12/7/19 – 12/10/19
“We could have been over this hill if you hadn't been clipping your toenails this morning."
“Maybe we should shut up and listen to the harmonica”
“Maybe you should ask Bruce Springsteen to ride my bike”
“Bruce drives a beat up Chevy, but he would offer you a lift and a beer if you're ok with sitting in the bed because his dog gets shot gun."
For the Ruta de las Vicuñas, I had decided to listen to every Bruce Springsteen album chronologically. One can’t truly comprehend America from knowing just one place. Springsteen is not dissimilar. You have to dig into all the parts nobody talks about. Away from the national parks. Away from the hit records. Skip the cities and the Superbowl performances. Each record has a sad song about a woman named Mary. Every country an empty dirt road and winds blowing dust in your eyes. Politicians from both sides want to claim them as their own.
He is every American. The bible thumper, the atheist, the kid with root beer float on his face, the white collar exec preaching family values while cheating on his wife, the punk rocker waving a finger in the air; and most of all, the salt of the earth factory worker turning screws, saluting the flag, and struggling to save enough to buy his boy his first genuine leather baseball glove.
The Ghost of Old Tom Joad in my earbuds as we ride past empty villages with phantasm like dust devils twisting down empty streets. He drains his lungs on every line of Born to Run as mine burn climbing the last hill of the day. He strains his vocal cords with a certain degree of insouciance, the same way we approach a hundred kilometers of dirt against the wind.
America will continue to evolve into a more urban society; one which views its old white unemployed blue collared workers as subhuman shit bags desirous of a world in which all problems can be solved with a can of gas and the pinch of an ass. Bruce helps us remember that old factory man in the last falling apart house on a forgotten concrete road returned to dust who sits on the porch with a shotgun wondering if today is the day.
After a thousand meter burlfest over twenty kilometers we reached the moonlike altiplano with the twenty thousand foot snow covered Pomerape and Parinacota volcanoes in the backdrop. The wind kicked up from behind in a way we hadn’t felt in months as we hit a gradual downhill stretch. We white knuckled it at close to fifty kilometers an hour to a Caribineros station where we were offered a place to sleep as well as dinner. We declined in favor of laying a few more tracks down but were not allowed to leave without accepting tea and alpaca soup. As the sun hid behind the mountains I realized the next few weeks of high altitude riding would be punctuated by frigid nights. We arrived at Lago Chungará and I noticed two sets of tires trailing off the road and into the dirt.
"I bet that's Joe and Louise."
"They had two point four inch WTB Riddler tires."
“So look at the tread pattern in the sand.”
"You need to get a life."
Joe and Louise were the two English cyclists we’d met at the hostel in Putre. They had a novel strategy of taking busses and cherry picking the best sections of riding. This allowed them the energy to carry bottles of wine and a satchel of tools that would probably never come in handy but would make them feel an incredible sense of forethought should the need for one ever arise. We cooked dinner in the sand just above the banks of the mirror still lake beneath Parinacota. As the sun set, the skies turned a pale yellow and the volcano took the color of a moderately priced Chilean Pinot Noir.
The steam rose from the puddle of piss in front of me. It was two in the morning. Full moon and snowcapped peak perfectly lit. I tried to take a sip from my water bottle before going back to bed, but it was frozen solid. I lay awake as small tremors quivered through the ground below us. Birds splashed and laughed in the lake nearby. I was wearing all of my clothes. Four pairs of socks, thermal underwear and pants, two wool sweaters over a t-shirt, hood covering my ears, wool buff around my neck, and two pairs of gloves. Mostly warm except for my face. I would occasionally pull the buff over my nose until I started to suffocate, at which point I would take it off until it got cold again. Eyeballs are the biggest problem. The lids don’t offer much insulation and the cornea and the intraocular fluid behind it occasionally feel like they’re freezing to the back of the lid. It’s a bit like a tongue stuck to an ice cube. I would wake up every thirty minutes or so just to blink and keep things lubricated.
After breakfast, Joe and Louise turned back toward the coast and we headed for A-95. We hit the dirt, deflated the tires, and began grinding through sand and washboards. Despite the tail wind, we were in our lowest gears. We came across a small stone building with a pipe leading into the back from a nearby hot spring. US capitalism could not allow such a place to exist without with an old woman in a hair net shoveling fries and pouring scolding water into a styrofoam cup over a strange sugary powder resulting in a vanilla latte with an astonishingly accurate replication of steamed froth. There is a handwritten sign asking everyone to clean up after themselves and to enjoy the place. We soaked and ate lunch. A truck with a couple of Carabineros drove by and asked if we needed anything.
The next thirty kilometers consisted of forty mile an hour headwinds, sand, and gradual climbs. We passed through Guallatire hoping to get a snack. The whole town was drunk, including the police whom I asked for water. A fallen over drum set sat in the middle of the miniature plaza facing a melting sandstone mission church. The ground littered with glass shards from broken bottles of lager. There was no reason for this place to exist anymore. All the kids had moved out. They never called and they weren’t coming back. It was drinking itself to death and would be dust within the decade.
Soph yells out to me just after leaving town. Her water bladder wasn't secured well and fell off her rack and got ripped open by her tire. We salvaged most of it and were still close to town if we needed more, but the bladder was integral to our filtration system. I hoped that we could patch it later.
