The Road Less Traveled…

The road from Uyuni to Tupiza was deceptively vicious. 120+ miles of gravel, sand, undulating ripples and very few people. Photo: Alex Washburn

The road from Uyuni to Tupiza Bolivia was deceptively vicious. 120+ miles of gravel, sand, undulating ripples and very few people. Photo: Alex Washburn

For a reason…

In Bolivia I started asking the owners of hotels (using Alex translate their responses) how long it would take to get to the next stopping town we had decided on. Why? Because in Bolivia there can literally be nothing for miles and miles and I wanted to make sure that we made it to the next destination without running out of gas or having to drive long distances at night.

I accomplished only one of these goals when we set out from Uyuni to Tupiza after our day in the salt flats. I had asked the owner of our hostel the night before how long it would take to get to Tupiza, as we were planning on crossing the border to Argentina the next day. She responded that the road between the two cities was bad, mostly gravel, and that it might be better to back-track to Potosi and then head down from there as it would take 4 hours from Uyuni straight. A total of over 600km (roughly 372 miles) for the back-track, when the road that went straight there was only around 200km (or 130 miles).

Alex and I had been told by Google maps not to take certain sections of road and to instead do these long loops, but as of yet, we had’t encountered anything the bikes (or us) couldn’t handle. The worst was the road between La

I was laughing so hard when these lamas started following Nathaniel that tears were running own my face. I quickly pulled out my iPhone to take pictures. Photo: Alex Washburn

I was laughing so hard when these lamas started following Nathaniel that tears were running down my face. I quickly pulled out my iPhone to take pictures. Photo: Alex Washburn

Paz and Oruro, and that was simply because at varying intervals it would turn into gravel (while also hailing), before becoming asphalt again. Annoying, but nothing to worry about. And with this in mind we decided that some gravel wasn’t bad enough to warrant a back-track of more than 350 miles.

The next day we got up, got packed, didn’t take showers because the element in the water heater was broken, and headed out after having some breakfast (our last meal until 9:30 that night) and spending a half an hour looking for gas, in a town that isn’t any bigger than a four or five street grid.

By the time we got onto “highway”-21 it must have been close to 10:30, not the earliest start to the day we’ve had on the trip. Highway-21 was never asphalt, not even in Uyuni, and about ten minutes in I gave up on it ever being asphalt for the entire length of the drive.

The first half was boring landscape you can’t be excited about going ten to fifteen miles an hour through. Llamas littered the sides of the road, while bumps caused by rains, that make the road resemble monster truck tire tracks, made for a slow bumpy ride. Stopping for a moment to wait for Alex to catch up to me, and checking what appeared to be an oil leak on my front left fork, I stood up to see a mama llama and her baby starring at me.

Not knowing if they wanted to attacked or were simply curious, I backed away from them slowly and raised up on the balls of my feet and put my arms above my head (what I was taught to do in cub-scouts if you come face to face with a mountain lion) making myself as big as I could. All the mama did was look at me, blink, and continue forward as I retreated to where Alex had stopped some twenty feet back.

All in all they were just friendly, curious llamas not accustomed to seeing stupid motorcycle riders, in full gear, stopping on the side of the road. The mama even ended up nuzzling Alex’s hands as she tried and succeeded to pet her. Seeing as we still had an entire days worth of riding ahead of us we pushed on from the llamas, as they lost interest in us and went back to grazing.

Alex makes friends with the rural lama. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

Alex makes friends with the rural lama. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

Thinking the road couldn’t get any worse, it showed me a thing or two, by giving us sand on top of monster truck bumps, which helps to destabilize you better than anything we have encountered thus far (I almost tipped over more than half a dozen times that day, but was able to keep the bike up luckily). I went around one corner and couldn’t see Alex in my rear-view mirrors so I stopped to let her catch up.

However, after a minute of not seeing anything I knew something had to be wrong, so I flipped around and rode back around the corner to see Alex sitting on the side of the road, her bike smack dab in the middle of the sand on its side. I made sure she was okay before anything else, she replied that the sand was soft and she wasn’t going very fast when she fell, so we both went to lift the bike back onto two wheels.

