I laid the bike down on the deck not wanting to risk that the kickstand would fail under the motion of the ship. I pulled some food from the panniers and went up to the observation deck running along the port side. I could see the island of Tierra del Fuego approaching across the water. Down in the wake several small dolphins colored white and black flashed out of the dark and occasionally jumped entirely out of the water. I wondered how many days it would take me to reach Ushuaia, never imagining that I would make it there without stopping.
We unloaded several minutes later and I set off again as quickly as I could; the conditions were still favorable. A bit more than an hour later the road split. I followed the sign to Rio Grande, the last city on my route before Ushuaia. Several hundred feet past the junction the pavement ended and the road became washboard dirt covered in large sporadic gravel.
My bicycle is a touring bike which means that it is not as stiff nor light as a normal road bike, but it is also primarily designed for the road. My tires are narrow and the frame is thick and made of steel. It does not have any suspension which means that every tiny bump jars the frame and ripples up the seat through my spine and up the fork through my wrists and arms. My speed immediately dropped as I worked harder to overcome the rough surface and swerved unsuccessfully trying to avoid the worst of the bumps.
It was rough to the point of not working. I can remember thinking, Oh; well this simply doesn't work at all. When the bike hit a bump all the bags bounced and banged so that riding along sounded like distant machine gun fire. Bang! BangBangBang! BANGBANG! Bang!
Oh well, it's not supposed to be easy right? I thought as I bounced along. I hoped that the dirt would last only several kilometers and that it would smooth out later on. I could never help hoping for things like that no matter how many times in the past such hopes had been dashed.
Twenty kilometers later the road had wound its way into the hills and had not yet gotten any smoother. The wind had also picked up. The jaunty morning breeze had turned into a vicious whipping force that came from ahead and to the right. It was impossible to ride straight and very difficult to move forward at all. Passing trucks kicked up thick clouds of dust which were quickly sucked into the distance by the wind. There were no plants other than the dry yellow grass I had had for days some the low hardy shrubs, all of which were quivering and shaking in the wind. On my map I could see that the road made a 90 degree turn to the left in what I estimated to be 20 K away.
That turn should be enough to turn this headwind into a tailwind, I thought. If I can just get there… it's maybe... two hours. Just get there and maybe that's where the pavement starts and you can just fly outta here and get to San Sebastian tonight. I was running low on water and food and was anxious about filling up. I would not be able to stop at least until I had reached a water supply.
It was ridiculous though, how slowly I was going and how difficult the going was. The wind kept ramping up and up. Clouds blew over and a few light drops of rain threatened to become worse. It had already been a full day of riding, but being so close to the end of my trip I wanted to finish strong and pull really big days to the finish line.
A small pickup with a miniature horse in the back pulled over and waved me down. An old man wearing a tweed scally cap, a wool cardigan and windbreaker leaned out the window,
'Where are you going?' He asked in Spanish.
'San Sebastian, If I can,' I answered him.
'Ach! San Sebastian. It is far, too far. Come, I have a farm just over there. You can rest and stay.'
'How far is San Sebastian?' I asked. I had to shout over the wind.
'It's far, it's...' He consulted the young man riding in the passenger seat, 'far. It's too far. Tomorrow. You go to San Sebastian tomorrow. It is already late.'
I thought about it. Thinking clearly in such a situation is difficult. I was tired and flushed with adrenaline and trying to compute too many unknown variables. No, I thought, No I can't rest. I've gotta... I should... What are you crazy? another part of my mind protested, You've already done a big day, you can't get anywhere in this wind, you need water and food, it's about to rain and you've got a place to stay and a new experience to have. Sleep tonight and do whatever craziness you want tomorrow.
'Alright, yes. Good. Thank you.' I said.
'Ah good! Good! You follow. It's close just over here. Just follow, you follow.'
The truck moved off as I turned the bike around and followed a few hundred meters back to a private dirt drive branching off from the main road. I had passed many hundreds of drives like this, most of them blocked by a gate or cattle guard and bearing some sign naming the property.
'Estancia Diego Portales'
I read as I bumped across the cattle guard.
I was always curious about where these roads led. They were roads in the middle of nowhere that I could sometimes see stretching for miles and miles into deeper and deeper nowhere. The small farm was a mile and a half down the dirt road, tucked in a small draw between two hills. I pulled up as the old man and the younger one were unloading the small horse. A moment later the Old Man walked over and introduced himself. 'Toro.' The farm consisted of several small warping, creaking wooden buildings, a large old barn and a few pens containing a small number of sheep.
A half hour later I had had a hot shower, changed into comfortable clothing and was drinking tea with rolls and jam at a small wooden table in the dark quiet kitchen. The wind was howling outside and although the house creaked and moaned and even moved in the wind, inside it was dry and warm. I was feeling immensely pleased with my decision to stop and rest and was enjoying seeing the quiet, simple life of these two men.
Toro finished eating first and excused himself outside. He lived in the adjacent house. My host, whose name as best I can spell was something close to ´Jeiur´, cleared his plate and moved to sit on an old wooden chair against the wall. I looked over and imagined him there in this house alone. There were no books; there was a television that did not function and a small radio that emitted mostly static.
