10,000 Miles: Episode 13

Mile 9,816*: Ushuaia, Argentina

Selfies from the first and last day of my journey. The first photo was taken in a parking lot outside of a mexican restaurant in southwest Columbus, Ohio. The second photo was taken right outside the Ushuaia city limits.

There were twenty miles of uninhabited dirt road in between me and the only town for hundreds of miles in every direction. I had run out of food and water. The only thing I had to eat that day was old deli meat that smelled like boiled eggs. I received multiple gashes on my legs and torso, while riding my bicycle along a four mile stretch of a hiking path that was never more than twelve inches across. The path went up and over two mountain ridges, six streams, and one very muddy swamp.

It was there in the Patagonian back country that my bicycle racks — up until this point were being held together with electrical tape and bungee cords — broke so completely that they were unable to hold my forty pounds of gear. I quickly fashioned straps to my bags of gear and balanced them on my shoulders. The bags swayed back and forth under my armpits as I pedaled. Then my bike chain broke once… twice… three times over the course of a quarter of a mile. It was the third time the chain broke that I realized my bicycle was in such a state of disrepair that I would have to walk twenty miles into town without food or water, while carrying forty pounds on my shoulders. And with that realization I had a moment of irredeemable hopelessness.

*Miles indicated are miles cycled, not total miles traveled.

Lago del Desierto, where the four-mile footpath ended at the Argentine border control outpost. This was the view from my tent, first thing in the morning.

“EVERYTHING YOU DO IS A HALF-ASSED FAILURE!” My words disappeared into the vast emptiness of Patagonian wilderness, failing to reach a another set of ears other than my own.

My frustration and rage flailing out at anything my mind could grasp that was not me, I cursed everyone and everything I had ever known because for that one moment I would have done anything to be anyone else.

My words devolved into bellows of rage as I yelled and yelled into the serene Patagonian backcountry. I had done it. I had hit rock bottom. Desperation consumed me and all I could do was howl.

The howling proved cathartic, like the vocal equivalent of punching a pillow. My anger dissipated and exhaustion took over. I slumped to the ground and gave myself a few minutes of silence to compose myself and to summon what little energy I had.

It was at that moment another adventure cyclist came round the bend in the road. He had all new gear, bright and shiny in the morning sun light, and a English St. George’s Cross sticking out behind his bike trailer. I found his newness to be obnoxious.

“Hello!” He greeted me in a chipper Colin-Firth-Playing-the-Nice-Guy British accent. His day was going great. What an asshole.

I grunted.

He took me in: bike on its side with its chain broken on the ground; my bags strewn all over the place; me sitting in the dirt, shirtless, my skin brown and red from sunburn and filth and punctuated with cuts and bruises.

“Are you okay?” He inquired, oh so concerned for his fellow human. Asshole.

Everything is fine.” I said in Spanish. I refused to engage with him in English. I pointed to his bike, laden down with twice as much gear as my bike. “Do you think you will be able to cross the border with all of that?”

He stared at me in confusion for a moment, then offered a tentative “Sí.”

With a significantly lighter load than his, I had strained the muscles in my shoulders and back from hauling my seventy pounds of bike and gear up and over hillocks and wetlands buried in two feet of mud. Not only was my bike too heavy to take on a hike, but too unwieldy as well. Riding the hiking path from Lago O’Higgins to Lago del Desierto, I had gone over my handlebars twice. The second time I tumbled over my handlebars, I had almost impaled my stomach on a tree branch as thick as a bodybuilder’s forearm. My brain, upon recognition that I was millimeters from almost certain fatal impalement, released all my adrenalin. The adrenalin high made my heart pound in my ears; I hyperventilated; my vision blurred. I had to sit down on a log because I thought I was about to vomit what little food I had in my stomach.

This British neophyte was really in for it.

I let out a chuckle that was all malice, “Well, good luck and God Bless you, sir!

Again uncertain what I had said, he slowly replied with a terribly accented, “Gracias.”

I shouldered my bags and picked up my bike. He was not taking the hint that I no longer cared for his company, so I waved and said a slow and loud, “Adios!” In the infantilizing way that most Peruvians liked to address me.

He biked on without returning my goodbye. And I trudged on. I felt bad. I felt bad while doing it and I felt worse after.

