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Days 87-90: A Bolivian Welcome

In which Pete enters Bolivia, runs out of fuel, discovers steep mountain roads do not work well with low horsepower, spends hours rebuilding Red in the dirt, and resorts to portaging gear up hills and through sand before arriving at what was supposed to be the beginning of the difficult bits.

Day 87
Abra Pampa, Jujuy, Argentina @ 10:30AM
End: Somewhere between Tupiza and Uyuni, Bolivia @ 8:30PM
Distance: 224km (140 miles) in [N/A time/speed average due to borders]

Most of today was boring and normal. I didn’t even stop to take any photos the entire day, fairly unusual for me. The road north from Abra Pampa was very bland, and the only spice the day held was my inability to locate additional fuel – both of the stations in Abra Pampa had no gasoline. Before too long I made it to La Quiaca, the border town with Bolivia, only to find the same true of the two gas stations on the Argentina side.

I’d read that Villazon on the Bolivian side was much bigger, so I decided to go ahead and cross over. The entire process was incredibly simple, probably the easiest border crossing I’ve done yet – there wasn’t even any customs control. It did, of course, take a long time because I had to wait in various lines, but getting my visa and passing through into Bolivia was much easier than last time I did it; that time I was practically held hostage and extorted for additional money at Desaguadero. I have a new passport so I was expecting more of the same and was quite surprised to find none of it.

On the Bolivian side I quickly changed all my pesos and some emergency dollars into Bolivianos then went looking for gas… only to find that all three gas stations in town had no fuel either. The next available fuel was apparently in Tupiza, 100km or so to the north and my next destination. I began running match calculations in my head – how far back had I put the last of my fuel into the tank? It wasn’t enough to fill it, but it probably was half full. Could I make it to Tupiza?

No matter how I figured the numbers, it didn’t seem likely that I could make it – I’d probably be about 30km short. I wasted some more fuel driving around town trying to find someone that would sell me some gas from a barrel or something, but apparently that’s not common down here because there’s normally a bunch of gas stations easily accessible. At this point it was early afternoon and I had to choose between making a run for it and hoping to beg gas off some passerby when I ran out or wasting the evening and night in Villazon.

I went for it. Around 30km out of town I hit reserve and was face with another decision – I should be able to make it back to Villazon on reserve, since I usually get around 40km out of it. There’s no way I would make it to Tupiza and I’d be stuck begging for fuel. I actually turned around and began to drive back towards Villazon when I wondered what the heck I was doing giving up; I had a plan, to run out of fuel and beg for a refill, and that’s what I’d do! I also knew that a lot of small towns have guys with fifty gallon drums of gas who will sell it, I just need to check for such.

Decision made, I turned back around and began the endless drive towards Tupiza. I refused to pay attention to how much I had traveled or try to guess when I would run out of fuel, I just drove… very very carefully. I started playing classic tricks like coasting down hills in neutral and keeping a low average speed on the straights. At every little village more than a few huts I would stop and ask the locals if anyone around had any fuel to sell me, even just a few liters, but they kept telling me to go to Tupiza.

When I saw a sign saying it was 20km to Tupiza I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t yet run out of fuel – 50km on reserve was already pretty impressive. I kept slowly coasting along, enjoying the drive, deliberately not paying attention to time or distance, when literally out of nowhere I saw a sign for Tupiza. I thought it was one of those “Welcome to the district of Tupiza” signs that are sometimes miles out from town, but then I noticed something ahead that looked an awful lot like a filling station! I couldn’t believe I had stretched my reserve nearly 80km, the pure luck of somehow making it all the way boggling my mind.

As I let off the throttle to ease my way into the fueling station the engine cut out – Red was bone dry. I popped into neutral and began to coast only to realize my salvation was not here after all: the gas pumps at the fuel station were all closed off! This station was closed! NOOOO! I would be that total moron pushing his moto around town trying to find a hotel in order to wait for fuel to arrive tomorrow…  well played, Pete. Well, at least I made it into town!

Still coasting in neutral, I rolled past the fuel station and began to plot my arrival into town, trying to figure out how far I could coast. Wait a minute, what is that line of cars ahead of me? Why, yes, it is – another fuel station! And if there were cars there, they must have gas! Victory would be mine!

