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Days 65-66: The Center Cannot Hold

In which Pete begins again on the fearsome Ruta 40, heading north into the mountains only to find continuous decay destroying poor little Red.

(Missed days 63-64? Actually you didn’t – I spent those two days holed up in a hotel room in Mendoza mostly reading and snacking and napping, trying to crush what I hope is the tail end of a cold that has been dogging me for a month now)

Day 65
Mendoza, Argentina @ 11:00AM
End: San Jose de Jachal, San Juan, Argentina @ 8:15PM
Distance: 331km (207mi) in ~7.5hrs (44kmh / 27mph), time lost to repairs

It’s tough when you begin to lose confidence in a vehicle you expect to take you over some of the most brutal terrain on earth in a few days. Like those moments when you begin to wonder if the woman you’re seeing is as in to you as she was last week - a fleeting smirk at a joke she’d normally laugh at, a sudden drop in response rates to your texts, or the occasional restraining order. You’re no longer simply enjoying your time together, but rather waiting for the shoe to drop, knowing that something you will not like is going to happen sooner or later.

Leaving Mendoza, I had a simple plan. The run to San Juan would be my shakedown, an easy 150km or so along a busy enough road that any lingering effects from the run from Santa Rosa could be dealt with no matter the scenario. The last couple of hours into Mendoza had seemed fine, and after fixing the flat tire I got at Walmart I had fully cleaned and dried out my air filter and the airbox and everything looked good.

Red started clean and warmed up without any signs of the previous days’ problems. I was keen to get to San Juan around 3PM so I could stop there if I needed to; any earlier and the shops would likely be closed, any later and I wouldn’t be able to get much distance north of the city before dark. Coming in to Mendoza I had filled up my tank from my auxiliary, which was still half full (it’s around 6gal), so I decided not to top off since I was only going a short distance to San Juan.

A quick navigation through Mendoza with mostly easy to follow signs had me at the outskirts within half an hour when I heard a loud crash and felt an immediate imbalance in the moto, a now familiar sign of a flat tire. On the side of the road I confirmed that my left rear tire, the one I had just changed, was flat again.

When I changed it, I decided that instead of patching the tube up, I would throw in my last unused spare. I have patches and have patched tubes before, but I try to avoid it unless I have to because I don’t have everything to make the process perfect. I picked this last spare up in Rio Gallegos and as soon as I pulled it out of the casing I could tell it was of greatly inferior quality to the Pirelli tubes I’d been running from Peru; the rubber was obviously much thinner.  I wasn’t too surprised to find that barely five miles later, the tube actually popped as I hit a heavy crease in the pavement, unable to handle the weight of the mototaxi.

I whipped out the handy new toy I had purchased at Walmart for $10 precisely for times like this – a jack! – and put it to use. It’s going to be so awesome not to have to constantly look for stones or tip Red over and risk damaging his wheels and spilling fuel everywhere! On the other hand, as I quickly learned, I would have to be a bit careful using the jack… I had everything all jacked up when I reached into my tool bag and bumped Red, causing him to move forward and come off the jack, nearly crushing me.

Oh, that’s right – with the drive wheel off the ground, there’s nothing keeping the moto from rolling around. Oops. Note to self: use rocks next time.

Right as this happened, an old guy on a bicycle pulled up and told me that there was a gomeria (tire place) barely fifty yards down the road, literally just out of sight behind some trees. I thought about it for a moment and realized I needed to patch my two “spare” tubes that had holes in them and might as well have it done professionally, so I carefully rolled Red up the road to have the tubes taken care of.

The nice thing about professionals is that they have all the tools to do the patches properly, tubs of water to check for leaks, mallets to put the tires back on, and all that good stuff. They were finishing up a truck tube which probably used enough rubber to make a weird blanket, but once they got to me I had my tubes patched up pretty quickly. By now I’ve become an expert at dismantling my wheels and putting them back on, so what was once a tricky sort of fumbling act trying to hold everything in place as I put things together is now fairly easy.

While putting the rear wheel back on, I noticed something that gave me a bit of concern, however: the bearings on the inside are totally shot, easily a quarter inch or more of play. Once the wheel was back on there didn’t seem to be a hugely visible impact (there’s a lot of contact on that pin that goes through the wheel), but I have some concerns that this may be having a very slight effect I can feel at highway speed – but it may be all in my head.

I hit the road again and suddenly Red was back to his old tricks, sputtering and generally acting like a whiny little baby. This time I went straight to the airbox and was shocked to find that somehow, yet again, there was nasty ashy oil/gas/water/liquid all over everything. My best guess was that tipping the moto caused some to spill from some little pool somewhere inside, but I don’t know where this crap is coming from. I cleaned it all up and decided to stop in San Juan for a professional to take a look.

