Getting the Lead Out: Santiago thru the Monkey Puzzle

1/12/17.

Santiago, Chile.

 

Day 1: Leaving Santiago to San Fernando dump (148km)

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Riding away from Dalila’s home on a warm Santiago morning, I was filled with conflicting emotions. Although we’d agreed to meet up again further South, I knew this was the end of this open-ended time with her, our future interactions would likely be limited by location and scheduling between our busy lives. On the other hand I’d been feeling a tightening in my chest during my final week in Santiago. It was as if my soul’s bird song was being subdued by the confinements of city life and suddenly being in relationship. After all, I’ve spent the last 2 1/2 years largely alone in nature, making my own decisions about where to go, how long to stay, how hard to ride, etc, based solely on my own wants and needs. While there is a beauty to that freedom, I’m now beginning to fear the emotional dynamic this lifestyle creates: Of rigidity, in which I’m unable or unwilling to compromise for the needs of others around me. The mere suggestion of choosing a gentle walk in an urban park over an all-day mountain mission can trigger fear that I’m losing myself, my essence, the spirit in which I’ve been sautéing all this time. Then I realize that this pneuma of adventure and solo exploration has by and large led to solitude, and I fear what that future may hold: that my wells of community, connection and intimacy may run dry. It’s like I’m getting far too good at being alone, because that’s what I’m practicing.

It’s hard to own my choice to leave. I’ve been left behind in the past by a girlfriend who needed to “move on”. It felt horrible, triggering all sorts of “not enough” feelings inside. Oddly, I’ve occupied the opposite role in my last few relationships, consistently playing the part of the “leaver”. While slightly less disempowering than the alternative it too can be quite hard to feel, especially once acknowledged as a behavioral pattern. It would be ignorant not to question my running from present day challenges in hopes of some future reality in which they miraculously disappear, one which somehow avoids the effort, compromise, and confrontation of demons any relationship seems to require. Somehow it feels like emotional procrastination: I’ll put in the work, see it through, see what staying “in” feels like… just next time… 

I’m also haunted by the words of an old girlfriend from many years back, about how powerful she felt my presence to be — when I was actually emotionally present — and how painful it was when absent. I knew then and still feel how my sense of connection with my partners is powerful with proximity and almost immediately diminished with distance or time apart. In other words, absence doesn’t make my heart grow fonder, it often just moves on to what’s in front of me. Noticing this historical pattern immediately occurring with every Southbound mile out of Santiago was painful. I didn’t WANT to suddenly drop the emotional bond with Dalila, but couldn’t stop it from happening. My awareness was quickly overcome by the exhaustion of pedaling my loaded bike out of Santiago, managing caloric intake and heat exhaustion. It was as if I’d entered an alternate universe for a couple weeks and was now back to my regularly scheduled programming.. Luckily she’d given me a small pendant from her neck with the letter “D” engraved in it. Mounted to my handlebar it served as a consistent reminder of our time together, and with moderate success it sliced through the haze to remind me of our connection. How ironic it was that the pendant fell off of my bike within 2 days…

Needless to say my first day back in the saddle was a tormented one. 

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It took forever to get out of the city. Like 1/2 the day. I believe it was a good 30km before I actually felt like I was back in open space and not in an urban location. It was also hot. Not deadly hot but I’d not been riding much for 2 weeks now and I could feel how out of shape my legs were. Getting the bike rolling from stop lights took some extra effort. Small hills winded me surprisingly. But I pushed on. Followed as many off-highway dirt tracks as I could, mostly just paralleling the major highway. I was really impressed by the amount of bike lanes everywhere, even in smaller towns I’d find a 2-lane bike lane that was separated from the main road with a divider. Quite impressive, Chile. Nice work!

