12/18/19 – 12/23/19
I spent the first half of our day off in search of a spoke. I knew I wouldn’t find one, but figured I should look. Ollague is a strange place. People aren’t very helpful. In many places, when somebody points you to a random building you know that they really hope that it has what you need. In Ollague they seem a bit more as if they are just trying to pass you on. The municipal yard sent me to the train station, the train station sent me to the guy who sold car parts and wire out of his garage, that guy sent me to the mini market to find Estaban. Estaban wasn’t there. I gave up. I wandered across the train tracks and scoped out a few bits of wire on the ground that I thought might have some utility and went back to the hotel.
The second half of the day was spent McGyvering a repair for my wheel. With a combination of knots (two fisherman’s, an overhand, and a modified trucker’s knot), I was able to construct a block and tackle which would allow me to apply tension similar to what a spoke would put on it.
I was quite satisfied with this success and went straight into repairing my water bottle, which had sprung a leak near the valve. I made quick work of this.
The only thing left to do was pump the tire up. Not feeling like spending ten minutes with my little hand pump I decided that somebody must have a better pump in town. Back to the municipal yard, back to the train station, back to the man’s garage, back to the mini market. The woman behind the counter said Estaban was at the municipal yard and to come back later. I bought some apples and bananas for breakfast. Estaban appeared as I was leaving. I told him I needed air. He said to meet him around back.
He pulled a compressor out and got to work. I told him I wanted sixty five pounds in each tire. He pointed at the gauge.
“Si, quiero 65.”
“Pero hay 25.”
“Si, quiero 65.”
I couldn’t figure out who was missing what. This went on and on. Every five pounds he would pull the pump from the valve and tell me how much air was in it and I would tell him to put more in and we’d argue and then he’d eventually do it. Finally they were both full. As he was replacing the cap on the front tire his sheep grabbed my bag and tore the bananas from it. I yelled and tried to stop them, but it was too late. I turned to Estaban and thanked him.
“Si, 500 cada uno.”
“Que piensas soy, una bolsita de oro?” (What do you think I am, a little bag of gold?)
I gave him the money and asked if he could get me two more bananas. He told me to go up front and buy them.
“Pero tus animales los comieron!”
He didn’t care. He coiled his hose and walked away.
We left Ollague on the morning of the nineteenth. It was cold. You always warm up a bit as you ride, but my fingers and toes were numb within thirty minutes and stayed that way for hours. The right foot is usually worse. This is because my frame bag tends to cast a shadow from the easterly morning sun. We made good time for seventy kilometers against a slight headwind and gradual climb. The road cut through chocolate layer cake sandstone striations and around dry salt flat valleys.
The last fifty kilometers of the day would be downhill and we were trying to make the high pass before the afternoon winds hit. They came just two kilometers from the top and we struggled to make it to a small rail station called Ascótan. We stopped for lunch and asked the Caribineros for a bit of water. They didn’t have much to share. We pushed on. Our original plan was to make the full one hundred twenty kilometers to Estacion San Pedro. Soph was having second thoughts with the wind. We didn’t have much water, so I wanted to push for it rather than have to ration through the night.
The next ten kilometers would have been magic in windless conditions. Instead, it was heads down and legs burning as we struggled to keep the bikes upright on a two percent downhill grade. We averaged about eight kilometers per hour. We argued a bit about stopping. There was no shelter and I would have preferred riding against the wind for three more hours over sitting on a patch of sand getting battered by it. We passed a small collapsed railway building and decided to call it.
Eight am departure to try to beat the wind. Eighty kilometers to Chiu Chiu. Start with all the clothing layers. Slowly peel them off as the sun rises. We passed through Estacion San Pedro and I took a look at the turn that I’d hoped to take through an alley of volcanoes. It was a sandy dirt road heading east. It would eventually cut south into one of the most remote parts of Chile. The previous day’s wind had chipped away at Soph’s resolve though and despite my attempts to persuade her, she put her foot down to stick to the road more travelled.
