bike and brace myself with all my might in order not to be blown over. I was cut by ballistic tree branches and leaves, and was scoured by sand and dust. When I got to the sea, the wind ripped water off the surface of the ocean and flung it at me. But still I went on, and on into Malibu. There finally, the winds created fires which blocked the road forward, and blocked the road back, leaving only the road up into the Santa Monica mountains available to me.

    The road I had to take was steep enough that it would have been a tough climb without the wind, but the wind blew directly at me, and after a short while I was no longer strong enough to ride. So I began to walk. And after a while I could not walk, so I sat down to rest until I could walk again.

    While I was resting a woman named Rita came up in her minivan and offered to take me up the mountain, but we just couldn’t find a way to fit both me and my bike in her van. Thank you so much for trying Rita.

    Eventually a photo-journalist named Kevin Brooks came by in his truck and offered to give me a ride as well. I gratefully accepted and we sped up the hill into the wind. I have a new respect for machines now, that they can have that much power.

    We stopped by at a local bar and grill for a beer, which became four beers. Suddenly musical instruments appeared and started to be played. And one of the players was Robert Blake. I found myself on the washbasin bass for a couple of songs, and we played some ol’ timey country music.

    The evening was so surreal, that in writing about it now I’m not sure if it wasn’t just a fever dream brought on by the wind and fire and exertion.

    In any case, Kevin drove me to my friends on the other side of the fire, and I was finally able to rest.

  • La Paz, B.C.S.

    I left LA with my good buddies Mike and Sameer headed for Sameers’ parents’ house in Orange County. We had a delicious breakfast at a place in Santa Monica, and full of carbohydrates and fat, we headed down south.

    The route took us variously through the streets of LA and along the beach, and each time we crossed into a new city (it’s hard to tell exactly when that happens in LA), we’d think of a new team name. I can’t say that we were particularly inventive with them: ‘Team Generally Southward Trending’ and ‘Team Trio’ were typical. But we had fun.

    Sadly, in the friendly city of Lomita, Mike experienced a mechanical failure while trying to stop suddenly after we’d been cut off by a car, and pitched over his handle bars and landed on his elbow. We quickly cleared off the street, and waited to see if the pain in Mike’s arm would subside enough for him to ride. But when it became clear that it wouldn’t, we walked a few blocks to an emergency room. Sameer and I would later find out that the fall had broken his elbow.

    But since Sameer and I had no other choice, once we were sure that Mike was well situated, we took off for points south. We arrived in time to get cleaned up and enjoy a delicious dinner courtesy of Sameer’s mom, and then we headed over to his friend Matthew’s place to celebrate Matthew’s birthday.

    The next day, Matthew accompanied us for a few blocks as Sameer and I continued our way south. Along the way we visited Mission San Juan Capistrano, the “Jewel” of the missions, and took the tour. While adjusting my brakes outside the mission, one of them broke, and I had to fix that. But it was taken care of eventually, and we continued south. At the end of the day we stopped at Sameer’s cousin’s place in Vista to spend the night.

    The next day, we made the final push to downtown San Diego to meet my friend Sean at his apartment. There Sameer and I said our goodbyes, and he headed back to LA by train. Sean and I did some errands, and generally caught up on old times (he is a friend from College). The next day I wasn’t quite ready to leave, so I finished my business and tried to eat as much ice cream as I could. I figured that I didn’t know when I might eat ice cream next (it would be in Santa Rosalia), and I needed to store some in my stomach for the long treacherous road ahead.

    So there it was. Sean and I made for the border on our bicycles, and as I got closer and closer, I began to realize just how little Spanish I knew, how I didn’t have good maps of Tijuana or Ensenada, and that I knew nothing about the conditions of the road ahead, where I would sleep, where I would eat, how I would get water in the desert. I didn’t really know if the people would be friendly or mean, whether my things would be safe or stolen.

    And I smiled. Finally an adventure! After the grizzlies made a poor showing in Alaska, I had no reason to really worry about my safety at all. The decadent shoulders on the Canadian and American roads gave me no sense of danger or excitement, and with the exception of one branch falling in front of my bicycle in Oregon, no real hazard.

    So I crossed the border. After squaring away my visa situation, I started to ride on the toll road out of Tijuana. When I was told I couldn’t do that, I overlanded it for a while along the toll road, until it looked like I would be able to again, and in that way I eventually found myself in Rosarito. Along the way the sights and smells of Tijuana began to envelop my world. The extremely lax leash laws in Mexico meant that any dog which cared to was able to chase after my bike. There is something deeply engrained in the canine mind which recognizes as evil anyone on a bicycle. So it was with holy fury that every dog I saw would bark and chase after me. But if I got off my bike and walked next to it, they wouldn’t give me a second glance.

    I slept on a beach south of Rosarito that first night, and woke up to see dolphins swimming in the ocean. “So this is what Baja will be like”, I thought to myself. Not bad at all. I eventually rode into Ensenada to find that the Baja 1000 was going to take place the next week, and consequently, the roads were full of support vechiles and people driving south to watch the race. For those who don’t know, the Baja 1000 is an off-road race from Ensenada to Cabo San Lucas involving buggies, motorcycles, monster trucks, and others. In short, an action packed high octane spectacle that I wouldn’t want to miss.

    Anyhow, I went to a restaurant in Ensenada, and when I explained my ride to the owner there, he asked me if I wanted to take his (17-20 year old) daughter along. He said he’d give me a tomato box to put her in, and cautioned me that she ate a lot. I told him that I also ate a large amount, so I didn’t think that would be a problem.

    But that idea seemed to fall through, so I found myself riding solo again south from Ensenada, intent on reaching San Vicente by night. Along the way, I saw an advertisement for a youth hostel on the beach, 12 miles off the highway, and I figured that sounded like a pretty good idea, so I went there instead. It was there that I got my first experience with some truly horrible dirt roads (the ones in Alaska were a dream in comparison), and I found my tires to be barely adequate to the task of riding on them.

    From the hostel, I continued on the dirt roads along the beach, figuring it would be quicker to head along them, then go back the twelve miles to the main highway and continue south from there (ha!). Six hours of rough riding later, including a stretch of road that was literally unrideable (it also happened to be a part of the baja 1000 course), I found myself back on the highway. I was bloody and covered in dust. I had gotten lost several times, and I had run out of water an hour previously. But something about reaching pavement gave me a renewed strength, and the thought that I might meet my death that day rapidly faded into the background.

    When I finally came to a market, I bought water and milk and chugged the milk. Then I bought soda and chugged that, then the water. Then I bought more water and continued to ride, looking for either a hotel where I could shower and forget about the day, or any place at all where I could just pass out. It turned out that spent the night in a cow pasture short of San Quintin, filthy and uncaring.

    I woke up before dawn and watched the sun rise over the mountains, and felt renewed by the day. I rode the distance to El Rosario, and took a hotel to shower and wash my clothes. While riding that day, I had a mixed Spanish and English conversation with a store clerk named Raul. He told me about his coin collecting hobbies, and I learned the word for ‘far’: ‘lejas’.

    The next day I rode to Cataviña. The flora there shifted from coastal sage to full desert, and I saw my first large cactus. Eventually the terrain changed too, and the dominant feature of the area was massive boulders everywhere.

    While staying in Cataviña, it began to rain very hard. I became concerned that I might actually lose my life if I tried to ride that day after considering that it hadn’t rained there for over a year, and the roads would surely be slick; the road was barely wide enough for two trucks to pass each other, and it would be difficult for them to stop (or for me to bail off the road) in an emergency, and finally there was increased traffic due to all the support vehicules on the road for the Baja 1000. As I was debating whether to ride or to stay put, I was offered the chance to ride along in a Baja buggy until we got to a place where the rain hadn’t reached. Thinking to myself: “A BAJA BUGGY! That would be So AWESOME!!!”, I told them that I would accept their ride. And it was every bit as cool as I thought it would be. Thanks guys!!

    I started riding again for Bahía de los Angeles, and as punishment for taking a ride, the entire distance was ridden into strong headwinds. When I got there, I went to the taco stand that was recommended to me: “third one as you come into town, the white one”. There I met Chris and Jerry, who invited me back to the place they were staying. It turned out to be owned by their friend Dan, and was right on the beach. How did I get so lucky? In addition to Dan, Chris and Jerry, another guy named Russ was also there. I had a wonderful time watching the baja 1000 come through town with them, and enjoyed their hospitality very much.

    That next day the race was still going on strong, and in my weakened moral state, I rationalized that it would be better if I accepted the ride that Chris and Jerry offered me to the junction of highway 1 and the road to Bahía de los Angeles. But feeling guilty, I rode the entire distance to Guerrero Negro that day, and found a spot in an RV park just before dark.

    So the next day I rode through fog so thick that my bike computer stopped measuring the distance. That finally cleared, and I made the long haul to San Ignacio, an oasis in the middle of the desert. The old plaza in San Ignacio was beautiful and the buildings were well maintained. It was wonderful to smell water on the ground after such a long ride in the desert.

    In the town of Vizcaíno, I met a trio of kids who were curious about my bike, and the youngest of whom wore a shirt which read “I dig your boyfriend”. I didn’t have the heart or vocabulary to explain to him what his shirt said, but it made me smile.

    The next day I rode past the volcano ‘Tres Virgenes’, and down into the port town of Santa Rosalia. Santa Rosalia was built by the French in the late 1800s, the architecture had a character completely different from anything I’d yet seen. It was there that I met my first other cyclists, and had my first ice cream of Baja as well.

    The next day I intended to ride to Mulegé with them, but we got seperated somehow, and I wound up camping on playa Santispac, south of there. Santispac was so beautiful and my neighbors were so congenial, that I decided to take a rest day there. That day involved passing out in my tent due to the heat, drinking ice cold beer under an umbrella, and very little else. In short, it was about as good as I could have hoped for.

    I finally made the push into Loreto the day after my break. It was on that day that I had my first real water scare, and I was forced to beg for water twice. I surprised myself with my Spanish then, and how well it was coming along that I could actually beg for water. But I made it into Loreto, and found a spot at an RV park with the most luxurious shower I’d taken in months. I took in the cultural wonders of the town, and armed with the word ‘ballena’, I got a liter of Pacifico from a liquor mart. I know that ‘ballena’ means ‘whale’, but it’s also what they call a liter of Pacifico. A liter of Tecate is a ‘caguama’.

    The ride out of Loreto meant a climb over the Sierra de la Giganta, and due to a landscape anomaly, there was no corresponding downhilll on the other side. I spent that night and the following night in a cactus patch off the road, both times ending very boring days.

    But finally I arrived in La Paz! I found myself riding down the streets of La Paz without any clue as to where to go, so when I saw an internet cafe, I decided I’d do some research on hostels in the area. At the ciber cafe, I met a girl named Luz, who gave me a very thorough tour of the city, and showed me the hostel where I am staying now. I can’t thank her enough for her enormous kindness, and I’m still baffled as to why she helped me so much.

    I had intended on riding down to Los Cabos after a day or two in La Paz, but there was an opening in a language class for this coming week, so that final portion of Baja will have to wait a little while.

    I’m having a wonderful time in Baja, and the people here have been much more kind and generous than I could ever have expected. My Spanish is improving quickly, and I’ve established a rhythm that gets me through the desert. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

  • Los Cabos

    After finishing my week of intensive language course, I was armed with the knowledge of the past tense, and a desire to finally finish riding the peninsula to Cabo San Lucas. So I headed out to Todos Santos.

    The 50 mile ride was made rather easy by generally flat terrain and the beginnings of a tailwind as I approached to Pacific Ocean. And so I arrived in Todos Santos in time for lunch, and with plenty of time to explore the city. But I quickly concluded that there wasn’t much for me there by way of accomodations, and decided to try my luck in one of the towns to the south. Also finding nothing in those towns, I resolved that this would be another night of sleeping in the cactus, and towards dark (and 30 miles down the road), I found a spot with the perfect combination of enough bare ground to pitch a tent, seclusion from the road, and stunning views of the Pacific. Also, in riding south from Todos Santos, I crossed the Tropic of Cancer, and was officially in the tropics.

    I set up camp, and as I was gazing out on the pacific, I saw a whale breach. And then another, and then I saw a tail slam down on the water. There must have been seven or eight whales, swimming right off shore from where I camped. I figured that wasn’t such a bad trade off for going to bed absolutely filthy, and having to squat near razor sharp cactus to take care of business.

    The next morning, I covered the short distance to Cabo San Lucas, including one never-ending hill just before town, to arrive in time for lunch. I decided to first go as close to Los Arcos as I could with my bike, and wound up walking (covered in dirt and sweat) through the lobby of a very expensive hotel to get there. I guess I have to thank the Mexican law that all beaches must be publickly accessible for that one, or perhaps it is the fact that being a gringo allows me to get away with nearly anything…

    Six years ago I had come to Cabo San Lucas, and my memories from then did not help me navigate the city this time at all. Everything had changed from how I remembered it, and wanting to preserve those memories, I decided to press on to San Jose del Cabo.

    That too had become very developed, and so I rode on into the cactus once again. I finally found a spot in a wash north of Santa Anita next to a very old wreck of a car and called it a day. After reading my Spanish books for a while, and using my binoculars to gaze at the abundant stars, I tucked myself into my sleeping bag and passed out.

    Very early the next morning, I was gently awakened by the sound of trucks engine breaking down the hills on either side of the wash, and after a breakfast of potato chips and Emperador cookies, I headed on up to Los Barriles, crossing the Tropic of Cancer once again.

    In Los Barriles, I pulled into the first campground I saw, set up camp, took a shower, and headed to the beach to drink some beer and eat some fruit. Both were done with great enthusiasm, and while I was restoring humanity and insobriety to my body and mind, I was treated to the sight of windsurfers and kite surfers playing across the water. It was an amazing thing to behold.

    Seeing how amiable Los Barriles was, I decided to spend an extra day. That day was spent in the glorious tradition of all break days: eating and napping and eyeing my bike with the intention of performing maintenance, but not the motivation.

    I eventually and reluctantly left Los Barriles to cover the remaining 65 miles back to La Paz. Unlike the gentle hills of the Pacific road, the Sea of Cortes road seemed to adopt the Alaskan strategy of laying road straight uphill, the grade be damned. So it was a lot of climbing and exhilirating descent that brought me through the picturesque San Bartolo and El Triunfo. In El Triunfo, I stopped for lunch, and had my first conversation entirely in Spanish. It wasn’t easy or fluent by any means, but by god I was speaking and understanding (mostly)!

    After an interminable period of grinding the gears, I found myself on the now-familiar streets of La Paz, and finished off my tour of Baja California. On Monday I take the ferry to Mazatlán, and from there it’s anyone’s guess…

  • Guadalajara, Jal.

    While waiting for the ferry to Mazatlán, I met two other cyclists on the road from Portland, Oregon. We decided to form a temporary gringo cyclist confederation, and would ride together from Mazatlán to outside of Tepic, where I headed into the mountains, and they headed back to the coast.

    In Mazatlán, we found a hotel for the bargain-basement price of 70 pesos a night, and decided that at that value, we’d stay an extra night. While Casey and Scott (my just-introduced friends) took care of their business around the town, I set about discovering the many and varied delights to be found. I had a variation of Horchata which —against all expectation— I found to be better than the original. And I found a market that had many different kinds of tropical fruit for sale, at prices that meant I could buy one of everything. I found the street food to be exquisite, and the architecture that lined those streets to match.

    While leaving Mazatlán, I used my shrewd negotiational skills to get a loaf of bread for two pesos more than the original asking price. I quickly resolved to learn my numbers better.

    Heading south, we noticed that the landscape became more and more tropical, and with the hills it envoked thoughts of southeast Asia. We also took several opportunities to explore local towns, and despite being baffled by the choice of using river rock for pavement, I was enchanted by the plaza principales that I would see, and amazed by the architectural detail on the cathedrals in the smallest of town.

    We took to taking a siesta in the middle of the day to beat the heat, and our status as curious-looking foreigners with fully loaded touring bikes gave us plenty of opportunity to practice our Spanish.

    We eventually discovered that we weren’t going to be yelled at for taking the toll road, and also that we wouldn’t have to pay to ride on it. The advantage of the toll road was that it was much better engineered, smoothly paved, and had a very wide shoulder. The free road, in contrast, had precipitous drops, reckless drivers, no shoulder, and a complete disregard to grading.

    We camped to first night out of Mazatlán in a mango orchard, that unfortunately had no mangoes, but plenty of mosquitoes. And the second night just off the road, failing to find a break in the barbed wire fence that bordered the toll road.

    After we parted ways, the toll road that I continued on merged with the free road, and inherited all of the free road’s characteristics. I had to climb and descend several times before finally reaching Tepic at dusk, and I took the first hotel I came across. The next morning, I played asteroids with the collectivos (privately run busses that seemed more intent on running me off the road than anything else) while riding out of town, but eventually the traffic died down, and I found myself in tropical highlands. As I rode through fields of sugarcane climbing up the sides of extinct volcanoes, I wondered how I could have never seen such a beautiful landscape before, and felt very lucky to be riding through it.

    I was riding on the free road through all of this, thinking that the “no bicycles” sign I saw prohibited me from riding the toll road. When I was pulled over to adjust my bike a bit, I federale stopped by to chat, and I learned that I could ride on the toll road, and it was in his opinion much safer. I also learned the word for road shoulder (acotamiento) during the course of that conversation. My Spanish improves a bit each day in that way.

    After endless climbing, pine trees started to replace the tropical vine covered foliage, and corn replaced sugarcane as the dominant crop. I eventually summited over a volcano, and had an endless downhill that had me curse at how much more work I’d now have to do to climb up to Guadalajara, but at the same time I exhilirated in how fast I was going. By the time I reached the bottom of that descent in the town of Jala, I noticed that the temperature had climbed several degrees from the summit. I was amazed that I had already climbed high enough and then descended far enough for the difference in altitude to affect the temperature.

    After one more climb, and similar descent, I found myself in Ixtlán del Río, and decided to call it quits on the day. I discovered a new type of licuado in the local Michoacana, and found it to be delicious. For dinner I bought a quart of yogurt with granola, and took the whole thing down. Then I made myself some sandwiches with my pineapple marmalade.

    The next morning I found myself cold for the first time in a very long while, and enjoyed the sensation incredibly. I prefer shivering so much to sweating, and I finally had a chance to exchange them.

    More climbing, a flat tire, four sandwiches, and becoming absolutely filthy in the exection of the day, and I arrived mysteriously at a baptist camp outside of Guadalajara. After explaining my trip to Nacho —the groundskeeper— I was permitted to stay and make full use of the showers and bathrooms (and I did…). I made lentils for dinner, and Nacho and I talked for a while in a mixture of English and Spanish about various things over a cup of coffee. Absolutely beat by the day, I fell asleep around 8pm.

    The following morning, having run out of breakfast food in the sandwich binge the day before, Nacho invited me to share breakfast with him. We talked some more over a cup of atole (?), which is a drink made of corn flour, sugar, cinnamon, and hot water. It is absolutely delicious. After a while it was time to get going again, and I set out to cover the final 12 miles into Guadalajara.

    While crawling up a hill on my giant tortose of a bicycle, I was passed by a dozen lycra clad bicyclistas. It made it very obvious that my racing days did not at all coincide with my touring days, and my masculine desire to catch them went utterly unfulfilled. After a while I found myself in the greater Guadalajara metropolitan area (population 2.2 million!), and through dead reckoning I found myself riding past the Corona and Modelo brewery.

    After inhaling the sweet smell of mash for a while, I set for the old town, and reckoned my way to a youth hostel. Thanking god for my continued ability to find what I need without any clear idea about where to find it, I set my body to relax, and went at it full-tilt.

    I took a few days off in Guadalajara to soak in the sights of this very impressive city. The architecture reminds me more of baroque Italy than Mexico, and both the number and quality of cathedrals are very high.

    On one day I took a bus with someone I met at the hostel to the town of Tequila (it’s a real place!). It was a very educational and rewarding venture, and I’ve come to respect the drink tequila very much, and so far have had no reason to curse it.

  • Guanajuato, Gto.

    I was all set to spend Christmas Eve alone, cooking the rest of my lentils with the remainder of an onion I’d used a couple days before. So when Melanie, the receptionist at the hostel where I was staying, invited me to join her family for Christmas Eve it was the best possible gift I could have gotten.

