Posted on February 4, 2015
Nearly nine months have passed since Alex and I rode through the gates of Ushuaia realizing our goal of riding from San Francisco to the end of the world. When we got back people wanted to know what our favorite country was or the best experience of the trip and what I found was that it was hard to put this trip into the mini sound-bites people wanted to hear. Yes I have a favorite country from the trip, I have places I would like to go back and places I don’t ever want to go back, but they are all a part of one massive undertaking Alex and I completed.
Another thing that I think people want to hear is that you had a life altering spiritual experience that has moved the clouds of doubt from your life and everything is clear now. Unfortunately, for me, that was not the case. I’m not saying that this trip hasn’t changed me, it most certainly has, but in small ways I see in my every day life.
On the adventure to getting our bikes back from the shipping container (story to follow) a fellow biker and I found ourselves on the long road to LA talking about our trips and the experiences. One comment that he had was that he could remember every day of his trip distinctly for one reason or another, but since being back the weeks blended together and he could hardly remember what happened last week let alone a couple weeks ago. I find the same occurrence in my own life. I can run through almost every day of the trip in my head, but often forget what I did last week. It’s because during “Autopista End” every day was a new experience or a new place. I need that in my life now because at the end of it all, I won’t remember any given weekend I spent watching Netflix but I will remember crashing in Cusco.
The other thing I learned was that I needed to stop procrastinating with the goals in my life and need to take steps, even little ones, every day in achieving what I want. I don’t want to wake up twenty years from now saying that the best thing I did in my life was the Autopista End trip. I need something more than that.
Alex and I have talked about the phenomenon of the “Bucket List” in recent years and how you will overhear people saying, quite literally on a daily basis, “oh I am putting that on my bucket list”. I don’t have a bucket list anymore, if there is something I really want to do, I am going to find a way of doing it, of taking some step toward accomplishing it. It doesn’t mean it will happen this month or this year even, but if I keep taking steps toward it I will eventually succeed or realize it wasn’t what I really wanted. I would rather die in the process of achieving a goal than with a list of a bunch of dreams I never even attempted to realize.
This trip has changed me in ways I can’t really put into words and there are still some days where I think it was all a dream, that Alex and I are still planning this crazy idea we had so many months ago.
I would like to thank everyone that followed our blog, left us comments or helped us along the way. I would like to thank my Mom, for teaching me that “I can do anything, it may take me longer, but I will get there” and my Dad for keeping my imagination alive and young. But most all I want to thank Alex Washburn for without which this trip wouldn’t have happened. She is an amazing person that I have been fortunate enough to share my life with.
Posted on April 3, 2014
From Mendoza we were on a mission to get to Santiago so that we could make the push down south. Ariel the mechanic (along with others) had told us we could make it to Santiago in about five hours, though the big question mark was how long the border crossing was going to take, as our last experience had scared us in terms of waiting time.
We got up and headed toward the border, along with tons of Harleys, BMWs, and KTMs among other motorcycles. It was Sunday, and on top of that there had been a giant Harley-Davidson rally in Mendoza that weekend, putting tons of motorcycles on the road heading back to Santiago. It felt good to be surrounded by motorcyclists who were out enjoying the weather, the weekend, and just riding.
The border to Chile is through a half mile long tunnel and on the other side you are in Chile. We didn’t see any signs for where to get stamped out of Argentina, and went through the tunnel three times before finding out that it was all done in one location, about five miles into Chile.
While waiting at the border, we got to talk to several bikers and pick their brains about the route we were taking to Ushuaia and rumors we had heard about Southern Argentina. One Harley rider said that we should prepare for wind and to make sure we had a gas can with us (this was echoed by friends who had already rode through southern Argentina) as many of the gas stations are closed or simply don’t have any gas.
The border involved the usual inefficiency and the second searching of the bikes we have had on the entire trip. Finally done and processed we got to ride the snail’s pass on our way down the mountains. As you can see from the picture, it is s-curves all day long and quit fun to ride down, though I was glad that the on coming traffic was stopped for road repairs or it might have been a scary ride.
