Wolfed down some hostel breakfast - this one had cereal! - and headed on down the highway. This would be my first day on Ruta 40, the road that would nearly take me all the way to Ushuaia.
Wine country slowly became high desert, until I was pedaling past little but sand, cactus, and dry scrubby brush. As opposed to most of Latin America, it gets empty between towns. Almost everywhere else, there are still houses here and there, but that's not the case here.
People had given me various accounts regarding how much of Ruta 40 is paved. Some people said almost all, some said almost none. But oddly enough, as I got closer to my first unpaved section, people were more likely to say that it was entirely paved.
One thing I've noticed though: people say "I don't know." And when they take a guess, they tell you it's a guess. Honesty! AJ would be proud.
Just before I hit gravel, I met another touring cyclist, from Argentina. Tomas had come up another road, so he couldn't give me precise conditions of Ruta 40. He was on a mountain bike and had no front panniers. His trip would last a month, and I got the idea that he's hostelling it the whole way.
I had to do about 20 km of off-and-on pavement, maybe about 2/3 of it gravel. There was a hard surface underneath, but a little loose sand and plum-sized rocks strewn about. I would call the surface "negotiable."
Just before I got to Santa Maria, I got flagged down by five guys. They were standing around drinking what looked like Coke and invited me to join them. As it turned out, they were mixing Coke with a stout beer and drinking them together. It sounds odd, but it was pretty good!
I went around Santa Maria and San Jose on a road that parallels Ruta 40. It was all paved, but in horrible shape, possibly worse than the gravel I'd been riding on. When I see that, I wonder how it got that way. What happened here? What damaged the road so badly? And when they tried to fix it, why did they do such a bad job? At one time, that road was brand-new and in great shape. I'm always curious what happened in between.
Once I got on Ruta 40 again, the pavement was a lot better, and now I had a tailwind. I flew down the highway, trying to make up for my late start and my slow progress on the gravel.
I met four motorcyclists who had pulled over like they were having a problem, but when I asked, they said they had none. I got back on Valeria and continued. When I got over a little bump in the road, I found out what may have caused them to stop: the wind shifted dramatically. It was now a headwind, turned on full blast. A quick change in the wind like that can send you over, whether your bike has a motor or not.
The wind could not possibly have been less than 60 km/h, and it was right in my teeth. It was gusting even harder. In two hours, I moved 15 km, then gave in for the day. I vowed to get an early start tomorrow, because the wind is usually much weaker in the morning. I wanted to get as much done early as possible.
This part of Argentina is well-known for wind, and it's supposed to only be stronger farther south. Welcome to Ruta 40, bee-yotch!
About 30 minutes before sunset, I found an abandoned house. Perfect, because there was absolutely nothing to get behind, no trees to block the wind, and I figured if I tried to pitch my tent here I'd lose it for good.
Walking into the thing was like a scene from a horror movie. I looked around the place, and with the exception of some trash on the floor, there was no sign that anyone had been here in months. A layer of dirt and dust covered everything, and the trash left in random locations throughout only made me guess that some people had the same idea as me and have done this before.
How fitting that I was staying in a creepy old house on Halloween!
After falling asleep listening to the howling wind, I woke up to the sound of howling wind. What the...?
The wind had barely slowed down, if at all. Since when is wind this strong in the morning?!? I reluctantly stepped out of my living arrangement and got on Valeria, picking up exactly the same as how I left off, only now it was cold, too.
One hour later, I'd done 9 km. Only 110 more like this...
Then I got flat tire #11. It wasn't even 9:00 AM and I was ready for today to be over. My only hope was to make it to where the road meets a river and I follow it downstream. Maybe the ever-so-slight decline would make up for some of the wind, and there might even be trees around to break it up a little.
As it turned out, both were true! It only took three hours to manage the 25 km before I got there, but it got better. The wind abated a small amount, and combined with a virtually unnoticeable downhill, I was able to put Valeria in a lower cruising gear, rather than one usually reserved for climbing. It stayed like that for the rest of the day, with a few rolling hills peppered in. But I'll take it.
My WarmShowers host had warned me that there were 32 km of gravel before Huamil, and the motorcyclists I'd met just yesterday said only four or five.
"Good gravel," they added.
The motorcyclists turned out to be much more accurate, as there were about three km of gravel on both sides of Huamil. But their definition of good gravel must be different from mine. Almost all of it was washboard, and in four cases, the ground got too soft and I had to dismount Valeria and walk. That included twice across fast-moving shin-deep water. Nothing like wet feet on a cold, windy morning!
10 km before Belen, I was flagged down by a visibly drunk young man who struggled to pour me some Coke. His two friends and him were from Belen and seemingly drove out here just to drink, in early afternoon. But hey, they were having a good time! I hoped they were at least going to take a siesta before driving home.
The last 10 km were almost entirely in a serpentine canyon, which had the effect of turning the wind on and off, depending what curve you were in. The wind had regained its former strength at this point.
Belen is not a big town, but has enough that I could live there. You normally don't see many clothing stores, or toy stores, or other non-essentials in a town of this size. Maybe it was only due to being the biggest town around.
Antonio, my host, owns a clothing store that sells ponchos and other traditional dress. I saw a ton of wool and yarn laying around, and I asked if he makes them himself. He said yes. Somehow, it was a little hard to believe he personally made that many, and that they all come out exactly the same.
