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Days 54-55: The Northward Struggle

In which Pete discovers a vicious headwind and horizontal rain to be a bit of a struggle and a cold wet weewee to be discomforting and misleading, then enjoys the balance of a tailwind against the need to rebuild the front wheel.

Day 54
Piedrabuena, Patagonia, Argentina @ 10:30AM
End: Puerto San Julian, Patagonia, Argentina @ 4:00PM
Distance: approx. 133km (~83mi) in ~5.5 hours (~24KMH / ~15MPH average)

Today wins the prize for the shortest distance traveled between destinations so far on this trip. I made a tough decision to stop early and rest up for a long day tomorrow after hours of struggling.

It started when I woke up and went out to pack my moto only to find the sky covered in dismal gray clouds and the ground covered in water as more continued to fall. As a consolation, the temperature was well above freezing and nearly into the 40’sF, a countervailing omen for the day. Would it be warm and happy or wet and miserable? Only one way to find out: hit the road.


Unfortunately, before getting a move on I needed to check my front wheel and sure enough another spoke was broken. This one was an inner spoke which was really awkward to replace, as I would need to remove a couple spokes in order to thread it. After messing around with it for twenty minutes I gave up; I just couldn’t get the two spokes out that I needed to get out. It’s a two-person job as near as I can tell because the spokes were wedged so tightly into their nut thingies that I couldn’t unscrew them the final bits without pushing on the nut thingie – and if you’ve ever tried to unscrew something while pushing on a nut thingie you may have also found yourself a couple hands short.

On the way out of town I hit up the gas station for a sandwich for breakfast since as usual for this time of year I was the only person in my hotel and they didn’t have food. While I was there I chatted with some locals about the volcano up north (I should see some of the ash around 500km north) as well as the current conditions – apparently today would be mostly windless so I’d have only the rain to contend with. In the low 40’s this would be a cakewalk…

A kilometer outside of town I climbed up a hill onto a plain and it hit me, almost head on: a 40+kmh wind. Not gusts, but a sustained wind that almost never let up and often gusted considerably higher. For some reason it seemed to be coming from almost directly to the north, when before almost all the wind I’ve encountered has been coming from the west.

I found with my current gearing I was able to smoothly sustain about 40kmh (25MPH) at 8000RPM in 3rd gear, but shifting into 4th would cause me to quickly stall out and dropping below 6500RPM would require a downshift into 2nd to get the sweet spot back – something made necessary every once in awhile with a very strong gust of wind or a sharp incline. Not a very fast way to travel, but at least I was making progress!

The rain was coming down strong enough that I was fully ninja’d up with only a small portion of my face not covered in layers of high quality Gore-Tex; it made do with a fleece gator and a buff, double folded – my face gets wet no matter what when it’s cold due to my breath, but these layers make it a warm wetness unless it’s extremely cold like yesterday. My gear was all buttoned down, my two dry bags sealed up as usual in the back and my waterproof duffel on the seat actually folded up and sealed in proper fashion. My tool bag isn’t waterproof, but I covered it with the top of my tarp and kept most of the rain off.

With the temperature just above freezing, it should have been a pretty comfortable setup – I’ve ridden for days in rain like this, no biggie… except my stupid $7 peruvian goggles! I had the same problem on my last trip with cheap goggles and I don’t know why I keep buying these things (actually I do: I tend to wear them out and break them and don’t like to do that with $100 goggles). Cheap goggles basically use a water permeable foam seal – actually, usually it’s water absorbent. Then the wind pushes the goggles against your head and around on your face in little micro-movements which squeeze the foam and it’s like having an upset little gremlin hanging out on your face squeezing a wet sponge into your goggles.

I was warm and dry, but I couldn’t see! I drove for awhile only being able to see a blurry outline of a road in front of me, relying on shining spots of light to show oncoming vehicles… but when I went past a truck driving without lights that I didn’t know was there until the last second I knew I had to pull over and clean them out – biggest mistake of the morning.

To clean out my goggles, I had to take my hands out of my gloves. My hands got wet. I tried to dry them but you know how it is, they stay a bit wet… and even though it was “warm” out as far as I was concerned when I had my gear on, wet hands exposed to a high wind at 42F do not feel warm. Fudge. Threw everything back on and hit the road again quick before my goggles could fog up, but this time my hands were already cold and even the best outdoor gear doesn’t work properly in a cold environment without heat going into them somehow, so my hands froze.

Then my goggles got all wet inside again…  Ugh. Repeated this process 2-3x before realizing it was a lost cause and I’d have to make do without. I drove for about twenty feet without any eye protection before giving that up as well – it only takes a few 70kmh drops of water in the eyeballs to put a dampener on anything. Finally I found a good setup with my sunglasses, some of the wind would still get around and bother my eyes a bit so I constantly cried as I rode, but they cleared up fast and any water on the inside would slide off. Done deal.