I made it to San Juan without too many problems, Red seemed to be running all right (if not perfectly) and a few spot checks had shown no more liquid entering the airbox. I considered moving on but decided to do the responsible thing and get it looked at, just in case.

At first I was pretty excited when I drove into San Juan as there were motorcycles everywhere so clearly it wouldn’t be too hard to find some moto places. As I drove past a couple that were closed up, I began to feel a bit of concern, confirmed as I realized that every single business I could see was shuttered. At 4:30PM this isn’t normal – most places in Argentina close from noon to 3, but are back open after that. A quick check at some store hours confirms that these places should be open today, even though it’s a Saturday. Apparently I have been thwarted by another nemesis, these bloody holidays.

It seems like every time I need something on this trip, I arrive in a town either on a holiday or a Sunday. I can’t seem to get a break! At least Pablo in Ushuaia was willing to work for a couple days when the rest of the town wasn’t, but only because I got there the day before the holidays. It’s frustrating at times and it’s hard to keep track of.

Knowing tomorrow was a Sunday and nothing would be open, I decided to continue on rather than lose another day and a half sitting around San Juan. Leaving town I saw signs for McDonald’s featuring a “Triple Mac” and almost wept at the pure beauty and wonder of such a thing. Something about the Big Mac had always left me unfulfilled and I realize now what it was – two all beef patties aren’t enough, I need three. Nearly overcome by a desperate desire for a true taste of home, I wandered town frantically trying to find this mythical McDonald’s but no one seemed to know where it was.

Finally, spouting profanity and hate, rage simmering slowly thanks to my unfulfilled desire, I left town leaving a trail of bitter tears melting into the road behind me. I wanted that Triple Mac, so badly, I can still almost taste it… special sauce… sesame seed bun… gah ;lkjq;kje;lkjrqwle;rkjq;krjw!!!

In a bit of a fugue as I left, I pulled into the last gas station in town to replenish my spent fuel but was told they had none. It’s a weird thing, but happens more than one might expect – you pull into a fancy shiny glass and metal gas station that could proudly sit on any interstate offramp in the US, complete with café and a little mini-store, expecting to enjoy a bit of cheap coffee while you fuel up with the good stuff… but nope, the attendants say there’s no gas. For whatever reason, they don’t have any. It’s weird.

No problem, I have enough gas for easily 150km and the sign lists all these towns closer than that… I’ll fuel up at the next stop, right?

Wrong. I keep forgetting that Argentina has this weird (to an American, at least) habit of putting up signs for absolutely nothing. You’ll leave town and see something like this:

El Cholito          26
Carnecita          51
Mujer Hermosa  62
Cuidad Grande   180

You figure one of those three towns near the top should have gas, right? Well, that might be right if they were towns. Or, if they even freaking existed! Once you hit the road, you keep seeing signs for El Cholito, say, as you get closer and closer. At some point there may be a sign that says “5km” or similar, so you travel five kilometers all excited to see what El Cholito is.

Fifteen kilometers later, you still haven’t seen anything other than empty prairie, and now there’s a sign for Carnecita telling you it’s getting close. Oooh, that’s exciting, a new shiny bauble to take up the banner of your hopes and dreams. I wonder what Carnecita will be like when I arrive at it in twenty kilometers?

Thirty kilometers later, Mujer Hermosa is coming up. Well, anyone that’s been traveling as long as I have is looking forward to any visit to a Mujer Hermosa, so… wait, is that single remaining half a wall a quarter mile from the road Mujer Hermosa? Why do they have a sign for half a wall of a single house that doesn’t exist any more?!

Meanwhile, you’re driving through this desolate empty terrain, surround by nasty brush and open land for miles. If you’re lucky, like today, you might have some cool mountains in the distance to look at, but they’re not so pretty when the horizon is shrouded in an ugly haze as a result of the recent volcanic eruption nearby.

You can take solace from one thing, one simple fact, that almost always holds true: if you first saw a sign for something really far away, then it’s probably actually a town. They only seem to do the signs for these imaginary places when the fairie circles are less than a hundred kilometers away, give or take. So, that Cuidad Grande that has been getting closer and closer on every sign? That should be a real city.

The sun is setting and the next “Cuidad Grande” – in this case a town named “Jachal” on the signs – is now 72km away according to the last sign. Normally I’d be stopping for the night, especially since this section of Ruta 40 through the mountains is devoid of my evil nemesis (the fence) and full of likely spots to pull off, however there are two things stopping me.

The first is that in my momentary insanity sparked by the Triple Mac (omg yum, I want…), it wasn’t just gas I was low on when I left town – it was fluids. I’m not keen on spending the night out here with less than half a liter of water left, especially considering I’ve only had one liter all day and am already a bit dehydrated from conserving it.