    A Melanie: Muchas gracías para todo. Esta noche fue muy especial para mi y me encanta tu familia.

    I eventually returned to the hostel having acquired a new family, and hopefully a life-long friend. But the next morning, being Christmas Day, I decided it was time to get back on the road.

    And so I continued on my way with creaking legs and an aching heart. It seems that everywhere I go I meet so many wonderful people, and each place I stay for a few days, I could stay all my life. The hardest part of traveling isn’t the riding nor the uncertainty of where I shall sleep or what I shall eat. It is the certainty that leaving will break my heart and will be an abandonment of home.

    My ride continued over steeply rolling hills and along depoplated streets. And when night began to fall and desperation for a place to sleep set in, I found my way to Valle de Guadalupe and into a hidden place to sleep. And I woke up the next morning cold, for the first time since the Elk Meadow in the redwoods, and I reveled in the feeling of stiff fingers and biting toes. It was so different from being covered in sweat and the feeling of having marinated in the product of 70 miles of effort.

    And so I made a similar effort the next day, and wound up camping behind an auto graveyard in the middle of farm country near Lagos de Morenos. But during that day, I somehow forgot to mind my water levels and I forgot to stock up on ready-to-eat food. And all I had was spaghetti and lentils but no water to cook them in. And so I went to bed hungry, and woke up hungry, and rode twelve more miles over the same steeply rolling terrain hungry and thristy.

    When I finally found a place to eat I consumed so much food that I had to sit for a while before I could continue riding. And while I was sitting, two people from Chihuahua came by and started to chat. One of the guys was a big fan of reptiles, and had just bought a rattle snake for 50 pesos. When he went to feed the snake a rat, the rat attacked and killed the snake. When he discovered what the rat had done, it had long since fled the scene. But then, that’s the way it always goes…

    The other guy was a guitar player, and had composed his own songs. He played a few of them for me, and they sounded really good. In fact, it was for his music that the two of them were traveling to Mexico City. Eventually they left, and my legs regained supremacy over my stomach, and I left as well.

    The road continued on into Leon. And through Leon was the most smog-filled, rubble strewn road I’d ridden in my memory. It was so bad that my thoughts turned to prayers that my tires would not blow out due to the rubble and send me into the truck traffic.

    But I cleared it eventually, and I continued on into Silao, and on to the road into the city of Guanajuato. It was at the juncture to this road that I experienced my second puncture in two days (I’d had one the previous day), and I sat and killed 20 minutes waiting for the patch to seal. And it did, and the road wound up and over one last hill, and I finally descended into Guanajuato with a few hours before dark.

    And what I city! Guanajuato is a UNSECO world heritage site, and it deserves the title every bit. I can’t think of any city in Europe that would compare to it in terms of the intracacy of the streets or the charming affect of the houses lining the canyons. The best I could think was that it was a combination of the labyrintine streets of Venice and the hill of Mont San Michael.

    And so I’ll stay here, as planned, for a month of Spanish lessons. I can’t think of a better place to hang out and acquire a major world language. Sometimes all the heartbreak, all the sweat and tears, all the hunger and filth manage to deliver me to a place like this.

    And it’s worth it.

  • Mexico City

    My month and a half in Guanajuato has come and gone. My Spanish has improved tremendously, and my legs have weakened by an equal amount. I can’t imagine that I could have picked a better location to learn Spanish, and the people I met have been wonderful and kind.

    For my last week of classes, my mom came to join me, and the two of us had a blast learning together. She stayed with a family who cooked meals so huge that I could never finish everything put in front of me, and who cared for me when I was sick for the first real time on the trip.

    After the week we took a bus to Mexico City and met my dad, and the three of us toured around the city, spent two days at the Museum of Anthropology (and could have spent more, it is more incredible than the Deutsches Museum in Munich). We went to Teotihuacan, and climbed the third largest pyramid in the world. While dodging souvenir hawkers, we got a demonstration of how they got the yellow and red dyes used to paint the pyramids, and were forced into a demonstration of carving “artifacts” from obsidian and other semi-precious stones.

    After the week there, it was time to return to Guanajuato, pick up my bike (left there with friends), and continue on my way. Next stop, Oaxaca!

  • Cuernavaca

    I started back on the road a week ago. I had just come off of a month of sloth and sickness while taking Spanish lessons and I was unsure whether what level of fitness to expect, or whether I would be able to ride at all.

    But when I got on the bike and started to ride, it was as if I had ridden yesterday. My legs burnt, my lungs felt as if they might burst, and my heart tried to escape my body through my chest, however, the mechanics and habit of it all came back.

    That first day I rode 40 miles to Salamanca and called it quits. Along the way I sampled freshly pressed pineapple juice and generally enjoyed the rhythm of being on the bicycle again. I went to bed resolved to take it easy for the next few days as my body got back in shape.

    Of course, the last time I resolved to take it easy, I wound up riding 125 miles from Glennallen to Valdez, and this time was no exception. It was only a fraction of the distance, but in the late afternoon I found myself in Morelia after being compelled further by increasingly beautiful country, including some spectacular lakes and marshes.

    I arrived in Morelia hungry, filthly and exhausted, and took care of all three in that order. After evaluating my physical condition the next morning, I decided that I had over-extended myself the day before, and for once I would listen to my body and take a rest. I walked around town and pursued the various eating opportunities that Michoacán is famous for, marveled at the architecture and ducked into an internet café when it started to suddenly pour rain.

    The next day was sunny and I felt great, so it was time to head up and out of town. The first 30 miles of the day were spent climbing up ever higher into the highlands, and along the way I had to put on a sweater to ward off the increasing cold. I finally ended the day near Ciudad de Hidalgo at Campestre Fogata (Bonfire Campground). It was the second campground I’d encountered on the mainland, and I was grateful for not having to spend the time and energy to find some hidden spot in a cow pasture or abandoned building.

    The next day I climbed considerable more, and I think that when I crested the mountain at the border of Michoacán and México State I’d crossed 10,000ft for the first time on my trip. Luckily, the other side was a luxurious descent through a cool pine forest and I was able to bring my heart rate down into non-cardiac arrest levels. I ended that day at one of the most amazing secret campsites I’ve found on the trip: I was in a pine forest off the road surrounded my masonry of indeterminate age (possibly aztec ruins). The ground was soft and easy to drive stakes into, and the ruins provided convenient locations to set up my stove and cook.

    I woke up very cold, having had to put on various articles of clothing throughout the night and wrap my head in a shirt as it became colder and colder. This made me thoughtful for what the Salar de Uyumi will be like when I get there some months from now.

    I ate some granola, packed my things and battled trucks and homocidal drivers for the next 40km into Toluca, and called it quits. While in Toluca, I discovered a fruiteria which made a plate of fruit so large that I nearly thought I would be unable to eat it all. A recent binge on ice cream and pasteries called my ability even more into question… But in the end I triumphed and shuffled my way back to my flop hotel room, trying my best to limit the up and down motion in my step.

    The next morning I set out early on what I thought would be a very easy and short day. According to the internet, my route would cover 51 miles and descend from 9000 ft at Toluca to 4500 ft at Cuernavaca.

    Well, the internet is a lying bastard. Before I could descend down to 4500ft, I had to climb and descend repeatedly, with the final climb reaching 11,500 ft. All of this took 50 miles to accomplish. The final 10 miles into town were a rubber-burning, knucle-whitening, rim-heating plummet which I never hope to repeat. To add to it, the road was imperfectly paved, and in-between dodging traffic, I had to deal with loose gravel and potholes.

    But I made it, damn it. And while I waited for my nerves to relax and my rims to cool down I contemplated my final approach into town. I made it, eventually found a place to stay and repeated my experience at Morelia.

    Tomorrow I expect to finally reach the road to Oaxaca, and finally realize my months-long dream of arriving in that land fabulous food.

  • Oaxaca

    I have arrived in the land of chocolate, mole and mezcal and it is glorious.

    I had to ride in heat for the first time since climbing up to Guadalajara, and I’d forgotten the age old strategy of taking a siesta in the noon-time heat. So I rode like a mad dog or an Englishman in the full sun up and down the endless hills and then mountains of southern Puebla and northern Oaxaca. And I camped in places that I would never have chosen if the heat hadn’t robbed me of my senses.

    The first night out of Cuernavaca, in a riverbed ten yards from the highway and 130km from my start of the day, I slept fitfully as wild dogs and other nighttime monsters probed my camp. The second night the dogs were exchanged for goats in the hill country north of Huajuapan, and I marveled as the shirt which I’d worn the past two days had become so encrusted with dried sweat and salt as to become stiff.

    And on the third day I stopped for lunch in a small town just north of the Valles Centrales of Oaxaca and had my first significant human interaction since Cuernavaca. As we talked about life in general and life in the hills specifically, I learned that their fathers or grandfathers all spoke Mixteca, but they themselves never learned. I mentioned I had been bitten by a spider a night or two previously, and showing a concern greater than I felt the situation merited, they found a pregnant woman to rub her saliva on my bites. Until this point, I’d had no significant interaction with the knowledge and lore that preceded Colombus. And as dubious as I was about the saliva cure, I figured I’d give it a fair chance.

    And I’m not sure whether it worked or not, since my bites were already healing before the application, but the next day my skin was only rough and not inflammed.

    And so at the end of that day, after being chased by turkies for the first time in my life, I finally descended into the Valles Centrales, and set up base camp in Nochixtlan. While wandering the streets of that town I came across a Mezcal shop, and figured it was time to see about some traditional inebriation. For the bargain-basement price of 15 pesos, I manged to walk away with a jug of rested mezcal of delicious quality. It would be my kissing buddy that night and the several that followed.

    Finally the next morning I set my wheels towards the city of Oaxaca and spun out 70km. I had finally arrived! Ever since falling in love with the Oaxacan restaurant near my apartment in Los Angeles, I had dreamed of this moment and it was finally here. In short order I ate mole negro (¡fantastico!), got some chocolate with cinnamon (¡muy rico!) and summited Monte Alban and explored the ruins there (¡qué impresionante!).

    I’m now busy stuffing my stomach full of as much food as I can before the two week push through the jungle and into the land of the Maya and San Cristobal de las Casas.

  • Chiapas

    I exited Oaxaca through the hot southern end of the Valles Centrales towards Tehuantepec. As I slowly lost altitude over the course of a couple of days, the heat began slowly to blow over my arms and face until no cool breeze remained, but only the sweat-inducing calor.

    In Tehuantepec, I met an Irish cyclist who was riding from Mexico City southward as far as his schedule would allow. We braved the strong winds of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and arrived after a couple of days in Arriaga, Chiapas. With our arrival, I said goodbye to the Zapotecs and the Mixtecs and hello to the Mundo Maya. Already in Arriaga, I started to see native dress and catch whispers of Tzetzal, a local Mayan language.

    The next day we set out for Tuxtla, but winds stronger than those that tried to keep my from entering Los Angeles fought us over every inch we tried to gain. While taking a break from being knocked down again and again while walking my bike up the hill and having to dodge branches and airborne rocks, I sat down on the side of the road and laid my bicycle (recently re-christened “The Waddling Tortise”) down next to me. To my utter disbelief, the wind mounted an even stronger offensive than before, and my bicycle started to slide down the road on its side. Aside from a tear which duct tape was able to repair, no real damage was done. But in that moment I realized that having to retreat down the hill to fetch my bike when it blew from my hands would result in little forward progress. I knew I was beat. So I hitched for the third time on my trip (into Los Angeles, in the dune buggy and now into Tuxtla).

    My time in Tuxtla was uneventful, and the next day I did the solid 40km climb up to San Cristobal de las Casas. Upon arriving in the cool of the afternoon amongst pine forests and hillls that put me in mind of Austria or Switzerland, I quickly decided that San Cristobal was my favorite city in Mexico. I could easily have spent several weeks there, and was sorely tempted to do so. I saw indigenous people in their traditional dress speaking their ancient tounges, and wanted to fully know that place. But Palenque called, and I knew it was time to go.

    Struck sick with the flu the day after I left Palenque and unable to eat anthing, I still managed to make it to Ocosingo, and then to Agua Azul the day after. There I jumped into the pools immediately to refreshen and remove the sweat that covered my body. I was too weak to swim, despite a sign warning me that it was dangerous not to, but I floated in a shallow pool for a while until I felt better.

    At Agua Azul I met a French Canadian couple who surprised me with a delicious dinner. Unfortunately, what I ate of it didn’t stay down and none of those tasty calories could do me any benefit. The next morning they gave me some dry crackers and a broth to drink. Both were wonderful to my deprived and recovering body, and were gladly consumed. Somehow, I forced myself the final 40 miles into Palenque, hooked up the with irish cyclist again, and went to bed after drinking several pitchers of juice and juice-like beverages.

    The following day I met the French Canadians again, and we set out to explore the ruins of Palenque together. Wow. Wow, wow, wow. I was truly well-impressed by the ruins, having been put in the mood the night before by howling monkeys and dreams of ancient Mayans. I decided that the ruins were worth the three days of delirium and torture to ride there.

    After that my irish companion and I set out for the Guatemalan border through the rain and into the Lancandon jungle. The entire day felt great to me, finally having my strength back after being sick, and my muscles back after all the punishment in the hills from Guanajuato to there. It rained the entire day which kept me cool, kept the sun off my fried skin, and made me content and at peace. The next day, we made the final 20 miles to the border, boarded a boat, and motored across the river and into Guatemala.

  • Guatemala

    Having successfully accomplished my river based infiltration of Guatemalan soil, I set about reconnoitering the local currency and women, talking to the locals and trying generally to get the feel of the country which I just entered: I watched a soccer game, drank very affordable soda, and changed pesos at very competitve rates. I also managed to acquire the travel documents to allow me to be in Guatemala legally, got a hotel room whose quality matched the bargain-basement price I paid for it, and set my clothes out to dry from the refreshing, but ladening rain of a couple days prior.

    And for the riding. 60km across flat or nearly flat dirt road with drifting patches of ridability until abruptly pavement started 7km outside of Las Cruces. Going from dirt to pavement was a bit of a shock, because suddenly everything felt too still and quiet. But I was glad to be able to make several km/h faster with no additional effort. I ended my first day of riding by taking a car-ferry powered by an outboard motor across a river and into the town of Sayaxché. The room I got there rivaled the previous room in terms of both quality and price.

    Following the suggestion of a webpage my companion came across, we decided to head that day to Fray Bartolomé de las Casas. I took it as a good omen that it shared so much of its name with San Cristobal de las Casas, and so didn’t expect the backwater pit that it was. It didn’t help that the city was suffering a power outage the day I arrived, nor that I had to ride over 25km of bone compressing rock road to get there.

    The next day was worse, however. Climbing over grades that were designed to test the souls of men, with a dirt surface that seemed to be taken from a river bottom and fixed into the earth at wholly inappropriate angles, it took me eight hours to travel 60km. When I finally saw pavement again at the junction to Languín, I shed a few tears of joy.

    All along that road, I traveled through native villages and farms. When I would pass a rural school, one or more children would shout out “Gringo! Gringo! Gringo!”, attracting their friends and siblings who would join in the cry. I found it either endearing or infuriating depending on the grade I was struggling up and the age of the child doing the shouting. Several times groups of children would run along my bike shouting what I like to believe were words of encouragement in their local language as I crawled up some stretch of the road. I did enjoy that…

    When I reached the junction where the pavement began, it was just before 4pm. I quickly ate as much as I could, and resolved that if I rode as hard as I was able, I would be able to ride the final 50km into Coban before it became too dark and dangerous to ride. Damn, but I did my best to make it. I made it about 4 miles from town before I decided to throw in the towel and stop at a hotel I came across.

    And lucky that I did. The proprietor of the hotel used to race bicycles in Guatemala in the late 70s, lived in Seattle, and had a sister in Fremont, California. Over this common bond we discussed bicycling, bicycling in Guatemala, the things I should see and do while I was here, and the places I should go. I finally had an idea of how I wanted to spend my time in Guatemala, and was greatly relieved. Before entering the country I basically only knew that they exported bananas and coffee, had a large Mayan population, had a currency called the Quetzal and spoke Spanish (generally). But now I had an idea of what was what, and it felt pretty good.

    The next day, I sampled some delicious coffee, finally got a haircut (the last was four months ago), did my laundry, and even rode the remaining four miles to Coban. And it was good.

    While in Coban, I came across the opportunity to take a trek through the jungle and learn some ethnobotany. While the trek failed to teach me very much ethnobotany, I learned some words in Quiche, got to play with some wonderful Mayan children (who didn’t yell gringo every time they saw me), and see the rare quetzal, which is the national bird of Guatemala. I also got to eat the first corn tortillas that I found absolutely delicious, and final understand how a people could base their diet on them.

    The road out of Cobán refined my concept of what the worst possible road could be like. I found that my legs were not nearly as fit as I had imagined, as I struggled up 15% and greater grades. Finding the current ones lacking in potency, I invented new swear-words to call the Guatemalan road engineers who laid out the road they way they did. But after two and a half days of grueling riding which included my chain and other minor components of my bicycle breaking due shaking caused by the roughness of the road, I arrived at Lago de Atitlan.

    And it is amazing. Three volcanoes rising 5000 to 6000 feet out of the lake and water that is clear, cool and refreshing made it the perfect place to rest and recuperate while Semana Santa finished up and all the crazy drivers returned to their hamlets and villages. While at Lago de Atitlan, I stayed at a campground populated by Sardinian circus performers, ex-pat hippies, and a dog who recently became the proud mother of six puppies. With an open-air kitchen and very good communal space, I collaborated with other residents to cook up fantastic meals that were nearly able to fill me up. And it was good.

    The road out of Lago de Atitlan was as windy and steep as ever, but refreshed mentally and physically by four days rest by the lake, the riding to Antigua never seemed as challenging as before.

    While descending into Antigua, the road surface finally became smooth enough, and the curves unwound just enough that I could finally take advantage of the steepness of the terrain to go for a new trip speed record. I topped out at 50 mph, and it felt wonderful.

    While in Antigua I tried to go on a tour up to an active volcano, but the bus never showed up to take me. Later, I tried to go on a tour of a coffee plantation (a subject which I’ve become increasingly interested in while riding through Guatemala), but again the bus never showed up. I realized that I had bad luck with buses at that point and threw in the towel on arranging any more tours.

    Perhaps it’s for the best. I feel scared for the passengers of the buses that careen around the corners up and down cliffsides, knowing that it is only luck that keeps them on this side of the great beyond.

    I made good time from Antigua to Guatemala City, and after working my way through for an hour and a half, finally found myself on the other side. What greeted me, to my utmost delight, was a 13 mile downhill into Tierra Caliente. I finally managed to end that day just after dark in the abysmal pit of El Rancho.

    The next day I woke up very early to beat the heat of the day, and rode to Rio Hondo. There I fulfilled my promise to call Gustavo (the man I met in Carcha who invited me to stay at his house along the Rio Dulce). Everything was still go for me to stay there, which was a great relief.

    The next day I did about the same thing as the day before, but ended at Quiriguá, which is a small town next to the Mayan ruins of the same name. The ruins themselves couldn’t compare to what I’d already been priviledged to see here and in Mexico, but what made the site very interested were the giant stellae (pillars with carved images and hieroglyphics). After a suitable period of staring at the likenesses of Mayan kings from thirteen centuries past, I made my way back to town and called it quits for any further activity (the heat makes me angry and sleepy).

    Finally the day after, I arrived in Rio Dulce found a man named El Negro as I was instructed to do. Told him I knew Gustavo and needed him to help me get to Gustavo’s house, and then set about acquiring the various provisions I would need to stay there (food, food, food, and… more food).

    The launcha I took town the river insisted on a 25 Quetzal surcharge to carry my bicycle, and then during the trip itself probably caused another 100 Quetzales worth of damage to my bicycle (I have no idea how to value my labor at this point). The way it did it was this: It tied my bike to the interior of the launcha (good), then piled several very heavy traveler’s backpacks on top of my bike (no good). Then it zoomed down the river jumping over every wave. At each bounce the backpacks would come pounding down on my bike causing more damage and more internal crying on my part.

