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Days 19-21: Mutually Assured Destruction

In which Pete’s front wheel nearly destroys itself, leading to hundreds of miles of careful searching for a replacement in the deserts of Chile and underscoring the high cost of decadent travel in Chile.

Day 19
Taltal, Chile @ 9:00AM
End: Copiapo, Chile @ 5:00PM
Distance: approx. 337km (~210mi) in ~8 hours (~42KMH / ~26MPH average)

A “completo” (hot dog with tomato, avocado, and an italian roll) may not be the healthiest breakfast in the world, but it certainly jump starts the taste buds – especially when accompanied by the first somewhat decent coffee I’ve had in months. Surprisingly, the random house-turned-hostel I spent the night at had a very fast internet connection, so I was also freshly stocked up on something new to pass the time: podcasts from Radiolab.

On the surface, these two things may seem unrelated, and yet they would begin a nearly catastrophic series of events that almost culminated in the mutually assured destruction of both myself and my moto.

Each day – each stop, in fact - is supposed to start with a quick but careful check of the moto to ensure nothing is obviously wrong, especially with the wire spokes on the wheels. These tend to loosen up over time due to vibration and once loose can break off or, if the tube is low, potentially push into the wheel and pop it. It’s a fairly quick and simple check to make sure everything is tight and replace any broken spokes. Yesterday I had noticed that two of the spokes on my front wheel were broken and made a note to replace them this morning.

P1010681Instead, full of delicious completo and coffee and excited about having something interesting to listen to on the endlessly boring easy-button road of Ruta 5, I skipped the morning health check and tore off into the desert. I was immediately enthralled by Radiolab, impressed by the production quality and the diversity of the programming and discussion, and the day began to fly.

Around 300km and eight hours of basically endless droning driving across a barren desert later, I arrived in the town of Copiapo. I initially expected nothing more than to pass through this district capital and camp in the desert on the other side, changing my oil and, now that I thought about it, replacing my spokes that night. As is my habit when driving through towns, I turned off my phone to be able to hear the traffic around me and navigate safely, especially since this was turning out to be a much bigger town than I initially thought.

P1010691The moment I unplugged my earphones it was glaringly obvious that Something Was Very Wrong. There was a horrible droning noise from the front wheel which caused me to actually look at it and see that it was wobbling side to side and up and down like a horribly beaten on fighter fifteen minutes into an uneven battle. I pulled over in a panic and realized that nearly a third of the spokes were snapped off or gone.

This changed things. The road I was on had a bunch of small car dealerships, so I pulled into a Honda dealership and asked if there was a Honda motorcycle place in town; they told me there was and it was just down the road. I started carefully riding through town, paying attention to the front of the moto and realizing I could feel the wheel deforming on every small bump and could even see it bend when I turned… not good at all!

Finally, I found the Honda motorcycle dealership and met the absolutely fantastic guys there. Even though it was getting late in the day, Javier and a mechanic looked over my moto and told me something that absolutely chilled me to the bone: If eight spokes are missing, the wheel will lose integrity and almost definitely come apart. I was missing seven – and had been driving in this condition for an unknown number of miles in an empty desert at high speed.

Unfortunately, they did not have any spare spokes offhand and had just sold their last CG125 so they didn’t have a spare wheel either, but I knew I had five spokes hiding in my bags somewhere. We decided I would come back first thing the next morning and they’d see what they could dig up. I got some directions to where all the decent places to stay were and carefully, oh so gingerly, rode off to find a place to sleep.

It ended up costing me $40USD, but I found a really decent place with a fantastic shower and pondered my near death experience and the decadence of a shower and bed two nights in a row before finding an actual grocery store in town to do some shopping. Having no luck finding canned food to snack on in camp, I salved my conscience with a bag of tortilla chips and nacho cheese.

Decadence has its perks.

Day 20
Copiapo, Chile @ 2:00PM
End: Unknown Location, Chilean Desert @ 7:00PM
Distance: approx. 203km (~126mi) in ~5 hours (~40KMH / ~25MPH average)

This morning I had my first inkling that something else was off. I had been stopping around 5PM when the sun went down and getting up around 6AM as it started to rise, according to my watch. Thus, I was up at 6AM in my hotel room putzing around and heard what sounded like eating coming from the dining room, which didn’t quite make sense considering I had been told breakfast would be served from 7-10AM. I didn’t think too much of it, finally heading out to grab something to eat around 8AM and apparently being the last person in the hotel to do so – interesting, people must get up early around here!

