Punta Arenas, Chile.
And so I stood, once again looking across a large waterway and the similarly immense changes that lay beyond it. In about 1 weeks time, I will have traversed Isla Grande of Tierra del Fuego to arrive in Ushuaia, Argentina. It is there that my Southbound trajectory would cease after nearly 3 years of pedaling. Contrasting emotions ricocheted against one another within the confines of my body, so much so that I reeled from their emotional bruising.
I was reminded of my final Southbound day riding the Tour Divide in 2013, where I was torn between the excitement of imminently reaching my “goal” and the grief of imminently losing that very goal. I wasn’t “done”. I wasn’t ready to return to “normal” life. My Seattle homecoming that September revealed that the entire value system I had employed to build my life there had shifted over those 3 short months on the road. Mostly in the direction where items of previous importance all of the sudden seemed insignificant, empty. I quickly fell into depression, suffocating in a sea of superfluousness that I had myself created. It took another 6 months to fully accept the implications of this response: I needed to go back “out”. But this time it couldn’t be just for another sabbatical. It needed to be open-ended, free to expand from the confines of a vacation and inhabit the space of “this is my life.”
And so over the next 2 months I hurriedly shed 90% of my belongings, built up my new steed, and closed my bodywork practice of 10 years, while simultaneously stumbling through the end of a relationship. I flew with my beloved pup to Boston to leave her with my gracious parents. Then on May 22nd of 2014, I rode North to the Bellingham ferry terminal where I would embark on a 4-day ride to Anchorage to reach ground zero, the North coast of Alaska.
So now, this alternatively final ferry ride felt similarly significant. But this time ground zero would denote the END of an era. And while every end is also implicitly a beginning (blah blah blah), my fears focused on the negative. The impending loss of this way of life, of its freedom and boundlessness was all-consuming. I knew I was choosing the change that lay ahead — directing my path toward community and connection, but in this moment that choice elicited nearly paralytic fear. Good thing I had a week of desolate dirt with which to process it…
I rolled out of my cozy hostel bed (the first actual bed I’d inhabited in weeks) and fumbled to gather my stuff by darkness so as to avoid waking the other travelers in the room. The owner at Hostel La Independencia provided a badass breakfast full of breads, eggs, fruits and more, after which I enjoyed a few miles accompanying a brilliant sunrise to the ferry dock. Quite a big ferry, they loaded it up with cars and people (even a few other bikers) and we were off.
After stocking up on supplies in the small port town of Porvenir, I rolled out on a smooth dirt road to hug the coastline in search of an alleged penguin colony a day away. I was surprised to see an altar for Gauchito Gil here on the Chilean side, typically these specific roadside shrines have been unique to Argentina… Beautiful nonetheless.
Over a quick pass and I was descending to Useless Bay (Bahia Inutíl), whose coast I’d be hugging through the afternoon.
What does one call a group of guanacos in english? Google didn’t know the answer. Closest I came was a caravan of camels but that felt a bit to far afield. Alas, I appreciated sharing the terrain almost exclusively with these gentle and graceful animals, despite their oddly laugh-esque sounding warning calls.
Of particular interest was watching them cleanly hop over 5’ barbed wire fences, never catching front nor rear legs as they did so. I tried to photograph the moment of hopping while riding by but only managed to catch this one looking as if he’d paused to order a beer at the pub.
As the road turned away from the coast, it straightened out to efficiently cross the long and flat terrain. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen terrain so uniform! It was a nice contrast, just getting lost in the Brunelleschian linear disappearing point for a stretch…
By mid-evening it was time to find a resting point. Loads of flat ground surrounded me but winds blew with a commanding ferocity. Luckily I noticed a lone structure appear over the horizon, at the very first road intersection for many hours. Outside it a lone dirt bike was parked…
(Cyclist House: Clean up before you go (it’s not that difficult)).
Sweet! I entered the small space to find a small bed platform to one side, occupied with a sleeping bag, and a kind Turkish man named Sarkam who was heading North from Ushuaia. I made us coffee as we chatted about our travels, later sharing a lovely meal by flashlight.
