Thursday, February 19, 2009

Topless Mountains

I´m still in La Junta, waiting for another bus. The bus today was cancelled. The volcano that destroyed a nearby town in May is erupting again. I can´t find anything about it in the news. But no bus. My backup plan was to ride the same distance in 3 or so days, but that may not be a good idea if there´s a volcano erupting.

So... Tomorrow, bright and early, there´s a bus going the only direction that doesn´t have an erupting volcano (yet) -- South. Day-long trip on the bus to get further south, so that I can get a different bus and go north, back toward Santiago and my flight home. This change may cut into some further riding I´d hoped to do in the Argentine Andes. But should work.

Further backup plan is to ride like heck to the south and arrive in Coyhaique just in time to try to get a flight to Santiago just in time to fly home. That would probably be 6 days of pounding out miles instead of stopping to smell flowers. I guess I could do it, but smelling flowers is more my style. And I´d have to Tough Up and ride rain or shine. Through some of the wettest places in Chile. Super cool.

It seems as if I´ve kind of forgotten to mention what I´ve been doing in an overall kind of way. It´s this: I´m riding southward on the Carterra Austral, a gravel highway that stretches all through the south of Chile. The road was built during the Pinochet era, either for military purposes or to help unify the country -- depending on who you ask. It´s become famous for its rugged remoteness and stunning scenery. A captivating adventure for people -- mostly drivers or motorcyclists -- from all over the world. Though mostly from Santiago, it seems.

I started on an optional near-loop that took me the long way north and east of Puerto Varas and skipped a short ferry ride that connects one piece of the road. And it took another ferry ride to connect further south to where I am, as there are no roads across a long rugged section of Chile.

The very first piece of dirt road that I came to was the worst. Very rutted and chewed up, loose, rocky, dusty. And it was so high-crowned that trying to ride along the edge on a bike was not possible without having the wheels slide out sideways, or wallowing into a bucket of sand and loose rocks. Which put me closer to the middle of the road. Which was a problem because there was a huge amount of traffic along the way. Cars, SUVs, busses, trucks, all trying to get past, either oncoming or from behind. Not as much fun as I´d imagined. I like dirt roads, but partly because that usually means less traffic. But this was a busy highway that happened to be dirt.

After those first awkward 15 km, the traffic, at least, thinned out a bit. The road remained rough all the way to Hornopiren, where I caught the ferry.

After the ferry ride I was definitely on the Carterra Austral. First 20 km or so were a spoiler, as they were smoothly paved. Then, the real stuff: the dirt. And it´s actually been very nice. Traffic is light. The road is well graveled, and there´s no mud, except for the ¨mud¨ left by cattle. There´s no high-crown syndrome. There are lots of potholes, but I can avoid most of them with my one set of skinny tires. When it´s raining, the potholes fill up, and I get to take the spray from passing vehicles, since few of them slow down.

This whole south country has the feeling of a frontier. I´m not sure how long it´s been settled, or if it´s really settled. But there´s a bit of wild west feel to it, homesteaders doing their best against tough conditions and carving out a living. Maybe much of it has occurred since the road came through. I know some of the communities were only accessible by horse or boats, ocean or lakes, before the road.

The road itself is lined with thick vegetation anywhere that cattle haven´t been keeping it clear. Otherwise it seems like impenetrable forest. There are many, many small rivers and cascades tumbling off the mountains and filling up huge rivers that drain the large lakes. Much of the bigger water has the turquoise blue from ground glacial powder suspended in it. Watching the Rio Palena as it flows past La Junta, swollen with the rain, is like watching a whole world pass by.

Blackberries lined the road further north. An invasive species, I was not happy to see or feel their snarly branches. But I did suppliment a few meals with the ripe berries. A native fushia drops its hanging blossoms all along the road and almost everywhere I´ve seen. Blossoms are not fushia, but rather a crimson red, with a lighter inner blossom . Nalcha (I think) is a water loving plant of similar structure to ruhbarb, thick dull-spiked stalks and umbrella-sized leaves. The stems, I was shown by a hiker, have edible interiors, and taste like strong lettuce.

Every little settlement has some kind of store. Usually marked with a small Supermercado sign. The stores are extensions of someone´s house and have an assortment of often dusty goods arranged in no particular fashion. In a town like La Junta, almost every other house is also some kind of business. Front rooms converted to clothes stores, hardware stores, meat markets, bakeries, bus ticket stations. The locals must know which store to go to for which items. I find that some have good produce and others have a few rotting oranges and a bag of potatoes. One will have cheese, another, not.

My food for the journey has been a variety of ¨canned¨goods - which mostly come in bags (like Capri Sun) -- like tomato salsa (pasta sauce) or jelly. Plus pasta, which is easy to carry. And a good amount of produce. Since it´s available most everywhere, I get it as I go along. Why carry potatoes when you can get them just in time for dinner? No where to get them? It´s time for pasta. The common bread is a round, flat roll with dimples, about the size of a hamberger bun. Often still warm in the house of the senora who just baked it, and who has a hand written ¨pan¨sign out front.

Nectarines, oranges, lemons, plums and other fruits were readily available further north, but are becoming more scarce as I get deeper. Carrots and onions are available, but not many green vegetables. Most of the vegetables probably come from the small greenhouse gardens on most every homestead. And if a small store only carries one thing, it´s probably factory packaged cookies. I´ve been eating a good share of them.

So that´s what I´ve been doing. Riding south on a famous rugged remote road. I don´t have a map in front of me, but I´ve ridden maybe a quarter of the full length. Maybe less. So as usual, I am not the type to force-march the whole thing and check it off some ¨list¨of accomplishments. Just wandering along, seeing what I see, and experiencing whatever happens.

This regret: My experience of the culture and the people has been stunted by my lack of ability to communicate. I can manage caveman speech: Want food. Want water. Where road? But there´s not much room for subtlty or for learning much directly from the people. Do I see Spanish lessons in my future?

Today´s bus was supposed to be a 2:00, so I took morning ride. A road off in the direction of Argentina. Into open pastured valleys, then small forested valleys where granite cliffs were white-stripped with thin waterfalls. A turquoise lake draining into a wide, fast river. Huge mountains in the background, small icy blue glaciers clinging to their possible upper reaches.

I´m saying ¨possible¨upper reaches because of an interesting southern Chile phenomenon. I´ve heard of regions of the world, possibly Scotland, where the lakes are bottomless. There is a similar situation here, where almost all of the higher mountains are topless. You´ll see when I get the photos. Jagged granite spires, torn by glaciers, patchworked with snow, rising high into the air, and then disappearing. Vanishing into a white vapor. Who knows if they actually have tops? And why bother having a top if it´s just going to blow off, like the nearby volcano?

Thanks again for checking in! Lots of writing going on here, with days idle because I´m waiting for buses when maybe I should be riding like heck.


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