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Days 34-36: This is Patagonia

In which Pete finds amazing beauty amongst wet cold misery, finds 40kmh winds to be somewhat detrimental, flattens two tires and throws a chain, and unknowingly sleeps under an evil omen.

Day 34
Begin:
San Martin de Los Andes @ 11:30AM
End: Unknown Location, Ruta 40, Argentina @ 9:00PM
Distance: approx. 363km (~227mi) in ~9.5 hours (~38KMH / ~23MPH average)

P1010851Leaving San Martin this morning was tough – not because I wanted to hang out in my posh cabin some more and wander this adorable little town, but because it was raining. Nothing makes a motorcycle ride as miserable as rain, especially when it’s cold.

The physics of it is easy to understand; you get wet, you get colder. We all know this. Rain, especially in the mountains, usually comes with a cold front and a drop in temperature. We all know this too. Riding a moto mostly exposed to the elements, you are driving at a speed that increases all of these things… with a little bit of thought, we all can come to this conclusion and know this too. So, intellectually, you can read this and think “wet, cold, miserable.” No problem, you are with me.

But… have you ever actually felt it? Have you ever been wet, cold, and miserable for hours on end, without pause, without respite, just completely soaked and frozen? Have you been physically abused in such a way while trying to keep a three wheeled contraption somewhat under control on cold, slick, mountain roads? Mountain roads that often have no guard rail?

And while you try to maintain some sort of mental control over your cold misery, mental control over your focus and ability to maintain direction and speed, and maintain some sort of positive outlook on being alone for months away from home… while you struggle with these things, you can’t be upset with them, you can’t be angry with them, you can’t even resent them… because they are perfect, exactly the right conditions for the road you are travelling, matched to the scenery around you as if by a master.

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The road south from San Martin was simply stunning. Golden trees on hills surrounding me, moist with rain, blowing gently in the wind while seductively fading into dense fog. Glimpses of snow capped mountains in the distance, tantalizing in their brevity. Sapphire blue mountain lakes stretched out before me, at times whipped into a fury reminiscent of an ocean storm. Each corner leading to a new beauty, unfolding around me as if I wandered through a fantastic art gallery on a impossible scale.

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Wet, cold, miserable, and in a state of satisfied bliss – that describes my entire day.

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I’m not sure it’s worth writing about the hours spent tearing through deep mud in the pouring rain along a section of the road still under construction, actually passing cars at times because they could not gain traction. It’s probably not worth discussing the strange stop at an overlook where I arrived alone yet was mobbed within moments as three tour busses arrived and everyone wanted a picture with the crazy American on a moto. I’m not sure I should bother to tell you about riding deep into the night before finally stopping in an area so windswept I could not keep my stove lit… or even talk about the end of the night, cold and wet, as my poorly staked tent reacted with my body warmth to soak everything inside with condensation.

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Honestly, I don’t want to remember those parts of my day. I just want to remember those amazing, stunningly beautiful mountains. The rest was just a small price to be paid.

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Day 35
Begin:
Unknown Location, Ruta 40, Argentina @ 9:45AM
End: Unknown Location, Ruta 40, Argentina @ 6:00PM
Distance: approx. 296km (~185mi) in ~7.5 hours (~40KMH / ~25MPH average, 1+ hr for lunch)

IMG_5627I made a decision last night to leave my wet outer layers in the corner of my tent, wadded up. I regretted it in the morning when this, combined with the cold, my body warmth, the wind, and the fact that I did not stake my tent down all resulted in anything not inside my sleeping bag or my dry bag being soaked completely through.

Knowing I could not make coffee because there was too much wind, I slowly packed everything away and put my wet clothes back on. The absolute worst part was stowing the wet tent, with an air temperature of 35F it was barely above freezing and I could not wear gloves as the tent was soaking wet. As I wadded each piece (there are three) into the dry bag reserved for my tent, my hands would spike with intense pain, only mitigated by five minutes of running around, waving my arms in the air, and rubbing them. Once they finally had feeling back, choosing to return, subject myself to it again, and stuff the next piece into the bag was difficult, to say the least.