Roll into town just as the wind hits. Wander the streets and stop by the oldest church in Chile. A group of fifteen men of various ages from a drug rehabilitation program take interest in us and we chat. I noticed an Asian guy with muscular legs and raccoon tan lines from sunglasses sitting nearby and assumed he was a cyclist.
We got some snacks at a little shop and sat to eat. An eastern European fellow on an overloaded bike pulled in. We chatted. He was on his first day of a month long tour. He wasn’t used to the weight of his bike yet and each time he tried to lean it against a wooden post it would fall over.
"3 liters should be good for 100 kilometers right?"
He said it in a way that was less of a question and a bit more of a display of his knowledge of the average rate of perspiration for a Slovakian in the Atacama Desert. I don't like giving advice to cyclists when unsolicited. He seemed in shape and had toured before, so I assumed he would figure it out. There was sufficient traffic between Chiu Chiu and Ollague so the odds of death seemed low. He would cross into Bolivia after that and I wouldn’t have anything useful to tell him anyhow.
Met two French cyclists, Serg and Patrick. Older guys on a three week spin. Wandered town together looking for a hotel. They gave us a bit of beta on the route ahead towards the Tatio Geysers.
“The road is nice, until it gets bad.”
We had breakfast with them the next day, take a few pics, give emphatic handshakes with both hands, and ride off. They take a few shots of us as we turn the corner. Road starts out flat and gradually becomes steeper, but never too steep. A few cars pass, but just a few. Cross over a bridge with a stationary river that is mostly filled with algae. Along the road is a water pipe with occasional pump stations and large concrete boxes that are filled with stagnant water but I take note that they would suffice if need be.
It is a thirteen kilometer detour to get into Caspana. This included several hundred meters of descent and then climbing back out as it was in a valley. Rather than kill an hour and several hundred precious calories doing this, we decided to try flagging down some cars to see if they would gift us enough water to get through the night. One stopped and told us that there would be a small house up ahead that sold a few things and had plenty of water.
Just around the bend we pulled in. A young boy and a teenage girl were kicking a ball. They smiled and waved us in. The house was built out of concrete with green wine bottles as blocks. This filled each room with a beautiful hazy glow. The woman had fresh goat cheese, goat jerky, and day old bread for sale. One of the daughters said that if we were hungry they could kill a chicken for us. They had an unlimited supply of water from a nearby spring and filled all of our bottles.
We talked for close to an hour. I wanted to keep moving though. I wanted to get as close to the Tatio Geysers as we could in hopes that we could reach them for sunrise with a 4 am start the next day.
We came across an abandoned home. There were a handful of buildings nearby and we checked them all out. Down a small path I found a stone structure about twenty five feet in diameter and maybe four feet tall. We parked the bikes and sat sheltered from the wind.
Soph went to bed and I stayed out on my own for an hour or two to take in the desert silence. It was peaceful. It made me wish that every night could be so calm. One of those endless sunsets. The wind died early and somehow it stayed warm. The desert can support life, just not much. There is one humming bird, one mouse, one finch, and a few insects crawling around. They each have their own calls and their own footsteps. One by one the stars come out. One by one the towns in the distance turn their street lights on. It was the first time in a few weeks that we could see signs of civilization in the distance.
We rode most of the remaining thirty five kilometers to the geysers separate. Soph left first and I sat back at camp reading and absorbing the morning sun. Just before the entrance to the thermal field there are two small stone buildings. An industrious Chilean has piped warm water from a nearby spring to constantly flow through a bathtub in each of the structures. We plugged the tubs to fill them, and spent a few hours reading and relaxing. One of the buildings had just enough floor space for our sleeping pad, so we skipped setting the tent up. The thermal water flowing through the tub kept us warm all night.
We were up at five the next morning to catch the geysers around sunrise. After that we rolled eighty kilometers down a pothole ridden dirt road to San Pedro de Atacama where we would take ten days off of Christmas and the New Year. Miraculously, my paracord spoke held out the whole way.
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