Fall Me the Breeze
The Chilean border was farther than I thought, and on top of that, it felt like I wasn't getting anywhere. When I set out in the morning, I had the idea that I cross the border, then take the ferry, then do a little more riding and call it a day. That was true, but the distances were great.
On the plus side, I got my first look at the Atlantic! I hadn't seen it since Mexico! It always feels like a milestone when you reach the ocean. This is as far as you can go!
It was around noon when I finally made it into Chile. They made me eat my apple and orange, but allowed me to keep my bread, which surprised me. I didn't mention my huge bag of trail mix and hid it at the bottom of my panniers. I didn't want to throw it away, and it was too big to eat all at once.
I met a few motorcyclists there, including an Australian couple that gave me a pack of cookies almost before they said anything. They'd been on the road for a good while, and had also done some bike touring in their day.
It was windy, and rained off and on in the afternoon. Luckily, the forecast I saw was correct, and there was a rare northeast wind! As I was headed south the majority of the day, and sometimes even SSW, this was a blessing, rather than having a hurricane-strength cross wind from the west, like every other day in Patagonia.
Still, I think that there should be some kind of rule in effect that cold, rain, and wind never happen at the same time. That should not be allowed.
I met the Australian motorcyclists again when I reached the ferry crossing. They'd been held up there for a couple hours, and each time the ferry came to their side (about every half hour), the workers would wave on a few trucks, then close up the ferry without saying a word to them. That seemed strange to me, couldn't they squeeze a motorcycle on?
When the ferry showed up about 20 minutes later, the same thing happened; the workers ignored me and the motorcyclists and started waving on some trucks. I decided to go on down to the boat ramp and see if anyone stopped me. No one did. The Australians followed suit.
Like last time, it was exciting to get on the ferry, but this time for a slightly different reason. Technically, I'd finished the continent of South America! Everything I had to go was on an island! I'd reached the end of the continent, and everything from here on out was gravy.
From the ferry, there were two ways through the tiny strip of Chile before getting to Argentina again. Both are unpaved, and from the eyeball test on the map, looked to be about the same distance. I asked a ferry operator and a truck driver, and both said that the western route was much better. I went to the upper deck to relay the info to the Australians. They were watching dolphins follow the ship and leap in the air repeatedly.
I happily took the tailwind and pavement to Cerro Sombrero, where I was told the gravel begins. But before heading down the western route, I thought I'd pop into the gas station/restaurant at the intersection and ask what they thought. The woman working there, who shouted every word she said, told me to go on the eastern route, because it was shorter. Well, OK...
As soon as I got on it, I saw a sign proclaiming that San Sebastian was 106 km away. If I'd gone the other way, it was supposed to be about 20 km farther. Alright, I guess that's a good start!
The pavement was worse than the Carretera Austral, and that's saying something. But after a while, I noticed something: the traffic had disappeared. I stopped and turned around. I'd already gone 5 km, but the area was flat and empty enough that I could still see headlights on the other route. After watching for a while, something became clear: everyone heading south was taking the western route. A few cars were coming north on the western route, and I still hadn't seen one coming from the way I was going.
I turned around. Why would that restaurant worker tell me the wrong way? Was she just screwing with me?
After backtracking 5 km, wasting 10 km in total, I headed south on the western route. It remained paved for another 25 km, and even afterwards, the gravel wasn't as bad as the other one, maybe comparable to the Carretera Austral. So that's why people take it. Going this way was better with regard to the wind too, as it would let me take advantage of today's northeast wind for longer, and give me more km heading east tomorrow, when the wind would most likely return to its normal western origin.
I got as far south as I could until about an hour before sunset, which happens after 10:00 PM these days. Even though there was nothing around, both sides of the highway were fenced off. Gotta protect all the nothing that no one's using! I finally found a creek, where the barbed wire had to follow the shoreline, and walked Valeria about 100 m from the highway to camp next to the bank. Almost as soon as I got in my tent, it started raining. Good timing!
The rain had stopped by the next morning, but the wind hadn't, though it had switched from northeast to northwest. A good thing today, as I'd be turning east! Once I got out of my tent, I fully appreciated the strength of it. I'd be in a gale today. 5:00 AM and it was already a force to be reckoned with!
I went through a morning routine of mentally checking off where I'd be going today, and looked ahead to the next few days. San Sebastian, then Rio Grande, then Tolhuin, then Ushuaia. Only four days left! It dawned on me that all of those places were cities. This would be my last wild camp, and possibly my last campsite in general. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. Most arrangements are more comfortable than camping, I suppose, but I'd grown attached to my tent and sleeping bag. Not once had I had a problem with either of them, which on this time scale, was impressive. And they'd been great for sleeping, kept me warm and dry every time. This was the first "last" of the ride.