Still in neutral, I managed to coast all the way up to the pumps, completely out of fuel. We ended up putting just over 11 liters of fuel into what’s supposed to be a 2.9 gallon (10.98L) tank, so, um, yeah it was empty. I added another 20 liters of fuel to my reserve and tried not to consider how expensive the fuel was – I had expected Bolivia to be cheaper (31L = ~$45USD, or around $5.5/gallon).

The original plan was to stop in Tupiza, but it was still only around 4PM and there was a solid three hours of daylight left, so I thought it would be kind of silly to stop for no reason other than a nice meal. I did run into town to buy some supplies, getting extra water in case it took me more than a day to make the 200km to Uyuni – seemed unlikely at the time.

On the way out of town I hit a little roadblock where two young guys argued over whether or not to make me pay a toll before one just walked out and moved the roadblock to let me through without paying while the other kept yelling at him. I had heard the road between Tupiza and Uyuni is supposed to be pretty sick, the kind that only 4x4’s and big trucks/busses travel (most people take the train) but it started out all nice and paved. I drove along the pavement for awhile before deciding to check my location with my GPS on a whim – something just didn’t seem right.

And indeed, it was not right, considering I was heading the wrong direction, off towards Santa Cruz. That explained the decent road! I turned around to find the way to Uyuni and sure enough, it made a lot more sense when I turned off onto a nasty, rocky dirt road.

The next hour or so was fairly pretty terrain, mostly populated, as the road ran next to a wide river which provided irrigation for farms that were surprisingly fertile for ~2700 meters up. I kept an eye out for a decent place to camp, but it was simply too populated. As the sun began to drop I realized I would lose the light very quickly since the high mountains would kill the post-sunset glow and I started to consider just pulling off to stop at a farmer’s place and asking if it was okay to camp there.

I was in a weird mood though, the kind where I just didn’t really feel like stopping. It was why I had left Villazon without enough fuel, why I had taken off from Tupiza to avoid “wasting” two hours of light, and why I was now continuing on in the growing darkness. As the light began to flee, the road began to change – with the darkness came not only cold, but a new twisting, climbing aspect of the road began to show itself.

Third gear became second, then second gear became first. I could feel the power of my engine dropping as I began a brutal ascent, initially shifting into second gear as I came out of corners but quickly finding the only safe way to maintain speed was to stay in first gear. The final moments of the sunset lit the mountains with a burnished red glow around me, but I couldn’t stop to appreciate it because the road kept going up and up.

Darkness settled in around me, the non-stop wailing of my little 125cc engine spinning its life away at 9500RPM the only sound in the endless silence. My world shrunk to the size of my headlight glow, I spun and tore my way up the mountain. Due to the single wheel drive and the way the chains are set up, any turning results in a loss of speed and corners quickly became my enemy, costing me valuable revs and threatening me with failure. They came in waves, never ending, one after the other in suicidal attacks, knowing eventually they would overwhelm me.

And they did. A tight left turn caused my revs to drop below 7000RPM at around 3500 meters and that was it – the grade was too steep, Red’s power insufficient, and I slowly stuttered to a halt. Carefully managing the brake and slipping the clutch at 8000RPM, I limped Red upwards through the corner, fighting it with everything I had, finally overcoming it and finding a short flat stretch beyond in which to run the engine back up to 9000+RPM and continue the climb ahead.

This scenario played itself out a few more times until Red’s clutch decided it would no longer be party to such abuse and in a fit of glazed fury decided to simply stop functioning – instead of slipping up the mountain, my revs shot to redline, the rear wheel refused to turn, and I began to roll back down the mountain. I quickly shut off the engine and put Red into first gear, only to find that with the clutch glazed the transmission wouldn’t hold it on the hill.

The only solution was the rock brake dance, wherein you turn the wheel all the way to the side, back the moto up towards the side of the road, then quickly jump off to grab a rock before running back to slam on the brakes then place the rock under one of the wheels without the moto rolling off the mountain. I was successful, the judges giving me an average 9.2 score as I juggled the brake, rolling moto, and rock.

