Tuesday, February 21, 2006

On to Buenos Aires

THIS MORNING

Awoke in a soaked tent. I hadn't tucked the edges of the tarp far enough under the tent. I guess I had slept, though it was a restless night. Crawled out to check on the weather and to see my campsite by daylight. I waved to a northbound Harley rider. A gray, chilly, drizzly morning. Put on my riding suit just to get warm.

Without much delay, I continued my push to Buenos Aires. The drizzle and strong crosswinds seemed like they would be with me for the day.

In Sierra Grande, a refueling stop and much-needed visit to the "loo". (You have to supply your own toilet paper here.) An attendant recommended a short-cut to Buenos Aires: taking route 251 north out of San Antonio de Oeste, then east on route 22 to Bahia Blanco. He said it's faster than staying on Ruta 3. Seeing that many other vehicles appeared to be making that turn, I followed his advice.

Less than an hour north, I crossed the Rio Negro, its flood plain green with tall trees and lush fields. The past 1,000 miles had been a colorless, incredibly homogeneous stretch of tree-less pampa, so this was a remarkable vision. North of Rio Negro, I was beginning to notice trees, though not tall ones, scattered across the plain.

And the weather was quickly changing. The uniform gray of the southern skies, had given way to hazy billowing thunderheads. Above were air masses in collision. Within an hour, I was stripping off all my cold weather gear. Off came the rain coat, fleece jacket, winter gloves and long-sleeved shirt. (I had already stowed the electric vest this morning.) While stopped, I also took the opportunity to lower the handlebars from the “off-road” position. I wasn't anticipating any more unpaved roads for a long time.

It felt like I had just crossed from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. It was hot and humid - 95 degrees in the sun! Rio Negro seems to be the dividing line between northern and southern Argentina. The atmosphere was becoming quite turbulent, with the moist unstable air spawning thunderstorms.

Continuing north and east, these storms were developing into mammoth weather systems with canopies hundreds of miles wide. And yet, the highway avoided them so effectively, only occasionally brushing the edges of the curtains of rain. (A few times it actually felt refreshing.)

Bahia Blanca, which has such an alluring name, was a big disappointment as I discovered it's an enormous oil depot, with sprawling refineries and all the attendant sights and smells. Not a pretty place. But it provided motivation to keep moving.

Sunset found me in Las Flores. I had been watching the fantastic cloud formations for hours, waiting for something to photograph, and I figured the time was about right. Pulled in for gas, and there, parked at one of the pumps, I saw the Harley from this morning. (We had leap-frogged each other a couple times during the day.) I went over to meet the rider.

Bill Clark's from Bandon, Oregon. He's the Harley rider I keep hearing about as I tour Latin America. He's on his way back from Ushuaia, riding his 2002 "Heritage Softail". He has also taken this bike up to Prudhoe Bay.

Bill planned to take a room in Las Flores, but I intended to move on to Buenos Aires, about 100 miles further. As we talked, the sun set, and photo ops faded, but I didn't mind. Unfortunately, when he came over to look at my bike, someone found a pocket translator he had dropped on the ground. He returned to pick it up, but it was gone.

It wasn't my intention, but I got caught driving after dark; actually, for several hours after dark. (Coming north and east, and with the passage of time, "I've lost" over an hour of daylight. In Chile, the sun was setting after 9:00, tonight sunset was around 8:00.)

Ruta 3 is heavily-traveled at night, and virtually all the vehicles are trucks and buses. Trucks driving 35 mph and trucks driving 80. Trucks with barely any running lights (or lights obscured from behind by the belching smoke) and trucks lit up like Christmas trees. (I see little evidence of trains carrying much freight in Chile and Argentina. There's nothing like the great rail systems of North America.)

It's a two-lane highway, kind of like a two-lane U.S. Interstate 80. And a real driving challenge to work through the maze of tractor trailers.

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