What does one do when this is home? There is no stimulus, just quiet emptiness, eternal boredom. I wondered when the last time he had been on a date was or how often he had a chance to make new friends. His attitude towards me suggested that I was not often. He seemed terribly excited to have me there, but timid, as though I were something like a wild animal you can sometimes get close to but if you move too quickly will scare it off. We exchanged a bit of polite conversation which never really warmed to anything natural so I pulled out my map and tried to figure out what I wanted to do.
Let's see, I'm about... here... and that means that Ushuaia is 42 add 15 add 80 add 52 add 40 add 67 add 40... I scratched out the numbers and summed them. 336 plus a bit more to reach the junction so say 360... Divide by, oh let's say 15 K an hour and that gives us 24 hours of riding to reach Ushuaia, assuming I can hold a 15 K per hour average... But it might drop to like 8, worst case scenario, but then again it might be closer to 20, 21... But 15 seems reasonable if the wind isnt like this tomorrow. But wait, 24 hours, ant it's... I glanced at the clock on the wall, …only 7 now, that means, oh no. That means if I rode all night and all day tomorrow I could get there tomorrow evening?! No! Oh, no. It'd be rude to leave... But this is it! This would be the perfect ending! Oh God could I actually do that? I know what it's like to be tired, but this... this would push that to a whole different level. My body might begin to break down after midnight, 2 am, 4 am, not even thinking about 4 pm, 6 pm, 8 pm tomorrow. Ooo I don't know. I just don't know. The other part of my mind stood up and answered, What are you kidding? Of course you can do it. There is no question. Does it matter if it is difficult? Have you forgotten what you've already done? This works out perfectly. Go. Go now.
I stood up from the table. My host looked at me. I didn't know what to say and didn't have the skills with the language to say it well anyways.
'Look,' I said bringing him the map, 'Look here. Here we are,' I pointed, ´and from here to Ushuaia, only 360 kilometers. If I go now and if I don't sleep I can arrive tomorrow.'
'What? I don't shounoutodoando. What denonshotado.' he said, some of his Spanish too heavily accented and coming too quickly for me to understand.
'Sorry? You don't understand me?' I asked guessing the meaning of what he had said. He nodded.
I explained again, speaking more slowly and he nodded his understanding.
'So you're going now?' he asked.
'Yes, I want to do it.'
I cringed as I changed back into my filthy riding clothes and shoved my feet back into my shoes. I filled my bottles and accepted some bread in a plastic bag for the road.
Outside I found Toro on the path and explained to him what I was doing. He told me to come back for coffee when I changed my mind. I thanked them both and apologized profusely for leaving, jumped on the bike and struggled up the hill back to the highway. The day was just yielding to evening as I pulled away from the Estancia.
I had wondered several times already that day if I were indeed on the correct road, an unsettling question to have flickering in the back of your mind in a moment like this. On my map I could see the main highway and also a secondary road, both meeting in San Sebastian. I was unsure whether or not I had inadvertently gotten onto that secondary road. A few facts suddenly clicked into place.
'That sign for Cullen does not have any distance labeled on it which means I'm probably in Cullen, (Cullen was a spot on my map on the secondary road. A spot on this map was not a guarantee of there being anything there at all), I have not seen a single passenger bus go by and... Oh no, I turned left at the junction.' On my map the main highway clearly was the one to the right. 'But why would the signs have pointed me this way if it were not the main route? But if it's the main route then where are the buses? But if it's much rougher or longer than why are all the trucks going this way?'
I digested all these questions as the sun sank lower and night slowly dimmed and blanketed the landscape. I knew it was only a day or two past the full moon and I hoped it would rise soon. I had my small led headlight on which allowed me to stay on the road but didn't provide proper light for choosing the 'smoothest' path along the road.
There is a certain list of sensations which fall into the category of unquestionably, unconditionally and entirely not good. Hitting a large unexpected bump in the road on a suspensionless bike is one of them. It's an unexpected slap in the face; it is the feeling of having cold water dumped on you in your sleep and this sensation was one that consistently jolted me out of any sense of focus or relaxation.
As the night deepened and even the subtlest trace of color disappeared from the western horizon the wind diminished to a quiet barely perceptible nighttime flicker. 'So far so good,' I thought, 'Full moon on the way, almost no wind and the rain never showed up.'
The night was cold, hovering 3 or 4 degrees above freezing. First my toes were cold, and my hands. Then my entire feet began to feel frozen and sensitive. I tried to hide my hands from the wind of my forward motion by gripping the bars right behind my bar bag. My breath was as thick and white as smoke and was illuminated brightly by the light on my forehead before dispersing.
I had learned from Toro that the pavement didn't begin until San Sebastian, which was still more than 50 K away, an eternal distance on this road. I crossed my fingers that something would be open there, a place I could step into for a moment to warm up with a cup of coffee and buy some food. A few dim distant lights dotted the otherwise black hills. It was impossible to tell how far they were or whether or not the road would take me to them.
Trucks and cars rumbled by every half hour or leaving a lingering cloud of thick white dust which the light from my headlight reflected off of and made seeing beyond difficult. I simply persisted, taking distance ten K, five K, one K at a time, knowing that this eternal surreal situation would inevitably end with the rising if the sun and the return of warmth and light.