Passing through urban Rancagua, my original goal for the night, I realized I could get a lot further. it was only 5:30pm and it wouldn’t get dark until around 9. I could likely roll another 50-60km given the flat terrain. So I did. Passed through the small upper-class town of Rengo, and stocked up on food there. A cute town but nowhere to camp. I asked a local if there might be more campable places up in the distant hills across the highway and got a resounding yes, but there would be no options in town. So I took a twisty, windy paved country road that eventually faded to dirt as I was surrounded by field of grapevines. It was now 8pm. I needed to find a place to stop and everything was still fenced in on both sides of the road. Finally I see one open dirt side road. Of course, the typical small town trash dump site with piles of plastic bottles, large couch carcasses and other random refuse. I imagined that if I took the dump road far enough I’d pass the trash piles I’d find a campsite. Sweet! Gorgeous spot surrounded by trees and a flowing stream (luckily the trash was downstream) and a perfect place to set up camp in time for a radiant sunset. 

 

Day 2: San Fernando Dump to Las Jaulas (100km):

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I awoke at dawn for an early push-off to avoid discovery by would-be dumpers. I rolled into San Fernando to stock up for the rustic road crossing to Argentina and to charge my devices. I stopped for a fantastic meat-tastic lunch in little Chimbarongo to store up on calories for the big climb over the Andes, and chatted with a local bakery owner over an ice cream. Upon hearing about my journey he promptly loaded me up with 4 big sweet treats, a bunch of nescafe bags, some chips and various other treats, and would not accept any money. Amazing people are everywhere. 

In the late afternoon heat, I rode up the Rio Teno for a while, occasionally pulling over to douse myself in the refreshing flow. Lucky the afternoon sun was at my back but it was too hot to matter. This sweltering heat refueled my addiction for cold sugary sodas, regardless of the price. By the time I reached the last town, ascending the mountainside I’d had 3 cokes, 2 Powerades, and 2 ice creams. Not super healthy. But sooooo refreshing. I reached Las Jaulas just before sunset, enjoying a perfect swim hole and a free place to camp. 

 

Day 3: Las Jaulas to Baños de Azufre.  (60km)

 

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Out of the campground began an all-day climb. I’d need to gain about 5500′ of elevation in order to reach the Argentinian border at Paso Malargue. Little did I know there would be MANY rolling hills to navigate the narrow river valley. All in all I ended up climbing about 8000′ today. Luckily the scenery was gorgeous and there was very little traffic, add in a strong tailwind for good measure and it all made for quite a pleasant push up the mountainside. I reached the Chilean customs office by mid-afternoon and expected a quick stamp and a smile. Little did I know this would be far from my accurate… 

 A bit of background: During my youth it was a regular family occasion to experience the intensity of my Father’s temper. He was always generally pretty intense, a doctor and academic that worked so many hours it left little time for sleep. At times we’d be on a family trip and run into the normal situation of some obstacle in our itinerary. Perhaps it was slow service at a restaurant or a lost hotel reservation. Every time, he would handle the problem by progressively raising his voice, his facial blood vessels progressively bursting, the fire in his words soon matching the color in his face. There seemed to be an absolute lack of understanding that the service person trying to help us was rarely personally responsible for the issue. But it didn’t matter, he’d scream at them just the same. It was so embarrassing to watch these poor people cower under the threats of “having their job” or the likes. I remember telling myself I would never do that to people when in similarly challenging situations. For the most part I feel I’m quite respectful of people fielding complaints in the service industry. Be it the person at a product returns desk, the airline representative for a cancelled flight, or a customs official who drags you through the tortuous bureaucracy of inane paperwork. But the latter would end up testing my practice of patience this day.