I let the clutch cool and pondered the road ahead, which surely indicated that around the next corner things would start going downhill since I couldn’t see any terrain higher. It wasn’t too far to the next corner, so I decided to push Red uphill a bit. I went through a few various iterations of this, pushing Red a few feet up before putting a rock under the tire, until I decided the clutch had cooled enough and I should give it a go running next to the moto.

This is a trick I’ve used quite well in the past (it was required to ascend that evil road of sand at the beginning of my journey), where I run next to the moto, simultaneously pushing it and gunning the throttle to give it both the advantage of not carrying my weight plus the minor additional power of my pushing. There’s just one thing I didn’t consider: In order to properly manage the clutch and gears in this scenario, I need to be on the left side of the moto… and I no longer have a front brake. For you non-moto people, that meant I was relying on the rear brake, which is on the right side of the bike.

I honestly thought two things as I planned this out: First, that if I stalled or something I could quickly jump to the other side to hit the brake if I needed to, and second that if worst came to worst I could dig in my feet and stop Red from rolling backwards.

The technique worked… at first. After a few more bad corners, where I’d jump on and ride side-saddle up the mountain until another horrible corner drained my speed and required me to jump off/push/run, I made the classic mistake that anyone running up hill at 4000+ meters on a rocky road wearing giant snow boots while being out of shape makes: I tripped.

The first safety of Red’s gearing failed, because the clutch was still so glazed that it woudn’t grip and Red immediately began to slide downhill in first gear. The second safety of me jumping over onto the brakes failed because I was now being dragged down the hill on my side as I head onto the handlebars for dear life. The third safety of me stopping Red by sheer force of will failed because I was too busying thinking “oh crap I am going to die” to apply my well honed psychic powers.

I managed to get myself together mentally, find my balance, and get my feet under me and start trying to stop Red by sheer force of will… but by this point it had gained too much speed and was rolling downhill fast enough that I was just dragging my boots through the dirt. Around this time I lost control of the handlebars and they flipped all the way over to the side, causing Red’s back end to swing around viciously. For a brief moment I thought this would bleed off enough momentum to allow me to stop it, then I realized two things:

I was holding onto an inherently unstable three wheeled vehicle that had just sheared to the side viciously while heading downhill backwards at a serious clip, and it was now starting to tip over in what would become a vicious tumbling roll down the mountain worthy of a scene from Ronin… and it had just sheared in the direction of the huge cliff side of the road, meaning this entire scene was about to end with a spinning tumbling mototaxi flying off a cliff. And I had enough speed built up that it would probably take me with it.

It’s hard to explain the feeling that came over me. You have to realize this is a fraction of a second, there wasn’t really even time to go from “this is going to happen” into “I am going to die.” My mind hadn’t actually finished the equation, it was still calculating the result of the actions. It came up with a strange reaction: dig in, hard. In retrospect I don’t know why I didn’t dive free and try to bleed off speed to prevent myself from going over, but for whatever reason the solution my body came up with was to grab both hands on the bar in front of the seat and throw all my weight downward, locking my arms and knees.

What happened next was one of the weirdest and most awesomest things I’ve ever experienced. I felt Red suddenly gain speed for a fraction of a moment, then slew around oddly, catch a little bit of air, almost fall over on me, then crash to an abrupt halt as I smashed into it, somehow catching the brunt of the impact with my arms. From my position prone on the ground I could see the right rear wheel spinning freely in the air in the glow of my headlamp, the entire frame at a bizarre angle, as I tried to process what the heck had exactly happened here.

I slowly let go of Red, making sure it wouldn’t roll without me holding on, and stood up to walk around it. As my headlamp illuminated Red’s left rear tire smashed up against a large rock, the frame twisted from the angle of the road and the dip on the side, I realized that this rock was the only thing that prevented Red from flying off into inky blackness. Of all the places on this road for Red to veer off towards nothingness, he picked the one place with a big rock to stop him.