IMG_5299I packed up and checked out to head over to the Honda place with a bit of a new concern: I had been unable to locate my replacement spokes. I have everything else, from tubes to spark plugs and more, but at some point I must have removed my spare spokes (I think to access my zip ties) and left them somewhere. Here’s hoping the Honda guys were able to find some…

Sometimes hoping is in vain. No dice. The mechanic came up with an interesting solution, however – he removed three spokes from each of my rear wheels and put them on the front wheel. He suggested that this configuration should get me the 700km to Santiago, where it was absolutely critical that I buy a new front rim, preferably alloy. He was convinced that the integrity of the wheel was lost and that it would keep destroying spokes.

In order to save my liter of oil for an “emergency” (stranded in the middle of the mountains somewhere needing an oil change and no where to buy oil), I decided to go ahead and have them change the oil while I was there and discovered a very nice treat: they had synthetic oil! Changing my dino oil every 1000km was already driving me nuts, since that was basically every 3-4 days, but no one in Peru seemed to sell synthetic. What a treat it would be to be able to go 4-5k km without worrying about an oil change!

The downside: it was expensive. Like, EXPENSIVE. Gas in Chile is incredibly expensive ($6/gallon for the cheap stuff), and whatever the reason, this apparently carries over to all petroleum products. The end result is that I paid (wait for it)…  thirty two dollars for a quart of oil! $32!!  The same quart of Mobil 1 would be expensive at around $8 in the US and not terribly hard to find in bulk or on-line for $4 or less per quart. Oof.

I also needed some chain lube, and a can of high quality chain lube (also petroleum based) was the same, another $30. Sick. I just dropped $60USD on freakin’ lubricant. I had been considering purchasing another pair of goggles, but all they had at the shop were $100USD+ or higher… after paying $6 in Peru I didn’t think I could stomach it.

As I was about to leave, Javier told me about another shop in town that he had called and who might have some spokes for me – sweet! I drove over there and he did have some 18” spokes, but they seemed a little bit long. We agreed that I would buy them and if they were too long I could return them to get my money back, and I paid the exorbitant cost of $25 for an entire bag of 20 or so (over 5x what they cost in Peru). I returned to the Honda place to find it completely shut down – hrm, lunch maybe? Hey, lunch is a good idea.

I found a pizza place and spent a luxurious hour and a half relaxing outside and slowly eating a huge pizza (steak, onions, and pineapple) before returning to find the Honda place back open and confirming that these spokes were too long – no dice. At this point it was around 2PM and the mechanic was pretty certain I could make it to Santiago on my current setup, so I returned to the shop where I bought the spokes to get a refund… only to find they were closed for the day. At 2PM. WTF?

Screw it, I thought, as a little light bulb went off in my head – I now have some very expensive ultra lightweight tent stakes (I had lost mine). Time to get out of dodge before the sun goes down!

P1010686I made it a couple of hours out of town before the sun started to set and at first it wasn’t looking good for anywhere to stop to camp – the road was now going through a very rocky set of hills and my boring endless desert was nowhere to be found. Finally I saw what appeared to be tracks from service vehicles doing work on the power lines that paralleled the highway halfway up the mountains and a possibility of some flat spots near the towers. Imagining myself waking up to find a severed power line slashing through my tent and electrocuting me (epic), I found a tenable spot in near-dark under a power tower and set about making camp to the low background hum of electricity.

Off in my own little world of faux domesticity, preparing camp in the low glow of my headlight, I nearly voided myself upon seeing three ghostly white figures circling my moto. I had thought I was alone in the middle of the desert, half a click from the closest highway, and suddenly these figures just appear in the middle of my camp site! The only thing that prevented me from going immediately off the deep end into gibbering insanity and pleading for my life was my headlamp illuminating the face of one of the figures, showing me a huge grin and very obvious amusement coupled with an utter lack of ill intent.

Some things are universal, and sneaking up on people in the dark for kicks apparently is one of those. Once the spell was broken, we ended up talking for awhile and I found out they were shepherds who had a lean-to set up about half a klick further up the mountain and had watched me pull up and scout a camp site with intense interest, both at the atypical action of someone pulling off the road to camp and with appreciation for my vehicle. Eventually they wandered off to find rest and I pondered the amazing stars again before finally deciding to crash out myself.


Day 21
Unknown Location, Chilean Desert @ 7:30AM
End: Unknown Location, Chilean Desert @ 7:00PM
Distance: approx. 363km (~227mi) in ~8 hours (~45KMH / ~28MPH average, 4hr for service)

There’s something intense about waking up in a slowly lightening tent after a cold night in the desert and feeling the warmth of the sun as it begins to bake the world. Lying there in a lethargic half-awake state, your body slowly coming up to operating temperature, warmed by your organs coming out of hibernation and the sun turning your tent into an oven, a sort of internal dialogue about the warmth begins. The trick is to find the right moment to leave the comfort of the sleeping bag – too early, and your body isn’t warm enough and you shiver for ages, miserable as you dress and prepare for the day. Too late and you waste valuable daylight, a critical commodity for long distance adventure travel.

