FREE AS CAN BE
FINDING EVERYTHING IN THE SOUTHERN ANDES
KAITLYN BOYLE & KURT REFSNIDER
FINDING EVERYTHING IN THE SOUTHERN ANDES
O 8 MPH
THE MOMENT WE STEPPED OFF THE PLANE AND MADE OUR WAY TO BAGGAGE CLAIM, I REALIZED I HAD COMPLETELY AND NAIVELY UNDERESTIMATED MY SPANISH SPEAKING CAPABILITIES. THICKLY ACCENTED CHILEAN SPANISH FILLED THE HALL. I HARDLY UNDERSTOOD A WORD.
The hostel owners were a Chilean/American couple. This partnership made dialogue straightforward. In the morning, after a breakfast of eggs, toast, and strong French press coffee (apparently a rarity in Chile, according to our hosts), we began assembling our bikes. Looking on, the owners commented on the size of our wheels, the single chainring, and the lack of racks or much stuff. They see a lot of Carretera Austral cycle-tourists off from here, heading south on the long dirt road through Chilean Patagonia. They told
stories of some groups setting off with strict itineraries to cover 100 km a day. When asked, we assured them we had no agenda. It was true, Kurt and I had landed in Puerto Montt and had a rough track to follow that first headed north, then east, then south, then back west, but we had no time-bound goals. Instead, on this adventure, we planned to go at whatever pace felt right. Our skeletal loop had various options, and there were always ways to cut back to Puerto Montt if our time ran short.
After stuffing our clothes, camping gear, and some food into our various bags, we pushed our bikes through the gate of the patio and onto the streets of Puerto Montt. I immediately had to adjust the pressure of my suspension and saddle height. But soon we were through navigating the city traffic before reaching relatively quiet rural roads. The first day of a big tour is always one of the hardest for me. It often comes after a long day (or three) of travel by plane, train, or car. Zooming through the world at the speeds of 800, 70, or even 30 mph for days and hours on end results in my physical body being plopped in a foreign place. I then have to wait for a day or two as my soul catches up. On the bike, I pedal, feeling the aches of so much sitting get loosened up. My butt, too, has to adjust to its position for the next few weeks. My skin feels funny stuck in clean clothes, waiting to bridge the gap with sweat, salt, and dirt in the coming days. Beyond the physical adaptations that occur in the initial day or two, the mind and heart also adjust. The mind must embrace the new speed and learn to not anticipate miles ticking away all day long. After all, we truly bikepack for the journey, not the destination. New details like unknown birds, plants, rocks, food, and cultural norms surprise us at every turn. Eventually, the awe, excitement, warmed up muscles, and a night of sleeping on the ground summon my heart from wherever it was dropped in the travel, and I arrive in the present, ready for everything that will come.
MY EARS POP. NOW THE HUM OF KNOBBY TIRES ON PAVEMENT AMPLIFIES IN MY RIGHT EAR BUT REMAINS DULL IN THE LEFT. I have a cold. Weâ€™re mountain bike touring on pavement. Loose volcanic cinders that create a crunchy, eight-inch-thick blanket have thwarted our first attempt at singletrack. So around the long lake we go instead of over the mountain.
PAVEMENT TURNED TO DIRT. DIRT TURNED TO CINDERS. We retreated to pavement and headed north, our circuitous route full of uncertainty and surprise. Turning back east toward the mountains, our next dirt road narrowed, roughened, and soon was a freshly bulldozed car-width scar cut into the steep slope. The road climbed steeply and abruptly, only then to dive back down as if whoever was controlling the blade couldn’t decide whether to go down to the lake or up to the ridgeline high above. So up and down the road went, soft the entire way and mostly covered in loose rocks.
At the end of the road, past a few homesteads accessed by boat, we crossed through a gate and walked out onto the beach. It seemed to be public land, although, by tradition, anyone is allowed to access most beaches, even on private land, in Patagonia. The sun was getting low, and this was about as nice a place to camp as we could imagine – solitude, lapping waves, rugged ridges above, and somewhere in the clouds, a volcanic peak we would aim for the next day. So here we sit, admiring the views, reveling at finally feeling like we are in the mountains after days of travel to get here. A small herd of horses wanders over as we set up camp, greeting us and inspecting our steeds. Ironically, our rides are both Horsethiefs – full-squish
bikes perfect for rugged terrain in any part of the world. They’re not quite as smart as actual horses, but they don’t need feed, they don’t mind flies, and they’re not afraid of anything. Strapped to our bikes is our normal assortment of gear – food for a few days, enough clothing to stay warm and dry in summery mountain weather, a simple tarp tent, lightweight sleeping bags, our trusty alcohol stove, repair kits for bikes and bodies, and minimalist shoes so we’re not trapped in cycling shoes. We each carry a camera and GPS, and we carry a little tablet with our detailed topo maps, bird identification app, and resources relevant to our planned route. In our packs are also a few regional
maps available at gas stations, an indispensable Spanish-English phrase book, and a couple books to read along the way. This is how we bike tour – light enough ride difficult trail but with just enough comfort items to be comfortable at the end of the day. By nightfall, Kaitlyn and I are laying in the soft sand staring up at the sky. Patchy clouds are hiding most of the stars, but a few capture my attention. A few feet away, our Horsethiefs are leaning against a makeshift hitching rail, but we know they won’t wander off. They’re poised for whatever we’re going to tackle tomorrow, and none of us know what to expect.
DROPLETS OF WATER STEADILY DRIPPED FROM MY SATURATED SHORTS AND ONTO THE DAMP GROUND. A deep river crossing started off the morning and brought us to our first encounter with the Sendero de Chile, the Chile Trail. A large, colorfully painted sign stood in the bushes just beyond the river bank, partially overtaken by vines. My very limited Spanish was sufficient to translate the sign. “Trail constructed and maintained by Sendero de Chile.” I scanned the wet meadow beyond the sign and not seeing any sign of a track; I looked back at the sign to translate it a second time. It still seemed to say the same thing. “Where’s the trail?” Kaitlyn asked, looking around as I just had. “I’m not sure. Maybe that’s it?” I pointed toward an area where the low vegetation seemed to be a bit less dense. “Really?” We slowly pedaled through the meadow, bouncing over rocks and tussocks. After a bit of wandering back and forth, we found what seemed to be a track climbing into the thick forest. It could have been a game trail, but it was the only trail we could find. So up we went.
For the first half hour, we were able to pedal our bikes in between logs, mud pits, and steep drainage crossings. But the higher we climbed, the more it seemed like the forest was on a mission to reclaim the trail. An hour passed with a scant minute or two of riding. Our legs stung from all manner of thorns, barbs, and serrated leaves, and swarms of inch-long biting flies had us surrounded at all times. Another hour passed. As far as I could tell, we had covered only three miles of the eight-mile-long climb in three hours. Welcome to the jungle. And then, somewhat unexpectedly, we met bamboo. At first, it was just a single long, leafy branch tilted across the trail. Then it was a few. And before long, we pushed our bikes through thick stands of bamboo shoots collapsed over the trail. The real slog began, heads bowed, helmet-first, glancing up just far enough to see where the next few feet of the trail went. Few words were exchanged as we plowed ahead like oxen. One hour passed. Two hours. We both were making desperate internal pleas for the forest to change as we climbed higher. Three hours. The sun was sinking lower, nearing a ridge that I occasionally see through the treetops. Oh god, what if we have to bivy in here? There’s not even anywhere to lie down! Four hours. Drenched. Exhausted. Spent. But something looked brighter up ahead. I restrained my optimism as it hadn’t done any good for me this entire day.
