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Days 51-53: Yet Another Beginning

In which Pete begins a new adventure on Red, heading north from the bottom of the world in a frenzy of snow, rain, ice, and brutally intense cold to seek warmth and longer days.

Day 51
Ushuaia, southernmost city in the world @ 11:15AM
End: San Sebastian, Chile, Tierra del Fuego @ 7:15PM
Distance: approx. 312km (~195mi) in ~8 hours (~39KMH / ~24MPH average, +borders)

Leaving Ushuaia was tough for a lot of reasons: subjecting myself to the physical torment of the weather after five nights in a nice hotel, breaking in what felt like an entirely new moto, mentally stabilizing myself for the long weeks of empty straight pavement, and feeling slightly aimless with a nebulous goal of “go north” for the first time on this trip to name a few. I had already put it off one day (the “missing” Day 50) by deciding to hang out in my hotel all day instead of leaving when Red was ready at 1PM… so it was time to man up.

IMG_6514From the beginning, everything felt different. Until you’ve driven a mototaxi for an extended duration there is simply no way to understand the physical payment you must make to tame these things; it’s like cantering an unwilling horse for hours on end without using your legs. Your arms and shoulders are the levers that fight constantly to keep the thing pointed straight, a task made extraordinarily difficult by the fact that most roads slant to the right in that lane. Add in a loose front suspension, the incorrect size wheel that isn’t perfectly centered, and unpredictable wind to complicate the equation… it’s incredibly tough, and while I may not be in top shape as a result of nagging injuries from last year, I still have more power in my arms and shoulders than most.

Now there was a new element in the equation: the wicked Pirelli MT40 “on/off” tire added to the drive wheel to ensure traction in snow and gravel is slightly larger than the stock wheel, resulting in perhaps a half inch gain in height on the left side… and significantly augmenting the already strong push towards the right that exists for the reasons above. Complete the equation and within ten minutes you are ready to punch the imaginary coach in the face for telling you to do five more reps.

Every time I jump on Red I’m prepared for all of this in my head, but within five minutes I find myself thinking “I don’t remember it being this bad…” every single time. It’s a bit ridiculous, because my next thought is always “I think that every single time, am I an idiot?” After the first few minutes my muscles get warmed up and my body gets used to the constant strain and it usually settles into a slow burn that I can deal with for the rest of the day, switching up hand and arm and torso and shoulder positions like a contortionist to rest various muscles.

Not any more. After fifty days of “conditioning” my coach was taking things to the next level and I now have a new reason to stop every hour or so: I physically cannot keep Red pointed straight without giving my right arm (the main lever due to severe tendonitis in my left elbow preventing me from pulling with that arm) a break, I reach a point where the muscles actually give out. The same kind of feeling that happens when you hold a 50lb dumbbell with your arm straight forward and wait… it’s just impossible to keep it out there for long.

That wasn’t the only thing was different, and certainly not the worst. The new tire added an expected element that had me immensely frightened at first; at over 40kmh it sounded like a crazed demon chewing his way through Red’s rear end, spewing rage and hate as it ripped everything behind me apart. I kept stopping to check it, convinced that my bags had fallen into the wheel arch, the tire was rubbing on something, or a basketball had somehow become wedged under there. Over time I slowly became acclimated to it, but at first I was convinced the entire wheel was moments away from coming off.

The worst, however, was the engine trouble. Something was very clearly wrong with Red, but it was very hard to deal with. On flat ground or at high RPM (over 7500) everything seemed fine, but between 5000 and 7500, especially going uphill I could feel the engine choking. I came up with all sorts of rational explanations for this as I climbed the snow and ice covered road out of Ushuaia…

The engine was really cold, and that new gearing made it really need to struggle until it got into the powerband going uphill. Once things warmed up, everything would be fine. Forty kilometers later, the engine had to be warm; in spite of the below freezing air temperature at speed, the snow covering the sides of the road north of Ushuaia, and the constant soaking of nasty cold rain. If I touched the exhaust header it was bearable, but it was definitely warm. Must be something else.

