I'm pedalling with all my force, but the sticky mud holds my tire like superglue. I'm sinking like quicksand, the weight over my back tire boring into the mire. I jump off and sink in up to my ankles. Time to push. For a moment I think we must be back on the road from Ushuaia but no, it's just the signature of a road under construction. Ripio is the word they use to describe this type of surfacing, loosely translated means fill a truck with whatever material is at hand — rocks, mud, gravel. Crash the truck near the work site, spilling the contents. Let traffic pass to flatten.
Road construction is rampant throughout southern Chile — a sign of the country's recent economic upswing. Traffic moves in spurts around the hub cities of Puerto Montt and Coyhaique, where roads are being broadened to accommodated more. On the Canetera Austral wooden-plank bridges are replaced by their concrete cousins and here on the road to Futalenfu something is happening. I'm just not sure what.
All this of course is part of Pinochet's master plan to unite the country thorough its roads. Further south they're still blasting away and working with pick-axes to bring Villa O'Higgins into the fold. Dreamers envisioned the highway continuing right across the Patagonian ice cap down to Puerto Natales, but it's not likely in this lifetime.
These roads are both blessing and curse. The same gravel road which makes our route accessible by bicycle represents the loss of isolation. Roads bring people and money; they take tranquility.
In the not too distant future much of the Canetera Austral as well as Ruta Cuarenta will be covered in asphalt. For many, the added convenience will make life a little easier and the lore of travel will open new vistas of wonder. But for some, an irreplaceable magic will be lost — the incongruities of ripio supplemented by a uniform blackness snaking through the wilderness.
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