As I pulled up to the small customs building on the side of a steep mountain slope overlooking a raging river, I was greeted by two customs workers in uniform who’d been chatting outside. I’d only seen 1 car pass me to go through this uncommon border crossing so they likely had nothing but time. They asked some of the typical “top 10” questions about my journey before ushering me to the counter where I’d get my exit stamp on my passport. The officer at the counter seemed a little serious, his mirror neurons apparently underfiring in response to my warm smile and greetings. He flipped through my passport a few times, reading every page, until he finally put it down again and asked exactly when I had entered Chile. “Dec 29th,” I said, “just before New Year’s”. He could not find any stamps in my passport corresponding to that date. I recounted to him my memory of the strange experience I’d had that day and how despite passing through 3 different offices to first receive a small form, then get it stamped, then finally hand it back to someone in the 3rd office, I didn’t actually remember seeing my actual passport get stamped. The customs officials had all waved me through as if everything were in order, so I assumed it was. But here I was trying to leave Chile and was now being told that without any proof of having entered the country, I was actually an illegal alien and would have to return to Santiago to resolve this issue, likely with major fines to pay.

Despite the potentially frusrtrating outcome, all the customs officials here were extremely nice so far. One baggage checker seemed to take personal interest and was doing everything he could to help understand my situation and relay it to the main customs officer. The officer also repeatedly told me he was trying to resolve the problem so I could pass through and to please just be patient. The vibe in the room was calm and positive, and so too was I. I was even joking with the people behind the counter, sharing stories, and assuming this would all get cleared up reasonably quickly, that it was merely a technicality due to a clerical error. I was finally ushered back to the head officer’s desk, where I received the latest update that I’d NOT be able to pass, that I’d have to return to Santiago to be brought up on charges as an illegal alien and be forced to pay fines to right this error. NOW I was not calm. I felt my face flush and my pupils dilate, my voice tone getting progressively more and more shrill. I knew this wasn’t helping but just could not control it. I clarified that I’d done my part to legally pass through the previous border. I even showed her the GPX track of my ride with it’s date stamp to confirm my claims. Nothing was helping. I just had to breathe and accept my fate. As my temper began to simmer, the head officer received a call. They’d found a small document for my bike at the last border. Compiled with showing my GPS tracks, they decided it would be enough to let me through. Suddenly the mood changed from intense to completely calm again. I could feel the adrenaline fading from my bloodstream, simultaneously noticing my shame for getting upset at this poor woman.

 

I apologized. Multiple times. Funny how I could feel the shame level was out of proportion with the actual situation. I was back to being a boy, ashamed for being a part of causing someone’s bad day. 

 

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After my stamps were all completed, these wonderful people still all banded together in kindness, asked to take a set of photos with me, even sent me on with some gourmet cheese and sausages they’d just confiscated from another person trying to enter from Argentina, and wished me safe journeys. 

All in all it was an important reminder. Treat people well. Everyone. Always. Even if you’re frustrated by the situation or by the people themselves. You just never know. They may hold your future in their hands, in the form of saving your life or controlling your safe passage. Anger does not bestow generosity. But kindness and warmth do. Treat people with love. Not because you need something from them but because it just feels good to contribute to a more positive and connected world. Of course it’s harder to practice this when people aren’t “doing things right”, don’t seem to care, or seem unnecessarily aggressive. These are the hardest times to keep a consistent practice, and can be the most rewarding for me, if I can shift a negative situation to the positive. Sometimes I fail brutally at this but am consistently improving. I’ve read some great books on the subject over the years, including Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg and Crucial Conversations Swizzler, Grenny and McMillan. It’s a lifelong process.

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With renewed sense of calm and connection, I climbed up the insanely steep dirt road from Chilean customs to reach the Argentinian border. While it was only 10 kilometers ahead I’d have to climb about 2500 feet, just on the edge of rideable given the steep and loose gravel roads and my bald rear tire. 

 

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As the sun swung low into the evening sky I reached the border. Argentinian customs was a breeze, one of the officers stood from their group dinner upon hearing my taps on the window and stamped me in with a smile. 

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Given the late hour, I pedaled hard to reach the nearby Baños de Azufre hot springs. Despite being closed for a number of years this stunning site still had a few intact stone structures for wind protection and the pools, while overgrown and a bit scummy, were all still hot. I met two other travelers both car camping at the hot springs, leading to a tasty shared salad for dinner and soaking by starlight. A perfect end to a long day. 