The second is that I’ve now ridden into vicious winds spawning some crazy dust storms that are having a direct impact on my speed and make the idea of camping out on this open plain, completely exposed, a bit… underwhelming. Been there, done that, enough times that I don’t feel an overriding need to subject myself to it again if it’s not necessary.

Moments after passing the sign indicating 72km to Jachal, my main fuel sputters out and I have to switch to reserve. Best case scenario I can get just over thirty kilometers out of my reserve, but that’s not going to happen heading directly into the wind. I eye my auxiliary, down to maybe two or three liters at max, and run the math in my head. It comes up triple sevens – if I throw it all in, 72km to Jachal should be no problem.

Assuming, of course, this wind doesn’t last for long… if it does, no way will I make it. As such, I make a deal with myself: if the wind is still up when I switch to reserve again, I’ll stop for the night. I’d rather be sitting on the side of the road without fuel in the morning than in the evening and if I’m lucky the wind might stop tomorrow. I’m not keen on being stranded on the side of the road without liquids for me or my steed, but maybe I’ll get lucky.

An hour later, I did – the wind stopped. I had ridden through it, and from here on out it would be smooth sailing, keeping the revs and speed low to maximize fuel economy and not worry about much. The sky was looking pretty evil, without a star to be seen, and in general I was keen on shelter and warmth regardless.

Ruta 40 wasn’t going to let me finish up the day without a bit more drama, however, and it showed itself when I started to notice a smashing noise coming from behind me. I’ve been keeping an eye on another cross-member of the top frame for nearly a week now as it had a small crack, expecting at some point it might pop. For most of the day north of San Juan, the road had been poorly maintained with little traffic and vibration had been the order of the day so I can’t say I was surprised to see the frame had finally sheared.

Soon my main fuel sputtered out, I pulled over and applied my special herbal remedy of rubber strips and medical tape to patch it all up and popped back on the road to finish up what should be the final kilometers into Jachal. The last sign said 20km or so, which meant it shouldn’t be a problem to make it on reserve.

Annoyingly, my frame was still making a bit of noise, implying somehow my rubber and tape fix didn’t work – that doesn’t make sense, it should definitely damp the noise even if it didn’t maintain all the structure. I wonder what’s going on… I pondered this as the lights of Jachal got closer and I arrived at the outskirts of town. Now to find a gas station and hotel!

*sputter* *sputter* “NO! NO RED! There is a gas station close, SUCK IT UP BUDDY!” The engine catches and purrs along slowly as I frantically drop revs and continue along the highway, watching the lights of the town to my left. Should I go into town, or stay on the highway? Surely the best bet is the highway to get to the main access to town, that’s where the gas stations always are… no, definitely, that’s the way to do it.

*sputter* *sputter* “Screw you Red, I can walk from here, I’m going to walk into town and find a hotel and some beer and I WILL LEAVE YOU HERE!” I yell at my moto, almost causing the old man on a bicycle who I didn’t see in the dark to crash as his head whips around to catch the source of this random English scream. Red catches again and slowly limps on.

He does this a lot, you see – when I’m running out of fuel he usually doesn’t just go from full throttle to dead, but likes to give me what’s usually around ten to thirty seconds of warning with these little sputters. Normally they happen when I’m going uphill, but on the straight they do happen occasionally and I often don’t even realize what they mean until the fuel really cuts out. This time, however, I was paying attention, and I knew he was about to throw it in for the night… but I saw bright shiny lights off to the side ahead that could mean only one thing!

I wish so much I could say that Red died as I coasted into the gas station, but the truth is that he happily sputtered along all the way up to the pump. I bet the little bugger probably would’ve been happy to go another couple of hundred yards if he had needed to, but it was a good feeling either way to fill him (and my auxiliary) up – the most expensive fillup I’ve had to date, with the remote location and him being so dry with an empty auxiliary the bill was almost $40USD for around nine gallons.

At the gas station, I figured out why my frame was still rattling – another section had sheared off! Some quick tube and tape later, I now have three of the four main supports held together by tape and rubber. Um, that can’t be good… I’m going to need to get this thing welded up before the fourth shears and some serious Final Destination action goes down.

Following the directions from the gas station attendant, I found a hotel near the plaza in San Jose de Jachal, one of the weirdest little towns I’ve been to in Argentina: it felt like I was in Peru, with a level of poverty that I haven’t really seen much of in Argentina. On the other hand, there were random shiny glass fronted shops and as many nice cars as old ones, so there’s obviously something going on here.

Once I got settled into the hotel, I spotted some motorcycle spare shops with really basic stuff and picked up another low quality tube Just In Case. Then I grabbed a couple hamburgers (not Triple Macs unfortunately) from a street vendor and headed back to my room to close out the evening in style – rum & cokes and burgers with a movie, booyah.