. THE HIGHER WE CLIMBED, THE MORE IT SEEMED LIKE THE FOREST WAS ON A MISSION TO RECLAIM THE TRAIL
After a few more minutes, we climbed steeply up a ravine and rose out of the bamboo world. Tall coihue trees still towered above us, but the undergrowth thinned dramatically. With new hope, we pushed higher, our arms weak from the toughest hike-a-bike I could imagine. And then, entirely unexpectedly, we hit treeline! Peaks! Ridgelines! And as we emerged, we found ourselves face to face with a massive volcanic edifice soaring into low, dark clouds. I stared in disbelief, too tired to fully comprehend what I was seeing, this unexpected volcanic alpine landscape. I turned toward Kaitlyn and found her collapsed on the ground in utter exhaustion from battling both bamboo and a cold. Eight miles. Eight hours. We were both utterly drained. The tent came out, and too tired to eat more than a bit of food, it wasnâ€™t long before we were both asleep.
OUR OWN BEACH FOR NEW YEARâ€™S EVE
KAITLYN LAY RECLINED IN THE SAND READING. I SAT WITH A TIRE IN MY LAP, STITCHING UP A SIDEWALL THAT WAS SLICED A WEEK EARLIER JUST A FEW MILES INTO OUR TRIP. It was probably only four p.m., and we were enjoying a lazy afternoon. It was, after all, New Year’s Eve. A short day’s ride brought us to an idyllic beach that was strangely vacant. The shade of a broad tree kept us cool, and I sipped wine from my little mug between stitches. Kaitlyn dozed off as my mind filed through memories, trying to figure out if I had ever sat under a tree in the middle of a quiet sandy beach. Later, we enjoyed a dinner of bell peppers stuffed with cheesy rice and tuna, accompanied by, of course, more wine. We reflected together on the past year and set goals for 2016. The sun eventually set as the distant mountains passed from purple to gray and the sky from yellow to orange to purple. As waves lapped onto the shore, I closed my eyes feeling incredibly fortunate for 2015 and truly excited for all that the next year promised to hold. Happy New Year!
A WELL-WORN SINGLETRACK EXTENDED PAST THE LITTLE BLUE SHACK AND INTO THE WOODS. THE BAMBOO WAS CHOPPED OFF WELL BACK FROM THE PATH, AND FRESH FOOTPRINTS IN THE DAMP SOIL TOLD US THAT SOMEONE HAD BEEN THERE VERY RECENTLY. An ancient little Jeep sat beneath a dense canopy of trees just off the path. Its tires were bald, the windshield shattered, seat cushions mostly gone, and the tarp roof was partially disintegrated. I wondered if the thing still traveled the miles of rocky, overgrown two-track were between us and the nearest road to a town. We tentatively pedaled farther down the path, passing collapsing towers of old bee hive boxes. Some were broken, some were rotting. Bees flew about, but they ignored these boxes. We followed some of the bees toward a bright clearing ahead. Stacks of colorful, newer bee boxes stood throughout the clearing as bees swarmed around. An old man, shirtless and pale, stood still along the edge of the clearing, seemingly surveying his colonies. “Hola?” Kaitlyn called out. The man continued staring ahead, oblivious to our presence. Kaitlyn and I looked at each other, and then she called to him again. This time, he heard and looked over at us. Strangely, he didn’t appear surprised to see us. He walked over, perhaps with a slight smile, and asked a question. Neither Kaitlyn nor I understood him. He spoke quickly and seemed to have strong accent. He stood there gazing at us and assessed our bikes. I felt relieved that he did not mind us wandering through his property.
. WITH BAMBOO SWORDS IN HAND, WE IGNORED THE MANâ€™S ADVICE AND PUSHED OUR BIKES INTO THE JUNGLE.
“No entiendo, lo siento,” Kaitlyn replied. Using simple vocabulary, Kaitlyn tried to explain our plight. We were looking for the little road to the end of the lake. But the road instead just went to this man’s shack. The man did not understand. Kaitlyn made her question even simpler. “Camino a Enco?” Road to Enco? “Ah, Enco,” the man replied, pronouncing the name differently. “No camino.” No road. But our maps both showed a road, and the base map on our GPS showed a trail. “Sendero possible para bicicletas?” I asked? Trail possible for bikes? “No.” I didn’t understand what followed. I pulled out our map, and he quickly took it out of my hands and pointed to exactly where we were. He started tracing a highway route around the big lake. “No camino o sendero aqui?” I asked, pointing at the little road the map showed connecting our present location to Enco. “No,” he said again and retraced the same route around the lake. We were able to gather that we couldn’t get through the old road without a machete despite it only being a few miles to Enco. And he smiled and said that it would be mostly downhill for a bit after we turned around. He was right – it had been a steep climb to his shack from the lake. We thanked the man for his help. He stood there, smiling and looking satisfied. He waved goodbye, hands on his hips as a few bees circled him. “Dang. That detour has got to be 80 or 90 miles.” “Yeah,” Kaitlyn replied with frustration in her voice. “Maybe we should still try the old road.” “Maybe.” And so we did. With bamboo swords in hand, we ignored the man’s advice and pushed our bikes into the jungle.
I grit my teeth, bracing for what comes next. I step forward, and my skin tears slightly. I pause to assess. All is silent, and all that I can see ahead is a green wall. I push my bike one step ahead, angling right, around a long bramble of raspberry that stands between me and the slim tunnel ahead. Gauging by the size of its thorns, I determine it is not one to be contended with. Letting the smaller vines scrape through my skin, I continue working my way to the right to sidestep the intruder. Or am I the intruder, here in this miserably overgrown jungle of raspberry and bamboo? Wondering, I think of the hermit beekeeper, whose shack we stumbled upon a few hours earlier,
in search of the continuing trail. His message, delivered in Spanish with a thick southern accent, was mostly lost to us, but a few key words stand out now, as I look ahead with dread. I hear Kurt, silent in determination…or fury…beating the brush back with his bamboo bat. We think the old beekeeper said something about a machete, no trail, and not possible. But knowing both our maps promise a trail, we had stubbornly rationalized our decision to proceed. But now…I glance at my watch. It has been three hours since we started into this mess. We’ve barely moved three quarters of a mile. It’s 8:30 p.m. and we have two and a half miles, as the crow flies, until we can hope the “trail” turns into two-track. Oof.
It was my encouragement, initially, that we proceeded. Just three miles, I had said. How bad can it be? My desire to avoid another paved around-the-lake detour quickly washed away the eight hour, eightmile bushwhack of just a week ago. Now it flashes back in my mind. I don’t want to bivy in the bramble. And I certainly don’t want to do this well into midday tomorrow. I sigh. Bad idea. It’s time to retreat. We escaped the overgrown hell, coasted back down the two-track to the lake just as twilight set in, and gingerly washed our battered skin in the twinkling water.
LOST TO THE WIND “….bow!!” Kurt yells, pointing ahead. His voice is muffled, carried away by the wind. “What?!?!” I yell back. “RAINBOW!!” He repeats, pointing again. I look, yes, ahead there is a rainbow. I nod. “…. the Alps!!!” He shouts. “What?!?!” I reply. “Like in the Alps!!!!” He shouts louder. I’m still missing something. “WHAT?!?!” I yell back. “NEVERMIND!” He responds. We ride staggered, nearly bumping, trying to ride the thin strip of road along which cobbles have been pushed aside, and washboard has not yet formed. I should be able to hear his breath. Instead, all words are swept away by the Patagonian wind. Today the wind will do the talking. I wonder to myself what riding with earplugs would be like.