Following the typical Casa de Ciclista pattern, the walls were seeping with history. Autographs from cyclists and moto riders from years passed. I love being an active member of this community. One cannot imagine how it feels to reach these communal buildings after countless kilometers of travel unless one has lived them. Again, feelings of love, fear and mourning emerged. Not many more of these structures would lay ahead, if any, and it might be a while until I see them again. In the immortal words of Boyz II Men, “It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday.”
Taking the indirect route South from the Casa de Ciclistas would, in addition to carrying me through some roads-less-travelled, pass one of the few king penguin colonies on Isla Grande. Curious to experience both possibilities, I took the turn…
Arriving to the entry gate before opening, I waited alongside a warm German couple over a cup of coffee. Upon entry I saw this sign, thinking “I’m definitely going to start calling them Pipi Rooms! But given the multilingual intent of the sign, where do they say that??”
Inside the gates, access to the colony was quite restricted. Visitors were to stand behind this wall and use the included binoculars to view the penguins, some 200 feet away.
Not the most powerful of zoom lenses, I took a few shots and mostly just sat down next to the fence, listening to the peculiar calls of these weird waddlers. I took a short video for those who are not familiar:
I took some photos of the various local bird species…
… Which quickly came in handy! These Caranchos are all over the place on the island, loving to perfectly perch atop the variety of barbed wire fence poles lining the dirt roads. Some curious guanacos had to infiltrate my shot.
Evening rolls in too soon. I pass an enormous old mining machine and climb up it’s rickety rusted links to enjoy a meal at the top.
The sounds of the winds whistling through metal fabricated a serene, sublime chorus.
Dusk approached quickly, matched by accompanying cloud cover. A few kilometers ahead I noticed a set of tire tracks worn into the tall grass along the edge of a huge valley off the side of the dirt road and followed them to a high plateau out of view from “traffic” (I’d seen about 3 cars all day). The temperature was dropping quickly so I built a beautiful raging fire with the ample dry wood around and warmed up over a meal. Given the wet, often marshy terrain I’ve traveled as of late, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a fire. Such a simple and fundamental pleasure. As the fire diminished so too did my energy, I crawled into my sleeping bag to rest. Some time later I awoke to the discomfort of completely numb feet and ankles. The temperature had dropped significantly without daylight, confirmed by the tent fly walls now totally solid with frozen condensation. I guess I’m pretty far South now, and the season is getting late. On go the wool socks and hat, glad to have carried them this far.
My morning routine was no easier. The tent was covered in condensation ice, which meant it would be packed soaking wet as it thawed. The air was so cold I could only do 1-2 minutes of activity with exposed hands before needed to rewarm them between my thighs for another 2-3. I marveled at those who ride across Alaska and Norway in the winter time, I’m not sure I could… or would… do it.
I got rolling and completely bundled against the frigid air but was able to roll fast for the 40km to the border. Hoping the interaction with the border guards might be momentous, I had prepared my story, that this was my last of 31 border crossings by bike, over 14 countries, in 34 months. 14 of these crossings were between Chile and Argentina. Then I considered they might ask me to name the local crossings and I realized that number included a few illegal ones. Good thing there was actually no conversation had. A stamp, a subtle smile, and an onward wave were all I received. The danger of expectations.
Once in Argentina I rolled through huge open valleys all day, climbing up big grassy knolls then bombing down the opposite side.
I found a cutoff road to head directly South rather than stay on the main road to restock in Rio Grande. I had just enough food to make it to Tolhuin with what I had if I pushed hard: 120km each day. Totally doable.
A little creative mapping and a bit of guesswork revealed a cutoff from the cutoff. It required a small amount of fence hopping but carried me through some beautiful country during the late afternoon and evening light. I love these sections of rides, when I feel confident enough in my route to proceed but have no confirmation that my route will connect without issue… I know it’s low risk by some thrill-seeking standards but for me it pumps warm blood into the life of the journey. Given the gate I’d already hopped and the more tracked road seeming to lead to a farm I’d then stealthily passed, I knew I’d have the route to myself until I hit another road, some 15km ahead. Now just overgrown grass. Beautiful. Silent. Perfect.
Yeah, not even the avian scavengers seemed to know about this road. The decomposed cow seemed to be slowly returning to the soil without interruption.
The perfect place to plant myself, amidst a field of bovinological osteoiconography (Yes, I made up those words. Have you not realized by now that when I can’t find what I’m looking for in a dictionary I just meld “close-enough” words together to serve my needs? Try it sometime if you haven’t… It’s fun to break from the limits of legal language!)