This was exactly when I realized what had almost happened. Until I saw that rock and the nothingness beyond it, I had no idea how close I had come to ending this trip alone at the bottom of mountain. I don’t think I would have died because it wasn’t a sheer cliff and there was lots of rocks and vegetation, but I’m quite certain Red would have been completely destroyed. I would have just been left to die of exposure, likely with many broken limbs, alone at the bottom of that mountain, looking up at the occasional headlights passing above me, feeling the crushing devastation of knowing help was so close.

It was a frightening, sobering moment – I’ve been close before, I’ve seen that edge, that realization of what almost happened, but this was probably about as close as I’ve ever come. Even writing about it now it seems unreal, somehow the fact that it happened in darkness making it feel more like a dream than a vivid memory. I don’t believe in anything more than cosmic luck, but I can see how people are driven to come up with explanations for events like this. It was pretty freaking cool.

Of course, around the time of realization came the physical side, the massive adrenaline hit. It was almost like this whole sequence of events (probably around four seconds) happened too fast for my body to dump the adrenaline, but it sure knew what was going on now. The adrenaline hit combined with the heavy exertion at high altitude without acclimatization was a bit too much for me to handle, and before I knew it I had fallen to my knees and almost blacked out, my vision reduced to a small peep hole with glowing stars flying around everywhere.

I sat back and rode out the adrenaline, breathing carefully, until slowly everything returned to normal. Then I decided enough was enough. On the outside of most of the right turns when the right side of the road was up against the mountain, there was usually a small flat area. I had considered stopping at one of these to camp, but I had tossed the idea because I imagined someone in a bus staring at my tent trying to figure out what it was and driving straight into me.

Thirty feet up the hill was one of those turns, and I was going to stop there for the night. I unloaded all of my stuff from Red and one by one carried my bags up the hill. Then, slowly, and very very carefully, I pulled Red up the hill, making sure to stay on the side with the brakes and keep one foot near to it at all times.

I was still jittery, overloaded from the exertion and the slow ebb of adrenaline, and setting up camp wasn’t the most fun thing in the world. I hadn’t really eaten anything, but the thought of trying to eat food was almost enough to make me throw up, my body rebelling at the very idea of adding anything to its precarious equilibrium. At the temperature dropped below freezing I tucked myself into my tent and my warm sleeping bag and decided to watch a movie on my phone.

At 4050 meters in the Bolivian Andes, during early winter, with the temperature dropping below 20F, alone and exposed after nearly dying, physically and mentally crushed, I watched the movie Take Me Home Tonight and had two Truths revealed to me*: this may be the funniest movie I’ve ever seen, and Teresa Palmer may be the hottest woman on the planet.

*I can’t vouch for the reality of these truths if this movie is watched from the safety of one’s couch at home after a boring day at the office.

Day 88
Somewhere between Tupiza and Uyuni, Bolivia @ 10:15AM
End: Somewhere between Tupiza and Uyuni, Bolivia @ 5:30PM
Distance: 40km (25 miles) in [N/A time/speed average due to repairs]

I wasn’t at my best today. I started the morning off attempting to make it up the hill you see in the photo below, which is also where I had camped for the night:

These hills really don’t seem that steep when viewed from below or the side, yet if you actually look at it for a bit and think about it you’ll see it’s like a 15-20% grade. In the USA it’s incredibly rare to encounter anything beyond an 8% grade, if that gives you any idea – this is twice as steep.

I also really hoped, looking at the view above, that that corner off in the distance was the last one that would go uphill. It sure looks like it goes downhill from there, doesn’t it? Spoiler: It doesn’t, it keeps going up.

I tried to get Red up that hill, but starting on the hill made it impossible to get up enough speed. I finally decided to leave all of my gear on the side of the road and give it a try using my other tactic of straddling the seat and sort of run-hopping along – Red wouldn’t need to carry most of my weight and I wouldn’t be risking another NDE by running alongside.

The amazing thing is that it actually worked! Slipping the clutch like crazy I was able to get it all the way up that hill and around the corner, then make it up the next hill to a flat section. This was awesome, except for the fact that according to my GPS datalogger, my gear was now 947 meters back down the road.

Long story short: I spent the next couple of hours carrying my gear back and forth, first to this spot then finally up to another spot even further up where the road flattened out enough that I could get a good run at the next hill.