    But eventually we arrived, I set to work doing what repairs I could in a house that his half over the water (absolutely wonderful by the by), and then set about turning all the food I bought into poo. And after a fabulous time of relaxation, where I was about to use their canoe to paddle around the river, and their hammock to swing back and forth for uncountable hours, I hailed a passing launcha and headed to Lívingston. Lívingston is a town on the Carribbean coast of Guatemala, and when I arrived there I had to keep repeating to myself that I’d actually managed to travel from the Arctic ocean to the Carribean. I just wasn’t prepared for the opportunites for relaxation and tropical decadence.

    After a day in Livingston, I decided that I needed to either leave then or never, and so took the ferry over to Puerto Barrios. It had wonderful views of the sea, and I was able to watch a cruise ship sail out as I ate dinner. But other than that, I was glad to leave it as fast as possible.

    And so I did. And after 25 short miles through banana and palm plantations, I found myself at the Honduran border, crossing the border, and finally in Honduras. And that ends this section.

  • Honduras

    It is very hard for me to characterize Honduras. I’ve met so many wonderful people here who’ve treated me very well, but I’ve experienced and seen the most terrifying things of my entire trip here as well. Maybe I am still too near to everything to see Honduras clearly, but I don’t think that time will be able to bring together my two very opposite impressions into one unified whole.

    On the good side: Whenever I tell people of my journey, they seem to go out of their way to aid me in whatever way they can. I’ve experienced this before, but never to the extent where it seems like a national trait. And when I’ve experienced problems, people have given me whatever they could to comfort and help me.

    And on the bad side: While riding south of San Pedro Sula, I came across a man lying dead in the road, having been struck by a vehicle while riding his bicycle along the shoulder of the road. The vehicle was nowhere in evidence. After seeing that I felt a chill sweep over my body, the sky seemed to dim and I lost strength in my legs. I still continued on, of course, because what else could I do? But now I had an unseeing and unmoving face to put to all the stories people have told me about the roads being dangerous. And I felt lucky.

    I eventually ended the day at a place called Honduyate Marina on Lago de Yojoa. I was able to camp for free (all are), and the proprietor and other guests showed me wonderful hospitality. The next day, recognizing both the need for rest and the beauty of the location, I decided to take the day off. I spent it relaxing in a hammock, swimming in the lake, and variously enjoying the simple pleasures to be had.

    Taking off early the next day to beat the tropical heat, the ride started as usual. And then, for no reason I could discern, a car swerved out of the lane and on to the shoulder to sideswipe me. Thank god I was ok, but if it had come just a half a foot further into the shoulder first I would surely be dead. As it was, my bags on the left side of my bicycle were torn off by the car, and I didn’t even fall over.

    But stopping to go back and retrieve my bags, I found my legs shaking and my mind unable to stay with any single thought. Eventually I continued on, taking my experience as a sort of cosmic lesson that the dead man was a display of the possibility of death, and my personal encounter was a very strong suggestion that I too might suffer his fate.

    I knew the risks before starting my trip, and these experiences have done nothing to cause me to doubt the rightness of my choice to undertake it, nor to doubt whether or not I should continue.

    Later on down the road, I met a group of US army men near their base in Comayagua. The base is a hold-over from the political unrest of the 1980s, and the particular soldiers I met were there to build schools and add infrastructure. And continuing the kindness I first experienced from soldiers when I was camped at the arctic circle, they gave me a couple MREs (meals, ready to eat) to carry on my way. I ate both of them for dinner that night and found them delicious. I later remarked to them that I should join the army because my chances of death were lower and the food was better. We all laughed and wondered if that were true.

    I am now in Choluteca preparing to cross the border into Nicaragua (finding out the lempira-cordoba exchange rate, stocking up on food and water, obsessively consulting my maps, etc.).

  • Nicaragua

    I don’t think I gave Nicaragua a fair shake. Perhaps the shock of being hit in Honduras left me with the desire to cover as much ground as I could to distance myself physically and therefore mentally from the scene. But I can’t say.

    I spent a total of four nights in the country. I had my first 100 mile day in a very long time entering the country, and the next two rides which would take me to Costa Rica both covered at least 85 miles. But my experiences with the people there were wholly positive. While leaving Granada I met a boy on a racing bike who complemented me on mine. I met locals riding their bikes to work who would shout encouragement as I trudged up the few hills I encountered, and most of the faces I remember were smiling (without all of their teeth).

    So I guess I was unfair not to explore it more. Lago de Nicaragua was beautiful, although the sand flies caused me great consternation. Volcanoes rose in pairs in the distance, or fumed up close.

    In Leon, I met my first bicycle tourist in a long while and we swapped stories about the road behind and our ideas about how we might tackle the road ahead. At night I ate behind a gorgeous cathedral with a professional chef, and in the day I sweat all the water out of my body walking around. And in the cool of early morning after only a day, I left for Granada.

    And in Granada I found the same thing. I met a motorcyclist intending on riding south. We discussed strategies for crossing the Darien Gap, I harrassed a fat and lazy cat while he restrained me. And when my bank card decided to go on strike, we worked out how I could get more money. Granada’s colonial elegance impressed me greatly, and the breeze off the lake refreshed me in equal measure. But in the cool of early morning after only a day, I left for the border.

    I rode to the ferry for Ometepe, considered taking it for a while as sand flies covered my things and attempted to cover me. And I pressed on. The rode was flat and quick, and the constant breeze blowing across me from the lake kept the worst of the heat from me. Before I was mentally prepared for it, I was at the border, then crossing it, and then in Costa Rica.

    So I can’t say what Nicaragua was really like. I never had enough time there to get a proper feel for the culture. The talk I heard about the government, I had expected to hear, and for that I didn’t trust it at all. I have only ever been surprised by each country being totally different from my conception, and so I couldn’t believe that Nicaragua should match it.

  • Cosa Rica

    After a very windy Day riding along Lago de Nicaragua, Nicaraguan customs took one last parting shot at me by levying a two dollar exit fee. I gladly paid, since it meant that I could finally enter Costa Rica, a land whose tap water is acclaimed far and wide to be drinkable, and whose many national parks mean that I can finally camp with ease once more.

    After crossing the border, I got my passport stamped (twice: the first time I got it stamped I couldn’t actually find the stamp in my passport, so I went back to get it stamped again) without having to pay an entrance fee. I finally got to get rid of all the papers crammed into my passport which I acquired from Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. I never understood why I had to carry those papers, and any thorough examination of them would reveal several inconsistancies: in Guatemala, my profession was organ trafficker, in Honduras it was sword swallower, and in Nicaragua it was trapezee artist. And english-reading police officer would have been concerned, but none of them ever were. Either Costa Rica didn’t ask for me to fill out my profession, or I have some unfinished paper work to attend to. I had planned to be a monkey tamer.

    At any rate, the first 10 miles into the country were lined with trees and tropical birds. The locals were friendly and had all of their teeth, and the roads were excellent despite their reputation as being the worst in Central America. After talking with an expat I met in La Cruz, I discovered that recent foreign investment had brought with it a lot of money for transportation infrastructure improvements. In fact, while I was sitting in his house eating breakfast, a maintenance truck was preparing the road in front of his house to be paved.

    My second full day in Costa Rica was a day of rest. When I woke up in the morning the wind was blowing quite strongly, and I’ve finally developed enough sense after nearly 10,000 miles of riding to just stay put when the wind was up.

    But when the wind was still up the next day, I figured that it was just a feature of the landscape, and I grit my teeth and set out. It came at me as a crosswind until Liberia when I finally turned toward west and was able to sail at 20 mph without pedaling. I found that to be very excellent.

    The next day I finally arrived at Playa Tamarindo and settled in with some cracked-out Costa Ricans at the local campground. I walked the beach, did some swimming to beat the heat, and enjoyed the view from the shade. But Playa Tamarindo was too developed for my tastes, and seeking solitude, I set out south along the costal road.

    Every few miles I would gain a view of the ocean as the road wound its way down the peninsula, and after a long and bumpy day I arrived at Playa Ostional and set up camp. The black sand beach I was nearly on is a protected sea turtle egg-laying zone, and the evidence of a recent hatching was scattered all over the beach in the form of empty egg shells and sea turtle prints. I hope the little fellas had as good a time swimming in that water as I did.

    The next day was more bone-jarring, colon-rupturing riding down to Playa Sámara. I forded several rivers spotted several birds and monkeys (the toucan remains elusive). Just outside of Playa Sámara I met three local cyclists at a local watermelon patch, and devoured what they offered me. It was delicious and rich and the perfect thing to combat the heat.

    In Playa Sámara I cooked, swam, napped in a hammock, and swam some more. It was an edenic time for me, but after a day of doing absolutely nothing I headed the call of the road and pressed on. While stopping to devour some carrot-orange juice (delicious), I made the critical error of sitting on some fiberglass. That ruined one of my three pair of underpants, and I still itch a bit as I write this.

    In the city of Nicoya, my quest to find a spare innertube continued to go unfulfilled, but I spent a relaxing hour in the shade of large tropical trees in the central park. And then I continued to punish my butt by jostling over more stones and washboard towards Playa Naranjo.

    To be fair, I only had two 6 mile stretches of dirt from Nicoya to Playa Naranjo, and aside from the choking dust which got kicked up by every passing vehicle, it was a pleasant ride. I saw more monkeys, some interesting trees, and finally the northern coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. Arriving at Playa Naranjo, I settled in to wait for the ferry. While I was waiting, three other cyclists on a Guatemala to Costa Rica tour pulled up and over the next couple of days we bonded over beer and thrill-seeking sports.

    Jim helped me out incredibly by donating his water bottle cage plus liter bottle to me, his mint condition tire, and a spare tube. That was a huge help to me, since the lack of all three of those things was beginning to worry me considerably.

    Jim, Joel, Kurt and myself spent the next two days recovering from the beating that the Nicoya Peninsula delivered us, as well heading up to Monteverde to zoom over the cloud forest canopy on a zip line tour. That was a lot of fun.

    But as they had a few days left on their tour down the coast, and I had to head up to San Jose to find parts for my bike, we parted ways. And up I went out of the infernal heat and humidity, through the clouds, and back down into the central valley of Costa Rica.

    And I spent a couple of days in Alajuela unintentionally. I went there in the first place because I wasn’t allowed to ride on the highway directly to San Jose, and so I detoured through Alajuela. But while there I met a man of mixed britannic desent with whom I tried to catch a bus to Volcán Poás. My luck with buses to volcanoes continued, of course, and after waiting for a full hour in the spot we were assured several times was the correct one, we gave up.

    While we were waiting, some daylight hookers took an interest in steve and myself. And even after trying to convince them for several minutes that we just were waiting for the bus, they wouldn’t leave us alone. So it finally came out that they were hungry, and Steve and I went to a bakery and got them some pasteries. After that they stopped trying to have sex with us for money, and were very friendly besides.

    Steve and I took the food we bought for ourselves to the local parque central, and with the sounds of parrots squawking above of and locals chattering around us, we had a good conversation about the types of things one talks about while sitting on a park bench.

    Later Steve left to catch his plane back to Honduras, and I stuck up a conversation with a 78 year old man of Czech desent (like myself) from Florida, who had met my great-aunt some forty years ago. I guess the Bohemian world is smaller than I had realized…

    The following morning, it was finally time to knock off the last 15 miles to San José, and find a bike shop which could do the service my bike needed and I was unequiped to perform, as well as score some new innertubes. I was successful in the former, and thought I was successful in the latter. But later, when checking the tubes our more closely, I realized that they had the wrong type of valve, and I would be stuck in San José at least one more day to return them and see if I could get the correct ones.

    To my great fortune and surprise, my delay in San Jose allowed my friend Jeff to meet up with me, and we spent the day trading stories from the road and eating. Jeff has been riding down from Los Angeles since late November, and I had always been too far up the road to make catching up possible for him. Alas, we wouldn’t be riding together from there, since he made it to San Jose via bus to meet his sister and travel with her by that magical conveyance for the following several weeks.

    My departure from San Jose led me up and then down, down, down through a cloud forest into the Carribean lowlands, and finally down into Panama. While stoping to enjoy some food on the side of the road, I saw leaf cutter ants hauling their load, tropical birds squawking, and giant blue butterflies fluttering by. What a wonderful place Costa Rica is, and even if my butt didn’t enjoy it thoroughly, the part of me that remembers did indeed.

  • Panama

    I walked across the single lane wood-paved bridge from Costa Rica and into Panama. There I had an unusually hard time trying to convert my colones into dollars. In fact, business in the black market was so slow that I had to ask around for the man called “El Chino” for over twenty minutes before I again laid eyes on George Washington’s sexy bust.

    My first introduction to Panamá was cooler, but still amazingly humid temperatures and broad flat banana plantations. I thought to myself that this country would be a cakewalk after all the hills I’d already climbed. After all, people managed to cut a canal through it, so how high and how steep could the mountains really be?

    Of course, I was quickly disabused of this fantasy after confronting a series of sharp climbs and descents between Changuinola and Almirante. My map depicted the terrain in the area as all being under 2000 ft, but I’d guess that I made it up to 1900 ft and back down again on more than one occasion. But eventually the road plummeted into Almirante, I found a boat service through the help of a very industrious 11 year old, and jetted on over to Bocas.

    My stay there was made cheap by an indoor campground, and pleasant through the surprise company of my (non) cycling buddy Jeff and a Dutch man on his second trip around the world. With access to a full kitchen I finally got to do some cooking again, and that brought me a lot of joy. I finally scored some snorkeling equipment as well, and floated around staring at fish for several hours. It was quite good.

    And after the road began to call me strongly again, I took a boat back to the mainland to continue on my way. Getting off the boat, another 11 year old offered to show me the way to anywhere I needed to go. I was already on my bicycle heading for the main road, and told him that I was headed for Colombia. He told me that he’d show me the way there. I had trouble believing him, and despite his assurances that he’d show me the way to Colombia, I rode off.

    The road went sharply up and down again all the way to Chiriqui Grande, where I stopped for the night, and then sharply up and up the next day for around 25 miles to the continential divide. And I had thought I’d finally left the 15% climbs behind me in Guatemala… As I climbed higher, the air cooled off and I was treated to waterfalls decorating the hills. The countryside was extremely lush and forested, and was rather pleasant despite the leg-destroying grades.

    After an infinitude of up, I made it to a pass so windy that I had to get off my bike and walk it, caught my first glimpse of the Pacific since Puntarenas, and once I’d walked out of the wind I began a very long invigorating descent back into the lowland heat. That achieved, I found myself in the middle of nowhere. With nothing to do other than ride I pointed my bike toward Panama City and spun down the road until dusk. I found a spot under a bridge, and smelling like a troll, I made it my home for the night.

    My original intent when I went beneath the bridge was to pump some water for drinking, but it was too polluted by agricultural runoff to drink even after going through the filter. So for the second time in my trip I went to bed thirsty (the first being the night before I arrived in Guanajuato, Mexico), and filthy (I only realized after dark that I could have still swam in the water).

    The next day I stared at my map, saw that next populated center of any importance lay 100 miles further up the road. I also realized that I would force myself to ride that distance. So I cursed myself for putting me through such an arduous day yet again, and set out. Tormented by the heat and endless rolling hills, I eventually dispaired ever making it there before dark. At one point, I took off my socks, rolled up my pants and lay down at the side of the road, my mind spread thin by the heat and effort, and uncaring because of my sheer exhaustion. But as I cooled off and my brain left its heat-induced delirium, I regained hope and determination, and pushed that much harder on the pedals. I arrived in Santiago at dusk.

    But not content to let one day of punishing riding stand alone, I did the same thing the second day. The rolling terrain was replaced by a maddening headwind which dogged me for 30 miles. But after those miles were up, the road suddenly turned with the wind, and for the first time that day my speed went faster than 15 mph, and I sat up in my saddle and began to relax.

    The wind, as it turned out, was driving a storm down the road as well. I caught up with the stormfront, got well drenched, rode out the front and lost my tailwind. Each time I got to a town I thought I might go a little further, and in that way I went 95 miles down the road before a flat tire stopped me front going any further. I took a hotel room which fronted the highway, and was backed by a cock-fighting establishment. It was a noisy evening.

    But I was also only 50 miles from Panama City. I took my time riding down the road, realizing I had all day to cover half the distance I made over each of the previous two days, and before I was mentally ready for it, I was within sight of the Bridge of the Americas.

    Now the Panamanian government is nobody’s fool, and they’ve recognized the severe threat that filthy, tired bicycle tourists pose to their national monument. And for that reason (so I was told), I had to hitch across the bridge. This was made easy since the police officer himself flagged down the pickup which carried me across. Seeing as I was already halfway up the bridge before I got pulled over I wasn’t overly happy for the ride.

    I later met some bicycle tourists coming down from Mexico City who were allowed to ride across a day earlier, so it seems that the officer recognized the unique threat I alone posed to the bridge. Those same tourists grabbed the last two spots on a boat leaving for Colombia the next day. I thought that karmickly this was somewhat unfair, but was too tired from the past several days of hard riding to get too upset about it.

    So I set in for a long period of no riding and lots of eating. The manager of the hostel asked me if I’d been punched in the face since the lines under my eyes were so dark and strong, and I took this to mean that my fast-living was catching up with me. There was only one cure that I knew of for this: a giant block of cheese and enough beer to cut through all the fat. I acquired both, took a moment to reflect that I’d just ridden the ridable length of North America, and set to work.

  • Colombia

    The Darien Gap presented me with a difficulty. Here was a stretch of land without any road, but populated with poisonous varieties of any animal you can imagine, infested with all manner of disease and also with people who would be just as likely to shoot me as not. And so starting in Honduras, the contemplation of this physical barrier caused it to burrow into my mind, seperating my trip into everything before the Darien Gap and everything after.

    And the problem of how to cross it was not easily solved. I could hire a tour and march through the Darien, I could take a boat from near Colón to Cartagena, or I could take a flight. Now as you may have guessed already, I am not the adventurous sort, so crossing the Darien by land was out. That left the boat and the plane. At first I was all gung-ho to take the boat, but as I looked into it, the problem of actually getting a boat with a captain who wouldn’t abandon us in the middle of nowhere nor be raging drunk the entire time was greater than I had imagined. And all the reputable boats would be leaving nearly two weeks after my original arrival in Panama City. Since that city shares the same insta-sweating quality as Puntarenas, I was somewhat eager to make onward progress.

    So I took a flight to Cartagena. This had the twin advantages of being faster and cheaper than a boat, and the bonus advantage of heart-stoppingly sexy stewardesses. Being a modern man I normally use the word “flight attendant” when talking about that profession, but these women were so classy in a 1960s sort of way that “stewardess” was clearly what they were. They were also, to my wonderous delight, typical of nearly every Colombian woman I would see. But I digress…

    With me on the flight were a Swiss, a German, and an Australian. We formed a confederacy and took a taxi from the airport to the old town, realizing when we arrived after only a distance while that we’d paid far too much for the ride, so it goes. I joined in on the taxi, because I wasn’t confident that my bicycle would survive the turbulent flight intact, and I had no desire to find that out in the airport (it did, thank god).

    And how to describe Cartagena? The old town is surrounded by a thick and fortified wall, built after the town was razed several times by English pirates (Sir Francis Drake among them), and within this wall is a collection of well-preserved 16th and 17th century Spanish buildings. Outside the wall on three sides is the sea and the forth is a hill with an impressive fort. So in summary, Cartagena is gorgeous. The city is also not insufferably hot, thanks to a continual breeze coming off the sea, and I am glad to have had it as my introduction to Colombia.

    It felt somewhat weird to be on the road again after leaving Cartagena. Everything seemed similar to every other latin country I’d been in, but of course, this is the country with armed revolutionaries in the hills and para-military drug-smuggling kidnapping-for-ransom bad-asses everywhere else. But still the road felt as safe as anywhere, and considerably safer than in some countries I’ve already passed through. I guess either my perception of reality and reality itself were at odds (I certainly won’t discount the possibility at this stage in the journey), or the strong military and police presence everywhere made it feel quite safe.

