1/2/20 – 1/7/20
The first day was mostly windless and uneventful. I stopped after a hundred kilometers near a small creek and set camp. I could have gone further but I knew it would be my last guaranteed water supply for two days and it made sense to leave in the morning well hydrated and with all of my bottles filled. I had climbed close to a thousand meters. Below I could see Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos. The heat blur rose off the salar as the sun set. The white crusted ground turned to blue and looked like an ocean with volcanoes pushing through. As night comes; the sky bruises, the edge of where the earth meets the heavens blurs, desert grasses turn from gold to silver and then black. There is a fox wandering around camp and we both stop to watch each other for several minutes.
The desert was noticeably less dry than on the altiplano. I would ride through valleys filled with small tufts of sharp green grasses that, although spaced several feet apart, gave the illusion of an endless carpet in the distance. After seventy five kilometers I stopped. The road was beginning to climb toward a high pass and I thought it would be wise to stay low in case of snow. Despite finding a place to camp that was sheltered on three sides, the forty mile per hour winds blowing over the top of the rock wall behind my tent created a vacuum of air currents that seemed to be sucking everything straight up.
The tent shook all night. During other cold sections that I rode alone, I would carry both of our sleeping bags and put one inside of the other. It was surprisingly warm and I slept on top of mine and used Soph’s as a blanket. I hadn’t slept well the previous night because of the altitude, but seemed to be acclimating quickly and thankfully had a better rest. I was on the road by eight the next morning. The winds proved less predictable on this part of the altiplano though. Throughout the Vicuñas and Andinas routes the breezes would make riding miserable around noon but die off around ten in the evening. They always blew from the south and west. On Route 23 in Chile they were constantly changing.
Despite riding against the wind, I enjoyed the emptiness of the day. I would stop to watch shadows rolling across the valleys. Most of the mountains appeared to be covered in snow, but as I got closer I realized it was just the color of the sand and stone near the peaks. After the second climb of the day, all of the vegetation disappears and I descend into a flat valley with steep cones of sand hundreds of feet tall.
The Chilean and Argentinian immigration officials share an office located in a sand patch about fifteen kilometers on the Argentina side of the border. The Argentinians sat dutifully behind their desks. I had to wake the Chilean officer up and wait several minutes as he had yet to turn his computer on at two in the afternoon.
Ten or fifteen kilometers down dirt roads after immigration. Sandy and washboards and headwinds. I was shocked to look at the route later in the day to find out that it had all been downhill as it had been such a struggle. At four I decided to stop. The winds were picking up and I could see a bend in the road ahead that would put me straight into them for at least ten miles. I had the energy to ride for three more hours, but I knew it would be better spent in more amenable conditions. There was a two track leading to a mine and off to the side I found an excavated area that offered some shelter.
It was too early to get any reprieve from the sun though. I could feel my skin burning. I tried staking the tarp from the walls of the hole but it wouldn’t hold. Eventually I gave up and made camp.
The problem with plotting a long course on a phone is that the topo map gets compressed and it is difficult to discern the fine details. I took a closer look at the next day and realized that I would have another thousand meters of climbing over one hundred kilometers of dirt. I was confident that I could find some water at a small town, but I was down to just lentils and trail mix and there would be nowhere for me to get Argentinian Pesos until the end of the day, assuming I could make it to San Antonio. Somehow I had miscalculated the route by a hundred and sixty kilometers and well over a thousand meters of climbing. I was glad I packed a bit of extra food.
My little hole was in a twenty five kilometer wide bowl between the mountains. While cooking dinner I could see storms creeping over the peaks to the south. They didn’t appear to be dropping onto my side, but as the sun set they formed on all of the ridgelines around the bowl. The skies above still clear and blue. Fingers crossed that everything would keep its distance.
I woke up at four thirty to go to the bathroom. It was eerily quiet. I climbed out of my hole to get a look at the mountain silhouettes and noticed that the wind had shifted. Rather than go back to bed I seized the moment, broke camp, and was on the road before six. Morning and evening are the best time to ride. Despite my repeated attempts to explain this to Soph she has yet to become a convert and we rarely move during sunrise or sunset. Once the sun is overhead, everything more or less looks the same all day long, but for the first few hours of the morning, everything is constantly changing. The colors shift from purple to red to yellow and finally blue. The appearance of the road mutates with the sky. Light sweeps across the valley dotted with cumulus shadows.
I ride in and out of shade as I pass behind taller and shorter peaks. Slight climb, but almost imperceptible. Great gash in the mountains ahead. Mineral stained white dirt road. Blinding. Endless washboards and sand. As the little bit of moisture begins to evaporate from the road your nostrils moisten and wake up to the scent of dirt and little desert flowers and leaves reaching out to capture whatever they can before it all vaporizes.
There are few areas that aren’t marred with washboards. Sometimes the road is so bad for so long that you simply acclimate to it and stop looking for the good spots. Eventually you notice that your ass is killing you and there has been a flat patch next door for a quarter mile.
No cars for most of the day. Road becomes gradually steeper until Alto Chorillo, the high pass at forty five hundred meters. From there it is a rough downhill for about thirty clicks to San Antonio de las Cobres. From afar the town looks nice, as you get closer it looks run down, then in the center it looks nice again. Satisfied with a hundred kilometers and a thousand meters of climbing on soft dirt roads I celebrated with a cheap hotel, two plates of pasta, and a liter of a surprisingly delicious Argentinian porter. It was a hundred miles to Salta, mostly downhill. I got to bed early dreaming of gravity and disposing of the longest ride of the trip in just four or five hours.
