I had left Ushuaia in beautiful sunshine with hopes high and riding on a cushion of air that came with actually beginning this dream of mine.
To ride the length of the Americas. I was now actually doing it, rather than talking about it.
The road wound its way through what is the end of the Andes, gorgeous scenery and the weather like a crisp autumnal day, although it is summer here.
I camped early before the one low pass on the route, not wanting to overdo things.
I was nervous.
I thought the weather might turn without much notice. The few days I had spent in Ushuaia before I left told me this could happen. Stopping early, I put the tent up and went about cooking with petrol for the first time. This helped settle the nerves that I could look after myself. I needed to remember I had done this for 3 months across Europe.
After all there was no one else to help.
That is the one obvious thing about doing a trip like this on your own, you have to do everything, no one is there to cook or clean for you when you don’t want to. That is the easy part. You also don’t have anyone to motivate you, to make the decision to stop or go. A second opinion, a sanity check.
After two days I reached the town of Tolhuin, the first from Ushuaia. I knew the bakery (Panaderia La Union) let cyclists stay for free and for however long you like! They even had a special bunk room in the warehouse for cyclists.
The two cycling days had been good but I knew I needed a rest. I had underestimated the strength of the sun, I had got sunburnt and was feeling drained. The UV index the Met Office uses goes off the scale here, as it did in Buenos Aires. I should have known better.
Refreshed, but getting more scared of the wind and the forecast for it, I left before I could change my mind. The day started well but it wasn’t long before the wind got up. I was fighting to keep the bike in a straight line and deliberately pulling over and stopping when the trucks went past as the draft from them was uncontrollable. This, with hindsight, is the main problem. It is the gusting speed of the wind, not the constant pressure.
When I finally ended up flat on my back due to the draft from a truck I knew it was time to camp for the day. I had been stationary at the side of the road at the time. A pick up truck, driving the other direction, upon seeing me fall over, immediately stopped to see I was ok. That was a good boost for the confidence that people look out for each other in this part of the world. Especially when they see you on a bicycle, I think most of them think ‘we’ must be mental. I tend to agree.
I found a semi sheltered spot next to, but hidden from the road and set up camp for the day, hoping tomorrow the wind would be better.
It wasn’t, it was worse.
On that second day, I cycled for a couple of hours and came across a farm (estancion) which I could see from a distance and was pining my hopes on reaching it and the owners letting me camp there. However I couldn’t find anyone and there were lots of buildings, even the useless guard dog wouldn’t bark to alert someone I was there. Eventually I found a lady who I understood enough to realise she was saying I couldn’t stay and I would have to leave. I was gutted and tried to make a case but it obviously wasn’t her decision to make.
I was put out that someone wouldn’t let me camp in their garden. I guess I shouldn’t have gone expecting help. From their point of view I had got myself in to this situation, I could get myself out of it.
Not much further down the road, I luckily found a spot amongst some sand dunes, between the road and the Atlantic Ocean. It was sheltered enough from the wind but partly visible from the road. I no longer cared about hiding. After the experience at the estancion, I was pretty sure no one would stop.
Some hours later, I was found by a French cyclist, Nicolas. He had been to the same estancion and had exactly the same experience. Turned away, he found the next shelter he could, which was next to my tent.
Fresh from riding across Europe, Asia and Australia his tales soon told me that he was much better shape physically and mentally than I was. I was initially taken aback by his grubby appearance and his nonchalance about getting petrol all over his hands as he showed me something on my stove.
I thought, is this what I will become?
He was however, a really nice guy, had some very useful tips and what turned out to be very sage advice. Appearances are often deceptive.
We agreed the next morning to ride into Rio Grande together, it wasn’t far, however I was learning very quickly that distances are massively warped by the wind here. Two cyclists riding together into a wind is vastly easier than one on his own.
I had planned a days rest in Rio Grande as it might have been nearly half way off the Isla Grande de Terra del Fuego but it the hard part was in front of me. The weather forecast told me to go as the following day the wind would be light but the day after it was bad. My head told me to rest and get some strength back.
Nicolas left in the morning to continue on his way. I stayed and rested.
