Here in northern Patagonia, cyclists abound. When we come across one another, we often stop to check in: Where are you from? Coming from where? Going where? How is the road? Where can we camp? Was there much traffic? And, a bike-head like me, I check out the gear, always. The Chilean and Argentine cyclists have my utmost respect because they are out there riding with gusto and determination, but they are relegated to substandard equipment (the Argentines more so, in this regard). Few of them have front panniers or front racks because they just don´t exist here. And even the rear racks and panniers are of low quality.
Without doubt the Dicus Breen family has been the object of much attention. First of all because our bikes with the tag-a-longs are unheard of here (they often ask if I made them myself). And then there is the fact that we are biking as a family. One woman patted my chest with an open hand, congratulating me on our undertaking. “Well, you know, American families don’t travel as a family. You have a beautiful family. Congratulations.”
We have had our photo (and video) taken untold times, usually from passing cars along with many shouts of congratulations. Those folks with whom we chat are at first surprised to see that our children are girls. They expect boys, but GIRLS??? “Don’t they get tired?”
The best characterization of our family adventure came from the caretaker of Residencial El Botecito in Hornopiren, Chile. The three days we stayed there, the TV was always on and usually tuned to one of many Chilean reality shows. When the caretaker greeted us, as well as when we bid her goodbye from the saddles of our bikes, she seemed speechless and dumbfounded by awe. The only words she could find were “tremendo reality!”
No doubt, I have experienced a range of emotional landscapes during this bike trip; our so-called summer vacation. There was the moment biking out of the Bariloche bus station, after assembling our bikes. My panniers we poorly packed, the weight poorly distributed, and we were swerving down the road, traffic rushing by. I thought to myself: What have I gotten us in to? I don’t say this lightly. I was convinced that our bike trip was destined to end right where it began. While camping in Bariloche, I worked out some of the kinks. But it was also here that we were dissuaded from cycling the 150 kilometers between Bariloche and El Bolson, and in turn we accepted a ride from a local. I thought to myself, “if this section is not rideable, then what does this mean for the rest of the route?” (We later met a family on tandems that did ride this section, and now in hind site I think we could have. But at the time, it was best not to. We still needed to get some miles under our wheels on less demanding terrain.)
Once in El Bolson we took a day ride on the local gravel roads. Just as I was recovering from the first wave of reality checks, we got slapped with another. Shit, this is what they call gravel roads. The”ripio” (Spanish for any version of unpaved road) was unlike anything we had ridden: loose, fist-sized rocks that made climbing and descending a real challenge. After an afternoon of this, Jenny said to me, “I can’t do this for the next two months.” Damn, over half of the route I had planned was destined to be on “ripio.” Would we even get underway on this bike trip? After months of planning and shipping bikes and gear, perhaps we were stuck before we started. These were tough days of doubt and indecision. But, the antidote was soon to arrive.
We biked a blissful 20 kilometers on pavement in full sun, all of us enjoying the ride, to arrive at a WWOFFing site, the strawberry farm mentioned in a previous post. Here we had a truly delightful, week-long break from the road and inevitable “ripio” that lay ahead.
We eventually set off. On tour, and on pavement. Our first day riding was grand. We found a mid-day swimming hole that the girls still rank as one of the best of the trip. Later that afternoon as we finished our final climb to Epuyen (Argentina’s true haven of hippies living on dispersed farms) Jenny cut open her shin (also described in detail on a previous post). Just when things were feeling right, we had to deal with a trip to the hospital and 4-5 stitches (entirely free of charge thanks to Argentina’s socialized medical care). Two days later we were off again. After many conversations with locals and cyclists we agreed to opt for the 60+ kilometers of “ripio” through a national park, leaving the highway and the pavement. We pedaled an impressive 40-50 kilometers that day, but I pushed it and convinced Jenny to bike on in search of camping along the river adjacent to the road. Soon she was totally spent and no camping was yet in sight. Jenny flagged down a pick-up and she and the girls were shuttled off to Parque Nacional Los Alerces. I rode a gruelling additional 20 kilometers to join them at a campsite on Lago Rivadavia (see Solana’s previous post). Things seemed to be more or less good. (We also ran in to and camped with the Austrian biking family-Team Pressl- whom I had met in Mendoza more than a month earlier.) We knew what lay ahead and we knew we could do it, however slowly we needed to go.
We have endured very challenging “ripio”. We have altered our route in response. And we have strategically taken rides so as to avoid the worst and still keep traveling. It has been an evolving mix of choices and tolerance for local conditions and circumstances.
For me bike touring has always been defined by independence and self-sufficiency. When on tour one can travel and their own pace and stops for the night when and where they wish. However, this time it was becoming clear that our family bike tour would depend on the help of others, including relying on others for transportation. We had already taken two rides and at present, having arrived at Puerto Montt, Chile we have taken a total of 6 rides from buses and trucks. Some of these rides were critical, for they brought us through terrain that we would not have been able to bike on our own. The weight of the girls, the gear, and the bikes (and the limited mechanical advantage of the tag-a-longs), makes it quite hard to climb hills that would normally not present individual cyclists (and even tandems) with too much of a problem. In other words, the help of others and the use of motorized transportation have been critical in allowing us to continue our journey.
I have been truly humbled by the help we have received from others. First, I have had to come to accept that there are and will be moments when we need help. As I said, bike touring is about independence. But at the same time, travel itself is inherently, if not ironically, about dependence and interdependence. And bike touring is one of the best ways to navigate this dynamic. Bike touring strips away the barriers (for example the doors, windows, and speeds of motorized vehicles) and displays, up front, the vulnerable condition in which we all travel, regardless of the perceived comforts of cars and hotels. Bike touring allows for spontaneous, naked encounters with others. And it is these encounters that have led to some of the more rewarding experiences of our trip.
Most people traveling here in northern Patagonia are here because the natural beauty. It is also what drew me to chart a bike route in this region. However, Jenny and I have realized that the bikes and our language skills have opened up a world of human contact that have enriched the trip immeasurably. The girls and Jenny have enough Spanish to make for some terrific encounters and for our purposes the human contact has been indispensible. In fact, it has really made the trip thus far.
Next: details of some of our serendipitous encounters and what they led to…