In total I walked over 4km up and down hills, typically carrying 30-40lbs of gear at a time, at between 4050 and 4150 meters in altitude. I am not “in shape” by any means, as I’ve been sitting on a motorcycle for the entire day for the last 88 days… it was brutal, physically and mentally, by the time I finally got everything loaded up on that flat stretch I was seriously considering pushing Red off the side of the road and waving goodbye.

I was able to get a good run at the next section and when, a few corners later, I crested what appeared to be the final section of uphill terrain I almost went crazy with glee. I’m happy to say that I have this moment (as well as many others of the day) on video, when I finish editing it I’m sure you will enjoy laughing at the idiocy of my glee. I was able to summon the final bit of my energy for one victorious celebration:

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of the insane uphill grades. The road continued to climb up and down the mountains, varying from 3900 to 4100 meters, and I continued to struggle. Most of the time I was able to keep enough revs to climb, but sometimes the corners would get me and I’d be forced to choose between destroying my clutch or pulling Red up hill, something I got better and better at. None of the hills were long enough to force me to portage my gear again, thankfully.

And although I had a hard time appreciating it at times, I have to admit the views were pretty spectacular. This road consistently drove across the tops of the highest mountains around, giving fantastic 360 degree views of the entire world out to the horizon. It was like dating a psychotic supermodel – you’d really rather be somewhere else, but at the same time you’re glad you’re there.

In the early afternoon I was firing up a hill at full blast when it finally happened: with a horrid thunk and chunk, my left rear wheel locked up and Red slewed to the side. I knew immediately that I had thrown the chain and jammed it, not surprised at all that it happened while I was spinning my tires uphill in a hard right turn at 9500RPM – the only surprise was that it hadn’t happened earlier.

An inspection on the side of the road revealed that the chain was pretty damaged and I might have to replace it – luckily it was the rear chain, for which I actually do have a replacement (the front is an expensive super tough 520 style that I couldn’t get a spare for when I replaced it in Ushuaia). I was able to unwind it without too much effort, then backed Red down the hill onto one of those things off the side to work on it.

Then I noticed something horrible: there was a huge amount of play where the sprocket attached to the wheel, the entire sprocket wobbling back and forth over half an inch. I was completely defeated, how in the world could I fix this? I’ve never even detached a sprocket from a wheel, so I had no idea what the next step was. Improvising, I decided I would see what I could do to take it apart and figure things out from there.

With 20+MPH wind gusts throwing dirt and rocks in my face, I jacked Red up and pulled off the rear left wheel. I almost gave up again when I found the bolts holding the sprocket on were slightly deformed and I couldn’t get a wrench onto them, but I hit upon the idea of literally hammering the wrench onto the bolts; this allowed me to finally get them off. Then there was a C-clip to remove, something I struggled with for half an hour using various combinations of tools until I was finally able to get it off using pliers and my mini-crowbar.

Underneath the problem was immediately obvious: the sprocket is held in place by four weird shaped bolt thingies that look exactly like the bits that connect pieces of IKEA furniture – a shiny round bit on one side that goes into a smooth hole, a screw on the other side, and a plate dividing the sides. The problem was that the smooth holes inside the wheel were destroyed, completely shredded, and were thus useless.

Initially I thought I’d have to bum a ride into town to get a new wheel, but my eyes strayed over to Red and I looked at the right rear wheel. Wait a minute, it has those little hole thingies too! In fact, the wheels look exactly the same. Maybe they are interchangeable?

A couple of hours later, I have switched the wheels, rescued the rear chain, and thoroughly cleaned and lubed everywhere. I take a quick run at the hill that stymied me and I’m able to make it up on the second try, once again trying to conquer this horrible road.

Later in the afternoon as I finish pulling Red up yet another hill, a thought explodes in my head like a grenade. At first I’m too stunned to even fully process it, the ramifications bouncing around like shrapnel as I realize I not only anticipated this kind of struggle many months in the past, but I actually planned for it.