After that it simply became a matter of toughing it out, mentally and physically, often riding in the wrong lane to give my arms a rest and just sorta bouncing around in my own little world in my head. The scenery wasn’t anything interesting (couldn’t see for more than a hundred feet for most of the day anyway) and I tried to just eat up the miles. Every once in awhile I’d look at my odometer in shock that I had only traveled 8km or somesuch, but I kept telling myself “forward movement!”

With my hands abused by exposure, I had to stop now and then to wave my arms around and get some warmth back into my gloves, but it really wasn’t a big deal. It turned into a sort of guilty pleasure, to relax, grab some coke, wave my arms around, turn my back to the wind and enjoy the calm on the side of the road. A few of these stops later, nature called and I made the second big mistake of the day: I took a leak… like an idiot.

I’m covered head to toe in soaking wet Gore-Tex with water beading and dripping off it like ants swarming a hole in a hill. Normally when you stand there, all the water on my torso drips down onto my pants, then down them and onto my boots and then onto the ground – where all good water droplets want to go. If, on the other hand, you unhook your pants, open up your waist, dig into the three thousand layers of underclothes you’re wearing and pull out your teeny little friend (hey it’s cold!), guess where the water running off the front of your jacket goes?

Ding ding ding! Yeah, down the front of your pants. Fantastic. Genius. The best part is that you’re so bundled up in clothes and junk around your neck and face that you can’t really see what’s going on down there, so the first thought is that you must’ve missed tucking a layer away somewhere by feel and now you’ve just peed down your own pants. It’s a small consolation when your brain processes the fact that if that were the case, your now wet groin would be warm, not cold.

It’s the hidden dark side to fancy waterproof materials that they don’t want you to know… they’re usually waterproof on the inside too. I had to ride the rest of the day with a cold wet ass and man, it’s not pleasant. Note to self, next time open jacket before exposing the little guy (remember, it’s cold, be nice!).

The rain finally let off a bit in the later afternoon, but it was still horribly cloudy and the roads were wet and frankly the wind was abusive. The best part was when trucks would go by in the other direction – the blast of water and air thrown up as they pass is like being smacked by god with a wet feather. It gets kinda old, but it’s fun to duck all down and drive by staring straight down at the white line next to your front tire and hope the truck driver doesn’t swerve at the last second to run you over.

I often found myself wondering what the truckers thought of my “duck and cover” as they rode past – did they cackle with insane glee then stare behind them in their mirrors to see the result? After particularly violent confrontations I would find myself yelling “YOU TOOL!” and other unmentionables at the trucks fading in my mirror as if they did it on purpose… the tools.

Around 3PM I pulled up into the first town I had stumbled across today, a fairly large place called Puerto San Julian. I pondered the day with a coffee, balancing the facts in front of me:

1. Still covered in clouds horizon to horizon and mostly dripping rain.

2. All vehicles coming southbound into the gas station are covered in mud and water, indicating the road does not magically become nicer.

3. The wind in my experience generally gets worse in the evening.

4. It is ~350km to the next sign of civilization, one of the longest empty stretches on this highway.

5. The highway has had fencing along it the entire way so far and I’d likely have to camp within 50 feet of the road and the lack of real vegetation means tons of standing water and everything is mud off the road.

6. I do not want to set up my tent in pouring rain and sleep in the mud with wet gear all over inside my tent.

7. I do not want to risk it getting below freezing at night and all of my wet gear freezing.

8. I am a wussy.

Facts balanced, I made the only sane decision (it was much closer than you might guess though, if I didn’t already have lots of experience with the misery of wet camping day after day I would’ve given it a try). Now I’m chilling in a hotel in San Julian, and the weather report indicates I may get some sun tomorrow… depending on the wind, I may be able to make up some time.

Gotta say, I am definitely struggling heading north. I was thinking I’d be doing solid 300km days, one after the other, completely checked out on a mindless boring paved road. Instead I’ve unwittingly been served the “Adventure Sampler Platter” as some dancing fairy spins the wheel each morning to see what I get to deal with that day.

You know, I don’t have that high of expectations. I’d be all right with sun, 45F, and no wind. I mean, that’d do it for me. I would probably even put up with it for a couple days before complaining about how boring it is…

Day 55
Puerto San Julian, Patagonia, Argentina @ 10:00AM
End: Caleta Olivia, Patagonia, Argentina @ 7:30PM
Distance: approx. 364km (~227mi) in ~8 hours (~45KMH / ~28MPH average, 1.5hrs stops)

Balance has come, finally! Actually, that’s probably not really fair to say considering the hardships of today, but after all the stuff I have been dealing with lately today seemed as close to perfect as I can imagine could realistically occur to me right now.

