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Dances with Bicycles -- Part 2: Expedition

June 25th, 2006

Dances with Bicycles (Part 2)

The truth was that all the cyclists were scared. Some had holed up in Salta for nearly 3 weeks, waiting for European reinforcements to arrive before entering the spare-parts wasteland of Bolivia. The first task was daunting too -- a 4800m (15,750 feet) pass on dreaded ripio (gravel/dirt) with no water or food for 3 days. That too, pales next to the sequel on the Salt Flats: a 12 day odyssey of thin air above 4500m in an uninhabited land of volcanoes, colored lakes, and the infamous sea of salt.

Claire and Liam, the British couple who'd invited me to join, leveled me with the news that they couldn't wait for me, and were "so freaked out, they didn't want another soul's weight on their shoulders." So,what was I to do? After a heart-to-heart with them, I decided to do a test loop of 5 days through the stunning valleys around Salta, and perhaps meet them in Northern Chile by bus for the Salt Flats assault.

Somehow, the transition to solo cycling worried me less than the prospect of hauling all my stuff. A laden bicycle, it's just not very graceful. Lumbering like an ox at first, even pavement felt precarious. My plan was to hitch a lift in an illegal taxi a fair distance out of Salta, and then spend two days cycling to the town of Cafayate through wild red canyons, before continuing on to several little villages that make up the Valles Calcaquies.

At first, the plan went swimmingly. Buying two seats of four available in the illegal taxi ($5 for 60 miles), I was able to start the tour right just before the agricultural valley yielded to the red wonderland that's largely uninhabited for 2 days cycling. I had a tent, a sleeping bag, water and rations, all packed onto the Squeak (given all the improvisations, she's a little noisy.) Pumping out a rhythm on kindly descending asphalt, I whizzed by dusty little houses and the last fields of sunflowers.

There's a special kind of silence on a bicycle, on an empty road. Just the wind and the sound of rolling rubber on macadam, like the white noise of waves breaking on the beach. After a while, you stop hearing anything, and just roll. Bliss, really. Just as I was slipping into my zen moment, I came across another cyclist, heading towards Salta. Jean Marie, French (not surprising) – had started in Ushuaia 6 months ago, and was rolling north with a serene look on his face. We talked for nearly 15 minutes on the side of the road – a conversation born of the serenity of the road. As I turned to pedal off, he said, "just enjoy."

After eating a lunch of veal in a deserted roadside café to the resonant "goooooooooooooooaaalll" of the World Cup, I left civilization behind and began to climb into the quebrada (canyon) proper. The road wound up and around red rocks, next to a stream. My goal for the day, La Garganta del Diablo (the Devil's Throat), marked the beginning of wild rock formations, and as I counted down kilometers, daylight faltered. Fortunately, I caught my rhythm and pitched my tent right next to Sr. Diablo's maw right at dusk. For dinner, I packed a sandwich and hiked up into the chasm. On either side, black canyon walls, and above, the bright milky way. Only wild donkeys ventured near the tent, and I slept well.

In the morning, I pushed off into the heart of the quebrada, past canyon walls of red, green, purple and gold. The regional tourism office marks these mountains and other bizzare badlands formations with names like La Rana (frog) y El Obelisco (obelisk). By late afternoon, I'd whizzed into the small wine town of Cafayate, and lazily ate cabernet-flavored ice cream after pitching the tent in Luz & Fuerza campgrounds.

The next day began with a cafe con leche and the first few minutes of the Argentina&Serbia-Montenegro game. (Argentina, much to the delight of the crowd, won 6-0) Sitting in the cafe, I considered staying Cafayate, as my knee had been a little sore. But, the road beckoned, and I pushed off after 20 minutes.

The first 30km of a planned 60km were over paved road to the small town of San Carlos. On the dusty main square I bought a few empanadas full of tasty onion and beef for a later lunch. Also snagged a bag of coca leaves (to stave off hunger, thirst and fatigue) and pushed off. Yes, coca is the predecessor of the evil cocaine demon, but the leaves retain their cultural clout in the Andes from centuries past. More on these to come..

The road turned very bad very quickly. Chewing my wad of coca, I pushed up a sandy, rutted road to tiny towns like La Merced and Payogostillo. They *may* or may not have a store to buy water. Children appeared in Santa Maria and posed for photos, and I shared with them some of my peanut stash. As the day waned and the kilometers rolled past, I learned that the wild landscapes like Quebrada de Flechas (arrow canyon) would endure for 15km more than I'd been told. On severe gravel road this is no laughing matter.

My energy ebbed at 4:30 that afternoon, just after I'd visited a bizarre cemetery wreathed in plastic flowers. All day, my knee had been complaining, and at 60km, the rest of my parts joined the chorus. Just as I crested one of several dozen dusty hills in the quebrada, I decided to stop. Sitting on the saddle of the hill, as I disembarked, my foot caught in the peddle, and Squeak the bike toppled. It was horrible. Stupid, really. Especially when I realized I'd bent her back wheel and she was unridable, fatigue or no. I scuttled repair efforts after 15 minutes, seeing the coming dusk.

At least 10km from the nearest town (Angastaco), I had no choice but to push my steed up and down the sandy road starry sky for the next two hours, into the night. Few cars passed, and all in the wrong direction. I was genuinely surprised by a lack of anger, blunted by the necessity to get myself to safety. Still riding a wave of self preservation, I limped into Angastaco. Quickly, I found the best local biker, and he was able to right the wheel enough to spin correctly between the brakes. The town itself barely had accommodation (I slept above a pharmacy), and two restaurants, one of which served me enough cabrito and red wine to push me into sleep.

The fourth day of the tour was a sad one -- I had to hitchhike back to Cafayate with the bike. It simply wasn't safe to ride on the oblong wheel. Plus, my knee had evolved into four-alarm tendonitis at this point and cycling was out of the question. I hitched first with a family headed back to San Carlos in the back of their pickup, watching in amazement as a very large pig first fell off the truck in front of us, and then refused to re-embark. My second hitch was with a family out on business, procuring adobe and fired clay for their construction materials business. After taking the bike to a bike mechanic who trued the wheel for an hour (3 pesos, $1US), Squeak was almost ready to go again.

But I wasn't. Over the next few days, the knee pain simply refused to subside. I went to a specialist in Salta, the capital, and though there's no major enduring problem, I decided my only option was to sell the bike and move on. Like an albatross, it hung around my neck for a week. Not until a purchaser appeared, Marcos el Ladron de Guevara (literally, "Mark the Thief of Guevara"), was I free to leave.

In the end, it was 2 weeks of bicycle mania. I learned enough to maybe even try it again, but with a tender ear towards the knee. Not all adventures turn out well, but some fare far worse. At least no wolves ate me, right?


(All Argentina)
Dopey, but Proud
Camping w/ the Devil
The Quebrada
These are Natural?
Disaster Pass
At Least a Sunset
Hitchhiking w/ Pigs
Cool Adobe
Farewell to Salta
. .