I awoke multiple times to a particularly irksome intrusion into my otherwise silent evening. The peculiar buzzing of dozens of moths beating their wings against my tent wall, obsessively ferreting about for a way in. I had thought their attraction was primarily to light, none of which was emanating from within, but they persevered nonetheless. It was far from relaxing, yet peculiarly engaging!
By morning only a few stragglers remained, lining the grass around the tent, too cold to buzz and fly, they all found their nocturnal rest by morning light.
Upon waking I became acutely reminiscent of the dream I’d just had. Given the rarity of recalling my somnolent excursions I quickly turn on my phone’s recording app and grabbed it all. In the dream, I was returning from this journey to my parents’ home outside of Boston. My Mom was walking me through the house, showing me what had changed or remained since my travels, showing me to my bedroom. I remember there was a nervous zeal to her words, she really wanted to make sure I was comfortable and felt welcome. She’d invested a lot of time in cleaning up my room to prepare for my return and was excited to show it to me. Upon reaching the bedroom door she turned to me and simply said, “I just don’t know how to please you.” Clearly overwhelmed by her own vulnerability, she turned away and walked into another room to collect herself. Assuming I’d give her a moment before checking in on her, I entered the room to put my bags down.
It was white. All white. White walls, white floor, white bed and comforter. No other furniture in the room. No windows. Just white.
I remember my first reaction to it: “It’s perfect.” Exactly what I wanted and needed, it was a place free from memories, from clutter and crap, even free from the distractions of color. Almost as a wave bouncing back against a shore break, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of fear and shame: This is how people assume I am right now. So fragile from being “out” of society that all I can handle is a white room akin to a sanitarium. All it lacked from this perspective were rubber walls. But it felt right to me. Therein lay the crux of my experience. I walked back to my Mom, now gathering herself in an adjacent room, and shared “I don’t know how to please me either.” I could feel how much she just wanted to share her love and care and how it seemed that any misstep could get her feeding hand bitten off. She shared how much work went into clearing the room and how she’d enlisted the help of our old neighbor to do it. I told her how what she’d created was nothing short of a perfect match for my perfect image of a peaceful space.
I thought about this dream over breakfast and throughout the morning’s ride. I’d been composing a message to post on Facebook regarding my impeding completion of this Pan-American leg of my world tour, and resulting return to the United States. I’m sure I’ll share it somewhere on this blog, but it lays out what words I use to describe my journey, which words I avoid, and why, and is an attempt to help support people who want to ask me about my experience but don’t know how to do it. The mere fact that I felt the need to write such a piece is a sign that in some ways I am indeed so fragile, so sensitive, that I’d dream up a sterile white room as the perfect site of relaxation. I’m so curious how these days and weeks will unfold…
Rolling out from camp I was able to enjoy the untrodden two track for the next few hours of slow rough riding, from tall squishy grass to faded plank bridges to low hanging spider web filled branches to hallways of Ñire trees and their shifting colors from greens to yellows, oranges to deep reds. Feeling deeply appreciative of the silence, the absence of structures, cars or people. Especially in crucial in these last few riding days in South America… for now.
I passed through seemingly endless cattle gates, which while can typically be annoying as they require me to dismount, open and close them behind me, but somehow found myself even enjoying that part. Just relishing in every aspect of what makes this backcountry bike travel thing what it is to me. Things that were annoying and obstacles to be surmounted were feeling more like gifts offered by the universe serving to inspire awareness.
Gorgeous Ñire trees with cascading lichens swaying in the breeze like an old, weathered beard of someones great green grandfather. I’ve seen these hanging spirits in various forests of Patagonia, each time serving to remind me of the Pacific Northwest and it’s rich arboreal evolution.
I reached a larger road by mid-day and continued Southward along a grand valley. Just before taking a lunch break, I saw a dead fox on the roadside. Considering the amount of dead animals I’ve encountered on roadsides, I don’t know exactly why certain species on certain days elicit action while others do not. Today was the former, so I gently pulled it off the road into some trees to give it a respectful resting place. I know it’s anthropomorphic but somehow it just felt right. I also believe that whatever spirit a being holds leaves the body at the moment of death, wherein the body left behind becomes more of a cocoon. But somehow it feels important to respect that body, perhaps it feels that this respect and proper “burial” might facilitate that spirit’s fluid release.
