21 April, 1999
Family and Friends!
This is the final dispatch from Kent and Ann's trip detailing the ride from Santiago, Chile to the end.
Hopefully it won't be too difficult to follow along as we cross the Chilean/Argentine border numerous times! For those of you with maps, we left Santiago, rode south to Concepción and Lota, to Temuco, Villarrica, crossed the border to San Martín de los Andes, Argentina, and then back again to Entre Lagos, Chile. Then to Puerto Montt, the island of Chiloé, and returning to the mainland from Quellon to Chaiten. South to Coyhaique crossing to Argentina over Lake Argentina to Perito Moreno, heading down Route 40 to Calafate. Crossed back over to Chile and Torres del Paine National Park, then to Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas. Ferried to Tierra del Fuego, rode across to Río Grande and then finally to Ushuaia!
We returned home just before Easter and have been busy putting our "North American" lives together again. Sometimes it feels like the trip never happened. But after 17,500 miles and fourteen different countries, our butts know it happened!
Thank you for all of your letters, presents and support. The e-mail server we have been using seems to be perpetually down and we have not been able to access our e-mail for the past month. Apparently we should be able to get it soon at which point we will write back! Sorry!
If the address: AnnAndKent@webmin.org doesn't work for you, you can always reach us at: firstname.lastname@example.org. We have changed our address too many times. Hope we don't lose you!
So, anyway, here is the final dispatch....
We absolutely could not believe it. We knew the tandem was falling apart as we neared our final goal of Ushuaia in Argentina, but now our bodies too? I walked into the house in which we were staying in Puerto Natales (about 400 miles from Ushuaia) and there was Kent, his hand soaking in a sink of hot soapy water, his face drained of its normal healthy ruddiness. "I caught my finger between the chain and chainring when I was doing maintenance and I've cut myself pretty badly." I grimaced as I looked at the damage -- a large chunk of the end of his finger and nail were separated by a bloody gash from the rest. He would need stitches for sure.
Thinking back to the string of mishaps that had plagued us over the past few days, I wondered what would happen tomorrow. Four days earlier, as we rode through the incredible scenery of Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile, Kent heard noises from the front wheel. A section of the hub flange had broken off, uprooting three spokes. Kent put his engineer's mind to the difficulty and remembered how a German cyclist had used wire to repair a similar problem. The only wire we had was shifter cable but it would have to do. So we walked the bike off the dirt road, sat down, took the wheel off and began the emergency repair, wrapping cable tightly around the hub and flange. The wind picked up and it started to drizzle, clouds obscuring the beautiful mountains. We were miserable! The only consolation was that a herd of curious guanaco (wild cousins of the llama) grazed within thirty feet of us, the young ones crowding in to check us out. Funny creatures.
After three hours of repair work (while fixing the one flange, we noticed that the other side also had cracks in it and had to be repaired as well) we finally got back on the bike and continued to the south end of the park. Hopefully the repair work would get us to Ushuaia.
However, our bad luck was not over yet. The following day we left the park, crossing over a swollen rushing glacial river on a narrow (three 2x8's laid side by side) unnerving footbridge. We both had the willies; the icy river was so close under those skinny planks! The bridge led to a private deserted road that wound south for about fifty miles to Puerto Natales -- no cars, no dust, no checking the mirror. In spite of the steep up and down, it was nice to be on a quiet road. Until. Until as we climbed a particularly steep section, the pedals slipped forward and grinding and crunching noises came from the rear hub. The freewheel was completely stripped which meant that pedaling would not turn the wheel. Lovely predicament. We had spare parts but lacked the second pair of pliers necessary to open the hub and fix it. So we started walking and I started cursing the hub manufacturer.
We walked and I cursed for ten miles until we spotted some cabins off the road. The caretaker gruffly responded to our request for pliers but brightened when I mentioned that we had stayed with close friends of his the previous day. (They had told us about René!) That was the key that led to a smile and an invitation for coffee after fixing the hub. We repaired the hub about as well as we could; however a part that could not be replaced was damaged which meant we could not freewheel, had to pedal constantly and could never coast. On long downhills we had to pedal like madmen to keep up with the wheel and must have looked ridiculous to any observer! But at least we could pedal forward.