    In Curumani, I finally picked up a pair of sunglasses. I was tired of feeling like my eyes were being rubbed with sandpaper after a long day of riding, and of riding with one eye closed while I tried to fish out whatever insect decided to kamakazi into my eye most recently. So, I finally have sunglasses again after my last pair broke outside of Guanajuato. ¡Qué bueno! Now if I can only get some pants to replace the ones whose seat was stained black, I’ll won’t feel embarrassed to walk around in public…

    People have started to ask me if I’m from Argentina. I guess here, it’s more likely that a white person on a touring bicycle is from Argentina than from the US, so that’s the logical conclusion. During those times where I take the effort to explain that I’m from the US, they don’t believe me. They don’t speak Spanish in the US, I’m told. I usually respond to this with the equivalent of “well, there it is…”

    Shortly after passing through the town of San Alberto, I began a series of climbs that put my legs through the paces. I would climb and climb, perhaps for a thousand feet, and then descend down nearly all that distance. This repeated itself five times before Bucaramanga, and ending with a final long ascent up to the city itself.

    But before arriving in Bucaramanga, while stopped at the town of Rio Negro to do some exploring, I met two Bucaramangans (Mauricio and Sergio) who were in town to wash Mauricio’s scooter in the river. We struck up a conversation and Mauricio invited me to stay at his place while I was in town. I was incredibly grateful for the invitation, and of course accepted. He gave me his card with the directions, and after we parted ways, it was two hours of hill climbing till I was there. ¡Múy excellente!

    When I arrived in Colombia, I helped the non-Spanish speaking Australian through immigration, but appartently she didn’t like my joke that his purpose in visiting the country was to find a Colombian wife: she gave both of us only 15 days on our visa. So as I spent time in Cartagena and while riding through the country, the days ticked down until at my arrival in Bucaramanga I had only three days left. I needed an extension.

    In the spirit of all countries whose bureaucracies (Germany I’m looking especially at you) I’ve had to deal with, the day I would have taken care of this business was a national holiday and nothing was open. So Mauricio proposed to show me Bucaramanga and the neighboring towns on his scooter. I accepted. We went to a zoo where I saw the largest pigeons I’ve ever seen in my life (they were bigger than chickens), I tried tons of different types of local sweets, saw the colonial town of Giron, and kicked it with his friend Marta. This was the first time I’d ever ridden on a scooter larger than a minibike, and am very pleased with how few times I fell off the back of it (not once!).

    Finally leaving Bucaramanga, I had a breath-taking descent down into a canyon, and a 20 mile climb back out. While descending, I nearly ran front-on into a truck which decided to pass another slower-moving truck and take up my entire lane. But quick thinking and ditching off into the gutter saved me from injury. I only wish I had had a hand free to flip him off…

    The climb itself actually wasn’t horrible, but it just never ended. The energy I had in me before the climb lasted the first 3000ft of climbing, but eventually I found myself weakening, and knew that food was the answer. Unfortunately, I’d failed to pack any while in Bucaramanga, and none was in evidence for the next 5 miles of climbing. When I finally got to it, I downed a few bananas, ate most of a block of hardened sugar locally called “panela”, and continued on my way.

    The clouds closed in as I was riding through coffee fields, and for the first time since the highlands of Guatemala, I found myself needing a sweater. It was so wonderful to feel the nip of cold again, rather than the dissolution of the heat, and I welcomed it smiling (well, at least not grimacing). Still the climb continued above the clouds, until the pass was finally gained near a chicken plantation 6000ft above the town of Pescadero, where I crossed the river and began to climb up, up, up, and up.

    At this point rolling hills and descents led me down over 3000ft from the my maxium altitude and into the colonial town of San Gil. While descending, the rain finally started to hit me with some force, and I made a mental note that this was the 8th day of riding out of 8 in Colombia where I had been rained upon. As it stands, Colombia is set to outpace Alaska, Canada and the Pacific Northwest for percentage of rainy days (100% vs. 60%).

    When I arrived in San Gil, I asked some people where the gringos stay in town, was directed there, and set in. I quickly decided that the soreness in my legs would necessitate a rest day, and even though I’d just had two, I didn’t feel guilty about it at all.

    During that rest day, I wandered around the sharply inclined streets of San Gil, and through its markets and clothing stores all the while hunting for food and pants. I managed to score the perfect pair of pants, and made a potato-spaghetti dish with a tomato based sauce for lunch. The potatoes I found were small and good, and of a variety which I had never encountered before (the Andes being the home of the potato, I expect this to happen with some delightful frequency). Seeing that the goals of any rest day are to stuff oneself with food and allow the muscles to recover their strength, I’d say this one was quite satisfactory.

    From San Gil to Santana one day, and from there to Chiquinquira the next. Both days saw lots of climbing, and as I climbed higher and higher into the thinning air, I felt the lack of oxygen in my legs. But never one to assume that the problem lies within until all other causes have been ruled out, I continually checked my tire pressure, ever-suspicious that my rear tire was slowly and intentionally going flat. Just to spite me. It wasn’t, I was weak, and at 7 m.p.h. I trudged up the hills all day long.

    And as I climbed back into the cold, the stupidity that had possessed my mind in the hot lands began to fade away. To fill the void came the tricks and techniques of cycling I’d learned way back in Alaska, but had forgotten or unlearned through the heat. And even though I rode slowly, I rode at peace. I rode consistently, stopping to photograph the beauty around me, and to feel the cold enter my lungs and caress my face.

    The rain continued, of course. But this time I could wear my rain jacket without fear of over-heating. And my torso kept warm while my legs warmed themselves through their effort. This difference in the manner of warming was pleasing and contributed to my serenity. And after that second day of riding from San Gil, when I arrived in Chiquinquira I was fully happy and had remembered everything of the joy of touring.

    While riding down the streets of Chiquinquira I glimpsed a street party. So I squeezed the brakes, bought some Arepa (similar to American corn bread in texture and taste, but flatter), and headed on over. I asked a lively group of people if I could join them, they said sure, and through the miracle of joviality and beer we became fast friends. I was invited to stay with them (one of the women joked that she had half a bed I could sleep on. Her sister doubted whether I would be able to sleep). The sisters showed me around the town, and to my surprise to the second most magnificent basilica in Colombia (I’m not sure which the first is suposed to be, but I believe that this one deserves its high ranking). And after a night spent in my sleeping bag on a sofa couch (foul temptresses…), I was refreshed and ready to press on.

    Everyone warned me about this major climb between there and Bogotá called Piedra Negra (Black Rock), and so I spent most of the ride apprehensive of the climb. And as I rode I got varying estimates for its grade and length. So I knew it was somewhere between 3 and 7km long, and anywhere up to 15% grade. But while riding along, I came across a group of amateur cyclists out for a day ride, and I joined them for about 20km. They told me concretely that the climb was 6km, and around 8 to 10%. When I finally got to the climb, it turned out they were right. The climb happened, and on the other side was a long descent into the altiplano containing Bogotá.

    This descent put me down to 2600m, or about 8500ft. Since Colombia is so close to the equator, the temperature doesn’t change with the seasons, but only with altitude. At this altitude, the average temperature is in the mid 60s to low 70s, and when there is a good covering of clouds, it feels like mid-November in northern California. In other words, my perfect temperature.

    I ended that day short of Bogotá, in the city of Zipaquira. In Zipaquira is a giant cathedral carved out inside a salt mine, and it is a marvel to behold. I don’t know whether it is the largest cathedral in the world, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it was.

    The next day saw my entrance into Bogotá, and the entrance was the easiest I’ve ever made. Bogotá is an extremely bicycle friendly city, with dedicated bike lanes everywhere, and closed streets on Sundays and holidays for what is called the ciclovia. I had the great fortune to arrive on a holiday when it was in effect, and rode with a thousand other cyclists right into the city center.

    One evening, I fixed a woman’s sleeping bag and was rewarded for my efforts with beer. On the way back from the bar (which played the music videos of all my favorite hits from the 60s to today), five punks with knives mugged me. One of them managed to get his hand into my pocket and take my wallet after I put up a struggle, and then outrun me as I chased after them yelling “policia”. Where are the police at 12:15 in the morning anyway?

    And I was extremely dissatisfied with the mugging. I never felt threatened by the kids who performed it. I could see in the way they brandished the knives that they were more afraid to use them than I was of them using them. And since I paid good money, didn’t I deserve —at the very least— to be scared?

    But no. And like an idiot, I had my debit card in my wallet (the credit card was safely locked up elsewhere). And moreover, the wallet wasn’t just some piece of crap I bought at Macy’s. My dear friend Keyla made it for me, and I loved it a lot. So instead of being scared, I was just dissatisfied and pissed off.

    But I did at least get a story out of it for a little while. But then the bastards took that from me too, as they continued their spree of muggings. My story was hardly interesting when every third person had been mugged as well. It got to the point where another traveller and I started joking about holding a competition as to see who could get mugged the most in a single evening.

    Eventually the fun had to end, though, and I left Bogota to continue on my way (I had a new debit card coming to me in Quito, and I wanted to actually be there to receive it). And leaving Bogota was a 8000ft plummet to cross a stupid river and then another 9,000ft climb to cross over a pass called “La Linea”.

    Near the summit, while taking a cookie break, it started to rain. And it was cold rain. I was pretty upset that it had to rain on my picnic, but I couldn’t dwell on it too long, because rain at 11,000ft is cold. Luckily, at the summit there was a small restaurant which served hot panela with cheese, and that helped to warm me up.

    The descent was freezing, then cold, then comfortable, then warm, then humid and hot. Such is a 6,000ft drop in the tropics. That put me in the city of Armenia, which I had no intention of actually visiting, so I rolled out some miles in scattered showers until encroaching darkness forced me to stop in some small town.

    Playing the “I’ve just been robbed and have no money card”, I got accomodations on the cheap, and plowed those savings into a large position on delicous potato empanadas. That and my usual bag of milk set me for the night, and some shrewd bread purchases provided the early breakfast.

    It was flat, fast riding into Cali where I took a day off to see what was on offer in Colombia’s third city. After that I somehow managed to ride the 90 miles up to Popayan, including a 30 minute break to wait out a hail storm. Arriving in the gloaming, I saw the beauty of the city, and wished I’d taken my break day there instead of in Cali. That night, I saw Transformers on dvd. I don’t remember my childhood games with transformers to match what I saw in the movie. But that was 20 years ago, and maybe my memory fails me…

    Leaving Popayan promised to be a 5000 ft drop into some hot valley, but instead I managed to climb and descend several thousand feet throughout the day. What made it maddening, however, was when a hybrid motorcycle-ice cream cart chased me out of town and followed me for half an hour playing a demented music box medely of Fur Elise and The Entertainer. I started to entertain very violent thoughts. That guy finally got the idea that I wasn’t about to buy his ice cream, and just as the horror of that jingle had nearly faded completely, some other ice cream jockey decided to try his luck. He gave up when I pulled over, covered my ears and started shouting. I ended the day in El Bordo and watched Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves in Spanish on television. It was an early night.

    The next day it was hot, god-awful hot. At one point, while stopped to take a break, it started to rain. But the rain evaporated before it could wet the road. I’d never seen that before. And the sight of it encouraged me to get back on the bike and climb (the temperature drops with altitude).

    And just when I thought that the day would just be stupid boring climbing the whole day, I cleared a saddle point, and holy moses, what a canyon opened up before my eyes. And fields climbed the hills in every direction, provinding a patchwork quilt over the land.

    Owing to the first front tire flat I’d had since the great storm in northern British Columbia, I had to stop short of my target for the day. I was happy I did. I found a military unit guarding a bridge and generally patroling the area for signs of FARC. I asked them if I could camp with them, and they said yes. The people whose land the soldiers were camped on offered me dinner, and inside their cabin they had a cuyeria. A cuyeria is where you raise cuy for eating. I’ll leave it to you to find out what cuy is.

    The next day I climbed and climbed to Pasto, and past Pasto to some truck stop town. It was a day of 40 miles of climbing, and my legs felt dead afterward. So I drank double milk rations. The next morning I finally made it to Ipiales with 16,000 pesos to my name (around $9US), traded it for $8US (thieving money changers), and crossed into Ecuador.

    I survived Colombia, and highly recommend that you give it a try as well.

  • Ecuador

    I spent a while at the Colombia-Ecuador border chatting it up with the money changers before I left. They were a good source of information on the road ahead, and were curious about my trip on a person-to-person level, rather than the series of rapid-fire questions level. God knows I love to chit-chat, and it was a good 30 minutes of shooting the breeze between getting my exit stamp and crossing the small bridge to Ecuadorian immigrations.

    In light of my experience with Colombian immigrations, I decided that joking was not in order, so I listed my profession on the immigration form as the relatively tame “fighting-cock breeder”, rather than the usual “international jewel thief” or “organ trafficker”. Apparently, “fighting-cock breeder” is a high-demand profession here, as I was granted a 90 day visa. And so after enjoying a 35 cent cup of coffee, I started the climb up to Tulcán.

    And I immediately thought that the drivers here were all nuts! The northbound traffic had completely blocked the southbound lane, and so I had to ride against speeding traffic all the way to the outskirts of town. There I realized that there was an entirely different road for southbound traffic, and it was I who was riding in the wrong direction.

    In town I didn’t see anything to compel me to stop, and so found the road south and took it. While still in town, I got a flat rear tire (my second flat in South America). I commandeered a section of the sidewalk and changed it. And then rode on.

    Leaving town, there was a 1000ft or more climb to deal with, with views of nearby volcanoes and dark clouds speeding towards me. The clouds never caught up, thank god, because at my altitude that would have been some really cold rain. It turned out that the climb was just up to a pass, because I descended towards a valley-like area after a bit and ended my first day in Ecuador with another flat rear tire as I rolled into the town of San Gabriel.

    There I took a $3 room at the local residencias and went on a $10 shopping spree at the local supermarket. Considering a bag of milk only cost 60 cents, and a one lbs. bag of quinoa (!) cost a dollar, you can imagine just how much food I bought. I spent the rest of the evening stuffing most of it into my face and then feeling pretty sick after imbibing triple milk rations.

    What remained of the food after my gluttonous frenzy fueled me for the next day down, down, down to the Chota valley and to a town of purely African descendants (I’d never encountered any sizeable African population at this altitude before, so I was curious about how it came to be there, but not curious enough to stop and ask). The Chota valley was warm and dry, and since I still had a good amount of food left, I saw no reason to stop as I rode through it, except to occasionally convert food to fuel. The road down, however, is worth special mention because as I turned a corner leaving San Gabriel, I saw my first giant snow covered volcano. That stayed in sight as the road followed the edge of a canyon which as far as I could tell was bottomless (I believe that it is bottomless). While still high up in my descent, farms descended down the hills to the event horizon of the canyon, and I found them all to be beautiful. Down lower, it was too arid for that…

    After a while of flat or rolling riding through the Chota valley, I saw a road switch-back up the hill, and a little later, realized that it was my road. So I went into the lower gears for a while, and summited next to a fragrant landfill, and finally descended into the town of Ibarra (birthplace of the last great Inca resistance leader, I think). I rode through Ibarra up and along the hump of the local volcano, all the while enticed, but not seduced, by signs for delicious grilled guinea pig. The road took me through a sort of low point between three large volcanoes, past a lake which looked like Lago de Atitlan, Jr. and finally up, up, up and then down, down, down to the town of Cayambe. There I quit for the day, and wandered around town while Ecuadorian teenage girls giggled and cast furtive glances my way as I walked past. After a week of hard riding without a shower, I can’t imagine I looked or smelled particularly good, but who knows.

    I woke up the next morning to rain. Dang it. I took longer than usual getting ready hoping it would stop, but it didn’t. And so I headed down out of town freezing until I surrendered bit by bit, and put on my cold weather gear. I guess I was pretty high up after all…

    And after a shorter while than I expected, I saw a town which seemed somewhat out of place, and realized that I’d just crossed the equator. So I went over to the monument, took a couple of pictures, and got back on the bike. I’d just ridden for a year, down 70 degrees of latitude and east 70 degrees as well. Somehow what that meant failed to impress itself upon me at the monument. Maybe it was the rain…

    The rain did stop eventually, and I began the long slow climb (my legs were pretty dead after riding from Bogotá to Quito with just one rest day and several bucket loads of climbing, so when I say slow, I really mean “slooooow”). Eventually I made it, and did what I always do when coming into a city.

    After over two weeks of waiting for my tires to clear customs, and also having three different conflicting responses as to the status of my package from UPS depending on whether I called from Quito, my mom from the US, or the tire company called from wherever they are, I decided to just go down to UPS and see if some physical presence could produce the package.

    Sure enough it was there, and by some crazy coincidence UPS had only received it from customs earlier that very same day…

    My time in Quito was spent waiting around for the package, and I regret that. The next time I’ve got an unknown wait for something to come, I’m just going to take off exploring via the bus, and come back when I know the package is ready for me to liberate it. Right now I’m pretty pissed off at UPS for the way they’ve handled things, but at least they didn’t charge me any customs duties. Actually, I think they meant to, but in a moment of confusion, I took the package and ran off.

    So I finally got to get back on the road, and after an eternity riding south of Quito, finally left its orbit and made it out into the country. And into the rain. My legs began to complain, I got soaking wet, and said “Nuts to this, I’m calling it a day!”. So I stopped at the junction town of Aloág and took shelter. The rain continued to pour through the night, and the clouds were there thick as ever the next morning. Normally this wouldn’t bother me overly much, but they completely obscured my view of several giant snow covered volcanoes. Their threat of rain on this day never produced more than a drizzle, and so I stopped short again in the city of Latacunga, hoping for a view of the volcanoes the next day.

    No such luck. Thick clouds again hung low in the sky and obscured my view of Chimborazo (a 20,700 ft peak) completely. The only way I could tell I was near it were the signs pointing in its presumed direction, and the absolutely breathless altitude I had to climb to (12,000 ft) to get to the city of Riobamba.

    Again I hoped for a view of Chimborazo the next morning, and again clouds completely covered the sky. My climbing for that day topped out somewhere past the indigenous town of Cajabamba (“bamba” is qichwa for valley, so whenever I see a town on the map with “bamba” in its name, I know I’m in for more climbing). And although I was denied a view of every major peak in Ecuador except Cayambe, I did get to see something I wasn’t really expecting to see at all —quinoa being cultivated in the fields. I’m a pretty big nut for gardening when I have access to land, so seeing quinoa triggered an euphoric geek response that made the rest of the day fly by.

    Well, relatively. First I had to descend through some dense fog into the town of Alausí. But with that accomplished I took a contemplative stroll around the town, reflecting on quinoa and other indigenous crops in the new world. I also reflected on the fact that I haven’t seen a llama in the fields yet, and am getting pretty impatient to see one.

    From Alausí the road turned for the worse, and I was sliding over loose rocks uphill to the town of Cunchi where the good pavement finally returned. At a restaurant just outside town, I met a guy named Nacho who used to live in New Jersey. He was originally from Ecuador, but his parents live in New Jersey now. We talked about some of the differences between Ecuador and the US, and he was grateful for the opportunity to speak English with someone (my Spanish is such that it’s usually just easier to speak in Spanish).

    The road from Chanchi climbed through the fog. As it continued to climb, the fog began to lift and rain began to fall. It started to fall harder and harder until on every slight descent the drops of rain felt sharp in my eyes. In these conditions I continued to climb and descend to the junction town of Zhud. Beyond there the rain doubled its force, and the fog returned. The road became the worst I’ve seen in a long time (I find bad pavement to be worse than bad dirt, and this road was perhaps the best proof of that).

    Finally as darkness was coming on, I pulled into the town of Tambo, frozen cold and starving, and took a $4 room at the local residencias (“Residencia” is the magic word for dirt cheap accomodations in Ecuador). After stuffing my face with some bread and milk I found, I crawled into my sleeping back and passed out shivering. But for all that, my spirits were incredibly high that day. The day before I was overwhelmed by a sense of lonliness, the first which I’d experienced in several months. And so the swing in my mood by the next morning was unexpected and very welcome. I didn’t mind the dirt I had to ride on, I loved talking with Nacho, and the road to Zhud was downright pleasant to ride on. It was only after Zhud when altitude caused the trees to disappear from the land, oxygen from the air, and strength from my legs that I started to feel desperate and cold.

