Patagonia, April/May 2015.
Autumn time, the trees are those colors reminiscent of home in fall, or months and a year ago in Colorado. Walking, leaves scrunch underfoot, each step pushing down into the dirt tattered pieces of that carpet. The sun crests low in the sky each day. Breakfast generally happens once it’s light enough out that surely the sun must be up, but we’ll sit outside by the stove warming coffee and it’ll still be an hour before sunlight actually reaches and warms us. Paul pronounced a few weeks ago, “There’ll be a time when the sun comes out but it’s not actually warm.” We’re not there yet, but we’re getting close.
There’s a road through southern Chile, northern Patagonia. It winds down past lakes and glaciers, cliffside bordered valleys, through historically small communities cut off by wilderness from the rest of the country, and the world. This road is called the Carretera Austral. It’s inevitably billed as one of the premier cycle touring routes in South America. Pinochet ordered the road’s construction in the 70s, one of a number of improvements that he introduced to Chile. Paul and I dropped onto this route a few days ago, game to make actual progress south on a dirt road.
Up the road, drop on singletrack to the shortcut bridge and up again back to a road. Finally riding once more a route that someone else researched and recorded, we know what looms ahead. The four to five day jaunt organized as a track through Chile’s Lake District. Turns out the road dirt is more like soft sand, the elevation profile a series of inverted v’s where you power up a short punchy climb only to descend and then do it all over again. Then you reach the volcanoes, where the up down up tapers off until the down doesn’t exist and its all climbing.
Cold. Not bitterly so but boardering that edge where it’s a touch chilly without a wind jacket yet clammily sweaty with it. Earlier, we woke up to a sun that peeked out of the clouds, morning warmth one minute scattered shivering the next. Now the sun’s given up and settled behind a thick overcast sky. This will continue all day. We’re en route to the next scheduled border crossing pass, this one at Volcan Copahue. Some friends attempted this crossing at the beginning of summer, they met snow impenetrable. We’re here 4 or 5 months later, a hint of snow peeks down from the highest peaks but mostly everything is bare now.
There are lines on the map, separated by a gap. These lines go up into the Andes, one approaching from the west, Chile, the other coming from the east, Argentina. All the mountain roads here go east and west. All thoughts of north-south progress remain on the plains outside the mountains. The traffic remains there too, so rather than fight for a place besides cars, we’ll spend some time traversing the range and then connect passes via some other means. First up: Paso Piuquenes to Paso Portillo, from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina.
Santiago – San Gabriel – Paso Piuquenes – Refugio Real de la Cruz – Paso Portillo – Refugio Portinari – Tunuyan – Mendoza.
Valparaiso. They call the city “Little San Francisco” and arriving feels just like stepping off the Caltrain. The ocean comes right up against the city, there’s a thin flat section of artificial land against the water, and then the hills start. Streets slope straight up, residents can either wind their way up any of the staircases or be winched up in trams built into the hills. The actual English word for those is funiculars, but everyone calls them trams. In Spanish, ascensores.
Long ago Valparaiso was Chile’s most important city, due to its port. Anyone making the sea voyage round South America up to North America had to stop in. Chile’s first public library was founded here, and the first volunteer fire department. Valparaiso used to be the place to come to seek out a new life. But then the Panama Canal came along and put the entire city out of business. Valpo fell into decline for decades, slowly becoming cheap enough to live in that artists started to gather. Street art is everywhere now. Graffiti and murals, on walls or sidewalks or the vertical sections of stairways. Now it’s starting to be a place where people want to live again.
Everyone heads out to parties after dark finally falls, around maybe 9:30 or 10 this far south. Then in the morning the city is maybe the quietest city you’ve ever been in. It’s covered in fog off the sea and it’s chilly and it’s a haven for more reasons than one.
Valparaiso’s story: Booming industry city falls to ruin and once it’s decayed enough makers come in and build it back up.
Is this going to be Detroit’s story, too?
Lunch today, coffee and an empanada,
because I was preparing for a day of sitting
on a bus and not really eating anything, just
peanuts, and skittles.
Sitting here instead,
Blue jeans rolled up to thighs, gray worn t-shirt
I’ve been wearing for days.
The empanada came wrapped in butcher paper,
then dropped in a plastic bag.
The bag fogs, immediately,
The empanada microwaved before sale.
21st century convenience, supposedly.
Sometimes I wonder,
Is this wandering and drinking bad coffee some glimpse of Kerouac’s life?
Photo by Lee Vilinsky.
When I was growing up I was told “Go west, young man” and that ended up shaping my life, so far. It still holds true here in Argentina and Chile; a week of going south in Argentina is enough of dusty desert riding and so the bike gets pointed west back towards Chile. There’s a thin road on the maps leading up into the Andes, promising another low traffic dirt pass: Paso Pichachen.
First say goodbye to Lee, traditional cyclist farewell involves two rounds of bakery-bought cake, dulce de leche permeated sweetness. Lee continues south, bound to a tighter deadline for wrapping up his tour. The end of my trip is coming, but there’s still a bit of time left.
Set off solo again, probably for the last time on this journey. A meet-up with Paul is scheduled when he finishes riding in northern Chile and Argentina. But for now it’s just Ace and me on the road, a return to mental contemplation accompanied by legs pumping up and down, over and over. It’s far enough south that the sun comes up early and sets late, and these are the best days to let thoughts swirl however they may.
There was a brief stint of riding in northern Chile. Then there was a jump ahead to go spend the holidays with a friend from home and her family. It’s been a while on the road, and the end looms near. Being able to spend time welcomed and treated as part of a family, incredible. Thank you.
We have alternative extended families in other cyclists, effectively. The cyclist network connects more or less all of us now. So many of us are looking at calendars and it’s been 1 year, 2 years, maybe more that we’ve been on the road. Slowly we meet each other, slowly word gets passed around of who else is nearby or rode through in the past few months. Slowly the network grows. By the time we get to central Chile and Argentina, we all know each other one way or another.