That’s one thing I learned in the weeks of cold, wet misery in Alaska, however – there is no cure for the misery of breaking camp like getting on the road. You warm up your inner layers running around, your outer layers stay wet but protect the inside, you don’t have to touch any more frozen wet stuff, and you can just check out. Unwind your mind with the road ahead.

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The road today was all good road, but the scenery was less impressive than yesterday. I had descended from the mountains and now rode mostly through their shadow, long straight roads through dreary yellow terrain with desert mountains next to me. Another time, this would be dusty, hot, boring… like most of Chile was.

IMG_5637Today, it was simply cold, wet, and miserable. There was no joy to counterbalance it, no wonder to distract from the terrible pain in my hands. Even worse, not only had the temperature dropped to a steady low 30’sF, but the mountains to my right were sending an ill wind towards me. My gloves especially had become soaked yesterday, and while the liners kept my hands dry it’s little comfort when your fingers are encased in leather ice.

I made some of the worst time of my trip overall by far, simply because I had to stop every twenty minutes to run around and warm my hands back up. Yesterday I had used a trick of putting my gloves on my exhaust to heat them up, giving me a minute of intense blessed warmth, but in my ecstasy (and the dark) I did not notice that I was slowly destroying them. Today, I noticed, then the two outer fingers of my right glove became noticeably deformed and smaller as the leather contracted and melted from the heat.

For three hours I struggled, telling myself that I was headed towards a true desert and this rain could not last forever. Cold I could handle, it was the cold and rain together that were a force I did not like, did not want, and gladly would leave behind.

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I don’t think I even noticed when the rain stopped because I was so focused on my frozen hands. It may have been an hour or more before I realized something was different – my clothes were completely dry. There was still no sun, the temperature was holding steady just above freezing, and the wind still blew with a vengeance… but this minor change took things from barely tolerable to mildly unpleasant.

Singing loudly to myself as I rode, I continued along until I came to a junction and saw a sign that changed things for me, quite unexpectedly: “Restaurant, three minutes, open all day!”

To someone unfamiliar with Argentina this may not seem that special, however one of the horrible truths about this country is that most places seem to shut down for most of the day. It makes getting anything done incredibly difficult, even more so when you are simply driving through a town. If you don’t show up between 9-11AM or 5-9PM for stores or 11-2PM/9-12PM for restaurants you are out of luck. Something open all day is unique, to be treasured… to be experienced!

Or it may just be the fact that at this point in time, hot coffee and a place to dry out were worth far, far more than making the most of daylight. I’m not even sure if this horrible cloud covered misery could be called “day…” so off I went to find this holy grail.

I found the restaurant and it looked completely abandoned, not a light on inside and no cars outside – but there was a bit sign out front that said “Abierto” (open) though it looked like one of those signs someone puts out and forgets to take inside for the weekend or something. Nevertheless I jumped off my steed and walked up to find myself inside a giant, amazing restaurant, all to myself. Myself and the one waitress/cook/everything-doer!

I happily divested myself of layer after layer of clothing, piling a chair high with my gear, then ordered a coffee and some random thing off the menu that looked interesting (I had no idea what it was other than meat and got a clarification that it was something from a young cow). It turned out to be fantastic ribs, very fatty but incredibly tasty and, like the coffee, warm!  Possibly even better than this fare, my first solid food in around 30 hours (not counting some cookies), was the fact that as I sat in the window eating I found myself lit up in a blaze of warmth and light… the sun was out!

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After hot food, hot drink, and a bit of time for all my gear to warm up and finish the final bits of drying, it was almost a pleasure to return to the cold cold sun. It’s an odd feeling, driving through a frozen desert: at a snapshot, it could be a hundred degrees, burning hot, deep summer. You’d never know it’s actually hovering just above freezing with a massive wind cutting into everything. The mind boggles at times because it simply doesn’t make sense – looking out, it should be warm! Why is it cold?

IMG_5681Regardless, the sun was here to stay and I finally decided to take the top off Red again. I’m not sure it does a whole lot when I’m riding through the rain for hours, but it makes me feel special to have it – on the other hand, it was having a very hard time with the intense wind, and taking it off made me feel much better.