In addition to offering us hot coffee, René invited us to stay a night or two which we gladly did, relaxing in the kitchen of his small wood-frame house. The wood-burning stove kept it cozy while he baked bread and made us dinner, refusing all help. After a few days with René, the tandem got us to Puerto Natales where Kent did in his finger. Hopefully we would survive the last 400 miles with no more major catastrophes and without having to walk!
Some ten weeks previous, a few days after celebrating Christmas in Los Andes, Chile, near the capital of Santiago, we rode straight to the World Scouting Jamboree. Kent had been a Boy Scout in high school and his former Scoutmaster initiated arrangements for us to visit the Jamboree where a friend of his, Brian Thiesen, was in charge of the volunteer service crew of 8,000 scouts and adults. Nothing like having friends in high places! Brian's "swing" got us into the tightly controlled camp where we stayed for five days participating in the event. Thirty-five thousand Scouts, young men and women from all over the world, had converged on a sprawling intricately laid out park designed especially for their Jamboree. The sight of over 100 countries' flags snapping in the hot wind was impressive as was the spirit of exuberance that infused the camp.
It was fun to watch the different personalities of the different countries' Scouts -- Mexicans walking around in gaudy oversized sombreros, Brazilians dancing and overflowing with energy, Argentines carrying thermoses of hot water for their mate drinks, Americans and Germans, alas, kind of pale and geeky. These differences were most obvious when all the Scouts were gathered together for ceremonies such as the Inauguration. We sat on the ground next to a troop from the Bay Area and watched. Our boys were surrounded by a rowdy group of Brazilians who were waving huge flags, jumping around and yelling chants at the tops of their voices. A troop of Chilean girls kept shouting at the Brazilians to "sit down!" And the Bay Area Scouts? They sat quietly, perhaps overwhelmed and bored by the long opening speech in untranslated Spanish by the Chilean president until they started balling up their programs and bombing unsuspecting victims!
But throughout our time there, the message of the Jamboree was evident. There was a spirit of unity as the Scouts proclaimed they were willing to work together for world peace.
We left the Jamboree and continued our ride south, passing through pine and eucalyptus forests whose trees marched up the hills in rows straight as those of a Christmas tree farm; plantations they were and not forests at all. We also reaped the benefits of the Chilean summer fruit season (in January!), stopping at roadside stands to buy peaches, watermelons, grapes, nectarines and cantaloupes. We arrived at the Pacific coast and under darkening skies rode into the coal mining town of Lota. The mine had recently closed, victim of low coal prices and its own expensive and antiquated mining methonds. This was evidenced by crumbling wooden buildings, boarded up homes and the many men hanging around in groups or doing menial work. But the mining tunnel, which ran for miles under the sea, had opened up three days earlier for tours and Kent went on one as I waited, chatting with a woman who was baking bread in a traditional wood-burning brick oven to sell in the mine's little cafeteria. When Kent returned, it began to rain heavily and we remained warm by the oven, helping Cecelia with the bread and eating our fair share! Several hours later it was still raining and Cecelia invited us and a Norwegian couple to her family home for dinner.
And so we met the Paz family: four rambunctious bright kids and two young parents struggling to do their best for them. Fernando, Cecelia's husband worked for the mine until it died and was now a poorly paid security guard. Soon he would be leaving for three years to work in an Argentine coal mine, miles and hours away. But for this family, the children's education is of utmost importance and they do what they have to do to pay for it.
It was also interesting talking to the Paz family about Pinochet, the aging ex-military dictator and senator-for-life of Chile who is currently being held prisoner in England awaiting possible extradition to Spain for crimes against Spanish citizens during his rule. Despite the known fact that many political assassinations and "disappearances" occurred in the 1970s under Pinochet, the majority of Chileans we talked to were his ardent supporters, citing the economic upswing the country experienced under his rule. They had been suffering economically under the previous Socialistic regime (which had been democratically voted into power), standing in long lines for essentials such as butter and bread, and so welcomed the military coup and subsequent dictatorship of Pinochet because it brought relief. But Fernando and Cecelia counted as more important the lives that were lost to Pinochet's intolerance of dissent and stating that the ex-dictator would not receive justice in Chile (Pinochet wrote Constitutional changes that protect him from prosecution), hoped he would be extradited to Spain to face charges there. Daily, the Chilean newspapers reported the status of the case and when we left the country in March, there was still no resolution.