 

Day 4: Azufre to road work nook just past Bardas Blancas: (147km) 

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I awoke to my alarm clock this morning. I knew the sun would not hit my tent given it’s confines within 6’ stone walls of the hot springs shelter, which turned out to be a fantastic choice. I managed to get out of bed quickly this morning and as I gazed across the enormous valley below I realized the sun had yet to emerge from the horizon. Even glancing back at that enormous glacier towering over our camp, not a single ray hat hit it’s upper slopes just yet. But dawn light was emerging and I took the opportunity to get some alone time in the hot springs up the valley slope. While the original hot springs resort located here has been closed for a number of years, the pools have remained in reasonably good condition. And there were a LOT of them. 10 as far as I could count, each with its own unique feel and water temperature. Given the cool air I tested all the waters in search of the hottest one, and upon finding it hopped right in. I sat and enjoyed the first rays of sun hitting the glacier, transitioning from glowing purples to fuchsias to radiant pinks until settling on bright yellow. Gorgeous. 

After a lovely shared breakfast with my new friends Carolina and Rolfi, we spent the cool morning soaking in hot water, swapping travel stories and sharing ideas for exploring the beauty of the Andes. 

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 Tiny cave-room near the hot springs.

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It was a long day of seemingly endless washboard (called “calamina” down here). But magnificent views in every direction made it all quite worthwhile. 

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A long descent carried me down the Rio Grande and highway 40 at Bardas Blancas. I elected to ride a few kilometers out of town and pick a roadside campsite and found a perfect wind-protected spot by the river.

Day 5: Bardas Blancas to Barrancas (135km):

I awoke quietly, calmly as the sun’s first rays pierce my tent and warm my face. The fierce wind that has blown overhead throughout the evening has settled and allowed for a silent morning. A little oatmeal and come coffee were followed by Day 3 of the Take 10 meditation series on Headspace. Torpor was my struggle during this meditation. Nodding off every minute or so, brought back only by the narrator’s gentle voice. I packed up to begin yet another long day on the bike, 130+ km to the next town of Barrancas.

The ride started gently with a slow and steady descent on packed dirt and pavement for 40km. Then the road got rougher. Gravel, loose rocks and sand accompanied the heat of day in the low valley as I traced the banks of the Rio Grande in it’s Southern descent. At one point I noticed a perfect nook, just screaming for a swim. Following the call, I picked through the loose sand and rocks to the river bank and pulled out the fixings for a delicious lunch. Just then I noticed a sharp pain in my right ankle. Looking down, a large grey fly was burrowing it’s head into my flesh like a thirsty dog to water. It didn’t seem to note it’s imminent demise, it’s flattened body flopping to the ground after my swift slap. But then more a few more flies appeared, almost in retaliation. Then MANY more. I was swarmed quite quickly and realized this would not be the relaxing respite I’d imagined on this sweltering afternoon. I tore my clothes off and ran into the cool rushing river, hoping to escape the swarm under aquatic cover. It worked. For about 10 seconds. Then the swarm returned, concentrating it’s attacks on my eyes, ears and nose while my body was submerged. After a short escape attempt into the middle of the river, I conceded defeat and returned to my planned feast, only to pack it all away in search of a more insect-free location. Luckily the water was still cool and fantastic. Well worth the effort despite the challenge. 

