Day 94 – Sarmiento to Perito Moreno

Routa 40… what can I say about Routa 40? It’s wonderful, glorious and wild.

And today, it totally kicked my ass.

We knew that today we’d hit dirt. And we’ve been warned (in this thread, even) that Routa 40 is gravel and sand, and would be outside our comfort zone (mine, that is). But that warning didn’t prepare me for the reality of today’s riding.

Let’s be clear – I’ve done very little riding on unpaved surfaces. Before we left, we did some dirt rides in New England, but the dirt we rode back home was mild and well-behaved. And it was just dirt. Mostly hard-packed.

I’ve never ridden in deep gravel. I’d never ridden in sand before this trip. In fact, I’d never really ridden in anything loose before we got started.

My first real experience with loose stuff, aside from riding on beaches a couple of times which I actually kinda enjoyed, was riding the road to Tierradentro in Colombia. It had pretty much every kind of road surface; paved, hard-packed dirt, rocky dirt, deep-ish sand and loose soil. I rode it and didn’t drop the bike once (or maybe once when stopping – don’t remember) but I was terrified and far outside my comfort zone there. The bike kept sliding all over the place and doing all kinds of crazy things, and it was worse when I’d be in a corner and traffic would be coming the other way and I wasn’t able to get out of the way or move quickly and had a few uncomfortable encounters, including one what I was convinced at the time was a near-death encounter with a truck.

So that introduction to loose stuff did not go well.

Since then, I’ve kinda been dreading any kind of non-paved surface we’ve encountered (even though I had ridden dirt before and didn’t mind at all – now even a little dirt could set me off). Luckily for me, because of time constraints, we’ve mostly stuck to the pavement. There have been a few roads that have turned to dirt for a while and then back to pavement (particularly in Colombia, but also in Ecuador) and that was ok, but if I saw a segment of the map that was dirt, I went to dread before we ever saw the state of the road.

With that in mind, I was not looking forward to encountering the unpaved sections of Routa 40. But I know it’s something that Kay really wanted to do, and there are some things off it that we’d like to see, so I figured that when we got here, I’d just suck it up and deal. I figured I could ride a bit slow until I got comfortable with the road surface and just take it as it comes.

The start of the dirt

So when we left Rio Mayo, where the pavement ends, I actually wasn’t dreading it. I just kept telling myself that it wasn’t too bad – just 120km of dirt before Perito Moreno, where it’s paved again before it goes back to dirt – and just to take the one section of the road at the time. We rode up a bit of a hill that had gravel on it, and as my first encounter with real gravel, I was a bit unnerved by the way my bike was acting. The front end kept trying to go all over the place. We made our way to the top of the hill and I found my way into a rut (without ever knowing anything about driving in ruts, really) and found it was much easier going.

Only one problem: the tall piles of gravel between each rut.

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For a bit, I was keeping up with Kay – going 40+ KPH, thinking that as long as I could stay in the rut, this road might not be so bad. Not bad at all, actually.

Then, without warning, the rut ended.

Oh shit! Front end starts going all squirrely. It feels like the bike is suddenly trying to go sideways and the combination of gravity and forward momentum demand a terrible toll. Bike almost goes down on the right, and my right foot hits the ground, running on instinct, and I manage to keep the bike up. Hit another rut, and suddenly the bike has traction again and starts going forward like it had never tried to unseat me, or threatened to go down. Nothing to see here, just a well-behaved moto going forward on an unpaved road. A bit bumpy, but nothing out of the ordinary.

Adrenaline racing through my veins. “Holy shit, did you see what my bike just did?” I ask Kay. He didn’t – he’s riding ahead of me and didn’t happen to be looking in his rear-view mirror just then. I told him the bike almost went down and I just managed to save it by putting my foot down, and he warned me that while that was my instinct, I shouldn’t do it – I could get hurt by trying to put my foot down and would rarely save the bike from going down. I tried to keep this in mind, and hoped I wouldn’t need to.

