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Days 61-62: The Little Engine that Could… Not?

In which Pete returns to Ruta 40 with a shiny new front wheel, struggles against mysterious engine problems, has an argument with a police officer in the dark, and survives a desert of prickly thorns only to get a flat at Walmart.

Day 61
Santa Rosa, Las Pampas, Argentina @ 10:30AM
End: Unknown Location, Ruta 143, Las Pampas, Argentina @ 6:15PM
Distance: estimated 350km (218mi), no odometer and GPS datalogger failed

I was pretty stoked this morning. Red was shiny and clean, his new front wheel was incredibly stable, swapping out the fat and loud MT40 in back for a normal road tire made him more quiet and docile, and all that ash and gunk was cleaned out of the intake system. The temperature was so warm (upper 50’sF) that I felt free and agile wearing less layers than normal and the wind was blowing straight south while I would be traveling mostly westward – incredible luck that I wouldn’t be traveling straight into the wind the entire day.


In high spirits, I finished my morning coffee, loaded Red up, and hit the road out of Santa Rosa. I was low on fuel so I stopped at the first YPF to stock up for the long ride across the Pampas and everything began to fall apart. Immediately after adding fuel I could tell than something was wrong, as I opened it up on the road my engine was falling flat on its face over 6000RPM; normally this is where the powerband starts to get sweet.

My first thought was another choke issue, but I checked and it was set properly. I then convinced myself that this was just the fact that I was driving straight into a 30+kmh wind and that it wasn’t worth worrying about. As time passed, it became more and more clear that no matter what I told myself something was very wrong and to confirm it I turned around and drove with the wind for a bit – exactly the same problem. It really felt like I had gotten some horribly bad gas with water in it and that was all I could think of at first.

The rest of the day was mostly spoiled by this, the constant mental worrying as I went through every checklist I could think of. I’m not a mechanic and I don’t work on engines every day – everything I know about engine trouble is the result of having it, thus I am mostly limited when I encounter a new problem. Troubleshooting is difficult enough in a vacuum with no one’s superior knowledge to rely on, doing it when you’re in the middle of nowhere with an engine that might explode and leave you stranded is mentally and emotionally exhausting.

I started by reviewing the most important issues. Idle was smooth as butter, which I know is not typical with major problems. Revving without load was also smooth, no backfiring or detonation. Up to 6000RPM the engine pulled just as well as normal, but over 6000RPM it would just sort of sputter out. Again, no backfiring, no obvious symptoms implying a lean or rich condition, just no more power. The plug looked perfect, no signs at all that I was running hot or cold. Fuel lines were clear, drain tube from the carb showed fuel in the carb, no change in symptoms between reserve switch or main, no blockage in the intake to the carb.

I actually wondered for awhile if it were possible that there was some kind of change to the mixture activated by the speedometer which was causing it to run rich or lean as a result of no longer having a working speedometer, but this seemed to be reaching for such a venerable motor. Finally I decided to swap in a new sparkplug so I’d have something clean to check and cruise at 6000RPM for awhile.

Catching the turn west onto Ruta 143 I found myself nearly giddy with laughter at the realization that for the first time in weeks the wind was now pushing me to the left. It felt so bizarre to pull with my right arm instead of pushing with it and I found my left arm strangely unwieldy as my normal riding position was no longer comfortable. It felt so amazing to grab the overhead bar behind me with my left arm and stretch out my bad shoulder while I was riding, a simple pleasure that distracted me from the engine problems for a short while.

As the wind changed, I found small bits of smoothness where the engine could purr up to 7000RPM and it seemed that perhaps my problem had been some stale gas after all, and maybe I was burning through it.