Time passes and I judge the moment is right, snaking into my layers of clothes and wadding my camp into my giant dry bag. Red, nicely warmed by the sun, turns over with barely any encouragement and purrs at idle while I inspect my wheels. The result is not good, not good at all.

I started the afternoon yesterday with three spokes missing from each rear wheel, transplanted to the front so the front was only missing one. This morning, after only 200km the day before, I was missing four spokes from the front. At this rate, I would not make it the remaining 500km or so to Santiago – I needed to stop in La Serena and see what could be done. Carefully, I returned to the road and continued my trek across the desert.

IMG_5313In the light, I began to notice something different – the desert was no longer barren. Now there was a sort of scrub brush, even the occasional larger bush. As time continued on, the temperature began to change again, signaling a possible return of the road to the ocean. Cresting a small hill I was abruptly greeted with proof of this; a large valley was laid out before me, channeled westward all the way to the ocean, and filled to the brim with fog like a witch’s cauldron.

It’s a strange thing, riding through cold, wet, fog in the desert. Within moments my clothes and every surface on my moto were covered in a thin layer of dew, with fat drops flinging off from the rails above into my face at random intervals. Visibility was so low I was forced down to 30kmh, trucks slowly waddling past me in the opposite direction. I imagined my front wheel falling apart at slow speed in the fog, my body lying in the middle of the road with my mototaxi overturned next to me, staring as a truck slowly, ever so slowly, approached… then slowly, ever so slowly, creeping forward in the fog, began to squish me alive.

The mind finds itself trapped in strange places on the long road, but before long I was rescued from this by a return to the normality of a straight desert road. Time passed, and I was entering La Serena.

I knew where the Honda motorcycle dealer was from an internet search in Copiapo (just in case), and I didn’t have much of a hard time finding it. Unfortunately, it was a car dealer with one motorcycle in it for decoration, and it was closed. My watch said it was around noon, so I figured they were off for lunch and decided to explore the town. I found a huge KTM dealer down the street who would definitely have spokes, but they were also closed. A used motorcycle dealer next door didn’t have spokes or a new rim, but they confirmed the KTM dealer would open at 3PM and that it was the only other motorcycle dealer around.

IMG_5317Decision time: kill three hours in town or risk traveling the remaining 300km or so to Santiago? I knew which I wanted to do (press on, because I’m stupid like that), and which I should do (get spokes), so I decided to put off the decision and drive around town looking for something to do. Ten minutes down the road, I found a Kawasaki dealer that was also closed, but hinted at something – maybe there were other moto dealers around after all? I kept exploring and like a giant beacon of light saw a massive two story building with a giant billboard beckoning to me: a huge mega dealer with what might have been literally hundreds of motorcycles crammed inside it.

Ah hah! These guys must have what I need! Unfortunately, they too were closed – but wait, there is a service gate that is open… I walked inside and found one guy hanging out, uncrating a new KLR650. We talked for a bit and he confirmed that they would open up at 3:30PM and he could sell me spokes or a new wheel, whichever I wanted. He then suggested a nearby restaurant for me to kill some time in and off I went to blow three hours, leaving my moto locked up in the back area of the shop.

A simple lunch of steak and french fries and a quick stop at a grocery store later (still no canned goods, apparently they don’t believe in canning anything other than fruit here), I decided to return to the shop and read for a couple hours outside. As I walked up around 1PM I noticed that they were opening up, mechanics were arriving, and the store seemed to be coming to life. I must’ve misunderstood the time! Excellent, that meant I could get my repairs done and be on my way before dark.

After a quick discussion, their mechanic confirmed that I should replace the wheel and went in search of an alloy one to fit it. Unfortunately they couldn’t find any alloy wheels with drum brakes, so it would be another spoked rim this time around. I almost popped at the cost, a whopping $80USD for the replacement (that would be high even in the US for a crappy 18” spoked rim), but when you’re stuck, you’re stuck… so, let’s get it done. They did the swap and set me all up, around which time I noticed the drum brake on the replacement rim was considerably smaller than the old one – ugh.

When all was said and done, they charged me $30USD in labor and I was totally shocked. Yes, in the US that would’ve been about normal (around a half hour of work) or even cheap, but in Chile? The guys in Copiapo hadn’t even charged me for the labor, figuring they made enough off the stuff I bought from them. I didn’t complain, just chalked it up to this place being pricey (the guys in Copiapo had warned me that they had heard stories about La Serena being expensive, maybe it was referring to this place).