THE TWO TINY CARS AHEAD OF US SWERVE ERRATICALLY BACK AND FORTH ACROSS THE ENTIRE WIDTH OF THE ROAD, trying to find the least abusive course through the cobbles that had been dumped on the road bed. This one is worse than most we had seen. Some of the rocks are the size of my head. A cloud of white dust trails each car, obscuring the little orange pylons that line the edge of the drivable lanes. Piles of freshly blasted rock await removal before the lanes can be expanded to their future width. The regular thunking of rocks bouncing off the carsâ€™ wheel wells regularly interrupts the creaks of the worn suspension. For a short time, the road will be worse than it had been, but soon to come will be a final layer of fill. Then asphalt will follow. Long known as a destination for bike tours on quiet dirt roads, Patagonia is being paved. Roads that our year-old map marks as dirt shimmer as the dark pavement warms in the intense sunlight. No longer are just the expressways in Patagonia paved. Rural roads are being sealed over. Lengthy sections of the Carretera Austral, the only north-south route through remote Chilean Patagonia, are crawling with construction equipment. Washboards and dust plumes are becoming rarer. Business at the ubiquitous tire repair shops must be slowing. Car ferries that are manually pulled across rivers are being replaced by towering bridge spans. And as all this happens, the feel of the quiet, slow-paced region is changing.
OF VOLCANOES AND CONDORS
“IS THAT STEAM OR A CLOUD?” I ASKED, POINTING TO THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN. “I think it’s a cloud,” Kaitlyn replied with clear uncertainty.
like it could really exist – almost entirely rideable, stunningly scenic, and high on the side of a towering volcano. The trail hadn’t been on either of our maps, but entering this park, we had to stop in the one-room ranger station to pay a fee. The ranger showed us a map taped to her desk that included this trail, so we took a gamble.
“Hmm. Interesting.” We continued riding, crunching along the thin layer of loose cinders on the trail. Well above treeline, our view swept from the snowy volcanic summit to my left out over green ridges and dark blue lakes as far as we could see to the west. Flowers adorned the slopes across which the trail traversed. This was one of those trails that didn’t seem
In and out of drainages we went, shooting down and trying to carry speed as far up the other side as possible before getting off and pushing to the top. I glanced back at the summit again. “That’s definitely steam,” I said to myself. This was the first time I had ridden on a steaming volcano. We stopped for lunch on the crest of the last high ridge
the trail crossed before plummeting back down into the otherworldly monkey puzzle tree forest and toward the base of the mountain. Crackers, cheese, and salami – the usual. “Hey,” Kaitlyn said suddenly in a very serious tone. My heart jumped. “Is that a condor?!” she said, pointing above us. “It is! It’s a condor!” The Andean Condor is one of the most massive birds in the world and is the national symbol of every country in the Andean region. With a wingspan of nearly 12 feet, this condor is truly enormous. “Here it comes!” Kaitlyn whispered. I struggled to
quickly get my camera out while watching the dark bird get closer and closer, soaring without once moving a wing. The condor tilted slightly to to pass directly over us. As it did, his black head looked down at us, examining the foreigners on this barren ridge top. The white collar of feathers around his neck stood out prominently. And with one last glance back at us, he continued, drifting off around the southern flank of the volcano. “Wow!” Kaitlyn said, grinning hugely. “That was incredible!” One of our desires on this trip was to see an Andean Condor, and that was about the best look at one we could have hoped for – and on the side of a steaming volcano no less. We sure won our gamble with this trail.
THIS WAS ONE OF THOSE TRAILS THAT DIDN’T SEEM LIKE IT COULD REALLY EXIST – ALMOST ENTIRELY RIDEABLE, STUNNINGLY SCENIC, AND HIGH ON THE SIDE OF A TOWERING VOLCANO.
AS WE BEGIN OUR CLIMB TO OUR FIRST ATTEMPTED BORDER CROSSING BETWEEN CHILE AND ARGENTINA, THERE ARE A FEW ROAD SIGNS WE CAN’T INTERPRET. We dutifully stop and look some key words up in the dictionary we have stored on the tablet. No dice. We resume, assuming that if the words are too complex for the dictionary, they must not concern us. And at this point, we’ve learned the many ways of expressing “no entrance permitted,” and none of those phrases were on these signs. We ride on and marvel at how quiet the road is. After we pass the hot springs, only two cars drove by as we continue up the climb. None come from the direction we’re heading, but this detail we noticed only in retrospect. Our roadside camp is undisturbed through the night. In the morning we continue climbing, riding side by side, filling the narrow road and chattering on. The top of the pass comes into sight. I’m excited to get into Argentina where the jungle is likely to subside. But something isn’t quite right. A small construction crew stops their work to stare as we approach the large gate that indicates the border. There is an equally large pile of dirt standing between us, on the road, and the gate. I furrow my forehead, confused. A friendly guard walks over, greets us politely, and patiently works through the tedious process of communicating with us. Eventually, we get the message: this border crossing is not open. He continues to offer suggestions for where to try next, north or south of here. He smiles at my raised eyebrows and asks if we need any food or water. We decline, indicating our 2,500’ descent to town won’t take long.
. EVENTUALLY, WE GET THE MESSAGE:
THIS BORDER CROSSING IS NOT OPEN.
Not more than a few kilometers past the spartan customs station at the Argentine border, we saw the first blue and white blaze of the Huella Andina (translated roughly as “the Andean Path”). These blazes, modeled after the country’s flag, mark the nearly 600-kilometer-long trail that traverses the eastern side of the Andes through northern Patagonia. The route passes through national parks, public lands, and private property, and is slowly gaining popularity since its creation began in 2009. A few sections of the route include well-traveled touristy trails, but much of
“Whooooo!” Kaitlyn shouted, elated to be on an exciting trail for the first time in nearly a week. I let the dust cloud dissipate a bit before launching off after her. At the bottom, she was waiting, grinning widely.
the Huella Andina is a seldom-traveled backcountry track. In planning our trip, the Huella Andina became the eastern side of our loop.
more fun to ride than push, and the fast, flowy trail had turned to a challenging track traversing above a long lake. Short, steep climbs came one after another,
“The Huella Andina! Finally! If this keeps up, this is going to be an amazing trail,” I exclaimed exuberantly with renewed high expectations. Two hours later, our grins had disappeared, replaced by intermittent grimaces. Loaded bikes are always
separated only by short, steep, marginally rideable descents. Unbeknownst to us, this first day on the Huella Andina would set the tone for the next week – arduous climbs and overgrown sections of trail interspersed with spurts of alpine riding and amazing swooping descents. For our entire two weeks of riding in Argentina, we found ourselves hopping on and off the Huella Andina. Sections of the route remain to be completed, leaving gaps that forced us onto dirt roads and highways. In several national parks, the trails the Huella Andina follows are closed to bikes, necessitating detours. And some sections of the route are beyond the threshold
of overgrown and rugged. That makes lugging a bike along a rather ridiculous endeavor (something we’ve learned and seem to keep forgetting). But parts of the Huella Andina were also unforgettable – alpine passes, wild foothills ranchland, and secluded beaches. Walter Oszust, one of the creators of the trail, expressed our sentiments eloquently: “To breathe it while we ride, bike, or hike its beauties, and a smile will always come to us remembering our time on Huella Andina.”
> TWO HOURS LATER, OUR GRINS HAD DISAPPEARED, REPLACED BY INTERMITTENT GRIMACES.
