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Monday, February 9, 2015

Just when you think it's safe to get back on the bike

I left O'Higgins early, around 5:30 am, to get to the ferry. Although everyone said that it was a relatively flat ripio road, I never know how it will be for me.  To a bike, everything's a hill.

I arrived at the dock in plenty time. Lots of familiar faces- cyclists, hikers, and backpackers with whom I crossed paths on other occasions over the past week. Together, but not really, we comprise a loosely knit tribe.

We arrived at the other shore in a couple hours and I was surprised and delighted to see Etsuko there. I first met Etsuko during my down day at the Coyhaique, where I stayed to replace my shifter cable.  She is walking, hiking, and taking buses around Chile. You get the sense right away with Etsuko that she is on a Bilbo Baggins-esque journey and that, should you encounter her, you have been placed on her path so that something important can be exchanged, even if you never learn what.
 Etsuko is extraordinarily unique. She walked Japan just to find out things about her own people that you can only know by talking  to them.  For example, the practice of Christianity is somewhat hidden in Japan, masked under the auspice of buddhism.  She wanted to find out about that.  So she walked Japan and talked to people.  She walked the country. And, after going to Mexico on a business trip (I think she was in IT or something high paying job like that) and unable to find authentic Japanese food, she decided to quit her job, move to Mexico, and teach Japanese cooking.  She is compact and purposeful but not in a rigid or forceful way. Rather, she exudes a sense of ease as though she knows that wherever she is at any given moment is exactly where she needs to be on her journey. if you meet her, you know that you have met her because you are part of that journey.  She developed a keen interest in my bike friday and there may be a trip to Eugene, Oregon to get one for herself.  Perhaps my contribution to her path? 

At Villa O'Higgins, a week and a long way from where I first met her, Etsuko just happened to be walking by my hostel as I was going outside for something.  A minute later, I would have missed her. We spent time togther walking the town. She was on her way south by bus the next morning.
On the ferry I was chatting with the young and beautiful backpacking physicians from Austria who were also going south.  I told them about Etsuko and suggested that, if they encounter her, they should take a half hour or so and ask about her journey. And there she was on the dock as the ferry arrived.

After over half of the passengers disembarked on the other side, those of us who were continuing on to the glacier remained. Moving out farther in the lake, the water looked like liquid mercury, in shades of green and blue, in the boat's wake.
 I don't know how water takes on that texture. I have been on plenty boat rides in my life, but I have never known water to look like this. As we approached the glacier, the clouds parted, allowing the sun to paint the glacier in various shades of blue- sapphire blue, popsicle blue, impossible blue.
I understand that glacier ice is blue because the weight of the ice on the crystalline structure changes its molecular properties such that the blue wavelength is excluded, so we see blue. But like many other scientific explanations, understanding the "how" of it does not subtract from the wonder of it, and knowing how tells us nothing about the "why" of it. One of my favorite quotes is from the briliant physicist and devout aethist, Stephen Weinburg, who said, "I must admit that things are more beautiful than is strictly necessary."

We were deposited back on the boat dock around 4:30 pm and, after getting our passports stamped on the Chilean side by a handsome and friendly Sgt. Diaz who was desperate for company in this lonely outpost, we began the 16 km ride to the border, where we would camp for the night before embarking on what is famously the most difficult 7.5 km of the journey. The first 3 kms were sandy and hilly and after the two dramamine tablets I took for the boat ride I simply did not have the strength. Bernardo, the cyclist I met at Rio Nadis, heroically bungeed my bike to his and we pushed together. The rest of the ride to the border was pure mountain biking terrain, technically challenging and a little fun.
We crested a hill near our destination and Fitz Roy came into view. Fitz Roy, named for the captain of the Beagle, the ship that took Darwin on his journey of discovery, is one of the most spectacular mountains in the world. My handsome Spanish companion for the day, Bernardo, was literally moved to tears, having dreamt of seeing this mountain his entire life. We arrived at the border just in time to set up our tents before we lost sunlight, which meant it must have been around 9 or 10 pm.

