Last day on Ruta Cuarenta

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
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Andean Adventure

Last day on Ruta Cuarenta
March 4, 1997

I'm beginning to doubt we'll ever make it to Perito Moreno
I can't believe my luck. Three flats in the last hundred meters, one right after another. But frustration has given way to incredulity, and I only shake my head and laugh as I climb aboard once again. I'm just getting under way — a lumbering, teetering, swerving mass — when the side-wind strikes. The gravel swallows my tire in a single gulp. The frame tweaks and my rear panniers twist under the violence of my fall. I know without even looking that my rear rack has broken again. I call to Nancy, but she too innately knows what has happened and already has the panniers off to begin breakfast. Perito Moreno lies less than 5 kilometers over the next hill, but I'm beginning to doubt if we will ever make it. Goodbyes are always difficult and Ruta Cuarenta, this insane madman masquerading as a highway, is not letting go easily.

We began this day only 25 kilometers out from Perito Moreno. That we should have stopped so close is in itself incredible, given our determination to reach this desert oasis after 12 days on the road. But Ruta 40 is never short on surprises, and after two days of relentless canyon-climbing in scorching heat through the desert, a sandstorm arises from nowhere to greet us on our final descent.

We are the victims of history. Six years ago, Chile's Volcan Hudson duplicated the efforts of Washington's Mount St. Helens and deposited a blanket of volcanic snow over the land. The ash covered everything, burying roads and fences, killing sheep by the thousands, and all but destroying the local fruit industry. To this day, evidence of the eruption is everywhere. Ash swirls through our hair, into our eyes, grinds in our teeth and gears, and sucks our wheels like quicksand.

Our experiences over the last two weeks have at least taught us to recognize when struggle is futile, and we quickly seek shelter. Ensconced under a bridge, we use the time to make a quick inspection of the bikes, which proves fortuitous. Nancy had mentioned there "might be a problem" with her rear tire. I take one look and can't believe my eyes. The entire sidewall has disintegrated and is a moment away from bursting. This tire should have lasted at least 15,000 kilometers and we've only gone 1,700. I swear at this cheap piece of crap and curse the perfidious influence of Ruta 40. Thankfully, we have a replacement.

Further inspection reveals that both Nancy's front and rear hubs are dangerously loose. With time on our hands and a sudden case of Mr. Fix-it fury, I decide here and now to do a complete hub rebuild. Not the best decision to make in a sandstorm. I spend the next hour struggling in vain to keep the grease clean and prevent everything from blowing away. Finally, we pitch the tent and I crawl inside with my scattered tools to complete the operation.

Later, as night ensues, the winds seem to tire. We relieve the panniers of their final holdings and collect all our water from the various bottles stashed on the bikes. We throw everything together — scraps of salami, mustard, honey, garlic, onion, rice — the vestiges of nourishment that remain. We eat out under the Southern Cross and a slender curve of moon. It too is down to its last sliver after sharing its light through the many night rides.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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