Only 10 minutes outside of Cochrane, I could hear mooing. A lot of mooing, constant mooing, in various pitches, louder collective mooing than I'd ever heard before. What was going on?
When I rounded a bend, I saw three gauchos on horseback, herding their cattle up the highway. I had no choice but to join the herd. Here I was on Valeria, my mighty steed, riding with the gauchos and their livestock. I felt like I was on a cattle drive.
The gauchos said nothing, but smiled and tipped their hats.
The day was a lot flatter, but that was nullified by the usual suspects: headwind, washboard, rocks. In the morning, I was fighting strong headwind and was constantly jostled by washboard and rocks. In the afternoon, I was fighting strong headwind and was constantly jostled by washboard and rocks. I grew to hate the wind more than the washboard and rocks, and that's saying something. At least the washboard and rocks were only slowing me down and annoying the crap out of me; the wind was doing both of those and making me cold, too. My greatest source of comfort was knowing that today would take me nearly as far west as I would go from here on out, and I'd reach the very westernmost spot early tomorrow morning. That oughta help with the wind issue.
The Brazilians has told me that the short ferry, only 100 km from the end of the Carretera Austral, ran twice a day, at noon and 3:00 PM. That meant it would probably be best to take it tomorrow, and take the first one, giving me a full day-and-a-half to reach Villa O'Higgins afterwards. I saw that there was a broad river late in the day and figured I'd find a camping spot next to it.
Places where the road is near rivers or lakes have served me well for camping spots. In part because they're often flatter areas, in part because there are usually more trees around water sources, but mostly because there's lower likelihood of a fence.
That last part makes me sad. Here I am on the edge of the Earth, a place where I'm going 100 km between seeing human settlements, and we still can't go without saying "Gimme that, stay out, it's mine!!!" Can't we have any part of the planet not earmarked specifically for the use of only one of its species? I wonder sometimes if we've taken the concept of land ownership too far.
When I reached the river, I began to have doubts on the feasibility of camping nearby. It wasn't a floodplain; it was a canyon. There might not be a flat spot to be had. And after this was 15 km of steep uphill, then 15 km of steep downhill, not promising for finding a flat spot to camp.
I resolved to take the first half-decent place I saw, when suddenly, I found a great spot. There was a whopping 10 m between the road and the river, more than was found anywhere else in the area, and a ton of both trees and undergrowth, but something of a clearing behind it. Thick, soft grass. An overlook of the river. Even a few down logs to sit on! I forcefully shoved Valeria through the undergrowth and set up camp.
Even though the road was only 5 m away, it was hard to see, though not impossible. An hour or two after I set up camp, at dusk, a government truck honked as it drove by. It didn't slow down at all, so did it see me? I couldn't imagine what else it was honking at, but if it saw me, a government truck would probably have some problem with that. Maybe the local authorities are friendly here, and lax about this kind of thing.
The misty mountains, forming walls that channeled the serpentine river, all covered in a thick green canopy of vegetation, it almost looked like a jungle. The perfect place to spend the evening starting "Heart of Darkness."
I only had 25 km to go before the ferry, easily makeable before noon. The only issue was the giant hill I'd have to climb to get there.
Lucky me, the surface was one of the best I'd seen recently, making the climb a lot more manageable. I wound up arriving at the ferry with over an hour to spare. The boat wasn't there yet, so I went to the general store and had a hot chocolate while I sat and read.
The boat arrived 45 minutes before noon, and seeing no reason why not, I wheeled Valeria on board right away and had a seat in the cabin. I resumed my book. A French cyclist sat down across from me, but somehow we were unable to keep a solid conversation going, and I wound up falling asleep almost as soon as the boat got moving. When I woke up, the French guy was sitting at a different table, talking to two other cyclists from Germany.
All four cyclists gathered together for a few minutes once we disembarked on the other side. Michel, the Frenchman, was riding a road bike, and the Germans were both on mountain bikes. I was on something in between. Unsurprisingly, once we got started on the rocks and washboard, the Germans took the lead, followed by me, then Michel, on his skinny tires.
I eventually caught up to the Germans when the hills started. Their traction and my light weight must have balanced out. We wound up talking a lot, and I eventually told them about the cyclists' shelter that I'd heard about from the Brazilians. They considered it, but also said they might stop earlier.
Hills, hills, and more hills. Longer climbs than are usually found on the Carretera Austral, and just as steep. Rocks and washboard, though that was no surprise. It wasn't easy. I eventually got away from the Germans, and looking back from the top of one hill, I couldn't see them. I assumed they'd decided to stop.
The Brazilians had told me that the shelter was exactly 46.2 km after the ferry, and was after the last of the hills, once it finally gets flat. The shelter wouldn’t be visible from the road, but there would be an entrance, on the left. I crested one last hill after 44 km. Should be any minute now! Below the hill, there was a lake, on the left side. From the top of the hill, you could see that there was nothing along the lake. You'd think the Brazilians would've mentioned a lake, whether the shelter was next to it, or just past it. Were they wrong?