We made it to Santiago just as the sun was setting and it was long after dark by the time we made it to our hostel. We decided to take one day in the city to enjoy the sites and rest up before we made the big push down the 5. Santiago has a European feel with both the atmosphere and the architecture of the city and we enjoyed just walking around and exploring.The next day, once again, we packed and moved on. About ten miles outside of Santiago, Alex killed her bike as a truck passed her and as we coasted to a stop on the side of the freeway (thankful for a wide shoulder) she found that she couldn’t start her bike again. With the sounds it was making we could tell it wasn’t getting enough fuel to keep it idling. Long story short, we played around with the fuel lines and finally were able to suck whatever was blocking the tube out. Something similar happened in Peru, and the same fix worked. We won’t question it for now, we are just thankful that we could fix it and move on.
We were able to make it to Chillán (past where we thought we would make it due to the US quality road that is the 5) and found a cheap hostel with parking and a place to clean our chains, that badly needed some attention. It was in the last minutes of twilight that Alex was close to finishing cleaning her chain as Tobee (from Germany) came walking up the driveway of the hostel.
Tobee has been experiencing some extreme bad luck with his KTM and delighted us with his stories from the road, a portion of which involved him removing the air filter of his motorcycle and using, in his words, panties to cover the intake. It was nice having someone to talk to and we spent the night swapping stories from the road and talking about the journey to Ushuaia. (The last we heard, Tobbe is still stuck in Chillán trying to get his carburetor repaired with the most patient of mechanics).
The next day, after a comment from Tobee, we stopped by a motorcycle shop to pick up an extra chain as Alex’s appeared to be on its last leg. It was here where I made a grievous error. It was close to when we were going to have to get the last oil filter change of the trip (we should have done this in Santiago). The “mechanic” at the shop said he didn’t know if he had the right size of oil filter and asked if he could just open up my bike and check to see.
After spilling oil all over my bike (should have been the first clue) he determined he didn’t have the right size oil filter, which if you looked at the size of the oil filter housing it was clear he didn’t have the right size. He put the oil filter back in and we purchased a chain and went to go fill up before heading out-of-town. It was at the gas station that I noticed the oil filter cap was not flush and decided we needed someone else to look at it before we hopped on the freeway. It was on the two block drive to the Yamaha dealership that my bike started hemorrhaging oil as if from a gunshot wound.To the “mechanic” at that other shop: YOU NEED TO GET ANOTHER JOB BECAUSE YOU ARE AN IDIOT!!!!! Though I would tell Alex later that I should have known that was a horrible idea. Yamaha didn’t have an oil filter that fit, but their mechanic was able to take it out and get it installed again without any issues.
Alex and I found out that there was a Kawasaki authorized dealership in Temuco, which just happened to be on our way along the 5. Having wasted half a day with the oil disaster, we hightailed it to Temuco and got an appointment for the following morning. We used this as an opportunity to change the chains and spokes, as well as, the oil to get the bikes ready for the last leg of the trip. Though this ended up sucking up one more day than we thought it would.
Fresh chains and riding like new we headed for the border to cross back to Argentina. Everyone had told us it was going to be cold in the south, we just didn’t know that the cold was going to come this soon. We stocked up on new winter gloves (that still wouldn’t be warm enough for snow) and gas cans for Southern Argentina.
After the best border crossing of the trip, we made it to San Carlos de Barlioche (the lake Tahoe of Argentina) and this is where things got interesting. It was cold on the ride along the lake, but we didn’t know we were going to wake up and see snow falling outside the window.
We took showers, got packed, and the snow had stopped, to be replaced with a light rain. We ate breakfast and got the bikes packed to try to make it out-of-town before the real rain started. We didn’t succeed.
Ten miles down the road it started pouring, and didn’t stop for the rest of the day. Our new gloves and five layers of clothing wasn’t enough to keep the cold out and on top of that, we got our first snow ride. Not little flakes, but literally snow that falls, hits your helmet visor, and sticks.
We could only make it about 30 miles at a time before we had to pull over and warm up our hands as they were turning numb with cold. Making it to El Bolsón (only 80 miles past Bariloche) we had to give up for the day as we were numb in both fingers and toes and were soaked to the bone. The best part of being in a part of the country that is cold for a large portion of the year, they have heaters.Getting a hostel with a heater was clutch and Alex fashioned a drying rack out of the curtain rod that we hung in front of the heater. The hostel owner said that it would stop raining the next day, but it continued to rain all day and didn’t break until the morning of the next day.
