Gobernador Gregores, Argentina
Collector of clay leprechauns. Accomplished jazz harpsichordist. Designer of the arcade game ¨Streetfighter¨. Ruthless dictator. Augusto ¨Clap Your Hands Say Yeah¨ Pinochet was all of these things and more. During his time at the helm of the Chilean state, Pinochet always seemed to be on the make - or, before his recent death, on the run...from the persistent hands of justice. But among his many achievements - or at least one of the things achieved while he was in power that he signed his name to - was the construction of the ¨Carretera Austral¨, or Austral Highway.
Now before your mind conjures an image of cruising down a plush four-lane highway with your arm out the window, some classic rock on the radio, and your blinker signalling your impending exit to stop in at a PDQ because you´re jonesing for a lemon slushee, let me assure you that the Carreterra Austral is a highway in only the loosest sense of the word. It´s more like the long, rocky driveway of that weird neighbor of yours that never bothered to have it paved...you know, the guy that hands out pencil erasers for Halloween and sometimes sits on his roof in the morning drinking Mellow Yellow out of a rubber glove. No?
What the Carretera Austral did accomplish was to bring some semblance of infrastructure to a portion of the most distant and uninhabited sections of Chilean Patagonia. It is an area rich in rugged natural beauty and vexing contrasts. Indeed, for those willing to endure the poor condition of its roads, careless driving methods of its users, and lack of creature comforts, it can be quite an unexpected treasure trove.
The Carretera officially starts outside of the fishing city of Puerto Montt and winds some 700 miles south - connected at points only by ferries - until it dead ends near a group of huge, impassable ice fields at a dusty little town called Villa O´Higgins. I entered the route after my rafting escapades in Futaleufú, though I was sapped of any inclination of riding it through to the end by each rut and stone in the road. El Jugoso was calling for sweet mercy, too, having surrendered one of two bolts from the seat, one of two from the gas tank, two of two from the exhaust pipe, and almost one of four from the subframe (which, as you remember, was what caused Neubz´s bike to literally break in half in Bolivia) to the merciless hammering of the road. After eight days of being jolted around my body started to feel like it had been put in a rock tumbler, so I shimmied back east by way of Chile Chico to Argentina, which is where I am now.
Early in the voyage down the Carretera I had the sterling fortune to encounter a couple of hilarious motorcyclists, Camilo and Paul (on a Suzuki 650 and Honda XR250) from Santiago, who were heading in the same direction. We stuck together for a week, taking in the sights, meeting a string of interesting locals, and partaking of some of the deluxe accomodations afforded the budget traveller along the way. One such ¨hospedaje¨ (essentially someone renting out a portion of his or her house) was run by a cantankerous, portly hag that reminded me of one of the wicked sisters in the book, ¨James and the Giant Peach¨, except that she had liberally applied some sort of silver rock star makeup around her eyes and hated Israelis. Drama was consequently always in the air. We also encountered some kindly backwoods folks that made their own tasty cheese in old paint cans and who apparently were not in short supply of sweat pants and other leisure wear. The list goes on, but suffice it to say that remote areas of the world are seemingly always disproportionately flush in odd characters, and that the back roads of the Carretera Austral possess remoteness in spades.
The road was typically flanked on both sides by either thick coniferous forest or - somehow - lush rainforest. Given, if it wasn´t raining, it at least looked like it would rain, so precipitation was not the issue. But it was windy and none too warm, so I don´t know how some of the vegetation could survive. Consfusing but delightful, too, was how every little town was lined with flourishing rose trees exploding in a whole spectrum of colors. In addition to the to flora, the road was nearly always shadowed by the mountains of the southern Cordillera, including at one point the impossibly spindly towers of the Cerro Castillo.
And, if you haven`t guessed, I`m getting pretty far south now. This means ice, and lots of it. Several of the mountains had hulking glaciers draped over their crests like quilt racks, and the compactness of the ice gave it a deep blue like I had never seen before. At one point we had the opportunity to hire a guide to take us out onto the sprawling mass of the titanic Glacier Exploradores for a day. Exploring its luminescently cerulean caverns, walking along its bottomless and echo-friendly crevasses, and simply running up its steep ridges with a pair of rusty crimpons was one of the highlights of the trip, and I struggle to describe its vastness and majesty in words.
Departing the Carretera Austral took me along Lake Carrera, whose bright azul waters looked to have been Photoshopped in from an Acapulco postcard. The road was full of ¨twisties¨ with constantly changing views of the mountains and water - without question one of the best roads of the past seven months.