An hour later leave the Rio Grand to climb into open dry desert, so filtered 2 liters of water assuming it will be more than sufficient for this 2500′ climb. But the sun was fierce today. My last water bottle was gone before the first hour of climbing was complete. I had a ways to go and thirst was taking its toll. Not a single car stopped as they blew past me casting clouds of dust in my fast. No worries. Thirst and exhaustion are just sensations, right?  I finally arrived at a large lake and relish at the possibility of quenching this unbearable thirst, but couldn’t access it’s shores. Behind the 6’ barbed wire fence are 1-200m of dense wet marsh, it was torture to pass this by. Luckily water awaited in a town only another 10km away. I attacked the final climb and descended into the small village. The only cold water available is a 2 liter bottle of soda water for purchase at a tiny household storefront. Adding a couple of oranges I discovered home made orange crush… delicious. All 2 liters are inside my stomach within 5 minutes. Stomach exploding with gas, I pushed on for Barrancas. I reached the outskirts of town despite a wall of headwind. Adding a final 700′ steep climb to town, the day destroyed me. I found the town campground and set up next to another touring cyclist, Jero, a tattoo artist from Mendoza.

I checked my messages for the first time in 2 days to learn that my Mom had suffered a severe fall, concussion and was hospitalized in fear of brain injury.

Holy shit.

Luckily she was okay, coherent and conscious but I was scared and began researching how quickly I could get to an airport. I finally reached her at her hospital bed and felt a sigh of relief to hear her voice. I’d decide my what to do tomorrow once we spoke again. Jero and I shared a meal and inspired conversation, then our ways to sleep amidst the enormous wind gusts overhead blowing our tents in every direction. I awoke in the middle of the night, not to the gusts, but a familiar buzzing in my ear. Mosquitos surrounded me. I turned on the flashlight to see at least 50 in the tent, having discovered the small opening I’d unfortunately left in the zipper. It’s been many months since I’ve needed to manage these buggers and I wasn’t prepared! During my furious killing spree of smooshing droves of blood-filled foes against my tent screen I shoved too hard in one moment, and with a loud familiar snap I had broken the hub where my tent poles join. Fuck. The same thing happened back in Ecuador due to wind and it was a nightmare to fix. The tent could still stand but was severely weakened and had lost all resistance to the wind. This would be a big problem. 

 

Day 6: Barrancas to Volcan Tromen (48km):

A morning call to Boston confirmed my Mom’s health was stable enough to keep rolling South for now. 

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Wow. 40km and 5200′ of climbing has never felt so hard. Perhaps it was the impossible gusting headwinds forcing me to walk large sections of the steep ascent. Perhaps I was just tired from my 6th straight day of hard riding. Who knows. I reached the summit of the climb an hour before sunset gazing across at the towering Volcan Tromen, realizing fully that I’d certainly not make it the 60 additional kilometers to my goal town of Chos Malal. Alas. I sought a bit of wind protection behind a large rock outcrop to prepare for a cold night wrapped in my tent body as a bivy, given the broken poles.

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Luckily a lone man, the first human I’d seen all day, walked up at that very moment. I had passed one lone farm about 500m back on the road, the only development for the last 20km of riding, and it was his. He invited me to stay at his place, enticing me with a real bed and a home-cooked meal. I tried to act independent and said I’d be fine out here, but eventually gave in to his overwhelming kindness.

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Carlos showed me into his tiny kitchen shack and would not let me lift a finger as he cut up very fresh meat and veggies for a stew.

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He told me about spending his entire life between that farm and his other home about 25km down the road, living high in the summer and down low in the winter. All the while raising sheep and goats for meat. It was a simple life. He almost never left the area. He was happy. I was inspired. He showed me into the other shack, also hand built by him, housing two small beds under a low ceiling. I slept better than the dead under an immense pile of heavy woolen blankets. It was like an a grown-up version of swaddling. The following morning we awoke with dawn’s light and shared a simple potato and coffee breakfast as the sun crested Volcan Tromen. I thanked Carlos profusely for his hospitality and continued on my way, filled with fresh food and great conversation. 

