Early on in South America, some hostels included a breakfast that was disappointing, to put it lightly. Two pieces of bread and one cup of black coffee. Enough butter for one piece of bread, and enough jam for roughly half of the other.
Lately, the hostels have been doing much better: as much bread and jam as you want, including multiple kinds of jam, along with orange juice, milk, cereal, hot chocolate, even yogurt!
This one sunk to a new low: coffee and crackers, no bread. Barely any butter or jam. I ate all of the crackers in the basket, since there was no one else there, and left.
A couple hours into the day, I met three Swiss guys who spoke varying levels of English, but spoke French to each other. Most of the time, I could understand them. They were all on different bikes and had started in Bogota, intending to reach Ushuaia somewhere around New Year's. I rode with them for a while, until a hill split us up. Two of them could climb just as well as I could, better even, despite carrying a lot more.
I eventually got away from the Swiss, on a long downhill with a powerful enough headwind that I might as well have been on a flat. When it bottomed out, I found myself in a pickle. There was a roundabout, and the way I needed to go was blocked off. I could see the town ahead of me, no more than 4 km away. There were no detour signs. The other way to go from the roundabout was not blocked off, but a look at the map told me that the road did not cross the river, and did not connect at all to the way I was going. In a car, a one-hour detour is possible, but to me, that's a whole day, maybe more. I would have to find a way around.
I looked across the way, to the other side of the town. I saw a truck driving towards it. So the highway was still open once you got to town. I would just have to make it there somehow. I maneuvered around the roadblock and continued. Almost immediately, I saw the problem: a bridge was out. No problem, I could walk Valeria down and across.
It took some trouble, but once I got to the bank, it looked like no problem. The river was barely ankle-deep, if that, and the current was a mere trickle. My feet would probably get wet, but if that's the worst thing that happens to me today, I'm doing pretty good.
I took one step and nearly fell over, taking another step forward to keep my balance. Valeria followed suit and lurched forward, out of my control. I was now waist-deep in mud-sand, and Valeria was in almost to the tops of her wheels. So that sand wasn't as firmly packed as I thought. I tried to move my foot. It didn't.
With enormous effort, I managed to shuffle one foot at a time until I'd merely turned around. There was no way I could make it across the river like this. I had no idea what to do about Valeria. She's hard enough to push when she's not stuck in the mud. Pushing her up onto a river bank, backwards, while struggling against almost literally quicksand, sounded almost impossible. I managed to get her up on her back wheel, front wheel in the air, and then gave her a bear hug while lurching forward to the bank as best as my legs could do. We collapsed on the bank together, my feet and her rear wheel still in the river, but out of its clutches. Hard part over. Now to figure out how else I can get across...
I surveyed the terrain with my eyes, trying to find a spot where the river wasn't wide, or where it was less likely to make a pool, and then decided to go back to the roundabout and ask a motorist if there was another way. As it turned out, going down the other exit from the roundabout, there was a sign for a detour only 100 m later. Having that sign at the intersection might have been helpful.
I ate some bread and waited for the Swiss, figuring I'd save them the trouble and confusion. We took the detour together, a sandy gravel road that continued the whole way to the small town. With thinner, balder tires than the rest, I brought up the rear.
The Swiss bought some groceries in town and found a spot to settle for lunch, asking me to join them. I couldn't resist. I only had a little bread and cheese with me, but they gave me a sandwich with eggs, tomatoes, onions, and pate gras. I shared my cheese. They said it was tasted strange to them, and told me they missed good Swiss cheese and bread. Being from Texas, I missed so many things...my first week back home would be almost entirely dedicated to food.
After an hour-long lunch, I bid the Swiss farewell and left to continue. They were sticking around to have a nap, and I can't say I wasn't a little jealous. Before I left, I rinsed out my shoes and socks, covered with and full of wet sand. They got a little better, but still far from perfect.
A monstrous wind was still in effect, but the wind and the road had both shifted, in opposite directions. Tailwind! I was about to have one hell of an afternoon. I shifted up, smiled, and put the hammer down.
Then there was a pile of dirt across the road and a path leading off to an unpaved side road.
Son of a bitch!