One of the difficult parts for us about traveling is not being in close contact with family and friends. Using the Internet and phone, we were usually able to keep in touch but after we left the Paz's, a period of several weeks went by before we talked to someone from home. And so it was in shock that we read our e-mail to find out that my sister's husband Steve had been in a serious and nearly fatal scuba diving accident nearly two weeks earlier. He had suffered the bends and was paralyzed, undergoing decompression and recovery in a Mexican hospital. Fear and guilt attacked Kent and me. Was Steve OK? We had not even known; what if he had died? Jenny (my sister) must think that we don't even care.... Terrible things went through our minds before we called and found out that Steve was miraculously recovering and would be on his way home soon. We could not help but cringe thinking of the two horrible accidents that had struck our family within a year: Kent's and my scary bike accident eleven months ago in Mexico, and now this. Our poor parents!
Thankful that Steve was doing well, Kent and I rode ever further south. After exploring the beautiful Lake Districts of Chile and Argentina, we reached the famous Carretera Austral (Southern Highway), a dirt road stretching south on which we rode 190 miles. We were able to fully take in the strange juxtaposition of huge rain forest plants with leaves up to six feet wide, a profusion of wild fuschia and foxglove, canopied trees lining the road versus the cold background of glaciers and snow-covered mountains. The bike seemed to slow down of its own accord; we rode only 25-30 miles per day (about half of a normal day for us) and enjoyed immensely this special place. But because we were in the mountains, sometimes the weather changed rapidly and storms threatened.
One night we camped on a high pass at the foot of jagged glacier-bearing mountains. That night was terrifying as a storm rolled in bringing with it wind and pounding rain. The eerie howling of what sounded and felt like an uncontrolled approaching freight train started from far away, rolling closer and closer and closer, the howling increasing in volume and power until we were absolutely convinced that our pitiful little nylon shelter would be flattened. But the funny thing was that because we were camped in a protected spot, the wild winds seemed to stop just short of slamming us and our tent only shook a bit instead of flattening. This knowledge that we were safe did not help me sleep, however, as the wind caused enough mental stress to make my heart pound and adrenaline rush every time it crashed towards us. The storm kept us in our damp tent and sleeping bags all the next day but let up enough the following day and we were able to leave albeit with cold bodies and wet equipment.
It was with mixed feelings that we rode into the town of Coyhaique near the end of the Carretera Austral, sad to leave but looking forward to the next installment, Argentina's notorious Route 40. In Coyhaique we found an inexpensive camping spot to set up our tent and were happily surprised by the number of other cyclists staying there: seven more! Before southern Chile and Argentina, very rarely had we run into other touring cyclists, and so it was sometimes a refreshing change to meet more. Exchanging stories and experiences kept us all up late for several nights, starting a friendship with our new cycling "parents," a vibrant sixty-something-year-old Dutch couple who traveled by bus ahead of us, leaving notes and cookies for us in the most unlikely spots! This time also confirmed the worst rumors we had heard about the 40, the rumors about rough gravel roads, no water, bleak isolated land and worst of all, relentless wind. We had not really believed all that but the Belgian couple who had just ridden in from the south filled us in. They had been forced to take a bus because the conditions were so horrible. So maybe the stories about gusting winds of 50-60 mph blowing rocks across the road or toppling cyclists or making it impossible to even walk were true....
Even before we got started we were treated to a taste of the Patagonian wind while crossing Lake Buenos Aires on the ferry on our way to Route 40. We securely strapped the tandem to a steel post near the bow of the ferry and retreated inside the cabin to weather the crossing. Soon the ferry was pitching up and down, huge waves crashing over the bow and onto the cars on the deck -- and onto our bike. "Why didn't they tell us it would be so rough?! Everything will be soaked!" So we ran out onto the deck to cover the bike and our gear. Mistake!!! Waves crashed over us; Kent had made to the bow and was rendered weightless, flying into the air as the deck dropped underneath him, and I was trying to advance, holding onto (and hiding behind) cars and staggering under the impact of the waves. After realizing the sheer foolishness of what we were trying to do (it did not take long!) and laughing almost uncontrollably at how ridiculous we must have looked, we struggled back inside, wet to the bone. Whew! The bike and gear would just have to dry out on their own.