But not everything has been empanadas and roses. The teeth on my rear sprocket have worn about as thin as the lead singer of The Black Crowes, and I drive each day wondering when it will finally give up the ghost. I had hoped that getting back to Argentina would be the harbinger of civilization, but if anything it is even more desolate and disconnected from the world than was the other side of the Andes. Rainforests and mountains have given way to endless desert dotted with sparse patches of scrub brush. Towns - if there are any - are more like depressed little settlements with a gas station. In the case of Bajo Carracoles (population 37), the last town I passed before arriving here, the service station didn´t even have any gas. Thank Roy Rogers for my six gallon tank, which on the past leg was tested to its last drop.
I would be bored out of my mind were I not constantly fighting to stay on the road. A gale-force wind constantly blows across the desert from the west. Leaning into it and battling its periodic gusts is exhausting and, at times, terrifying. Route 40 is the main road south through central Argentina, but it is not paved. For whatever reason, the engineers that built it dumped on copious amounts of gravel and loose stones. The passing convoys of semis and lonely cars have left ridges down the length of the road, piling the gravel into lines between four and twelve inches tall in between. It would be easy to hoist the mizzenmast and give it the gas while blowing along in the tire tracks, but the wind (so fierce and cold that it gusts in under my helmet, makes my nose run, and then slingshots the snot onto my sunglasses or - when it gets dark and I have to take them off - into my left eye) mercilessly pushes the motorcycle towards the pile of loose gravel. If you hit it, your wheels basically become the legs of the cartoon villain that tries to run on a pile of marbles, except that if you fall it will hurt - really bad. I´ve done the dance about 20-30 times, and it is not pleasant. So far, I have kept El Jugoso on both wheels. But driving this road has been my least favorite drive of the trip. For the first time in a long time, I can say that I would have preferred being on a bus with everybody else.
Not wanting to get back on that windy road is probably why this E-mail is getting long, but I´ll bow out with a description of a crazy old man whose yard I set my tent up in two days ago.
Rolling into the town of Perito Moreno, I looked at my trusty map and saw that there was not much of anything for a while. The gas station attendant confirmed this. So I decided to set up camp. Municipal Camping costed only $2.50, but the people there were shady and there were no other tents - just guys who were sleeping in their trucks. I decided to follow the signs for Camping Raul to have a comparator.
I knew I had found it when an old man bolted into the street in front of me, waving his arms frantically and shouting, ¨Aleman! Aleman! Spreken zie deutsch?!¨ Nice. A madman that thinks I´m German.
This was the eponymous Raul. He was about 60, bald, with darting eyes, and an incoherently rapid cadence of speech. Everything he did and said was spastic and ridiculous, and I couldn´t help but imagine all the inhabitants of the surrounding houses checking their sugar bowls and finding them empty. He was obviously excited to show me his house/shack/what he later described as ¨bomb shelter¨ and camping area. The latter ended up being a section of the yard next to a garden and a large circular metal structure that I later saw two gauchos filling up with horse saddles and miscellaneous pieces of metal piping. Like a true salesman, he refused to tell me the cost before showing me all of his place´s amenities. The shower and bathroom were clean, he explained, and the toilet paper was not ¨the cheap stuff¨ - something he had to demonstrate by ripping it from the dispenser (breaking it in the process) and thrusting the roll in my face. ¨Feel it!¨
But the toilet paper was not all he had to offer. Next on display was a collection of testimonials from past visitors written in any of a stack of little books on the shelf in his personal chamber. He splayed the booklets out on the table, wildly thrashing through the pages. ¨Look! He was on a motorcycle, too!¨ I took the booklet from his shaking hand, and as I saw the passage he was referring to it was clear that the small drawing was actually that of a bicycle and that the person was from Belgium. ¨I don´t speak Fren-¨, I tried to say, but he screamed, ¨The garden!¨ I followed him outside.
He walked faster than me...probably because he was not walking but sprinting. When I got to the garden he was down on all fours in the dirt, tearing up green leaves. ¨Lettuce!¨, he proclaimed in his Helen Keller-esque manner. And with that, he stabbed about four leaves into his mouth and started munching. Needless to say, he talked with his mouth open. And with green jutting from all corners of his mouth, he explained, ¨Lettuce! All fresh! It´s for you! All of it! And the onions! Fresh!¨ He slowed down only to tell me, ¨My mother just died today...92...in Buenos Aires...16 children...¨, before grabbing an onion and adding, ¨Do you want some mint tea!?¨
His price was three times that of the municipal site, but obviously I had to stay there. It was an unforgettably unusual experience, from the hardboiled eggs he layed on the seat of my motorcycle with a note saying ¨For the road¨ to the scratching on my tent zipper which I opened to him standing with a plate of freshly grilled chicken, sausage, and beef that he invited me to eat with him. Insane? Yes. But generous and well-meaning? Now I know why all those books were filled with notes of thanks.
From here it is another painstaking run through the desert to El Calafate, base for some of the best trekking in the world. And from there, it is a paved road south to Ushuaia, that ever-dangling prize.