The initial stretch into the wind, followed by the minor obstruction of traveling perpendicular to it had the typical effect of crushing my gas mileage. Barely 150km into the day I was running dangerously low and my hopes were answered when I found a suspicious little gas station in a small town with the most expensive gas I’ve seen in Argentina ($7/gallon) – it didn’t look like they’d have good gas, but at least I could try some new stuff and see what happens. A few miles down the road I had to face the reality that the problem was still there and unless I’d been unlucky twice, something wasn’t right…

When you’re all alone on an empty highway, far away from anything, it’s a bit hard not to think about your engine possibly exploding underneath you though… the euphoria didn’t last long. I realized I needed to check the airbox just to make sure everything was flowing properly even though it didn’t feel like a lack of airflow. Accessing the airbox is a bit of a pain because one of the bolts requires a deep-well socket to undo and I don’t have one, the only other time I opened it up was with a pair of pliers and a lot of elbow grease and cussing.

As I popped off the main cover this time, though, I realized I wasn’t the only person who had apparently struggled with that bolt – it was completely stripped, smooth and round as *inappropriate analogy by lonely male removed.* Well, I guess that made my job easier, since I couldn’t undo the bolt I would just bend the entire thing open, handy that it’s made of meta instead of cheap plastic.

At first inspection, everything looked okay inside the airbox. I pulled out the filter cage and saw that this was not at all the case! Excitement surged through me as I found a very small puddle of what appeared to be soapy water inside the filter cage – that’s why it felt like I had bad gas! Small amounts of water were being sucked in with the air and wreaking havoc with the combustion process. It was probably only happening over 6000RPM because that’s when the amount of air being sucked in finally reached enough force to pull the water forward into the carb against the Newtonian force throwing it to the back of the filter at 50kmh.

I dried everything out as best I could and continued on, happy in the knowledge that I had found the problem and kicking myself in the throat mentally for not checking the airbox earlier. At first nothing seemed improved, but I told myself that was just the final bits of water working through the system and that soon all would be well… for the second time, I relaxed a bit and began to enjoy what I could of the day.

One of the things you see a lot of out here are these weird looking eagles, they hang out everywhere. I believe they are called “vulture eagles” presumably because they eat dead things – which would explain why I always see them on the side of the road. I keep meaning to get some photos to share but I never seem to stop when I see some. Finally, determined not to let the engine problems completely ruin my day, I spotted a couple hanging out on a tree and stopped for some pictures.

I was hanging out for a bit watching these two when something really weird happened – a massive gang of these eagles rolled in and took over a nearby tree, staring at me and doing everything but snapping their fingers and humming as they clearly decided whether or not to eat me.

Something shifted, and they made their decision: in a moment that nearly saw me running screaming like a girl covering my eyes and other soft bits for protection, they attacked!

If you, like me until this moment, have never seen a hundred and fifty eagles all leave a tree at the exact same instant to attack… it’s freakin’ scary. This is some Hitchcock level craziness, about to go down in the middle of the Pampas, and my bloody tombstone will read “He was for the birds.” The only thing that prevented me from running was that whole weird thing you learn in Boy Scouts about how if you act like prey, some animals will think you’re prey, so let’s not go running screaming from the birds…

Well, that and the fact that I quickly realized they were heading off in another direction, likely about to brutally destroy some poor lonely cow who had inadvertently wandered into their territory wearing the wrong colors or somesuch.

Back on the road, recovered from the near death experience, I began to struggle with a new problem, one perhaps more pressing than my still ailing engine: where would I sleep? I was many kilometers away from anything in any direction and looking forward to camping out for the night, but this road through the Pampas was bordered only a few feet away by my evil nemesis, the fence!

For hundred kilometer stretches the only breaks in the fence would be access to estancias, almost always closed and latched with chains and padlocks. I began to wonder if I should attempt to continue on through the night as I lost light, but the last thing I wanted to deal with was the culmination of my engine troubles in the dark on the side of the road. If the water in my airbox had been the problem, shouldn’t things be running okay by now?

This time I got lucky before the night turned pitch black – a small dirt side road wasn’t walled off, and as I turned down it to investigate I noticed that one side had no fencing at all! I found the most open route possible and drove around thirty feet through thorn bushes into a clearing just small enough to pitch my tent. I use the term “drove” loosely, since multiple times I had to pick up the rear end of Red and move it to one side or the other to make a “turn” around a particularly vicious thorn bush.