In my tool bag is a 13 sprocket pinion gear, intended to replace the 14 sprocket pinion gear when I end up in the mountains. Remember when I re-geared for top end on the highway? Switching to the 13 should give me a ~10% shorter gearing and have a noticeable impact on my hill climbing ability. For the life of me I can’t figure out why this never occurred to me before, I can only assume I was so mentally stressed that I couldn’t see anything but the exact problem in front of me.

With glee I got out my tools and pulled all of my wrenches out and started to open the engine case to swap out the pinion gear. I grabbed my smallest wrench and stuck it on the two bolts I needed to remove only to see it was too small. What? These bolts are 8mm and my smallest wrench is 9mm? No freaking way. I could have sworn I had an 8mm wrench. Oh holy crap. Is there really a solution to my problems right here in front of me, but I won’t be able to apply it because I don’t have the right freaking tools?!

I tried using both of my pliers to turn the bolts, but there was no joy – they were too tight, and I was decimated. To go from that explosive moment of glee at the realization I could ever so slightly positively affect my ability to climb hills to this crushing reality of not having the right tools, it was too much. Almost overcome by despair, I picked up my wrench stuff-sack to put my tools away when I felt something in the bottom.

And there it was, my 8mm wrench, somehow jumping out of my fist when I pulled all the wrenches out, lying in the bottom of my bag playing hide and seek like a child who doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation. I wanted to stab my eyes out, throw it off the mountain, or scream for joy, I couldn’t figure out which. I think I settled for screaming for joy, then got down to brass tacks.

With the pinion gear replaced and the chain tightened up I noticed an immediate improvement on hills, finding myself shifting into second gear on some hills for the first time in what felt like years. I was screaming for joy, totally stoked, even yelling at the top of my lungs that “this mountain is my bitch!”

From such amazing lows to such an intense high, I should have known it was too good to be true. A few minutes later I once again hit a hill that was too steep for little Red, even with the new gearing, and my excitement came to a crashing halt. It was a short hill, thankfully, and after pulling Red up it I would not find another hill to defeat me for quite awhile.

As the afternoon turned to early evening, I realized I had another option as well, one I had completely forgotten about: way way back in San Martin de los Andes, I had switched from a 55 to a 37 sprocket gear in back, giving me about 15% more top end. I had been carrying that 55 with me ever since, buried in the bottom of one of my packs, and I still had it. If I threw that on the back, I’d have a total of around 25% lower gearing, fairly significant and about as low as I could realistically go.

This thought bounced around in my head for awhile when I decided that no matter what, I would swap out the rear sprocket tonight when I stopped. Better than burning the clutch out, right? I wouldn’t need highway speeds for many many days to come.

Just after five in the evening, I descended a very steep hill and cross a wide, dry river bed. It was the best camp site I had seen for awhile and I seriously considered stopping, but with all of the problems I had made such horrible time today that I decided to continue on. Less than a kilometer later, the road changed my mind for me: a very steep hill connected to the steepest hill I’d seen yet by a sharp right hand turn.

Red made it about a quarter of the way up but that was it, and my decision was made: I’d return down to the river bed, make camp, swap out the rear sprocket, and tackle this hill tomorrow. I found a great spot around a bend in the river, a bit high up in case of a random night rain, and settled in for the evening. At this point I was so exhausted that I almost felt drunk, my legs were so wobbly they’d randomly give out and I’d catch myself just before falling.

I was able to summon the strength to do some chores, and I swapped out the rear sprocket while pasta cooked in my tent. I’d been carrying a 375ml bottle of Cabernet with me since Salta and I decided tonight would be a good night to crack it open, help me unwind a little bit while I tried to think through the events of the day. It was a nice serene meal, sitting on the edge of this dried up river in a massive canyon, enjoying my dinner by daylight for the first time I could remember.

Dirty, exhausted, beaten down by wind, cold, and sun, I was able to find a little peace. The specter of that massive hill tried to loom in front of me, but I refused to give it purchase. That was a problem for tomorrow. For tonight, I had my pasta and wine.

