3/17/20 – 3/21/20
All day gravel. We didn’t feel like riding, but we didn’t feel like staying in Futaleufú. It was overpriced and the uncertainty was causing the Europeans in the hostels to smoke at an uncontrollable rate. Tried to thumb it as trucks passed, but no luck. Road was much better than expected though. Eventually decided to camp outside a small settlement. We washed our things by the river, but decided to look for a nicer area for the tent. Soph saw that one of her bags was loose as we rode off. After picking a place for the night, she noticed it was gone. We retraced our steps, but could not find it. I asked an old woman if she had seen it. She suspiciously said no.
"What was in it?"
"No, I haven't seen it. I haven't left the property, so it could not have been me. Goodbye."
I had a feeling she took it. There wasn’t much I could do though, so we accepted its disappearance, made camp, and slept.
We'd been in the Patagonia region for over a month, but we were just getting into Patagonia the postcard. Glacial rivers and lakes so clear that you can see sunken trees fifty feet down. The smell of wet dirt, cold silent nights, and those sharp, ashen, hard igneous walls; sparkling with their crystalline quartz through pines and moss.
We reach Santa Lucia. Still recovering from a landslide that destroyed half the town a few years before, but that can't interrupt prepping for winter and compiling enormous mountains of firewood larger than their homes. The small hamlet didn’t have cell service, but did have public wifi. We checked in with the world briefly to see that Chile was starting to close down. I chatted with a tour driver passing through who told me that his was the last bus for an indefinite period. We had several messages from friends we’d met along the way; they were all getting out.
We were at the intersection of the Carretera Austral, the jewel in the crown of the whole trip. We didn’t know what else to do, so we kept riding.
“I think I’m ready to go home.”
“Let’s get to La Junta. We can figure it out from there.”
The road was completely empty; uncharacteristic for the time of year. We’d read that transportation within the country might shut down soon. Every time we had connectivity and read the news, it seemed like we needed to leave. After an hour of riding, I always felt like it would be better to stay. I knew Soph had mentally checked out. She was riding as hard as I’d ever seen. My knee was a bit sore from several consecutive days on rough dirt roads and I had a hard time keeping up.
We stick our thumbs out every time a car passes. A businessman driving a Jaguar stops to see if we need help, but his trunk was completely full. A massive green military looking vehicle with a thirty foot container on the back pulls in. A plump little man in pressed plaid tucked neatly into equally pristine denim pants plops out and opens the back gate to an empty load. There was no good way to secure the bikes, so I stayed in back with them. It was a steel box with an open top. All I could see was blue sky with the occasional treetop. I tried doing some stretches for my knee, but at eighty kilometers per hour around a curve I fell over and rolled across the floor into the wall. After that I sat next to the bikes and watched the tree tops.
Looking at my broken spokes and duct taped bags, hubs with trashed bearings, all the rust, scratches, dents, and of course my broken knee. I knew there was a good chance that it would all end in a few days.
He dropped us in La Junta. We found a hostel. The owner dumped hand sanitizer all over us and checked us in. Coyhaique was the closest town with an airport. It was three hundred fifty kilometers away and big enough that it would be well supplied if we got stuck.
The Carretera Austral is more or less a one thousand kilometer dead end road to the bottom of Chile. There was no way back to the northern part of the country without taking a ferry or plane. Rumor was that the ferry had stopped. It felt like the walls were closing in around us.
The locals were starting to give the impression that we weren’t welcome. I stood outside a shop while Soph bought groceries. A man approached me and spoke in English.
“Where you from?”
“United States,” I said with a smile. I was expecting that he wanted to practice his English, like so many other people had before.
“You need to leave our country.”
“We don’t want foreigners here right now. We don’t have many cases of the virus and we want to keep it that way.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Go back to your own country,” he added, and walked away.
We were up the next day at four thirty. Peaceful ride through town. Orange glow of streetlights with droplets of mist in the air and mountain silhouettes. We ride one kilometer and stop in front of a little house that doubles as a bus stop. After pulling our bags and front wheels off, a man tosses our bikes into the luggage compartment. I would usually watch this process carefully to make sure nothing gets damaged, but today I don't care.
Throughout the whole trip, I'd thought about the last day, last kilometer, and last moment countless times. At first I imagined blue skies and a brisk south pacific autumn chill in the air. Arm hairs standing up with little droplets of water forming on them. We'd probably skip taking a picture in front of the Ushuaia sign because we’d heard there is usually a line of tourists and after two years of cycling that wouldn't seem like the memory I wanted to have from that day. As it became clear that we would get in later than expected, I envisioned riding with all my layers of clothing on through a gentle snow. There is no winter wind in the south, so it would feel like a quiet day, just cold. There would be no tourists in Ushuaia, so we could take the photo. We might find a bar and have a cup of tea and a beer.
After Ushuaia, we’d planned on taking some time apart to decompress before flying home, wherever that was. Soph was thinking of spending a month in either Arequipa or San Cristobal de las Casas. A week before, I’d arranged to work with an organization on the border of Colombia and Venezuela helping migrants. We had seen so many of them walking along the roads in the north and had been helped in so many ways by others that it just seemed like the right thing to do. Colombia had shut its borders in the previous week. Anyone not out of Venezuela would probably be there for a very long time. Their economy would be hit harder than any others in the region because of its complete reliance on oil, the price of which had just collapsed.