Not knowing what the day would bring at 7am, the sun started to peak out around 9 and we were off. Riding through snow-capped mountains and frosty fields we made our way south, 36 miles at a time while we let our hands warm up. It wouldn’t be till after Esquel that we started dropping down in elevation and the ambient temperature rose, at least enough so that we could start putting some miles down without stopping.
The excitement of the day was that Alex’s bike was going to turn 30,000 miles. After lunch, ten miles outside of Tecka her bike hit the 30,000 mile mark and we pulled over to the side of the road to take pictures and I did a little dance in celebration. It was during this dance I noticed the massive amount of liquid coming out of the bottom of Alex’s bike…
To be Continued…
Posted on March 30, 2014
Travelers crave the authentic. They idealize it. And they brag about it when they achieve it.
Travel magazines, guide books and blogs do a great job motivating new tourists to pick up a passport and head to the airport every year which is AWESOME, however it also makes it harder for travelers (there is a difference) to make a real and unique connection to a place before it’s time to head back to the fluorescent life.
About a week ago Nathaniel and I managed to achieve one of those beautiful, authentic moments that made every time we’ve gotten stuck and had to pay too much for a hotel or broke down and bought American fast food (effing Tegucigalpa!) worth it.
It started in Lavalle Argentina, where the now familiar smell of gas was coming from Nathaniel’s gas tank and we suspected he had a new fracture in the tank, but couldn’t confirm till the morning as it was dark and we had rode 300+ miles that day.
The next morning Nathaniel went through the process of taking off his panniers and top box and discovered one of the weld seams on his tank was slowly oozing gasoline. We would wipe the spot where it was collecting dry and then gas would immediately begin spreading from a crack so small we couldn’t actually see it.
We had fixed a different fracture in the tank with JB weld a few days before, though the position of the new fracture made it impossible to seal with the JB Weld.
While we waited for the JB Weld to set, Nathaniel googled “KLR Mechanic Mendoza” because the next large-ish town was only about 30 minutes down the highway. I still think that phrase was an incredibly specific thing to look for, but it gave us the name, address and phone number of a man that according to legend is half mechanic half wizard. Looking at the thread about “Ariel” on Horizons Unlimited was impressive, although it was seven years old – just for the heck of it we gave the phone number a call and someone answered!
I asked if it was Ariel the mechanic and he told me it was. I next inquired if we could bring a motorcycle for him to look at and he confirmed his address for me.
Less than an hour later we were sitting in the middle of a residential intersection in Mendoza Argentina confused about which house was the mechanic’s shop. A pregnant woman motioned to me and asked if we were looking for the bike mechanic- I replied we were and she pointed to a house (her house). The woman was Ariel’s wife and a lovely hostess for the next two days.
The back of Ariel’s house opens up into a huge work space with dozens of motorcycles, cars, quads and even a full size truck tucked in cozily next to each other (also a couple of 60’s Ford Falcons). The walls are covered with every tool imaginable and the obligatory sexy lady posters, although he of course seems to be a loving father and husband.
Before we were introduced to this space he met with us out in front and told use he could help us, but that we needed to come back a few hours later at 4pm. Argentina takes ‘siesta’ seriously and from 2 o’clock to 4:30 pm it is often impossible to get errands done. Even banks and ATMs close during this time.
When we came back at four we rolled our bikes into the back portion of his house and Ariel’s assistant went to work draining Nathaniel’s gas tank after they had a look at the cracks and temporary repairs. Ariel floated around monitoring his assistant, drinking mate and helping another young guy in the shop who was working on his own bike. The whole process was very laid back, so after an hour and a half the tank was prepped for surgery and Ariel went to work with the blow torch.
After several blow torch sessions, we waited for what seemed like forever for the tank to cool down enough to be re-installed on Nathaniel’s bike and re-filled with gasoline. When we were ready to leave, Nathaniel asked Ariel how much he wanted for the work and Ariel told us not to worry about it and to come back the next day as he wanted to make sure the weld held and to ensure the quality of his work (it was now past dark). We were itching to get on the road, but agreed and then Ariel asked us if we would be able to return at noon and have asado with him and his family.
