In which Pete leaves the easy button roads, travels south into deep cold, and abandons his moto on the side of the road after a vicious wheel failure.Day 25
Begin: Mendoza, Argentina @ 12:15PM
End: Unknown Location, Ruta 40, Argentina @ 7:00PM
Distance: approx. 275km (~171mi) in ~7 hours (~39KMH / ~24MPH average)
Leaving Mendoza was easier than I expected, even though I really didn’t get a chance to see much of the town or honestly do anything other than some shopping and some good eating. It was just that time to be on the move again.
That didn’t prevent me from a very leisurely morning, with final updates and preparations delaying me until noon. From here I would be following Ruta 40 for some 3500km south and I was looking forward to the challenge – it’s supposed to get pretty awesome.
Leaving town was annoying for awhile, as 40 is a big split megahighway for at least an hour or so south. I had been warned that it gets very bad for a stretch after that, so when I finally saw a sign saying Ruta 40 was diverging from the highway I threw up my hands in glee and turned onto a vicious gravel and sand road straight through the mid-Argentine desert.
Easy button done, man. This was real road – road so bad that on two wheels it would be nearly impossible without an excellent enduro bike, knobby tires, and a lot of skill. On three this kind of road is still incredibly tough, but it’s probably more mental than physical: You must maintain a high rate of speed to surf across the stones and sand, however as a result of this you are, well, surfing across stones and sand.
The moto doesn’t drive straight, but slides back and forth, usually in a carefully controlled wave of about three to four feet in each direction as you can only correct very gently. The front wheel has to be fought, hard, just like on two wheels, to prevent any sort of unexpected or random turning – bounce off a rock at the wrong moment and the wheel will wrench to the side, dig deep into the sand, and even on three wheels you will go over if the conditions are wrong. If you get lucky you may just break your forks or your wheel.
In various sections there was massive “washboarding” caused by heavy trucks compacting the road, turning it into waves of hard dirt. Washboarding is one of the worst things for any motorcycle without a great enduro suspension and my moto is no different. When you hit them at speed it HURTS your entire body as you absorb vibrations with your wrist and legs, then have a split second to process whether to slow down to reduce the impact or maintain speed because it is only a small section and you don’t want to get stuck in the dirt and rocks on the other side.
This violence was so great that one of the frame members of my roof completely sheared along a curve, tearing free not just of the weld but breaking itself into a few pieces. I patched it up the next day with some quicksteel and medical tape (figured it had good tensile strength) and it seemed to hold together after that.
Continuing through the gravel, I came upon small patches of pavement, obvious remnants of a past road in horrible disrepair. Within half a kilometer, I was descending into a small canyon and the road was getting better when it suddenly became clear that I was driving into some sort of amazing lagoon / river complex in a small canyon system, full of pristine blue and green water. Along one end was a giant (for the middle of the desert) hydro electric dam which I got to drive across. It was really quite amazing and unexpected, and interesting that while I was looking at the pristine water two pickup trucks drove past – the first vehicles I had seen on Ruta 40.
After the dam, the road returned to gravel, sand, and rock and this went on for a few hours more (at one point I noticed my nearly full plastic 1.5L bottle of Coke Zero was empty, the bottom cracked, and took more care with my liquids after). The sun was starting to go down, so I was keeping my eye out for a place to stop (tough to find when the road is dug out of deep sand) when I saw a lake on the horizon. Wouldn’t that be a cool place to hang out? As it began to resolve a bit more, I realized I was seeing a small section of pavement, not a lake! This horrible gravel road was coming to an end!
I didn’t complain this time when I connected to a nice asphalt road – I was ready for a break. Unfortunately, this section of Argentina is all huge private ranches, which means… fences! Ugh. I drove along the darkening road for nearly an hour until I spotted a small trail heading off into the sand with no fence around and jumped on it.
A hundred or so meters from the road it turned into a slightly larger road that ran under power lines (usually a great place to find a decent way to head off-road, universally), so I took that until I was slightly hidden behind a dune and set up for the night.
Using my nifty new camp stove I cooked myself some pasta for dinner and made sure my phone was fully charged by my handy new electrical wiring, then holed up in my tent to watch some TV and stay warm. Looks like things are going to get interesting from here…
Begin: Unknown Location, Ruta 40, Argentina @ 9:00AM
End: Unknown Location, Ruta 40, Argentina @ 7:00PM
Distance: approx. 327km (~204mi) in ~9 hours (~36KMH / ~22MPH average, 1hr around town)
Today started with what I hope will be a regular occurrence in the future, the height of decadence in the cold, cold morning: a cup of hot coffee. How I have survived all these years of motorcycle adventuring and camping without a camp stove and hot coffee I’m not sure, but I’ve a hunch I am ruined for the future. Dear god it was a beautiful thing… because it was COLD.
