A Patagonian Icon
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
The next morning Tom went north on his black Honda Africa Twin, while Charlie and I headed south for El Chaltén and the fabled Mount Fitz Roy.
There was a 70 or 80 kilometer section of deep gravel ahead, heard about from several travelers, that featured foot deep sections. I was hoping the winds would be kind that day and let us through easily, but it was not to be the case. They started as we left town and increased steadily, until we reached the gravel section where they came sporadically in bolts and shoves. The daily winds in Patagonia are infamous, especially amongst two wheel travelers as they gust continuously at up to 90 kilometers per hour, which is roughly 60 mph, and are known to surpass that substantially. They never cease, so traveling in them can be a real challenge to a motorcyclist or bicyclist.
The views across the landscape were superb, with aqua blue lakes and windy plains. Sections of the road were easy and some were not. Charlie was running too slowly for my bike to be stable and I had to pass him and run a faster pace to stay stable. He slowly disappeared behind me in my mirror as I strained my eyes ahead, looking for the thin lines of shallowest gravel and tried to stay vertical in the wind gusts. My long legs saved me a couple or more times when the front end would sink into deep gravel and start to throw the bike down.
There were stretches piled a foot high on either side of tire ruts, as well as solid sections with 5 or 6” deep loose rocks. The ruts were challenging since the wind leaned the bike over and it would try to climb the rut on the lean side, of course slipping badly. In a couple of places I had to dog paddle in first gear. Those areas were a lot of work and I figured Charlie would have some trouble in the deeper stuff since they were slow going and he didn't have the long leg advantage I did.
It seemed like a very long time but finally I spotted blacktop ahead and sped up, only to find that just before the blacktop section, they’d covered the last 500 yards in 6” gravel in which I nearly crashed.
Once out and on blessed blacktop, I stopped to wait for Charlie and enjoy the wind and sun. A lone car came slowly past, one of several I’d passed, his blown and shredded front tire flopping along at 5 miles an hour. I waved him over but he had no spare tire to change. He was heading for Tres Lagos to seek both a tire and his now tattered rim. I offered him a snack and water but he said he was good and slowly rolled on with a smile and wave.
It was about 45 minutes before Charlie rolled up, exhausted from having dropped the bike a couple times but glad to be through it. Tres Lagos was the closest town and had food to offer.
I passed the car with the rolling flat a few miles down the road with a honk and thumbs up, to see him waving in my rear view. The town wasn’t too far away and when we arrived, as per Argentina, the few restaurants were closed in the middle of the day. Charlie was beat and needed to take a nap. I was starving and found a tienda to buy a cold sandwich and drink. I sat on the sidewalk and ate for about 45 minutes, then got ready to find Charlie, but he rolled up just as I got on the bike, and simultaneously the little restaurant adjacent opened. Charlie went for food and I went for the town of El Chaltén and Mount Fitz Roy.
At one point, my bike suddenly slowed and I thought the engine was dying, only to realize it was a headlong gust of severe wind that had knocked a good 10-15 mph off the bike like someone had applied the brakes, which says something about the winds in the region.
Throughout the day, herds of guanacos would be seen close and far away. Also and a bit of a surprise, herds (flocks?) of rheas as well. Their similarity to Emu was amazing.
The very long stretches of open road would be broken by a lonely estancia, easily marked and visible by the tall trees planted around the homes and buildings, sticking out like a sore thumb on the giant rolling plains.
The constant wind plays with your mind, when it hesitates for a moment and the bike goes back to vertical, it's a very strange feeling almost as if riding vertical felt out of control. I learned to spot the heavy winds far ahead by watching the clouds. The puffy clouds meant reasonable wind but the big long stretches of lenticular style meant high altitude winds.
Along the roads and at gas stops there were quite a few backpackers hitching rides. It would seem that both in Chile and Argentina, backpacking and hitchhiking is a right of passage. Occasionally one would see an American or European, but the vast majority were not. At the rare road intersection, several would be lined up to hitch and and often gave a big thumbs up to the roaring motorcycle. I wonder how many have decided that a motorcycle may be a great way to travel the next time.
As I made the turn for El Chaltén, I got a real rush from deep inside. It continued to build and though not sure why, it became a turning point for me. Aside from the beauty of the road and the flooded senses, the vision of the smoky outline of the epic peaks ahead brought a wave of emotion and as my throat tightened and I got a bit choked up. Maybe after so many disappointments, including the emotional spike from the recent rear hub leak, it was a relief that went very deep. I didn’t realize that the famous mountain peak, Mount Fitz Roy, so much a symbol of Patagonia to me, would be the trigger moment for my emotions but it was.
I expected an emotional reaction at my final goal of Ushuaia a thousand miles further south, but instead it was here. For the first time I really felt as if I’d made it.
I have no idea why, but I was hit by a strong sense of the presence of my grandfather, many years passed. It was so strong it brought tears to my eyes and had literally come out of the blue as I'd not though of him in a long time. I don't know the theology or belief, but it honestly felt as if my grandfather had suddenly come to me with a sense of pride for what I'd done. I still can't explain it, nor can I deny its reality and the sensation and moments will never be forgotten. Maybe it was some deep inner emotion that has lain hidden in my heart, or maybe he had indeed put his hand on my shoulder from heaven, but out loud in my helmet I said “This is for you…” and went silent.
From where it came and why it came, I have no idea, but then again this trip has been about life and the soul, not a sightseeing tour. There was such a sense of relief I think, from the final drive not failing after all the previous pressures and stress. At times it seemed everything was against my making it to Ushuaia but now it didn’t matter anymore. For some reason, Mt. Fitz Roy had been my unknown finish line.
The hour long ride to the community of El Chaltén, the indigenous name for the jagged peak, is unforgettable, with the mountains ahead, beautiful blue lake waters to your left and punches of wind from your right. The long thin ribbon that slowly draws you west seems like a road to a misty, hidden mountain of import in a fantasy movie. I enjoyed my time alone and the feelings that went with it.
I arrived an hour or so before Charlie, grabbing a coffee and watching the little town full of foreign backpackers. It reminded me of Silverton, Colorado without the tacky touristy sense. It was a mountain village dedicated to real trekkers and despite the requisite bakeries and coffee houses, had no cheesy feel.