I didn’t set an alarm and didn’t rush in the morning. The road climbs for thirty kilometers out of town. There was a tail wind and I made great time. As I crossed the highest pass of the day I stopped pedaling and let the bike take whatever pace it wanted. I reached close to seventy kilometers per hour at points and averaged around fifty. I figured I would make it to Salta by lunch time.
Warms as I drop. Vegetation increases. Juxtaposition of saguaro desert cacti on my right and lush jungle river to my left. Fox bolts across the road. Slam on brakes, back tire skids, and we each stop to watch one another with a strange sense of mutual respect. The scent of humus rich soil hits me for the first time in months. On the puna, the only smells are sand, tarmac melting under the sun, and llama shit being burned to heat a house. Insects splatter on my sunglasses.
The wind shifts. I begin to wonder if I will make the entire descent as I drop into my climbing hear and crawl down a 2% decline at less than ten kilometers per hour. Switchbacks require extra attention. Make one turn and you get a speed boost. Around the next bend the crosswind tries to knock you over. As you hit the straight away it is like running into a wall of water as the headwind slams into all of my bags.
I pass an acre or two of willow trees mixed with cacti. Tiramisu striated escarpments. Turn my head to openings in the crag walls and it is like somebody pulls a red velvet cloth off an Ansel Adams photo. Five shades of red black orange yellow white and grey stone on one imposing stretch of rock.
A man takes my picture and tells me the wind will go away as the canyon narrows. Didn't have the heart to tell him it would only get worse. In Latin America, hope and kindness are the most valuable currencies. If somebody hands you twenty dollars in the states, you take it, no questions asked, because you know you can do something with it. I don't know what people do with all the hope they freely pass around in the face of rationality, but I have learned that it is best to simply stick in my pocket, give thanks, and know that I will soon be hit in the face by a June bug turbocharged by convection currents to a velocity of fifty miles an hour.
At some point I decided to test the wind by turning around to see if it would push me uphill. It did. It was easier than riding down. I turn a corner and I’m faced with black storm clouds. Around another and everything ahead is blue.
Thought about stopping to camp in hopes that the next day would be better but I was low on water. There was a small river in the canyon but I guessed it was contaminated due to the old mine rails running next to the road. Even if it was safe, it was so silty that it would have clogged the filter before I could have gotten anything useful. I considered pre-filtering with my shirt, but it hadn't been washed in six days.
I arrived in Campo Quijano late in the afternoon. On my way out of town after eating lunch I bumped into another cyclist. His name was Emmanuel. He was from Buenos Aires and he was on his first day of a month long trip. He would more or less be tracing my route back to San Pedro in Chile. His bike was noticeably overloaded and he looked tired. We chatted for a few and decided to both stay in town. The campground was expensive. For just a few dollars more I decided to treat him to a hotel room for his first day on the road. He cooked dinner in return. I noticed that he was carrying a spatula. It made me wonder what other strange things might be on his bike, but I kept my curiosity to myself. At some point I offered him a beer. He then informed me he was Mormon. After three years in Utah I thought I had a good sense for Mormons, but he was a different sort. He cussed, he drank tea, and he had a beard.
I didn’t have far to ride so I made no effort to wake up early in the morning. Emmanuel was sore from his first day and seemed to be dragging his bike reluctantly toward the gate.
“This thing is so heavy.”
“I would imagine that a man that carries a spatula on a bike tour has a lot of useless and heavy things.”
He laughed in agreement.
“Alright look,” I said, “I’ve been at this for almost two years and one: I’m dying to know what the hell is in all those bags, and two: I’m happy to give you the shakedown to drop some weight.”
His route was a loop and he would be coming back through Campo Quijano on the way out. The hotel owner agreed to let him leave some gear to be retrieved when he came back. We spent close to two hours pulling all of his bags apart. He had spare lights, wires, cooking pans, a half kilo of sugar, a surge protector, multiple bars of soap, laundry detergent, dish detergent, shampoo and conditioner (he was bald except for the beard), a full set of cutlery, piles of safety pins, rolls of tape, two wine keys.
“You’re a Mormon what the hell do you have a wine key for?”
Extra shirts and socks, screws, jackets, industrial zip ties, wrenches, a cheese grater, two large pocket knives, a liter of olive oil.
"I am Italian, I will not leave my cooking oil!"
“Soy Italiano en mi Corazon!”
"Just take a little less and buy what you need from restaurants to top off."
"Chileans eat shit oil."
"Ok then, the oil stays."
He left two bags, each the size of one of my rear panniers. Probably close to thirty pounds. He thanked me, I wished him luck, we hugged and said goodbye.
After riding through some upscale suburbs and eating nine empañadas for lunch, I found myself on the scrappy outskirts of Salta. Dirt roads and GPS leading to dead end garbage dumps. Dirty dogs nipping at heels, friendly folks waving. Horribly unaware drivers. Gets better near downtown, then worse. Then better. Shaving cream smell outside barber shops. Old wrinkled men waving “hola” and “ciao.” So much green. Puddles. PUDDLES! There is water left over from rain for the first time in months. People with blonde hair. People as tall as me. So many strange and new things.
Like what we're doing here? Throw us some bread. It keeps tires on the bikes and food in our bellies! Better yet, share us on social media or send a link to a friend with a message that says something like "Hey, I consider you a person of refined taste and culture and think that you would enjoy this."
I am still enjoying your writing just as much.I’m guessing that as Sophie reads this she may not be regret her decision!
I laughed out loud at the cyclist who still goes to the bathroom in the desert….