Cycling South: In the Dark

Harsh traveling conditions can strain a friendship. While camping in the Andes, Ben Bateman and his companion fight over a cookie.


La Carretera Austral, a magazine article tells us, is one of the certain goods left behind by Pinochet. He pushed the army to construct this winding gravel road through the gorgeous glacial regions of southern Chile, and it now provides access to a handful of sparsely populated villages and long stretches of beautiful, surreal wilderness. It dead ends at Villa O’Higgin’s, a tiny town with a few farms, a single-paved block of road, and a ferry that crosses Lago O’Higgin’s, the deepest lake in South America, once a week.

This famously beautiful road is why I’m biking through the Andes shortly after midnight, slipping on gravel and half-listening to an episode of This American Life on my iPod. The road varies from single-lane track to a loose collection of rocks, interspersed with sections of impossible uphill. Obnoxious birds caw from the black on either side, and a light mist falls continuously. The snow line begins roughly 100 feet above us, growing uncomfortably close as we ascend, and the mountains loom in the harsh moonlight. I am ecstatic.

For the previous two weeks, Sam and I swept across the empty plains of Patagonia, a landscape rich with scenery that ranges from flat gray prairie to sheep-speckled flat gray prairie. It had been two weeks since we’d seen a tree, weeks that seemed stretched to months by the relentless headwinds blowing southeast from the Andes. Camping options were limited, and on the worst day we were forced to pick between the field with the horse carcasses or the gravel pit with the sheep carcasses (the gravel pit won because it blocked the wind).

It was early November and we were both ready for something new. With the help of the internet we learned of a path. From Chaltén, on the Argentinean side of the Andes, you bike out 35 km on a gravel road, catch a ferry across Lago del Desierto, hike your bike and gear across a horse trail for 22k to the southern edge of Lago O’Higgin’s, catch the once-a-week ferry across to Villa O’Higgin’s, and you will find yourself in the midst of a Chilean Eden.

The logistics seemed inconsequential compared to the benefits, and perhaps that attitude is what leaves us here, 20 km outside of Chaltén, racing to make it to an overpriced ferry in the dead of night. I curse under my breath every time I hear a waterfall, completely aware that now, for the first time in weeks, I am completely surrounded by a vibrant, natural beauty, and that it is invisible to me. I tell myself there will be more waterfalls, but a part of me knows that these roadside wonders will be unmatched.

Sam and I pause to put on rain pants, which takes fewer than three minutes to devolve into passive aggressive arguments over cookie rationing and the merits of the Wu-Tang Clan. Sam has the only working headlamp, so as we grumble he’s forced to crane his head to follow my hands as I search for the rubber dishwashing gloves that will keep my gloves dry.

I knock a cookie out of my bike bag on to the wet ground, and the light instantly follows it. I watch Sam’s headlamp hover over it — he would eat it in a second if I wasn’t forcing him to hold our bikes up. I bend down and toss it into my mouth, and it’s the bastard combination of gritty and sweet that I’m learning to enjoy. I toss Sam a cookie from the bag — we have to be fair about these things — and we ride off again.

Forty-five minutes later we’re at the lake. After a few bitter words I acquiesce, and we camp on the spongy, visible patch of dirt by the side of the road rather that the comfortable looking turf of the graveyard across the way. We’ll be asleep in less than ten minutes. In a week we’ll be on La Carretera Austral drinking from Glacial steams and sleeping in the shade of the large, welcoming trees we’ve been promised.

If you want to catch more of Sam & Ben’s adventures, you can find out more at their website Again with the Biking.

Ben Bateman is an editor at The Bygone Bureau. He grew up on a mountain in the middle of Nowhere, CA, and his eerily encyclopedic knowledge of nowhere and mountains stultifies critics and other animals. You can email him, follow him on Twitter, and read the rest of his work here.