Day 7: Tromen to Chos Malal (61km):

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A quick descent down the dirt road led me to town back on the highway. After a short while catching up on my Mom’s condition it became clear that she was stable, and I should not just rush out of town for an airport. I decided I’d stay the night. Avoid the afternoon head, and push off early. I found a hardware store in town an attempted to build a brace for the broken pole hub out of silicone epoxy. No go. It broke within moment of setting up the tent. I camped out under the open stars given my lack of functional tent, wondering where or when I’d actually fix it…

Chos Malal is a comfortable town. Lots of cafes, good internet and all the amenities to make an early morning push-off unlikely. I used the time to route plan at a local gas station, realizing I’d need to cross back into Chile soon in order to access a route though the Arucania region and its famed monkey puzzle trees. I decided to cross via a trail system over Paso Copahue following the route of Paul Griffiths. Back to more climbing!!

Day 8: Chos Malal to Huecu (97km):

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The highway out of Chos Malal was filled with various roadside saints’ altars.  San Sebastian was a new one to me. 

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I’d seen Gauchito Gil from my time near Mendoza…

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… But the size of some of the Gauchito Gil altars was quite impressive!!!

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After a short paved pass I was on the dry dirt road to Huecû. multiple small passes and creaky chain. A Kind store owner in town let me crash in her yard. Day 2 of no tent pole camping. I made a makeshift tent pinching the rainfly against a pile of bricks. Pretty much served to keep the mosquitos IN. Alas. 

Day 9: Huecû to Copahue (75km):

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Long dirt roads and a long steady climb all day. On the left: my first sighting of the Arucaria (monkey puzzle) tree. I planned to see MANY more of these on a bikepacking route named The Monkey Puzzle…

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Arriving in Copahue I was struck to discover it was a retirees’ mecca to come and soak in the town’s enormous hot springs pools. The streets were filled with elderly people, all walking around in white robes to and from the main termales in the center of town. Hilarious really. I made my way to the campground and after my eyes widened at the inflated camp ground fee (damn wealthy retirees…), the kind owner gave me a break and offered me a free night in the campground. So kind. I enjoyed another night out under the stars. I was concerned at the high altitude that I’d be cold without the tent for layering, but found perfect comfort and great astrological views. 

Day 10: Copahue to Ralco (77km): 

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After running around town this morning to get my passport stamped and check in with the border police to make my route plans known, I pushed my way up the rocky dirt trail to summit Copahue Pass. Gorgeous views of Volcan Copahue and the enormous long valley descending out of it and across into Chile. 

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The trail was rough at times but fun to be in really “out there” kind of terrain. A couple of hairy sections with big exposure got my neck hairs up on end.

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Dispersed puffs of hot steam escaped the slopes surrounding me, easily predictable by the sulphur-dyed rock faces. Beautiful. 

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Before I knew it Paso Copahue was behind me and I was ripping down the comparatively smooth dirt road toward Chilean customs. It was interesting to note the local laws printed in at least 2 indigenous languages spoken by many people in the small towns around here. First time seeing these languages in print form, despite hearing them spoken from time to time. 

So lovely to have this border crossing go MUCH easier than the last 2. I was nervous though, since this border is only used by foot and pack animal traffic the customs agents only had a generic Chilean stamp onto which they wrote the relevant information pertaining to my border crossing. After multiple confirmations of it’s validity from the kind and patient officer, I rolled on toward Ralco. 

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Many steep climbs and descents later, I reached Ralco by evening light. A tiny little town with a beautifully manicured central park, I didn’t know exactly where I should camp… So while slow-rolling past the tiny church on the main corner, I asked the pastor if he had suggestions. He generously walked me to the soft, duffy forest floor behind the church where I’d find a number of perfect tent sites. Clearly I was not the first traveller to ask! Without a functional tent I slept outside yet again. I’m really starting to like this sleeping outside thing. I’m getting more used to ignoring the bugs (a buff over the ears really cuts the auditory annoyance factor), and the experience feels significantly more in touch with the nature around me. Definitely considering minimal tent use from here on South, even if I do get the thing fixed. 

