Cycling South: Thanksgiving

After missing the last ferry out, Ben Bateman spends the holiday in a small Chilean ghost town.

It’s the day before Thanksgiving, and Sam and I are pulling into Chaiten, a small port town in southern Chile. Chaiten caps the northern end of Chile’s Carreterra Austral, 1,000 kilometers of rough gravel that winds through remote villages and innumerable waterfalls. Four years ago, a nearby volcano erupted and covered Chaiten in over nine feet of volcanic ash. Though the town was safely evacuated, few have returned since. Other than the houses surrounding the still-operating ferry dock, the buildings stand empty or lie buried in ash.

Our plan is to catch a ferry, ride it overnight, and arrive in Puerto Montt on Thanksgiving morning. We’ll find a buffet, eat as much as our touring cyclist’s metabolisms can handle, and most importantly, get away from each other.

Sam and I have been biking together for a month now, and in that month we’ve managed to spend only eight hours apart. Unless we have a hostel where we can safely stow our gear, we’re tied to it, and without cell phones we’re fixed to each other as well. We make every decision together, react to compromises with the same glower, and resist the same impulses to punch the other repeatedly in the face. Though Thanksgiving ideally pulls people together, we want nothing more than a day of solitude in the big city and the chance to talk to those we miss back in the States.

We don’t know the ferry schedule. There is no official website, and every town we pass through provides us with a different date and time. We do know is that the only ferry for the next two days leaves tonight.

Which is why I’m screaming “fuck!” at the top of my lungs on a Chaiten dock, glaring at the outbound ferry not thirty feet from the shore. I saw it docked from the other side of town, couldn’t bike fast enough, and now Thanksgiving is ruined.

Sam pulls up seconds later, and the sight of the ferry sends him into a flurry of curses. We both need to take this out on somebody, and we’re both conveniently close. We say some shitty things to each other, walk our separate ways, and finally reunite in silence thirty minutes later. We’re pissed, cold, and unwilling to pay for a hostel. It’s getting dark, and although the townsfolk said we could find free camping on the beach, the Chilean policemen firmly disagree.

“There is camping down the road,” one suggests, ”near the roundabout.”

The roundabout boasts an abandoned hostel, but no campground. Sam and I duck into a patch of trees, crush a bed of happy-looking plants, and call it good. It’s exactly the kind of spot an environmentally conscious camper avoids, but it’s hidden, and we’re willing to play dumb if we get caught. At this point, we’re willing to be dumb. We probably already are.

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We set up our tents in silence, and soon a wild dog wanders into our makeshift camp. This is standard. Our Chilean friends often describe Chile as “el país del perros libres,” or “country of the wild dogs.” Packs of them roam the streets, although they’re more pitiful than threatening.

Moved by the Thanksgiving spirit, Sam offers the dog a piece of bread, rendering it gratingly obsequious for the next 48 hours. We call it Amigo, then Go, then Go-go, and finally, after a quick gender check, Lady Gaga.

Once camp set, we part. Sam explores Chaiten’s abandoned districts while I practice ukulele on the beach. I read dire portents in the heavy clouds on the horizon, and mope up and down the shore until I’m tired enough to sleep. Fittingly, Lady Gaga keeps us awake all night with inexplicable barking.

We break camp early the next morning and head into Chaiten. We both feel better, buoyed by a cocktail of intermittent sleep and holiday spirit. We decide that we can spring for a holiday hostel, and begin to search the town. As we pass the façade of a large of a surfer lodge, a voice booms out in song. It’s “Puerto Montt,” a Chilean classic, and one we’ll hear again and again over the next day and a half. It’s Javier Alahandra, the lodge’s owner, who waves us over and insists that we stay with him.

Though the lodge is furnished with expensive looking tables, a beautiful fire pit, and a well-stocked bar, it’s empty as a ghost town. He gives us a quick tour of the restaurant before taking us upstairs to see the lodging. Though the second floor has at least a dozen beds, it looks as if nobody’s slept there in months.

“Sleep an hour in each one!” he jokes.

We’re charmed, and have our bags up and unpacked in minutes.

We spend the next few hours chatting with Javier and cleaning our bikes, washing 2,000 kilometers’ worth of dirt and accumulated grease into the ashy streets. We go through boxes of napkins and a full container of Q-tips, and, at the end of two hours, we have a pair of beautiful, gleaming bikes ready to be sullied.

Javier is delighted to have us there — we remind him of his son, a whitewater kayaker now living in Canada. We’re increasingly thankful for Javier as well; everybody else we see in Chaiten wears a dour expression, as if the ash grayed them to the core, while Javier is buoyant, often breaking into song. Though we first see this as a perk of living in an abandoned city, we soon realize it’s a benefit of being Javier Alahandra.