    On the next morning, I was greeted with a cold headwind and a climb back up to 12,000ft. Devoid of oxygen and full of agony, I slowly climbed over the pass. Finally at the top I was saved by a 3000ft descent which banished the cold wind and brought oxygen back to my legs and lungs. It did nothing to relieve the soreness in my legs, however. And so, I followed a rolling road the remaining 20 miles into Cuenca, and decided it was time to take a day off.

    After my day off in Cuenca, I orienteered my way out of town and onto the road leading south. The road led through more pastoral valleys with pine and eucalyptus climbing the hills. In one town, I saw a procession of faithful carrying a statue of the virgin Mary complete with marching music. Overall, the road was nearly flat and the weather was pleasant and the miles rolled under my tires.

    I eventually came to an intersection which led on the one hand over another 12,000ft pass from my current altitude of around 8500ft and up and down to Loja, and on the other hand to a 8500ft descent to the coast. On a whim, I decided to burn 8500ft of hard earned elevation and see what the Ecuadorian coast had to offer.

    Well, I never quite saw the coast, but here’s how the climate changed as I descended: lush grass and cool air, to warmer air, to scrub land, to wind-swept badland, to scrub land, to tropical, to really humid and more densely tropical. The road didn’t descend the whole time; no road in Latin America can be that kind. And the wind-swept part of the road was more wind-blasted-in-my-face-so-I-had-to-pedal-to-descend-a-five-degree-slope. Also the road sucked and I had to be ever vigilant for potholes.

    But I made it down to the dirty town of Pasaje after 95 miles of riding, found a cheap hotel and a cheap chinese restaurant and set to work relaxing for the night. While in my room, deciding what I was going to do for the day, I realized that I was really close to the Peruvian border. Before taking the route to the coast, I was still about four days off, but suddenly, I found myself with 45 miles of Peru. So I set out to find the exchange rate, read up on the border crossing and generally inform myself as to the situation I would soon encounter.

    Well, the news wasn’t good. My guidebook repeatedly said that this crossing was the most dangerous of all the crossings into Peru from Ecuador, and that I would surely be a victim of some foul crime. But what the guidebook didn’t account for was that I was stinky, uncaring, and most importantly: I had a bicycle.

    And so the next morning, I left Pasaje through banana plantations and drizzle. The drizzle stopped, the plantations stopped, and the tropical foliage became more scrub-like as I went south until at the border town it was more savanna than forest.

    I passed immigrations, and by the time I stopped to ask someone where the office was, I was informed it was two and a half miles back the way I came. Dang it! I turned around, trudged the two and a half miles, got my exit stamp, turned around again and trudged the two and a half miles by to where I had to turn around the first time. From there it was another half mile to the border bridge, through street stalls and a mass of human traffic and into Peru.

  • Northern Peru

    On other side of the border bridge were people selling cheap Ecuadorian gas, and hundreds of mototaxis. I made my way to Peruvian immigrations and fended off money changers (I had no intention of surrendering my American dollars, which are used for the currency of Ecuador). The immigration officer asked me how many days I wanted and I told him at least 60. He gave me 120. This increased my belief that the Colombian immigrations officer had no sense of humor, and punished my hilarious jokes with 15 days way back when…

    A few miles south of immigrations, the land turned ever more dry, and instead of rivers flowing with polluted water as I found in Ecuador, these rivers didn’t flow with anything at all. Eventually I made it to the town of Tumbes, withdrew of nuevos soles from the ATM, and used them to get some cheap lodging. And so ended my first day in Peru…

    Well, nearly. In the evening, while taking in some of the local sights, I was approached by a desperate Austrian man, whose trusting nature had allowed a taxi driver to drive away with his luggage still in the vehicle. He asked me for some money, and when I only gave him the dollar (3 soles) I had on me, he critized me for not giving him more. What the hell? That’s the last time I ever admit to speaking German at night in Peru…

    The next morning I made my way south, to the costal resorts, and then costal desert to be found south of Tumbes. On my way I stopped to lend the use of my bike pump to a motorcyclist who had a flat, and his graciousness made me feel partially better about my charitable nature. Continuing on, I became increasingly bored by the landscape, and nearly fell asleep off my bike more than once.

    So it was a great change of pace to meet a couple of Argentine cyclists on their two year global tour. After a bit of chatting, their continued north as I continued south.

    And around the next bend began the headwinds. Why didn’t they tell me about them? As I went further south the winds built and built, and I found myself infuriated and nearly defeated. I ended the day near an oil derrick, about 75 miles south of where I started the day, too tired to be angry and too exhausted to cry. I lay with my head out of my tent staring up at the unfamiliar southern constellations for a while until the full moon outshone them all, and then slid back in and fell alseep.

    The next day the winds returned, and I must have competely zoned out the entire time. Because after several hours of riding through featureless desert, with the occasional dog chase and ever-present headwind, I found myself in an irrigated valley near Sullana. I made my way to that city, got a room, got some food, and washed the dirt and cooking fuel off my hands. I’d ridden 85 miles, but now have barely any memory of it at all. Oh, while brushing my teeth on the side of the road, I accidentally spit toothpaste on my shoe. I laughed at that.

    As I was preparing myself for the desert the next day, I decided it was time for a break. I pushed on 25 miles to Piura, arriving at 10:00am and set in for the day. The desert could wait another day.

    In the morning before I set out to tackle the desert, I brewed myself my first batch of coca tea and loaded it up with sugar. I figured with the combination of cocainoids and sucrose I’d fly right down the desert and possibly —just possibly— cross the entire thing in one day.

    As it turned out, no such luck. The now-familiar headwind was in top form with nothing at all in the endless expanse to stop it, and it pushed me constantly. I still managed to roll out a cool 85 miles that day, and I can’t decide if I should credit the coca for that result; my careful two sandwiches and a banana every 25 miles regimen; or the fact that I devoted eight straight hours to riding that distance.

    In any event, I ended in the middle of nowhere, hidden from the highway behind a thorn tree-covered dune. I cooked up some oat/quinoa porridge, shoveled it into my mouth, and stared out across the dunes as the sky slowly lost its light. The wind howled throughout the night, but in my tent I was warm and secure.

    The next morning I cooked up more porridge, demolished a roll of ritz cracker imitations, produced some food for the local fly population and set off. The wind was already strong. But after around 10 miles the land started to green and I saw huts along the road in increasing density. Clearly I was near some sort of population center. Sure enough another 10 miles down the road I came to a town and to the end of the depopulated expanse of the Sechura desert.

    In Chiclayo, I went into a diner and saw couple with a half finished plate of thick-cut french fries. Not knowing it was half-finished, and thinking that it was just delivered to their table, I ordered one for myself. What came out can best be described as a moutain of french fries. I did my best to eat them all, but eventually the grease and salt started to give me a headache, and I went from delicious feasting to wincing with every bite. At that point I threw in the napkin and admited defeat.

    The next morning I rode through a stretch of desert even more featureless than that which I’d just spent two days in. Flat sand forever. Well, and the occaisional sign saying that this was a military testing zone and that there were live explosives, so don’t enter. I took them at their word.

    But eventually hills started to rise off on the eastern side of the road, and became larger and more sublime as I continued southwards. And so I spent half my time watching the road for potholes and the other half watching the hills grow larger and closer. I would choose a hill on the horizon and guess how far away it was, and then perhaps 45 minutes later, I would discover that my guess wasn’t even close. In this way, I was able to cope with the wind and desolation all the way to the beach town of Pacasmayo, where after some hard negotiation and playing one hotel off the other, I got a room for $4. The management wasn’t very friendly with me after that, but I wasn’t about to pay more for a cold shower (which I didn’t take) and a bed which I never slept on (I prefered the floor).

    The following morning I got up very early, and mentally prepared myself for riding through the thieves nest of Paiján. I first heard about this town in Colombia from a pair of Spanish cyclists travelling north, and its reputation grew in my mind to such a point that I was sure that I’d be robbed naked and blind shortly after passing through.

    After thirty miles in the desert, I came to the town limits. I set my body to maximum adrenaline rush, and pushed on the pedals so hard it felt like angry dwarves were kicking my shins with each rotation. I made it through town without issue. But everyone had, the real action took place in the sugarcane fields on the other side of town when the thieves would supposedly come in their mototaxis and attack. The dwarves put on steel-toed boots and I continued on to the next town five miles down the road. Safe. I still raced through that town and to the next one. Safe. And then into the desert again. Safe. Finally 15 miles down the road, I relaxed a bit and let my tunnel vision expand back to normal.

    The rest of the ride to Trujillo was spent thanking god and cursing the wind, and in Trujillo I called up Lucho. He met me, and took me into his home for a few days of chillaxin’ in the first cyclist friendly environment I’d been in for ages. What a perfect way to take some time off!

  • Central Peru

    The road south of Trujillo proceeded in the same manner as the road north. That is, strong headwinds and endless dunes. A mixture of dunes and rocks, and larger rocks, and then verdant irrigated valleys. The dessicated trees found further north had all disappeared.

    And the unexpected but entirely welcome kindness of Peruvians continued south. My second day out of Trujillo, after several hours of battling a wind that slowed me to 5 mph on flat ground, I pulled off to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. There I met the owner, Clemente, and he fed me, gave me a bed for the night, and we had a wonderful conversation. Before meeting Clemente, I was prepared to nominate this day as one of the worst days of riding on the entire trip, but after meeting him, I was prepared to nominate it as one of the best. If anyone is foolish enough to take the costal route after everything I’ve written in discouragement, km 348 will be an oasis.

    And again a couple of days later, while in a restaurant, a family (the Cubras family) invited me to their table to talk with them. I gladly accepted, of course, since talking is one of my favorite activities. And when lunch was all over, they insisted on paying for my meal. And I’ve heard that Peruvians are unfriendly!!

    Sure they loudly observe that I am a gringo much more frequently than the Colombians (never) or Ecuadorians (maybe twice), but the hospitality I’ve experienced has rivaled that of the Colombians, and greatly surpassed that of the Ecuadorians. Maybe I’ve just been lucky… Who knows.

    At any rate, without wind I can manage around 80 to 90 miles a day. With this wind, I’ve been lucky to achieve 60. The race down the coast is nothing at all like I’d hoped it would be.

    Leaving Chancay I ran into a dutch cyclist whom I’d first encountered in Stewart, British Columbia, and then again in Bodega Bay, California. We road together for a while and caught up on everything that had happened in the intervening 8,500 miles. Before I met him, I’d suspected that my bike was slowly seizing up on me and that I couldn’t be going as fast as I had a year ago. But riding with him, I kept pace and that relieved me greatly.

    On the way in to Lima, I saw the opportunity to tuck in behind a truck and draft it for a long while. I took that opportunity and cruised into town for a while at an effortless 25 mph. Eventually it got stuck in traffic, and I darted out from behind it and into the hellish maw of hundreds of competing collectivos on the Panamericana Sur. I’d long since learned that the way to deal with latin traffic is never to yield ground, and to have absolute faith in your ability to survive. And by the continued grace of God, I found myself safe, but also having overshot the road I wanted to take by several miles. I cut through Chinatown (not too different from the ones we have in California), eventually found the road I wanted, and managed to piss off several hundred more collectivo drivers to my destination. So, add Lima to the list of latin capital cities I’ve ridden through (every one but Mexico City, which I bussed to).

    I spent an unexpected rest day in Lima when I woke up with a very sore Achille’s heel. The day was spent doing the usual: eating. The next day, the pain was still there, but I didn’t feel like spending any more time waiting around to see if it would go away. So I spent the day with one foot pointed downward the entire time, and the other foot doing performing most of the labor. That technique actually worked out very well, and I managed to cover 90 miles.

    While in the middle of a day dream about all the peanut butter I would be eating when I finally arrived in Cuzco to meet my parents (the reason I’ve been hurrying since Quito — to meet them on time), two Swiss cyclists pulled up next to me. After a moment of confusion as to which language we all spoke best, we settled on High German, introduced ourselves, and decided to ride together for a while.

    This was great news for me, since I’d been mostly alone the entire trip and was getting pretty lonely for company. And the fact that I’d have to remember a language which I hadn’t needed to speak in over six years was no problem at all in forging a bond of international friendship. We rode together all the way to Cuzco.

    So, leaving Lima we rode 90 miles, the next day we rode 100. I started to worry that if this was their pace, I would be in for some serious hurting later on down the road. But they had the same fears, and the following day we only rode the sixty featureless miles to a small village whose name I can’t remember. I do remember they didn’t have water or power until well after dark, and they did have an unusually large number of roaming dogs. But nothing else.

    We cut the pace back even further the next day, because 30 miles from that nameless hamlet was Nazca, and we all had a hankering to see the lines. In the area where the lines are, some enterprising Peruvians decided to build a viewing tower, and we had the option to climb it for 35 cents to have an oblique look at some of the lines. So we did, and I managed to get a reasonable picture of a giant bean with even larger hands. We quickly got down from the tower when a busload of German tourists decided that the capacity limits didn’t apply to them, and I felt that the structural integrity of the tower was at risk.

    At Nazca we decided that it was a very good idea to cram as many calories into our bodies as possible, for the next day began a 11,500ft climb. And here I need to give the Peruvian road engineers a lot of credit: whereas in some countries I’ve been through, the road would take the steepest path up the hill that pavement would stick to, the Peruvians never made the road steeper than 4 or 5 percent, except when it was obvious that there was no other option.

    Anyhow, we managed 35 miles of climbing the first day, and slept under a clear sky at 10,000ft. The air was cool, but not cold, and still breathably thick. I remember this night in particular, because it was when I decided that my habit of brewing tea needed to be upgraded from habit to institution. So every evening, morning, and lunch break (Mittagspause), I’d make either herbal or coca tea. It’s nice to feel civilized every once and a while, and even though my face and hands were black with dirt, and I stank so bad that female animals would flee and males would make their challenges, I still felt like I belonged to an ordered world. Civilized.

    Leaving camp the following morning, I saw a trail which I felt would save me considerable time and effort over taking the regular highway. Of course, it cost me both. The trail eventually met up with the main highway, and I quickly put that whole ordeal behind me. The road continued up and up to the pampas (rolling plain in English, perhaps). We had our lunch, and after a little while finally reached the pass. There followed 3,000ft of screaming descent, and then more climbing and descending to the village of Puquio.

    The locals in Puquio seemed to be in the middle of satisfying a village-wide curiosity about how bad they could make a road before it became unpassable. They succeeded in that task as I pedaled up a particularly steep, potholed, and sandy section. I started to fall backwards off the bike, and only quick acting saved me from severe testicle injury.

    Leaving Puquio, we noticed signs on the highway saying not to destroy it or take pieces from it, and collectively wished that those signs were posted on the streets of the town as well. But the folks this side of town obeyed the signs, and the highway was in great shape. We climbed and climbed and climbed. After a while, I noticed snow in the shadows and I started to see more and more alpacas munching away on the hills. The road finally leveled out at 15,000ft.

    We rode hoping to come to some sort of pass before nightfall, because we knew that the air 15,000ft would be bitter cold after the sun went down. But instead of the pass, we encountered hail. So we rode as fast as our lungs would allow us (not fast), and by 4:30 we managed to ride out of the storm and into a broad plain of dejecta from an extinct volcano. We made camp, quickly set up our tents and cooked dinner, and ate as fast as we could.

    The sun went down, the temperature got down to around 15 degrees, and I shivered in my once-upon-a-time 20 degree bag with all my clothes on. When the sun finally rose, I thanked God for my survival, beat the frost off my tent, and laid it out to melt. All my water had frozen solid inside the bottles, and so was useless for cooking breakfast. Luckily my Swiss friends were more experienced with the cold, and had enough liquid water to pour into a pot to cook oats.

    We spent nearly the entire day on the broad plain above 13,000ft and had to climb to over 15,000ft several times before, glory of glories, the ground opened up and we were met with a 3,500ft descent off the cold plateau and down into a wonderfully warm river valley. We spent the night in a small town and bought six pounds of mandarin oranges with some of the highest seed counts I’ve ever seen.

    Anticipating a 70 mile gentle downhill along the river to the city of Abancay, we brought nothing else with us in the way of food but those oranges. And for the majority of the distance, say 55 miles, it was exactly that: a gentle downhill along the river. But oh god, those last 15 miles of uphill without any real food in my stomach were absolutely brutal. My two Swiss companions cheated by clinging on to the back of a slow moving truck. But I was more principled and less talented at it than they were, and chose to ride the entire thing. When the wind was at my back, I sweat incredibly, and the biting insects swarmed my eyes and nose. When the wind was in my face, the insects blew away and I crawled upward.

    We finally got into town, regrouped, demolished a local Chinese restaurant, rested, and then demolished a pizza parlor. On the map Abancay is tantalizingly close to Cuzco, but in reality it is 6,000ft climb, 6,700ft descent, and another 5000ft climb before the city limits. This took two days, and my first two flat tires since leaving Quito. But after all of it, I rolled into town, found my way to my parent’s hotel (a day late), and was greeted with a hot shower, hugs, and 8lbs of peanut butter.

    The next evening, I met up with my Swiss friends again, and with them, we went to a pizza parlor known for its giant portions. We asked the waiter to show us the pans for the various sizes of pizza we could have, and against his advice, ordered a pizza “large enough for 15 people”. When it finally came out, the three cyclists in our group burned through it, leaving my parents (and us) still hungry for more. We ordered a “family sized” pizza, and did the same to it. We finally left, but in my heart and stomach, I knew I still had space for a medium pizza…

    I spent the following three and a half weeks variously honing my flirtation skills and travelling with my parents. Two weeks into my rest I developed a new form of sickness where my throat got so dry it would bleed when I woke up in the morning. So it was with a three and a half week break from the bike, plus an illness that I greeted my friend Travis.

    I wasn’t about to let a little thing like a bleeding throat stop me from riding with one of my good college buddies, so shortly after he arrived we partnered up with two new Swiss and one French cyclist and made for Puno. I rode like I remembered being able the first day, but my apetite was nowhere to be seen. The second day, my apetite was still depressed from my illness and my carbohydrate debt was mounting. I went even slower.

    During that second day, we took a break at a hotsprings to take in the rejuvenating waters. I had high hopes for their curative powers while riding toward them, but the color of the water and the presence of testicle-exfoliating men at the other end of our pool quickly diminished those hopes. I rode away from the springs uncured.

    The next day we finally made it to the Altiplano, which ordinarily would mean luxury cruising all the way to Lake Titicaca, but my weakness continued to piss me off and, embarrassingly, the group had to wait for me several times. We ended that day in Juliaca, and through some shrewd negotiating on the part of the Swiss, we ended up with two beds for five people, and having to pay for hot showers. But it only cost the bedless (myself included among them) five soles, so I view it as a win.

    Finally after Juliaca the group parted ways. Travis and I arrived in Puno, and set about devouring the best pizzas the city had to offer. Machu Pizza was a particularly good example. Travis also toured the floating islands, while I hunted down mini-bananas and washed my underpants.

    The day after Puno, we rode along Titicaca to the town of Pomata. The ride was nearly uneventful, until we rode through a patch of freshly laid tar, and were nearly completely covered. This was quite inconvenient for us, and Travis got pretty well pissed off about it. As I write this, I still have tar on my hands (the damn stuff just doesn’t come off!).

    Pomata was a nothing town, and had I known what it would be like, I would have stopped well short at Juli. But we had no idea, so we waited in the center for well over three hours until either the owner of one hotel returned to rent us a room, or the owner of the pharmacy across the way decided that he would rent one of his rooms to us. When the owner of the first place hadn’t still come back by 7:00pm, the pharmacy owner finally rented us a room at five soles a bed. That would have been an excellent deal, if the toilet weren’t so disgusting that I would have prefered to crap on the ground.

    The next morning, planning to go only the short distance to Copacobana, Bolivia, we woke up slowly, took our time cooking breakfast and rolled out the final 20 miles to the border. Leaving Peru was no trouble at all, and so ended two months in a country that continually baffled me, but that I loved nonetheless.

  • Bolivia

    It wouldn’t be the third world if getting into the Bolivia wasn’t a bureaucratic disaster. We knew that Bolivia had just expelled the US ambassador for some imagined slight, and we knew that since Homeland Security was created various countries have started imposing “reciprocity fees” on US travellers to the tune of $130. We were prepared for all of this.