Thankfully it wasn’t actually below freezing, but just hovering in the low 30’s, making it bearable but annoying, especially in that early morning fugue. Once everything was packed up, I plugged my phone back in to charge for a bit so I could get some tunes later (after realizing that I left my spare battery back in Mendoza, augh!) and hit the nice asphalt road.
In the sunlight, it was beautiful. I realized I wasn’t just riding through the desert any more, the terrain was changing: it was more some sort of desert grass, and at times I could even see trees! Beautiful trees with orange leaves, and sometimes skeletal trees without such, which served as a reminder of my idiocy, heading towards the bottom of the world as winter fast approaches.
An hour or two down the road I encountered a small lodge and gas station, where I stopped to buy gas, water, and two cans of fuel for my stove (how convenient). The downside of cooking pasta is that I’m consuming water at a higher rate, so I have to keep that in mind going forward.
Next to the lodge was a Gendarmeria Nacional checkpoint, where for some reason they made me unload my black duffel (nothing else) and rummaged through it, asking me what various things were. Weird. They then put it all together, waved me through, and off I went.
From here the terrain continued to get nicer, with beautiful trees often lining the sides of the road and vineyards and ranches off to the side in abundance. I drove through a small town that had a lot of shops, but in typical Argentine fashion they were all closed for the morning and thus continued onward. I finally found a bigger town, the biggest one for quite awhile, and determined to look around to find some replacement bulbs for my rear lights in case I had to drive at night again.
After visits to all four car shops and both ferreterias in town, I could not find appropriate bulbs – I would continue on without rear lights, careful if I have to go at night. I did, however, find a massive 20L container for gas to replace my 2 gallon one, as well as some wiring and connectors so I could do more electrical hookups.
I continued south along Ruta 40, not really sure what to expect – I still don’t have a map of Argentina. I know I can follow signs and Ruta 40 forever, but I don’t know the distances between towns or where gas is… but I figured with a 600-800km range I should be all right.
Later in the day the paved road again turned to rock and gravel for awhile, this time some of the worst, heaviest gravel I’ve seen. It almost appears that they used river rocks instead of making gravel, since most of the stones were large, smooth, and round. At some points I hit gravel four to five inches deep, so much so that my wheels would stop turning and I’d just slide through the gravel, nearly to a stop, coming out the other end downshifting and gunning it.
At first I was leery and careful, but then I decided screw it – there was enough traffic here that if I screwed up bad, I could catch a ride somewhere… so I started to really hammer it, full throttle, downshifting constantly, really pushing it through the turns. I don’t think there are many people who can say they’ve done a three wheel drift, but I was doing them for hours.
When the road finally returned to normal I was almost sad, but I realized it was probably a good thing (later, I believe this may have been the root of the damage to my front wheel). The road also became much closer to the mountains and the scenery became incredibly beautiful. I don’t know what it is about mountains, but I love them dearly.
As dark started to fall, I pulled off on a side road to explore and before long got stuck in heavy, heavy sand. I managed to dig myself out and saw another path that I thought was a return to the highway, only to find it was actually an old river bed (it was dark). A nightmare full speed (well, full speed in first gear) careening down the river bed later, I made it to the side of the road without getting stuck in the sand but it was a six foot steep climb up to the road that I couldn’t make! I ended up driving through the deep sand on the side of the road for awhile before seeing what looked like a three foot climb I could make, slamming over the wheel and gunning for it – only to get stuck with my moto at 30 degrees in the sand.
I finally got out and pushed and pushed and pushed and was able to get back onto the road – scary stuff. I drove along for a bit further until I found a bigger area off to the side and though I’d drive down that, carefully, only to end up going downhill for a bit and getting stuck again. Good enough, time to camp, I’d dig myself out in the morning.
I watched some TV again on my laptop (how nifty to have power on the move) while I cooked some pasta soup and settled in for the evening. The sky was looking evil and wind was whipping around like crazy, so I even staked down my tent for the first time since Easter Island, just in case a desert storm came through. The night started out fairly warm, but by morning it was nearly freezing again.
No worries, I had coffee…
Begin: Unknown Location, Ruta 40, Argentina @ 10:00AM
End: Unknown Location, Ruta 40, Argentina @ 7:00PM
Distance: approx. 393km (~245mi) in ~9 hours (~43KMH / ~26MPH average)
It’s not every day you get to wake up in the shadow of the world’s tallest volcano (4110 meters high) – at least, I had some fuzzy recollection of that statistic bouncing around in my head and I’m too enthralled by the idea to check it in case I’m wrong.