In situations like this I usually try to be polite and decline a few times before giving in. However, when an Argentinian gives you an invitation to eat asado at his house you say thank you and ask what time you should show up.
We arrived a little after noon the next day and things were awkward at first. Nathaniel doesn’t speak Spanish and Ariel clearly wanted his 11-year-old daughter to practice her English with us. It was interesting to talk to her and see what her life was like. Ariel double checked the weld and approved that it was going to hold, but he later joked to Nathaniel that he wasn’t giving a lifetime guarantee.
Eventually we all moved to the top floor patio of Ariel’s house where they have a brick grilling area built right into the patio. The conversation got easier once we all began to relax and I carried my miniature dictionary with me the whole day. I can communicated pretty well in Spanish (obviously), however I knew that over the course of the next several hours words would come up in conversation that I wouldn’t understand and I didn’t care about looking like a nerd leafing through a dictionary.
By the end of the day I was mentally exhausted.
It’s impossible for me to explain the feeling of being wrapped up in that afternoon. The conversation was warm and easy while I tried to translate back and for between Nathaniel and our hosts as much as I could, though the conversation never really slowed.
A friend of Ariel’s manned the grill which was fueled by a wood fire and although the stomach meat was marinated the rest only saw a generous sprinkling of salt before he laid the pieces out on the hot grill with the care and skill of a surgeon.
Argentinians don’t eat the meat once it has cooled off so there was one point where they took a cooled off piece from my plate and gave me a new one hot from the grill. I thought of it as strange, however there is no denying they are the masters of beef when you are crunching through the slightly crisped salty fat and biting into those simple delicious flavors.
I also really enjoyed their blood sausage, which was much softer than the blood sausages I’ve had in the past. It had the texture of pate on the inside and paired so well with the crusty fresh bread they had laid out on the table.
The entire time we sat on the patio I kept thinking to myself how lucky we were to be in that place at that moment.
As dusk came we started to say our goodbyes before disappearing off into the dark, back to our $20 a night hostel after having a dinner money cannot buy.
P.S. Ariel never did allow Nathaniel to pay for the services her provided, he said we had already paid with good company.
Posted on January 30, 2014
After Bogota it was like Willie Nelson said “on the road again”, the miles just keep coming and we are going with them. From Bogota we were headed for Tatacoa (the desert we thought we were going to with the KLR riders), but ended up passing on through (a longer story of how we got lost and would have had to cross a river on a dingy is involved, but we wont go there) and kept on the road. It went Bogota, Espinal, La Plata, Popayan, Pasto, 500+ miles of riding to get to the border and into Ecuador.
The only glitch was in looking at Google maps and not realizing that even if a road is listed as a highway it might just in fact be a dirt, rock, pothole road that stretches on for 75 miles. That was the day of riding when we went from La Plata to Popayan, at the beginning of which Alex famously said:
“I think it will be all paved today.”
The scenery of Colombia has been just amazing, but it is hard to focus on when your going ten miles an hour and getting bounced all over the place. Imagine riding on a road that is going through middle earth (J.R.R. Token’s Middle Earth), the scenery is amazing, but I don’t think those hobbits put a lot of effort into smooth roads for their wagons. The next day was an exhilarating ride through the Andes to Pasto, at some points literally riding on the side of mountains and dodging trucks trying to get to a warm bed and a hot meal (because a warm shower is a little to much to hope for).
The next morning it was up early and off to the border, with a stop on the way at Las Lajas, where there is a cathedral built into the side of a mountain over a river. I had seen pictures before we got there, however the site impresses regardless the way few sites really do compared to photos.
As we pulled up to the parking lot, I saw another KLR with a trailer and the driver approached me before I even made it into a slot. The pilot is a Norwegian named Jørgen who is planning to ride to the tip of South America by the end of the year. He bought the KLR in Colombia, it had been in the country way beyond the allowed time and so he was heading to the border as well, with a plan to just drive across and then walk back and get a stamp before heading to Ecuador (the plan worked by the way).