It was at this moment that Alex realized that a cable was hanging loose, and upon further inspection, it had been held on by one of the sub-frame bolts. We don’t know how long she had been riding without it, but for those that don’t know the KLR, the back and front of the bike are held together by, you guessed it, the sub-frame bolts. There was no way she was going to be able to go another 100 miles on one sub-frame bolt without risking snapping the other and literally having her bike come apart into two halves.

There was a small cropping of buildings that some people might call a town only a couple minutes away, so we decided to get off the road and figure out a plan. Supposedly, according to locals, there was a larger town about ten miles away (though when your only going 15-miles an hour that can be almost an hour of riding) that we might be able to find a replacement at. However, I had read forums before we left where people had snapped sub-frame bolts and had a hard time finding replacements.

I can't pick my motorcycle up without Nathaniel's help while is has all my gear on it. Without the boxes I can pick it up but it's still difficult.  Photo: Alex Washburn

I can’t pick my motorcycle up without Nathaniel’s help while it has all my gear on it. Without the boxes I can pick it up but it’s still difficult. Photo: Alex Washburn

Before we went to anything drastic, we decided it would be best to check our tool bag, as I had thrown in a bunch of random spare screws and nuts we had bought, but hadn’t used when we mod’ed our bikes. Miracle of all miracles, I had not one, but THREE bolts that were the right size to fit. I don’t know where they came from, but they saved our asses (literally). Alex’s bike went up on the center stand, we made a couple of minor adjustments, and we were off again.

I’ll spare the details of the next 100 miles, and nearly 7 more hours of driving that occurred other than the important details. No more tip-overs by either driver, getting to the halfway point at 4:30pm, driving the last 40 miles in the dark, still on gravely dirt roads (they did get better in the second half, though still quite rocky), in the middle of the mountains with no ambient light say for headlights, smell of gas on my bike (to be covered later).

All in all, what the lady said would take us 4 hours took us ten plus hours to drive, the last three in the pitch black. Although, after driving the road all day and seeing how the Land Cruisers blast through it like they are training for the next Dakar we can totally understand why a local would think the trip only takes 4 hours.

Finally making it to Tupiza, we found an awesome hotel with parking and a restaurant right next store that was still open, again small miracles.

Even though we wanted to get to the border the next day, one of our bike gurus (Chuck Squatrigila) suggested we take a half day and check every bolt for looseness on the bike. It was a good thing he did. My bike was now leaking quit a bit from the left fork, but there was no mechanic in town who could do the repair, and it was looking like Salta, Argentina was the place to get it repaired. Though one mechanic in town told us it would be fine to drive on asphalt for another 1,000 miles (I don’t know if I believe that).

We found several loose bolts on both bikes, and the connections to my battery were loose (I lost electricity while parking that day, which made me think that might be the case). The big find on my bike was that gas smell I mentioned earlier, ended up being a hairline crack in my tank that was leaking a small amount of gas. Not to worry, Alex and I had prepared for everything (thanks to the help of many people) and we pulled out the tube of JB Powerweld, followed the instructions, and epoxied the crack right up. We checked to make sure it stuck and there were no leaks in the morning, good to go.

It was the hardest day of riding of the trip, but we both felt accomplished for tackling it and making it through, though I think are guardian angels took a couple blows that day.

6 Comments on “The Road Less Traveled…

  1. SURE DO ENJOY READING ABOUT YOUR GREAT TRIP, SO GLAD YOU ARE POSTING YOUR STORY. DRIVE SAFE.

  2. I wouldn’t worry about your guardian angels, since you followed the old rule, never ride faster than your angle can fly. Be safe and enjoy.

  3. Fork Seals NOOOOOOOOO. I’m sorry to hear about that, but I’m sure you’ll get them patched up in no time, and hop back on the road. Be careful with that subframe though, it might be worth it to simply drill all the way through and replace the two 10/12mm Allen bolts with a BIG Motha’ bolt to keep it from separating…

    Much love from S/C!

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