I reached an enormous open prairie that the road bent around over the next 20km. Enormous with grand mountains in the great distance behind it. With random herds of cow, guanaco and wild horses, it felt somehow like the Sarengetti of South America.
Perhaps I’m looking for significant signs that mark the closure of this grand arc of experience, but I felt surrounded by examples of themes that have accompanied me throughout the journey. Ever since college, the number 44 has somehow felt like my lucky number. It was the address of my apartment unit where I formed some of my deepest friendships there, but showed up in countless other ways throughout my young adulthood. Now it has evolved to show up as mile-markers every once in a while. Rarely do I find myself on roads that have mile-markers but when I do I occasionally get a 44 in view, every time I stop at it and use it as a reminder to appreciate all the things for which I feel lucky. The list has grown quite large.
I was on a specific schedule today as I was down to my last few bits of food from Porvenir and need to get to Tolhuin to buy more. It was late afternoon already and I had about 60km left, needed keep pushing. Upon seeing a sign for Lago Yehuin, I flew past it. A faint memory emerged of a Facebook post a week prior where a few cyclist friends had camped in an abandoned hotel by the lakeside. Despite being tight on time, it elicited distinct reminder of why I’m out here — to manifest the freedom to explore, follow the little dirt roads ad trails just to see where they lead. This was no exception, and well worth the choice. Down a hill and around a corner the road ended at Lago Yehuin with the glorious mountains of Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego behind it.
To my left was the dilapidated hotel, now covered in quite interesting graffiti. I considered how I could have pushed harder yesterday, ended up at this amazing lakeside solace rather than my roost on a bed of cow bones and swarming moths. I felt really appreciative that I didn’t. I got to have MY experience on that closed road with the dead cows. Perhaps it wasn’t as inspired or story-worthy a location, but it was my story and that was more important than being impressive. I decided to have a moment or two at the lake anyway, so brewed coffee and pulled out my various flutes, which I’d not done since hiking to Mount Fitzroy. Just a few moments to connect with nature and music together can shift my perspective immeasurably.
My favorite piece of all the hotel graffiti: that big beautiful eye, just staring out at all onlookers, boring into my consciousness like a mirror.
Back on the main road I noticed coming across the grand Serengeti prairie was a large herd of guanacos, perhaps 20-30. As they ran ahead of me, paralleling the fence, I recalled the observation I’d made the day before that they will always try to run to higher ground than that of their perceived predator. Given the prairie on my left where they noticed me was low and the land to my right was higher, I could tell they’d all be hopping both roadside fences as they cut across in front of me. Quickly pulling out my camera while riding onward, I managed to capture their fence-flying flee on film! Just as I was turning off the camera and clumsily looking for the power switch while riding one handed, I heard a horribly familiar sound.
The small dry bag I had strapped to the fork by the front wheel had slipped and was free to swing inward toward the spinning wheel… this had happened once before a few weeks ago leading to it catching in the wheel and to me losing a day of quinoa in a puddle of muddy water. But this time It lodged itself fully in the wheel and immediately locked out, bucking me head over heels in classic superman form over the handlebars, camera still open and in hand at 25kph. At the moment of takeoff time slowed to a crawl. I thought to protect my right (camera) hand from absorbing the impact, forcing my left to work double time. As my left wrist slapped down onto the hard dirt, I watched the camera bounce off ahead of me onto the road, followed immediately by feeling my heavy loaded bike land on top of my legs.
I untangled myself from it and began a quick head-to-toe self-exam.. I knew immediately I’d done something to my left wrist. It was a hard hit. I could still move it but it was shaking uncontrollably, another sign of trauma. Fuck. As I assessed the damage to the bike I noticed all the guanacos I’d just filmed call the loud warning sound which, of course, sounds like laughter. So nobody knows I’m injured out here and these guanacos are laughing at me! The bastards. Luckily the bike was not damaged, but my wrist was NOT HAPPY. Plus I still had about 40km of washboarded, potholed dirt road to ride before I’d be reaching the paved highway 3 into Tolhuin.