Day 89
Somewhere between Tupiza and Uyuni, Bolivia @ 10:45AM
End: Uyuni, Bolivia @ 4:30PM
Distance: 151km (94 miles) in 5.75 hours (26kmh / 16mph average speed)

In retrospect, that wine wasn’t the best idea. I’m one of those rare people whom wine doesn’t put to sleep – in fact, the more exhausted I am, the more it seems to keep me awake. I’ve spent many nights unable to sleep as a result of too much wine, and last night was in the same vein. Even though it was a small amount, at 3980 meters it was more than enough to combine with the physical and mental exhaustion in order to make sleep difficult… especially when a new factor added itself to the equation.

Over the last few weeks, my air mattress had developed a slow leak. It was so slow that it would only leak a noticeable amount every few hours, meaning I’d perhaps wake up once in the night to blow some more air into it. Last night, however, that leak seems to have exploded, to the point where the entire thing empties inside of about a minute – I could actually feel it deflating. I am a side sleeper, so an air mattress is pretty important as it prevents my spine from twisting painfully and my hip bone from crushing into the ground.

More importantly, however, it acts as a barrier against the cold earth, which is somewhat important when the air temperature is dropping into the teens F at night – with ground temperature often much lower. I made it through the night all right, but I spent a lot of time awake and trying not to think about the pain in my back or the cold trying to seep into me.

The morning was a perfect illustration of the power of the sun: my tent was set up in a way that it did not catch the morning sun, so even when it was bright and the sun was clearly out my watch was registering an air temperature of 22F inside my tent. I finally forced myself to get up and go outside only to see the line of sunlight maybe twenty feet away. Walking into it I was immediately warm, needing to take off my jacket to avoid sweating. Then I’d have to put it back on to walk back to my tent!

To simplify the morning, I moved Red out into the sun and brought everything out from my tent as well, packing and preparing my moto in its life giving warmth. Engine warmed up, gear stowed, frozen water thawed, it was time to make a run at that hill again.

Just like yesterday, I got a good solid run at it, going around the corner at just over 8000RPM. Just like yesterday, I rapidly began to lose power and eventually stalled out, unable to climb further – unlike yesterday, this happened almost at the top of the hill. A little judicious clutch work and I was up and over! The new rear sprocket made a huge difference!

The entire rest of the day, I never once stalled going uphill. I got close a few times, but I always made it up, only resorting to riding the clutch a few times. Definitely a worthwhile improvement, and the only thing that kept me from patting myself on the back was resentment at myself for not thinking of doing those changes earlier.

Most of the day was simple dirt road, high up in the mountains, without much drama aside from the occasional random Range Rover passing me. Again the view was amazing, impossible to capture in its entirety.

I had stowed my gear differently because I was having problems with the vibrations, and sometime in the early afternoon I stopped to check everything and saw that my yellow dry bag had come loose and been rubbing against the rear tire. This had torn a huge hole in it as well as stripped off huge portions of rubber from my spare clutch, brake, and throttle cables. I was lucky something hadn’t gotten sucked into the wheel, imagine what kind of havoc a braided steel cable would do at 40kmh in a spoked wheel!

Shortly thereafter, the road descended a bit and seemed to open onto the real altiplano – instead of riding along the tops of mountains, I was now riding in a flat plain. Before I could enjoy this too much, I stumbled into some massive piles of sand that had blown across the road, stopping me in my tracks.

Once again I was forced to portage my gear, thankfully only around thirty feet through deep sand. With the gear off the bike I could spin my way through the sand as I pushed along with it, risking chain damage but it’s the only way. As I was struggling through the first huge sand pile I noticed what looked like two very slow motorcycles in the distance and I began to be afraid. If motorcycles were going so slow, there must be some huge sand areas that I would have massive problems with. I really need to switch back to that MT40 tire…

I made it through the first sand trap and was pleased to note I was wrong – those weren’t motorcycles, they were bicycles! It turned out to be a couple from Belgium who had taken a year off (all you Americans who constantly hate on socialism, how can you not appreciate countries where employers have to let you take a year off then give you your job back?) to bike from New York to Buenos Aires.

