Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Mendoza's hostel, like most I've seen lately, had more than the standard South American breakfast of two pieces of toast and black coffee. Bread! Cereal! Yogurt! Orange juice! Hot chocolate!
I had a flat in the morning, even though I'd just patched the same tube last night, and distinctly remembered diligently checking for another puncture and for something stuck in the tire. I removed the tube and checked again. No, still nothing! What was going on?
Before I managed to get my tire up to full pressure, my pump broke. The hostel actually had one laying around and let me borrow it. One use would be good enough to get me to a bike shop. Good thing my pump broke in a town where I could buy a new one!
I went to three different shops before I found one I like: a lot like the old one, but doesn't have a gauge. I'll have to do some guesswork from here on out. But on the plus side, it has a smaller chamber. That means it takes more pumps to do the same job, but each pump is easier. I prefer that way.
One of the shops had a gel seat cover! I happily bought it and threw away my dead foam pad. Best $15 I've spent in a looooong time!
I wasn't out of city limits until after 11:00 AM. Mendoza is a big city. The highway remained divided outside of town, but even so, the volume of traffic was getting to me. I checked the map and noticed that another road would parallel the highway for a solid 15 km or so. Maybe by then traffic would die down? As long as this road was paved, I was going for it.
Almost as soon as I got on it, I came across two young men going for a run. They were wowed at what I was doing and invited me to one of their houses for cold water. I couldn't say no.
As it turns out, the road I was now taking is called the wine road. Once I left them and headed south, I could see why.
The road had a ciclovia, or separated bike path, and it was well-maintained! Not that it was wholly necessary, as the road didn't have much traffic anyway. Vineyards on both sides, under the trees, the mighty Andes in the background. This is what touring is all about. And I almost didn't come this way.
By the time I got back on the highway, there was a lot less traffic. A tailwind had picked up. The vineyards mostly disappeared, but green landscapes remained. I was pleased. And after such a late start, I still covered a lot of ground!
With two hours before sunset, I arrived at my planned destination, but I knew I could go farther. I could maybe even make it to Malargue tomorrow and get another day ahead of schedule! But based on different reports, and different-looking maps, I had a question.
According to three different truck drivers at the gas station in town, the most direct path to Malargue was almost entirely unpaved, and not smooth either. The only paved way involved making a zig-zag pattern out to San Rafael and back, more than 50 km longer. And just like that, Malargue tomorrow went from probable to impossible.
I decided I'd at least get something done, and maybe then I could have a short day into Malargue. I set off on an even more empty road, intending to camp wherever. It's been working perfectly well lately, why not again?
While there was little traffic, once I got a few km into the road, I noticed a problem. Both sides of the road were lined with barbed wire, even though the land was wholly undeveloped. And the vegetation was knee-high at best. For an hour at a time, I saw nowhere to camp that wouldn't be blatantly visible from the road.
15 minutes before sunset, I resigned to not finding a good spot and decided I'd take the next place that was better than nothing. And then I saw it: a slight crest in the road, where the land around it was a little higher, and a bump between the road and the fence. If I got as close to the fence as I could, my tent would be difficult to see, especially at night!
Once I set it up, I crawled around it to check how obvious it was. Only the top half was visible, and the rainfly is beige. I was in the high plains; dry soil and grass of the same color were everywhere. At night, it would just look like a big mound of dirt. Perfect.
There was already some wind going in the morning, against me this time. It didn't take long before I found the turnoff to the road to Malargue, but I hadn't realized how long I'd be on that road. I had guessed 10 km, and it turned out to be more than 20.
It was hot, probably the hottest I've dealt with in South America.
Along the way, on a road upon which I saw literally no cars, I came across a family having a picnic. I finally remembered it was Saturday. They waved me over and asked what I was doing. When I told them, they promptly gave me cold water, a real treat! By the time I had left, they also gave me a chorizo sandwich. Holy crap, was it good! Didn't have that smoky barbecue flavor I like in a sausage, but rich beyond belief.
My goal was to get to a small town 50 km north of Malargue, but after taking so long to even get on the right highway, I wasn't sure. And that was even before the hill. 10 km, none of them easy. And in the heat, tough climbs make you wilt. I downed two water bottles by the time I reached the top.
The ensuing downhill was nice, but more important was the wind! The entire rest of the day was almost entirely flat, with a tailwind. Not a particularly powerful one, but solid and steady. The opposite of what I've been dealing with for weeks. If the last two weeks had all been like this..
25 km to go, it was obvious I was making it to that town, with at least an hour to spare before sunset. Not much earlier today, making it at all was in doubt. What a good tailwind can do! Without needing a break, I took one anyway. I wanted to savor it. Flat terrain, smooth pavement, and tailwind, all at the same time. The holy grail of bike touring. It may never be this good again.
It wasn't until later that I saw I was going slightly uphill the whole time. The wind made the riding so effortless, I thought the incline had me pointed slightly down!
I asked around the town if there was anywhere I could stay. Everyone said yes, just go over there and ask, where I would once again be told I could camp somewhere else, just go over and ask. This finally ended at the police checkpoint, where they said I could pitch my tent right there, at a busy intersection right next to a gas station. I figured I'd press on and find a spot.
Maybe 2 km later, I did. A gravel road veered off from the main one, and had a soft sandy area with tree cover. Perfect. My tent was visible from the gravel road, but still not entirely. A total of one car went by all night.
With over an hour of daylight left when I arrived that evening, it was clear that had the direct route been paved, I would've made it to Malargue that night. Even if I'd merely avoided the flat tire and pump fiasco in Mendoza, I might've made it just far enough. Only just over an hour, and it cost me a day of riding.
But maybe it was good that I was taking a half day to Malargue. After several long days in a row, I could use a rest. And I've had an idea lately, one that would require some planning...
Originally, I'd planned to do the entire Carretera Austral, a famous scenic highway in Chile with virtually no pavement. Then I'd changed my mind (especially after riding unpaved roads in Bolivia), largely due to hearing that road conditions on Ruta 40 stay good much farther south.
But perhaps most importantly, I didn't want to deal with the ferries necessary to do the length of the Carretera Austral. There are a total of five, and not all of them run every day. The last one runs only once a week, costs over $100, and drops off in a location that isn't even served by an unpaved road. Yeah, no.
I finally found a compromise, where I can jump onto the Carretera Austral, do about half its length, and get off without having to take any ferries. I spent at least an hour in Malargue plotting out the new route. About the same length, but more gravel. Could be tough, but could be rewarding.
I had heard that the chivitos (goat) in Malargue was fantastic, so I wanted to go out to dinner and have some. Five times I asked where I could get it, and five times I was told to go somewhere what wasn't open. Once a guy even led me there on his bike, even though he knew it wasn't open! Turns out restaurants don't open for dinner until 9:00 PM here. That means most people go out even later. I'm in bed at 9:00! I suppose a lot of people would respond by adjusting their schedule. Not me. I had a snack and a cheap bottle of awesome local wine and went to bed.