A few minutes later, the rut I’m riding in ends again. This time the bike goes squirrely to the left, and then to the right – bumping across a rut and threatening to throw me off. I think I’m down for sure this time, but my foot goes down instinctively, the bike keeps moving, and when the front tire hits the new rut, the bike straightens out like nothing had ever happened.

Riding along… oh shit! Swish! Swish! Bam! Nothing wrong at all – nothing to see here.

Adrenaline redoubled now, and I’m suddenly very aware of how dangerous the thick gravel is. It’s fine as long as I’m in a rut, but the ruts end. Without warning. And when the road was in shadow, it was easier to see the ruts – now that the clouds are breaking up and the sun is coming out, it’s lighting the road quite brightly and it’s more difficult to make out the ruts from the piles of gravel in between them.

At this point, I think I had lost the mental battle. I just wasn’t prepared for how the bike would handle in this deep gravel. The ruts were ok, but when they ended, it scared the shit out of me.

A few minutes later, Kay suggests that I cross to his rut, because it seems wider and better than the rut I’m riding in. He says I should slow way down to cross, because when I try to plow through the gravel between them, the bike will go squirrely. So I slow way down, but apparently not slow enough. I try to cross the gravel between the ruts and the bike goes down.

It happens almost before I can react, and I’m thrown off but manage to avoid falling. I reach down to hit the kill switch and yell to Kay “I’m down.” I could maybe get the bike up again without help if the road was flat and paved, where the tires had traction, but not like this – not in piles of deep gravel where I barely have traction. So I stand helplessly by my bike and wait for Kay to come back and help me… and “I’m down!” I hear in my headset. I look ahead – way ahead, as Kay had gotten ahead of me at that point – Kay had tried crossing the ruts to turn around and ride back to help me with my bike, and his bike went down, too.

“Do you need help?” I ask. “No, I’m fine,” Kay says, and starts trying to get his bike up. And trying. And trying, without success. Because of the way the bike has fallen, he can’t seem to get it up without help. I ask if I should go to him to help him pick up his bike, or if he’ll help me pick up mine first, and he comments that his bike is further in the road so I should come help him get his first.

Kay’s note: Dachary fell at probably 30kph she told me she wasn’t ok, that she hurt her leg, but then I dropped mine as I crossed the ruts turning around and totally forgot about her being in pain. I should have totally gone to her bike so she could ride to mine but I’m a forgetful idiot sometimes.

I walk up to him, nursing my left shin (somehow it got hit when I got thrown off the bike) and it takes a few minutes to get to his bike because he’d gotten so far ahead. When I do, we try to lift the way we normally pick up his bike – him on the front and me using the luggage rack to get leverage on the rear – and nothing. The bike will barely budge. We try again, and still nothing. This is new. We’ve never had this much trouble getting his bike up. When we tug on it, the whole bike just slides in the gravel – there’s no traction at all. Every time we try to lift it it the handlebars seem to rotate into Kay’s crotch.

I suggest that Kay keep pushing up on the front of the bike, and I’ll go to the other side and try to pull on the handlebars and pannier to help get the bike up. We can’t rely on traction so maybe equal forces on the opposite sides of the bike. Plus I can use my weight to try to counter-balance the bike when pulling on it and hopefully we can get it up. On three… one… two… three! And the bike lifts up. Yay! I hold it while Kay gets on, and stand nearby while he tries turning around to ride back to my bike, just in case he goes down again. He doesn’t, and I walk back to my bike while he rides back to it.

We get to my bike, and go straight to the same method to lift mine, since the normal way didn’t work on his bike at all. My bike has fallen on my right pannier, and Kay can easily lever the bike up onto the pannier, so it’s at a better angle and doesn’t have as far to lift. One, two, three – and my bike comes up much easier than his. I put the stand down and climb on, and we start heading forward again.

But by now I’m *really* not happy about the gravel on this road, and it’s not far before I hit another squirrely patch and just break down into sobs. I was *not* prepared for this. Kay tells me to stop the bike and take a break but I think that if I try to stop I’ll go down again, so I ride like that for a minute, trying to see the rut through my blubbering. But soon I realize he’s right and I have to stop, but by now I’m well past the point of reasoning, so I just grab the clutch and let the bike slow down, and then grab the front brake and hang on and sob like someone just died. I don’t even put the bike in neutral – I just stand there holding the clutch and brake and hang on while I sob.