I fully expected to wake up to a flat or two, but right now I didn’t care; the wind had stopped! With a small bit of mirth bubbling up over the lingering defeatism of my engine troubles, I set up camp and cooked myself a warm meal with my little stove, then set down to enjoy You Got Served: Beat the World. What can I say? I thought Step Up 3 was way better, but the opening free-running scene in Beat the World was top notch. Yeah, I know, crazy badass adventurer biker guy watching a dance movie in the middle of the desert… suggit!

A few minutes into my dinner, a truck drove by on the nearby road and I realized I wasn’t as hidden as I thought when it stopped and a man got out to talk to me. He turned out to be a nearby rancher and a quick conversation confirmed that this was a public road and it was fine if I camped there – he just stopped to make sure I was okay and there wasn’t some sort of problem.

An hour later, the event was repeated but this time it was the silhouette of a pickup truck that stopped on the road outside and I’ll admit my heart skipped a beat when I heard the very clear sound of communication over a CB-style radio. My concerns were confirmed a moment later when a spotlight nailed me in the face and I quickly made my way through the thornbushes to ensure this representative of the policia that I was not, in fact, up to no good.

What followed was a very difficult conversation, made worse by the fact that it was done completely in the dark where all I could see was the barest shadow of the police officer I was speaking to (being a polite gentleman, I had my headlamp set on low and was holding it in my hand illuminating my face). After establishing who I was and why I was there, he told me I had to leave immediately – I was camping on private land without permission and it was a very bad thing (implied fine and jail time).

I explained that there were no signs, I had no way of knowing, I thought because there was no fence and I was so close to the road it would be okay and he countered with the fact that it was an open range and I should have been smart enough to figure that out because of the cow-catcher-thingie I had to cross when I left the highway (you know, those rows of bars in the road that prevent cows from crossing), and again insisted I leave.

I mentioned that I had spoken with a nearby rancher and he didn’t have a problem with me being there and he questioned me about whom I had spoken with – what did he look like, what color was the truck, what type of truck, etc. I told him it was dark, I couldn’t see any of that stuff and couldn’t really describe it, and he obviously thought I was making it up.

I tried again, being really polite, explaining that I wasn’t hurting anything, I was just there for one night, it wasn’t very safe for me to drive at night because of problems with my motor… and something happened right then, I don’t know exactly what, I must’ve been completely failing to read this guy because of the dark but he drew himself up, turned his body slightly away from me, put his hand on his gun and unclicked his holster strap, then completely changed his voice.

In very clear, very slow Spanish laced with about as much malice as I’ve heard in a long time, he tells me “Listen. I am the police. What you are doing is illegal. I am telling you, right now, that you have to leave. If you do not leave immediately, I will arrest you right now. Is that clear? Do you understand me?”

Inside my mind there’s a little dude freaking out and banging on the walls going “dude, you need to leave, NOW, this guy is PISSED!” I can see the thing playing out, abandoning my tent and gear in the desert as I try to somehow gun my moto through the thorn bushes and trees in the dark, shredding myself and my bike in the process while this guy looks on, unamused, before arresting me anyway for destruction of property. Or maybe he just casually shoots me and loots my stuff… but come on, that’s not likely. Worst case I’m just hitchhiking home without anything.

This is totally unreal and it’s an effort of will not to panic. I think it through, quickly, and come to the conclusion that I can’t “leave immediately” – I need to pack up my gear, figure out a path back through the thorns, and carefully manage my exit. Then I’ll be stuck camping on the side of the main road or more likely driving in the dark to the next town, putting myself at risk of being stranded in the dark without a functioning motor. On top of that, I need to de-escalate this situation immediately, this guy is about to pull his gun on me for some reason! Am I that threatening? What’s going on here?