As the day stretched on, I started looking for a place to camp, telling myself this time I would stop before dark no matter what. It would be a short day, but I needed to dry out my tent before getting inside it so stopping on time was absolutely critical. While I was driving over a bridge I noticed a beautiful flat area with trees and a river below it and wondered if I could make it down to it; after a few false starts and dead ends, I found a path and realized it had once been a campground of some kind as there were stone tables and fire pits along with some nasty piles of unmentionables (including a ton of diapers, for some reason).

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This would be my happy home for sure. As my tent dried in the wind I found a spot sheltered enough to warm some water for pasta, though it took nearly an hour to cook in the cold. The sun had warmed the air up to a balmy 45F, which felt absolutely decadent as I wandered around camp, taking photos and watching some videos on my phone.

With everything dry, my tummy warm, and proud of myself for stopping on time, I settled in for what would surely be a very cold night.

Day 36
Begin:
Unknown Location, Ruta 40, Argentina @ 10:15AM
End: Unknown Location, Ruta 40, Argentina @ 7:00PM
Distance: approx. 258km (~161mi) in ~6.5 hours (~40KMH / ~25MPH average, 2 hrs repairs)

IMG_5716I’m not a fan of the daylight hours down here, with the sun setting right now around 6:30PM and not coming up until after 9AM – especially since I prefer to let the sun warm the earth a bit before Ieave the delicious comfort of my nice, warm, sleeping bag. I had woken up a few times during the night and checked the temperature among other things and been happy to note that it never dropped before 34F inside my tent that I noticed. After seeing light outside for awhile, I decided it was safe to venture forth and unzipped my sleeping bag to expose myself to the unwanted cold.

Putting on a billion layers inside a cold tent is an exercise in flexibility and determination, but it’s far better than doing it outside where it’s guaranteed to be much colder – the tent has been warmed by body heat, and it’s better to face the cold outside prepared. The morning was as expected, with water I had left outside frozen solid but the sun was shining and soon all would be well: it was time to make coffee!

IMG_5723As I putzed around getting my coffee set, I noticed something unusual that I had failed to notice the night before: A decayed sheep’s head wedged in a tree bough almost directly above my tent. I expected this would bode ill for the day, and my expectation was not far wrong…

My coffee slowly warmed while I packed all my stuff, then I sat around doing nothing for another half hour until it was at a temperature where I could feel the warmth. Drinking it was the worst part – it was delicious, but by the time I finished the cup it had already turned cool again, thanks to the evil air temperature.

I should be clear at this point that I’m not complaining about the cold – I have come to grips with it, and as long as it isn’t wet I don’t mind too much. I have the gear for it and, perhaps more importantly, the experience and mindset to deal with it (at least, so far), so it doesn’t bother me as much as you might think… it is, however, ever present, and it affects everything.

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So, off I went. The temperature eventually climbed into the 40’s again, but it was offset by the constant wind blowing. I was lucky in that most of the day the wind was coming from behind, not affecting my speed or causing undue stress. In fact, at times the strong wind from the back would contrive to make my passage oddly peaceful and serene, as if I was riding in a bubble of nothingness.

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The day passed in a cavalcade of same: desert. Cold desert, but empty desert. Little changing, and little standing out… until I topped a hill to see an interesting little lake (almost a a pond) beside the road and something moving in it. Something… pink?! Are those FLAMINGOS?!

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How bizarre. Flamingos in a cold desert wasteland. I’m sure someone can explain this, but I’ve always thought of flamingos as being home in Florida, a hot, humid jungle. I don’t understand, but it amuses me nonetheless.

Back on Red for a moment, I’m still somewhat bemused by the flamingos when I crash across something with an incredibly loud bang. Immediately I know that Something Is Wrong… Something Is Very Wrong.

IMG_5804I wobble to a stop and discover two things simultaneously: I am barely a kilometer away from a town, and my rear left tire is flat. This is the worst tire to go flat because it’s the drive wheel, which means disassembling it is a huge hassle… but I need to change my tire.