HOW DIFFICULT CAN IT BE TO FIND A DECENT MAP IN A TOURISTY TOWN FILLED WITH STOREFRONTS FOR GUIDING COMPANIES? RIVER TRIPS, SKI TRIPS, HIKING TRIPS – YOU NAME IT, YOU COULD FIND SOMEONE WHO WANTS TO GUIDE YOU.
We wandered down the main street of San Martin de Los Andes in search of a map, a bit overwhelmed at all the families early visiting on holiday. We had not been in anything larger than a village in a week, so it was a bit shocking to our senses. Kaitlyn spotted a book store, so we ducked inside where it was far calmer. I flipped through a stack of unorganized maps while she paged through children’s
books, looking for one that might help her improve her language skills. A topographic map of the mountains west of Bariloche jumped out at me. We’d be there in a few days, so I pulled that one out, as well as a nice regional map that was far more detailed than what we’d been using to navigate. Kaitlyn selected El Árbol en la Colina, “The Tree on the Hill,” and smiled. We paid and walked back outside.
Across the street, we noticed The Adventure Store. There was a mountain bike in the window, so we went inside, and indeed, it was a bike shop. The young man behind the counter greeted us and said something, pointing toward our loaded bikes. Neither Kaitlyn nor I understood, and the fellow recognized this and called over a co-worker.
“Hello,” he said with a surprisingly minor accent. “What can I help you with?” Kaitlyn and I looked at each other, and then she explained our situation. “We’re looking for a map that shows trails south of here. We’re heading toward Bariloche and want to ride as much dirt as possible.” “Oh,” the man said after a pause. “There’s no trail.” “Really?” Kaitlyn asked, clearly disappointed. “No, you have to ride the road. But it’s a beautiful one. Camino de Los Seite Lagos. It goes past seven lakes. We rent bikes to a lot of people who tour it over a few days.” I pulled out our ragged map of the area and set it on the counter. The man looked at it and pointed to San Martin and then used his finger to trace the Camino de Los Siete Lagos. “What about this trail?” I asked, pointing to a black dashed line. I had optimistically planned in my head that we’d follow that trail.
“There’s no trail there.” “What about that one?” I asked persistently, pointing at the only other black dashed line in the area. “Nope. Not good for bikes.” That trail climbed over a pass before dropping down to the town of Villa La Angostura. It looked like a neat route, but alas, maybe not. Kaitlyn and I looked at each other with disappointment. The man stood there awkwardly for a long moment before breaking the silence. “Where are you from?” “Estados Unidos. Arizona,” Kaitlyn replied. “Really? Where? I’ve ridden in Tucson.” The man suddenly seemed excited. “It was very rocky there.” It turned out that he had attended several different bicycle industry events in the western U.S. He also had raced there as part of the Argentine Under 23 squad. “Hmm,” he said before pausing. “Will you be in town tomorrow? I could maybe call some friends. We could do a group ride for you over lunch. We have very good trails here. I won’t charge you for guiding. It will just be for fun. And my name is Flavio.”
“WHO BUILT ALL THESE TRAILS?” I ASKED AT ONE POINT. “HORSES,” FLAVIO REPLIED WITH A GRIN.
Having no agenda or schedule, we enthusiastically agreed. He said to come back around 1:30 p.m., siesta time, and we’d ride. So we had a relaxed afternoon in town, found a hostel, ate ice cream, sat by the beach, and then did more of the same in the morning. We returned to the shop at the agreed upon time, and Flavio was there, and before long, other riders began showing up. Some had goggles. Some had knee pads. All were on long-travel full suspension bikes. Kaitlyn looked at me in surprise. “What are we going to ride!?” Before long, we rolled out of town, and for a couple hours, the crew led us around some of the dustiest singletrack I’ve ever ridden. The trails were fun – a bit technical, very scenic, and entirely deserted. “Who built all these trails?” I asked at one point. “Horses,” Flavio replied with a grin.
A bit farther along, Flavio rode back up alongside me. “This here is all military land. These trails connect all the way back to the Chile border near where you crossed. There’s a running race on them.” “Dang,” I thought to myself. “Maybe those trails would have been more rideable than the Huella Andina route that we followed.” “What’s the military do here?” Flavio laughed. “They grow horse food!” Then the trail narrowed and we got back in line. I dropped way back so the dust could drift off. It was a joy to be riding an unloaded bike for a change, and this was some of the best riding we had done yet. But like so many other places in the world, there are no trail maps, only local knowledge. We just happened to stumble into the right bike shop the day before.
THE TOOT-TOOT BIRD AND ITS ALLIES
“WHOOP CHAKA POLLOU!” COMES THE CALL AGAIN, THIS TIME FROM DEEP IN THE DENSE UNDERBRUSH IMMEDIATELY AHEAD OF ME. I HIT BOTH BRAKES HARD, STOP ABRUPTLY, AND LISTEN INTENTLY. Silence. Well, birds called out from all around me, but the mystery bird of the moment remained frustratingly silent. After a couple of minutes, my patience waned, and I sprinted off to chase down Kaitlyn. This particular bird seemed to only voice its throaty, whooping, melodic call once every ten minutes or more. Despite making a concerted effort several times already to catch a glimpse of this critter, it remained entirely elusive. Jungle birds have it easy when it comes to remaining unseen. “Toot tweet toot toot!” “There’s the toot-toot bird again,” Kaitlyn exclaimed with renewed annoyance. “Yup, and there’s another one calling out back that way. I want to figure out what it is, once and for all,” I said with commitment, gesturing to the slope to the south. These two birds were both calling from several drainages away, too distant to try to see without binoculars.
We had heard this bird every day for almost two weeks now. It sounded eternally optimistic, pleased with every daylight hour of each day. And coincidentally, this toot-toot bird sounded remarkably similar to the toot-toot bird that we had heard through out our Alps tour a couple years ago. We never did manage to identify that first toot-toot bird. I should mention at this point that we’re not birders, but we like birds. My parents are avid birders, and my sister married an ornithologist, but Kaitlyn and I just like to learn about the creatures that live in the country through which we pass. And there are a lot of fascinating birds in the Andes. “Maybe this toot-toot bird is related to the Alpine toot-toot bird,” Kaitlyn speculated. “Maybe if we can figure this one out, we can figure that one out, too!” I agreed as we pedaled down the dirt road. The prior night, we had camped high above the little town of San Martin de Los Andes, looking out over a series of rocky peaks. This morning, we traversed below one of those peaks. Stopping at a small stream for water, I handed Kaitlyn my bottle to fill as I wandered off to look for the bird. “Toot tweet toot toot!”
It came from a dead tree directly above me. I snuck around to get a better look at the top of the tree. Then I waited.
of the tree, a small bird leaned forward on its branch, listening intently for a reply, glancing left, then right, then left again.
â€œToot tweet toot toot!â€? Melodic, joyful, and in love with the early morning sun. On a branch near the top
Grey wing and tail. Dark head. Fat bill. Rusty orange breast and throat. Maybe some color on its upper back.
WE HAD HEARD THIS BIRD EVERY DAY FOR ALMOST TWO WEEKS NOW. IT SOUNDED ETERNALLY OPTIMISTIC, PLEASED WITH EVERY DAYLIGHT HOUR OF EACH DAY.
“Toot tweet toot toot!” it called out again. I excitedly pointed upward to Kaitlyn before trotting back to the stream. “That’s it!” I said with glee before describing the bird to Kaitlyn. I looked it up in our bird guide. Our toot-toot
bird is known to everyone else as the Patagonia Sierra Finch, Comesebo patagónico. It now had a real name, and we learned the bird’s story, but right up through the last day of our trip, the colorful little bird remained the toot-toot bird to us.