Now it’s my turn to change my voice and my posture, I pull in on myself to make me a bit smaller (I don’t think I’m an intimidating guy but maybe in the dark, I dunno), then begin to apologize very softly, in a very submissive voice. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was something like:

“I’m very sorry, I am a foreigner and I don’t speak Spanish well, I am sorry if I have said or done anything wrong, I don’t mean any harm to anyone. I understand that you are the police and that I must obey you, I have no problem with this at all. I will leave immediately, because you ask.

Please understand that I need to pack up my tent and my things and that this may take me half an hour. I will start immediately and will leave as you ask but I need this time to get my stuff ready. If that is okay I will start packing right now.”

At first, still tinted with a bit of malice, he wasn’t having any of this. He insisted that I leave immediately, and I kept softly trying to explain that it wasn’t possible because I needed to put away my things. We finally agreed that I could carry all my things out to the road and pack it all up there, and I asked if he would be willing to help me carry everything out because it was really hard to get through all those thorn bushes (I just said “sharp things” because I didn’t know the word).

Something about this had an impact and again I saw his posture change, the tension going out of him a little bit and he asked with just a bit of curiosity “How did you get in there, anyway?”

I laughed and told him it wasn’t easy, even in the daylight, but I didn’t want to camp on the road and had to find a way… so I did it con mucho cuidado! And just like that, everything changed again. Somewhere in this conversation I had, in his eyes, gone from a rude trespassing foreigner to just a guy trying to find a peaceful place to sleep. As I told him I would begin packing up and started to turn, he put his hand gently on my shoulder – something in my perception of his movement, even in the dark, told me it wasn’t threatening and I think the fact that I didn’t tense or panic may have been the final bit he needed.

”Look,” he said, “I know the owner of this land and he lives right down the road. Don’t pack anything up yet – I will go and ask him if it’s okay for you to camp here. If he says no, then you have to leave, but he will probably say it’s okay.”

I’m not even sure I understood him right at first, so I have to ask a few times to clarify – should I start packing anyway? Should I wait on the road? Should I go with him? He just calms me down and tells me not to do anything and that he’ll be back shortly, then jumps in his truck and takes off.

I’m left on the side of the road in emotional and mental turmoil trying to understand what just happened. I went from a friendly conversation with a police officer to being threatened with physical violence, arrest, and all sorts of trouble… then ended up with him offering to do me a favor, out of respect or pity or… what? I sat there replaying it over and over in my head trying to understand what I had done to escalate that situation.

I’ve noticed before that it’s not uncommon for people to misinterpret my frustration with my inability to express myself properly in Spanish as frustration with them – it usually happens with a mechanic when I’m trying to tell them a problem with my bike. I’ve learned to explain that I am having trouble with my Spanish and that’s why I seem frustrated, and I realize I did not do this with the police officer until things had already escalated. Add in the darkness and I can understand why maybe he identified me as a potential threat… I really need to be careful.

A few minutes later he pulled back up again and I made it a point to shine my headlamp directly into my face and give him a big smile and ask how it went. He told me that the owner confirmed it was fine as long as I didn’t start a fire and left in the morning, which obviously I was completely fine with. I thanked him very much for the help and shook his hand, then he wished me luck and drove off.

Sleep did not come easy that night. I was comfortably warm inside my tent as the outside temperature dropped to freezing, but that warmth did not extend to my mind. Inside I was full of doubts as I considered the engine problems and the nearly disastrous conflict with the law. These things, are they really what I want to be putting myself through? Why am I not sitting down in Chipotle and enjoying a decadent burrito after a night of hanging out with my friends at RFD in DC instead of putting myself through this crap?

Then I smile to myself as I realize the truth – even if something crazy had gone down, even if I’d been arrested or forced to leave my stuff… as long as I lived through it, it’d be a pretty cool experience to look back on, and a great story to tell, even without the happy ending. I guess a happy ending in this one isn’t so bad.