Almost as soon as I'd set my stuff down, I was called into the kitchen for lunch. Four slices of homemade pizza (three different kinds!), and a heaping amount of quinoa. This dude was satisfied.
Antonio's five kids were quiet, polite, and well-behaved at lunch, but unbelievably loud when playing in the yard. That’s perfectly appropriate, but damn. Two of them, when excited, shared possibly the most annoying voice I have ever heard. It was almost like they were doing it on purpose, but I don't think they were.
I'm starting to run low on wristbands, which surprises me. I barely gave out any in Central America,and I started South America with 100, thinking that would be plenty. I only have about 20 left, which means I can only give one out every other day.
Wait, did I just say that? Only 40 days left? Holy crap!
In any case, I've intentionally gotten a little stingy. Now I only give them out if I think there's a good chance they'll visit my site and donate to World Bicycle Relief, or if they're from Europe and might offer a place to stay when I'm there.
Antonio's family likes to sleep in on Sundays, so he made it easy to let myself out in the morning. It was cloudy and cool. I never know what the weather's going to be like here; two days ago it was hot.
On my way out of town, at 7:30 in the morning, there was a party going on outside a bar. Just like yesterday, and the day before, I got flagged down by someone enjoying a drink. I just talked to them for a while and went on my way. I never got the full reason why at least 60 people were having a party this early.
One thing I've noticed about Argentinians, they haven't lost any of that "up" fiesta spirit you see in the rest of Latin America, but they know how to turn it off. Even in a party atmosphere, at least half the people there are relaxed and just having a good time. Not everything is so intense, and not at all times, either. I prefer this way.
For the first time in a long time, I rode a full day without seeing any towns. Granted, it was a short day, less than 100 km. Still not quite at the standard of the western states, but we're getting there. Some people probably wouldn't like it, but to me, it's a welcome change.
Cars are starting to honk at me again, but I only see a car every 10-15 minutes, and not all of them honk. More importantly, they don't honk at each other in towns. So I get the occasional honk, not constant honking. That I suppose I can live with.
More and more, I see women driving cars, and even motorcycles.
The foam pad covering my saddle has worn to virtually nothing under my sit bones, in the place where I put the most weight. I tried taking the foam pad off for the second half of a day, but I couldn't tell if it was better or worse. If I could find a new one just like it, it'd be worth the $20, but the odds are against me. I might have to try jury-rigging something.
I got to my WarmShowers host in early afternoon, and no one was there. The place was called a camping hostel, or in other words, it was a small private campground. After about half an hour, the owner's wife showed up. She told me where I could pitch my tent, showed me where the bathrooms are, and disappeared for another three hours. I don't even know where she went.
Also, it cost 50 pesos. More than I had paid to camp somewhere else in Argentina, and WarmShowers hosts aren't normally supposed to charge.
Since my foam seat cover has worn to paper-thin in the spots where I need it most, I've taken to stuffing one of my thick wool socks under it to add some padding. It's sort of working, a little. But it's still not that great. And the question remains, what happens when it gets cold again and I want those socks?
Getting to Chilecito involved a long climb, a long descent, another long climb...and a ridiculous amount of wind. It was only 120 km, but still took almost all day. By the time I made it into town, I was wiped. But I had a good WarmShowers host waiting! I could hardly wait.
When I showed up at the house, no one was there. No one answered the phone either. I sat on the curb for a solid 45 minutes before I tried the garage door. It lifted easily by hand. I wheeled Valeria in and took a seat in a chair and read. I really just wanted a chair more than anything...
About an hour later, my host, Angel, arrived on his nice carbon fiber Colnago road bike. He'd been out on a joy ride of his own, in the other direction. I was worried he'd be mad that I entered his house without his permission, but he seemed completely unfazed to see me just sitting in his kitchen. He let me take the first shower, then do laundry, in a real washing machine!
Angel is a custodian at a school and an avid cyclist. A year ago, he'd ridden from Ushuaia, my final South American destination, back to his house here in Chilecito. He'd taken Ruta 40 the entire way, my intended route. That meant he had a lot of good information! He pulled out a huge map of Argentina and pointed out the unpaved sections, stating that there are only about 200 km of unpaved road, total. That's the best news I've heard in weeks.
"Where can I get a map like this?"
"If it's useful, take it."
What a guy!
Angel went on to warn me that my biggest problem would be wind. According to him, he'd had tailwind most of the way, going north. I'm obviously going in the opposite direction. So now I've heard the wind is from the west, northwest, south, and unpredictable. But everyone agrees that it's strong.
When I mentioned I'm from Texas, Angel immediately asked if I was from Austin, and then if I knew Lance Armstrong. He was tickled when I told him that I've actually met Lance! This led to a lot of questions, Angel wanted to hear what Lance Armstrong is like. I only spoke maybe two sentences to him, so it's hard to say. He also wanted to know a lot about Lance's bike shop, and, well, it's a bike shop...not that much else to say.
Angel and I walked to a supermarket, where I was a little bullish. I hadn't seen a big bag of nuts in so long, and it didn't cost an arm and a leg! I bought more groceries than I usually like to carry, and they barely fit in my panniers.
Angel cooked my dry polenta into a cornbread-like substance, tasty, satisfying, filling, nutritious, and portable. He even threw in some of his own cheese for flavor! Then we made pasta together and shared a Coke. Now that's comfort for ya.
Thanks again, Angel!