Which they did, of course, and a couple of days later we left the town of Perito Moreno at 6:00 a.m. to take advantage of the early morning tranquillity before the wind picked up. But Route 40 revealed its benign side, silence and sunshine greeting us instead of the expected forceful wind. Ostrich-type birds called nandus ran across the road in herds, gray foxes watched us from behind the scrubby bushes and the vast treeless Patagonian expanse stretched out on all sides.
The next day we reached Estancia El Delfín, a sheep ranch, which we had heard about from other cyclists as being a place we could visit and stay and learn more about estancia life. We could see the estancia about a mile off the road, its lonely clump of tall poplar trees the first green things we had seen that day. A roadworkers' camp was set up where the entrance road left Route 40 and Manual, El Delfín's lone gaucho, came out from one of the trailers to greet us and invite us to follow him home.
From close up the clump of trees revealed several small whitewashed buildings in various states of disrepair; piles of sheep bones and bottles strewn about in the ash deposited by a volcano seven years earlier; bunch grasses struggling up through the same ash; the wind starting to roar. We pushed the bike up to a fence around one of the white buildings, apparently the house, and walked through the gate which was swinging in the wind. Manual bustled out, a short, round solid man with ruddy face, wild hair, baggy gaucho pants belted to his sizable girth by a woven strap. At 52 years old, he had a crazy deep laugh and a ruthlessly blunt but generous spirit.
He motioned us to follow him into another building, its stone walls smoke blackened from countless asados (barbecues), the light coming in only through the open door illuminating a jumble of supplies, benches and tables. He had thrown sausages and a big chunk of lamb on the fire, several times proudly stating that it was all for us since he had already eaten lunch with the roadworkers. A wine jug was brought out from the clutter and passed around again and again and again. Manual's flushed face betrayed the earlier drinking he had been doing at the camp and as the meat sizzled, his already grand gestures, wild laugh and fast words became even more exaggerated until I understood maybe one word in ten. The great quantity of wine which I could not refuse did not help either! Add to that the meat we were soon consuming and the tiredness from two days of hard riding and I was soon reeling. Somehow from my garbled Spanish and Manual's garbled understanding, I was able to convince him that I needed to sleep and Kent and I crashed for more than twelve hours on our Thermarest pads in an old bunkroom.
The next morning the baa-ing of sheep in the yard woke us up and one of the older lambs ambled up on the porch to butt his head against the door looking for something. Then we heard Manual's booming voice before he opened the door, a bottle of warm milk in hand. "Panchito, you be quiet, you," he admonished the demanding lamb, "I'm coming!" The milk disappeared in seconds and the orphan trotted off, a satisfied look on his woolly face.
After feeding the lamb, Manual sat down in the small kitchen with his mate "tea" and turned on the radio. Because the estancias are so far removed from any towns, they use radio announcements to communicate with eath other, giving messages to the radio station which are then transmitted several times per day over the air waves. "To Juan on Estancia _____, I will arrive tomorrow instead of today, María," or "To Rosa on Estancia _______, please be ready at 10 a.m. Monday. Eugenio will pick you up then, your mother." None of the messages were for Manual today so he went back outside to slaughter a young sheep for an asado that night with the roadworkers and us. I asked him if he would ever eat Panchito and he got a funny smile on his face before answering that no, he could never do that.
Estancia life in Patagonia is lonely and difficult, even more so since a Chilean volcano erupted in the early 90's burying much of the pampa in ash. This natural disaster combined with a decrease in the price of wool ruined more than half of the Argentine estancias, whose owners were forced to leave their land and move to town, abandoning their homes to the predations of thieves who stole everything down to the rafters of the houses. Manual works El Delfín alone and has just enough to survive on. But he is content with his simple life.