Oh, Pablo put in a new platinum plug that’s a bit colder to help in run smooth at high RPM – colder plugs are notorious for running like crap until they are very hot. Maybe the temperature and the fact I couldn’t sustain high RPM due to the cold and obvious issues was preventing the plug from heating up entirely. That’s definitely the problem, it really does feel exactly like a messed up plug or a bad fuel line, so I’ll swap out the plug to a stock warmer one and put some heat in it.

Thirty kilometers down the road I had passed completely out of the mountains and was mostly on flat sections of road and it seemed my hypothesis had been correct. The engine now ran smooth and I was looking forward to checking in at Tolhuin for some gas and taking a risk on another one of those sandwiches, because it was really quite miserable.

The entire time I was occupied with thoughts around my fuel, I was dealing with nasty stretches of ice in the road, more than once simply sliding forward with my front wheel turned and Newton’s Laws mocking me as they made me their plaything. Once I came dangerously close to smashing into a guardrail, only catching traction at quite nearly literally the final moment before impact. It was so slippery coming over the pass that I went considerably slower downhill than I had uphill, even with the engine trouble.

I was also soaking wet, as the static air temperature was around 35F, barely above freezing. My body heat, even through all my layers of clothing, mostly prevented the water from freezing when the wind chill of my velocity lowered everything around me to below freezing… but it made for a miserable experience as my face slowly melted off from the cold. If you’ve never experienced face melting wet cold, count yourself lucky and try to avoid it.

Somewhere just south of Tolhuin, something changed in the ground temperature (perhaps a bit of sun had come through the day before) and the snow and ice slowly faded away as I approached my first stop of the day. Coming in to Tolhuin from the south required climbing some hills, however, and within a moment I realized my engine problem was back – or had never truly left. I was going to have to do a more thorough examination, assuming I didn’t have horrible gas, either my fuel line or air intake had to be restricted.

At the gas station I began to dismantle my air box and check my fuel lines, taking them off and blowing through them to make sure there were no obstructions. Everything looked fine and within a few minutes I was stumped. Do I turn around and head back to Ushuaia and Moto Pablo, so they could look at it? It must be something they did to the bike, so it’s only fair they fix it… if I go on to Rio Grande I may end up having to pay a lot. Difficult decision, but I didn’t think I could stomach turning around at this point.

When I gassed up, I noticed that I had been running with the reserve line enabled the entire time. At one point in troubleshooting I had flipped it to make sure it wasn’t a clog in the main line and flipped it back when the problem continued, but I must’ve gotten things mixed up. I flipped it back to main and went to pull the reserve line to check for obstructions when I noticed it: my bloody freaking choke was on. Are you kidding me?!

The choke on this bike is a teeny tab hidden away and it’s such a pain to deal with that I almost never bother to use it – only twice has my engine been so cold that it didn’t start after a couple kicks warmed it up, and then I used the choke only for a second so it would catch. Apparently sometime while working on my bike, the guys at Moto Pablo had flipped on the choke to start the bike and left it on and it never once occurred to me to even check it. I pretty much forgot the bike had a choke! (for those that don’t know, the choke basically restricts air into the carb which causes a significantly richer fuel mixture than normal, allowing a colder engine to start easier… and run like crap)

While I was punching myself in the throat repeatedly in order to ensure I learned this lesson properly (“CHECK THE FREAKING CHOKE!!”), I noticed a totally decked out adventure bike chillin’ at the far end of the gas station. I admit I got pretty excited at first, wondering if maybe I would run into an American and have my first conversation with a native English speaker in months… but alas, it had Argentina plates.

I chatted with the guy for awhile (forgot his name as usual for me) and he was pretty cool. It was a bit of an ego boost (for Red, I guess) that he was turning around: the road was entirely too icy and dangerous for two wheels, even with a very experienced rider. He had apparently almost gone down a few times and the road here was pristine as far as I was concerned, compared to the road south. After a long discussion about roads and the merits of various bikes, I had to break off to head north because I was losing daylight and wanted to make it past Rio Grande.