Adventure bicyclists and motorcyclists on a Patagonian ferry. Patagonia was full of long-distance cyclists.

From Ohio to Patagonia I had been friendly to everyone who greeted me on the road. And if it was another cyclist, I always stopped to chat.

A lot of adventure cyclists I meet get the most out of visual spectacles: Andean glaciers, hard to reach indigenous ruins, pristine beaches, etc. But for me it is all about the people. I got just as much out of twenty-minute conversation with a local shepherd as I did from two hours of walking around Machu Picchu.

My rudeness to that English cyclist was the first time I had shut down an active human interaction. That, and I refused the well provisioned cheery English cyclist’s help out of spite, at a time when my brain screamed for food and water. Why?

And the reason came to me, “You were being petty because you did not want him to see you cry.”

And then I stopped, took my bags off, propped my bike against a tree, sat down on a rock, gazed up at Mount Fitzroy, and had a nice long cry.

The Patagonian Back Country: A beautiful place to have a nice long cry.

I have debated what is the most beautiful part of the Americas with other Pan-American cyclists, the majority of whom are more partial to the beauty of the southern Bolivian highlands. But I found the beauty of the Andean high plains — a landscape 14,000 feet above the sea that only has two seasons, sporting rainbow colored rocks with only llamas to keep me company — to be other worldly. It was beautiful, but it was a beauty firmly rooted in the sublime.

I was taught at an early age that true natural beauty was the American West: Yellow Stone, Yosemite, The Grand Tetons, etc. And in that respect Patagonia with its pine forests, glaciers, and fjords, was the kind of Ideal Beauty my mind was used to.

Glaciers rising into the clouds above Lago Bertrand on the Carretera Austral.

After spending Thanksgiving in Santiago, I took a bus back to where I had stopped cycling the week before: Puerto Montt, the main city in the northern region of Chilean Patagonia and the start of the Carretera Austral.

The Carretera Austral is an 823 mile stretch of mostly unpaved road that connects most of Patagonian (southern) Chile with central Chile. It runs from the major port city of Puerto Montt in the north to the little town Villa O’Higgins in the south.

I was looking forward to riding the Carretera Austral because cyclist come from all over the world to cycle just this stretch of road. I was excited to always have some company, while bicycling through gorgeous landscape.

The Carretera Austral in all its glory

The Carretera Austral ends in the tiny town of Villa O’Higgins. From there take a ferry across Lago O’Higgins to the Chilean border control. From the Chilean border control there is a roughly 11 mile ride up a dirt road then a four-mile hike through the woods to get to the Argentine border control. From the Argentine border control there is another ferry crossing and then a thirty-mile ride down a dirt road to the Argentine town/tourist destination of El Chaltén. It was on that last stretch of dirt road where I had my big catastrophe (AKA breakdown, AKA shit-fit, etc.).

Lago O’Higgins. The glacial melt turns the water turquoise.

After sitting down on a rock and having a good cry, I was faced with two options: either to continue to sit on this rock feeling sorry for myself or keep moving on.

My bicycle had broken down at ten in the morning, and by the time I hobbled into El Chaltèn it was just past four in the afternoon. My exhaustion had diminished all my emotions down to a dull throb somewhere between my temples. My whole body ached and my throat was so dry it felt as if it was caked with sand. I could not stand still without swaying like a ship at anchor. For six hours every moment of my existence had been agony. But the fact that I had walked all the way there gave me renewed confidence. I had truly tested my resolve and I had not come up lacking.

But my bike was not as resilient as its rider. My Trek 920 took a real beating on the unpaved roads of the Carretera Austral: my aluminum racks had cracked in every single welded joint, my right bar-end shifter had literally fallen apart to the point that it dangled off the bike by the cable housing, my chain hobbled along for two hundred miles on a missing link until it could go no farther.

My Trek 920 on the last ferry crossing of the Carretera Austral, an hour before it completely fell apart.

After eating three dinners and sleeping twelve hours, I bounced out of bed the next morning and literally ran around El Chaltén (with my beard and tattered clothes, I looked like Forrest Gump ran all the way to Patagonia) looking for supplies to make my bike road-worthy once more. El Chaltén did not have a bicycle shop. Luckily, I met a few bicyclists who were just cycling the Carretera Austral. Having come to their journey’s end in El Chaltén, they were willing part with some of their bike racks.