PATAGONIA RHYTHM THERE IS A RHYTHM IN THIS PLACE, PATAGONIA, WHICH WE SLOWLY LEARN. Lazy, gentle mornings. The air is still. People sleep late. Roads are quiet. Dogs remain subdued. The sun slowly casts soft shadows higher and higher on the mountains, quietly bringing life to the day. This is an easy adaptation for us. We laze in our sleeping bags until our coffee is gone and breakfast has been scraped clean from the pot. Then we pack gradually and ride slowly, without hesitation to stop to observe and admire whatâ€™s around us. By mid-day, the wind picks up. Trees respond, dancing, swaying, noisily shaking their limbs to the breeze. Towns and roads begin to bustle. We ride steadily, our progress ticking away
on the GPS. Afternoon heat peaks between three and four p.m. Itâ€™s hot out in the sun. Locals, seemingly satisfied with the mid-day accomplishments retreat for siesta. Shade beckons us from our bikes. We soak our feet and make lunch and more coffee. By early evening, the air starts to cool. My legs and mind awaken from their afternoon slump. Towns become the busiest, with people bustling about as if the day is about to begin. Dogs romp in packs, kids run, squealing gleefully. Miles fly by. Evening here starts when the sun sets, between nine-thirty and ten. My desire to fall asleep as darkness arrives is slowly replaced by later and later dinners. By now, the birds and the trees have quieted, but asados and dancing have just begun.
D WE LAZE IN OUR SLEEPING BAGS UNTIL OUR COFFEE IS GONE AND BREAKFAST HAS BEEN SCRAPED CLEAN FROM THE POT.”
OUT OF CAMP, WE COAST DOWN TO THE ROAD JUNCTION. STARTING UP THE FIRST HILL, I JUST WANT TO GET TO THE TOP. THE DAY IS YOUNG; A NEW VIEW AWAITS, AND I AM EAGER FOR IT. But my legs aren’t yet ready. They resist an eager pace up the hill. It’s too soon, they’re telling me, we’re still groggy. I’ll have to be patient. When bikepacking, your legs call the shots. I try to distract my mind from focusing on the distant crest and my spinny pace by looking around, admiring the soft morning light that slowly awakens the hillsides. My mind won’t have it. It won’t be fooled into playing tricks on itself. Instead, my head decides on a mind-body check in. Mindfulness is what is wants. Feet: recovered from their initial shock of slipping into wet socks, they are now content in their place for the day. Achilles: one is sunburned but safely guarded beneath a tall sock for protection from further damage. Calves: they have resumed normal status after a few days of mountain scrambling soreness. Knees: they will be the last to loosen up, I know, as I breathe the fresh, cool morning into them. Breathing: in, out. Quads, hamstrings, glutes: the workhorses of a cyclist. It is for them that I spin along in my easy gears as they gently push and pull the cranks in smooth revolutions. They deserve this time to warm into the rhythm and task of the day, pedaling. Stomach: it is content. Not full, not yet hungry, as it burns away breakfast. It should be good for another hour or so, I assess. Butt: it shifts around, feeling for its place to settle into for the day. I stretch under my pack; my back feels loose and relaxed. Inhale. Exhale. I glance at my arms and hands. They are a shade of bronze that on me can only suggest sun and lots of dirt. My face is relaxed, eyes soft on the road, not yet blinded by the brightness that will come with the lifting sun. I breathe, focusing on my breath. My lungs fill with cool air smelling of wildflowers and dry grass. Inhale. I can taste the aridity. I love it. Exhale, bliss. Subconsciously, I’m shifting into a higher gear. Consciously, I realize my legs are awake and ready to go. They push and pull in stronger circles, moving us forward faster, my wheels eating up the road, moving forward to each new horizon line. Kurt pulls past on my left. His legs are ready too. Synchronized awakening. Moving Mindfulness.
STRUGGLING FOR WORDS THE PERSON FACING ME IS SMILING PATIENTLY. I’M FUMBLING WITH WORDS. DIGGING TO THE BOTTOM OF MY BASIC VOCABULARY, SEARCHING FOR A WAY TO PASTE SIMPLE WORDS TO STRING TOGETHER A BASIC QUESTION. My conjugations are off. I speak mostly in the present tense. My pronunciation is horrible. I wonder briefly if my struggle with language is related to my notable lack of musical inclination. Oh well. They’re smiling. Half nodding, half confused…or is it amused? I stop, out of words and gestures. I smile and hope for a simple response, one I can interpret half of. I think they understood. Success. Communication! They respond gently, slowly, clearly, with more hand gestures, and confirm my clarifying repetition with “Si” or “No.” Now we know. Bikes are not permitted on this stretch of trail, nor the next. But through great effort, we have a new route per the recommendation of this patient park ranger. I turn to leave, mentally exhausted but triumphant.
DUST ON DUST
. ROOTS IN ALL DIRECTIONS,
SOME DROP STEEPLY TO THE NEXT AND EVERY ROOT AND RUT IS COVERED BY DUST. ITS DEPTH IS INDECIPHERABLE.
MY KNOBBY TIRES REACH INTO THE DEEP MOON DUST, SEARCHING FOR SOLID GROUND TO GRIP. Rounding the bend, I look ahead. Dust. I slow my bike. The dust cloud surrounds me. Through it, I can see the orange of Kurt’s pack disappear deeper into the cloud. Or around the next bend? I can’t tell. Squinting my eyes and tucking my head to my chest in an illusion of creating an eddy of clean air, I pull my bike to a stop. Foot down. Waiting, I take my water bottle out and wiping the dirt from the nozzle, I take a drink. My throat is dry, scratchy from breathing here. The cloud is settling. I look at what’s ahead. Roots in all directions, some drop steeply to the next and every root and rut is covered by dust. Its depth is indecipherable. Kurt’s tracks are quickly indiscernible, having refilled by the now settled cloud. I have a line. I don’t like angled, off camber roots, so I’ll go straight down the fall line, moving left to right on the trail. Clean air, time to go. Bottle back in its cage. Left pedal up, ready to push. Right leg up. Pause, balance. Go! I release my brakes and roll forward with a few pedal strokes to build up the momentum to pump through the ruts. I descend, dirt moustache pushed wide by my smile as I create my own cloud behind me.
HORSES, HORSETHIEVES, AND COWBOYS
HORSES IN YARDS. HORSES IN PASTURES WITH COWS. HORSES IN THE STREET. HORSES LED BY BICYCLES. HORSES IN DOWNTOWN. HORSES ON THE BEACH. HORSES ON A ROPE, TIED TO A POLE. HORSES JUST ON A ROPE, NOT TIED UP AT ALL. HORSES IN A DITCH. HORSES IN THE RIVER. HORSES ON THE TRAIL.
Here it seems as though the horse has outlasted the gaucho or cowboy of Patagonia. Horses, cows, sheep, and the occasional cowboy offer a glimpse into a not-to-distant past that mirrors that of the late 19th century of the western U.S. - vast open rangeland and a lifestyle built around grazing animals. Riding into the town of Cholila transports me to the feeling of so many Montana towns along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route. Nestled along a small river, Rio Blanco, a log cabin stands, looking remarkably out of place, as if plucked right out of the Tetons. Under the alias of Ryan and Place, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid built this in the early 1900s to seek refuge from North American persecution. Looking around, I can only imagine how at home they felt gazing across the dry, bare slopes that quickly give way to high rocky peaks.
