Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The final push to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego

Cute little sign on the way to Tierra del Fuego. I measured the wind speed at 40-50 mph.

This morning

Awoke to the systematic slamming of hotel doors at 9:15. That’s one way to assure guests don’t sleep beyond the 10:30 check-out! (I, for one, probably would have.) A short time later, the phone rang and I was asked to move the motorcycle. I looked outside and saw blue sky. Immediately, I was in a good mood. On to Tierra del Fuego!

Inventoried my aches and pains: chest sore (bronchitis, not good); left calf bruised and sore from one of those falls; my twisted right knee is feeling better; headache. The latter may be caffeine withdrawal. (Since becoming ill, I’ve had less coffee, coke, chocolate.) The chest has me a bit concerned, since I have no idea what weather and dust conditions I’ll encounter ahead.

Breakfast consisted of the thickest coffee yet, and a couple of “media lunas”, small croissants. Gave the hotel clerk a 10-Peso tip for pulling me back in last night, then recommending “RoCo”.

On the road at 10:45. It took a while to get out of Rio Gallegos. I knew I just needed to head south, but began to doubt my sense of direction. When I asked a taxi driver for help, I wasn't surprised to learn I had been driving east (into the Atlantic) instead of south.

It's about 350 miles from Rio Gallegos to the end of the road, Ushuaia. There seemed a chance I could make it in one day, if road and weather conditions were decent and the ferry schedule favorable.

Once clear of the city, I met the wind head-on, the famous wind I had somehow missed on Ruta 40. I stopped to photograph a wind warning sign and ended up chasing my helmet across the highway. It was that strong. I measured the headwind: gusts over 40 mph. This would seriously impact fuel efficiency, and progress.

Rediscovered the bureaucratic insanity of borders. I hadn't really paid much attention to the map, but now I was getting the geography lesson: to reach Ushuaia (Argentina), you have to leave Argentina and briefly re-enter Chile. Then, less than 150 miles later, cross back into Argentina. In my time calculations, I hadn't factored two border crossings. Maybe I wouldn't make it today?

Arrived at the Argentina checkpoint just behind a 50-passenger bus. "Well this sucks." I made sure the bus didn't beat me to the Chilean side. At the first Chilean checkpoint, they were jack-hammering concrete right outside the door. These poor guys had to endure this on top of all the impatient travelers!

As usual, the forms you need are kept behind the counter. After waiting in line, travelers reach the window and are handed the necessary form and told to go fill it out, then return. The process is so incredibly inefficient! (Occasionally you meet a particularly helpful official who will fill out the form for you, right there at the window.)

When the SAG (agricultural) inspector wanted to check my bags, my anger spilled over again, and I started swearing out loud. What a thankless job they have. The thought that I'll have to again go through this nonsense just down the road had my blood boiling. I just see the bureaucrats mindlessly stamping and signing papers, as though no one's ever questioned the purpose and sanity of this entire arrangement. (You would think Argentina and Chile could come together and work out an open border agreement specifically for Tierra del Fuego - something like the European Union has done.)

Arrived at the Straits of Magellan ferry landing and drove to the head of the line. One vehicle, a fuel truck, boarded the ferry, and the ship departed. I wonder if they're not permitted to take other vehicles when a fuel truck is aboard? There was a 30- to 45-minute wait for the next ferry, not a big deal. Meanwhile, I talked with a young Spaniard off one of the buses in line. He was "from Don Quixote’s land, La Mancha."

The ferry across The Straits of Magellan. After unloading, one gasoline tanker rolled aboard and the ferry left.

These guys show you don't need a big BMW to ride to Ushuaia. From Brazil, they rode these (I think) 175cc bikes.

It's a short crossing to Tierra del Fuego, the water very choppy from the wind. I strapped the bike down with my own ties. The crew members said I really didn’t need to. They were right. There were no swells to speak of. (This is not an ocean crossing!) Apparently, there's no charge for this ferry; at least, no one asked for payment!

Farewell to the South American mainland. I'm off to the island of Tierra del Fuego!

On the other side, it's gravel and lots of wind! My internal dialogue on the road to San Sebastian went something like this:

"Thick gravel with a 50 mph cross-wind. You don’t like it?"

"Well, lets add potholes! How's that?"

"How about deep pits too? Big ones, and lots of them."

"And a construction zone."

"Since it's not raining, let’s have the water truck make mud."