Day 62
Unknown Location, Ruta 143, Las Pampas, Argentina @ 9:45AM
End: Mendoza, Argentina @ 7:30PM
Distance: approx 406km (253mi) in 9.75 hours at 41kmh (26mph)

If I’m honest, a huge part of me was really hoping that I would start Red this morning and all the engine problems would be gone, a relic of mysterious circumstances from the day before. I huddled in my sleeping bag as the sky slowly lightened, waiting for some warmth to reach the earth and pondering the likelihood of this happening.

I also knew that I was only around 400km away from Mendoza, and that for the past week and a half this had been my major goal. If you’ve paid any attention at all to my writing, you know what happens when I’m close to a goal on these adventures: I get more aggressive and take more risks. As I pack my tent, I make the decision that tonight I would dine on steak in Mendoza.

Getting out of the massive thorny thicket proves difficult, and I once again ponder the temporary insanity that made me drive into it last night. Somehow I escape without any punctures and am back on Ruta 143, ignoring the slight sputtering and lack of power over 6000RPM, chalking it up to a cold engine.

The morning passes slowly, a slight chill in the air as the temperature stays in the 40sF and the endless grasses and thorn bushes of the Pampas unfolds around me. It’s hard to feel anything other than a low grade concern about the strangeness of this engine trouble.


I find myself stopping frequently to futz with various bits. The new spark plug looks as close to ideal as I have ever seen, no sign of improper running, but I change it anyway. I re-calibrate the pilot screw to the perfect position, then start tweaking it richer and leaner in various pieces to see if that effects the running at speed. I fuel up at yet another gas station and continue to have the same problem, one that just doesn’t make any sense to me.

Everything I know about engines says that it must be running too rich or too lean when it transitions to the higher airflow required to exceed 6000RPM, yet there is no detonation, no obvious misfiring, and every time I check the plug it looks perfect. Instead, the engine just sort of sputters out. I’m at wit’s end, even going as crazy as to temporarily loosen the exhaust and blow dust out of the head in case it’s some sort of suction effect from a loose gasket, but of course it’s not.

Once again I partially dismantle the carb (what bits I can access without removing the tank) and confirm both the fuel and airflow is fine. I consider running the carb open for a bit but the road is too dusty and I’m not willing to risk it. With everything seemingly running perfectly fine under 6000RPM, I’ll just have to make it to Mendoza and have a professional look at it. My best guess at this point is that the valves are shot or the jets are clogged, neither of which are things I’m prepared to investigate on the side of the road in the dust even if I knew what I was doing and had the tools.

Some of the frustration was eased by arriving at the beautiful land around San Rafael, where for the first time in what feels like years I find myself driving once again under beautiful green trees (without thorns!). Vineyards dot the landscape and the rural road is flanked by the occasional hotel, bodega, or residence, lending both a vitality and comfort unseen since I headed south from this same area. There is solace to be found in populated regions, especially after so much time spent in desolate emptiness.

Another benefit to the rural path between farms is that I feel no pressure for speed, taking it easy and often dropping under 50kmh just to enjoy the views, experience the calm radiating from the land around me. Everything is welcoming and available in a low key intensity that hovers beneath the surface, rarely in your face, but always there. One sign stands out, with a saying I find myself pondering for hours, translated as “When the tourists return, it’s because of us.”

The final stretch of Ruta 143 is a short blast across empty pampas covering small rolling hills. It’s the first time since leaving Santa Rosa that I’ve had to climb hills and immediately my concerns are realized as Red’s little engine begins to putter out much earlier up the hills. I’m forced to limp along at unsafe speeds, and while there is little traffic I feel guilty and concerned for the dangerous roadblock I create, especially after watching two trucks nearly collide when one passes me on a blind corner going uphill.

I’m getting more and more frustrated as time goes by, convinced there must be something I’m missing, some way to get a bit more power. I know I cleaned out the airbox yesterday, but maybe the ash in that soapy water had congealed or I hadn’t put it back properly or something… wouldn’t it be funny if I had fixed the problem by cleaning up that excess water, but caused another by re-assembling everything improperly?

I know there’s a finite number of times I can bend the metal on the cover back and forth before it snaps and I’m left dealing with a new problem, but I decide it can handle a few more openings until I find someone with the tools to remove that stripped nut. I pull over to open the airbox and almost faint when I see what it looks like inside.