    Of course when we went to immigrations, the reciprocity fee had jumped up to $135. No problem, we had some extra cash. But oh wait, they only had one visa left! Well dang, it looks like we’d have to wait until somebody’s cousin arrived from Copacabana with more visa stickers. And in the mean time, we’d have to fill out some forms, copy our passports and our yellow fever vaccination cards.

    Well, I had my vaccination card. Travis didn’t though. So rather than refuse entry to somebody for being a potential disease vector, we just had to pay a seven dollar bribe. Good ol’ Latin America!

    Eventually the guy arrived with additional stickers, we got several pieces of paper stamped several times, and we were on our way!

    Leaving Copacabana was an exercise in breathlessness. I don’t really know why, but for some reason, both Travis and I had a lot of trouble with the eight mile climb that started the day. Maybe it was the altitude, but probably it was just some old-fashioned early morning ass-dragging. When we finally made it to the summit, however, all the huffing and puffing paid off several-fold with a magnificent and continually improving view of the 21,000ft peaks to the north of La Paz.

    However, all of that climbing had to be undone because before we could get to La Paz, we had to descend back down to Lake Titicaca to cross the Taquina Straight on a dilapidated wooden car ferry. While crossing, we witnessed several of these motorized rafts ferrying buses and I secretly hoped to witness one rock right over the edge and into the water. No such luck.

    Anyway, on the other side of straight, the road continued gently up and down for a while along the lake. We finally broke away from the shore with a roaring tailwind, and all time estimates about reaching La Paz (95 miles from Copacabana) were enthusiastically moved forward. But the dark clouds in the distant background became dark clouds in the near background. And all of a sudden our wonderful tailwind completely reversed direction and it started to hail on us hard. Our hands froze, our feet froze, and our lips were split by pummeling hail. But worst of all, with this headwind we’d be arriving in La Paz just after the sun set.

    What else could we do but go on? We pushed and pushed and finally outrode the wind and hail. But the onset of evening brought the cold, and our wet feet lost feeling and our wet hands stung ferociously. But still there was no stopping. We had just entered El Alto, a suburb of La Paz with all the character of a typical third-world slum. So we pushed on, dodging buses and taxis and slowly climbing upward into colder and colder weather.

    Finally just at the edge of darkness we crested the lip of the canyon where La Paz sits, and began our descent into the main city. My night vision isn’t very good at all, so this was more of an adventure than it should have been. I spent the entire descent alternating between praying not to hit a pothole and cursing the stinging pain in my freezing hands. At one point my boot flew off my bike and had to be retrieved, but miraculously nothing else happened and we found ourselves in front of the micro-brewery that we intended to call our home in La Paz.

    We got couple beds in the dorm, took out my gasoline stove and boiled some water for tea. After a while I started to regain feeling in my feet, with none of the burning pain that I expected, and too tired to do anything else, we watched a romantic comedy with an Irish girl and a Belgian guy and then went to bed. Reflecting upon the movie later, I told Travis that I think I would have preferred being hit in the face with hail some more to watching the movie again.

    Now we had a problem, and it was a problem which I had never encountered before on this trip: time. Travis had to leave in eight days, and we still had to somehow ride from La Paz to Uyuni, then onward to Potosi and Sucre. From Sucre it just might be possible for Travis to catch a plane to Santa Cruz, where he would then catch another flight back to the world of all-you-can-drink soda and all-you-can-eat buffets… It almost doesn’t sound real when I write that…

    So what to do? We finally realized that the unthinkable would have to be done, and we started looking into buses to Uyuni. We found one, bought the tickets and paid the surcharge for our bikes. But about five minutes before the bus was scheduled to leave, intestinal trouble on Travis’ part made a 12 hour overnight bus ride sound like a very bad idea. Well, dang…

    I talked to the ladies behind the counter — well, more like pleaded with — about changing our tickets for the next day, and by the grace of god or my superior flirting abilities we were able to make the change without charge. So, seven days left.

    The next evening neither of us had any worrying issues, so we boarded the bus and set in for a sleepless and nausea-inducing 12 hour bus ride. And it was both: sleepless and nausea-inducing. Thank god that the nausea only overwhelmed us after we got off the bus, and secretly thank god that it only overwhelmed Travis. But clearly he couldn’t ride that day, and I too felt less than perfect after a night of internal organ reorganizing roads sitting in a bus seat too small for someone two-thirds my height. So, one more day down.

    But all was not lost. We met a German cyclist named Jochen, who beside from his tautonic social grace also delighted up with his knowledge of a really excellent pizza restaurant. We went there, found the pizza to be as good as anything in the United States, and were restored. Now I don’t normally endorse anything on this site, but if you are in Bolivia, or even near Bolivia, you owe it to yourself to go to Uyuni and eat at Minuteman Pizza. The owner, Chris, is a Bostonian expat and a hell of a chef.

    So back to the riding. Jochen, Travis and I set out the next morning along the very bumpy road to Colchani. Travis had to turn back and find his glasses; he had left them in some shop in town. But Jochen and I pressed on to Colchani along sand-filled washboard roads and trails — at 7 mph. This was no good, so we headed directly for the Salar, reasoning that the salt flats would be much quicker to ride on.

    This was wrong. It turns out that the area where we entered the salt was soft and my 35mm tires sunk right in. But rather than admit defeat and head back to the trails right away, I walked my bike along the salt hoping for it to firm up. And in this way my speed went from 7 mph to 3. And Travis arrived in Colchani before us, worried about where we were.

    We eventually found the proper entrance onto the salt, rattled down onto it, and our speed went from 7 to 10mph. Not what we’d expected at all. We were led to believe that the salt was smooth and the ride would basically be a rocket-powered blast across the vast whiteness. Well, after a while the salt smoothed out a bit, and when we weren’t dodging holes in the salt, our speed bumped up to 12 or 13 mph. Now that’s fast!

    Travis and I rode for a while guessing which of the purple-ish masses we saw in the distance would be the island we were headed for (Jochen was somewhere fading in the distance behind us). We eventually saw one with lightly colored patterns we took to be buildings, and assumed that would be our island.

    Of course, as we neared it, the patterns rose higher and we realized that what we were looking at must be a giant snow-covered mountain. And then we realized that some of the other islands we saw were probably equally large and distant. So we turned our attention to what I believed was a flying saucer, and Travis was convinced was the Loch Ness monster and headed for that. We were gettting pretty tired and hungry, and since that looked only a mile or so distant from us, we decided that we’d stop when we reached it.

    20 miles later we did reach it, and it turned out to be the island we were headed for the whole day. Oh, when I say “island”, I mean hill sticking out of the salt flat. There wasn’t any water surrounding it at all. So at the island, we investigated some rumors we’d heard about a refuge for cyclists, and were lead to this luxury cabin with a giant west-facing window and wonderful warmth. And when I say “luxury” I refer to the mattresses, blankets and table inside it. But considering we were expecting a drafty shack or nothing at all, this was great. And it stayed warm the whole night!

    So the next morning we rode back to the shore of the salt flats, across the bumpy road to Uyuni and back to Minuteman Pizza. While riding to shore, nothing ever seemed to get closer, even though we now had a tailwind and were cruising at 20mph. But suddenly after three hours of making no visible progress, we were at the salt hotel, and then back on the shore. Absolutely weird how it’s impossible to judge size or distance on the Salar and how one can only assume they’ve made progress through the progression of time and not by any physical feature of the landscape.

    The next morning, despite several people telling us how bad the road to Potosi was, and the evidence of a few cyclists who gave up riding on it and took the bus, we started out on the road to Potosi. And it truely was horrible. The sandy patches sucked out all our momentum, often causing us to get off the bikes and walk, and the washboard felt like being kicked in the butthole twice a second the entire day.

    But after fifty miles, and sore everything we arrived in the small town of Tica Tica, and called it quits for the day. I entertained Travis with tales of a beetle that lives in thatched roofs (like ours) and whose bite causes Chagas disease and then I fell into a deep and peaceful sleep. The next day was just as bad, and same with the following day to Potosi. The entire distance from Uyuni to Potosi saw an average speed of 6 mph. Six. That’s a trip record. Even in Guatemala and Costa Rica I never went that slow.

    But anyway, just outside Potosi the pavement started again. And except for a short section where we had to walk the bikes across a plank-bridge over metallic grey-blue water and then haul them up a steep staircase, the road felt like cheating. It was too smooth.

    I guess I had done something karmickly wrong after all, because while riding up a ridiculously steep road, my chain snapped, my derailleur flew into my spokes (again: the first time was in Alaska), and the hanger arm on my bike bent hopelessly inward. Oh nads! We only had one more day to get to Sucre, and given the complete lack of any bikeshop anywhere we went in town, we were in some trouble. Backing the narrative train up a bit, however, the derailleur was still intact, none of the spokes were damaged, and fixing the chain wouldn’t be difficult at all, so it’s not like this was a particularly devastating event.

    We bit the bullet a second time, got on a bus to Sucre, and spent the next three hours wishing we were riding. The scenery was absolutely amazing, and the music blasting in our ears was absolutely awful. The only thing that made it at all survivable was the fact that our ears were clogged with sand and dust and wax build up from the last three days of riding.

    But we did make it, and found Sucre to be a very lovely colonial city. Neither of us found Potosi to be all that appealing, which was shocking considering that it was at one time one of the richest cities in the world and indeed is still overlooked by a mountain deliciously chock-full of saleable precious metals and minerals.

    The following morning Travis left for his flight, and I set out to find a bikeshop to fix my hanger arm. I did, they did and it cost me only 3 bolivianos (40 cents)!

    After a few days of riding with my repaired hanger arm, I was no longer sure that the repair was the top-notch job I thought it was. The rear derailleur sticks out at about 10 degrees from true. I didn’t think this was a problem when I first put it back on and threaded the chain back on the bike. But here’s what happens: I’ll be riding along, or more likely bouncing up and down so violently on washboard that I can’t focus on the road, and one of the links will start to come loose. So I brandish my chain tool, repair the link and keep riding. 10 miles down the road, I have to do it all over again. And after the last time my chain snapped and sent my derailleur into my spokes, I’ve become deathly afraid of that happening again. I’m very diligent about the maintenance.

    But all of this is just a minor note in the torture of Bolivian roads. The road from Potosi to Tupiza is partially paved, but the majority is dirt and has been even worse than the road from Uyuni to Potosi. I didn’t really think that was functionally possible. But add large rocks, road spanning deep washboard, and grades that would make a Guatemalan road engineer weep with joy at seeing a job very well done and you get a good picture of what my colon has been up against. Now add to that an infuriatingly strong headwind that whips dust off the road and blows it in my eyes and you get the complete picture.

    Also, leaving Potosi I forgot to withdraw more money from the ATM, and so that left me with seven dollars to last the three days to Tupiza. Now, a hotel room in Bolivia generally costs around three dollars, and 2L water around 75 cents (since the rivers are all dry, there’s no water to pump). So my choice was sleep indoors on the one hand while I starve and thirst, or eat and drink survival rations while squating in my illicit camping spot. It was clearly time for more wilderness camping.

    The first night I competed with goats for space in a rock-strewn cactus patch, and clearing the rocks with my boots on still allowed for a few direct hits from hidden thorns. The second night I slept in a dried river bed behind a giant thorn tree, and that was wonderful. The advantage of both sites was that with abundant rocks, finding a hammer to pound in tent stakes was no trouble at all, and the ground was surprisingly easy to drive stakes into.

    The area leaving Tupiza was absolutely gorgeous, but the road continued in the tradition of all Bolivian roads and was absolutely terrible — and also under construction. In fact, because of the construction there was a detour that crossed a river three different times. Each time I had to take off my shoes and socks, roll up my pants, and wade through calf-deep water. The final time through the river, I got sick of doing this and just walked through with my shoes and socks on.

    While sitting on the side of the road wringing out my socks, a local on a bicycle told me that most locals just ride along the train tracks on the other side of the river from where I currently was. He also pointed out a wood plank which I could use to cross the river. He seemed to be talking a lot of sense, so I took his advice and headed on over to the tracks.

    And the first 10 miles were really great. While the main road scaled and plummeted down several hills, the gentle grade of the railroad tracks and the lack of washboard made riding easy. But then I came to agricultural land, and every 100 yards or so, I’d have to dismount, haul my bike over a drainage ditch, get back on and ride to the next ditch. And this continued on a long way. Finally irrigated land gave way to scrub and thorn bushes, and then the tracks became completely unrideable.

    So I took a 4x4 track back to the main road, and started back on that. Somewhere in thorn country, however, one of the bastards managed to pierce my front tire and give me a flat. So I changed that. A while later the the road started to pitch steeply upward, seemly determined to gain 1500 ft in as little distance as possible. And while grinding up one particularly sadistic grade, my chain snapped again — and I had just checked it! Luckily the derailleur didn’t fly into the spokes, but unluckily, I now had to shorten my chain to such a length that some gear combinations would no longer be reachable. Among them were some of my favorites for hill climbing.

    I now had to walk my bike up all the steep hills, so when the road crossed the train tracks again, I decided to try my luck with those one more time. Well, the steep grades went away, but the thorns came back and my rear tire went flat. I changed that tire and rode off, wondering why exactly god didn’t want me to reach the border town that day.

    That change didn’t seem to take, however, and an hour later my rear tire started to slowly go flat again. And being fed up with changing or repairing my bicycle all day long, I just inflated it with my pump and rode off. Of course, ten minutes later I had to do the same thing again. And again ten minutes after that. At some point I realized that it would probably be a time-saver in the long run to just change the tire again, but I was still pretty fed up with the whole business and continued on pumping up the tire when it got too low.

    And in this way I spent twelve hours riding my bicycle from Tupiza to the border town of Villazon, arriving just as the sun went down. Too tired to do anything else, I got a room in a hotel under construction, bought 2L of some citrus drink (Tampico citrus punch, mmm…) and drank it all, then fell asleep.

    In the morning I changed my tire, went over the whole thing with tweezers to pull out any thorns that still remained, found none that would have caused my second flat, and headed to the border. I saw a long line for immigrations, and went to wait in it. While waiting some military guy started to chat me up, and then he took my passport directly to the immigrations folks and had them stamp it, bypassing a half-hour wait. I remarked to someone that I had no idea why he helped me, and was told it was because I was white. Sometimes, as Travis remarked while we weren’t being heckled with do-it-yourself PC training pamphlets on the bus, there is an upside to racism.

    Bolivia was a very difficult country. There was a complete lack of everything, and both the roads and climate were extreme. I’ll probably look back on it and be glad that I did it, but as I write this, I am so glad to finally be in Argentina with its paved roads, clean water and so on.

  • Northern Argentina

    My arrival in La Quiaca, Argentina felt a bit like arriving in Oz. When I asked the receptionist at my hostel whether the tap water was safe to drink, she said that it was, and moreover went on to tell me that she prefered the tap water here to the water in Chubut (a Patagonian province). So, from this I learned that the water is safe to drink, and the receptionist of my hostel had traveled throughout her coutry… This was very different from what I was used to. Anyhow, I filled up my bottles with the tap water, and gave it a hearty quaff — and she was right: it was tasty!

    So, filled to the gills with delicious non-disease carrying water, I set out the next day. The road was flat or gently uphill for maybe 60 miles, and by a stroke of luck I didn’t have any headwind to impede my progress. I finally crested at a 13,000 ft pass near the mining camp of Tres Cruces and then began a long descent down the Quebrada de Humahuaca (Humahuaca River). The river had carved out at times a canyon and others a river valley through yellow and red colored rocks, and I followed this for the rest of the day, finally stopping in the town of Humahuaca itself. That day, thanks to the flat road and pavement I saw my first 100 miler since probably Colombia.

    The next day the descent continued on down from Humahuaca at 10,000 ft to Jujuy at around 4000, but this wasn’t the downhill funfest that I’d hoped for because I had to battle a very strong headwind from about 10am onward. Still as the scenery continued to green, and the air became thicker and more humid, and especially because I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn somewhere along the way, my spirits remained high the whole day.

    From Jujuy to Salta was another order of magnitude better than the previous days had been. The most direct road to Salta from Jujuy is not the main highway, and for that reason is largely devoid of traffic. It is also a single lane winding road through densely treed hills and along several lakes. In short, it is a road that is ideal for bicycling. So it was after 50 miles of pure pleasure and 5 miles of entering the city along a seperated bicycle path that finally I arrived in Salta. I found a cheap hostel with free breakfast and a swimming pool, took a shower, ate half a pound of ice cream (!), dropped off my clothes to be washed (is it normal for your clothes to smell like vinegar?), and set myself to relax. Ah, the developed world!

    In Salta I also was far more productive than I’d expected to be. Remember how my bicycle was covered in tar? Gone! Remember how my rear cassette went wacky after my derailleur went postal? Fixed! Remember how in the same event my hanger arm bent and subsequent unbending went too far? Corrected! Also, I trued the wheels and degreased and regreased everything (pretty much had to after removing all that tar). Also, I found a produce market where I could get three pounds of tomatoes, an onion and a carrot for around 60 cents, and made some fantastic, yet dirt cheap sauces several nights in a row. And astute readers will remember how I got my haircut in Coban, Guatemala and haven’t mentioned cutting it since. That’s because I hadn’t — until Salta. Now I don’t look like a raving hippie anymore, and in fact after a day of careless riding after leaving Salta, my neck is a vibrant shade of sunburnt red!

    And that brings us nicely to the riding. The first 60 miles leaving Salta went through flat hot land whose flora was thorny trees, except where agriculture was practiced. I stopped in a town called Colonel Moldes for lunch and tried my hand at taking a siesta in the shade. I arrived in town, took my leisurely time eating and drinking my apple juice, and then just sat and watched. Satisfied with a siesta well taken, I got back on my bike and consulted my watch. 30 mintues had passed. I need to practice siestas more…

    Now the noon-day heat was in full swing and my thermometer was reading in the high 90s. I went through my water at a faster rate and knocked off the rest of the distance to a town promisingly named La Viña. When I got there I discovered not a vine in sight, so I pressed on to the next promisingly named town: Alemania (Germany). I got there, and the town was nothing but a train stop for a train that hadn’t rolled along those tracks in several decades. But they did have a water spigot which supplied me with fresh cool water. I loaded up on that and set out further down the road, resigned to another night of wild camping as opposed to the municipal campground with running water and hot showers which I’d hoped to find at the end of my day.

    Luckily for me, I’d just entered a natural reserve called Quebrada de las Conchas (Shell River). The river wound through tall mountains and improbably eroded rocks, and the road followed the river as best as it was able. I eventually came to a dried up tributary river, walked the bike up that a ways, and set up camp.

    Unfortunately, I didn’t take into consideration the swarm of ants all around me, and the next morning the were crawling over everything. I brushed them off as best as I was able, broke camp and set off the remaining 35 miles to the capital of Northern Argentina wine country: Cafayate. Still a few managed to hitch a ride with me, and very occasionally I’d discover one crawling along my sunglasses.

    But I managed to make it to Cafayate, and headed for the municipal campgound (running water and hot showers? ¡Sí!). And after setting up camp, I wandered into town to see what wine might flow my way.

    I did all that, but there is only so much you can do in a town that is basically an oasis of wine. It was time to head back into the desert…

    I planned on a short day, in keeping with my resolution of trying to not exhaust myself at every opportunity. The first day I succeeded, only taking a small detour to the ruins of Quilmes. I got there and the combination of having to pay 10 pesos to enter the site and the intense desert heat put me in a foul mood. And after seeing the ruins in Peru, how could these compare?

    So I pedaled on, 10 pesos poorer (those tens pesos could have bought a kilo of dulce de leche or a bottle of wine, but now they’re gone…). I ended the day at a municipal campground in Amaichá del Valle, a town with absolutely nothing going on, except about 60 teenage kids having a good time at the pool.

    The next day I had a surprise 3000 ft climb into the fog. The fog grew denser and became mist, and the mist became rain. Then I had a 3000 ft descent to the town of Tafi del Valle and I got cold, cold, cold! I had to spend an hour over a lunch and various cups of coffee to warm back up.

    From Tafi, the descent continued on through increasingly lush landscapes. I had no idea that this would exist here when I started the day, and I felt like I was back in the highlands of Colombia or Chiapas. Eventually the descent bottomed out around 8000ft lower from the pass I crossed earlier in the day, and I found myself riding though fragrant orange orchards and then sugarcane fields.