I carefully took down my tent, using my panniers to weigh down the corners as I took out the stakes. It was a real possibility that if I made a mistake, the wind would take my tent and I'd never see it again.
The northwest wind was mostly doing me favors, and after only 20 km or so, I found pavement! It was blocked off from the gravel road, evidently just finished, and it appeared that there's an attempt to pave the entire stretch of Chile from border-to-border. Good for them! I walked Valeria over to the pavement and took it. No reason not to!
After another 20 km or so, the dirt road merged with the fully-completed pavement, paint and reflectors and everything. By now, the wind had shifted to the west. I was going SSE, so I didn't mind too much, but I knew that for five km before my turn, I'd be going southwest. Already, the fact that it was as much from the side as behind me was making it difficult to ride in a straight line. I could usually manage to stay in my lane, but on occasion, I was blown across the yellow stripe, once reaching only half a meter from the left side of the road, when I typically ride as far as I can to the right. This wasn't gonna be pretty...
I braced myself for five km from hell, but still didn't know quite what was coming. The wind by now had increased to the most powerful I have experienced in my life. However strong you think it could possibly be, it was stronger. And now off the starboard bow, it took all of three seconds to send me over.
It took multiple attempts to stand up, and then while trying to lift Valeria back onto two wheels, I was sent over again. After a few minutes, I managed to get both Valeria and myself in a semi-vertical orientation, leaned over at a ridiculous angle. I attempted to mount Valeria, and hit the pavement again.
After five more unsuccessful attempts at mounting Valeria, I gave up. I started walking her in the shoulder, leaning over and putting some of my weight on her frame. It took a significant amount of upper body strength to keep the handlebars pointed straight. I managed to make it around a curve, where the road was pointed due south, not southwest. It took three tries, but I was now able to mount Valeria and even start pedaling. It was hard to believe that mere air could be so powerful. I'm confident that at this moment, the wind was stronger than gravity itself.
Don't stop pedaling, don't stop pedaling, don't stop pedaling... I still had five km to go until I made my left turn. If I could keep riding, it would only take 20-30 minutes. If I had to walk, it would take two hours. If I stopped pedaling, I'd immediately get blown over, and I knew there was a chance I wouldn't be able to mount Valeria again. Just keep moving, and don't fall over!
The pavement gave out just before the intersection, but by some miracle, I stayed upright anyway. There was a shed there. Since the sun had come out, I wanted to put on sunscreen. I headed over to the shed to get out of the wind while putting some on, and shed a layer of clothes while I was at it. The shed was only the size of a closet, and had an open doorway facing north. Even inside, all my crap was flying everywhere, like the inside of a vortex. There was no avoiding the wind.
When I stepped outside, I considered waiting for a truck so I could flag it down and ask if it could sit there and block the wind while I get on Valeria. No such luck. After five minutes, I walked out of the shed. This was gonna be tricky, but once I get started, now I'm going with the wind!
With much struggling, and all while leaning backwards, I managed to get a leg over Valeria's frame. I put my right foot on one pedal and stood on it to scoot backwards onto the saddle. The wind blew Valeria forward into me and I sat. We were already moving, and I hadn't even put my foot on the left pedal.
I didn't pedal for the next three hours! The gravel here was horrible, easily worse that the Dalton Highway, probably the most consistently bad road I've ever ridden on, aside from the trail after Villa O'Higgins. Despite that, I must have been moving in excess of 50 km/h, and the wind was still violently slamming against my back. I wound up riding the brakes most of the time, because I thought that at this speed, I was hitting the bumps too hard. I was afraid of damaging Valeria, or possibly losing control of the bike. Without holding down the brakes, it would've been like skiing down a steep mountain in a straight line.
I crossed into Argentina for the third time, and like usual, they were professional and prompt. Everyone inside the building was absolutely stunned at the wind. Everyone, that is, except the people working there. They acted like nothing was out of the ordinary.
It was only 1:00 PM, and with this wind, I could've kept going a long way, probably without pedaling. And the pavement had resumed! But to get to the next town, the road would eventually point SSE, not east, and I didn't want to risk getting blown over again. I did the conservative thing and stayed put.
There was a hotel across the street from the immigration office, and rather than try to mount Valeria again in this wind, I walked her over. Like hell I'm camping in this wind!
I had all afternoon to do nothing, so I wound up rinsing and wringing everything I had in the tub. Five times. The first time, the water turned completely black. The third time, I could finally see the bottom of the tub. Even after five times, the water still wasn't clear, but I felt like my things were cleaner. A fresh start for the last little bit of Argentina!