Towards The End Of The World

Biketouring Patagonia in the pre-digital era

illustration by christian svanes kolding

Adam was not much of a conversationalist. For the last fifty-eight hours we had ridden over one-hundred and seventy miles on our mountain bikes with not a single word exchanged between the two of us. At the end of each day, we’d find a place to camp, set up each our tents, make enough pasta for two on our portable stove, then eat it out of tin bowls while sharing a paper carton of Gato Negro Merlot, and then finally, we’d settle in for the evening, safely secured in each our personal bubbles with little more than a “see you in the morning” before signing off.

We’ve been on the road for five months. At times, it’s been long and arduous, entire days spent climbing up and over the Andes, and other days climbing back. There have been snow-covered mountain passes, headwinds, storm fronts, river-crossings and border-crossings, jungles and deserts, probably forty flat tires and over a hundred broken spokes, dozens of encounters with tarantulas, three angry shopkeepers and a couple of run-ins with petty thieves, and at this point in the trip, I had a strong sense that Adam just wanted to go home.

The year was 1994 and we were pedaling on the Pan American Highway, La Carretera Panamericana, locally known as La Pan-Americana, about five-hundred miles south of Santiago, Chile. Eight-hundred kilometers, that is. We were just about to turn east towards the Andes one more time.

It was October, when the southern hemisphere heads into spring. For us, that meant fewer mornings waking up feeling brittle and in pain from sleeping in the cold; it meant more hours of daylight for riding; and, thirdly, it meant we could shed our outer jackets, peeling off layers of gore-tex and wool, so traveling by bike felt more like an act of youthful liberation than an obligation.

Now, I had been touring ever since Quito, Ecuador. Adam joined the ride further south, in Cuenca.

We had initially been eight people in our group: four men and four women, celebrating life after university. All of us had put in thousands of kilometers on the tour but after Santiago, we were down to two groups of two, Adam and I in one while the other consisted of a couple, Jean-Marc and Hazel, who had been quarreling steadily for eight hundred kilometers, ever since we pulled out of Valparaíso and left the Pacific Ocean behind us. Neither Adam nor I could abide the thought of riding another minute with them, much less spending yet another evening in our camp listening to the ongoing meltdown of their relationship, the whimpers and tantrums, which emerged from their tent, but that we two ended up together was more by default and less by design.

I think Adam would have abandoned the tour with very little provocation had I, for example, indicated a desire to leave, but I was very much in it for the long haul. This kind of travel suited me well, even if I myself wasn’t always well-suited for it.

Without any drama, the two groups split off a few weeks back. It was all very matter of fact. Nonetheless, our collective destination remained southernmost Patagonia. We were all trying to get there before our money ran out.

Since parting ways, staying in contact with each other in order to share practical details wasn’t straightforward. Back then, there were no mobile phones, no laptops to take on the road, no wifi. There were pens, paper and mail. Snail mail. If someone was separated from the group and needed to reach the others, you either sent a letter by postal service to what you hoped was their next destination, counting on the intended recipient to stop by the right post office to ask for any mail, or you coordinated a time and date to connect either by payphone or via a call center, i.e the centros de llamados — often windowless storefronts with rows of cramped calling cabins inside. With barely enough room for one person, each cabin featured a glass door and a telephone bolted to a table, while your calls were handled by an operator working on site. That’s how I’d reach my parents back in Europe. Once every six or seven weeks, I’d find a centro de llamados to tell them that I still had all my limbs and just enough pesos and travelers cheques to get to the next country. These call centers, by the way, were the precursors to the internet café. Cyber-cafés!

Regarding Jean-Marc, Hazel, Adam and I, we all agreed that we would meet each other in about two months time in Ushuaia, on the continent’s southernmost island, under the assumption, of course, that we would all manage to get ourselves there. If not, then it was each our responsibility to make sure that there was a letter waiting for the others at the city’s main post office.

Ushuaia is both the end of the road and the most southern placed city on the planet. The Pan-American Highway finishes there, and it’s the capital of the state of Tierra del Fuego, sitting on the Beagle Channel by the fast-moving Strait of Magellan. It’s pretty barren but somehow mysterious, even slightly ominous. The stillness produces a premonition for the supernatural, a curious awareness of an unseen presence, as if one is always under observation.

If you’ve been to Reykjavik, Iceland, then you’ve been to Ushuaia. Not only for the atmosphere and its surreal remoteness, but, like geological twins, the cities bear a striking resemblance to each other. Tin houses spread out over grey hills on the edge of a bay, with only a few trees but plenty of industry, and nearby, you’ll see mountains.