It was cold again, but I have the gear to deal with it and my morning coffee got me started well. I drove around the volcano for awhile, constantly stopping for pictures thinking that was as close as I’d get, then twenty minutes later I’d realize I found a better angle… though, to be honest, never one that really pleased.
There’s not much to say about the rest of today. I spent many hours driving along beautiful mountain roads, amazing ranches, and gorgeous terrain. The road itself was almost all in excellent repair, and aside from a few encounters with snow melting on the side of the road it could look for all the world like the middle of summer if you didn’t know the truth.
At one point there was a huge ridge of snow capped mountains on the side, but I quickly passed that and ended up in a town big enough to have a gas station. As I stocked up on fuel, I was surrounded by a bunch of Argentinians who loved my moto and wanted to take pictures of me and it, as one guy said “para mi blog.” Somewhere out there, some Argentine guys are talking about the crazy gringo with the mototaxi…
I grabbed some extra fuel and water and hit the road, wanting to get past the next town before dark. I now had a goal – I wanted to get to Bariloche by the evening of the 13th so I could get a nice hotel and wake up on the 14th in total decadence. This is important to me because that’s my birthday, and it will be the second birthday in a row that I’ve spent in the mountains on a foreign continent away from all my friends and everything I know… except this time I won’t have an awesome German girl I just met to give me a cupcake with a candle in it (or, maybe if I played my cards right in Bariloche…).
I once again found a side road and got stuck in the sand and decided that was as good a spot as any to stop. The moon has started to come out earlier, so it’s quite bright at night and it’s a very weird effect to be in the middle of a desert like area, staring out at the bluish terrain all around you, wondering if the rest of the world even exists still.
Begin: Unknown Location, Ruta 40, Argentina @ 9:30AM
End: San Martin de Los Andes, Argentina @ 6:30PM WITHOUT MOTO
Today, life got interesting. I got off to a good start, leaving camp just after sunrise… but there was a heavy overcast and the warmth of the sun wasn’t making it through. The air temperature was in the low 30’sF, not quite freezing, but when you add 35MPH windchill… yeah, freezing. I had to go full ninja for the first time as I couldn’t feel my nose within minutes of starting up.
Thankfully, with all my gear on I was pretty much okay. My feet are the biggest problem, as I expected – it really doesn’t matter how many pairs of socks I wear, my Chuck Taylors get cold soaked fast and then it’s just annoying. I wore Chucks into the Arctic Ocean last year and I’ll be honest, it sucked (which is why I bought some crappy used boots on the way home). I don’t know exactly why I decided to do it again, but sometimes I’m silly and stubborn so I did. I am definitely going to have to get some real boots or rig something up, they aren’t going to work for any extended sub-freezing ride.
In the interim I made up for it with my typical routine, stopping every thirty minutes or so to run up and down the side of the road for awhile. It’s fun! Unfortunately I couldn’t do pushups and burpees like normal because my elbow tendonitis and shoulder issues started acting up really bad this morning, a legacy of fighting the wind so much yesterday.
After one stop, I noticed a rubbing noise and made a note to investigate at the next step. A few minutes later, my speedometer dropped to 0 as I was driving along – rut ro! I thought the cable must’ve been caught and immediately pulled over to find that the speedo cable was melted inside the wheel hub and smoke was coming out!
Then I noticed that now that I had stopped, the front wheel wouldn’t turn. There were some small hairline cracks around the outside, but my guess was that the drum brake had broken inside and locked the wheel – should be easy enough to repair.
I unloaded all my stuff, tipped my moto over on the side, removed the front wheel, and set to work. After taking it apart I found out that it had separated slightly and this caused two parts to rub where they shouldn’t rub. This rubbing quickly caused a buildup of melted/shaved aluminum where they should slide freely over each other, effectively locking up the wheel. It took me awhile, but I slowly chipped a channel free using a screwdriver and a wrench, after which the wheel seemed to work properly.
Not too keen on the small cracks through the hub, I covered them all in Quicksteel in the hopes that this could get me the 60km or so to the next town. With the wheel all re-assembled, it looked like everything was turning free and fairly solid, so I had high hopes – until I tipped the moto back onto three wheels, putting intense lateral pressure on the front wheel for a moment, and saw that those hairline cracks were actually the root of the problem, not the symptom.
The wheel hub had basically shattered into pieces. It “worked” as a wheel, sort of, but the lack of integrity meant the wheel would shift back and forth by half an inch or more, slowly grinding itself into oblivion. The solution: more Quicksteel!
Well, it was worth a try. I used up all my quicksteel in a giant patch around the rim, then figured what the heck, why not add some duct tape. Maybe that would help distribute any tension and prevent the quicksteel from cracking… I spent an hour cooking myself lunch on the side of the road to let it set, then, slowly, crossing my fingers, I set off.