And, well, I did. Red ran amazing, a slight tailwind pushing me to a solid true 75kmh – at 45MPH I felt blisteringly fast, even a little overwhelmed at first as I became re-acquainted with the feeling of travel at over 40MPH. Perspective sure is a strange thing, on my Vmax back home I feel like I’m standing still traveling under 75MPH, but my scooter (the original Red) feels like a death trap at 55MPH… and so, indeed, would new Red, based on how scary he is at 45MPH.

I pulled through Rio Grande at high speed, stopping only to fuel up and note that I was getting good gas mileage again; what was up with chewing up an entire tank in 100km on the way down? Exiting Rio Grande to the north as the sun began to set I found myself no longer caring about the demon eating its way through the rear end, my aching muscles barely able to maintain direction, and the lingering discomfort and pain from the cold…because I could see the setting sun! In fact, the entire northern section of sky (where the sun now lives, you will note – rising in the NE, setting in the NW, and never getting higher than about 45 degrees) was a shining blue and orange, without a single cloud.

And, suddenly, it was no longer raining, and then I was no longer wet as the air blew the moisture off me into the dry desert around me. I had to stop and switch to my sunglasses as I drove towards the setting sun, but with 40km to San Sebastian I decided no matter what I would be crossing into Chile tonight. Mounting up just north of Rio Grande, I looked in my rearview mirror and was shocked to see the thickest rainbow I have ever seen in my life; why, or how it was so thick I can’t begin to say, something with the latitude perhaps? Regardless, I felt it was a good omen, a sign of sun and warmth to come.

Darkness overcame me as I arrived at the border, but checking out of Argentina was a simple process. As always, darkness brought its friend cold out to play, but tonight there was a malicious lilt to its play as it brought a friend I hadn’t felt for a few days: the wind. In typically perverse fashion, they awaited me on a playground of their choosing, where they knew I would be at a disadvantage. The Chilean border and the hosteria I had stayed at before, my goal for the night, lay twenty kilometers ahead – across gravel and mud, where I must battle the inky blackness of empty night, the seductive pain of freezing cold, and slow, sweet, invisible push of the night’s wind limiting me to 40kmh in third gear.

There’s one tried and true way to survive short (or long, if you’re willing to risk it) distances under adverse conditions like this: sing. Actually, don’t just sing… rock the hell out! Yelling Billy Idol lyrics at the top of my now hoarse voice, half an hour later I pulled up to the Chilean border convinced there would be a posse of frightened locals hiding behind a makeshift barrier with weapons ready to fight whatever crazed demon approached them out of the night. I was almost disappointed to find my yelling had been swallowed by the night rather than traveling miles and miles across the desert plains as I had been sure it would. Damn wind probably ate it.

Stamp, stamp, stamp and I was back in Chile. My poor passport gave me the evil eye as I put it away; it had been brand new for this trip, my old (full) one expired… the new passport wasn’t quite yet comfortable with all the abuse it was getting, most passports are broken in gently, but not mine. I shushed it with a kiss as I tucked it back into its warm leather wallet*, then hopped on Red for the short waltz to the hosteria.

Warm shower, warm food, warm bed. A reward well earned… who needs to sleep in a tent, anyway?

* I know sometimes it sounds like I’m exaggerating, making stuff up, being excessively dramatic, or simply batshit crazy when you read stuff like this. The thing is, I actually tone down a lot of stuff like this when I write because it seems like way too much sometimes, like nobody would believe the things that go through my head. This kind of bizarre junk is a coping mechanism I employ in order to stay sane in adverse conditions.

Consider this: I’ve heard stories from experienced riders who felt like they were barely surviving the conditions on the roads I’ve been riding on… when they rode in the middle of summer, had electric heated grips to keep their hands warm and full face helmets to block the wind – heck, some even had electric vests and all that fancy jazz. So, yeah, I chase the dragon and let myself drink deep of the craziness, because I’d rather consume it than drown in it.