The highway was under construction, and I was relegated to a crappy interim road, much like in Bolivia. And once again, it was primarily composed of washboard surface, loose rocks, and sand. Unlike last time, I didn't bother to switch to my fatter tires and stuck with what I was running at the time: a bald on the front and a ‘tweener on the rear. I fishtailed a lot, and only had to unclip and set a foot down a few times. Luckily, I never went over.
This went on for 20 km. Then 30 km of pavement. Then...30 km more of gravel, a little better this time, but still sandy and full of washboard. By this time, the wind had shifted once again, and was in front of me. Can't anything go right and stay that way?
It's a shame that the unpaved roads keep appearing like this, because these areas could've otherwise been some of the coolest riding I've done. The high desert in Bolivia, and now this area full of volcanic rock formations. In both cases, virtually no auto traffic, just peaceful, easy riding, or it would be if you didn't have to keep your head down and dodge obstacles the entire time. Of course, if the roads were paved, there's a good chance the no traffic perk goes away.
I didn't make it as far as I'd hoped that day, but still managed to get close. In some no-stoplight town, I started asking if there was a place to camp, and unbelievably, this town had a well-groomed municipal campground, free to use. Running water and lights, hedges separating the sites. Not bad at all! This would be a comfortable night of camping.
Unfortunately, this was one of those towns populated by dogs that never stop barking. Which, in short, means it was like most towns in Latin America. I was reminded for nine long hours why I've only been camping in the country, and always sleep indoors in towns.
I made the mistake of leaving my powdered milk in a plastic bag on top of my panniers, rather than putting it inside for the night. When I woke up in the morning, there was a trail of white powder leading about 20 m away, where there was a chewed-up plastic back and a lot of paw prints.
I got to the halfway point of the day later than I wanted, after a morning that mostly felt like one long, drawn-out climb. Leaving the town, I crested a hill and came around a corner! Yesss!! Maybe I was about to coast down for an hour.
The wind showed up. Again.
"Think again, puny human!"
I was in my climbing gears going downhill. I spent the entire afternoon hunched over my handlebars like I didn't have the strength to hold myself up. I'm not even sure what the terrain looked like, because I spent 90% of the afternoon with my head down, staring at the pavement.
I don't know how, but I eventually made it to Chos Malal. After not getting the chance to have chivitos in Malargue, I figured this would be a good place. Multiple times, I asked someone, and they confirmed that Chos Malal was a good area for chivitos. A rich dinner sounded like a good treat after a day like today.
Once I got to Chos Malal, I asked around for chivitos. After four different people told me there is not a single place in town to get chivitos, I gave up trying. What is it about never finding food exactly where I'm told to get it? I rode through the Andes for weeks without managing to have cuy once, and now I can't find this either. Is this all some weird prank?
I decided on another course of action, and around dinnertime, I asked a worker at the hostel if there was a grocery store open nearby.
It was 6:45 PM. So apparently no restaurant opens before 9:00 PM, clothing stores stay open until midnight, but God help you if you want bananas after 5:00 PM.
Luckily, the large grocery store was still open. I got some fruit, a dark beer, and a liter of ice cream. I went back to my room and watched Harry Potter, dubbed in Spanish. After today, I'd earned it.
As I left Chos Malal, I wound up riding with a middle-aged guy on his mountain bike, out for his morning ride. He was a retired cop. We did about 20 km together before he turned around at the top of a hill. I asked him about all the roadside shrines I keep seeing, and didn't quite understand all of his explanation. It had something to do with the poor gauchos getting robbed by bandits, so they tried fighting back, and at some point the police or national guard got involved, and the shrines are to the gauchos, I think, and they're all red because that was the color the gauchos wore. I still don't understand why people put piles of plastic bottles in front of them, sometimes full of water, sometimes empty. This guy didn't know why either.
A flatter day, with less wind, but still not none. I met a Swiss couple halfway through, driving all of the Americas in their yellow RV. They'd been at it for two years!! I love going on these adventures, but I think it takes someone special to stick with it for over a year at a time, especially when they have a greater ability to hurry up and finish if they want. I've been less than six months and I'm dying for normal toilets, a normal shower, normal currency, my normal language, normal food, a normal bed, just my whole life to be "normal" again, for at least a week or two. Refraining from all of those for another two years, purely voluntarily, is something I would prefer not to do. Kudos to those who can hack it!
