End of the World
The wind had died down - barely - by the next day, and I gladly made my way southeast. Supposedly, the wind was supposed to be from the northwest, but no, it was from the west, like always. That meant it was a tailwind, but not a direct one. In places, the road would turn due south, meaning the wind would be more of a bother, or even dangerous. As devastating as headwind is, you can still ride into it. Cross wind, when it gets strong enough, makes it impossible to ride. You can't go anywhere if you can't stay on your bike.
I quickly dashed through the first half of the day, until the road started pointing SSE, when I started having to battle the wind about as much as it was helping me. The day clouded over and the temperature dropped. It was barely noon when I got to Rio Grande, but I was already eager to get inside. I'd considered pressing on another 100 km to Tolhuin, but thought better of it. Most of that distance was due south, meaning I'd be in a fierce crosswind most of the time.
I'd already bought my plane ticket, and not knowing exactly how long it would take me to cover the last 1,000 km, I gave myself plenty of time. Since then, I'd gotten two days ahead of schedule. I now had over a week to do only 220 km of riding. I decided I'd have another look at the weather forecast, and depending which days had the most wind, take the worst days off, and ride when there's less.
As it turned out, it looked like the best days were the next two! No days off for me! I would have a cross wind tomorrow, but not a terrible one, and a light headwind on my last day. I could handle that. If I waited, I'd have the same wind directions, but strong enough to knock me over again.
I spent an incredibly lazy day in a hostel, mostly checking things online.
As I made my way south, the wind started strong early in the day, but subsided in the afternoon. I'd been dreading a 15 km stretch where I'd have to head SSW, but by the time I got there, there was almost no wind at all! What a lucky guy I am!
I think part of the difference is the trees - they exist again! I don't know if the trees filter out the wind, or if the lack of wind allows trees to live. But in any case, more trees, less wind. A whole lot of them have moss or algae or something draped over their gnarled branches. It almost looks like an East Texas or Louisiana swamp! If I didn't have a good place to stay in Tolhuin, I would've been tempted to camp out in the cool-looking trees.
On rare occasion, you see only one or two trees by themselves, and it's clear they're barely hanging on. It seems the trees need each other for survival in this wind.
In mid-afternoon, I saw a bunch of people hanging around a campfire, right next to the highway in the middle of nowhere. My curiosity was piqued, and after smelling the cordero from 100 meters away, I had to at least try and Yogi.
"What is this? A party?"
"It's a holiday! We're camping! Where are you from?"
After I told them, I was immediately handed a plate of cordero and given a place to sit. Then I was given red wine and Coke mixed together. It was strange, but not bad!
Today was St. Mary's day, a national holiday. I wound up talking a lot to the patriarch of the group.
"She is my daughter, and that's her husband. My other daughter, her husband. And my other daughter, there. Them," gesturing to three people a little younger than me, "interlopers." They were, in fact, friends of the youngest daughter.
I've said it many times before, but...I love you, cordero. Argentinians, they have some kind of collective savant talent for this meat! Their beef wasn't bad at all either, but the cordero, I can't get over how good it is, and I'm still unable to fully express how much I love it!
I hung out with these folks for probably an hour, joking around and making conversation. I guess I've gotten decent at Spanish, without noticing, even with a limited vocabulary. They wouldn't stop giving me barbecue either, and that made it hard to leave.
It's been good this whole time, but this last afternoon barbecue sealed it. Argentinians are my favorite Latinos.
After leaving the barbecue, I only had two hours of pedaling before I got to Tolhuin, the last town I would see before Ushuaia. I'd been told you can sleep in a bakery there. Weird, but OK! Once I got into town, there was a huge sign for the bakery. And I'd been worried it would be hard to find. Parts of the town almost had a German look.
The bakery, which was also a restaurant, was packed! I hadn't seen this many people in one place in weeks! And it was in this little bitty town, in the middle of nowhere...why?
Then I saw the rows of pastries, cakes, and artisanal chocolates. Oh man!
Still, I had no idea what I was doing there, and where I would sleep. I took a number and waited, like I was going to buy some croissants. When it was my turn, I explained that I was a cyclist and I needed a place to sleep.
"Oh! Go around to the other side, I'll meet you there!" It was like they did this every day.
They guided me to a separate building behind the main one, where there was a tall Japanese guy working on his bike. So I wasn't even the only cyclist today.