After we’ve finished or work, Javier offers to take us to a nearby hot springs if we’ll pay his way in. We gleefully accept, and minutes later we’re stuffed in the cab of Javier’s pickup, his dog Rocky riding along in back.

Perhaps it’s because we have just spent a month going 15 mph, or maybe Javier is a really terrifying driver, but Sam and I have white-knuckle grips as the pickup careers out of Chaiten. When Javier finds out we’re from California, his entire face lights up.

Hasta la vista, baby,” he growls in a hybrid Austrian-Chilean accent. “The Governator?”

We nod, and he smiles.

Twenty minutes and one bumpy dirt road later we arrive at the hot springs. After a month of freezing our way across Patagonia, it’s one of the first times we’ve felt warm, clean, and happy all at the same time. Javier takes us to see all the different pools — one for bathing, one for smoking, and two small, caged in pools where the boiling water first comes to the surface.

After this tour, Javier heads to the owner’s cabin to share a mug of yerba mate while Sam and I disrobe and sink into the hot springs.

After a few minutes of soaking, Sam and I start to tool around the pool, and at the far end find a pair of pipes bringing boiling and ice cold water in to one side. We take turns drifting between them as they mix, experiencing in quick succession every temperature tolerable and intolerable. We’ve brought our waterproof camera, and after a series of delicate underwater balancing acts, we’re able to photograph of the experience.

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A welcome rain feeds the pool, and we enjoy it alongside the only other soakers, a pair of sisters from Argentina and their husbands. We share stories of our trips, though our Spanish and their English are both lacking. When we mention our final destination, Colombia, one of the husbands lights up.

“I’m from Colombia,” he says.

Although the sisters are ready to go, he lingers to describe his country in beautiful detail. His wife tugs on his arm, and he begins to walk away with an apologetic smile. The sisters stop to grab their towels, and he takes this opportunity to sneak back to us and offer a piece of parting advice.

“You know what they say about Colombia,” he smiles, leaning in. “The best behaved women are your wife!”

He winks and walks off.

On the truck ride back home we talk with Javier about Thanksgiving. Once he understands the basic concept — Americans shamelessly eat huge amounts of food in the name of tradition — he gets excited. We stop by a small general store to get some chicken, drive out to the edge of town where a carpenter and his wife serve as the town’s stopgap bakery, and swing by Javier’s sister’s store for a box of wine.

We return to the lodge to prepare dinner. Javier is chef as well as owner, and while we prepare guacamole and set the table, he disappears into the back to do mysterious and amazing things to the chicken. An hour later we open our box of wine, sit down, and eat a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast on the patio. Javier gives us a rundown on American culture over dinner: he likes Westerns and Dolly Parton, although it’s Terminator 2 that he can’t stop quoting. He disliked Bush, saying he has a “¡cabeza de pistola!” (gun for a brain), but seems excited about Obama.

Against all odds, this Thanksgiving has become what so many of our previous Thanksgivings have tried to be: uniting. Defying our admittedly slight expectations, Sam and I are having a fantastic time — and with each other! The food is good, we’re a little drunk, and Javier’s quips and unpredictable speeches on American culture have kept us laughing all night. We’ve built an impromptu family out of the ash, and while it’s not a substitute for our family’s back home, it’s not trying to be: we’re all uncles here.

After another hour of wine and winding conversation — Javier has a lot to say on Hugh Hefner — we retreat to bed. Sam plays Christmas music quietly on our ukulele as I repeatedly mishandle candles into impromptu haircuts, and we’re soon asleep in a very, very quiet Chaiten.

We’re up early the next morning, determined to catch our ferry this time. We say our goodbyes to Javier, laughing too much to allow for any cheerful catharsis, and bike down to the dock. We wait an hour in the rain, watching car after car load on the boat, until they allow us to wheel our bikes onto the deck. Lady Gaga whines from the shore, and I catch Sam looking back with wistful eyes.

The trip so far has been part adventure and part race, though we have no reason to speed. It took being trapped at Chaiten, unable to move forward, for us to realize the value of being here. It’s another part of the world, a lifestyle we may not get to live again, and we get so much more out of living it at a slow pace.

Sam and I don’t talk about our Thanksgiving miracle on the ten-hour ferry ride to Puerto Montt, but we do talk, and enjoy it, which is another miracle all together.


Post-Scipt: I can’t talk about Thanksgiving without mentioning my wonderful family. While I was away in South America, my brother and sister took it upon themselves to make a surrogate Ben out of paper-mache to take my place at the table. OtherBen is pictured below.

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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.