Texas Hill Country
October 12, 2020
Course of a Different Color
It wasn't long in the morning before the mountains made an appearance, and not long after that when they showed their colors.
About the same time, the wind started. Against me, of course. I shouldn't even bother mentioning that anymore. The wind is always blowing, always strong, and always in the wrong direction, no matter how many times the weather forecast says it'll be behind me.
San Martin de los Andes is a major tourism hub, so I stopped there to buy mittens and a new shirt to replace the one that's been ripped to shreds.
The funny thing was trying to ask for mittens. I didn’t know the Spanish word for mittens, and none of the store workers knew much English. I had to describe them, without knowing the word for "fingers."
"I need gloves. But not gloves. I need gloves without these," I said, pointing at my fingers. "Not like this," spreading my fingers, "like this," I put my fingers together.
It wasn't until the second store that they understood the word I was looking for: "mittones." Of course. I should've thought to try that.
Oddly enough, even in a town known for skiing, it took four stores to find mittens! Even then, they had to go to the back to find any, and the only ones left were a women's pair! Not that I care; they're black mittens. I went a size up, and they fit fine.
It bugs me that I spent money on a shirt just like one I have at home, and on mittens not unsimilar to a pair I have at home. But I know I'm gonna need them. They'll be worth it.
After a long midday delay, I set off for Villa la Angostura, the next sizeable town. A fairly long distance away, but do-able. I started off on the long climb away from San Martin de los Andes, slow, but doing decently well against the hill. There were campgrounds everywhere. There were lots of cyclists, mostly on mountain bikes. There was an enormous smile on my face.
Not a lot longer, and the wind hit me with full force again. The smile wavered, then vanished. It’s difficult to be going into the wind and be happy at the same time.
The road I was on was called the Way of the Seven Lakes. I don't know why, but I'm drawn to bodies of water. Lakes, rivers, streams, waterfalls, the ocean, I find them to make the best scenery. Wind aside, today was a good day. It also had a crapload of climbing. But that I could deal with.
I met a virtually uncountable number of cyclists, most of them clearly just out for a ride or a guided day tour (no panniers). I met two self-supported tourists though, two older ladies, one from Argentina and the other from Austria. They weren't talkative.
Late in the afternoon, I had to deal with 15 km of unpaved road. The first 3 km were perfect; firm hardpack, no bumps or rocks whatsoever. I've seen paved roads much worse than this! But it was not to last. Over the next 12 km, I must have dealt with every kind of non-paved surface: loose rocks, deep sand, firmly embedded bumpy rocks, washboard, mud, and any combination thereof. When I finally made it back to pavement, what a relief!
The sun was on its way down by the time I made it to Villa la Angostura. OK, so I must be finishing up around 7:00 PM, a little late, but not bad. It wasn't until I found a campground to stay when I looked at my phone and saw that it was nearly 8:30 PM. The sun still wasn't down. I'm starting to like this.
The campground was nice, but no better than the ones I'd stayed at in Las Lajas or the town a couple days before. The difference was this one charged double what Las Lajas did (the other was free), and wanted even more if I was to go so far as to use an outlet.
I thought about walking into town to get something to eat, but knew I'd have to wait until 9:00 PM to do it. And in this area, it would cost a lot. And in Latin America, restaurant service is slow. It would probably be after 11:00 PM before I made it back to my tent. Instead, I walked to the grocery store, right next to the campground and thankfully still open. I bought a few necessities, a ton of fruit, and an amber ale, from a brewery by the name of Patagonia. How perfect!
When I rode through town first thing the next morning, I found the center of town teeming with people wearing running shorts. For whatever reason, about 90% of them were wearing blue shirts. As it turned out, there was a marathon that morning. A trail marathon! I had a pair of trail runners in my panniers...
The temptation to join in was overwhelming, and if I hadn't had a WarmShowers host in San Carlos de Bariloche that night, I might've tried to join in. I had a feeling it was sold out though; there were a lot of people there, and a start/finish area that rivalled what I've seen at some urban marathons. I talked with a few runners before the race, wished them luck, and continued.
I spent a lot of the morning thinking about trail running. I should get into it again when I get back...
And to do a trail run here? With this scenery? I was missing out.
Halfway through the day, I met a German touring cyclist going the other way. He had come into San Carlos de Bariloche from the east, and told me the wind had been so strong, he hitchhiked the last 100 km into town. Then he told me that he did the first 30 km of today in one hour, the wind was so strong. Yippee, what I get to go into to finish the day...