Rain, however, might change my mind about that… 

Day 11: Ralco Church to lakeside CS on the Monkey Puzzle route (71km):

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Day one of the Monkey Puzzle Route I pulled off of bikepacking.com, I was surprised not to see any actual monkey puzzle trees… After seeing the one tree on the way up to Copahue I figured there would be forests full of the strange and amazing pine, but not a one… yet. What I did experience lots of was insane up and down gradients. In about 71km, my GPS showed over 9000’ of climbing. Impressive for the distance. The route was odd and interesting, at times seeming to pass through private property and over a few 10’ fences to cross a school property. I realized through some scouting that the school had only just been built however, the fences were brand new. After some snooping I found the trail over a surprisingly well-built foot bridge that led to a steep trail up to a 2 track… this was the big hikeabike for the day. More of that coming as well I assume… 

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A long and funky rutted dirt road descent landed me by a big reservoir in some grass. While getting water under a bridge a woman from the house up the hill was walking down a trail to hitch a ride to her job in Lonquimay, the next bigger town I’d soon reach. She suggested I camp down by the lake (Lago Ralco) in from of her property where she’d already put a table and fire pit. So nice. 

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As I prepared my simple pasta dinner I received a visit by an adorable little mutt. Quickly perceiving my weakness for nice dogs begging me for handouts, I made a permanent friend. He slept outside near my feet for half the night before wandering back to wherever he lived. He returned the next morning for table-side pets as I sipped my morning coffee. 

Day 12: Lakeside CS to Rio Lonquimay (81km):

It was hard to leave my little canine friend. As I rode down the dirt road he ran alongside me for the first mile along the lakeside. I eventually had to sprint away to lose him, knowing his home was here and mine was still in motion. 

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After I dropped back down to a distant section of Lago Ralco and followed up a river basin, some dirty and sandy, but mostly gorgeous terrain surrounded me. There had clearly been some volcanic activity in recent years as large sections of trees were burnt to a crisp, surrounded by seemingly fresh lava flow.

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 Almost instantaneously as I climbed around a steep corner, monkey puzzle (Araucania) trees surrounded me as if 4000’ elevation was the magic elevation for their successful growth. Their peculiar spiraling branches swooped down toward me on the dirt road from above. 

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 A bit further ahead, I climbed a steep ridgeline from the river through an enormous old lava flow. I climbed by two huge volcanos well above tree line. Surrounded by sand and lava I looked up at one to see ski lifts on the face of it. It was the famed Centro de Ski Corralco on the face of Volcan Malalcahuello. Looked pretty fun. I thought about sand boarding… also would be pretty sweet… Instead I enjoyed a screaming sandy descent to Reserva Nacional Nalca.

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At the bottom I finally saw what Arucaria was all about. The land of super funky enormous monkey puzzle trees with their amazing jigsaw bark and mushroom-shaped plumage.

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Later internet research into the etymology of “monkey puzzle” revealed that a British explorer, upon seeing these giant forests exclaimed, “it would even puzzle a monkey to climb up these spectacular trees.” One more final climb to Lonquimay, upon which I met a long distance cycle tourist exploring the area for the 3rd or 4th time. Guy from the UK had been bike touring around the world for many years now, and was braving these sandy roads on a 4-pannier skinny-tired road bike with super low handle bars. While he appeared to be a nice guy something gave me a preview of what happens to a person that has been out alone for too long. It was something in the way he described his interactions with people and the addictive tone with which he referred to his touring endeavors. It felt as if this was all he knew anymore, and his challenges needed to be progressively bigger and harder in order to be “worth it” to him. Scary really, because it felt a bit like looking through a portal into my own future… Is this what I will become if I keep living life this way, riding my bike alone through desolate landscapes of the world? Or is this how I’m already perceived by those around me and people are too careful to call me out about it? Hm… This will take further reflection, but at the moment was foreboding to say the least. 

After I dropped into the cute and populated and clean Lonquimay. With no easy place to camp in town, I stocked up on food and rode out along the river Lonquimay which I followed for a while on a trail until I found an inlet of land around a sharp river curve. Perfect little camp site by the river, quiet. Minimal bugs. Lovely. 