    I continued riding on to the town of Concepción, where I hoped to find another municipal campground, but was told there was none. I continued on my way, using tried and true methods to find a free campground, and found an ideal spot under a large tree behind a ruined building. After I secured permission to camp there from the only people I could see, I set up my tent, cooked some dinner and crawled into my tent to avoid the continuing rain and to write in my journal.

    While doing this, someone started pounding violently on my tent, and demanded that I come out. I decided that answering him would best be done in as broken Spanish as I could muster, and I set about speaking so poorly that it made me cringe. It turned out that the man pounding on my tent was the owner of the land, and after I explained what I was doing and why I was there and how I thought I had permission, he let me stay. And thank god for that, it was pouring rain and pitch black, and I wouldn’t have found anything else.

    The next morning, it was still raining, so I packed up my things as best as I could, and tried to warm up. In the late morning, the headwind picked up and the rain had done nothing to abate. I ended the day in a town called San Pedro. While in the main plaza, asking where I might be able to camp, an old man who loved learning English invited me to camp on his lawn, right across the street from a public thermal bathouse.

    The rain let up, and so I hung out my things to dry on a bush. I fell asleep, hoping that in the morning they would be drier, and therefore much lighter. I woke up to the sound of rain pounding on my tent. Sighing, I took everything down, wrung it all out as best as I could, packed up and left.

    It rained the whole day again until just before the town of Recreo. Just outside that town I met a group of local cycling enthusiasts who guided me to the public pool, where I was allowed to camp for free. They also bought me apples and crackers and sent me off with their good wishes.

    I hung up all of my clothes on a tree to dry them again, and this time it managed to not rain the entire evening. This time it started ten minutes after I woke up. But in those ten minutes, I was able to put away all my clothes and take down my tent. It rained again the whole day.

    I made it to a town called Deán Funes, found their luxurious municipal campground, convinced the groundskeeper to let me camp for free, and to use her shower (the only one with hot water). That was wonderful. Expecting rain, I took shelter in a gazebo, and it stayed dry the entire night. In the morning, finally the clouds were all cleared out and the sunny weather came back.

    I rolled through rolling hills until the main highway to Córdoba, and when I got to that the truck traffic had intensified so much that I was being blasted off the road every thirty seconds. I decided that I had enough of all that crap, took a dirt road away from the highway, and immediately wished I’d done so much earlier in the day. It was so quiet and serene, and nothing as terrible as the dirt roads in Bolivia. I actually pulled out my iPod, and for the first time since maybe Costa Rica, listened to music while I rode. In fact, I decided I liked this so much that I took more wandering roads through the hills, and decided that getting to Córdoba could wait another day.

    I ended the day down by a stream outside a town called La Granja and was variously entertained by a local group of drunken teenagers. They were really good kids, and my approval of Argentines increased a lot. The next day I finally entered Córdoba along a bicycle path, found a hostel by chance, and set about relaxing.

    This ends the Northern Argentina portion. I’ll have to think about how to divide up the rest of this trip in the coming days.

  • 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.

  • Central Chile

    On the other side of the tunnel the mountains kicked their natural beauty into full-gear. And it was immediately obvious that my climbing had ended, and moreover I was about to plummet down — fast.

    But before I could punk some trucks down steep winding roads, I had to clear immigrations. And there was the problem of the $130 reciprocity fee that Chile charges US citizens upon entry into their country. Well, wonderfully, I soon learned that this fee is only leveed on US citizens arriving via an international flight, and land-based entry into the country is free of charge. ¡Yipee! After passing a very thorough inspection for fruit and vegetables, I was free (it’s best to say that you have fruit and vegetables on your immigration form even if you are pretty sure you don’t. If you say you don’t, but it turns out that you have something like peanut crumbs, you’ve got to pay a very steep fine. However, if you say you do, and you don’t have anything, then nothing happens. Just a tip…).

    The plummeting commenced and continued until I’d lost 7,000ft of elevation and arrived in Los Andes, my first chilean city. The central square was immaculate and had working drinking fountains, the stores sold ginger ale (I’m a man who loves his ginger-based beverages very much), and the fields were cultivated well and responsibly. Alright, I thought, if there are abundant campgrounds like in Argentina, I’m set in a very big way.

    And I don’t know about abundant, at least not where I was, but I did find a campground with toilets with seats, showers with hot water, a pond which had been developed for swimming, and my particular campsite was surrounded by streams on both sides. And it only cost $4. This was perhaps — perhaps — the finest campsite I’d been in since Cape Lookout near Tillamook, Oregon. So I spent that night wondering if I’d maybe not survived the descent down into Chile, and had in fact died and gone to heaven.

    The next morning, the mystery of my survival continued as I rolled through lush wine and avocado country (40 cents a pound for Hass avocados??? 30 cents a pound for mandarin oranges??? ¡¡¡Si!!!), but was finally resolved as I hit some pretty awful traffic around the town of Quillota, with no clear alternative route around it. But before that town I’d ridden along the outskirts of a national park, through gently rolling country (the best kind of country) along quiet rual routes, so it was clear that Chile offered some really tranquil roads to ride along.

    As I neared the coast, the hills started to roll more sharply and the going got pretty slow as I had to continually give way to speeding busses. But eventually I reached Viña del Mar and was struck homesick by its strong resemblance to San Francisco, a resemblance that continued into Valparaíso, the “Jewel of the Pacific”. I decided that I’d have to give this region a few days of my time to explore (as well as endure the difficult task of familiarizing myself with chilean wines).

    Familiarization done, leaving Valparaíso was a very difficult task. Not only was my liver weighed down by all the fine wine, but leaving Valparaíso meant more or less riding straight up. Well I did that, and in the process my super-metabolism came back on line, and after about thirty minutes I was back in riding form.

    In many places, Chile offers high-quality rural roads that head in the same general direction as the main highway. I decided that taking some of these roads, and losing track of where I was for a while, was too good a prospect to pass up. So I found myself riding through pasture, pine plantations, and fields of wild flowers in full bloom. Every now and again, I would hear the faint and distant rumble of a truck on the main highway, and think about how its exhaust and wake were not even close to affecting me. I smiled. I had water, I had food, and I had daylight until after 8pm. I didn’t have a care in the world. This is what my tour started out as, and this is what caused me to fall in love with touring in the first place.

    Briefly the pasture gave way to vineyards, a town, and a junction headed back towards the coast, and more significantly, towards the house of the late poet Pablo Neruda. Being a sensitive sissy-boy, I was greatly taken by what examples of his poetry I’d encountered along the way, and was keen on seeing his museum-home.

    So I took the junction, the vineyards died off and the pasture returned. The hills continued to roll and roll towards the coast, until finally I could see a bank of fog and smell the cool salty breeze of the Pacific. Strange how it smells exactly the same way down here as it does in California. And perhaps the combination of transplanted monterey cypress, eucalyptus, and sea air is exactly the same.

    At any rate, I went to his home and it was closed. Dag! So, reluctantly, I rolled down the coast a little ways and shortly came across a campground just before the town of El Tabo. It had a view of the ocean, was situated in a grove of cypress, and the caretakers were a canadian and american couple. Well, that sounded perfect.

    In Valparaíso, another traveler had given me his copy of “Into the Wild”. I’d seen the movie, and since some of you had drawn comparisons between him and myself, I figured I’d read the book to get a better idea of what motivated travels, and whether I felt the comparisons were fair. Until I find the right words, I’ll just say that I don’t think that what he may have been seeking and trying to fix in himself, are what I seek and have sought to repair in my own soul. I did enjoy reading the book, and it seemed to compliment the mental space I was in while reading at that campground and over the next couple of days.

    I never did try to go back to Pablo Neruda’s house the next day. Sometime during the night I realized that his poetry was not tied to a place or situation, and that by giving them context, I would be taking away context from my own interpretation and understanding. So I continued south along the coast.

    Around the town of Santo Domingo I took the road headed inland through strawberry fields towards Lake Rapel. En route, my chain started to come apart again as it had a habit of doing in Bolivia, but hadn’t done since. This troubled me greatly, as I thought that the chain and I had grown beyond this. I spent a lot of time ministrating to the chain, and when I was fairly sure that we’d reached an agreement, I set off for the final climb and descent to the lake.

    I arrived around 7pm, and started to get anxious for a place to make camp. The first campground I came across was gorgeous, and was charging $15 for a night. So I left. The next was closed, and the following may have been closed as well. But the water ran from the taps, the location was wonderful, and the prospect of camping there for free was too good to pass up. So I pitched my tent by the lake, washed the chain grease from my hands as best as I could, then set about eating, and finally crawled into my tent after it became too dark to do anything useful outside.

    The following morning I took the same rambling approach of the previous two days towards the central valley and the Panamericana. As I approached, the Andes once again came into view with their glorious snow-capped peaks, but when I finally arrived in the valley, I was confronted with 95F temperatures. I rode south for a little while, trying to make the best of it, but finally decided that I really needed to do was to head back to the coast at the next possible opportunity, and then work my way along that.

    And while I’m glad I did, my legs are not at all. Before I could reach the coast, it was one more trip through wine country. This particular valley is supposedly the best region in Chile for wine, and there are train tours available to see all the wineries. But I was alone and drinking alone — even for educational purposes — has never held much appeal for me, so I forwent the train tour. Luckily in Santa Cruz, where I stopped for the day, there is a wonderful anthropology and paleontology museum focused on the development of life in Chile from Pre-Cambrian times to the present. It was extremely comprehensive, and I enjoyed every minute of the two hours I spent wandering through it.

    But after that was done, I had no reason to linger in the town any longer, and so I continued my push back towards the coast. I finally arrived in the town of Bucalemu (mapuche for ‘large forest’), found a spot near the beach with a good view of the surf, and made camp.

    The following morning, the road rolled out of town, and then pitched sharply upward and downward as it crossed over hills seperating the numerous river valleys. Finally, having gathered great strength from my cursing, the road pitched upward at an angle that I didn’t think possible. I took one look at that road as I approached, and thought “There’s no way in hell that I’ll be able to ride up that…”, so I got off the bike and hoofed it for about half an hour, until the grade calmed down enough to ride again.

    Along the ridge I was surrounded by pine and eucalyptus plantations, and these continued for my duration along the coast. Eventually, the road started to wind around the perimeter of Lago Vichuquén, and finding a free campsite, I called it quits for the day.

    And a good thing too. Apparently as I regained strength, so did the road. The grade out of town could only be summited by forestry equipment, and I walked the bike uphill once more. Eventually I reached the crest of the hill, and the road followed that for a while until finally it got near enough to the coast that it decided to plumment downward at the same rediculous angle. I rode down this, and at one point I tried to stop to take a picture. I found that the combination of loose dirt road and demonic grades were too much of a match for my brakes, and stopping proved impossible.

    Well, that troubled me greatly while I was descending, but I made it to the bottom safe and quickly tried to put the whole experience out of my mind. And that wasn’t so hard to do either. For the rest of the day, the road was more or less gentle rolling along the coast. I stopped on the beach a few times to picnic, and finally finished the day in Constitución, a city known for its cellulose plant and also as the place where the original Chilean constitution was signed.

    After the beaten that I’d received at the hand of the road near Lago Vichuquén, I started to think that I’d rather sweat from the heat, rather than from that torture, and so I resolved that if the road started to get stupid again, I’d take the next chance to head back inland that came my way. That day it never did, and the scenery was still just as lovely as it had been the past few days. But all the same, I was starting to get tired of exclaiming “This is just like California!” every few miles, and after a restful night in the Chanco National Reserve, I knew it was time to head back inland.

    And that was a excellent idea. When the Andes finally came into view, gone was the grandeur of Aconcagua, but in its place had arrived snow-capped volcanoes. In my first few of the Andes, I saw about three giant peaks, with a fourth view opening up towards the south. Also, just before my arrival in the town of Chillán I left what Chileans consider to be the central part of their country, and had entered the south. Soon come the lakes…

  • Lakes District

    I spent a few days cruising down the Panamerican highway through more pine and eucalyptus plantations on luxuriously wide and well paved shoulders. Every day a new snow-capped volcano would appear on the southern horizon as the one on the northern horizon dipped below view, and every day was filled by staring in amazement as another perfectly formed volcano resolved itself.

    Eventually I came to a junction where I had the opportunity to head towards Conguillío National Park and ride a circuit road around the base of Mt. LLaima. And I eagerly took that opportunity, since Mt. LLaima was one of the most beautifully formed volcanoes I’d yet seen. The park was every bit as gorgeous as I’d expected, but the roads were the worst I’d ridden on the entire trip. about five miles before I arrived at the park boundary the pavement gave out and the road deteriorated into a riverbed-like surface, and it only got worse when I actually entered the park and the large stones were supplemented with coarse volcanic sand that sucked my wheels down to the spokes and filled my shoes and infiltrated my socks.

    I had intended on making the loop around the park in one day, but my average speed fell down to three miles an hour, and the ratio of words I’d use on a sailing vessel to words I’d use around small children became the highest it’s ever been in my life. In fact, on that account I felt that my vocabulary in English wasn’t rich enough to convey my distress, so I incorporated all the German, French and Spanish vulgarities I could muster.

    Of course, every so often as I sat on the side of the “road” to empty my shoes of small rocks, I’d take a look around in wonder at the manificent beauty that surrounded me, and ask god to absolve me of all of the sins and evil thoughts that had just filled my mind. Never before in my life has my mood swung so sharply so often.

    And to be honest, it was a fortunate thing to stop where I did in the park. The lake I camped by was spectacular (I have a photo of it), and I met a Swiss family who’ve been traveling with their (now) four year old son by bicycle. If you think that what I’ve been doing is in any way amazing, I feel the same way about their tour, but more so about their dedication to their child while they travel.

    The following morning we ate breakfast together, and then rode at our seperate paces with a promise to reunite in Villarrica at La Torre Suiza, a hostel run by a Swiss couple who, after riding their bicycles around the world, decided to settle down there. As the day progressed I started to think that I had a reasonable chance of reaching Villarrica before nightfall.

    But then I hit the dirt roads again. They were so bad and so steep that when I tried to ride uphill I’d hit a large loose rock, spin out and be unable to start riding again. So I’d push the bike up the remainder of the hill. And then at the summit, I’d have a steep downhill which I couldn’t zoom down for fear of hitting a large rock and cracking my rims, and couldn’t ride down slowly because I’d start to skid and be unable to stop. So the road was slow both going uphill and going downhill, and there was no flat to take advantage of at all. After another hour and a half of this I came to a small stream with a perfect spot to camp, knew that this was as good as it was going to get, and then threw in the towel for the day.

    It was a good choice. I sat by the stream under a thicket of bamboo, and listened to the water run over the rocks. Eventually I dug into my food bag, prepared some concoction for dinner, and then retired to my tent to let the song “Unchained Melody”, which had been stuck in my head for the past several days, work itself out.

    It rained that evening, but I stayed dry and slept the best I had in a long while. I took my time getting ready to go in the morning, dreading what lay ahead. Eventually there was no more delaying, and I pushed or rode the rest of the way to the town, and into the view of another spectacular volcano. Time for a break!

    Break time ended after four days, and it was well-spent doing nothing, unless stuffing my face with fresh home-baked swiss bread is something, then it was spent doing that. After break time, I headed south via Lincan Ray to a few other lakes of the famous seven lakes area. I spent a night in the awfully unscenic town Los Lagos, and then headed back to make a quick loop around Lago Ranco.

    The area around the seven lakes, and further south to Puerto Montt was heavily settled by German immigrants about 100 years ago, and this influence could be seen in German style barns and farms, and more importantly eaten in a German style cake called Kuchen. Deliciously, I pedaled from one Kuchen peddling establishment to the next from lake to lake, and as an added bonus occasionally bought cheese. As any bicycle tourist knows, actually seeing the sights and riding the roads is of secondary importance to eating, and in the seven lakes region eating could be done frequently.

    From Lago Ranco, I came back briefly to the Panamericana and to the city of Osorno. Nothing doing there, I left the next day for the Argentine border. That day I got as far as Puyehue National Park, and when I came to the campground and saw what they were charging to camp, I got a bit further.

    And this was excellent. I found a service entrance to the Sendero de Chile (a trans-Chile hiking trail which is under contruction), and about a mile down this road, I came to a wide field bordering a small creek. I immediately recognized this as one of those rare perfect free-camping sites that the bicycle tourist dreams about, and set about bathing in the icy water, washing my underpants, and lying out in the sun to dry. The only way it might have been improved is if the Chilean Bikini Team had also decided to make camp there the same night. But I was happy what with I got…

    Coming into Chile they were extremely anal about fruit and vegetables, and I figured that leaving Chile for Argentina would give me some tit-for-tat treatment at the Argentine border. For that reason, I’d let my stock of vegetables and various other snacking products run empty. Well, the border was a 20 mile climb in the heat, and my meager breakfast of spaghetti didn’t last the distance. My chain also snapped again, and I had to cobble in the spare links I got a few weeks ago. These worked imperfectly, and in fact the chain snapped again before I figured out a method of making the transplant last. So with low blood sugar and greasy hands and face, I approached Argentine customs. And passed through without any hassle.

    So after a descent that felt more like climbing than descending with my dead legs, I finally arrived at a supermarket in Villa La Angostura, Argentina. I let my purchasing impulses have free reign, and as soon as I got outside with my loot, I stuffed my face with chocolate sandwiches, milk, and peanuts.

    Sometime during the milk drinking phase, I noticed that just next door to the supermarket was a campground, and realized that I would be going no further that day.

    At the campground I met my second family on bicycle. This family was from the Netherlands, and were out for a ten week tour with their two and a half year old son. I entertained him with what little Dutch I still remembered, and he entertained me by pointing out the resemblance between the eletrical socket at my campsite and Sponge Bob Square Pants.

    The next morning I took my sweet time getting ready, figuring on making maybe 30 of the 60 miles remaining to Bariloche that day. But I found out once I started riding that my strength had returned, and in fact had returned to a level that I hadn’t remembered since — maybe — Panamá. I spun out the entire distance, including several breaks for banana and chocolate eating, in something like four and a half hours.

    When I came back to Argentina, I was reminded of the difference between the two countries. Chile is naturally gorgeous, there is no question about that. They also sell ginger ale. But Argentina has a culture that Chile seems to lack. They have the folklore of Difunta Correa and Gauchito Gil, they have a strong camping culture — stronger, I think, than in the American West. I’d forgotten about that leaving Argentina the first time, and I’m delighting in it again in Bariloche. I think I’ll spend a few days here…

    My residency in Bariloche ended after several bottles of wine, a few forays down a natural waterslide, finally buying and replacing my worn out chain and most excitingly: cutting the sleeves off of one of my extremely worn-out shirts. This last bit was a major win for me, since my mind has been the battleground for an ongoing battle between hippiedom and normalicy, and doing something so redneck as turning a t-shirt sleeveless is a sure blow against hippiedom.

    Heading back to Chile this time involved three ferries across as many lakes with short stretches of dirt trail riding in between. Like in Juneau, Alaska, the ferry terminal was placed 15 miles outside the city and the only ferry that would allow me to make this trip all the way into Chile in one push left at 8:30am. So I rode over to the port to see if I could camp somewhere in the vicinity in order to catch the ferry on time the next morning.

    I got to the terminal just fine, and went to to inquire about purchasing tickets. After some confusion about just what I wanted to do, the folks working at the port told me that I couldn’t actually buy tickets there, but would have to go back to the city and buy them from the office there. Hunh…

    I wasn’t about to ride another fifteen miles there and fifteen back with my new chain skipping every time the connecting pin passed through the derailleur, so I left my bike at the terminal and caught a ride. When I arrived back in town, I eventually found the ticket office, and also found out that they wouldn’t open back up after siesta for another hour and a half. Ah yes, Argentine siestas…

    So I sat in the park for a while drinking a soda I bought from the gas station until the office opened back up, and then mosied on back. I finally got the ticket, found the bus going back towards the port and rode on back. Unexpectedly, the folks working at the port wouldn’t allow me to camp there, but they suggested a place about two minutes walk along the beach. That worked great.