The bus was cold. My toes were numb, but my socks were in my bags inside the luggage compartment. I bounced in my seat on the dirt roads and thought about how much more comfortable it would be on a bike. The world was shutting down. The Carretera Austral was blockaded six hundred kilometers to the south, Argentina was not letting anyone in, locals were telling us to leave, store shelves getting bare, and hostels refusing to accept foreigners. Any businesses willing to take our money were opportunistically adding on a twenty percent pandemic tax to the already exorbitant Patagonia prices. We'd watched the news as other countries began closing borders. Argentina was reportedly arresting foreigners in the streets and deporting them. Chile, with a history of heavy handedness; was starting to feel less welcoming. The US State Department had issued a statement for anyone abroad to come home or be prepared to stay in place indefinitely. We’d booked a flight to Vegas the night before. I told myself that we had twenty four hours to cancel it, so it wasn't certain, but I knew somewhere in my head that it was over.
We would be back in Southern Utah, a place that we never really felt a part of, but at least with our pets and some good friends. Still, the US was the last place I wanted to be. Americans, for all of their self-ascribed exceptionalism, bravery, intelligence, sticktuitiveness, and gumption, are a mob of toilet paper hoarding savages in a crisis. The Chilean government had just released a detailed plan of how they would operate through the pandemic. It stressed that there would be no food shortages and that people should not worry. The streets were quiet in Coyhaique, but there didn’t appear to be a panic. Conversely, the good people of my own country were doing their usual end of the world fire drill. This involved clearing out supermarkets, hoarding ammunition and explosives, and repeatedly posting on social media about how surreal it all was with the occasional photo of a cat wearing socks mixed in.
We sat on the bus planning the logistics of our escape. Procure bike boxes, get Soph’s pedals removed because they'd seized, buy an antihistamine for my allergies so I wasn't mistakenly detained. Out the window, as the sun came up, was all the lush green and misty grey of Patagonia. I promised myself that one day I would be back.
March twenty first was spent constructing two remarkably sturdy blue bike boxes out of some corrugated plastic that we managed to pilfer from a big box home improvement store. Every bike shop in town laughed as soon as we walked in and said “No tenemos cajas.” (we don’t have boxes). Apparently a Swiss couple got the last two. We spent a couple of hours wandering every place that sold TV’s, refrigerators, and anything else that came in a large box hoping we could cobble some together, but it was futile. As we were leaving the hardware store we crossed paths with a guard walking into the shipping and receiving area. We gave him the sob story and he took us to the back and showed us an impressive machine into which they put all of their scrap cardboard and immediately turned it into perfect cubes which could then be sold for next to nothing. We noticed some large plastic bins which were used for recycling. In a strange act of industrial cannibalism, a few of them had been broken down to be recycled. We asked the manager if we could have them. She reluctantly agreed on the terms that we did not tell anyone she gave them to us. As we were dragging them into the parking lot another cyclist rolled up.
“Whoa dude, where’d you get that.”
“Around the back from the guards, you didn’t hear it from us.”
I ran inside to buy two rolls of duct tape, some zip ties, and a razor blade. A small flatbed drove by as I walked out. I made eye contact with the driver, flagged him down, and explained our plight.
“Yo tengo espacio.”
We threw everything in the back and he drove us to our place.
I spent Friday building boxes. The material was incredibly rigid and several of the panels were held together by glue and large plastic rivets which I had to cut off. I broke several blades and by the end of the day the palm of my hand was bruised from pushing on the handle of the razor hundreds of times to pierce the material.
I was listening to Tom Petty’s Wildflowers album, because that is what I listen to whenever I’m packing my bags and knowing that things are about to change. It wasn’t until I took the five millimeter allen wrench from my multi-tool and placed it into the clamp of my seat post that things hit me. In a funny moment of divine synchronization the song on my little speaker was ‘Time to move on.’
It’s time to move on
It’s time to get goin’
What lies ahead I have no way of knowing
But under my feet baby, the grass is growin’
It’s time to move on
It’s time to get goin’
I stopped and looked at my bike. Broken spokes, rust, scratches, dents. My leather saddle, which had aged from a golden light brown to almost black…. all of its rigidity lost and looking like it would collapse under my weight. My front fender had broken off. The rear dropouts were crooked and the shifting would no longer hold a tune. The sidewalls of the tires were cracking form all of the sun, although the treads had plenty of life. The rear bearings were clicking again. The brake cable housing; worn bare in a few spots from rubbing and rattling against the frame, the steel coil exposed and rusting. Most of the logo stickers were now illegible. Duct tape patched panniers. Frame bag straps holding on by threads. Bungee cords ready to snap at any point. My body didn’t feel much different. But I knew both could finish the journey if given the chance.
I turned the screw, lowered the seat, and removed the handlebars and the fork…. The screws stuck a bit from the corrosion but broke free. I remembered how smoothly they had turned when I’d packed it almost two years before. I thought about putting everything together in our yurt in Homer with my grandma watching. I didn’t think about anything in between the first day and that moment. I imagined some of the road ahead filled with glacial lakes, inlets, the dark metamorphic rock overlaying the light granite spires of Torres del Paine. The inevitable days of riding through snow. The tranquility of winter. All of these thoughts stopped abruptly. I set myself to finish breaking things down and packing.
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