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Days 37-38: There’s Snow in Them Thar Hills

In which Pete encounters fluffy white stuff and crunchy clear stuff then struggles through both before weeping like a baby at his own survival, amidst throwing his chain multiple times and finding frozen water difficult to drink.

Day 37
Ruta 40, north of Perito Moreno Argentina @ 10:15AM
End: Ruta 40, south of Perito Moreno Argentina @ 6:00PM
Distance: approx. 229km (~143mi) in ~7.75 hours (~29KMH / ~18MPH average)

IMG_5823This morning dawned surprisingly warm and cozy, the sun shining gloriously across the cold desert. Once again I skipped my morning coffee due to the hassle of the wind and decided to pack rapidly and get on the road immediately.

I use the term “road” loosely – Ruta 40 was at this point a harsh gravel and rock road, and it stayed that way for many kilometers. I could not make any effective headway at first because the road was entirely too rough and I had some major concerns about my front suspension and steering, but eventually I got used to the strange sway dynamic caused by the extra weight in the back and my loose suspension and cut loose a bit.

IMG_5850The brutal wind from the last few days continued and before long my arms were giving me some major trouble. On a paved road, I can wedge my left wrist between the handlebar and the clutch lever and bend over in such a way that my arm is used as a lever to keep the moto heading straight with minimum muscle input; on gravel, this is unfortunately not possible. The result is that I need to push hard with my right arm and pull hard with my left most commonly, and this aggravates the severe tendonitis in my elbows, especially my left. It is now quite sore.

IMG_5840Nonetheless, as expected the gravel road randomly turned into a pristine paved road somewhere north of Perito Moreno, which would be the last “big” town I would be passing through for quite awhile. I skated up into town quite happy and enjoying the day and decided to have a snack to make up for the lack of morning coffee. I grabbed some gas and found a restaurant with wifi (the only one I saw in town) to upload my blog and catch up a teeny bit on the internet, but before long they were closing for the afternoon and I had to take off.

Heading south from Perito Moreno I initially had absolutely no indication of what was about to happen to me, as the day continued to be sunny and nearly cloudless. The temperature was hovering around a toasty 45F, my only minor aggravation being the wind. For thirty minutes south this continued until I came around a bend and saw something that made my heart drop.

Evil, terribly evil clouds were gobbling up the horizon… and the road was heading straight for them. This can, at times, be one of the most difficult things to do on a motorcycle: drive directly into a storm. I considered for a moment turning back to Perito Moreno for the evening, but discarded the idea quickly; it would only delay the inevitable.

As I pulled over to batten down the hatches and make sure all of my gear was secure, I noticed white things flying through the air around me, very scarcely. “How cute,” I thought irrationally, “it’s snowing!” Am I crazy? The thought of snow actually amused me, and I was happy that it would be so much more comfortable than a horrible rainstorm. Oh, how true, and yet, oh how wrong.

P1010885I drove into the teeth of the storm, the sky turning black around me and the dark gray clouds lowering themselves like a curtain over the road. PONK! “Ow, what the…” Something hard and painful just smashed me directly on the nose! PONK! PONK!” Ow!” I swore into the wind as I realized the unfortunate truth: this was hail. Hard, heavy hail the size of bb’s coming at me in a vicious wind aided by my own velocity and they HURT. Even through my fleece, random hail stones would manage to perfectly PONK! off the tip of my nose, bringing tears to my eyes as surely as a thwap with a pencil.

P1010921For half an hour I drove through the hail, watching with detached painful amusement as the little white balls bounced to and fro across the road like a deranged giant had spilled the largest bucket of white plastic bb’s in the entire world. Bounce, bounce, bounce. I tried covering my face with my left hand to reduce the pain, but driving with one arm through the wind proved impossible – I had to grin and bear it, so I did.

Slowly the hail stopped and became something light, fluffier. Instead of bouncing it landed, then it accumulated, then it turned to ice. Wet, slushy snow, the kind that makes perfect snowballs, the kind we love to play in… and I was riding a motokar through it.

During a brief break in the light but persistent snow, I stopped to dance on the side of the road and warm myself up. Jumping around like a crazy person, waving my arms and kicking my legs high in the air, I wasn’t paying attention until I realized a car was stopped next to me with four people staring at me all googley-eyed. I’m not sure if they realized what I was doing or if they thought I had gone absolutely insane, but once I started talking to them they began grinning and laughing at me.

“Yeah, it’s cold! I am trying to warm up! This snow is tough.” I say. “Don’t worry,” they say, “it gets better further south, there isn’t as much. Just keep going!” I thank them for this important bit of information which I hold in my mind like a torch beacon and head onwards into the snow.