A lot of times when people talk to or about me they act like my little trips are totally crazy – riding a scooter to the Arctic Circle, riding a mototaxi around South America, and all that. People seem put off when I don’t think it’s a big deal, or really anything special… but it’s because I meet people like this. I met a dude in Thailand who had walked across Mongolia. A girl in Nepal who had been traveling Asia for five years working illegal odd jobs for cash whenever she got bored. Some British ladies who bought an auto-rickshaw in India and drove it home. This crazy dude that tried to go from Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia in twenty one days… then tried it again because he was a few hours too slow!

Those are people that impress me, that inspire me, that blow my mind. They do things I can’t imagine having the balls to do, so when people are impressed by me it seems unfair. Or, to take it another way, I was actually emotionally upset after I read Eat, Pray, Love – while Ms. Gilbert’s struggles and apparent risk taking may have been slightly outside the norm, I couldn’t believe that our culture was so tied up in avoiding risk that the story of her frankly boring and selfish and mostly safe “risks” turned into one of the best selling books of all time blew my mind. It made me sad.

Woops, my soap box snuck its way in there. I spent awhile talking with this awesome Belgian couple and was really happy and impressed for them. It gave me a new motivation – that road, that had almost destroyed me.. on bicycles? I mean I can see some advantages and disadvantages, but wow, nonetheless, wow.

From them I learned that there was only one more big sand pit and after that it was all flat, boring, heavily washboarded road to Uyuni with lots of beautiful scenery. And they were right, it was.

I pulled into Uyuni around 4PM and was pretty stoked – last time I was here, a sandstorm shut down the entire town in the late evening, then it got dark. I never even really saw much of the town, and on my way out in the early morning on a Sunday (if I recall correctly) it was a complete ghost town. This Uyuni that I was riding into was totally different, teeming with life and people and… whiteys everywhere!

I got a room at the same hospedeaje I stayed at last time for old time’s sake, then hit the town running errands, buying as much stuff as I could and scouting it out for tomorrow. Most importantly I found a place that presumed to sell…  MEXICAN FOOD!

I ate there. It was not mind blowing (wtf, carrots in my tacos?). It was, nonetheless, enjoyable, and by 8PM I was ready for bed. Sleep.

Day 90
Uyuni, Bolivia (no travel)

I went to sleep around 8PM last night and woke up at 9AM this morning. Crazy! I remembered that the Mexican place I ate at yesterday had breakfast, so I wandered over there and had a pretty good omelet made even better by guacamole. Then I put phase two into effect: finding wireless internet and a nicer hotel.

See, last night in my exploration I found this little tourist area of town that I had no idea existed! There are happy little whiteys everywhere, restaurants full of Euros, Israelis, and various other tourists (even a few Americans, since it’s summer and the college kids are traveling). It’s pretty shocking, a reminder of how much of a draw this area is. I figured I should be able to find a hotel with hot water (it was all I could do last night to get my face washed in the nearly freezing water at my place) and maybe internet.

So I wandered around poking my head in various places until I found a fancy place that had both (though their internet has been down all day and the shower was tepid at best) and told them I’d be back!

Back to my place to pack my gear, then off in search of a gomeria I went… time to get that MT40 mounted! I found this cool guy and ended up spending most of the day with him as we both took turns working on Red.


The MT40 is now mounted, the right rear is the good tire again, some tubes were switched around, two of my spare tubes were patched, my frame was re-welded everywhere it was broken with a lot of reinforcement added in strategic parts, I rewired a bit of my electrical system, loc-tite’d up a bunch of critical bolts, and generally went over Red with a fine tooth comb.

In theory, we are all rigged up and set to go tomorrow. I have this insane route mapped out, but I don’t know if it’s even possible since I’ve heard the Salar is still underwater and thus not safe for me to traverse (it would wreak havoc on my chains and I don’t want to lie in four inches of nasty briney water to do repairs, heh). Instead I’m going to head south first, off into insane la-la land where only 4x4’s go, then loop back around north. I’ll take a peak at the Salar when I get back north and if it’s no-go, I’ll loop around the west side of it before crossing into Chile somewhere northwest of it in order to descend to Arica and back up to Tacna.

It is entirely probably I won’t have any internet access until I get to Tacna, and that may be a week or two of insanity away. Wish me luck!


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