The last stars were being washed out by the first light of the day as I emerged from my tent in the desert of Northern Argentina. The air had a cold dry nip to it, and I was surprised to see that the sky was completely clear again after yesterday’s production of thick cumulus on the ridges and overcast above. Despite the cold, I opted to leave my clothes in the tent and wake up with an open-flesh desert run. When camping on the side of the road all the time, you have to take advantage of good open chunks of wilderness. Just watch out for the cactus.
After the past couple days of riding through the afternoon heat, I was determined to try out the Argentinean siesta technique. I was going to ride in the cool temperatures of morning, find a nice shade tree and nap until the heat passed. We had set up camp early yesterday with these intentions, but today I happened to be the first one to rise. The sun was just breaking the eastern horizon as I loaded my bike on the road and started riding.
Right as the sunlight hit the faces of the west mountain range, a stampede of air was set loose toward the valley’s shadows. I was seeking cool temperatures, but this headwind was cold, so cold that I had to put gloves on to keep my hands functional. It was my first time wearing them since the mountains of Peru.
At the top of the only hill in the basin, the wind paused. A green road sign told me that it was 40 kilometers to the next town, Los Nacimientos (a very odd name for a town, “The Births” in English). This was good news, 40 kilometers is a good distance for a morning ride. My siesta tree awaited me.
But, as they say, the first rule of bicycle touring is to never trust directions or distance estimates, and the second rule is to never trust a road sign. Since the road ahead was nothing but flat and straight, and there was no traffic, I did what I generally do during those most boring times of bike riding — I voluntarily spaced out. Focusing on the space ten feet in front of me, I watched the world through my peripherals and chose to ignore the sign I passed which would have told me that “The Births” was actually closer to 60 kilometers away.
The force of the headwind seemed to increase with every pedal stroke. Cows turned their butts to the breeze and their tails flapped against their udders. The chin hair dangling off the goats looked like comb-overs. I approached a low bank of fog and wondered if it might be calmer in there, with perhaps less influence from the heating affect.
It wasn’t. At what I thought was 10 kilometers from “The Births”, my sad knee started crying from the strain against the wind. At what I thought was 7K out, I saw a sign declaring the town was still 20 kilometers away. “It’s not worth it” I decided, not wanting to do further harm to my knee with what could be two more hours of painful pedaling. I pulled over and prepared my thumb to hail a ride.
About 20 minutes later, my first chance arrived. A white truck with a nice big camper canopy. Perfect. And they pulled over! As I approached the driver, my buddy Andy popped his head out the back door.
“Looks like we had the same idea,” he said. “They only have room for one. I’ll wait for you guys in the next town.”
So it goes.
Ten minutes later Max arrived, his head down, struggling to keep his front wheel pointed straight against the wind. He suggested that we move to the leeward side of a hut 100 meters up the road, which was a good idea because it was definitely not getting any warmer. Mist, dust and sand whipped by our little shelter at tornado-like speeds. It became clear that this was not just some diurnal heating affect, although it may have initiated that way. We were in a wind storm.
Hitchhiking was not working out well. Every 20 minutes or so, we would look up from our books and see a car approaching, then sprint out to the road hysterically waving our thumbs in the air. Truck after truck with empty beds and plenty of space would pass us by, wagging a finger.
“Nine out of 10 of those trucks would have picked us up in Peru,” we said crankily.
After about five hours of shivering, we finally got a Samaritan. With his wife and son up front and all his Direct TV work supplies in the back, our bikes were strapped to the top of the van and we loaded up. We pretzelled our way in, sitting on boxes of equipment, surrounded by our bags, with a step ladder across our laps.
Despite having taken so long it turned out to be a good spot to stop and hitchhike; almost instantly the paved road turned to sandy, washboard gravel. My water bottle nearly fell off my bike with the vibrations, but the driver stopped and saved it. I kept an eye out the back window to make sure my other bottle wouldn’t fall off undetected, but the fast-moving vortex of the eternally shrinking road was hypnotizing, and I soon dozed off.