P1010909It doesn’t get better – it gets worse. Much worse. Before long, the entire road is covered in snow and ice. I can’t quite get traction up hills, spinning my way slowly and carefully and just waiting to find one I won’t be able to make it up. I pull off the road to take a photo by a big Patagonia sign, figuring it’s worth the risk for the photo op, and find myself nearly unable to make it back onto the road or get going again. Slowly, carefully, I make my way along, wondering where I get to the “there isn’t as much” part…

Then the road ends. Or rather, the pavement ends – and now I am driving on snow and ice, over frozen mud and gravel. Oddly, I seem to have more traction here than on the pavement, likely due to the extra texture of the mud and gravel, but the inconsistency of the road makes travel difficult and slow.

P1010926A few hundred feet ahead of me, I can see something unfortunate: a very steep hill. As I arrive at it, I find I was correct, I did eventually find a hill I cannot climb. I get out to lower the tire pressure in my drive tire for additional traction and find that the cap has fallen out and the bit where you put air in is frozen completely solid. In fact, I realize, my chain even has bits of ice on it, and my entire wheel is coated in it. This can’t be good… I debate for a moment, then decide to try the traction of my boots.

Ironically, I find I can pull Red up this icy, snowy hill under my own power. He has carried me all this way, but when push comes to ice, it’s my turn to put him on my back and get him over the hill. At the top of the hill I struggle with the decision of finding a place to stop for the night or continuing onward to the mythical part where it gets better, deciding for now to continue.

The light begins to fade and I push onwards, pulling Red up a few more hills but mostly riding him happily and slowly through the frozen ice and snow. My world is so covered in gray that I can’t be sure when the sun sets, but I can sense a subtle shift in the available light and realize it will soon be dark. I decide to find a place to stop and within moments find myself facing a long, slow uphill climb, yet partway up it is a dirt quarry where construction crews haul out dirt for their road. Everything is covered in snow, but it has mostly stopped falling and I can’t help but feel this is a gift.

I can climb that long slow hill in the morning, maybe I will get lucky and the sun will even come out. Until then, I will retire to my tent. Setting up camp in the cold is easier than expected, simply a mental exercise in ignoring the cold until everything is ready, then I jump into my tent and into my sleeping bag and prepare to spend the next six hours twiddling my thumbs for warmth until I can fall asleep.

As I settle down for the evening, I take final note of the temperature: it is 19F, well below freezing. It will be a cold night.

Day 38
Ruta 40, Unknown, Argentina @ 10:15AM
End: Ruta 40,north of Gobernador Gregores, Argentina @ 6:00PM
Distance: approx. 210km (~131mi) in ~9.5 hours (~27KMH / ~17MPH average)

IMG_5881Last night was actually cold. This may seem like an inane statement considering the circumstances, but it was the first time on this trip that I have really been cold while stuffed inside all my gear. The evening itself was fine, even comfortable, as I watched some tv shows on my phone and read for awhile. It sucked not having any warm food, but I had a can of lentils which I happily enjoyed using my crowbar to eat with as I could not find my spoon (sarcasm, it was horrible eating with the crowbar).

Once I finally went to sleep and my body temperature lowered, however, it was a different story. I woke up a couple of times in the night uncomfortably cold, more than I should have been. Thankfully it wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t pant a bit and twitch around until I got some heat into my bag and go back to sleep, but it was an omen of possible things to come (11F was the lowest temperature I saw during one of my wakeys).

The problem, I think, is this crappy department store air mattress that I picked up in Peru – it is not insulated even the slightest bit, so while it does keep me off the ground and comfortable, it transmits all of the cold from the ground directly into my sleeping bag. In any cold weather situation, the earth is the biggest culprit for cold transmission and a quality sleeping pad or air mattress is critical to stay warm. I don’t have this, and it’s going to be a problem (the easiest solution is to get a heavy blanket to put between my air mattress and sleeping bag, which I will keep an eye out for).

Nonetheless I survived the night in good spirits and noticed the subtle pre-dawn lightening of my tent around 8:30AM. I debated how long I would stay inside enjoying the warmth before deciding around 9AM that there was no point in waiting – time to brave the cold and see what the day held.

I admit that I had a small, forlorn hope that I would step out of my tent to a pink and blue sky, lightening under a beautiful bright sun that would burn the snow away and warm the air and earth and most importantly, me. I slowly stuffed myself back into all my clothes in the proper order, put on my boots, and opened my outer tent flap to see what the world had in store for me.