I found a municipal campground in Las Lajas, about $7 for hot showers, electricity, and well-groomed campsites: shade trees, picnic tables, and thick, soft, green grass. So nice I could've gone without my sleeping pad if I'd wanted.
I immediately noticed another bike next to the only other tent in the campground. Time to introduce myself! I strolled over.
"They didn't tell me there was another cyclist here!"
She set down her pen and journal.
"Do you speak English? Well?" I asked. The farther south I go, the more I get faked out. The locals can have a European look.
"Yes." Her accent definitely wasn't Spanish.
"Where are you from?"
"Oh really? Where in Germany?"
"Like the Black Forest?"
"Yes." Her answers were short, and she sometimes took a few seconds to respond. Either her English wasn't good, or she wasn't thrilled to talk to me.
"My family is from the Black Forest. Or my mom's side, anyway."
She nodded. A little later, she added, "If it is OK, I would like some silence? The last few days have been...and I want to be alone."
"Alright. I'm going to go set up my tent."
I set up my tent, took a shower, rinsed out my clothes, and had some bread and cheese. I had started writing in my journal when the German came over.
"I am sorry if I was rude earlier, I only..."
"Hey, no problem. I think you just had one of those days, and we all have those."
"Yes, the last few days have been difficult." She told me a little later that she was about a week and a half into her tour, which is a tough no-man's-land, after the excitement has worn off, but before you've finished getting used to it.
Steffi and I went on to have the normal bike touring conversation, where we started, where we're going, how long we have. Steffi had something like four weeks of vacation and was going to take a bus on occasion to be able to see everything she wanted to see. She still had almost three weeks to go and was going to cover a lot of ground!
In the morning, my bread and cheese were gone. Much like the powdered milk, I'd left them on top of my panniers, only this time, there wasn't a trail of powdered milk to follow. I really hate dogs...
Steffi wound up giving me some bread, as she felt bad that I wouldn't get my breakfast. We headed out of town together, but not before stopping in at a bakery. Neither one of us had planned to, but when we rode past, both of us hit the brakes. It smelled that good.
As soon as we were out of town, Steffi turned one way to go to Chile, and I turned the other way to continue south. We hugged and parted. I started seeing cows again. I remembered what someone had told me, that in Argentina, the barbecue is especially good in areas where you see a lot of cows. Maybe that would be a good lunch...
I stopped in Zapala, the first sizeable town I'd seen in two days, and probably the only one for the next two. It had already sounded like a good place for a hot meal, and now I figured it likely to have good barbecue. Almost immediately, I found a restaurant whose name and sign out front basically screamed "BARBECUE."
I went inside. "Do you have barbecue?"
"No, not now."
Holy smokes...why does this always happen?
I wound up having a huge-ass steak. It was good, but not as good as I'd hoped the barbecue would be. Steak by itself has mostly lost its appeal to me. It's only one flavor, and not the strongest or most interesting one. It's like eating vanilla ice cream with nothing on it. Or sushi.
By the time I left, the wind had, predictably, gotten stronger, and within an hour, it was devastating. Much like the day into Chos Malal, I kept my head down, shifted into a low gear, and did my best to power through it. I tried keeping my mind occupied on something else, singing songs and quoting movies to myself. It was some of the most impossibly slow progress I've made. In light of the wind and gravel for the past four days, I consider it nearly an act of divine providence that I've remained on schedule. And to think that it gets worse in the south...
In Zapala, I talked to someone who asked where I was going, and when I told them my route south, they told me to change course and head for the Andes. There was another way to get to Bariloche, and according to this guy, it's much better.
"There are more mountains, but less wind." This guy was not a cyclist, but was addressing my concerns directly. "It is only a little longer, and it is beautiful. You need to go."
I checked the map again. The way I was planning was straight, flat, and shorter. It was also entirely paved, and the mountain way wasn't. But if there was really less wind...
I went to the mountains.
I stayed in a town only 20 km past the turnoff, not quite in the mountains yet, but within view of the start of them. Once again, found a campground in town, cheap with hot showers and electricity. These campgrounds cost more than some of the hostels in Peru, but are better places to stay!
I wound up meeting a bike touring couple from Vermont, who had just come up the way I was headed. They confirmed that I was going into can't-miss scenery, and told me the gravel was short and not so bad. Sounded like a welcome change.