I could see San Carlos de Bariloche over 30 km before I got there. Not one of those km was fast. The wind, coming across the lake, well, there was shockingly a strong headwind somewhere in Argentina. I moved slowly.
Just as I made it to city limits, I spied a roadside barbecue stand. I smelled it before I saw it, and it smelled good. I thought about whether or not I should stop, knowing I had a WarmShowers host waiting for me. But WarmShowers hosts rarely feed you in Latin America, and Argentinian barbecue is supposed to be that good. I stopped.
I am glad I did. Wow. Still not as good as the best I've had in Texas, but this didn’t disappoint whatsoever. I still don't like that the beef often includes a tough gristle, but it had some good flavor to it, and the chorizo was flippin' awesome.
Miguel, my host, lived at the far end of town, adding a solid 10 km at the end of the day, including a couple of ridiculous climbs that had me using Valeria's very lowest gear. When I finally arrived, Miguel hadn't made it home yet, so his wife showed me to where I'd been staying. Behind the house, in a building that looked like it could be a very small apartment building, they had a room set up specifically for touring cyclists. Hot shower, bed, and a kitchenette! I was immediately comfortable.
Miguel made it home on his bike after a couple hours. Miguel is a music teacher, plays a handful of woodwind instruments himself, and used to own a bike shop. He's since given up on that as a business, but still keeps an extensive workshop for his own use. When he showed me inside, I was floored. There must have been over a dozen bikes in there, and he built them all! No, not put them together, he builds frames! He tends to favor the style of old road bikes, and many of his have beautiful lugs at the joints.
Miguel may be more knowledgeable about bikes than anyone I've ever met. Each of his bikes had a different set of components and drive train, typically from different countries and eras. It was fascinating to look at these bikes and hear him describing them, "This is a French shifting system, they stopped making them in the 70's. This one has English brakes, they stopped making those in England, but continued making the same kind in Argentina. This bike has all Argentinian components, mostly based on Italian parts..."
Notably, none of his bikes had components from Shimano, SRAM, or Campagnolo. "Trying to defeat the Japanese monster!" he exclaimed.
Then he took me inside his house to show me his bike "museum." There were about six bikes hanging from the ceiling in the living room, all of them older than my parents. All of them were in pristine condition and only had either original parts or equally-old replacements. And they would have to be, because none of these parts are made anymore. None of them had derailleur hangers, and so to maintain chain tension, had to come up with something creative. My favorite, a three-speed, required the rider to slide the rear wheel fore and aft at the same time as changing gears! Imagine doing that while pedaling! Makes you appreciate how easy it is now.
Miguel had once ridden from his house down Ruta 40 to Calafate, one of the southernmost points on my journey. It took him 12 days. I was planning for more! Miguel has apparently won some races on gravel roads, so it doesn't even bother him.
"Your enemy isn't gravel, though," he informed me, "It's wind."
"Isn't it from the west though? Cross wind isn't that bad."
"When it's that strong, it's worse. Headwind, you can shift down and pretend you're climbing a mountain. In cross wind, it knocks you over. If you can't stay vertical, you can't ride at all."
He went on to tell me that he met two motorcyclists that gave up with about 1,000 km to go before Ushuaia. And it only keeps getting stronger as you go south.
I now had a comforting mantra though: if Miguel could make it in 12 days, I could make it in a few more.
Miguel's wife makes excellent chocolate chip cake...
It was Sunday when I left Miguel's house, so he slept in as I pointed Valeria south like I do early every morning. On my way out of town, I wound up on some especially crappy gravel...on one of the only roads leading out of town. It's hard for me to understand how someone goes to the trouble of building a road at all if they don't think it's important enough to pave it.
After pushing off at 7:30 AM, I broke free of the clutches of San Carlos de Bariloche at 9:00 AM. Not the best start to the day. My reward: hills. LOTS of hills.
It was slow progress all day, and was already noon when I stopped after only 60 km for lunch. I had been told that the trout in the lakes area was fantastic and wanted to try some, but I'm still not willing to go to dinner after 9:00 PM. So I'd have to have it at lunch, and this was maybe the last chance. But when I read the menu of this place, it looked like their specialty was cordero. It was Sunday. It was a warm, sunny afternoon. Yeah, this is a time for barbecue.
Cordero is Argentinian barbecued lamb. I'm already a big fan of lamb, a rich, tender, flavorful meat. Barbecuing it properly could only add to that. In Argentina, cordero is made by taking a big thing of metal shaped like a capital 'I' and attaching a whole lamb to it, spread-eagle. Then you build a campfire underneath and cook it that way. This one involved a glaze made with a stout lager. Ohhhh yeah.