After this is was time for lunch (cuy, which is a large guinea pig) and then off to another border crossing and our 11th country of the trip!
We made it to a little town called Otavalo, which was rumored to have a massive market on Saturdays. As we cruised into town it was apparent the rumors were true, as almost every street in the centro had stalls selling everything from bracelets and textiles, to food and spices. We high-tailed it to a hostel and then headed out to the markets to see what we could find.
The market covers most of the downtown, with the main square having many stalls that are stationary and then tons of tarps thrown up to create many nomad stalls. We spent the majority of the day watching all the gringos shopping and haggling with the vendors. While the market does cover a tremendous amount of space, most of the wears start to blur together without a tremendous amount of variety if you aren’t interested in textiles of some sort.
In the evening we met up with Jørgen who had made it to Otavalo and ended up having a meal of delicious street food: tamales, empanads, meat kebabs, and a hot strawberry drink to help fight off the chill at such a high altitude. A couple hours of good conversation with a fellow traveler before it was time to hit the sack for another riding day.The morning came and we rode at of Otavalo, headed to the middle of the earth (literally). There is a monument just north of Quito (elevation 9,350 ft) that marks Latitude 0, the exact center of the world, where you can stand in the northern and southern hemispheres simultaneously. The monument itself isn’t really impressive, and they have tried to do a good job of adding other attractions to keep peoples interests, but I wasn’t too worried about recouping the stiff $3.00 entrance fee.
What really struck Alex and I was that we had ridden from California to the center of the world. It marked a milestone in the trip and we were happy that we had done it together (without killing each other…yet). There are still miles to go and adventures to be had, but for the rest of the day we basked in accomplishment, now officially in the southern hemisphere.
Posted on December 13, 2013
We climb into the back of an absurdly large giant four wheel drive truck with other travelers from the UK, Israel, Germany, Ireland, Australia, Holland and the United States; we all fidget with nervous energy grinning and waiting for our adventure to start.
The truck fires up and lurches off throwing us into one another as it rounds corner after corner, bumping along on small cobblestone roads in a way that would make veterans of the Knight Bus nervous (Harry Potter reference).
There are no seat belts and we grab onto the railings, seats, and each other for stability during the 45 minute ride to Cerro Negro.
About a decade ago an Australian with presumably too much time on his hands visited Leon Nicaragua and decided to turn the active volcano Cerro Negro into an extreme sport destination. He first tried boarding the hill with a snowboard and destroyed his equipment in the process — volcanic rock is not kind to fancy gear. Next he tried a refrigerator door (fail), before moving on to a picnic table (also a fail), a mattress (biggest fail) and a variety of other items he thought might make it down the 42 degree slope of black volcanic rock.Today in Leon there are several companies that offer volcano boarding tours down Cerro Negro and although the protective gear varies slightly from company to company the boards they use are all the same. A one foot by four foot piece of plywood with several wooden slats across it and a rope handle you hold like a baseball bat can be found on the top, on the bottom a plank of thin metal and a patch of formica held on with adhesive provide your sliding surface. The thrill of sliding down an active volcano wearing prison jump suits while sitting atop construction scraps is what brings our collection of world travelers to the back of this obscene vehicle.
The cobblestones quickly gives way to cracked pavement and then dirt. The driver rushes over the small roads kicking up a mountain of dust that engulfs bicyclists, cows, pedestrians and entire busses as he rushes past and the road just keeps going.
Local guides claim that because of the wind patterns in the area Cerro Negro is the only volcano in the world suitable for Volcano Boarding. This may or may not be true but a google search for ‘volcano boarding’ will only give you hits related to Leon Nicaragua.
We pull up to the entrance of the nature park and slide to a stop. We all have to pay a $7 entry fee to enter the park and sign our names in the visitor ledger before we ride the last few kilometers to the base of Cerro Negro.
Cerro Negro isnt impressive looking because of its size, although it feels massive to hike up carrying a piece of metal sheathed plywood and your obligatory jump suit. No- Cerro Negro impresses with its dramatic slopes of black rock. Nothing grows on it and at the top you are greeted only by the smell of of sulfur and the giant bugs that are drawn to it.