I unload everything, find a rock to put under the support structure on the right side and tip over the moto. Taking the wheel off is quick work, though I twice drop important pieces in the dirt and have to rummage around to find them. I tell myself I’ll just quickly patch the tube, but something is really wrong with it. I can’t get it out, it’s super tight. I’ve never seen a tube like this, and for twenty minutes I struggle with it trying to understand what is wrong.

P1010867Finally as I almost completely remove the tire it becomes clear: the tube has failed catastrophically, a huge section of it tearing apart and another section wadded and wedged under one part of the tire, resulting in a rubber-band like tightness in other parts. This tube will not be patched.

I get out my spare tube – now my last “good” spare tube, though I have one with a patch in it that I changed in Mendoza as well still – and I put it in. Getting the wheel mounted is difficult, with many loose bits to be delicately balanced as I place it on, something much easier done with two people. Once it’s assembled I notice the chain seems loose, which I recall has happened before on my first mototaxi adventure, but it still makes no sense: if I put it all back in the same place, why is the chain loose?

I always seem to prefer less play than the mechanics give me, so I decide to leave it like this for now as it may be within the 20mm recommended. I load all my stuff back on and notice my tire – the one I just changed – is flat again. What the hell?

I pump it up and immediately can hear the air hissing out. This is not good, and now I’m getting frustrated. It’s late and the sun is starting to set and, oh why not, there is a town 1km away. Instead of dismantling everything here by myself, maybe I can find someone to help me out… so I head slowly into town, stopping every couple of minutes to furiously pump my tire back up again.

P1010870I find a gomeria (a uniquely Argentinian word for a tire place, as far as I can tell) and go through the process of dismantling everything again. He opens up my tires and finds, sure enough, a small leak in my brand new tube. Whether this happened while being scrunched up in the bottom of my dry bag or was the result of sloppily leveraging the tire back on, I’m not sure… but he professionally gets it patched up and before too long I get everything mounted back up.

Now it’s dark and I’m in a bad mood. My chain looks weird but I really don’t want to deal with it (I’m an idiot sometimes), so I go to get gas and find out how to get out of here. The gas station guy tells me something I’m not in the mood to hear: Ruta 40 is now gravel. And it’s pitch black.

I briefly consider looking for a hotel before deciding gravel roads are usually easier to camp on, so I head out of town. As I go up the first hill I can hear my chain clunking around and I know it’s dangerously loose, I am going to have to check it first thing tomorrow morning (when it’s warm and light). I decide I will go ten minutes out of town then start looking for a turnoff to camp – I’m not going to drive long into the night on gravel with a loose chain and a fresh tire patch.

Two minutes later my chain lets me know it has a mind of its own and pops off. Ugh. It’s loose enough that I can get it back on without even lifting Red, so I have to do something about it. Five minutes down on my back on a gravel road in the pitch black with a dying headlamp (I need new batteries! Why do I have 15 spare AA lithiums and no AAA’s?! AUGH I left them at home!!) and my chain is now nice and tight – possibly, too tight… hah! Wouldn’t that be ironic.

At this point I’m fried. It’s dark, the stress of three repairs is too much, the knowledge of a cold windy night is getting to me, so I’m done. A moment later I see a small side trail and I pop onto it, riding a hundred or so feet into the desert before stopping. This will be my camp site.

Aside from a few cookies for breakfast I haven’t eaten today, so the first order of business is food. Unfortunately I can’t get my stove to stay lit anywhere, even building little walls around it and whatnot, so I make what I’m sure will be the first of many Bad Decisions: I am going to put it inside my tent, which really is likely to end in me not having a tent.

Luckily, tonight at least, everything turned out fine and in just over an hour I had a nice hot meal. Afterwards I finished setting everything up inside my tent and settled down on my moto to write for the night.

Halfway through this entry it got too cold outside in the wind, so I went into my tent to finish it. My fingers are still cold, but at least the rest of me is cozy. I want to sleep, but I know I should stay away until midnight so that I can sleep comfortably until 9AM… waking before dawn is never a pleasure when it’s freezing out.

Repairs, even minor ones like flat tires, can be incredibly stressful on your own. I hope tomorrow is uneventful.

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