There is a massive puddle of ashy water in the bottom of the airbox! And the bottom of the filter is now soaked in it. How is this even possible? I just checked it yesterday and while there was a teeny bit, it was easily cleaned up! I’m completely boggled, checking and double-checking – yes, it’s just ashy water with a bit of soap and oil, not fuel or something coming the wrong way out of the carb. And it’s nasty, horrible stuff, and again explains the symptoms exactly the same: extra load on the engine to create more power requires more air, drawing water in through the intake. It happens earlier on hills because more power is required and I’m traveling at a slower speed, reducing the resistance of the water to being sucked forward.

It’s ridiculous. As near as I can figure out, the guys must have power washed my motorcycle after cleaning the oiling the filter and it must have been completely and utterly soaked in ash water. When I first opened it up I was so excited to find the small puddle inside that I didn’t do much to the foam itself other than confirm that it was properly oiled. Over the next day and night, the water slowly separated from the foam and puddled in the bottom of the airbox, which is watertight to prevent water from getting in – and thus prevented water from getting out, except when sucked into the engine.

I dried everything out and did my best to wring out the remaining foam and re-assembled everything. Wanting to give the foam the maximum opportunity to dry out but not willing to sit on the side of the road for a couple hours to wait for it, I decided to leave the airbox slightly opened and figured with the filter exposed directly to the desert air it should dry rapidly. I hit the road again only to find that I was now running way too lean and quickly adjusted the mixture.

At first it was a battle between elation and fear; every time I would get a little bit of power and crawl over 7000RPM I would think “that was it, I fixed it!” Then the power would drop again and I’d find myself wondering if it was really it at all, or worse if it had caused permanent damage. Then I would convince myself it was just the final bits of water in the system.

In this manner I finally connected to Ruta 40 and was back on familiar ground. It was this same spot where I turned off onto the horrible gravel section of Ruta 40 that snapped part of my frame instead of taking the pavement of Ruta 143 in a grand bypass.

For me, right now, after all this time on this journey… driving onto a road I drove once before, nearly forty days ago? It feels like coming home. There’s no other way to explain it. I knew where I was going. I knew what hotel I would be staying at. I knew how to get there, where the gas stations would be, what the road conditions would look like. I’d been here once before, and this made it one of the most familiar places I’ve seen in over three months.

This happiness blurred everything else, a calm that meant more than the tension of the past day. Mendoza became a beacon of warmth for me, a slow pulsing imaginary glow on the horizon as I approached it at an ever increasing speed. I began to realize that Red was now pulling strongly to 8000RPM again in fifth gear, at each opportunity feeling a bit more confident, a bit more sure of himself. I knew that he could sense it too, that right now he didn’t need to test me anymore, that we were joined in purpose.

Tearing past the Walmart at our top speed of nearly 45MPH, I laughed long and hard with glee. The water was long burned out of my air filter and Red felt strong and healthy, pushing cleanly through the entire range. Tomorrow I’d give him a few shakedown runs and another good cleaning, but I felt confident the troubles were past.

Well after dark, I arrived home. Walking into the hotel that was the first place I’d spent three consecutive nights on my trip after leaving Puno in Peru was absolutely refreshing. I was only slightly let down when there was no James Bond style moment of recognition by the lady behind the counter, but it was quickly submerged by the jubilation of unloading my stuff and making a quick run to Walmart for snacks and booze.

Last time I was here, I got a flat on the sharp edges of these annoying metal grates at the Walmart parking lot. I completely forgot about it and left the same way this time, only to feel an imbalance a little ways down the road. By the time I arrived back at my hotel, I confirmed it – another bloody flat, this time the left rear drive wheel. All those thorns, all those offroad excursions, and what finally does it in? A bloody Walmart parking lot.

Something to be dealt with tomorrow. I cheerily left a forlorn two-legged Red in the parking lot and headed inside for a steak.


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