It sucked. Every single vibration. Every jarring drop of the tire. They all sent shockwaves through my now throbbing wrist. I began assessing while riding and came to realize the worst pain was in my wring and pinky fingers, the other three had more pain-free strength. So I held the very end of the handlebar with just index and middle finger to limit the assault. Awkward and fatiguing, but less painful.
Coming off of a stretch of dirt onto pavement has never felt so good.
I rolled into Tolhuin just after dark, and after inhaling some NSAIDS from the pharmacy I went straight to Panaderia La Union with its famed Casa de Ciclistas.
After wolfing down 6 empanadas and 6 pastries in far less than 6 minutes, a kind employee showed me to the building behind the bakery where all the cyclists get hosted.
There in the entryway I met Taneli, a Finnish cyclist with whom I’d already been writing on Facebook about routes, gear and repairs. We talked bikes, gear and routes for the next two days. A very intense but very nice and interesting guy, he’d been living in the bakery for about 7 weeks so far due to a broken rohloff disc rotor as he awaited a replacement part. It had finally arrived and so he was preparing to roll Northbound within a few more days.
The bedroom of the casa de ciclistas. Walls seeping with history.
While in Tolhuin I went through another round of stress about buying my plane ticket North. I’d found a Santiago route that was cheapest and would possibly allow me to see Dalila once more before heading North, but it had gotten considerably more expensive. Plus it would involve a combination of hitchhiking, ferries and flights and I was worried that if my wrist injury was as bad as I feared that hauling the bike between 4 different cities to get home could be hellish. Then there was Dalila, the fear of a concrete end to our connection due to immense geographic distance. So complicated. In the end after much conversing and wrist analysis, I opted for a single flight ticket out of Ushuaia, through Buenos Aires, back to Boston. It would be in 7 days.
Wow. 7 days, and this whole year of South American travel will be behind me. 3 years of Southbound travel would be on hiatus for an unknown future. So much fear.
I spent one rest day icing my wrist, doing treatment massage on it every hour, and eating countless empanadas. I determined that it was less than likely to be a break, mostly just a sprain. A creative tape job proved to stabilize it enough to consider the rough dirt route I’d dreamed up for my final 3 ride days into Ushuaia, avoiding the pavement just a bit more…
Just before rolling out of Tolhuin I sat beside of diminishing pile of empanadas and wrote this message to post on my Facebook page. I believe it very poignantly reflects how afraid I’ve been feeling about the change. So much so that I need to help coach my community to understand what kind of verbiage accurately represents my experience and which I find triggering, as I predict not having the emotional energy to correct people in my expectedly extreme state of transition:
“Tomorrow I make my final push Southward, to the last town on the Southern shore of Tierra del Fuego: Ushuaia. I am thus unplugging for the next few days to feel every emotion these last few kilometers may carry; to review what I’ve learned, to revel in how much learning lays ahead; to live the tumultuous turbidity, and the pellucid perception laying in its wake.
“This was never a ‘trip’. It has not been some great ‘accomplishment’… it was never meant to be that. I am not ‘done’. In fact I have yet to understand what this experience has actually been or what it is becoming. I tried to set my sights for a target that was so far beyond my cognitive capacities for planning that I’d be forced to give up practical goals and just… be. But somehow here I am, on the other end of a lot of land. Perhaps it was one grand experiment that must now simply change form due to limitations of land and loneliness.
“These three years have passed in a heartbeat. They were but a blink, and as my eyelids bounce back open I see a world that has rocketed onward in my absence: Technological advances, social movements arising and dissenting, careers initiated and completed, loved ones born, matured, passed.
“I do not yet know what comes next me. I hope the gifts that result from manifesting discovery and adventure remain with me. I wish that I may continue to appreciate the futility of ‘stuff’ as I return to a land of maximal materialism for the time being. I pray with my full spirit that I can find the strength to share this magic I’ve been cultivating out here, on the saddle.
“One thing is clear: Peace is not found in a place, but in rare moments, through a practice.”
After sending, I turned off my phone and off I went.
Almost immediately out of Tolhuin there’s a faded farm road hugging the coast of Lago Fagnano. It’s wide and relatively smooth but there are cattle gates preventing traffic from using it. So it’s pretty amazing.
Raw and rustic with no people, just the odd lone cow to keep me company all day.
