On Highways and Under

Argentina odyssey takes cyclist to the end of the world

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Argentina

I am not a cyclist. I’m a 33 year-old Canadian bartender from St. Catharines, Ont. In October 2015, I set out to cycle Argentina, top to bottom without a guide. It was a grueling 5,856K tour beginning at the Bolivian border and finishing in Ushuaia, the so-called “world’s end.” I’m simply an adventurer, who vowed years ago to act on my goals, rather than sit idly discussing them. I had spent the last few years training myself to act on impulse (some Spanish lessons, too) and I would hone those newfound skills to complete what I had declared would be my crowning achievement.

Only how could I have known there would be a time when I would live like a hobo for days on end, where I’d fear death until I feared nothing at all and sleep in ditches and drainpipes? I’d eat bags of cookies like they were grapes and pedal through endless deserts, begging for water. If I had seen myself on those nights that I lay in my tent quietly weeping, would I have still gone through with it? The answer is no. I thought I was just going on a long bike ride.

To prepare for this tour de force, I merely signed up for a 100K cycle through Muskoka. Competitors stared. I did not look like them, in their spandex suits and mirrored helmets. I didn’t have special shoes, or pedals to clip into. Mine was the only mountain bike there. With 17K remaining in the cycle, I got a bad flat and was forced to trudge up and down tree-lined streets on a bare rim. By the time I neared the end, all of the guiding arrows had been removed from the roads and I had to continually stop for directions.

Navigating my way through Argentina’s northern countryside turned out to be less complicated. Highways passed through heaps of quaint little towns. Heading south, trees disappeared one by one, and towns became fewer and further between. At the start, this meant having to plan for two full days of food and water. Down the line, this number turned to four. At times I would carry 13 litres of water, panicked that my spokes might pop under the pressure.

People wonder how I stayed healthy out there but, the truth is, I was healthier than I’d ever been. I ate conscientiously, though robotically, as if fueling a machine. I calculated my health in terms of numbers. Every day, I ate things I would never normally eat: countless nuts, granola, and the most delicious fresh fruit I’d ever tasted. At home, I’d be lucky to eat one fruit in a week. In four months of squalor, I never got sick and all that exposure to the sun provided me with enough vitamin D to get rid of the black circles under my eyes.

My mind stayed just as sharp. There is a certain peace that comes from disconnecting yourself from technology, capitalism, criticism and the hustle-bustle of big cities. Although, on a trip like this, one must be content with complete and absolute solitude. It can be a terrifying feeling being in the middle of nowhere as blackness slowly overtakes the light. Cars stop passing and you realize that you are miles away from a single human being. You panic.

Cycling through the vast, barren desert put me on edge, because I knew the second I entered it, the clock was ticking on my life. I was essentially gambling on myself to make it out of there by the time water ran out. If I lost the wager, I died. Like any gamble, there were several factors in play. Patagonian headwinds were my greatest adversary, with icy gusts sometimes coming in at 100 km/h. At those gale force speeds, I was forced to walk, slowly dragging my feet just to make some progress. In time, my helmet blew away for good. Sometimes the wind would blow me right off my bicycle, actually rolling it, gear and all.

Desert days required creative camping spots. When there was nothing but dirt, I slept in quarries and culverts under roads. Other times, I’d get lucky, and sleep at a police or ambulance station. My favourite spot, however, was an abandoned inn I came across in sheer desperation one night. The only light at that hour came from the moon, so I had to inspect four separate buildings by flashlight to make sure the compound was danger-free — one of the most heart-pounding moments of my life. There were missing floor boards and trash was everywhere. As soon as I cleared the last room, my light died and left me in near blackness. I popped my tent in a graffitied former lobby. That night I heard the screeching of a puma, the crunch of its footsteps in the gravel outside the doorless building.

I’d faced so many animals up to that point, having frequently been chased by angry dogs. I’d camped with tarantulas, made friends with armadillos and cycled past countless llamas. By the end of my four month tour, however, all of it had made me a stronger person. It was like a team-building retreat for my body and soul.

It’s funny, although you don’t always get what you expect from life, each experience undoubtedly becomes a part of who you are. That is one of the uniquely wonderful things about being a human travelling the world.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Rm04Oi8iR4[/embedyt]

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