Something must’ve showed in my face however, because I got to talking to one guy and he asked me if it was very expensive. I told him that it was about on par with prices in the US and thus a lot more than I’d expect to pay in South America, explaining it was easily 5-10x what anything cost in Peru. It turned out that this guy spoke a little bit of English and he was the guy who normally translated with other adventure riders that came through – apparently, due to the size of this shop and the location (first/last major place for thousands of km northward), they get a TON of adventure riders coming in here needing major service…

And they charge them more because they can afford more, because they are adventure riders coming from a country where $100/hr labor rates are cheap. They mark up everything for us foreigners because we “can afford it.” I have mixed feelings about this tactic, and I explained that this isn’t actually always true, that we count on the cheaper labor and parts in other countries to allow us to travel longer, that if we had to pay US rates everywhere we could not afford to make ten thousand mile journeys across often horrible terrain.

I told him stories about adventure riders that get down to Ushuaia and are completely broke, having run out of money on unexpected repairs and not knowing how they would even get home – and I explained that this was partially my plan for my trip, instead of it being about a specific destination or mileage, I was mostly planning on just riding until I ran out of money and needed to go home. I explained we would pay whatever they asked because we had to if we wanted to continue, but that at times they could be taking advantage of us and maybe giving us a bad impression of their country (and that I was heading to Argentina ASAP because Chile was destroying my finances).

Leaving him with this food for thought and hopefully, possibly saving some future adventure rider a dollar or two, I headed out of town to make as much distance as possible before dark. Unfortunately, Ruta 5 south of La Serena turned into a massive megahighway surrounded by the one thing that makes me hate travel across much of the USA: fences.

I just don’t understand why hundreds of miles of completely empty land will be fenced off from the highway. I hate it. Especially when it’s not private land and it’s not being used, it makes no sense to me. As the sun began to set, I started to get worried, wondering if I’d be able to find anywhere to stop at all – even the realization that the desert was becoming much less dry, and an occasional tree or fruit brush would show up, couldn’t quite get me out of my funk. Damn fences.

As it started to get dark, I went through a long section of road with fruit stands selling papaya, avocado, grapes, and other “fruit of the local land” on the sides of the road, but even these were built against the tall barb wire fences and there was no clear way to get away from the highway (and unfortunately they were all closed so I couldn’t ask anyone). Darkness settled in and I decided I would just head for the next major town and find a hotel, that finding a camp site in the dark was extremely unlikely. 150km to the next town, four hours, I’d arrive around 11PM… doable.

Decision made, I buckled down for the long, cold, dark ride, but something was not right. I began to notice that every time someone approached me from behind they would flash their brights at me. Thinking I must have some sort of major mechanical failure that I wasn’t noticing or a bag falling off or something, I pulled over and checked out Red only to find that that rear lights were completely out. No brake, turn, or running lights – my vehicle was pitch black and almost impossible to see from behind unless it was illuminated by the lights of a vehicle, likely a truck, traveling twice my speed and about to run over me.

This, I say to myself, could be a problem. I don’t have replacement bulbs (why? I have a replacement headlight… I am an idiot), it’s over a hundred km to the next town, and I am entering the peak period of travel for heavy long haul truckers in a very unsafe way to travel. What to do?

Press on, of course, but carefully, carefully. I’m now glued to my mirrors, any time I see headlights coming I immediately pull way over onto the shoulder and weave a little bit so that my headlight makes it obvious something strange is on the road. They flash their brights, see me, and pass me carefully. Sometimes I nearly careen into rocks that idiots have left in the shoulder, illuminated for a heartbeat before I swerve around them in a panic.

The terrain around me begins to change, but it’s still fenced off less than ten feet from the road, with a sharp dropoff usually making it tough to get off the road in any case. I start to consider camping on the shoulder of the road or some such when I see strange lights in the distance, almost like a runway. I know what these are, I’ve seen them all over in Nebraska and Wyoming – it’s a windfarm! Surely there will be a service road or some such that will allow me to find a safe place to stop. Excited, I watch carefully and find it, only to also find the giant locked gate blocking it. Blast!

Onward for another half hour, near death passing me constantly, I’m again considering stopping on the side of the road when another wind farm approaches, and with it hope is renewed: a sign that says “Mirador, 3km.” An overlook! Perfect!

And indeed it was – a horrible bumpy rocky road out to a nice little rest area, clearly still being built, bathed in orange light. I found a small niche away from the illuminated parking lot and happily set up my tent for the night, out of the way just enough that no one would stumble across me. I slept the sleep of the dead, waking at 6AM the next morning to the surprising sound of construction nearby. Boy, they start early here in Chile!

It wasn’t until later that day, upon crossing into Argentina, that I found out the entire time I had been in Chile, my watch was two hours behind. Woops.


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