I was about to attach my new racks to my bicycle when I realized I was missing an axel. I retraced my steps all over town, only to realize the axel had disappeared into the ether.

The Trek 920 has a through axel, which means it is one solid cylinder of aluminum running through the bike that is a custom length to the bike. Almost all bicycles have quick-release axels, which are more-or-less interchangeable. Without the through axel, I would have to take a bus three hundred-miles to the nearest Trek store and wait for a new part. I was only a two day bus ride away from Ushuaia. But I did not walk those twenty miles to give up so close to my final destination.

My options narrowing, I took out my phone and texted, “Hannah, it’s Dante. Can I have your bike?”

Hannah had joked with me about taking Shirley the Surly, her noble steed, off her hands when I bought her front rack. Hannah’s bike trip was over, and although she originally said it in jest, she was more than happy to give me her bike. We worked out a deal and by the afternoon that day, I was zipping out of El Chaltén on a tail wind, heading south, riding the last seven-hundred miles of road between me and my final destination.

Shirley the Surly. My new ride posing in the fabled “La Casa Rosada” on Route 40.

I am living above a beef jerky shop in Manhattan’s Chinatown now, but in quiet moments my mind only recalls Peruvian mountain passes and through Panamanian jungles and Argentine desserts. When I dream I am always back on the road. I cannot decide which is the more unbelievable truth: that I am here or that I was there. It has been four weeks since I finished my trip and I am still in limbo.

There are tells that indicate my nomadic lifestyle. I have a lot of energy now, and it keeps me up at night. I spent the better part of the year in silence sitting on a bike seat. Now I can’t shut up and I am always the last one to notice that my inner monologue has gone public.

Crossing the Straight of Magellan. There were humpback whales occasionally poking above the waves.

I have been told that what this blog is missing is my reason why I put my life on hold and bike to the end of the world. This is because the reason seems as obvious to me now as it did when I set off from Ohio seven months ago: I wanted to do something incredible with my life.

I have seen more of humanity than most of humanity will ever see for themselves. Not only did I see these people, I was among them, for my bicycle allowed me to know people at an intimate level, which does not exist behind the windows of a tourist bus. And what I learned from being among so many different people is that choice is the ultimate expression of privilege. I had the choice to do something great and all I did was seize the opportunity. Most people will never have an opportunity to prove themselves in such a way, nor will people with the opportunity will ever muster the courage to do what I have done. I know that in this way my journey was a privilege and blessing because I will always have this accomplishment in my soul as a source of power driving me forth till my final moments on this wondrous earth.

A penguin and his chick off the southern coast of Tierra del Fuego.

OHIO TO USHUAIA BY THE NUMBERS:

Miles Bicycled: 9,816

Flat Tires: 28

Weight Lost: 15–2. I was only two pounds lighter when I finished my trip, because slowly pedaling on flat roads is not as much of a crazy workout as I anticipated. But when I was constantly biking up and down thirty-mile long mountain passes in Ecuador and Peru I was fifteen pounds lighter than when I started.

Chains Broken: 5

Bikes used: 2 (N.B. If you plan on bicycling on anything other than asphalt and over 1,000 miles, do not use a Trek 920. It is not built for a cross-continental trip of any kind.)

Countries bicycled across: 9

Highest Point: 15,969 feet

Brushes with Death: 3–4 (Depending on how nervous a person you are.)

Penguins seen: At least 100.

Strangest Place I Slept In: An empty brothel outside of Trujillo, Peru.

Favorite Country: Colombia

Least Favorite Country: Panama

Place I wish I had cycled through but did not: Huaraz and Buenos Aires.

Worst Place to Bicycle: La Paz, Bolivia

Best Place to Bicycle: The Route 682 crossing from Ecuador to Peru.

Life Changing Experiences: 1 real big one.

Me at journey’s end.

The title of this blog is “10,000 miles”. And who I was in July would feel like I did not fully accomplish my goal. That after all, I was 184 miles short of my goal, and that if I had only bicycled from Texas to Costa Rica instead of taking a plane I would have been well over 10,000 miles, and, therefore; my trip was a compromised failure.

But now I do not see my trip as over, I think of it as only the beginning. That those last 184 miles are an offering of my goals and accomplishments to come.

And with that, I leave you with a video of me making it to Ushuaia.

Peace and Love,

— Dante

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