Our guide Jose gives us a quick rundown of what to expect on the hike, how to best carry our board and tells us that we will stop three times along the way for information and to rest — we begin.
The hike starts easy enough on roughly shaped steps made out of larger rocks the size of your head, but as the slope gets steeper, the rocks get smaller, and the wind picks up hitting your board like a kite, it can get scary. We creep along the side of the volcano stopping and posing for photos when Jose tells us to and gripping the boards for dear life as we march up the path.
The real tragedy would be falling off the path, losing your board, and doing the hike for nothing. It takes an hour to climb the Volcano and less than a minute to slide down it, less than 30 seconds if you’re going for a record or are interested in seriously hurting yourself.
At the top we take time to appreciate the view and Jose scuffs a mark into the dirt and has us feel the earth just a few inches below the surface, surprisingly it is almost too hot to touch and you can see a few people’s faces questioning the sanity of sliding through it wearing a cotton jumpsuit and flimsy plastic goggles.
I am already wearing my goggles because it’s so windy at the top of the volcano little bits of rock and dust keep flying into my face. I don’t care if I look silly – I’d rather not blind myself before the ride.
Jose gives the command to ‘SUIT UP!’ and the moonscape at the top of the volcano gets even more bizarre as a dozen tourists start pulling on orange jump suits and goggles, a prison gang run wild. I ignore the command (sorry Jose) and buzz about taking photos of people getting ready as Jose starts his safety speech.
The single rider speed record on Cerro Negro is over 50 mph. When you consider you aren’t going to be wearing gloves or a helmet as you slide down a hill comprised solely of volcanic rocks, then listening to Jose when he gives you safety instructions is key. However – I’ve done this before and I have no desire to break a speed record.Last year a couple decided to race down the hill and the boyfriend lost control of his board and hit his girlfriend, breaking her back. A few weeks ago another tourist on vacation with her family lost control at a high speed and broke her leg and foot in several places, stories Jose doesn’t share till we are all at the bottom. It’s scary – but the same things could also happen while snowboarding.
It’s at this point I wrap my 5D Mark II in plastic with my iPhone and stick it in my backpack before pulling the jump suit over it. We take our places in two lines as Jose issues his final instruction before disappearing over the lip of the volcano to take pictures of us as we board down.
Several people take their turns and then suddenly it’s my turn. I carefully position myself on the board as I try and center myself in the starting chute while Nathaniel looks down at me with his GoPro.
The signal is given and I start scooting myself to the edge. I have problems getting out of the chute (the guy before me did it too fast and fell off his board), but once I hit the slope I start to slide easily down the volcano.
Gripping my rope I think I am going too fast so I dig my feet in, but I can’t seem to slow myself down. Once I reach Jose I know I am not allowed to brake anymore because the slope becomes too steep to safely slow yourself down. One of Jose’s biggest warnings at the top:
Once you pass me do NOT try and brake. 45 degrees is too steep to brake on, you will lose control and it will hurt.
The adrenaline starts to pump through me and I am reminded to keep my mouth closed as I taste the grit flying into my teeth. I clamp my mouth shut as I slide past Jose and then I lift my feet. I can use them to steer still – letting my motorcycle boots carefully skim the surface of the volcano, but I resist the urge to bury my feet in the rock.
I can feel the friction heat up the board underneath me and I wonder to myself if something could catch fire with that much heat. My speed starts to increase as pure gravity and the formica slicked board do their work. I start to hop slightly over a few bumps and for a second I think I am going sideways – rushing past our secondary guide who holds a speed gun I safely come to a stop.
I stand up, careful to pick up my board by the rope (the board is now hot enough to burn you) and I give my guide my name ‘Alex’ so he can record my speed. I join the others at the truck and start to strip off my jump suit watching the next few people make their way down Cerro Negro.
Once everyone has made it to the bottom we watch in awe as Jose runs down. He passes out our beers and takes a celebratory photo of all of us before we climb back on the truck for an even crazier ride back to our Hostel. At the hostel all volcano boarders are given a free mojito, most people caked in black dust gulp it down and make for the showers.
These are the days that make travel worth it.