Day 52
San Sebastian, Chile, Tierra del Fuego @ 9:30AM
End: Rio Gallegos, Patagonia, Argentina @ 5:00PM
Distance: approx. 284km (~177mi) in ~7.5 hours (~38KMH / ~23MPH average, +borders, +ferry)

Re-reading what I wrote yesterday, I wonder where to draw the line at sharing too much of the reality of the bizarre mind of Pete. At the end of some days I am so mentally exhausted that I end up being perhaps too honest… but I do have a rule against deleting that kind of stuff (I’m weird), so there you go. It’ll probably happen again.

Today was comparatively easy. Red destroyed the 140km or so of the gravel and mud section of Chile 257 in Tierra del Fuego, gobbled it up and asked for more. It was a stark contrast with the trip south, where he started out cocky and ended up barely limping along as my anticipation of a catastrophic failure wore me out mentally. Today my chain made not a sound and while the wind was against me at times, it was an equal opportunity environment obstacle – pushing me along as often as not.

Last time I crossed the Straight of Magellan I had to wait for two ferries, then pay 4200 pesos (discount for a moto) to cross. This time I did not even stop… I arrived as the ferry was loading, downshifted, and popped right on. The guy laughed at me when I tried to pay, saying I deserved a free trip for “riding THAT thing.” Then another guy came up to me with a cup of coffee and some hot bread, ushering me inside while telling me how cold it was (I may have noticed this) and how crazy I was to be riding a moto at this time of year (I may have noticed this also).

IMG_6496The ride to Rio Gallegos was equally uneventful, aside from almost being eaten by a fox who snuck up on me while I was snacking and an addition to the horrible “how to keep a mototaxi straight” equation mentioned yesterday – now there was a solid 20-30kmh wind coming from the west, or the left side as I headed north. I don’t think I would have been able to continue without stopping frequently if the road had been very busy… because I had to dig into my bag of tricks and pull out one of the more dangerous ones: driving on the wrong side of the road.

Picture a typical two-lane highway in your mind. It’s never truly flat; it’s always slightly taller in the middle and slopes downward towards the sides. The right side (the one the civilized world drives on) therefore tilts to the right, while the left side tilts to the left. On most roads in the developing world this seems to be much more pronounced than roads back home in the US, so you can quickly understand that driving on the left side of the road does a good job of evening out some of Red’s tendencies to dive to the right – since the right is now “uphill.”

It’s a great trick and allows me to relax my arms and shoulders (though not completely, mind you) at the cost of both enhance vigilance and frequent painful decisions: I have to notice when cars are coming at me from the front or from behind, then I need to decide how long to wait until I cross that center line and go from happy relaxed riding to painful horse wrangling with exhausted muscles. I normally decide cautiously, moving onto the difficult side well in advance of any danger, but each time this seems to cost me a little bit.

I find myself toying with the idea of just staying on the wrong side and seeing what happens. In my head this scenario plays out every time I approach someone, especially when they are in front of me. The interesting part is trying to determine which side they will swerve to when they realize this insane red three wheeled thing in front of them is not going to move – do they swerve towards the center of the road and drive around me, seeing my confidence from yards away and knowing I won’t chicken and it’s safe to go over there? Or do they panic, anticipating my own panic, and swerve to the outside, smashing into the dirt and grass and fencing on the side of the road?

Or, maybe, just maybe, this won’t either won’t believe I’m real or will simply refuse to yield… and my trip will end in a giant mess as I fuse with Red and the front of an unbelieving semi truck, transcending into a new being destined to haunt the roads of Patagonia forever. The legend will be passed along from generation to generation as riders find themselves rescued by a mysterious three-wheeled apparition and beautiful women mysteriously go missing at night only to be found wandering the roadside in a haze of blushing happiness, remembering only snatches of…

Woops, see, there’s that door opening a bit too much again! Let’s just say I rolled into Rio Gallegos at sunset and pulled into the same hotel I stayed at before since it appealed to my sense of symmetry. The quite pretty lady who I had asked for a restaurant recommendation last time remembered me instantly (I vacillated between being flattered and assuming she was good at her job before settling on the former – it’s the little things that get you through) and gave me the same room.