 

Day 13: Rio Lonquimay to Laguna Colico (131km):

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Rolling on a quiet paved road along the Monkey Puzzle route this morning, I encountered a recently killed owl on the roadside just after sunrise. I’d never seen a dead owl before. It felt somehow significant. As a young child I developed an affinity for all things owl, so much so that most family members gave me owl-related paraphernalia as gifts for many years. I had piles of stuffed animal owls, owl picture frames, and more. So seeing my first recently passed owl, I felt a need to morn and honor its death.  I saved a few of its feathers, then carried it off the road into the trees. Said a prayer for it and thanked it for its majestic beauty. Apologized for the damage mankind carelessly inflicts upon the natural world.

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Up a long dirt climb I entered an enormous grove of araucaria trees. Amazing. Gigantic. Double trunked at times. Fun with photos ensued for a few hours.

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A clean cellphone screen makes for interesting reflections…

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The snags are just as captivating as the living trees. 

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Just to be sure, I’m definitely not a monkey. Though attempting to scale this large araucaria was certainly puzzling.

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A side road off the first side road carried me into a hobbit like play land of araucaria, with the road winding up steep little hills and curving around enormous old-growth stands before finally descending through a large area burned out by forest fire. All that remained were the araucaria, their trunks blackened by fire, and new young green undergrowth with bright orange flowers. The color contrast was unreal.

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Amazing. Even without this B&W photo effect!

After the burnt forest area I dropped into the small town of Melipeuco in the afternoon and caught up on some internet in the park for a couple of hours. Continued on via pavement past Cunco to Lago Colico where I sought a camp ground. The CG owner tried to charge me 40,000CLP (approx $60USD!!!) for a campsite!! I was certainly in the rich vacation playland of Santiageros, and could not afford to be here.  I told him I was used to paying 3000 (about 4.50) at most. After laughing in my face he introduced me to a small group of young women who were also on bikes. They let me share their site with them for 5000. Yes, it was by a beautiful big lake but no it wasn’t worth it. I have come to realize that staying in the crowded chilean campgrounds should be avoided if at all possible. Rogue camping must be sought from here, just like in the USA…

Day 14: Colico to Pucon (71km):

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Out of Colico CG the road undulated up steep climbs and descents around hillsides, hugging the lake for a while. Then as the route cut off onto a narrow jeep road it got unbeareably steep and rocky. The pushing began. It didn’t stop, less a few short rideable sections, for about 5 hours. Insane rutted roads full of mud and rocks.

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Only enormous Moab style rock crawling vehicles could have possibly made these 2-3’ deep caverns in the road. 

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The descent was at least as rough as the climb. enormous ruts to try to stay to the sides of, with 6-8’ ledges into their depths with one misstep.

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The bike certainly took a beating in here between the ruts and the rocks. 

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Suddenly, as if a switch had been flicked, I transitioned from lone insanely rutted world to insanely populated tourist world as I hit the Southern coast of Lago Caburgua. Signs for fancy food. Artesania. Fancy cheeses and desserts. LOTS of cars. I rolled the fast pavement down into Pucon with about an hour of light to find lodging. EVERYTHING was full. All the hostels. Like 6 in a row. I was finally led by one hostel worker to the spot of his friend who had one bed open, in hostel El Nativo far off the beaten track down a dirt sidestreet. Luckily the owner was really nice and had just started an asado (Argentinian-style barbecue) when I arrived. I bought some meat to contribute. Good people. 

After 14 days of continuous riding with no days off, I ended up staying in Pucon for about 10 days… Why would I stay in a tourist trap like this for that long, you might ask? I’ll explain more next time. 

 

One Response

  1. Box Canyon Mark
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    Such an incredible journey…literally and metaphorically. The pain is palpable…
    Box Canyon Mark

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