We stayed two days at El Delfín waiting out the blowing wind and in those two days, I was the victim of Manual's "ruthlessly blunt" character. First of all, bicycle touring over long distances can tend to wear on a woman's feminine sense. After wearing the same pants, the same t-shirt, and the same hair for months, I was a bit sensitive regarding my appearance. So, needless to say, when Manual looked at pictures of my family and remarked adamantly how much prettier than I my sister is, I was hurt. He hedged a little saying, "She's more my type, it's only my opinion of course." It did not help that when he saw what I was making for our collective lunch he started eating whatever else he could to blunt his hunger and ended up throwing half of what I served him (which turned out quite good, by the way!) to the cats who were not quite so picky. The humiliation continued that night while we were eating with the roadworkers. Manual told them, "You should see Ann's sister. She's a lot prettier than Ann is...." Wine-enhanced emotions flooded through me as I sat there listening. I just could not help it. As he continued on about all his favorite woman cyclists who had stayed with him and how "Ann is way down the list," I lost it, tears flowing down my cheeks, my face crinkling up. I should have saved my pride right there and left but before I could get myself together to do that, the pity started. The roadworkers, ill at ease, started telling me, "No, Ann, you're the prettiest gringa we've seen...." It was almost comical! Finally, I fled hiccuping, swollen red face and all, to the safety of my bed, completely humiliated.
In the morning as we prepared to leave, Kent kept encouraging me to put on a happy face and leave Manual with a good impression so that we would not brood in the dark winter months on how he had hurt my feelings. Well, heck, he had! And Kent's lack of understanding and support did not help. But obviously Manual was somewhat chagrined and I think he wanted to make it up to me. So he sent us off with a barbecued five pound leg of lamb which we strapped on top of a pannier, a big bag of bread and a liter of wine. My pride was still sorely tweaked but I got over it and enjoyed the meat, bread and wine along the way.
The next few days remained calm and beautiful; herds of guanaco leapt gracefully away from us, we startled an armadillo and laughed as it scuttled off the road, we enjoyed the silence of Patagonia. Two days later we arrived at Estancia La Siberia which was no longer a working estancia but rather a restaurant where buses stopped and a hostel for infrequent tourists. A young twenty-year-old man, Eugenio, had been left alone in charge of the whole operation and said that we could set up our tent wherever we wanted -- no charge. As we cooked our dinner, Julian, the pet ram, strolled over to check out what was in the pot, putting his front hooves up on the table just like a dog! Then, a baby guanaco wandered over to make sure the tandem was okay and let us pet his soft soft hair and look into his huge trusting baby eyes.
We were awakened in the morning by the wind which was shaking the tent, threatening to pull the stakes out and send it flying. We ran inside the kitchen to ask Eugenio if we could stay and ended up spending the day, helping in the kitchen when the buses came, making french fries while we chatted and laughed a lot. Everybody knows everybody in endless Patagonia, the small social world it is, and Eugenio knew Manual (from Estancia El Delfín) by a different name, "Arroz Crudo" or "Raw Rice" for what the old gaucho used to cook up when he worked for a restaurant. Eugenio's cooking was better than that and we shared a good meal with him. Later in the day, an Italian cyclist came in, obviously bruised and beaten by the wind which had been really fierce that day. He reported being blown over five times that day, confirming our decision to stay put.
A week later we finished Route 40, turning back towards Chile, having survived thanks to our new friends along the way, namely the estancia folks and the older Dutch cycling couple who with their notes encouraged us many times. On a cold blustery day we crossed the border after declining the Argentine guard's friendly invitation to camp and arrived shivering and wet at another estancia we had heard welcomed cyclists.
América Cárdenas, who together with her husband Raul own Estancia Anahi del Valle, pulled us into the kitchen and set us at the table in front of the wood stove. The hot coffee, homemade bread and jam she put in front of us disappeared in a wink! People roamed in and out; family, working hands and friends created a warm bustling atmosphere full of work talk and gossip. Every Chilean sheepman that came in was dressed in the same traditional costume that Raul wore: baggy pants tucked into calf-high leather boots, a plaid shirt tucked into the pants under a woven belt, wool knit vests and colorful scarves over the shirts, the whole lot topped by a black woolen beret tilted at a jaunty angle over short black straight hair. Kent and I figured that they wore berets because the Patagonian wind would blow anything else off their heads!