There, directly in front of my tent flap, shining brightly into my face like a thousand angels singing at Christmas, was a gorgeous, gigantic orange ball of fire. Inches above the horizon, it was surrounded by an amazing blue and pink and orange sky, lit up like an exploding volcano - for about two inches in each direction…

The rest of the sky was the same, unyielding dark gray. As I watched, the sun ascended into the gray and the soft chorus of the angels became nothing more than imaginary echoes in my head, slowly fading. I was speechless, unsure of even how to respond – to be greeted by this spectacle only to watch it swallowed whole within moments by despair was almost more than I could bear. I found myself wishing I had remained in my tent for just five minutes more, assured that the morning would be easier to accept if it had been only emptiness that greeted me.

Numbly I broke camp, hands cramping in the cold in my thin liner gloves as I packed everything back into its place, a routine now both familiar and grinding. Every morning I find myself idly wishing this took less time but today my mood is dark and I find myself resenting the need for it.

P1010935Even worse, I find myself a victim of something so predictable, so obvious, and yet so completely unthinkable and unimaginable that at first I stare numbly at my predicament: my wet wipes have frozen completely solid. The prospect of morning ablutions in the snow is entertaining enough (read: not at all), but rendered completely moot if my wet wipes are a block of ice… and I ate a can of beans last night for my sake!

There’s only one thing for it, and with a wince and a full body squiggle, I shove the block of ice wipes under my shirt (and jacket and jacket and jacket and jacket) next to my gloves to warm up. Thankfully by the time I am done striking camp the block has thawed enough for me to peel off a few very cold sheets, and I find myself giggling at the thought of “nevermind not eating yellow snow, don’t even get near brown snow!”

Cheered by this inanity and the surprisingly comfortable chilliness of having my nether regions exposed to the icy weather, I prepare to mount my steed for the day of travel when another glimmer of hope shines up at me from the snow next to Red: my spoon! There it is, sitting happily on the ground, abandoned throughout the night. You’ve no idea what a simple pleasure it is to find something lost like this, to start the day with the happy knowledge that I would not be ending this day with the taste of cold iron crowbar in my mouth as I did the last.

Another happy surprise awaited me as I jumped on Red and kicked hard on starter: he started on the very first try!  He purred at me happily, as if to assure me that this day would be nothing, just a simple day’s ride through the snow. “Let us fly, I want to taste more of this illustrious icy goodness, to prove my power and worth by bearing you across it!” he seemed to be saying to me.

Or, perhaps the cold had frozen my mind as I was already a bit around the bend. Somehow the dreariness of the morning was gone, replaced by a giddy happiness wrapped around a simple truth:

I was about to set off along a mud and gravel road, in the shadow of the Andes mountains, about as far south as it’s possible to get anywhere in the world except where I was (or Antarctica), by myself, on a mototaxi, in the snow. Yeah, check that one off life’s To Do List, ‘cuz I bet I could count on one finger the number of people in the entire history of the world that have woken up in the snow to ride a mototaxi along Ruta 40. “Pete,” I said to myself as I slowly edged Red back onto the road and up the long slow climb, “I do believe that you are the f’ing man!”

That’s how I make it through days like today. I don’t normally make it a habit of telling myself I’m awesome, but on days like today, this is how I get through it. That and, well, it’s not like I had any other options except “go forward.”

Did I mention all of my water was frozen solid? Yeah, problem. Regardless: onward!

The rest of the morning was, well, pretty freaking awesome (and by awesome I mean incredibly painful and miserable). The temperature stayed in the low 20sF, well below freezing. The sky stayed dark, unyielding gray. The road stayed frozen, icy, muddy, and gravelly. My gear held up fantastically and kept me warm aside from my hands, which froze through every thirty minutes or so.

It became a ritual: Drive for thirty minutes until I couldn’t feel my hands. Call myself a wanker and a wuss and a baby and force myself to keep driving for another fifteen minutes until my watch clicked over to a new hour. Immediately stop, jump off Red, and go running around for fifteen minutes breathing life and warmth into myself. Get back and Red and repeat.

Somewhere during this repeating series of events I had a genius idea: if my exhaust was too hot to put my gloves on directly, thus burning the leather and deforming them (as my right glove proves to be the case), I’ll wrap it in duct tape! It will act as an insulator and prevent my gloves from getting too hot while still allowing me to warm them up on the exhaust! I AM A GENIUS!

Cold does this to your brain, you see. Let us just say that the end result was a horrible sticky smelly gunky mess on my exhaust that my gloves are not getting anywhere near to and smells horrible. Genius, indeed.