It’s literally the end of the world, el fin del mundo. That’s what we wanted to experience.

The only land south of Ushuaia is Antarctica. So getting there would mean we’d have nowhere else to go except back to where we came. It would represent the end of our year of freedom as well as the end of our journey… or so we thought.

At this point in the trip, however, twenty-seven hundred kilometers further north, Adam and I were still on mainland Chile, and we weren’t really sure how far Jean-Marc and Hazel had traveled. On the rare occurrence that we stopped to talk with fellow cyclists on tour, no one had reported seeing them. And we didn’t know it at that time, but we weren’t going to see them again.

. . . . . . . . .

Generally speaking, the further south of Santiago you ride, the more the Chilean terrain resembles first northern California and then the Pacific Northwest, all the way through to Alaska. It also reminds me of Norway, for that matter. The land is verdant though rugged, shaped by faults and glaciers. There are river valleys, which initially consist of ranches and pastures but then give way to forests, many of them old-growth.

Much of our route took us along vast unpopulated stretches of rolling hills, with little more than deeply-rutted dirt logging roads that twisted and turned up and over mountains as we ascended to a pass.

Sometimes the next valley would reveal farmlands and vineyards, where there would only be one road in and the same road out.

If there were obstacles in our way, there weren’t many alternatives to get around them. If roads were closed, for example, because of a washout, a landslide or a fallen tree, you improvised or you were out of luck.

Our biggest issues, however, were man-made obstructions: 18-wheelers suddenly passing us at over 100 m.p.h. on frightfully narrow bridges, the blunt wind force creates a vortex, which first pushes and then pulls us dangerously off-course; or there are road closures due to massive construction projects, of which any advance notice somehow always eluded our attention. Occasionally, there were bandits, like teenage pirates on motocross bikes, working off of a smash-and-grab protocol. We were pretty good at spotting them and even better at thwarting their efforts.

But all of that was mostly behind us. We are now south of the more populous regions of Chile. Having turned east, away from the Pan-American, we are in the hinterlands.

In 1994, much of the Araucania region was largely unpopulated. Since leaving the municipality of Curacautín a week ago — which was more of a transportation hub than a tourist destination, though it’s also where we last slept in a real bed in each our own hotel rooms — we had barely seen any houses, much less a town.

Many of our days were spent riding hours at a time without encountering a single intersection. And the further south one pushes, slowly advancing into the land of the Mapuche towards the colder, mistier climes, the less likely it was that the road was paved.

There was a name for this kind of crude thoroughfare. Chileans called it el ripio. The surface consisted of uneven mixes of dirt, rubble, rocks and gravel. Whatever was available.

Considering that our mountain bikes each carried eighty pounds of gear, this made for hard riding, sometimes only slightly better than riding on scree. Move too slow and you lose your balance on the unstable surface. Move too fast and you exhaust yourself as your hands and shoulders ache from gripping the shaking handlebars.

Occasionally, we’d pass through a settlement, such as a cluster of houses by a river, like in Cahuilelfun, or a few homes clinging to the side of a mountain, like on the southern slope of the ice-capped volcano called Sollipulli, now to our north. These were humble structures, all of them. It had been a long time since we’d seen anything like the estates and chalets that are more common further north.

Sometimes to get across a river, we’d make use of narrow suspension bridges, many of them barely wide enough for a single car. Often so rickety, we counted our blessings each time we made it to the other side.

Other times, there were no bridges, so we would have to ford the rivers on foot, lifting our bikes as high as we could carry them. If the distance was too great to haul not only the bikes, but the panniers, tents and other gear in one go, then we’d have to wade back and forth until everything made it across.

There were not many stores or restaurants on these small roads, so interactions with Chileans were few. Sometimes, we’d stop to ask a farmer for directions, but otherwise, the inhabitants left us alone. Few of them seemed curious. Or maybe it was because we travelled in virtual silence, and they never noticed us passing through.

While waiting out a storm under cover of a roadside shanty, we encountered a huaso, a Mapuche rancher. He rode up to us on a horse, stared at us briefly from under his wide-brimmed hat, then, unimpressed, continued on his way.

I was hoping for an invitation to his home, a cottage, perhaps, or any place warm. Instead, twenty minutes later, two children, presumably his, each on a horse, and each with as grave a disposition as their father, rode by to inspect these two wingka[1], foreigners that we were, shivering in the shadows inside this wooden shelter, extranjeros in our unnaturally bright expedition gear. The children made eye contact but since neither Adam nor I spoke Mapudungun and they probably spoke neither Spanish nor English, there were no words for us to offer each other. As the rain pelted the roof, I waved but they turned and made off. They weren’t city folks, I thought. As for Adam, being a stoic farm boy himself, I imagine he felt a kinship with them.