"Wait, there’s a rain cloud over there. Let’s bend the road that way."

I was taking things much too personally! But it seemed the obstacles were intentionally placed to thwart my goal! (After all, it's all about me.)

At the San Sebastian border crossing, I found about eight bikes, most BMWs, parked at customs. The drivers were in the lines and there were a few nods of acknowledgment, but we didn't really connect. I learned from one that they're from Sao Paolo, Brazil, headed for Ushuaia.

Leaving customs, they pulled into a nearby café. I refueled and continued down the road. Pavement begins again on the Argentine side of border. I took off, trying to make up for the hours spent in various lines.

A wild ride, the wind pushing the bike all over the road. Even this you adapt to. I had to stop, not because of the wind, but because the Tierra del Fuego landscape is so awesome in its harsh desolation. Steven Sohrakoff, the rider from Oregon, was right: it is windy and cold, and I’ll probably never come back, yet it’s incredible! Trees are stunted and gnarled by the wind. The tall grasses are in perpetual motion as waves of air roll over meadows. Pools of water appear cobalt blue in the late afternoon light.

I don't think I've ever seen water like this. Looking out onto the Argentine Sea, the water was an eerie slate gray.

Only the heartiest of creatures live here. Yet, just as in the Arctic, man has learned to endure hardship and adapt, developing large resource-extraction operations, estancias, towns and cities.

While off in a meadow taking photos, the Brazilians raced by honking and waving. Thirty minutes later, I passed half of them. I was now riding 85 to 90 mph, making a run for the finish line. Just beyond Tolhuin, the pavement ends. Soon the road will be completely paved from the border to Ushuaia. For now, however, there is about twenty miles of construction.

Wind washes across Tierra del Fuego's landscape

Wind-whipped, stunted trees populate Tierra del Fuego's hills

I found myself riding behind the other Brazilians on the dusty gravel road. I know my lungs couldn't take much more dust and I had to either pull over, or get far out ahead of them. With all the bikes (and on-coming vehicles), visibility was terrible, the road now heading west, into the sun.

I made a move and passed one of the bikers, a woman, giving her a very wide berth. As I did, she drifted into some soft gravel on the shoulder and nearly went over the edge. But she held on and recovered. I somehow ended up riding elevated on a stretch of freshly-laid and smoothed gravel in the center of the highway that we were apparently supposed to be avoiding. "Oops." I finally emerged from the pack and tried to put some distance between us, so my dust wasn't making their job even harder. Between the hazardous surface, the racing motorcycles and on-coming vehicles appearing out of dust clouds, it was pretty exciting stuff!

The final leg into Ushuaia is tarmac, winding through the tail end of the Andes. Though the sun had set and the temperature was rapidly falling, it was "smooth sailing" downhill into Ushuaia. (The sun set before 9:00 p.m. The days are growing shorter here!)

Ushuaia's a pretty big port city, with a lively downtown district full of bars, restaurants, hotels and casinos. The "Hostal Malvinas" was the first I tried. It had a nice well-cared-for look about it. They had a room, $50 for the night. (I expected to pay more here.) The room was very clean and comfortable. It seemed almost too easy.

I parked the bike on the sidewalk, just outside the door. I was assured it would be safe there. Just around the corner is an internet and telephone center. I called Jessica, Drew and Jeff to wish all "Happy Valentine’s Day!" I was finally kicked out at 12:15, as they were trying to close the shop.

"La Rueda" restaurant was recommended by the hotel clerk, so I took a walk over. The front door was surrounded by the Brazilians' motorcycles. The door was locked and hung with a sign: "cerrado", closed. ("The bastards beat me to it!" I laughed.)

Went back to the hotel and sat in front of the TV, dining on cereal bars, chips, soda and one leftover ham and cheese mini-croissant. Wrote some notes (such as, "since when did TV announcers begin to need laptop computers sitting in front of them, the brand names prominently displayed for the cameras?")

I now have to digest the "being here" and what it means. Jeff asked me tonight, "so what are you going to do when you get back? Are you networking? Where are you going to live?" It seems my focus is never far beyond the next hurdle. Like riding in the dirt, I have to learn to lift up my eyes and look at the horizon!


otto said...

Janie's kind of weather
but then again we all love "the W I N D"

timtraveler said...

I will always remember that: one of Mother's expressions we all love to imitate!

The WIND!!!