Kay has stopped and gotten his bike a bit further off the road, and has walked back to check on me. He tells me to put my side stand down, but I can’t even manage that. All I can do is hang on and cry. He stands there helplessly, wanting to do something (I’m guessing) but not able to reason with a woman who won’t even put her side stand down. After a couple of minutes, I’m sick of holding my bike up and want to go sit down on the side of the road – away from the bike – so I put it in neutral, put the stand down and manage to kill the engine before dismounting and walking away.

I’m not going to lie – this was my darkest hour since starting to ride a bike. Even when I crashed my first bike, I never thought of not riding. But here, now, stranded on the side of Routa 40, I was half-convinced I’d never get back on a bike again. I yanked my helmet and gloves off and sat by the side of the road, sobbing my lungs out, crying harder than I’ve cried since my grandma died 9 years ago (my grandparents raised me, so it was pretty much like my mom had died). Kay sat down next to me and tried to talk to me, but all I could say was “I can’t do it.” Over and over again. Sob. “I can’t do it.” Sob. “I thought I could but I just can’t.” Sob.

Variations of this went on for probably a good twenty minutes. Every time the sobs just about petered off, I’d think of letting Kay down, or ruining our adventure, or having to turn tail and be defeated by a stupid *road* and I’d just start sobbing again. It felt like I had absolutely no control over my emotions and I felt defeated by the entire thing. It was just too much.

Despondent Dachary

Eventually, I said “You’re going to make me get back on the bike and ride it somewhere, aren’t you?” Kay didn’t understand, so I clarified “We can’t stay here.” “Well, I can ride the bike back, hitchhike back here, and ride the other bike back, if you really can’t ride back.”

The thought of having to hitchhike back to town and make Kay ride two bikes back was too much. I felt bad enough about breaking down like this, but it just felt wrong to make him ride two bikes back to town when I was physically capable of riding mine. If I’d been hurt or injured, it would have been different – but I worried about Kay riding by himself, and what would happen if he’d drop one of the bikes without me there to help him pick it up? Or what if he got hurt and had no-one to go for help or even perform basic first-aid on him? Worrying about him seemed worse to me than trying to ride the bike somewhere, so it was clear I’d have to ride it.

The obvious choice was to ride back to Rio Mayo and regroup. I asked Kay to check my trip meter because that would tell us how far we’d gone since we got gas, on the edge of Rio Mayo. (I reset the trip meter every time we get gas so I can keep track of how far we’ve gone and when we need to start hunting gas again.) A little over 18 miles. We were less than a third of the way to Perito Moreno.

And yet… in spite of my meltdown, I’m not a quitter. I’m very stubborn by nature. I hate leaving things undone, and admitting defeat to a road just seemed… weak. Turning around seemed like the coward’s way out. Plus, from a very practical standpoint, the road forward at that point looked relatively flat with wide ruts, while the road back had deep, narrow ruts that made me cringe to think of. So, in spite of the fact that it was more than twice the distance we’d already come… I wanted forward. I wasn’t at all sure about my choice, but it seemed like the right thing to do. I had to at least try.

And then there’s the whole falling off the horse thing… the idea that if you don’t confront your fears when they’re large in your mind, they’ll just get bigger and bigger and eventually become this massive THING in your head and you can never really get past them.

I don’t always do the best job of it, but I do try to confront my fears. I try not to let them rule my life. (Hence a woman being afraid of heights climbing around in rafters 150 feet above a stage, or climbing small mountains… I generally try to confront the things that I fear.)

So. Forward it is.

This time, I went in front. I wouldn’t try riding at the speed that Kay set – I’d ride as fast (or slow, as the case may be) as I damn well please. I’d have preferred to have warning of ruts ending, which was an argument for having Kay in front… but the speed issue was more important for me, and I had more control if I led. So I did.