Rain tapped an incessant drum beat on my tent most of the night and I woke for good around 5 because I knew the toughest part was ahead of me. I noticed a few snowflakes drifting down. Cold. Without rehashing every awful step of it, suffice to say I wanted to set my bike down and not move again. I dragged Friday through trenches, over huge tree roots, across streams, and over very large rocks.  This part is barely hikeable much less rideable. A number of times I had to remove the back panniers, carry them up a hill, and go back for Friday.  At one point I got stuck in deep mud and one shoe was sucked off. I dug elbow-deep in mud for 30 minutes before I found it. Just a little further, the other one came off; however, I recovered it a bit quicker, I arrived at the ferry terminal much earlier than I expected, but covered with mud and scratches on every inch of exposed skin. 

No other way exists to cross from Villa O'Higgins into Argentina to continue to El Chalten and ElCalafate. If you are in a vehicle or on motorcycle you can't get there from here. So every year hikers and cyclists make the impossible trek and write about the hardship in their blogs, journals, and letters. I understand plans are in the making to create a more traversable passage, but something will be lost. The Carretera Austral is not a bike ride to see scenic Chile. For most of us, it becomes a hero's journey, transformative, difficult to the very end. 

On the short ferry ride down to the south end of Laguna del Desierto we passed several glacier-clad mountains. After docking, I got on my bike utterly spent from the morning's difficult trek. Additionally, rather than the paved road I expected, more of the same rough ripio I traversed the preceding 3 weeks was laid before me.  I wasn't sure I would make it the 37 km to El Chalten. Everyone cycling who wasn't already ahead of me passed me eventually.  Most of them, however, had skipped the glacier ride and made that hike the day before, so they were feeling a bit fresher.  Half way to Chalten I stopped at a small restaurant with a campground and seriously considered staying there for the night. After they charged me about $10.00 for a plate of french fries and a cup of coffee, I decided to ride on. 

The road was surprisingly flat and soon I began to feel the strong tailwind people promised and which should serve me well for about 2/3 of the way to Puerto Natales. The other third, when the wind is not my friend, is supposed to be somewhere between difficult and impossible. But this day I was getting a big assist, not even needing to pedal over several stretches. I must have looked a wreck because about halfway there a red car coming toward me slowed way down and stopped as I approached.  The car window rolled down and a pair of man's hands reached out, cupping a mound of beautiful red cherries to give me. Have to admit, I got a little choked up.

I sailed the rest of the way to El Chaltan and was steered toward a great campground by a woman who, with her husband, is cycling for a year with their 4 and 6 year olds.
A week earlier they, too, did that horrific trek, but with the additional challenge of 2 tandem bikes and 2 tiny kids. I was humbled.  The next time I start to complain about how hard it's been, the sight of them cycling out of the campground yesterday will come to mind.

In 5 year's time, the road will be paved and lined with Eco Lodges. Cyclists will flood the carretera austral.  And I will be honored to be in that select group who knows exactly what is meant when asked, "did you make the crossing?"


  1. I think this is my favorite post. Thank you, Alyson.

  2. And the Stephen Weinburg quote is precious, must keep that with me always.

  3. Alyson! You are incredible! We saw you riding today in awful winds in Torres del Paine away from the Lago Grey mirador hike. Did you see us waving from the bus?? I hope the winds, dust, speeding tour buses and washboard treat you as kindly as possible over the next few days. We hemmed and hawed, then looked at the wind forecast for TDPk park and ended up just leaving our bikes in El Calafate, since we have to return in 10 days to fly out of there. We are headed to Punta Arenas soon, do you plan to go that direction? Even before we saw you today, I had been thinking of you often... I am so glad our paths crossed and hope they do again. PS I love your writing and will follow your journey! -amy (and family)