Glancing at my Horsethief leaning against the cabin, Iâ€™m reminded of how bikepacking lets me live my cowgirl dream. I smile. On my Horsethief, I get to ride all day, occasionally stopping to sit in the shade with my shoes off, and as the sun sets, find a camp to lay out under the stars at night. I shrug off my internal scolding for romanticizing a lifestyle and muse at how maybe horses are still more suited for this place than bikes. In the 27 days thus far, we have found very little trail suitable for bikes. The best trails weâ€™ve found have all been tightly wound around towns, with few trails connecting dots on our maps, despite our greatest research efforts. And many of the more remote trails weâ€™ve explored appear to have been established by cow or horse, thus resulting in rutted trail through thick brush and ignoring principle of contouring. While at many times I felt the horse still deserves its
GLANCING AT MY HORSETHIEF LEANING AGAINST THE CABIN, I’M REMINDED OF HOW BIKEPACKING LETS ME LIVE MY COWGIRL DREAM. I SMILE.
center place in this landscape, I was also grateful for my Horsethief. On a horse, the miles and miles of road would have been excruciatingly slow. On my Horsethief, they were incredibly comfortable. Without a care in the world about overall efficiency, a fullsuspension bike is incredibly comfortable rumbling over miles upon miles of washboard. While a horse would have made all the steep hike-a-bikes far easier, I wouldn’t trade in any of our thrilling singletrack descents. And thinking warily back to our days bumbling through bamboo…whether on horse or foot, I’m confident it would be equally suffocating. While sometimes it feels like Kurt eats as much as a horse, I know his roll-of-cookies-a-day plus a few thousand other calories holds no weight to what a horse would require for food.
“Coffee’s ready!” Kurt announces. I leave my bike against the cabin to join Kurt by the tree decorated with a cow skull to enjoy a mid-morning cup of coffee before taking on the rest of the day of riding bikes. It’ll be our last day of trail, the Huella Andina, and our last day in Argentina. Thinking ahead, we’ll need to get Kurt more cookies, and I hope to camp along the Rio Futaleufu. And I bet there will be a horse to share the camp with.
FULL-SUSPENSION AND BIKEPACKING IF A FULL-SUSPENSION BIKE CAN
RIDE LIKE A HARDTAIL ON SMOOTH ROADS, BUT TRANSFORM INTO A BACKCOUNTRY TRAIL MACHINE WHEN PRESENTED WITH RUTTED, ROCKY, ROOTY, MUDDY, OR JUST PLAIN FORGOTTEN TRAIL, IT’S A NOBRAINER TO BRING IT BIKEPACKING. Over the course of multiple day endeavors, suspension reduces the fatigue that slowly builds from bumbling over potholes, washboard, rocks, and ruts. We’ve found ourselves in the minority of bikepacking folks by choosing full-suspension to tackle longer trips that often include quite a bit of pavement in the search for trail, but since nailing down our packing system, we haven’t once regretted the choice. Bikepacking is most fun when you can ride as much of the trail as you normally would on an unloaded rig, so we use the bikes we would choose to rip around on at home and make our camp and food systems work with the bike.
Carrying our stuff hasn’t been an issue. We bring our “normal” long-trip bikepacking kit: • Clothes to stay warm and dry • Sleeping setups • A li ght shelter • Light running shoes • Alcohol stove • Small first aid • A solid repair kit • A book • A tablet (for digital maps and birding apps) • Camera • Pot/cup/spoon • Tooth/sun related toiletries To accommodate those items, we use a decent sized handlebar bag (6-7” diameter, usually ~14” long, packed) and a small seatbag. Our framebags and toptube bags are reserved for food and water. We each carry a 20-ish liter pack, generally with a layer, water, a hat, and maybe overflow food the first day after a resupply. Riding a medium frame with quite a bit of post out, Kurt can use a dropper post with his seat bag. Despite only having 3” of tire clearance, Kaitlyn uses a small seatbag and if her bike has a dropper post, she’ll stuff the seatbag in her pack for the occasional dropper-worthy descent. Increased comfort and fun always affirms our decision to give up one liter of framepack space and a little bit of seatpack space. On some level, bikes with greater cargo carrying capacity encourage people to overpack (of course in some environments, the capacity for water, food, or winter gear is invaluable). Full-suspension bikes encourage you to lighten your load, and less overall mass results in more energy to stay on the bike longer reducing hike-a-bike to times when it’s only truly necessary. We’ve got more gas in the tank after a long climb to enjoy the descents that follow, and it’s easier to be stoked at the end of a day if you didn’t burn all your energy reserves just to get to camp.
TAKE A LOAD OFF, RIDE LIKE A HORSETHIEF The way the Horsethief rides unloaded has been in part what inspires us to take a full-sus bikepacking; we can stop in a location, pull the bags off, and enjoy a world-class day ride just as any other tourist or local would. A 130 mm fork and a 120 mm rear shock make for a playful, do-anything trail bike. It never feels like overkill, the weight of the suspension isn’t a burden, and ripping around technical or rugged backcountry singletrack on such a capable bike is a blast. Finally, the name and little horseshoe emblem on the seat tube let Kaitlyn pretend she is a bike-riding-cowgirl. And when in Patagonia, the “last frontier,” it’s especially relevant to ride and camp among horses, to stumble upon Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s refuge cabin in Cholila, Argentina, and to ride into the vast open spaces under gigantic sky– living the dream of exploring a wild world.
THE GRAVITY OF EL BOLSÃ“N
C IF EL BOLSÓN WERE SITUATED SOMEWHERE IN THE
WESTERN U.S., IT WOULD BE THE PLACE THAT EVERY 20-SOMETHING MOUNTAIN LOVER WOULD WANT TO LIVE
A DAY OF STELLAR RIDING ON THE HUELLA ANDINA USHERED US INTO A RURAL VALLEY SURROUNDED BY JAGGED MOUNTAINS. Two separate rivers flowed south through the valley, draining into a large blue lake beneath an even more imposing mountain range. Scattered farmsteads occupied the northern part of the valley, and farther south sits the small town of El Bolsón. Our tentative plan was to spend a couple nights in town before continuing south, resupplying, doing some laundry, and maybe exploring the area with a short day ride. After passing through a series of touristy mountain towns in which we felt claustrophobic and eager to leave, spending time in El Bolsón almost felt refreshing. It felt more like an actual town. But tired from a long day of pedaling, we went straight to a grocery store, bought some vegetables, a steak, and wine for dinner, and retreated to a quiet campground just outside of town. And over this delicious dinner, we made a plan to spend one day in town, staying at a hostel the following night.
But one day stretched into two, and two unexpectedly turned into three. We relaxed in town the first morning, searching out maps for the last part of our trip. We drank coffee and researched ferry and bus options in case we ran out of time to pedal all the way back to Puerto Montt. I looked at bird books in a bookstore. We went on a “day ride” that ended up being more like a long hike-a-bike slog up and down. We’re good at finding trails like that without even trying. We explored the town’s famous market where sellers peddle hand-made goods of all types, many created by hippies who discovered this attractive town in the 1970s and never left. And we hiked up the tallest mountain in the area, leaving our bikes at the trailhead and trotting to the summit of Cerro Piltriquitron. If El Bolsón were situated somewhere in the western U.S., it would be the place that every 20-something mountain lover would want to live. But hidden away in western Argentina, El Bolsón remains a relatively quiet farm town, surrounded by spectacular and quiet countryside.
E THERE WERE SO MANY STARS THAT THE DARK SILHOUETTES
OF THE SURROUNDING MOUNTAINS STOOD OUT PROMINENTLY DESPITE THERE BEING NO MOON TO SPEAK OF.