I awoke to the van stopping on a paved street. The driver had really wanted to help us out, so he passed “The Births” and took us to the next town, Hualfín. Oh … wow, thanks … you shouldn’t have … really. There was no way Andy could expect we had gotten a ride past him. We were now in the opposite direction that he thought we were.
The air was calmer, but the cold clouds of the storm remained. We set out on the town searching for food and internet. But of course, it was late afternoon and everything in town was closed for siesta. We managed to score some tuna, crackers and cream cheese with the slimy plastic texture of Gak, a putty-like toy for kids, from a sweet old man. After scarfing on the sidewalk, we learned that nowhere in town had internet, that the system had crashed and we would not be able to send Andy a message.
We considered trying to catch a ride back to “The Births”, but by then it was nearly night time so that did not seem like a bright idea. At seven o’clock (still siesta time) we convinced a woman working at a restaurant that didn’t open until eight to make us dinner. We then went and set up camp behind the gas station, went to sleep and almost got trampled by horses.
The next morning, Max confirmed that the horse thing wasn’t a dream, and we congratulated each other on living to see another day. The storm had passed and the sky was blue and gaining warmth. We took turns trying to hitchhike back to “The Births” to find Andy, while the other stayed behind with the bikes. We started at the central plaza but then moved back to the gas station when we heard there might be more northbound traffic up there.
We must have been looking pretty haggard because not even one car would stop for us. After about an hour at the gas station, Max returned to the shade, grumbled something about starting to dislike Argentina, pulled his bags off his bike, and pedaled the 12 kilometers up the bumpy gravel hill to “The Births”.
Andy was nowhere to be seen for Max, although he did leave a piece of his Halloween costume to show where he had been. On the way back to Hualfín, Max asked an Argentinean hitchhiker if he had seen another bearded biker recently. Two hours earlier, it turned out, he had indeed seen someone who fit the description riding south. This was good news on two fronts — one, the case of the missing Andy had a clue, and two, if even local hitchhikers take more than two hours to get a ride, maybe we weren’t doing so badly.
Back at the gas station, I awoke from my sweet cozy teddy-bear-in-the-cool-shade-of-the-orchard nap to the sound of bike tires on dirt. I looked up to see that the Max had landed.
“He’s not here?” Max asked.
“He’s not there?” I replied.
We asked the next car that pulled in from the south if they had seen the bearded biker. The driver said that yes, he had, indicating so with a strange whooshing motion with his left hand over the top of his head. Another clue.
After an excellent lentil-gruel lunch we went to the super market with plans to ride to the next town, Belen, in hopes of finding Andy. The market lady had already closed shop, and was about to start her siesta, but luckily she opened the door for us to make some quick purchases. As I paid for my avocados, oranges and Fruttigrans (the Argentinean cookie of choice), I told our clerk about our plans to go to Belen to find our missing friend. She told me that a bicyclist with “big hair” had been there earlier, buying food. He must have slipped in as we made our transfer from plaza to gas station. So the riddle was solved, but we still didn’t have the answer.
Fifty kilometers of light wind and heavy sun later, I arrived in Belen. Max had made it in first, so I kept to the main street and looked for him. I rode all the way to the other end of town with no sign of the Max. Now, we were all lost from each other. I turned around and started pedaling back, baffled that after traveling together for more than 17 months, we could still manage to all get separated so easily. Somehow, by the good graces, we all ended up converging from different directions on the same street corner in front of the cheese store.
It turned out that Andy, after seeing that we didn’t show up in “The Births”, had figured we had caught a ride to Belen. In order to catch up with us, he had caught a ride to Hualfín, and then another ride to Belen. All three of the thumbs he had put out scored pickups with the first truck that passed. He was going to tell us that Argentina was the best hitchhiking country yet.
• Kanaan Bausler is a member of A Trip South. Follow the group’s travels as they make their way from Juneau to the tip of South America by kayak and bike at http://atripsouth.com.