Not much past the lake, I saw an entrance, but couldn't see where it went. If anything was the correct spot, this was it. I dismounted and walked in. After a short distance, and around a curve, there it was.
The place was awesome! A big clear area, a table, benches, a bed-like area for your sleeping bag, even a fireplace! And there was a separate outhouse nearby! Not that the outhouse was luxurious, but if a lot of people are going to stay there, it’s necessary.
There were a couple signs up, asking people to clean up and pack out their trash. As such, the place was perfectly clean, at least by bike touring standards. A few people had left things behind for others to take: a bottle of mustard, a canister of fuel. I made use of a packet of sugar and cinnamon on my otherwise plain, cold oatmeal.
I wanted to get a fire going in the fireplace, but no longer had a lighter. I kept hoping the Germans would show up, both because I wanted to share this place with them, and also for their sake, as I didn't want them to miss out. They never showed. I had the place to myself for the night. I know it might not seem like much, but a house, free for you to use, is the coolest friggin' thing when you normally don't have one.
I awoke in the morning with a little more spring in my step. I was finishing the Carretera Austral today! And it was Thanksgiving! I'd be able to find a hostel, whip up a big feast, and call some folks back home!
Rocks, washboard. Rocks, washboard. Thankfully, no hills or wind. Just rocks and washboard. No end to the rocks and washboard.
Multiple people had told me that the last section of the Carretera Austral was the very best part, but after doing it myself, I don't think it stuck out as special. Maybe because I didn't get good weather. Cloudy all day, and off-and-on drizzle, like always. If I'd had a clear day, of which I'd only had one in ten days of riding this highway, maybe I would've seen something great that was otherwise obscured to me.
The first thing I did in town was find the office for the ferry. It wasn't leaving for another two days, but like hell I was going to miss it. Better to get it taken care of ASAP.
I went to the main plaza and found the municipal building. They told me to go to the tourist information center.
I went to the tourist information center. They said there was no ferry Saturday, but there was one tomorrow. Even better! Could I go? No, it was only for residents of Villa O'Higgins. What difference does that make? And if there's room, what would it hurt to let me on? I explained that I had a reservation and showed her the paper I received in Coyhaique. She scanned it, with difficulty, as it was written in English. Eventually, she found a name: Robinson Crusoe Lodge. The bus was departing from there. She told me to go there.
I went to the Robinson Crusoe Lodge. It was locked and no one answered when I knocked. I saw two men outside and explained that I was looking for the ferry. They pointed to a small white building nearby and told me to go there.
I went to the small white building. I was finally in the right place. They didn't have my reservation, of course. We made a new one. I couldn't pay now, nor could I receive my ticket. I had to come back tomorrow at noon for both. I didn't leave before pressing the receptionist and confirming three times that I was getting on that damn ferry...
The receptionist in the small white building also recommended a hostel, after I asked for one with a kitchen. It was basically a big house with rooms upstairs to rent. I could use the kitchen, but they didn't have WiFi. Luckily, there was free public WiFi in the plaza, and the library had computers free to use.
I bought a ton of groceries, a ridiculous amount for just myself, and asked the sweet proprietor of my hostel if she would like to join me later for Thanksgiving dinner. She politely refused. I went back to the plaza to use the WiFi to call my folks, which kind of worked...I managed to tell them where I was and say "Happy Thanksgiving," but it was almost impossible to keep a connection going. Pity. I hung out in the plaza for a couple hours, hoping to be spotted by the Germans and Michel, so I could invite them to Thanksgiving dinner.
Around 5:00 PM, I gave up and went home to cook. Not a turkey, but a crapload of sausage, grilled in a pan with bell peppers, then smothered in cheese and guacamole and put on a roll with honey mustard. Oh hell yeah!! Trying to do at least something traditional, I had instant potatoes on the side, along with canned peaches. I invited the hostel owner to dinner again, and she again refused, but joined me in a glass of good Chilean wine.
I wound up bumping into the Germans the next day. They had in fact arrived the day before, like me, and simply stayed in a different hostel, one that I thought looked good before I was recommended another one. Their description of it was glowing, and it even cost a little less. If I'd stayed there, we would've had Thanksgiving together. In keeping with tradition, I’d wanted to cook for someone, not just myself. But since I made an outrageous amount of food just for me, now I had another Thanksgiving tradition: leftovers!
The Germans had met Michel the day before and all three had gotten together for dinner. Tonight, they were planning to hang out in the plaza and have a couple beers together. Yeah, I'm in!
We met up a little late, around 9:00 PM, when it was already almost freezing cold out, but still broad daylight. Good times with friendly people, and good beer to boot. I brought a couple of my own to share, and a cake to split. Not that we had plates or forks, so we ate it with our hands. Classy! We’d all reached the point of not caring by now.