Staying with with the Cárdenas family was an experience. The land Raul and América owned had been part of a huge estancia owned many years ago by an English company and then by the government who attemped to start a cooperative and failed. The government sold the land in parcels to the workers and Raul purchased 4,600 hectares on which they now run sheep and cattle. All herding is still done on horseback with the help of twenty or so working dogs, a motley rambunctious group that usually respond obediently to the sheepmen's piercing whistles. One evening, I went with Raul and América in their pickup to move some of the sheep from one pasture to another. Raul would not ride out on horseback but would rely on the dogs to do the herding for him. So we first stopped at the kennels to choose two likely candidates from the clamoring masses of dogs. The two that Raul unclipped ran streaking to the truck. One, a short haired mutt type obediently leapt in but the other gamboled around and around the truck, his tongue hanging out, his long ropey greasy sheepdog hair swinging, sometimes completely hiding his eyes, other times revealing a happy gleam. Raul's sharp command whistles were largely ignored until the irritated sheepman got back out of the truck and chased the dog in. We drove out to the sheep and the greasy sheepdog leapt out of the truck and raced ahead to do his job. The short haired mutt also leapt out but immediately started limping around in an obviously exaggerated manner, begging for sympathy. Only when the sheepdog that was doing all the work had the job nearly completed did the shirker miraculously heal and run to help. Lazy dog!
We left Anahi del Valle and rode through Torres del Paine National Park where the bike hubs failed, Puerto Natales where Kent cut his finger and finally reached the city of Punta Arenas where we stayed with an American working on a construction project there. From Punta Arenas, we ferried across the Straits of Magellan to the island of Tierra del Fuego -- the final four days of our 21 month ride soon to be history. I found myself daydreaming more and more about family and friends, thinking about how great it would be to finally be home. Of course I did not daydream about returning to work or dealing with money problems or anything unpleasant. It took Kent to remind me that going home would not be all peaches and cream. I knew that I would miss the freedom of bike touring but at the moment, I was like a horse headed for the stable; all I wanted was to be done and heading home.
Surprisingly enough we continued to meet new and old friends these last four days. As we approached the border to cross over for the last time into Argentina, whom should we see but Udo and Bruno, the two old cycling buddies with whom we had ridden in Colombia and Bolivia! We had not seen them for months as they had taken a different route through Chile and Argentina and we had harbored no hopes of seeing them again. What a terrific surprise! They were headed back north and it was by luck we all had reached the border at the same time. We sat for several hours protected by the Argentine border buildings from the strengthening wind, ate lunch and swapped story after story until it was time to go.
The firefighters in Río Grande welcomed us in and sent us on our way in the morning. And they welcomed us back an hour later when we were blown in by the impossible Tierra del Fuegan wind. The firefighters had been expecting us and as we rode up, one of them simply slid open the rolling garage door and ushered us in. We had tried, we really had! But five miles out of town after battling to make any forward progress and being blown in front of cars we decided it was not worth it. If I thought the ride out was bad, the ride back was twenty times worse. Suddenly we were traveling at 25 mph which would have been great if the wind had not been gusting crazily from the side trying to blow us off the road! I whimpered, prayed, cried and was terrified of crashing, basically reduced to a quivering bowl of jelly. Kent says I should listen to the soundtrack. When we returned to the firehouse, after a hot cup of tea I retired to my bed with a novel where I remained for the rest of the day, emotionally wrung out.
Something got into us the next day and we rode 100 miles, more than any day in the 21 month journey. And then came the goal: Ushuaia, Argentina, the furthest possible point south by road. On a gorgeous warm sunny day, the Beagle Channel glistening, the surrounding mountains glowing in their white snowy trappings, we finished our ride that had taken us from the Arctic Ocean, through North, Central and South America and finally to the "End of the World." There was no further south to go. In my journal are three words for the 13th of March 1999: "We have arrived." Soon we would turn around and board a bus north towards home but that was for another day.