    The next morning the ferry took off on schedule, and I started some luxury cruising through gorgeous scenery. The first stretch of riding between lago Nahuel Huapi (“Puma Island” in Mupudugun) and lago Frias was only 2 miles long and flat, and I arrived at the next port before the buses. That ferry was uneventful, and on the other side of the lake I cleared argentine customs before heading up and over the pass that separates the two countries. Then it was a mad dash down the other side to customs. There was no stopping on this entire stretch for two reasons. The first was that I thought I was under time pressure to catch the next ferry (I found out later that I wasn’t at all), and the second was that these giant flies would land on me and start carving out chunks of my skin every time I stopped. They were easy to kill, but often the only time I knew they were on me was after they’d already struck. It was truly horrible.

    But I made it after hopelessly tearing my tar-stained riding pants, and eventually the next ferry left for a spectacular cruise down lago Todos Santos. This part of the crossing was so beautiful that it justified the cost of the entire thing. Sheer cliffs on either side of the river would occasionally yield views of several tall peaks and volcanoes, and the ferry eventually docked on the skirt of Mt. Osorno, a nearly perfect cone volcano.

    It also happened to be a national park with a campground. I was pretty sleepy from not exercising very much the past several days, and thought I might just call it a day there. But when I found out that they wanted something like $15, I just said “no gracias, voy a buscar un sitio gratis mas adelante en el campo. Es una locura cobrar tanto para acampar” and took off. You have to like the argentine camping culture, they’d never think of trying to charge so much…

    So, after filling my water bottles up from their clean water supply, I took off into the country to find somewhere to camp. They really shouldn’t expect people to pay their prices when it’s so easy to find a free spot a half mile down the road. At any rate, that worked out fine and I woke up the next morning still feeling pretty lazy. As I was debating whether to stop in Puerto Varas, further on in Puerto Montt, or to try all the way for the ferry crossing to Chiloé, a headwind built up to the point where the answer became easy and obvious: Puerto Varas.

  • Carretera Austral

    Getting to the Carretera Austral was easy. Actually making any progress was very hard. Acting on some bad information that I got and had confirmed several times by independent sources, I rode my bicycle to the island of Chiloé. In Ancud, I found out that there were ferries from the island to Chaitén as I had hoped and was informed, but the first one left at the beginning of January. It was the beginning of December. Bust.

    Then I decided to backtrack to Puerto Montt and take the Carretera Austral all the way. You’d think that the major route — in fact the only domestic land route — into the southern part of Chile would be passable in late spring. At least I thought so. I made my way across the first ferry, encouraged by reports that the ferry between Hornopirén and Puerto Gonzales (perhaps you should read this section with your southern Chile map at hand) ran Saturdays and Wednesdays. So I rode the rough dirt road all the way to Hornopirén and there was informed that it actually ran every day of the week — during the months of January and February. Outside of those months it didn’t run at all. I asked what my options were, and if there were any boats that took on pedestrian passengers. No boats. My only options were to return to Puerto Montt — again — and take a ferry to Chaitén or to return to Argentina via the same lake crossing route I used to enter Chile just a week prior and ride down Argentina to the next pass into Chile.

    So I returned to Puerto Montt to wait for a ferry to Chaitén. This was actually the option I was least expecting to take, because just six months ago the city was destroyed by a lahar and until recently was completely evacuated. ¿Qué? But there it was. So at the time of this writing I’ve taken two infuriating detours and ridden over 200 miles south of Puerto Montt only to still be in the city. My own personal Groundhog Day.

    Well, that boat did manage to arrive in Chaitén. While waiting for the boat I met an older Czech(!) couple and a Chilean father-son pair also traveling by bicycle. Between the two of them, the Czechs spoke no Spanish, very little English and about the same amount of German. So we communicated using the little Czech I still remembered, and the little German and English they still remembered. Good people though.

    So, Chaitén. As the ferry started to approach the area, the ash cloud from the still-erupting volcano became visible, and all the foliage in the area took on a greyish tinge. It had rained the previous day and all through the night, so at least the air was pretty clear. The town was practically deserted except for a few basic services like a small food market, and ash lined the streets like two-day-old snow. After marveling at it all for a while, I shook my head and left. The city had learned disastrously what I have had beaten into me over the past year and a half: Nature is far stronger than man, and our cities and development only provide us with the sense of power, but not power itself.

    That day, the combination of rain and fine grit from the dirt road caused my chain to snap again. I repaired it and spun on down the road. I finally stopped for the day when after descending most of the way down the other side of a pass I encountered another Czech couple, the man on bicycle and his girlfriend on motorcycle. They both spoke good Spanish and English, so we all kept switching between those two languages whenever we’d forget that we decided on one or the other. Being multi-lingual in a group of multi-lingual people can be extremely confusing sometimes… They were fresh from Argentina, so they were still very much into drinking mate, and in the tradition of that drink, offered to share with me. Two hours of that stopped me for the day.

    The next morning it was still raining, and would rain the whole day through. My chain broke three times that day, and at that point I started to get very concerned. I looked more closely at the chain, and am now fairly convinced that I was sold a 7-speed chain in Bariloche. The increased width of the chain over 9-speed, plus all the grit from the dirt road was putting too much stress on the links in the chain. pop pop pop.

    In the town of La Junta, I saw a group of five cyclists and asked where they were from…the Czech Republic! At this point my Czech was coming back to me enough to confuse them for a while about just how much I could speak. I took off to reconnoiter the town and score some bread and milk, and they took off further down the road.

    Oh that milk! Earlier in the day they were doing some blasting, and the road was extremely rough. So when I finally finished for the day and went to savor some delicious milk I was horrified to discover that the carton had ruptured and a fifth of its contents had spilled into one of my panniers. WHY GOD, WHY? And adding to the misery of the situation, my prized jalepeño mustard had chosen that same stretch of road to burst open inside my food bag and deploy all over everything. Why does god delight in terrorizing me so much?

    I did my best to clean everything, but the milk… oh the milk… Now that pannier smells awful.

    I put it all behind me the next morning, and bolstered by a break in the rain, rode the remaining 8 miles to Puyuhuapi, hopeful of passing the road closure sign before the road was blockaded for several hours for more blasting. I got there a minute too late.

    Back in the town, I met a Dutch couple on bicycle and we passed the three hours of road closure chatting and discovering that every single cafe or restaurant in town was mysteriously closed. Well, the road eventually opened again, and I rode along a much better quality road than I’d had the day before. Eventually I came to the entrance to a national park created to protect the area around a hanging glacier. I decided to give the glacier a gander, and am very glad to have done it.

    Some people at the trail entrance told me that the trail was “very hard”, and I can see how that might be the case for someone who doesn’t spend the majority of each day engaged in endurance exercise involving their legs. But I do spend each day so engaged, and ran up the trail. It was a lot of fun jumping over rocks and really pushing my legs as hard as they would go. I don’t think I’ve had so much fun running and jumping since I was five years old.

    Well, it would’ve cost a fortune to actually camp in the park, so I left around 7pm, and blessed with another two and a half hours of useable daylight, I rode south until I found a suitable spot to set up camp and start cooking dinner. I did, and as I was eating, the group of five Czechs saw me (I was camped in plain sight of the road, I’ve long since stopped caring about hiding myself), and decided that where I was camped was a pretty great place for them to camp as well.

    The next morning I was a bit faster getting ready than they were and so I started up the second big climb of the entire road alone (there are maybe only four in total along the entire Carretera Austral). Predictably, my chain snapped again, but after what has become a routine repair job, I made it to the summit. From there it was an unpleasant descent over a very rough road down the other side of the pass. I met an Austrailian riding on a bike named “Puyuhuapi” — after the town where he had an accident a few years before and broke his leg.

    I used up way more energy climbing up to that pass than I expected to, and when I got to the town of Villa Amengual, I was tired and famished. So even though it was only 2pm, I called it quits and got a room in some hospedaje. Besides, I was soaked to the bone and the length of time since I last had sensation in my feet was starting to get worryingly long.

    The next morning it was still raining. I rode out the randomly paved stretch that I was on, and onto the worst dirt of the entire trip. Just as I was wondering whether that pavement would ever return again, I encontered an older Brisith couple. Eight years ago they’d ridden the same trip that I’m now on, and we talked a good long while about that. They told me that the pavement started again in less than a mile, and lasted all the way to Chile Chico.


    Finally able to use my large chainring again, I spun out 70 miles to Puerto Aysen. The highlight of that town was its massive supermarket and a storm so violent that some of my guy-lines actually ripped out of the ground. Man that was strong wind!

    The wind was gone in the morning, but of course the rain wasn’t. So, reluctantly, I pulled my warm, dry body into wet, cold clothes and got back on the road to Coyhaique. I couldn’t physically warm up any faster than my body could pump heat out against 40 degree temperatures and light rain, but I could warm up my mood by singing every Christmas carol I knew at the top of my lungs while I rode. This did the trick nicely, and it also attracted several dogs. One of the lil’ fellas actually was able to keep up, and surprised me by following along for at least five miles before his pace slowed and he dropped out of sight. I was sort of sad to see him fall behind, but pirate rules applied (“If you fall behind, you’re left behind”).

    Of the many Christmas carols that rotated through my head that day, “All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth” became corrupted into “All I want for Christmas is a new drive train”. That got me to thinking about what I could do to realize that Christmas wish, and a trip to a wonderfully stocked bicycle store made me 27,000 pesos poorer, but richer by a new 9-speed chain and two new pulleys for my rear derailleur. I didn’t feel like ponying up the dough for a new rear cassette or middle chainring, but even those replacements which I did buy made a world of difference. No more snap crackle pop of my chain? We’ll see!

    But of course the excitment continued even after I replaced the chain and most of the rear derailleur. While cleaning off my rear wheel I noticed a fissure that ran nearly the entire circumference of one side of my rim. This is bad news. I was able to ride to Chile Chico on the wheel, but I’ll have to avoid all really bad roads (read: the rest of the Carretera Austral) until I can replace the wheel.

    But replacing the wheel won’t really be a simple task either because out of ignorance, I built my bicycle with 28” wheels, and that size of wheel just doesn’t exist in Latin America (the size to get is 26”). Basically my only hope is to make the last 1000 miles to Ushuaia on this rim, and I really have no idea how much hope I have.

    I got as far as Perito Moreno, Argentina on my old rim, and indeed arrived there without any issues on that front. In Chile Chico I met two French Cyclists and spent Christmas with them riding to and from Los Antiguos, Argentina. The first time we crossed the border, we somehow all missed the Chilean immigrations office. When we arrived at the Argetine customs office, it became apparent that we’d have to backtrack the 3 miles with a vicious gusting crosswind, get out exit stamps and then return with that same infernal wind. Luckily, that was a detour we didn’t have to make with all of our gear, since the Argentine customs folks allowed us to leave everything there.

    So we spent Christmas in Los Antiguos, eating several pounds of cherries and not doing much of anything else. The next morning I headed with the wind to Perito Moreno and they stayed behind to catch a bus down to El Calafate. They’re smarter than I am.

    I got to Perito Moreno, realized that I’d be spending the majority of the next 300 miles on dirt roads with a crosswind that regularly gusts up to 70 mph, and further realized that there was no way on earth that my cracked rear rim would survive the trip. And in a moment of weakness, I purchased a bus ticket across the dirt parts to El Chalten.

    During the several hour wait, I had a crisis of conscience and realized that I didn’t want to finish my trip having to avoid all the best scenery and taking buses, just because of a component failure. I realized that my best option would be to return to Coyhaique, some two days away by bus and ferry, and go to the well-stocked and hopefully 700cc rim-having bicycle shop to build a completely new wheel. But for now I still had to wait for the half day Argentine siesta to end at 5pm before I could cancel my ticket.

    At 5pm the office reopened and I went to cancel my 6pm bus ride, but since there was less than an hour remaining before the bus left the station, their system refused to grant me a refund (it was a costly ticket, and I was very keen on getting that refund). My only remaining hope was that the bus would be too full to accept my bike, and they’d be forced to give me my money back. So I waited. And god be praised for continually denying me the easy way out, the bus was too full (four other cyclists also wanted to avoid the same road).

    But now it was just past 6pm, the Patagonian wind machine was in full effect, and even standing upright while exposed to the wind was a challenge. There was no way to get back to the border that day by bicycle, and following the precident set by flying from Panama to Colombia, I justified backtracking by bus. That bus left at 10pm, so I had some four more hours to wait. I got drunk.

    10pm rolled around, I loaded on the bike, got into my seat and successfully fought car sickness the entire way back. I hate bus travel so much. Arriving in Los Antiguos at 11pm, I headed the campground I’d stayed at the night before, pitched my tent in the dark and passed out. The next morning I made my way back to the border, got my Argentine exit stamp, and fought that infernal crosswind once again back to the Chilean border (this was the fourth time I’d ridden this same stretch of road). I arrived in Chile Chico early, hopeful of catching the ferry back to Puerto Ibañez that same day.

    No dice. The next ferry left the following day at noon. So, faced with time to kill in a wind-swept desert town with nothing to do, I spent the better part of the morning drinking mate and chatting up the girls who worked in the bus office. Around 1pm my natural inclination to flirt was overpowered by my desperate need to catch up on sleep, and I passed the entire afternoon dreaming about worst-case senarios for changing my rim.

    Maybe I’d have to do some welding work on my bike to take 26” wheels, maybe — just maybe — they’d have a 700cc rim that would work for my bike, maybe I’d be able to put on disc brakes and 26” rims and thereby avoid the welding work, maybe I could even weld the rim back together. Who knew? I had nothing but time to think about it, and my mind ran wild.

    Well, the next day I got on the ferry, again, and crossed the lake, again. I got on a bus back to Coyhaique and arrived at 5pm on a Sunday afternoon. No way the bike shop would be open, so more time to kill.

    I scored a six-pack of beer and followed the tradition I’d started in that bus terminal in Perito Moreno, and suddenly Sunday afternoon became Monday morning. I headed on over to the bike shop and waited to see what sentence would be pronouced upon me. 26” wheels? No, no, no, they said, that wouldn’t work. Maybe we have a 700cc rim that will serve your purpose.


    Well, this one is a bit thin, but it should take your tires. The problem is that your hub is drilled for 48 spokes (when it was new, this was a monster of a wheel), and this rim is drilled for 36 spokes, we’ll have to change the hub or the wheel will be really weak.


    Look, I said, you do whatever will work, and as long as I can ride on it, I don’t care at all. I only have 2000km left to the end, and I’ll be damned if I take the bus. So they did, and I came away a few hours later with a new wheel that fit everything perfectly. We (you, the reading public, and me) can now optimistically hope that this new rim will withstand the horrendous abuse I plan give it between Coyhaique and Ushuaia.

    With my new rim and a fully working bicycle I set out once again on the road from Coyhaique south. the wind was worse than the last time over the summit, but it was consistent instead of gusty and I could ride against it. When I finally got over the pass again, I realized that all the mountains I saw the first time through were actually much higher than I’d thought, and their now unobscured peaks were spetacularly gorgeous.

    Immediately after the town of Villa Cerro Castillo the pavement ended, and the the road turned to complete crap. I found myself pushing uphill for the better part of an hour, and when I finally got back into ridable territory, the wind came blasting through the valley. Oh well, I thought, that’s just how it goes down here. That is how it goes down here. You trade wind for rain, and you consider yourself lucky if you can ride faster than 8 mph on the terrible flat roads.

    Anyway, after about 40 miles of abuse, and about 3 miles of chasing a surprisingly fast full-grown cow down the road (the dumb beast couldn’t figure out that all it had to do to avoid me was get off the road), I found a good campsite by the river and settled in for the rest of the day. That day was New Year’s Eve, and I went to bed at 9:30 after stuffing my face with pasta and watching that cow run back and forth on the other side of the river. It was past midnight somewhere in the world, so I guess that counts… This year my resolutions are to learn Spanish guitar and survive the rest of my bicycle trip.

    So the next day the road wasn’t any better than before, and after another 40 miles I came to a small town and decided that it was time for a shower. I checked into the local hospedaje and washed off some accumulated filth, and then checked into the local supermarket and nearly bought out the entire store.

    Later in the evening, I noticed that the bus of a group of supported Swiss bicycle tourists had pulled into town, so I went on over to have a chat. They mentioned that the 60 mile roundtrip down Valle Exploradores was scenically wonderful, and that it was something that I should consider doing. So I considered it, and surprising myself, decided to do it.

    The next morning I took my unloaded bike down the road in search of some glaciers and other scenic wonders. I found them in their multitude, but I also found a road that was worse than any I’ve ever ridden on in my life. And really, it has no right to be so bad. It’s a deadend road with nothing on the other end, and it’s three years old. You tell me how something that bares no heavy vehicle traffic can get that bad in three years…

    Anyway, about 15 miles down the road the swiss tour bus pulled up along side of me, and asked if I wanted a ride to the end. Absolutely yes. Not even a question. I threw my bike on board, and set about decompressing my neck and spine while the bus rumbled down the remaining 15 miles.

    We got to the end, took a short hike up to a lookout of Mt. St. Valentine and its many breathtaking glaciers. That view made the detour entirely worth all the effort I’d already expended and the effort that I’d be expending in the very immediate future as I rode back.

    So back in Rio Traquilo I spent the rest of the day stuffing my face (standard protocol, of course), and set off the next morning further south. And surprising me greatly I came across a stretch of dirt road that was hard pack and nearly as smooth as pavement. Of course, this stretch was just put there so I could lament about the lack of it later on when the road took sharp turn back to crapsville.

    It took that turn after the junction to the road to Chile Chico. Seeing no need to ride to that town again, I pressed on over some very steep hills, and passed out in the small town of Puerto Bertrand. The next morning, the lady that ran the house whose yard I was camping in told me that the road from there to Cochrane wasn’t as steep as the road I’d just ridden, and that it’d only take a couple hours to ride the 30 miles there. That lying bitch. In fact it was the steepest road I’d encountered in an incredibly long time, and as I rode up it, I actually thought that my front wheel might come up off the ground and that I’d fall off my bicycle backwards. It took nearly five hours to ride those 30 miles.

    So I arrived in Cochrane, met a belgian cyclist and together we found a campground with — wait for it — cherry trees, raspberry bushes and other more exotic berries, all ripe and all we could eat. I climbed up into that tree faster than anything, and spent the next two hours picking and eating until I felt sick. Then I crawled into my tent and passed out. I’d need a rest day here to pick more fruit for sure.

    I took that rest day, picked over 3 pounds of cherries and slept away half the day. An ideal rest day. The rest of the time I chatted with northbound cyclists about how bad the road was in our respective directions, and got pretty drunk.

    After the rest day, the belgian cyclist and I decided to see how far we could get that first day, and battling the wind and endless washboard we actually managed 65 miles. We surprised even ourselves. We finally stopped for the day when I spotted an abandoned shelter along the side of the road, and since it was threatening rain, I climbed in through a window and set up camp. Well along came a kid saying we had to pay 2000 pesos to say there, and since he had a key to the locked door I couldn’t previously use, I figured he had some authority over the building. Well, we haggled it down to 1000 pesos, and discovered a wood stove that we could cook on. All in all a pretty good value, I guess.

    So the next day, we had another monster pass with stupidly steep climbs and then back down to a ferry crossing. We crossed, and rode the remaining 60 miles into Villa O’Higgins and the end of the Carretera Austral. So from Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins in two days. Everyone seemed surprised at that, but could have been just because we arrived on a Wednesday evening and the next ferry south from there didn’t leave until Saturday morning. Well, I needed the rest, and I had to retrue the new wheel after the thrashing it took over the past week.

    Finally from Villa O’Higgins there were only 4 miles left of the Carretera Austral to the ferry port south across the lake. Luc and I, along with 4 other dutch-speaking people rode most of that small distance the day before the ferry left, stopping for the night on a small beach.

    The beach wasn’t blessed with a lot of dry ground, but it did have a spectacular view of a glacier, as well as abundant dry and rotting wood. The wood was quickly converted into fire, and I cooked some of the delicious red lentils that I’d scored in Coyhaique over the coals.

    The next morning we rode the remaining distance to the ferry and sailed off the end of the Carretera Austral. People talk about this road as being a major cycle touring destination, but if you’re new to it, the fiendish washboard, leg-busting climbs and your choice of endless rain or giant horseflies might give you pause. And because for all that (except the flies), I loved every minute of it.

  • 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.

  • Ushuaia

    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.