The passability of the road was also limited by very old, very rotten bridges. Most were pretty rideable by bike…
… but some were so broken down that only the addition of invasive beaver colonies with their damn dams facilitated hike-a-bike-able crossings.
Tons of beautiful mushroom species lined the road.
After a few hours on the coastal road, I noticed a series of these blue ribbons tied to trees, marking what appeared to be an ATV/OHV trail. I wondered if it might have been a race course for something, but either way they marked a totally rideable trail that was not marked on the maps!
I happily followed the trail for a number of miles through undulating lakeside hills and valleys. A fun and root-filled trail that kept me on my toes and reminded me I was still nursing a wrist injury. It was worth it!
By early evening I was back on the main highway between Tolhuin and Ushuaia, but quickly ducked back off onto another side road detour. I noticed a sign by the roadside for the Hotel Petrel, lots of smaller signs communicating it was private property. I pushed onward with growing curiosity to find the hotel was long since defunct. All the doors were boarded. Graffiti on the building. Curious, I rolled past it to reveal the enormous and beautiful Lago Escondido, (Hidden Lake). True to name, I’d not seen it until dropping off the main road! Given the late hour I decided to look for a quite campground by the lake shore just past the hotel.
Amazingly, what I found just past the hotel was a row of perfect cabins!
Each one was in varied degree of disarray, from broken glass and trash everywhere to a few quite well maintained by other nomadic travelers who’d set up places to cook and left brooms with signs asking people to clean up before they left. What a find!!! I picked a winner then strolled down the row, finding a couple of moto riders who’d occupied another cabin down at the end! Please don’t tell too many people about this one my friends….
I spent a tranquil night watching the light show and playing flutes within the resonant empty cabin walls.
I thanked my lucky stars to have stumbled upon Hotel Petrel, then started the 1000’ huff up to Paso Garibaldi. Luckily the Fall views were pretty inspiring.
I found yet another dirt track off the highway just over Paso Garibaldi, taking me up into the mountains. It had recently rained so the climb was less than rideable sloppy mud.
But once up on the traverse trail it was fabulous!
Over the pass, I could have turned right to get on the highway and likely reach Ushuaia within an hour or two. But that would have been too easy, of course. I turned left onto a dirt road that wound through beautiful mountains and forest to eventually spill out at none other than the Beagle Channel!!! This is officially the view from the Southern coast of Isla Grande, Tierra del Fuego, and the furthest South I’d be headed… Whoa. I stopped at the water, dipped my tires in it, and silently gazed across the channel at the tiny town of Puerto Williams, dwarfed by the famed Dientes de Navarino.
I eventually returned to rolling, now heading West along the channel toward Ushuaia. The route would follow dirt road, at least for a while…
This area of Isla Grande is Argentina. Across the channel: Chile. There have been various battles between the two (with the UK in the mix) over the latter part of the 20th century, ultimately leading to the current division of land where Argentina has the North coast of the Beagle and Chile has the South.
Every time, I see them, the song flows back into my head, “wild…wild horses…”
“By Presidency of the Argentinian Nation, Ministry of Defense, Argentine Navy: Military Jurisdiction, Entry Prohibited.”
Well… 1. It’s a very old sign. 2. I know of at least 3 cyclists who’ve passed through this way before. 3. Nobody is looking…
A hop, skip and a jump and I was back in business.
As the daylight began to fade, I started looking at wind-protection opportunities. This little feed-shack seemed pretty hospitable… But just not…quite…right…
I rolled onward along the closed military road as the light continued to fade. What a majestic place. Not a soul around.
The road disappeared for a while. forcing me to wiggle through some rocky beach terrain.
Found it again! Faded, grassy 2-track winding through vast valleys.
Just as the sunset was exploding with light, I noticed this sweet little house on the coast. I assumed someone was living in it as it was perfectly kept and all the doors were locked. But nobody was home… so the big open flat deck with it’s perfect view of the channel became my last roost before Ushuaia.
I cooked the most decadent meal I could muster with my last bit of sausage, cheese, rice and lentils. It was fabulous, not because it was particularly good food, but because I tasted every single bite as if it were my last. Because in some ways, it would be. The faded 2-track road ended at this house. From here it would be rarely used hiking trail for at least 10 miles of unknown terrain before reaching the outskirts of this Southernmost Argentinian city.
I’ll save that experience for the next post…