Leaving Puerto San Julian in the pre-dawn light was a little frustrating, beginning the day in a constant drizzle wrapped in the kind of thick moist fog that you can feel settling on you as you move. Riding slowly through and out of town towards the highway had the sort of clichĂ© deadness typical of unoriginal horror movies, small movements on corners reminiscent of zombies or fast moving tentacled aliens. I was able to draw some comfort from the warmth of the day, however, as right now anything in the high 30’sF feels incredible.

As I eventually left the coast and rode inward towards the highway, two amazing things began to happen. The first, happy but perhaps not critical, was that the fog quickly lifted and the drizzle dried up; the sky was still a deep overcast gray, the ground wet with standing water being thrown about… but there, off in the distance to the north, I could see the tiniest ribbon of blue and orange. A hint of dry warmth, perhaps only hours ahead.

The second was by far the most incredible, as I turned north onto the highway and noticed something strange, subtle at first then exploding into conscious thought like a napalm bomb: the wind was blowing from the south! It was the only way to explain the casual ease with which Red accelerated up to 65kmh, the unusual lightness of my arms as I found him gliding serenely straight with the most minimal of sideways tugging. I had to stop to prove it to myself, swinging ribbons around in the wind and giggling happily as they swung due north like a compass.

For the next two hours, the random moisture didn’t matter, the slight edge of cold just beyond awareness didn’t matter, the silent rush of wind around me at the lack of headphones and music didn’t matter, the empty endless flat terrain devoid of anything taller than a foot didn’t matter… only the road mattered, the casual grace with which Red and I glided along it, purring, happy, fulfilled.

Lost in thought, I noticed the little dead thing a few feet directly in front of me at the last moment and swerved hard to avoid it. Shockingly, I heard the result audibly, a sharp double *crack* *crack* as if someone had just tapped my front wheel with a hammer. Within seconds, I felt the result as well, an immediate and massive instability in my front end as if a petulant bear was batting it back and forth in his paws. Then, I looked, and saw the result – my front wheel was wobbling horribly, clearly a victim of a not-quite-catastrophic failure.

Slowing to a halt, I quickly inspected it and confirmed what I had heard: two more of my spokes had shattered instantly in that vicious moment of heavily applied lateral force when I swerved to the side. The front wheel was now missing three spokes and the reason for the near immediate disintegration was equally apparently: the three broken spokes were all on the same part of the wheel.

Worse, as I pulled out spares and began to thread them through, I discovered replacement of the two newly failed spokes was impossible as they had shattered inside the end bolts. The third (or first) was still blocked from replacement by other spokes I couldn’t quite remove, the same problem I encountered yesterday. With the next “town” 70km away, I was facing a choice – ride on and hope to find a moto mechanic to dismantle everything and fix it in the warmth and dryness of a shop, or do it myself in cold wet mud on the side of the road in the low 30sF.

The terrain partially made the decision for me, as a quick glance around showed what the back of my mind had already processed: the barren arid plain I was driving through had no readily available rocks, and I’d need something to prop up the front wheel. Last time I put Red on its side with a damaged front wheel I wasn’t careful enough and made the situation worse, so this time I wanted to lift it properly.

A compromise, then… I began to drive slowly and carefully, keeping my hands tightly on the bars to prevent any unnecessary vibration, watch the side of the road carefully for rocks. In ten kilometers I saw nothing, then I began to notice occasional piles of cast-off asphalt in the mud on the side of the road, perhaps left there during construction or spilled while patching holes. I pulled over twice, both times finding solid unmovable piles, the second time trying the brilliant idea of driving up and over a pile and “beaching” Red on top of it; thankfully I couldn’t get enough traction to push it up and over, as the result probably would’ve been a smashed header.

A few more kilometers down the road I saw what I needed, three wonderful slabs of asphalt about four inches in thickness and maybe two feet long. I pulled off again in the mud, broke the slabs into manageable mini-slabs with my boots, then piled them up under Red. Now came the hard part: lifting the front end of a mototaxi while somehow also moving a (now seemingly not-so) mini-slab of asphalt on top of the pile such that the front would be off the ground.