When we first got moving again, I went *very* slow. So slow I had to use some clutch to keep from stalling the bike. Luckily, not far after I had my meltdown, the road became a bit easier – the ruts were wider and flatter. I picked up my speed a bit. I was going 20KPH. At this rate, with 80 kilometers to Perito Moreno, it would take us four hours. I was ok with that. It was around 1:30PM, I think. And I felt a rather serene sense of calm come over me. It would take as long as it took. I would go as slow as I needed to go to feel like I had some chance of controlling the bike and reacting to the road conditions.

At first, it was grim. I hung on, gripping the bars so hard my hands hurt, until I heard Kay say in my helmet (I swear sometimes he reads my mind) “Don’t forget to relax your muscles a bit, and relax your grip on the bike.” I did. It got a little easier.

More forward. I found a good rut that seemed to keep going, and noticed my speed creeping up a bit more. I was near 30KPH at points. I know it was painfully slow to Kay, and crossing big distances this way would take a very long time, but we were moving forward and that was the important thing to me. 30KPH (around 20 MPH) seemed like a fine speed.

Kay’s note: honestly I didn’t care. I was just happy that she hadn’t given up. Although I still contend that the bumps are a lot easier to deal with at speed, I really didn’t mind just chilling behind her. I’m in no rush to get anywhere.

And then we got to a cattle barrier thing… these metal grates in the road that Kay said prevent the cattle from crossing from one field into another. Apparently they don’t like to cross them, for some reason. The road gets narrower at these grates, and the ruts vanish as all of the cars make a different line to cross the grate. Luckily, by this point I knew that the ruts would vanish, so I slowed way down and just kept moving forward through the deep gravel. The front end did move around quite a bit but I was going slow enough that I could have easily stopped if I needed to, and put my feet down, and that gave me the confidence that I needed to keep moving forward. So I crossed the cattle barrier, found a good rut again not far down the other side, and kept going.

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I have no idea how far things went on this way. I kept my eyes on the rut, and seemed to have a knack for picking the best rut. It was ok. Going this slow, I had time to see a rut ending and react appropriately.

The only thing I couldn’t control was the wind. It had been blowing steadily since yesterday at some point, but it had picked up while I’d been sitting down, having my breakdown. It was a constant pressure, but the wind speed varied, so the angle at which you’d have to compensate varied. As a result, the wind would regularly blow you across the road. Just a little bit – just a foot or two – but with the need to stay in the rut, even a foot or two could be a serious problem. That could put you in the gravel burm between the ruts.

So it wasn’t just “stay in the ruts and watch what they’re going to do ahead of you” – it was “fight the wind to stay in the ruts and watch what it’s going to do ahead of you.” It required constant concentration and careful attention, and even so, the wind pushed me into the gravel once or twice – but I was going slow enough that I was ok, I just let the bike do what it wanted to do and drifted with it. No more squirrely stuff that I’d encountered earlier when I was trying to keep up with Kay’s 40-50kph.

At some point along the way, we passed a sign for road construction. We laughed. This was a gravel road in the middle of nowhere – what kind of road construction could it be? And then, magically, there was a whole wide gravel road beside us. A second Routa 40, which they were preparing for pavement. Kay joked that maybe we should ride up there and try using that one, because there weren’t any ruts. But at this point I had gotten attached to the ruts – they were Good Things as long as they didn’t end suddenly and dump you into a gravel pile.

Kay’s note: not long after this the road got a little skinnier at another cattle grate with an approaching truck. Dachary decided to play it safe and pull over rather than try and fit beside the truck. I pull over behind her and as I am almost fully stopped, crossing a rut of course, the bike starts tipping down to the right. Dachary is talking over the headsets about how she wanted to play it safe and not drop it beside the truck and my face is heading for the dirt. I’m simultaneously wondering if my helmet is going to impact, and pondering the irony of what she’s saying as I head for the ground. She goes on for a second or two and then I hear something like “oh my” as she notices what’s just happened. The guys from the oncoming truck, and the one behind us, all hop out and the bike is righted in seconds while I’m trying not to break out laughing from the situation…

And then, magically, there was pavement.