Not much to do after that but head to the same restaurant and order the same fantastic white beer and lomo al carbon! I may be starting to get a little bored with steak, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to cheat on it…

Day 53
Rio Gallegos, Patagonia, Argentina @ 10:30AM
End: Piedra Buena, Patagonia, Argentina @ 5:00PM
Distance: approx. 242km (~151mi) in ~7.5 hours (~32KMH / ~20MPH average)

Dude. Today was COLD. Nearly as cold as when I was riding through that snow on Ruta 40, except this time I was driving on a boring straight road… when you’re fighting snow and mud and ice and gravel with a moto constantly falling apart, you have one or two things distracting you from the cold. When you are sitting there with the throttle wide open and doing nothing but amusing yourself by checking every oncoming vehicle for hot women, you find yourself noticing the cold more.

I stopped for gas at the north end of Rio Gallegos and bought a small Coke zero for the road (they had no big ones, wankers), at which point I noticed two spokes on my front wheel were broken. I replaced them and and tightened up the others before hitting the road only to immediately have problems with the cold because there were all these traffic circle things within which I had to slow down.

When I slowed down, my goggles would fog up; then I’d have to speed up while being able to barely see anything until they unfogged from the cold wind. This worked great until the sun came up (I left around dawn) and I found myself struggling with the same problem I’d had north of Rio Grande: I was now heading into the sun.

When I was going south, the sun would rise behind me and set behind me except on the rare occasion when the road curved in an extreme fashion. Now, however, the sun rises in front of me, stays in front of me all day, and sets behind me. On a clear, bright sunny day like today that meant it was staring me right in the face… add in foggy goggles to diffract the light and it quickly turned into an impossibility.

I switched to my sunglasses and continued on – the sunglasses are a bit of a pain with that wind coming in hard from the left side because they don’t fully protect my eyes like sealed goggles do, so I get a bit of wind inside them. This causes my eyes to water and increases the condensation inside the glasses when there’s a temperature mismatch, but has the benefit of causing them to unfog very fast.

At my first stop about ten minutes outside of town to warm up my hands (it was that cold), I noticed two things, the first of which made me laugh and the second of which blew my mind: my newly purchased bottle of Coke was already half frozen, and my sunglasses had chunks of ice in them where the condensation had formed enough liquid to pool up then frozen from the cold.

That’s a pretty strong blow to the whole “I can handle the cold!” mentality I’ve been rocking up until now. I mean, holy crap, ice inside my sunglasses?!

Whatever, I kept going. Heading north across this weird frozen wasteland was pretty strange. At first it might look sunny and happy and warm, then you notice that all the grass is shiny with a white layer of ice… and so is your moto, even though you’ve been out in the sun for hours.

Then you notice that your giant 6 liter bottle of water has frozen nearly solid, and your Coke is undrinkable. You can’t feel your fingers and you have to drive with them balled up inside your glove, huddled for warmth rather than all alone in their little finger blankets. For the first time ever, your little piggies stuffed into some of the highest quality technical socks money can buy and sheathed in very high quality boots… well, they can feel it too.

Your arms are dying from fighting the steering, so badly that when you stop to run around and warm up you can barely muster the strength to wave them around in order to warm your hands. Everything is covered in a sheen of frost and ice that has built up over you, in spite of the fact that the sun is shining brightly and should be delivering comfortable warmth. It’s almost as if the world is broken.

Your stupid moto doesn’t want to go anywhere. The road is casually uphill at a small grade, the wind coming in from the side impeding your progress as well. Like a small child trying to run while his big brother holds his shirt, you keep looking behind you trying to figure out what’s going on.

Your front tire is wobbly again, already, and you begin to wonder what would happen if it failed. Would you be able to catch it, a quick mega wobble while you coast to the side of the road? Or would it just separate and smash the front forks into the ground? How would the mototaxi react to this event, would it flip and throw you like a two-wheeler would or will all the weight in the back hold it down and keep you safe? Or maybe you’d just bounce up, hit the bars, lose your balance and start to fall off before being dragged under the moto until it stopped.