The next leg, 240km from Rio Grande to Porvenir, was where things would get difficult. Between Rio Grande and Porvenir on the other side of the Island there are no shops, no where to buy food, no towns, just the border crossings and some estancions. Oh and the small matter that the wind here is often very strong, very little relief from the land and always against my direction of travel.
I anticipated it would take me a week to cycle it.
After reaching San Sebastian and the border, whereupon the Chileans would remove any fruit, vegetables, meat, animal products, etc from you the road heads west directly into the wind until just before Porvenir where it heads north again.
I had to go food shopping in Rio Grande and I had to be smart about what to buy and to make sure I had enough food. The only thing worse about a headwind on a bike is doing it with an empty stomach. I got what I thought was a generous weeks food with a little extra in case things went wrong.
I rolled out of Rio Grande the following morning before 6am, the bike felt really heavy, noticeably so. I had left so early because as far as I could tell the wind was always bad in the afternoon.
The day started well but rapidly went downhill, unlike the road, until I was left gasping for breath. In my lowest gear, wrestling the handlebars back and forth as the wind blew the bike away from me, only for me to grab it, over compensate and go back the other way.
It is an exhausting way to cycle.
The landscape had become stark and devoid of cover, nothing to break the winds might, I was spent, again. I spied a few buildings in the distance, an estancion, once more I pined my hopes on being able to camp next to the buildings. This time there was a locked gate and no way to get the bike through. So I left it there, climbed over the gate and walked down the track towards the buildings, struggling to walk in the wind.
I knocked, no answer. I knocked again, louder, no one came to the door.
I went round the back, somebody clearly lived there but they were out. This is not happening, I thought. Thankfully outside the gate, back by the road, there was a drainage ditch. When sat on the floor, it sheltered me from the wind. I was learning that at times like these, getting out of the wind was all that mattered.
I sat there for an hour.
I returned to the house, knocking on the door loud enough to wake the dead. Still no answer.
I couldn’t sensibly go any further, out of options I set the tent up in the drainage ditch. It was just deep enough that the top of the tent was below the road but not wide enough to stake the doors of the tent properly so they flapped around like an overheating elephant.
It was only early afternoon and it wouldn’t get dark till nearly 11pm. I was completely visible to the passing traffic, no longer a concern I had. Dejectedly, I sat in the tent contemplating how I had ended up here. Sleep came easy, no one bothered me. Much later I heard a vehicle stop, the gate I had climbed being unlocked. I didn’t get out of the tent, by this point the effort to move was too much. They didn’t come asking who was camping outside their gate either.
My thoughts that evening were dominated by whether the wind could be worse tomorrow. It couldn’t, could it? I was half way to the border from Rio Grande, I only had to do the same distance again and then I knew I could rest at the border post.
In the morning it was more of the same, although I was more tired. Then came a stonking great hill straight into the wind which broke me.
I had less than 10km to go to the border, about an hour and a half at the speed I was travelling. After cresting the hill I expected a respite from the wind but all I got was a smack around the chops from a 80kmph gust of wind.
I started to crumble mentally, broken down by the continual onslaught, stuck between the unfairness of it all and the futility of what I was doing. I couldn’t reconcile it. I was doing this by choice, I can make it stop, I don’t have to be here. All I wanted was a break in the wind. It didn’t have to be this strong, just a little less and it is manageable, this was too much, it wasn’t fair.
I’m not strong enough, I have bitten off more than I can chew. Just back down for half an hour, please, please.
Tears started to flow.
The patheticness of that was all to apparent to myself. I’m crying because it is difficult to ride my bike.
The wind answered back by drying those tears immediately and reminding me of the futility of asking the weather for a break.
I reached the border post, barely able to hold the bike up, bent over the handlebars wondering where I was supposed to go when a guard approached. My Spanish had deserted me, apart from ‘descanso’ (I rest). She pointed me in the direction of the waiting room. In the shouted Spanish I understood, she said you go and rest as long as you want, for the night is fine, when you are ready, come and get your passport stamped.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but that was to be my home for the next 33 hours.