The service was predictably slow, but this time, I didn't mind. The weather was perfect, and I enjoyed sitting on the deck of this house in the hills, overlooking a green, bumpy landscape. It had been a tough, frustrating morning, but there were so many worse places I could be. I was happy to be here.
Then I ate the cordero. Holy craaaaap!
It was good.
After lunch, it felt like the whole day turned around, in no small part because there was a lot of downhill from there on out. I arrived in El Bolson earlier than expected, thinking maybe I should push on and try to make tomorrow, a long day, a little shorter. But just on my way out of town, I saw the sign for the HI hostel I'd planned on staying at. Oh, what the hell. It had been a long day. Tomorrow had more distance, but wouldn't involve so many delays. I turned onto the gravel road.
20 minutes later, I turned around. Screw this. I had gone maybe 1 km. I had walked at least half of it. I had fallen over a couple times. I had almost exclusively used Valeria's lowest gear. The road wasn't even gravel, it was loose rocks the size of apricots, and it was steep. I had no idea how much farther the hostel was, but no matter, it wasn't worth it.
Back on pavement, and still headed mostly downhill, I flew towards Epuyen, wondering if I could make it the whole 50 km before dark. After one last challenging hill, I did! Coming into town, I saw several signs for hostels, which I hadn't expected in a town this small. I might stay somewhere just as good and cover more distance and avoid a crappy road!
I'd ridden through most of town without seeing a hostel when I stopped and asked two women where the hostels were.
"They're all by the lake."
"Where is the lake?"
"You go on that road."
"How many kilometers?"
I didn't feel like riding another nine km out of the way, only to do it again backwards in the morning. And it was starting to get dark. I think the two women read my expression and understood I only wanted a place to sleep.
"Do you have a tent?"
"Why don't you stay at the church? Go behind it, there is space, and water too."
She went on to apologetically list a few things they didn't have, some of which I didn't understand.
"I do not need much." She smiled. I headed over.
The church not only had a hose outside, but behind it, a perfect spot for camping. Flat ground, soft, thick grass, all inside a small grove of trees. I've been happy to be reacquainted with my tent these days. I don't know if the hostel would've been that much better anyway.
Getting to Esquel involved almost no problems...except wind. As always. None of the day was bad at all, maybe a little colder than usual, but in the last 20 km, the road pointed due west to Esquel, straight into the wind. I suddenly understood why the German I met had hitchhiked into Esquel. If I had to do 100 km like this, I might've done the same.
Now remind yourself that I abhor loud noises. Now imagine listening to that for two hours. I hate wind...
When I finally made it into Esquel, I headed to the post office. I wanted to send some stuff home, about three kg of gear that I no longer need. Three kg is still not even 10% of Valeria's total mass, but on hills it makes a difference, doubly so on gravel roads. A lighter bike doesn't sink down into soft surfaces as much, and doesn't hit the bumps as hard. I wanted to be as close as possible to lightly scampering over the terrain when I left the pavement behind the next day.
The post office kept astonishingly good hours, but to send something internationally, the customs office has to be open too. It's only open Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, 8:00-10:00 AM. Six hours a week. Not even a full workday. It was Monday afternoon. Not only could I not send it today, but not tomorrow morning either.
After the post office, yet another problem: the HI hostel was not at its listed address. Instead, there was a pharmacy. I asked three people where it was, always saying the full name of the hostel at least twice. One person guided me to a different hostel. The other two gave me directions to...nothing, really.
After at least a half hour of this, a young woman in a pickup stopped me, maybe having noticed that I appeared to be looking for something. She didn't know where the hostel was either, but gave me perfect directions to the tourist information center, which is conveniently not located on a major street or anywhere you might stumble across it.
The tourist information center was, of course, closed. Because no tourist has ever visited this town after 2:00 PM. I was about to give up and try that other hostel when I saw a side door. I decided to try it. It was open, and at least three people were inside. They knew exactly where the HI hostel was and gave perfect directions.
Was that so hard? Why not unlock the front door and do the same thing?
The hostel was small, but comfortable. I was put in a two-bunk room with an Argentinian and two Spaniards, one of which bore a strong resemblance to a young Robin Williams. I'd planned on going out to dinner that night, but didn't need to; three different people shared their dinner with me! I went to the corner store for some good beer and shared back.