We found a camping spot five kilometers later. Down an obscure dirt road. Sandy patch by a river with alpacas, vicuñas, and sheep grazing. Still some daylight, but near freezing in the shadows of the small cliff we're hidden behind. Hold toes under the still warm sand while eating for warmth. Numb fingers from washing dishes in the river. In bed by eight.
Slogging through sand and calaminas (washboards). We’d read about a shack along the way that sometimes had food. It was run by an old woman. All of her supplies came from the city, several hundred kilometers away. Sometimes she would run out of food earlier than expected, but didn’t really feel like going to town, so the place would be closed for a few days. We bought some cherki (jerky) and continued climbing the calaminas into the wind. After a kilometer I realized I’d forgotten my bottle and had to turn around to retrieve it.
The end goal for the day was Termas Polloquere, on the southern edge of the Salar de Surire. The salt flat is a national monument, although this does not inhibit mining activity. It is vast enough and the wind is constantly moving thick clouds of saline dust across its surface that you can’t see the machinery anyhow so it still has all the charm or a barren hellscape upon which not even the lowliest of protozoa. Thirty kilometers from the thermal pools, on the northern side, we stopped at a Caribineros station for water. A couple dozen of them live on site for two weeks at a time. They then have three days off. Most of them seem to live in the southern region of the country, so the majority of their time off is spent traveling to see their families for just a day before turning around again to return to the frontier. They take turns cooking and cleaning. The man who greeted us was wearing a red apron with a family of four and a dog embroidered on it over his green national police uniform. His gun had been removed from the holster and in its place was a bottle of mustard. He had a spatula, which he gesticulated with and pointed to several areas around the salar which we would pass.
Most of the altiplano in this area rests near four thousand three hundred meters above sea level. This is higher than all but fifty four of North America’s tallest peaks. Almost every peak we can see is in excess of five thousand meters. Only eleven mountains reach this height in the North.
Miles wide flat area with turquoise steaming pools. Setup and camp and cook in gale force winds. They die as we finish eating and we dip in the thermals just as the sun sets. Soak until I feel like I will pass out. First night in a few days that I go to sleep with warm feet. Stay warm all night even as the condensation of our breath and the steam from the springs covered every side of our tent in a thick frost.
Wake up to herds of Vicuñuas running nearby. Jump straight into the thermals. My underwear, which I washed the night before, hung frozen from my handlebars. Sun rising through the steam. Pink flamingos bathing with us. Dried off and sat in the loan shady spot watching spires of steam. Birds sit on mossy limestone in the little pillars of warmth. We don’t want to rush, but we know the wind will be picking up.
We left the salar behind. All we saw was sand for the rest of the morning with the occasional abandoned village. The people that lived in these towns must have been tiny. The doors are no more than four feet tall in most cases.
Afternoon winds come as we top out and take lunch. Hide behind a rock to eat cheese and tuna and crackers. I try to get a small nap in, but a giant gust blows my hat away. We get moving onto the downhill. As we bottom out we get hit hard with a crosswind. A quick stop to filter water. Alpaca shit all around the little stream. Leaches. Tiny organisms swimming around the bladder before filtering. It looks like piss in my bottle. Tastes very earthy.
Stop at a creepy almost abandoned village. Colored glass shards all over. A goat leg. I have a look in a few of the old dwellings. They seem as if they’ve had several squatters. Beer bottles, chairs, mattresses. I can see through a crack in the door of a locked hut and there are cases of unopened beer and dozens of well-sealed boxes. One newer building has another goat leg. The church seemed recently used. It was eerie. It was five o’clock though and five o’clock is when Soph hits the wall, regardless of time zone. She wanted to put the tent up, but I refused.
We rode two kilometers more to a slightly smaller and slightly less disturbing abandoned village. There were still broken bottles, and another goat leg, but it seemed less visited. Most of the building roofs had collapsed, so they were less attractive to squatters. The wind was still gusting and it was almost impossible to set the tent up.
You can only do one very specific task at a time when the wind is like this because as soon as you shift your focus it will blow whatever you’re doing away. Every slice of an onion has to be put into my little tin before I can make the next cut. While doing this the knife and cutting board need to be weighed down. You have to be careful when pouring boiling water into the thermos for tea after dinner because it will spill all over the ground. Somebody has to lay across the tent while the other person puts the stakes in, which have to have rocks stacked on them or they will pull away. You’re always yelling because you can’t hear anything. Bikes get knocked over. Bites of food blow off your spoon before you can eat them. There is dust on everything. It just chips away at your sanity. Physically during the day, then mentally in the evening when you just want to relax. The cold doesn’t help either. We're in the tent by eight
Just after dark several cars speed by. We're not far from the road. We'd only seen two cars all day. These felt like a convoy. We were on a known smuggling route. I wished we'd kept riding to find a more hidden spot. Sometimes after all that wind and cold and fatigue, you stop thinking straight. Occasionally the blasting subsides and I think I hear a car in the distance. It turns out to be a thirty mile per hour gust racing across the plains. It hits the tent like a truck and we hold onto the mattress with both hands fearing that the whole tent will be lifted from the ground. All night long it sounds like we're in a paper bag. Tent poles creaking. Everything flexing and flapping. Silhouettes dancing on tent walls as they dance in the breeze under the full moon causing a constant paranoia of somebody shining a light on us.
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