At one point in the early afternoon the mud and gravel road suddenly disappeared and I found myself driving Red along another of those surprisingly pristine sections of pavement which appear throughout Ruta 40 in random spots (I expect within a couple years the entire road will be paved, as easily 75% of the unpaved sections are under construction already). On any other day this would be a cause to celebrate, however not today: it was solid ice.

I had no traction whatsoever. In fact, if it weren’t for the very nice and wide graded mud and dirt shoulder, I would have gone nowhere for the rest of the day. Instead I spent an hour driving on the dirt shoulder of a wonderful paved road just to get a bit of traction. The ultimate reward was driving past a truck who was doing the exact same thing – I guess I wasn’t the cleverest person in the world for thinking of it after all (what, my brain was frozen, to me the idea was GENIUS!).

The shoulder on the paved section was surprisingly well graded and I made excellent time, actually driving at full speed for the first time in what felt like fourteen years (wait, was it sunny yesterday or was that last year?). Every once in awhile I would lose traction at high speed and hear something that would make my heart trip: my front chain, skipping. It held, however, so in my frozen numb genius-ness I decided it must be all good.

The road, however, was not all good – the pavement was done again, and it was back to the horrible mud and gravel. This time the section was under massive construction and in these sections they seem to do away with the courtesy of small grades, instead enjoying roller-coaster style up and down and side to side mud roads designed to make you giggle like a schoolgirl when it’s warm and have traction… or cry like a schoolgirl when it’s cold, frozen, and covered in snow and ice.

To top things off, the wind that had been so wonderfully at my back on the paved section was now coming from the side, sweeping snow and ice into the road in front of me, pushing me sideways, and generally just letting me know I was a plaything at its mercy. The wind became my new nemesis, and it was this same wind that drove me nearly past insanity and almost caused me to destroy my chances of making it off this road alive.

My chain was dreadfully loose, you see – and worst of all, it was my front chain, which is generally quite secure and had just been all nicely tightened up in San Martin. On any uphill section where I would lose traction I could feel the chain skipping and I knew it was just a matter of time until… sure enough, with a grinding crackle it was off!

Throwing a chain is an interesting experience that happens in one of two ways. The first way is ideal, in which you hear a strange grinding crackle and your engine revs shoot through the roof without you going anywhere and you glide to a stop. This means the chain has come off cleanly and can typically be put right back on within ten seconds (and really should be tightened). It can also mean the chain sheared or broke on the master link, but hey, let’s think positive right?

The second way is, well, not so ideal. You hear that same strange grinding crackle and your engine revs also shoot through the roof, but instead of gliding to a stop your wheels lock up and you slide sideways to a screeching halt. This means your chain has come off on the wrong side and become wedged between the sprockets and the mounts and isn’t going anywhere until you manage to unwedge it. If you’re lucky it will still be usable, if you’re not it will be bent or mangled beyond repair.

The first time the chain came off, it was the first way. I put it back on and decided to drive carefully and that I would tighten it at the first opportunity to do so out of the wind. This made perfect sense to my cold numbed mind.

The second time the chain came off, it was the second way. This was not fun. In the middle of the road, with wind driving snow and ice into me from the side, I had to slide on the frozen muddy ground under Red and using two wrenches slowly smash and lever my chain until I could get it free. This required delicate enough manipulation that I could only wear my liner gloves, and once the twenty minutes it required to free the chain were up my hands were completely numb from the cold.

Did I tighten the chain? Nah. I was too cold, it was too miserable, I will just keep riding carefully and tighten it when I get to a good spot… ugh. Around this time I ran out of fuel and had to pour gas in from my reserve can, I will gloss over that except to say that I probably lost half as much fuel as I got into the tank due to the wind blowing it everywhere.

After this was done, I stared at my hands for a few moments in very serious consideration of lighting them on fire to warm them up. I kept thinking there’s some deal where you can light the fuel on your hands but your skin doesn’t catch fire as long as there is enough gas on your hands or something like that. It made perfect sense to my frozen mind, but thankfully there was a small wedge of sanity left somewhere that actually prevented me from doing this (or it may just have been that it would have required digging into my bags in back to get my flint and steel, a daunting proposition).

The third and fourth times the chain came off, it came off cleanly. After the fourth I finally came to grip with reality: I needed to tighten the chain, now. In the middle of the frozen cold road. Let’s get it done.

So, I got out all my tools and tightened the chain about halfway as tight as I could. Oddly, once this was done, the chain seemed even looser. This made no sense at all to me, and I came to the conclusion that it must have stretched due to the cold somehow while I was tightening it. The only thing left to do was to tighten the tighten bolt thingie as much as it would go, after which the chain was even looser. It was basically flopping on the ground.