All of this pulses in and out with the cold. It’s now so cold that it’s painful to move your head at all, because your warm breath in the buff and fleece covering your mouth creates moisture which slowly spreads outside the circle of warmth provided by the next breath until the cold can turn it into ice… ice that catches in your beard and glues it to the very material protecting you from the cold, tearing and pulling at your skin if you move.

You keep cleaning the frost off your rearview mirror, but it’s now so loose that it’s nearly useless anyway, constantly bouncing around and removing line of sight. You try the driving on the wrong side trick, but there are many trucks and a lot of slow turns now and it’s only a tantalizing taste of the true relaxation you’re missing out on. Your arm burns to the point where you have to constantly lock your elbow in order to use it at all.

A new pleasure adds to the day as your wrists begin to buckle under the strain of maintaining pressure against the handlebars with your hands wadded into little fists, pushing down with the ball of your hand all contorted –  it’s just not designed to work like that. Every time you stop you get a little relief, but it’s all right there waiting for you when you go again.

Look, the truth is, I almost broke today. I don’t know how many times I almost gave up… how many times I pulled over and just said “why should I even get back on this thing?” From about 1PM onwards I would see little spots that would make good camp sites and have to force myself not to stop and camp for the night, telling myself I could make it, my arms would hold up, I’d just keep resting. Running back and forth on the side of the road I felt like a complete idiot, subjecting myself to this moronic pain for no real reason at all.

I cannot tell you how many times during this trip I have mentally punched myself in the throat at the thought of my very expensive heated gloves sitting in a box in storage at my friend’s house back home… purchased specifically for this trip with the knowledge that I didn’t want to subject myself to that frozen-hand-idiocy from the Arctic Circle again, left purposefully at home at the last minute because “electrics are for wussies.” Oh man. *throat punch*

At some point in the afternoon, the cold just… stopped. I pulled over to warm up and noticed that it didn’t take as long as usual, that my hands weren’t dying any more. Holy crap, the air temperature was up to 37 degrees! It felt like walking into an oven and gave me new life. Now when I stopped to warm up it was a distinct pleasure, a decadent sauna waiting for me on the side of the road any time I wanted it. Somehow my arms held and I continued onward.

At one point I got stuck behind a truck spraying some kind of weird chemical on the road which I presume was a de-icer of some sort. I let it get far ahead of me before hitting the road again, and shortly thereafter I arrived in Piedra Buena. Around the same time, the temperature dipped again and I threw in the towel. It was 5PM, nearing sunset, and I was not going to ride in below freezing weather again with my arms so exhausted.

I refueled outside town and went to grab a snack when I noticed something on my legs and immediately panicked, sharper and harder than any panic I’ve experienced yet this trip: the bottom of my legs and boots were covered with oil! I checked Red and confirmed the worst – the moto was covered with it, absolutely coated. All over the front wheel, the engine, under the rear deck, even on top of the seat. I couldn’t believe there was that much oil inside the little bugger.

How could he still be running though? Maybe it wasn’t as much as it appeared, just a fine coating… I checked the oil quick and the level was fine, halfway up the dipstick. I could see the oil dripping off the engine still, but I couldn’t find a leak. In fact, it appeared that *flash*

Wait a minute. Oil on the front wheel? On the top of the front fender? That makes no sense, how is that even possible? Unless… I dipped my finger in the oil still dripping off my pants and put it gently to my nose – it gave off an acrid chemical scent, but it was definitely not oil. WTF?

I looked around and found a car that pulled into the gas station who has also been heading north and noticed his front and sides were covered in the not-oil as well… then it clicked. It was that weird chemical de-icer that was all over the road for miles and miles… what the heck it is I have no idea, but I’ve never seen anything like it. My hunch was confirmed when I noticed that some of my spilled water was already freezing up but this weird oil stuff wasn’t – it must be some weird de-icer. What else would they be pouring on the road?

Mind blown, bike covered in mystery gloop, I re-threw in the towel and popped on to find a nearby hotel. Done and done.

I really hope tomorrow is a little less windy and a little less cold and that my arm becomes magically godlike overnight… I’m not really stoked about another day like today. I need to remember to take more pictures too!


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