This was very tempting. The pavement ran along side the gravel Routa 40 for miles.

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At some points, we passed construction workers doing stuff on the pavement, but for the most part, it just looked deserted and pristine. I kept thinking how wonderful it would be to be riding up there on the smooth, beautiful pavement instead of down here in the miserable gravel, but the other cars and trucks on the road were using the gravel, so I figured we should, too.

Kay’s note: the pavement, like the beautifully graded dirt, was separated from us by a very large ditch, or raised above us by four feet. There was, occasionally, a rough crossover that was probably for the construction workers. I’m sure we would have switched over if it was trivial to do so.

And then, eventually, after we’d been riding alongside the pavement for so long I thought it was just going to follow us all the way to Perito Moreno, the gravel Routa 40 had a desvio (detour) onto the pavement.

Yes, that’s right. We went from deep gravel Hell to beautiful, smooth, firm, traction-y pavement. And it felt WEIRD. It almost felt like there was something wrong with the bike, because it wasn’t bumping and jouncing along anymore. It was almost too smooth.

We had traveled about 44 miles from Rio Mayo when we ran into pavement. We’ve got two maps of Argentina – mine is a Michelin map we bought in the States (widely regarded as one of the best maps you can get, Kay says) and Kay is using a map of Argentina that we bought in a gas station, because we thought it showed gas stations. It doesn’t, but Kay decided he’d like it in his map pouch since he never knows where we are – I’m always the one with the map. Kay’s map seems to be more recent than mine, because it shows more stretches of Routa 40 as being paved than my map. But even his more recent map showed this entire stretch of Routa 40 from Rio Mayo to Perito Moreno as unpaved.

And yet, here we were, a little over halfway there, and we had magical pavement.

I felt extremely lucky and gratified to be riding pavement again… and yet also, peevishly, a little disappointed. I had resigned myself to riding all this way on the crap gravel, and had made a weird sort of peace with the idea. But here I was on pavement, after all.

Still, the pavement enabled us to ride so much faster. And I was also able to look around me, for the first time since we left Rio Mayo. The entire way, I’d been so busy staring at the ruts and the gravel road that I’d barely had the energy or attention to spare to look up. But now that we were on pavement, I could see that we were riding through beautiful country. Everyone says that Patagonia is flat and empty, but it isn’t. There are small hills and curves – just enough to give the landscape an interesting symmetry for the eye to follow. And there’s scrub and small bushes to break up the barren terrain. The sky is oh-so-blue, and it feels like you can see forever to the horizon. I’d been missing all of this while we were on the gravel, but now on the paved road I had the leisure to appreciate the beauty of the country we were traveling.

On the nicely paved road, we made speedy progress toward Perito Moreno. It was around 4PM when we hit the police checkpoint outside of town, where the female officer asked me about where we were from and where we were going. She was not satisfied when she asked me where we were going. Ushuaia, she knew, but she wanted to know where we were going *right now.* I didn’t know. I wanted to sit down and look at the map again, because it showed 500km of unpaved road before me, and after the hellish breakdown I’d had on this stretch of road, it seemed like a bad idea to venture further afield. So I told her we wanted to go to Perito Moreno for a restaurant and a gas station, and then we’d decide where we were going.

That wasn’t a good answer for her. She asked again – were we going to the border crossing with Chile, to Perito Moreno, or where? I said again that we wanted Perito Moreno and then maybe Routa 40 or maybe we’d return to the Pan Americana, to Routa 3. But that we didn’t know. She didn’t seem to like this answer. She asked me something else, which I didn’t understand. Then she asked for my bike papers and my passport, which I handed over.

More questions, which I didn’t understand. (I think at one point she asked me how old I was? But that question always confuses me – why does she need a record of that? – so she calculated it herself before I could answer. And then wrote it down on her record, along with my name, my passport number, my destination, and my moto’s license plate number.)

Back to Kay for a question he didn’t understand before giving up and asking for the passport and bike papers. She took his information down, and then ignored us. Kay asked if we could go, and she waved us on, almost as an afterthought. Definitely the weirdest police stop we’ve had here in Argentina.

