On February 5th, 2019, my dad and I embarked on a thirteen hundred mile journey connecting the Argentine cities of San Carlos de Bariloche and El Cepillo. Between the two cities, we rode our bicycles through the Siete Lagos region of Northern Patagonia, traversing the rolling hills and picturesque mountain lakes. We crossed into Chile, descending down to the Pacific Ocean, only to climb back into the Chilean Andes two days later. Parallelling the Argentine border for a few hundred miles, we rode through the lush mountain forests of Araucania and Bío Bío. We crossed back into Argentina via Paso Pichachén, and then rode through the high desert of western Argentina. We would end surrounded by grapevines, with Aconcagua in the distance, in the town of El Cepillo, lying at the southern end of the Valle de Uco.
To do this, I would need to take a semester away from school. My situation, which had been as normal as you can imagine, turned into a mix of online classes and independent studies based off of the trip. That change in schooling represented the change in my cycling mentality. I had always been a racer, training hard, sometimes seeing it as a chore rather than fun. This journey forced me to slow down and smell the roses.
During the thirty-eight days, I slept in some interesting places. These are a few of my favorites.
Paso Cordoba, February 7
Riding down a dirt road cut from shrub grasses and junipers, passing underneath towering rock formations during the evening of a Patagonian summer day, I felt a sense of euphoria. Looking for a wild campsite on the lower slopes of Paso Cordoba was something I had thought about since I had first plotted a route through South America. The sun was setting over the peak of Cerro Mallin, and the road began to wind into the mountains. The valley became tighter and tighter, until there was barely enough room for the lane-wide gravel road. The evening was becoming darker and darker and the canyon seemed to stretch on and on. The road became steeper, and suddenly, the canyon ended.
It opened up to a flat piece of earth on the side of the road. The ground was covered in prickered shrubs, and the earth beneath was very dusty. It wasn’t perfect, but it was all we needed. I went to sleep with the sound of a trickling arroyo not far away, the cicadas singing in the rapidly cooling summer air. Waking up in the morning, with the silence of early morning and my bags covered in frost, I rode up the pass as the sun crested the nearby peaks.
That was the first wild camp of the 1300 mile bikepacking trip we had embarked on only three days prior. After a week of winding through the mountains alongside picturesque Patagonian lakes, we crossed into Chile, beginning the next chapter.
Mehuin, February 15
I felt a lot of emptiness during those six weeks. There is the obvious, the physical emptiness of having ridden a sixty five pound bicycle one hundred and twenty miles, or carrying that same bicycle up sandy goat track, going up a steep mountain ridge at thirty percent, high in the Alto Biobío. But there was more to that emptiness. When you’re living out of the bags on your bicycle, moving almost every day for thirty eight days straight, you feel like this vagabond, without a home, just wandering. For me, it wasn’t the being away from home for so long part that makes a journey like this so taxing, it was the never being in a place for very long part. But there is a very liberating aspect to it, you have to find the aspect of home wherever you are. Whether that be a town square, a general store, or along the banks of a river fifty miles from anything. You learn find home in the sound of a river, where the rushing water reminded me of the Oyster River running behind my house back in New Hampshire.
The interesting part about living on the road with bikes packed as lightly as you can imagine, is that what really defines your opinion of anywhere is your condition when you arrive there, and most importantly, your condition when you leave. This was the case when we rolled into the seaside town of Mehuin, almost four hundred kilometers west of Paso Cordoba. After five hard days that involved crossing into Chile and riding through the hills of Chile’s coastal range before reaching the Pacific, I had entered an interesting physical-emotional state. I was thrilled to have reached the Pacific, a bucket list item that I had been thinking about since I first knew that I would be riding through Chile. But physically, I was empty.
The first two weeks had depleted me more than I ever thought possible. We both wanted to camp along the ocean, especially after sleeping indoors in the town of Mafil, where a kind old lady let us sleep in her guest room as the only other option was sleeping on the side of the road.
I had found us a place to camp right along the beach, and after setting up camp, we were both banking on a good night sleep. But that night, coming back from dinner in a little shack along the water, the wind picked up. Neither of us knew how strong it was going to get, or how long it would continue. Talking to locals the next morning, I found out that they were the highest the town has seen in years. It was strong enough to bend one of my tent poles, blow a neighbor’s tent away, and blow enough sand underneath the rain fly to leave me covered in a head to toe layer of it.
I left Mehuin sleep deprived and frustrated. When you’re on a journey, you have your highs, and you have your lows.