THERE IS ALWAYS A SENSATION OF DISBELIEF AND A SLIGHT FEELING OF HELPLESSNESS WHEN TOLD THAT YOU CANâ€™T GET THROUGH ON THE ROUTE YOU PLANNED ON TAKING, ESPECIALLY IF YOUâ€™RE ALREADY MANY MILES INTO THAT ROUTE. But once again, earlier the prior afternoon, we retraced our steps away from a wildfire and unexpectedly found ourselves on a quiet dirt road through the desolate, arid pampas well east of the Andes proper. Our goal had been to ride in the mountains, not away from them, so we were both a bit disappointed with this turn of events. After a hot, shadeless afternoon, we made camp on a yellow grassy hillside, and enjoyed an expansive view of the big country spread out before us. The only signs of human presence were the road and tiny specs of sheep far below us. We slept soundly, tired from the long, warm day. Then in the pre-dawn stillness, I awoke to a bright sky illuminated by stars. There were so many stars that the dark silhouettes of the surrounding mountains stood out prominently despite there being no moon to speak of. And somewhere below all the stars, not too distant, came the rhythmic and resonating thumping of a kick drum. Dance music? Way out here? I
puzzled over it for a bit. There were no lights in the valley below, and we had seen no signs of buildings the evening before, just sheep. Bump bump bump bump . . . I got up and walked out toward the road for a better view. Nothing. I slowly meandered back to my sleeping bag and crawled into its warmth. Groggy and perplexed, I fell back asleep, my toes tapping to the beat. When I awoke after sunrise. I looked around, thinking for a moment that we were in Wyoming. But that thought was promptly interrupted. Bump bump bump bump . . . The dance music was still going! But there was certainly nothing visible in the valley beyond grass, bushes, and sheep. We ate breakfast as I bopped up and down to the beat. With 120+ kilometers of pavement on our detour before returning to the big mountains, we wanted to get as many miles in as possible before the day warmed up, and we were off quickly. Rolling down the hill away from our camp, I stopped several times to look and listen. Sheep bleated as the beat went on. But still, there was no dance party to be seen. So on I pedaled, bouncing slightly as the beat continued in my head even after we left that lonely valley.
FORWARD AND BACKWARD CHANGING PERSPECTIVES
I PEDAL FORWARD; THE WIND PUSHES BACK. Each rise and fall of the washboard is a slight movement backward, and then forward. I swerve around the road, seeking the smoothest path, and occasionally a break from the wind, falling into line behind Kurt. Guardaparque entrance. Pare. Stop. Fuego, grande. Fire, big. Camino cerrado. Road closed. And backward we go. The wind at my back, pushing me forward. Washboard flies by, rumbling below. The wind knew all along. But Kurt is grumpy. I’m annoyed. We’re now turned around and on our seventh major detour. We need to go west, to cross back into Chile, and pedal out the remaining days of our trip to our flight home. The closure pushes us east, away from the mountains we need to get through. We’ll need to detour 100 mostly-paved-miles out and away from our destination. There are options. We ride the detour. It’s paved, and windy, and trafficky, and adds miles to our tight return trip, I whine to myself. We could backtrack north, on highway, to a trail crossing of the border. Guaranteed hike-a-bike, possibly for several days – not an option. Not now. And I want to see farther south yet. The Futaleufu River and surrounding mountains are enticing. We could hitch or get a bus. Both vehicle options are dismissed; we want to keep riding until we run out of time. We like none of the options. This is why we ride along grumpy and annoyed. No more detours. No more busy roads. No more pavement. No more hike-a-bike. No tight agenda. No complicated logistics. No paying to get out of it. Ugh. Something has to change, and it can’t/won’t be our route. It will have to be our perspectives. And that’s that.
We resolved to embrace the long road detour east. New perspective. A tailwind helped. Low traffic helped. Spectacular views helped. Agreeable legs helped. Dismissing any urge to commit to a motivated itinerary helped. We’ll just ride as we wish. When Monday approaches, we’ll figure out where we are and figure out how to get back to Puerto Montt. We relax and ride on, heading east, without a care for the dust, washboard, heat, cars, or miles to go. And, somehow, that detour remains as one of our favorite days on the route. We loved the new landscape, the high, dry pampas edging up to the towering foothills. We were graced by our first guanaco sighting, the classic Andes mammal. Four condors sailed over us. We found a place to return to in the future, with more time. And we were completely present in the place, moving along with full contentment with our pace. Perspective is in the power of the beholder, and it always wins.
TIME IN THE MIND A BEAD OF SWEAT CLINGS TO MY BROW. All my other sweat flows freely, off my skin, or into my clothes. Why is the one drop clinging in the wind, right above my eye? It’s mile 56, and my legs are finally moving on their own accord. Looking back, Kurt is out of sight. I think back, not able to pinpoint a location where I last saw him. Bonked, broken, or birding, I muse. I assume the third, and my legs continue pedaling, uninterrupted. He’ll catch up, or I’ll pause at the top of the next hill to get a longer view back, I decide. My bead of sweat reminds me to drink. A survey of the geography around me shows no sign of water close by. We’re back in a landscape I know. It’s arid. The views are vast. Dry pampas give way to rising slopes that reach high into the sky. There’s a peak ahead, holding snow on a south facing gully. I drink a little. My mind wanders to Butch Cassidy and the
Sundance Kid who sought refuge just a few miles back. Did they too find a sense of comfort here, even relief, in the familiarity here? Southern Colorado, northern New Mexico, central Arizona, Wyoming, Montana, I see it all here in the dry, velvety, rocky slopes, and cobbled creek beds that quietly await the next storm. “….anado.” Suddenly, I’m aware of Kurt’s wheels grinding over gravel behind me and I catch the end of him reading the Guardeganado sign out loud. Cattle guard. Surprised, and abruptly pulled from my world, I don’t respond. I didn’t hear what he said. I was somewhere else. Here. So is he. He isn’t surprised by my silence. He too knows how the mind slips in and out of time, reality, and places as legs pedal miles by. My bead of sweat is still there, sitting on my brow. I glance at my watch again. Just four minutes have passed.
COMFORT IN HEADING EAST
LIKE THE PREVAILING STORM TRACKS OVER NORTHERN PATAGONIA, WE TRAVERSED FROM COASTAL CHILE, CROSSED THE RUGGED AND IMPOSING RANGES OF THE ANDES, AND PASSED EASTWARD INTO THE WIDELY-SPACED FOOTHILL RANGES. AND UNEXPECTEDLY, THE FARTHER EAST WE TRAVELED, THE MORE COMFORTABLE WE BECAME. Near the coast, we rode beneath massive volcanos, crossed under glaciers clinging to steep mountain faces, and circled beautiful lakes day after day. But the forests around us were uninviting, choked with bamboo, raspberry, and a whole host of other undergrowth all competing for every inch of space. Trails were overgrown. Old two-tracks were overtaken in just a few years. Towering above the thick undergrowth are the majestic coihue and Araucaria (also known as the monkey puzzle tree), reaching higher and higher to be the first to grab the sun’s energy. This is what’s known as the Valdivian temperate rainforest, a unique ecosystem found only in this region. For much of our time in the Chilean mountains, the roads and trails we followed were nothing more than narrow corridors sliced through the dense forest. The tall green walls blocked out views of the surrounding landscape. Steep, turbulent rivers running parallel to us were heard but not seen. Animals hid from us with no difficulty. And we remained confined to our green tunnel.