I was stumped. Lying on the frozen ground with snow blowing into my face, body contorted in order to reach this teeny 10mm bolt under the middle of my moto, all I could determine was that something was seriously wrong with my chain. It was clearly unfixable. I would have to abandon everything here in the snow and travel back to Perito Moreno to try to find someone that would come out here to help me fix it.

One interesting thing about being underneath a mototaxi in the middle of a dirt road hundreds of kilometers from everything in the snow: people stop to see what you’re up to. In fact, the entire day up to this point I had seen only one other car, but while I was tightening my chain at least three stopped to make sure I was okay.

It was the third one that brought me back to reality. The first one was a pickup truck, the second a big rig, and the third a station wagon with a cute little family. As I laid on the ground on my back staring up at these nice people trying to decide whether or not to ask them for a ride while they waited for a response to their query as to my status, I noticed they had a bicycle tied to their roof. As I watched, the bicycle wheel was spinning in the wind, but incongruously I noticed that it was spinning backwards, and how weird this looked.

Reality crashed in. I wasn’t tightening the chain, I was bloody well loosening it! I was turning the bolts backwards, the wrong way. Happily I told the cute family I was fine, thank you, and set to work. Sure enough, within five minutes I had a wonderfully taut (possibly too taut but I didn’t care!) front chain. “Pete,” I said to myself, “you are a freaking idiot.”

The perfectly tight chain gave me a confidence in Red I had not had for awhile, and in spite of spending over an hour lying on the road I was ready to tear things up. For the next hour I was throwing snow and ice every which way as I bent the road to my will, full throttle at every opportunity, skimming across ice and mud at 60kmh.

Wait, skimming across mud? I can see mud! And look, there are clumps of gray grass on the side of the road! Dirt, I can see dirt! My mind starts to replay the last half hour in my head and I realize that slowly but oh so very surely the snow has begun to disappear. Then, like a magical flower blooming before me, I quite literally round a bend in the road to see the most beautiful sight in the entire world:

A perfectly straight, pristinely wonderful paved road stretching to the horizon in front of me. Not only is it even painted with pretty lines, but it is in fact completely devoid of snow and ice. The countryside around it is also the pure brown dirt of the Argentine desert.

As I pull onto the road, another truth is unveiled: the horrible wind, my bitter nemesis, is now at my back, pushing me happily along towards my destination. I can hear it whispering to me that I won, I beat it, and now it will be my willing servant for a time.

In a heartbeat Red is shredding down this road, purring along at 9500RPM under almost no strain as the wind does the work of pushing me along at 65KMH. I begin to howl in triumph, my frozen body slowly thawing as I realize I can feel my hands again. I check my watch and find the air temperature has risen to a balmy 39F, well above freezing!

Then I pass a sign, something I have not seen for surely the same fourteen years it has been since I’ve seen the sky, and the sign tells me something beautiful: 1006 kilometers remain in Ruta 40.

At this, everything unravels. My emotions shatter, my frozen mind switches off, and my body is wracked by great heaving sobs as I begin to weep with joy. Dimly I can’t help but laugh at the parallel, the fact that in all these years since I was a teenager, the only other time I have cried was also on a mototaxi, when I finally made it onto the Salar de Uyuni.

Here I am again, and in spite of all of the difficult triumphs, the tough losses, and the incredible things I have experienced since that defining moment, it is a triumph on a mototaxi yet again that causes me to weep. What is it about these machines?

Weeping crazily for joy still, I pull over at the sign indicating I have less than a thousand km left on Ruta 40 to take a photo of this moment, completely unashamed. My mind may not be functioning properly but I know I have done something I will remember for the rest of my life, even if the telling can never properly explain how difficult it was.

I ride, onward into the warmth. Oddly, the pavement ends shortly thereafter, almost as if this small 20km stretch of road was put there precisely for that moment, a gift of cosmic chance. As once again the sun goes down, I realize I won’t be able to make it to the next town and the chances of a warm bed are unlikely – it is time to stop, again, on the side of the road.

During a stop to scout a location off-road, I notice that the wind appears to be lessened here. I decide it must be due to the overhanging hills, and take a small side road off into an extraordinarily sandy part of the desert. As the sun sets, I notice it is a incredibly warm 49F and I find that once again my tent protects my stove from the steady breeze and I am able to eat something warm.

I cut the bottoms off two of my bottles of ice and pour them into a pot to melt, having something fresh to drink for the first time today aside from a few small snatches of melt throughout the day. I tuck the final bottle into bed with me to be warmed by my body heat and prepare for a well deserved night of peaceful warmth, sheltered from the wind, away from the cold and snow.

It is a fitting end to an incredible day, I tell myself as I sleepily begin to nod off.


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