Lolco, February 20
As I was ascending the climb up and over Volcan Lonquimay, I thought about the evening that awaited us. We would descend into a bowl, marked on three sides by mountains and one side by the Bio Bio reservoir, spend the night camped along the road, and then climb out of the other side and cross the Bio Bio river on a livestock bridge, connecting a remote Mapuche village with the outside world. Descending off of the volcano, we passed almost a dozen marked wild campsites, along a lava flow or beside a pond. But having built the route, knowing the terrain that laid ahead, I continued to ride, telling my dad that we’d find the perfect spot. We continued to descend, with the hard packed soil turning into sand and the vegetation changing drastically. The forest gave way to flora very similar to Paso Cordoba, small prickered shrubs with sandy ground below. But this time, there wasn’t even a flat spot for a tent, as the mountainside fell into the Rio Lolco, the road precariously balanced on the edge.
Rounding a corner, I saw the first stretch of flat ground since the road turned bad. Tucked behind some bushes alongside a trickling stream, it seemed like a slice of heaven.
We were sleeping on what may or may not have been a rancher’s land, which can go a few different ways. You never know if they’ll appear in the middle of the night, ready to kick you off, or if they’ll invite you to breakfast the next morning. It’s a world of what ifs, your mind running wild, thinking of all of the possibilities. You feel vulnerable, your animal instincts heightened. Making camp that night, near the possible boundary of the Reserva Nacional Nalcas, I felt like I was going crazy, my ears picking up every sound, a branch breaking would have me ready to hit the ground to hide from one of the few ranch trucks that passed about once every hour.
That night and the following morning, I was thinking of the night as a misplayed one. I was restless all night, my mind racing, thinking about everything that could go wrong. Riding along the wide gravel road along the reservoir, after climbing out of the bowl, being passed by Chilean tourists in their SUVs, I realized how I was going to miss the remoteness of that night. It took two passes and a livestock bridge just to get to the other side of the river. That night, camping at thermal baths alongside the Biobio, I longed for it more. Now that I am back home, the adventure only a memory, it looms as a night that stands above the rest.
Guañacos, February 27
I had woken up in a semi-abandoned Chilean military base, on the border of the volcanic fields surrounding Volcan Antuco. With an early departure, we passed through the Chilean customs, ascended the two thousand meter Paso Pichachen, were welcomed back into Argentina at the Argentine customs. We continued to descend through a river valley, before climbing out of the valley onto the high plains and reaching the town of Guañacos, eighty seven kilometers from where we began. There, we found my first market in five days, and a perfect town park to sleep in.
I was told at the Argentine customs that the town of Guañacos was just a tiny collection of estancias, ranch houses, along the banks of a stream. I was later told by a fisherman we passed along our descent, that there was nothing there, and that I should continue riding until we reach the town of Andacollo.
The truest information came from an elderly gaucho on horseback, checking on his fence in the golden evening light. He stopped as I slowly rode by, his horse surprisingly not fazed by the bike. He asked what I was doing, and when I told him that we were headed to Guañacos, he smiled. He told me of the little market in town, with everything I could ever need. He told me of the town park, with its beautiful roses. He said it was a small town, but a good town. He told me that everything you could ever need was there.
As soon as we arrived in Guañacos, I went to the little market, tucked behind a few houses in the center of the very small town. There, we met the owners, Marcelo and Alejandra, who let us sleep in the town park, which I later learned was their project. They had planted roses along new walkways cutting through thick green grass, which stood out in the light brown grassland.
The next morning, sipping maté with Marcelo and Alejandra, I felt at home in Guañacos.
El Manzano, March 5
During any trip, there’s a certain feeling of nostalgia. It hits in that perfect moment, after the end can be seen and after that original desire of the trip to be over has subsided. It comes before the final push of excitement of reaching your destination. It is the type of nostalgia that makes you not only cherish the moments you had, but also the moments you have left.
Rolling on the penultimate section of gravel, my legs heavy with fatigue, but my mind and body rejuvenated after a two hour siesta, I felt that nostalgia. The golden hour light may have had something to do with the sudden trigger of emotion. Perhaps it was the car that stopped and gave me a liter bottle of Coca-Cola to finish off. Or, maybe it was a three hundred meter section of perfect pavement after one hundred kilometers of the worst gravel of the trip.
Whatever triggered it, what struck me while making camp along the banks of the Rio Grande, was almost like a weird version of emptiness. I was going to miss the feeling of the journey, the highs and the lows, that had made me so complete for six weeks.
That night was relatively far from the end, with more than four hundred and fifty kilometers to go. But, with the nature of the last week, and knowing what lay ahead, it felt like the trip was ending. Even with the vastness and remoteness of the desert, it felt like I was reentering society. Due to a spell of bad weather, staying in hostels would become the only choice, and the only road for the next two hundred kilometers was the paved Ruta 40.
Riding along the Rio Grande the following morning, seeing flamingos fishing in the early morning light, put tears in my eyes. I was ending something that had constantly given me so much joy, the good moments, the bad moments, and everything in between.