When the downpour let up, we got back on the road.

Unlike the Pan-American Highway, in the mostly unsettled areas of eastern Chile, which forms the mountainous border with Argentina, it wasn’t truck drivers that we detested but farm animals, primarily dogs but sometimes much bigger beasts.

We had long since learned how to deal with dogs, those gaunt, unloved, hyper-aggressive guardians of ranches who ran at us with terrifying ferocity.

Initially, we used our bike pumps to frantically smack them across their backs or on the snout, which would get them to back off but not necessarily retreat but after breaking one too many pumps, we discovered that our water bottles were better suited for the task.

A simple though emphatic squirt to the face was often sufficient to startle them into hesitation, thereby allowing us to escape.

Water bottles, however, were no match for other animals, especially livestock. And it wasn’t sheep that caused us grief, nor llamas, though they could be a menace, but far bigger creatures.

It was on one such occasion that Adam finally broke his days-long silence.

We had been riding for two hours, following the Río Maichin along a solitary passageway through a narrow rift valley, with thick forests on either side and sunshine above, when we spotted trouble in a clearing ahead. As Adam rode lead, he held up his hand for me to slow down so that I could see what he saw. At first, I thought it was a mound, an unusually dark and weighty mass sprawled across the dirt road, but then I realised it was a quartet of very muscular bulls sunning themselves and blocking our progress.

We slowed to a stop and studied the situation for a few minutes. The bulls did not see us.

It was as if they had just ended their shift guarding cows, and then decided to meet in the afternoon sun for a quiet debrief on the warm surface of the road. Despite their size, they looked docile. Friendly even.

But bulls are not friendly. I had been up close to one before, albeit with a fence between us. Communicating only through heavy breathing and a look of disdain, that bull made it very clear that a friendship between us was not under consideration.

Adam carefully scrutinized the bulls’ behavior while I, in turn, studied Adam’s face. I knew he understood a thing or two about these kinds of animals.

Born in Wyoming, raised in Colorado, Adam grew up around ranches, working summers as a farmhand, very much used to spending days with little human contact, thus the rare urge to communicate, especially with words, even to this day.

He and I couldn’t have been more different.

I am from Denmark, accustomed to a lifetime of traveling from country to country, leading a mostly rootless existence, adapting wherever I go. I speak four languages and went to a university in New York City while Adam spent almost his entire life beneath the big sky in rural Colorado and barely speaks English, let alone Spanish. Though I come from an agricultural nation, it was Adam who had the expertise in bulls.

Looking ahead, I could see that there was no way for us to get past the bulls and contemplated the idea of turning around.

“Goddamnit,” I said. “That last intersection is already 70 kilometers behind us.”

I looked at Adam.

He offered no response.

“If they don’t move, then this probably means a hundred mile detour.”

Adam finally broke his silence.

“Yup.”

“Well?” I said.

“Well, I’m not turning back,” he said.

Adam speaks slowly, as if each word requires a bit of planning.

I searched in vain for an outlet on either side of the road ahead.

“It seems unwise to try to sneak around them,” I said, “That might hurt.”

“Badly,” I added for emphasis.

“Four bulls,” I offered as my closing argument and then waited for a response.

“Those aren’t bulls.”

“What?”

“They would’ve charged us by now if they were. And bulls don’t hang out together like that.”

“Well, whatever. Can’t you see that there’s not enough room for us to get by them?”

He takes a better look.

“They’re steer.”

There’s a pause.

“Not bulls.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Balls,” he said, before spitting on the ground.

“Bulls have balls. Steer don’t. A bull will charge you alright. Territorial. Aggressive. Steer?”

He shakes his head, “They’re programmed to charge but they’ll back off in the last-second. I’ve seen it happen. They’re scared. And skittish.”

He turns to look at me.

“Just like you,” he continued. “Easily spooked. Weak. Also clueless. If we move fast enough, then we can take them. By the time they react, we’ll be gone.”

I thought about it.

“Maybe we can wait this out.”

Adam shook his head while fixing his shorts.

“Sun will be going down in a few hours,” he said.

“I don’t feel like getting killed, man.”

A shadow of a smile traveled across his face, then he leaned forward slightly and looked me in the eye.

“I’m not going back. We’ll ride right through them. Right through the middle.”

I stared at the four animals, and waited for what I hoped would be an epiphany. Even though we stood not further than three-hundred feet away, the bulls seemed completely unaware of us.

“We could camp here,” I said. I knew that was a poor idea.

“If you don’t want to do it,” Adam said, “I’ll meet you at La Angostura. You’ll get there sometime tomorrow. I can wait.”