Tomorrow is Sunday so nothing will be open… I think it’s around 250-300km to the next “big” town called Chilecito, so I’m going to hit the road and hope I don’t get decapitated by my frame along the way.

Day 66
San Jose de Jachal, San Juan, Argentina @ 10:00AM
End: San Jose de Jachal, San Juan, Argentina @ 11:30AM
Distance: 33km (20mi) in ~1.5hrs (22kmh / 13mph)

”Wait a minute, Pete,” you are probably thinking, “why did you start and end in the same town?”

There’s an easy answer to that: I was attacked by pirates, who plundered my booty before sinking Red and leaving me adrift on a hastily inflated innertube until I was rescued by a local bounty hunter and brought back to town. The bounty hunter happened to be a smoking hot chick (who wears tight leather!) and the two of us are totally going to gang up and get revenge on those pesky pirates, don’t you worry. It’s gonna be wicked.

What, wouldn’t that be cool? Definitely more interesting than the reality.

The day started like any other, Red started clean and smooth, and after verifying that my rubber and tape job seemed to be maintaining some sort of structural integrity we did that thing we always do – hit the road.

As Red warmed up outside of town I started to notice a completely different feeling in the engine than before. I can’t quite describe it because the symptoms weren’t obvious at first, it just felt a little wrong. I finally pulled over to check and noticed that it seemed to be running a bit hotter than usual when something else made itself obvious – there was a lot of fresh oil on the bottom of the engine. Like, a lot.

I’ve had a bit of oil accumulating for awhile, in general every small engine that I’ve massively abused seems to do this so I don’t worry too much about it aside from checking my oil religiously. I had checked the oil in the middle of the day yesterday and it had been fine, right at the top like it always is, so I don’t know when it happened but… checking the oil right now, my fears were instantly realized: it was low. Dangerously low, barely wetting the dip stick.

Worse, I only had maybe 200ml of oil on me – I had almost bought some last night, but the moto shop where I bought the tube didn’t have any 100% synthetic, only blended, so I figured I’d hold out until I could find some synthetic. Again, this decision makes sense based on past experience: during this entire trip, I have always had at least one liter of spare oil on me and never needed even an ounce of it. So, this time, when I changed my oil I didn’t pick up a spare liter…

And the adventure gods have their sense of humor. I should’ve realized it would go down this way, it always does – you always need what you don’t have. Thankfully they left me a small window, and that 200ml I had left was enough to get me back to town without, I hope, any permanent damage to the engine. It was a close thing though, that leak was heavy and fast.

I topped up the tank with everything I had left, taking it just to the max on the stick, and cleaned up the bottom of the engine so I could get an idea where it was leaking from. Ten minutes later I pulled over to check it out and there was already enough coming out to make visible droplets form, pretty much as severe an oil leak as you ever want to see when your engine holds just a bit under a liter of the stuff.

It was tough to make the decision to turn around – I have a sort of unofficial rule about never going backwards on these trips, only going forward…  but there was no way I would make it 300km to Chilecito, and looking at the map I couldn’t find any town that I was confident was actually a town where I might find some oil.

If it had been a Tuesday or something it wouldn’t have been a big deal, since I was only 15km out of town and could quickly get my frame welded and the engine looked at. Unfortunately, since it was Sunday this would mean I’d lose an entire day and I’d already wasted two in Mendoza. Regardless, every argument I could make for pushing on was idiotic in the long run, so I made the right call and went back to Jachal.

This time I stopped at an Apart Hotel that was a bit more expensive than the flophouse downtown, but I have a bit more space and room to relax. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find anywhere in town with internet, so I’ve no idea when I’ll be able to post this.

On Sunday pretty much everything is closed – I actually got lucky since the lady that runs the hotel told me nobody would be around for the rest of the day after I checked in. After the usual shower and whatnot I decided to explore the town a bit more, and spent much of the day just wandering around.

It’s really a bizarre place. I can’t tell if it’s in the middle of a massive decline or if it’s in the middle of a massive influx of cash and growth, but it’s definitely trapped somewhere between being a typically balanced Argentine town and an abandoned ghost town. All of the people that I see are well dressed and seem healthy, unlike any small town in Peru and Bolivia where the poverty is brutal, but there are also a ton of empty and abandoned buildings.

Most small Argentine towns seem well populated and adjusted, so it’s a shock to say that I’d guess a quarter of the buildings near downtown are abandoned. Just boarded up and left to rot. It gives you this really strange feeling to see a decaying dirt building with shattered windows and lop sided doors standing next to a shiny glass fronted department store – it doesn’t make sense, but apparently it’s nothing out of the ordinary here.

I’m still sort of processing it, and I guess I can’t really understand it without having some long conversations with some locals. Maybe tomorrow when I find a mechanic I’ll get to the bottom of this mystery… for now, here are some pictures to give you an idea of the oddness of the this town.


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