It took a few tries, but eventually I was able to balance the front end up in the air with one arm and move the mini-slab onto the pile with the other by finding some magical pivot point. It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me I could have made the tall pile between the engine and the front wheel, then simply picked up the front wheel and pulled Red forward and placed him on the already-high pile… some silly fear of a mototaxi in neutral shifting forward and crushing me seemed to have prevented the thought, but really, if I can lift it, how can it crush me? Next time…

The wheel came off easily, one of the real advantages of working with the front; there’s no nonsense, you just spin a bolt, bang it through, then make sure you gather up all the bits and keep track of them. Instead of deflating the tube slowly I decided to pull out the valve stem thingie, a genius idea since it exploded out of the stem with the full force of 35PSI squeezing out of a teeny hole… thankfully it bounced off my face (and not my eyes) and was recovered instead of being launched into orbit.

Another wonderful bit here is that this cheapo stock front tire has very soft sidewalls, so it only took a moment to pull off one side of the bead and get access to the inner bits. Pull out the three bad sockets, loosen up the spokes I’d need to thread the new spokes in (note to self for future instances: next time, deflate the tube with everything on the bike when you need to unmount a spoke, with the tube soft it will be easier to push the thingie in and unscrew it – duh), get ‘er done. I did make sure to mark up the spokes to prevent typical Pete style idiocy of putting them back randomly instead of in the proper X framework; this type of stupid mistake is one of the reasons I don’t like to do my own work: I can do almost anything with my hands, but I get lazy and often find random bits lying around after reassembly.

In less than an hour I had everything mounted back up and was just digging out my air compressor when some guys stopped to make sure I was okay. It turned out that next “town” was actually just a gas station and a hotel with a gomeria, so it was probably a good thing I did the fix myself, but man it would’ve been nice to have a warm shop to work in – I couldn’t even use my liner gloves for the finer bits with the spokes, and even though 38F feels toasty in my gear, it’s decidedly not toasty without the gloves on.

Tightened up the spokes once I had it all mounted, topped off the air, then it was smooth sailing northwards again with the wind at my back!


Pulling into the “middle of nowhere” gas station a bit later, I was surprised to find it was a full fledged YPF – there are a lot of these scattered about and they are pretty awesome. Most gas stations here have a teeny little convenience store (unlike say, Peru where it’s just gas), but every once in awhile there’s one with a cafĂ©, baked goods, and even free wifi… and this was one of the good ones.

I was still a bit chilled in the hands from working on the bike (reminder, once your hands get cold it’s very hard to warm them up again, the trick is to prevent them from ever getting cold) and was pretty stoked about the tailwind so I decided to stop and take off all my gear to let it thaw out a bit and enjoy some coffee and empanadas. Pulled up Google Maps to get an idea of where I was and confirm the next town was pretty big, then jumped back on Red to finish up the day.

It wasn’t until this point that something nagging at me all day finally clicked: I was still chasing that blue ribbon of sky on the horizon because that same wonderful wind that was pushing me also happened to be pushing the clouds along with me! Given the choice between sun and a headwind or wet clouds and a tailwind, I’ll take the latter any day… so I didn’t complain too much.

Most of the rest of the day was just open road, wide open, pushing slowly but surely towards the darkness ahead of me to end the day.


I kept getting tantalizing glimpses of blue sky, but never quite caught the sun – it was always just ahead, beckoning, then sliding out of reach. Reminds me of a few women I’ve known… I mean, I’ve heard my friends complain about those kind of experiences, that never happens to me of course…


The empty plains began to change slightly, becoming rolling hills, now with spots of green and even trees on rare occasions. The sky began to darken and still the blue ribbon eluded me.


Finally, as the sun set, I caught it. A final moment, just a glimpse, maybe half a minute of sunlight around me… then it was gone, suffocated again by the clouds, then stolen by the earth. With the final strands of light sent over the curving horizon slowly fading, the world around me shifted. Like a clever poem or an inverted movie ending, the day that had started with a small sliver of open sky on the horizon would end with open sky above me… and evil, roiling dark clouds on the horizon, all around me.


Again, a decision: find a place to camp, knowing if I did so an epic storm would surely overtake me and destroy me? Or continue on in the dark to the next town, knowing if I did that surely the night would be clear and amazing?

I chose, yet again, to be a wuss, deciding a night of unhurried warmth and dryness was preferable to simply dealing with all of my wet and muddy outer layers inside a cramped tent… cost be damned. Darkness wrapped itself around me as I drove into the night, but only for a short while; within an hour, the ocean shining blue in the moonlight to my right, lights bloomed ahead of me. My first irreverent thought was that I had arrived in Las Vegas, but alas the painted whores are hidden way here.


Montage: Drive through town. Turn around and go back to hotel at the south end. Get room. Wow onlookers in lobby with tales of adventure. Shower. Clean. Steak. Nom nom nom. Beer. Tap square things on computer. Sleep.


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