Now I shook my head.

I reached for the map in my windbreaker but as I started to unfold it, Adam put his foot on the pedal and said, “See ya” before pulling away on his bike.

“I only go south,” he declared.

“You’re a real asshole,” I responded.

I was not going to be left behind.

We both put our bikes into higher gear, and accelerated as fast as our legs would push us.

When I caught up to Adam, he grunted, “Stick to the middle of the road and don’t say anything. We don’t want them to hear us. And show no fear.”

The dirt crunched beneath our wheels. The handlebars trembled with the vibration of all of our heavy gear on the bike against the road.

With Adam in front, we kept accelerating. There was no more than two feet between us.

Heads down. I pushed. I didn’t want to look up. I didn’t want to see the masters of my imminent demise waiting for me ahead. Keep pushing.

The adrenaline really kicked in upon reaching fifty feet of the brutes. We were moving faster than as fast as we could.

In near silence, we aimed our bikes for the gap, which separated the bulls from each other in the middle of the road.

Quads burning, a final push.

I looked up. These bulls were really large.

When we reached them, they suddenly all stood up in unison, like a mountain come to life on all sides in a series of loud grunts and rumblings, but then, just like that, we were through!

We surged right past them. Like water going over the falls.

My heart hit the roof.

Keep pushing. Keep pedaling.

Then it was quiet.

But we kept moving, as fast as we could for fear they’d give chase. But they didn’t.

And I didn’t hear anything, except for the tires on the gravel.

Twenty yards later, maybe thirty, I turned to look over my shoulder. They were standing in the middle of the road right where we had left them, staring back at us like we had abandoned them at a party.

“Holy shit,” I said.

“Holy shit! That was… that was… that was fucked up… fucking awesome!”

We reached a bend and kept pedaling down the road.

Adam remained quiet.

“I can’t believe that worked!” I yelled.

We both eased up a bit and I pulled up next to Adam.

“Can you believe that?” I said.

“Yeah,” Adam said wistfully.

“You were totally right.”

“Yup.”

We rode some more.

A few minutes later, he spoke again, mumbling. “But they weren’t steer.”

“Reckon I might have been wrong about that.”

He took a sip of water from his bottle.

“Wasn’t going to turn around, though,” he said.

We were now twenty-five kilometers away from Lago Huife, our day’s destination, where there was a campsite overlooking a mostly-deserted lake by a pine forest and a few natural hot springs. There’d be views of the imposing Volcán Villarrica nearby.

Decades later, much of the area would host eco-friendly luxury resorts, over fifty of them, serviced by private jets out of Pucón and Bariloche and daily tour busses by the dozens coming from Temuco, but on this day, the land was practically undeveloped, with only a narrow dirt road from the humble main thoroughfare to the lake shore, and not a car, van or bus to be seen.

From here, we’d probably ride an hour. When we reached a part of the route where the vegetation on either side of el ripio was thick with giant rhubarb bushes, then the turn-off would be near.

Being the middle of the week, chances are that we will be the only ones at the campsite, though occasionally in these parts, one encounters other travelers on extended bike tours, just like us.

We’d previously met a lot of Israelis in our travels, Austrians and Germans. Very few Scandinavians, even fewer Americans.

In Peru, we met an English woman in her twenties, cheerfully riding an old roadster, i.e. a grandma bike. With her ordinary, household attire and little more than a backpack for gear, coupled with a handful of things in the front basket, she looked like she had just left her home somewhere in the south of England for a leisurely afternoon ride to the market but then never returned. She just kept riding. Alice was her name. Wonder where she is now?

I wouldn’t mind other company at Lago Huife tonight, especially if Adam resumes his program of silence, but I was more looking forward to a dip in one of the natural hot springs, maybe even a campfire. To sit by the birch trees and look at the water.

After Lago Huife, onwards we’d ride to the lakeside village of Puerto Fuy, south and further east of here, where we’d catch a ferry and then advance to Bariloche, the ski resort village on the other side of the border in Argentina, but all of that is still a few days ride away.

And even further down the road, we’d eventually return to Chile, where the Carretera Austral awaited us, a ripio of uncommon rawness but it was, and remains to this day, the only route south on the Chilean mainland into Patagonia.

Al sur. El sur. Sólo sigue caminando, sólo sigue moviendote.

Keep moving south.

It’s late in the day now, the sun to our right. It would be setting soon.

Legs are tired. We are getting near.

“I sure could use a joint,” Adam said.

After we rode a bit further, he added, “It’d sure be nice if I could score one from someone at the camp.”

[1] also spelled huinca

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