3/14_20 – 3/16/20
We awoke in El Bolsón on the fourteenth of March. It was cold and made me nervous for the coming weeks. Peaks, not too tall, yet covered in snow from an overnight storm. The sun crept over them, hit the grass, vaporizing the dew to shroud us in a cool damp haze.
The problem with my knee had ultimately been overuse. I was trying to be as mindful as possible of my riding technique in order to be more efficient. I focused on pulling more on the upstrokes, tucking for the downhills without pedaling, staying low against the wind, and stopping to stretch every hour or so. Rather than pushing hard through the uphill sections just to wait for Soph at the top I would gear down and up the cadence to about ninety RPMs. All of this combined with an abundance of icy cold rivers and lakes to soak it in, sometimes several times a day, and it didn’t seem to be bothering me much.
We passed through Villa Blanco in the Cholila Valley, where in 1901, Robert Leroy Parker and Harry Longabaugh, famously known as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, had settled. They used the money they had earned robbing the First National Bank in Nevada to buy a cabin and some cattle. A few years later they came out of retirement and were gunned down after holding up a mining company in Bolivia. The cabin still stands and there is a small museum nearby. There were less than a dozen people in town. We made camp inside a small unfenced pasture along a river.
Ruta 40 takes a wide turn to the East near Villa Blanco. It is shorter and more scenic to take Ruta 71 through Parque Naciónal los Aleces. We awoke to an icy dew that morning. Everything is slow and difficult when it is cold and wet. You put all your layers on before you get out of the tent. Any task requiring fingers, such as lighting the stove, also requires the removal of gloves. Fingers and toes don’t seem to warm up as easily as they go numb, and this would often be the case by the time we were ready to ride.
We had been going in and out of cell phone coverage every couple of days. This meant that we would get news of the advancement of Covid-19 in batches. As we neared the park, somebody stopped to tell us that it was closed except to transit, so we would have to ride through without camping. The previous day we had been stopped by the National Police.
“Documentos por favor.”
We handed them our passports.
“Hay un problema?” Soph asked.
“Es porque el virus?” I added.
They were checking to make sure we hadn’t recently entered the country from an area deemed to be high risk. They told us that if we had, then there was a “protocol” for how to handle the situation.
At the entry to the park, the rangers stressed that we could not pass the night inside. We said this would not be a problem. It turned out to be a problem. The road was dirt and of poor quality. As it got dark and we realized we would not get out that night, we slipped through a barricade over the road to a campground and found a hidden spot on Lake Futalaufquen. It was peaceful, and I tried not to think about it much, but I knew things were becoming serious in the world.
We arrived in Trevelin the next morning. We’d planned to take a day off, but a woman told us the Chilean border would close the following day. As we ate breakfast, two more patrol cars stopped to check our papers again. We decided to make a push for it. The last thirty kilometers were trash ripio with a full on head wind. Feeling a sense of urgency we put the thumbs out to every truck that passed. Like in other countries, it is usually the well-dressed that pass you by. An old leather neck with wavy gray hair, dusty cargo pants held up by a leather strap and brass buckle with a bull’s head on it named Jorge picked us up in battered blue Chevy.
“Creo que la frontera esta cerrado.” (I believe the border is closed.)
“Pues, espero que esta abierto.” (well, I hope it’s open.)
We made as if we would shake hands, but then both agreed with a bit of a nod that human contact would not be in order with the prevailing zeitgeist.
Chile has strict rules against bringing in fresh food, so we mauled the two day’s worth of ham, cheese, and apples we’d bought earlier in the day. I had terrible allergies. My eyes and nose were dripping constantly. The border patrol agents handed us special papers asking if we had been in contact with anyone known to have corona virus or if we had exhibited any symptoms. I kept my head down to hide my red scleras. Everyone working was wearing face masks and there were posters on the walls warning of the pandemic.
We made it in without a problem. Jorge dropped us in Futaleufú. The border would close the next day, but we had close to a thousand kilometers of riding to do in Chile, most of it on the iconic Carretera Austral.
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