I made it about four hundred meters before it shook itself apart again. This wasn’t going to work… Ugh. New solution: Find a town, get a replacement wheel.
That extra four hundred meters had taken me around a corner near a farm and I tried to make it off the road to it, but as soon as I switched to dirt the wheel started to destroy itself even worse. I had a nightmare flash of the wheel coming apart and my forks smashing into the ground, destroying them and my handlebars and possibly bending my frame and said no more – we were stopping here.
I took the wheel off and put it moto up on some rocks (harder than it sounds to do solo, but I figured it out), sorted through all my gear to make sure all the valuable stuff was in my main duffel, then I hid a bunch of stuff in the bushes nearby and sat down to stick my thumb out on the side of the road.
For the next couple of hours I sat there as a grand total of maybe four vehicles passed me, and none stopped. The local farmers came by and we talked for awhile and they agreed heading to Junin was the best solution, but explained why it might be a problem: apparently, starting that morning, a strike of some sort had closed the road around 200km north. No busses or trucks would be passing through…
Eventually a little van thing stopped for my thumb and big grin, and after a quick discussion the gentleman agreed to take me to Junin, where he was heading. It turned out he was a school teacher and we had a long philosophical discussion about poverty, politics, strikes, and the local economy (though I confess I only understood about half of his side). It was very interesting and passed the time to Junin, where I found a local motorcycle shop that would open at 5PM… thankfully it was 4:45 at the time, so not along wait.
After a bit of reading, the shop owner showed up around 5:30PM and opened up. He poked around and confirmed he didn’t have anything to help me out, but pointed me to another shop in town. I walked over there to get the same answer, but this lady said there was a big motorcycle shop in San Martin which was around an hour away and that I could easily catch the collectivo there.
After getting directions to the bus terminal, I walked over to find out there was a 6PM bus to San Martin (it was 5:50PM) for about $2.50USD, bought a ticket, and hopped on. The bus was mostly full of kids either heading home or heading out to party, but the ride was quick. As the bus pulled into town I noticed a huge Honda place, so I jumped off at the first stop instead of taking it all the way downtown. After walking back to the Honda place, it turned out to be a Honda Marine – boats, boats, boats! No motorcycles at all.
He told me he knew of the moto place (I had the name, Pirincho Motos from the lady in Junin), but not how to get there. I wandered down the street for awhile until I found a gas station and asked the attendant there, who proceeded to give me directions to walk around 16 blocks through town, weaving a few times, looking out for a plaza and a bridge, etc. Shrugging I set off and was surprised to find I could successfully follow his directions, except for one problem – I wasn’t sure if he meant to turn at the beginning or end of the plaza, so I chose beginning.
It was wrong, but another quick stop for directions got me pointed in the right place and I strolled into Pirincho around 7:30PM. He definitely didn’t have a replacement in stock because almost all the motos around here use disc brakes, instead of drum brakes. After a lot of conversation, we came up with two options: He would call around and try to find me a used front wheel, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll discuss buying a better wheel that’s set up for disc brakes and doing a disc brake conversion.
He could sell me all the parts to do it myself, or I could take the wheel off with me and drive back here with no front brakes for him to do it. There was some stuff about him selling me all the parts to do it myself that I didn’t catch that would be difficult (probably bleeding the lines), so I’m inclined towards the latter (my front brakes were useless with that new wheel anyway).
He tells me to come back at 1PM tomorrow and we’ll figure something out, then gives me directions to a nearby place to stay. What is it with this town and directions? Maybe “block” means something different to them, because there is no hotel where he told me to go, so I wander around for a bit. I stumbled across a hostel and decide to go check it out – for $15USD they give me a bed in a room with three other guys that’s really hot with a not so great looking shower. As I start to unpack I ask myself what I’m doing – I can afford a nicer place, life has been tough, it’s nearly my birthday, let’s splurge.
I tell the guy no thanks, I’m going to look for a private place and he shows me a private room for $40USD, but it’s not really speaking to me. At this point, after the mental exhaustion of the day, I’d rather pay $100USD for something really nice, so I walk on.
Down the street, I find a nice looking hotel and walk in to ask about prices. The guy explains that he rents cabins, not rooms, and that they’re kind of big for one person – but they’re $40USD a night. Hrm, glad I didn’t stay at that hostel! I check it out and it’s nice, perfect in fact, and happily agree to stay here. After a shower, I get directions to a restaurant and head off to eat…
Oh, god. I had this filet in a Malbec reduction sauce that was mind blowing. Mind blowing. Like, seriously, my mind was blown. It was so delicious. Two great dark local beers and some apple cinnamon desert thing with ginger ice cream later, there wasn’t much left of me at all.
Sleep came easily, needless to say, with no worries about what the morrow might bring. Life was too good right now.