But as we slowly moved east, we watched as the undergrowth became a bit less imposing. The bamboo decreased in density and height. Tangled vines became rare. Sunlight reached the forest floor, and trails became more rideable. We no longer felt claustrophobic, and the drier air brought relief to our lungs. At the eastern edge of the Andean ranges, past the deep glacial valleys and long, narrow lakes, we finally found ourselves completely at ease with our surroundings. Widely scattered trees, dry air, shrubby grasslands, rocky cliff bands, and views from horizon to horizon. As we pedaled, we shared comparisons of what we saw to landscapes back in our part of the world: Nevada, Wyoming, western Utah, southern Colorado, and even North Dakota. It was here, at the far eastern edge of our loop, that we felt most at home. It’s no wonder that Butch Cassidy sought refuge here as he fled from Pinkerton agents back in the United States. There was even a short-lived effort back at the turn of the last century to create an English-speaking American colony in this part of Patagonia. But that plan fizzled, and subsequent calls for rail lines and the industrialization of northern Patagonia failed to gain traction. Today, the region remains sparsely populated and surprisingly unchanged from what it was a century ago. It’s just the kind of place I could envision myself calling home.
FIRE AND ICE FROM THE EARTH, UP CAME FIRE. FROM THE SKY, ICE FORMED. VOLCANOES, SHAPED BY FIRE NOW SURROUNDED BY WATER. GLACIAL MOUNTAIN VALLEYS, FORMED BY ICE, NOW TAUNTED BY FIRE. OVER THESE MOUNTAINS, ENDLESS AIR BLOWS. EARTH. FIRE. AIR. WATER.
IN PATAGONIA I WAS TOLD THERE WAS NOTHING IN PATAGONIA. BUT HERE, I FOUND EVERYTHING.
I was told there was nothing in Patagonia. But here, I found everything. Forest, the greenest and densest Iâ€™ve personally ever seen. The lushness encroaches on every available space. Pampas of spindly brush and brown grass, its vast space seemingly only occupied by guanacos. Volcanic cinders so recently fallen from the sky, now pushed aside as if plowed in the last snowstorm. Glaciers clinging to high peaks whose departing, cascading waterfalls allude to their future in time. I found narrow, rutted, overgrown trails that are clearly forgotten and roads where bulldozers slowly cut into the banks and trucks dump fill in preparation for paving, I found water in nearly every form. Ocean, rio, arroyo, lago, laguna, cascada, nive, and heilo. Of these, the lakes and rivers are most notable. The turquoise waters take my breath away. It is true, vive el agua. Water is life. And yet I find thirst, for in dust and cinder, water cannot be found. I saw glimpses of Patagonia cultures, divided by a border. Such similarities, and differences to the foreign eye. Quiet mornings, busy nights. Thermoses topped with agua caliente, to brew the matte at any opportunity. Bright clothes. Fast words with accents my novice ears can barely discern. Smiles everywhere. Ramshackle homes that lack electricity and a firm roof rubbing elbows with artsy mansions that sport strong gates and big views. I found a place where dirt road tourers flock en masse as well as places that a bike should never go. I found endless opportunity for exploration and thrilling adventure and developed a liberating disregard for agenda and itinerary. In Patagonia I found a place where modern exists with a strong retention of the timeless sense of frontier freedom.
EXTENDED PLAY: THE MAGIC OF FRAMEPACKS AND BAGS MARK SIREK
Mountain bikes have received a remarkable amount of technological upgrades in recent years; new tire sizes, suspension technology, dropper posts, and better and better use of materials in frame construction all stand out. But in the end, those things haven’t changed the essence of mountain biking: you still venture out in search of trails, do your rides, and head home. To me, the most significant advancement in the off-road world has come in the form of framepacks and other bikepacking bags. Why? Because they delay the head home part. I love my home – don’t get me wrong – but I love riding and living outdoors more. Grab your shelter, something to sleep on and in, some food to fill your belly, and maybe your toothbrush, and throw it all in frame packs and
bags. String together routes. Ride larger loops… or longer point-to-points. Live outside. Fall asleep and wake up with your bike. Do it all over again as many days in a row as you can. Not able to take an extended trip? Even if it’s just an overnight, take it. It’ll do wonders. Frame packs and bags help to combine my favorite things, and for that, they get my highest praise. Salsa’s EXP Series bikepacking packs and bags were designed by folks whose favorite things happen to match up with mine. They know that the best equipment on a bikepacking expedition is the kind that doesn’t draw attention away from the desired experience. EXP Series packs and bags were created to play supporting roles, allowing you the freedom to explore without worry.
THE EXP SERIES INCLUDES A WIDE RANGE OF PRODUCTS. The EXP Series Framepack takes that negative space in the main triangle of your frame, and turns it into something akin to the trunk of a vehicle. It keeps weight centered, and gear out of the way of trees, rocks, or other off-road obstacles. It’s built with extremely durable fabric and zippers, and the result will see you through many miles, and many adventures. The EXP Series Seatpack keeps gear high, centered, and in line with you and your bike. Much like a dry bag or stuff sack, the EXP Series Seatpack fits a wide range of load sizes, and dutifully carries anything you need on your next two-wheeled mission. A builtin air purging valve lets you release air as you compress the bag to get a tighter, more compact shape. The EXP Series Toptube Bag provides quick and easy access to essential food and gear needed during quick rides or throughout a bikepacking adventure. Mates perfectly to our frames with two-bolt mounting eyelets on the toptube, or adjusts with hook and loop straps to just about any other. Perhaps most revolutionary, is the EXP Series Anything Cradle. Much like our Anything Cage HD, the Anything Cradle is built to create carrying capacity where once there was none. The Anything Cradle mounts horizontally in front of your handlebars with super tough 6066 aluminum mounting hardware, and hinges for supremely easy installation and removal. The same amount of thoughtful flexibility in our Anything Cage HD can be found throughout as well with multiple loop options for our Anything Straps. The placement of the Anything Cradle holds your gear about two inches away from bars. This gives ample room for cables without fear of kinking them, but not so far away that handling feels like you’re grabbing the pointy end of a fencing sword. Loaded up, everything feels well distributed, and cockpit components can still be adjusted just how you like them.
We also offer the Anything Cradle in two other configurations. 1) Anything Cradle, Straps, and Dry Bag 2) Anything Cradle, Straps, Dry Bag, and Front Pouch. Note that each part can be purchased individually as well. The EXP Series Dry Bag is tailored to fit the Anything Cradle, attached via a pair of our Anything Cradle Straps. Fully welded construction, maximum versatility, and clever hook and loop points for ease of attachment make this supremely useful dry bag a crucial part of your bikepacking set up. The Exp Series Anything Cradle Front Pouch adds easy accessibility to the kinds of gear you rely on throughout the day on a bikepacking adventure. Fully welded-in construction for day in, day out abuse, and a buckle attachment design that fully integrates with our EXP Series Anything Cradle and EXP Series Dry Bag. Chances are, after reading this, you’ve thought of a handful of rides you could transform into multi-day fun with the necessary gear packed onto your bike. I like to think of bikepacking gear as a low cost of admission to a bigger, and I’ll say better, world aboard two wheels. Your destination can be Mongolia. Or it can be the nearest State Park. Either way, packing up a minimalist kit and heading that direction on two wheels is a sure bet for adding a bit of zest to your cycling life.
FINDING EVERYTHING IN THE SOUTHERN ANDES
Follow Kurt Refsnider and Kaitlyn Boyle’s two-wheeled immersion in the geography, culture, and frontier freedom of the southern Andes.
Published on Jul 6, 2017
Follow Kurt Refsnider and Kaitlyn Boyle’s two-wheeled immersion in the geography, culture, and frontier freedom of the southern Andes.