Kay’s note: she’s writing this down on a side of a sheet of blank paper. I can appreciate that she’s being diligent about her job, but really. No-one is ever going to see this information and I doubt she’ll stick it into a computer anyway. If it were that important there’d be a damn form for it, or at least some lined notebook paper. Not a blank sheet with random information written here and there on it.

Down the road to the gas station, where we gas up (we need over two gallons each, even though we’ve only gone 80 miles since our last fill-up – riding the gravel used a LOT of gas) and ask the gas station guy for a restaurant recommendation, as we’re cold and hungry (lunch was a lame ham and cheese sandwich at the gas station in Rio Mayo). He sends us into town. We follow his directions and find a decent-looking restaurant. Which is closed. So back to the main street.

Where every. Single. Restaurant. Is. Closed.

No idea why. It’s shortly before 5pm – after 5 by the time we check the last restaurant in town. A couple of panderias are open (bakeries) but no restaurants at all. So back to the gas station where we eat yet another stupid gas station sandwich (over half our meals here in Argentina seem to be gas station sandwiches) and contemplate the maps.

Kay is for going forward. There are only a few unpaved stretches of Routa 40 left, according to his map – a bit over 300km in total. He says that I proved I could ride this road after my breakdown. I point out that it took us four hours to cover 44 miles. He points out that we were stopped for a while… but I was still averaging 20-30kph at best and 300 kilometers at 20-30kph is days of riding (plus the paved stretches in between). So I’m in favor of crossing over on the paved road from Perito Moreno to the Pan Americana (route 3) and riding the last few hundred kilometers there. But that has the unfortunate side effect of taking us away from the glacier we want to see on the way down. There is a paved route from the Pan Americana to the glacier, but that’s essentially an extra 500km of riding (round trip). I still think an extra 500km of pavement would be faster than 300km of dirt, but I know Kay wants to go the rest of the way down Routa 40 and doesn’t see it as a big of a deal because I’ve proven that I *can* ride it…

Thinking of routes makes me want to cry again. I’m still emotionally wrung out from earlier and don’t want to make a decision. Plus I’m cold and feeling battered from the unaccustomed bumping and bouncing around. My forearms are sore from gripping the bike too tight, and from the bouncing around the front end did on the gravel. My left shin is sore from where I banged it when my bike went down. I’m cold and want a good meal, still – gas station food isn’t cutting it. So I ask Kay if we can go into town and find a place to stay (and yes, pay for a hotel instead of camping – I’m already cold and think it will be too cold at night for me to be comfortable) and he’s willing to accommodate me.

So back into town, where one of the restaurants we checked was also a hotel and advertised wi-fi. Kay asks about the price (more than we want to spend) and then walks down the street to ask at the other hotel. Even more. So it’s pay more than we want to spend, or camp. I’m still really cold in full sunlight, so I opt for pay more because I want to be warm. And I feel in need of a comfy bed after the battering I took on the road.

So we book the hotel, pull the bikes in, unload stuff and get down to updating the ride report. When Kay asks for the password for the wi-fi, he also asks when the restaurant opens. Apparently it doesn’t open until 8:30! We assume she meant PM. So now we’ve killed enough time that we can hopefully go out to the restaurant and get a warm meal, which I am very much looking forward to. Who knew it would be this difficult to find a restaurant for food in Argentina?

Kay’s note: this is a recurring problem. So many restaurants just aren’t open. Our South America book noted that Argentinians typically eat dinner around nine. What it failed to mention was that none of the restaurants are open until just before then. So frustrating. While we ate our sandwiches at the gas station this evening dachary noted that she never thought she’d be somewhere where there was so frequently a town and a main road and nothing to eat.

Also, don’t stay in Perito Moreno. $65 US was the cheap hotel (Hotel Americana, with somewhat functional wi-fi and good parking). There are a couple campgrounds here which probably aren’t expensive. Dachary was exhausted from her breakdown, and cold (probably from spending so much energy on the same), and stressed, so I don’t regret the decision to take the warm hotel room, but Dayum!

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