They had a bunkroom specifically for cyclists, where almost every cm of the wall was covered in messages written by other cyclists. Half of them mentioned empanadas or had a picture of them. After setting my things down, I walked back outside to see what the other cyclist was up to, and was stopped on the way by one of the bakers. She handed me a plate of about nine empanadas.
After another hour or so, another cyclist arrived, and a while later, five showed up together!
The Japanese guy had ridden down from Alaska, made it to Ushuaia, and was now heading back up to Santiago, where he would finish. Leo, who grew up in Argentina and now lives in Chicago, was headed to Ushuaia like me, but had started in Colombia. The group of five was originally a group of four, with one guy now tagging along. They had started in Ushuaia, and I never found out what their final destination was.
I talked to the tagging-along guy, a Quebecois, who had never done bike touring before and didn't have much of a plan. So I can see why he decided to latch on to a group.
"Do you know where I should go? What are good routes, and places I should see?" he asked.
I pulled out my map and started showing him where I went, what I liked and what I didn't, where you'd find pavement, where there would be wind. Then it dawned on me: why do I need this map anymore? I gave it to him. It had been a gift a month ago, from a WarmShowers host, and now it was being put to use again. This would be its third trip across Argentina!
There were only three beds in the bunkhouse, so the five cyclists were put up in a gymnasium that was also owned by the owner of the bakery. Is there some part of this town that doesn't belong to him?
When I clipped in and pushed off in the morning, leaving Tolhuin behind me, my heart fluttered. 100 km to go! Not just today, 100 km total! This was it! I kept excitedly talking to myself aloud, I can't believe I did it! This is the most off-the-hook thing I've ever done! You did it, man, you're gonna make it! I had to tell myself to calm down, because there were still 100 km to go, and not easy ones. If I acted like I was almost there all day, it would feel like it dragged on forever. Let's be patient, like always.
I had long expected to start catching other southward-bound Pan-American cyclists from behind, but that hadn't happened much. But in these last two days, I kept finding cyclists headed the other way, starting in Ushuaia and heading north. My mind went back to Luc, the 60-something-year-old French guy I met only about a week after I started. I had just begun, and he had almost finished! And now, the story was flipped. My ride was coming to a close, and others were just beginning.
One thing about this last day - it was tough! I'd been warned that there were hills, and the first big one I handled well, but the second one caught me off-guard somehow.
As I approached the first big hill, the day turned cold and dreary, and by the time I'd reached the summit, it started raining, and didn't stop for the rest of the day. Once I got to the bottom, the headwind picked up, not gale-force like most of Patagonia, but strong and steady. Cold, wind, and rain, yeah, that's exactly what I like, all at the same time!
So this place had mountains, sure as hell had wind, and had plenty of water, in the form of lakes, rivers, ocean, and rain every damn day for a week now. But I haven't been warm once this whole time. Why it's called Tierra del Fuego, "Land of Fire," I'll never know.
I had hoped for one last beautiful, fun, easy ride, one I would enjoy, so I could spend the day taking it in. Instead, I was mostly looking forward to getting it over with.
The past few weeks, it's been fun to look at how much of the remaining distance I knock off each day. For a while, I was chipping off maybe 2% of the remaining distance each day, then 3%, then 4%, and the number eventually increased rapidly. In the last few days, it had been jumping by double digits! But now, I was able to think about what percentage I'd knocked off every few minutes! I was so close!
Even though it was difficult, I was glad that my last day was photo-worthy. I only wish it had been less cloudy, so I could see the mountains in their full glory.
I finally rounded a bend and saw the Antarctic Ocean, and not much later, got a view of Ushuaia. But after looking forward to this point for so long now, I only had a mild reaction. I'd wondered if I would get choked up or something, but not so much. By expecting to have a reaction, I didn't have one. OK, I smiled pretty big, but not much else.
I hadn't realized it, but Ushuaia is a major port. I still don't fully understand why - anything that makes landfall here would still have to be transported a long way to get anywhere, and would even have to take a ferry. It would seem like any shipment would be better served by going around and up one of the coasts, rather than stopping here.
I had wanted to dip my wheels in the ocean once I arrived, but couldn't find any kind of beach! In town, the ocean is held back by a seawall, and there's no way to walk down to the water. I wound up doing the ceremonial wheel-dip the next day. Probably a better idea anyway, after it had stopped raining.
I checked into a hostel and quickly became something like a celebrity there. Everyone wanted to look at my bike, and a few even wanted a picture with me! I was happy to hang out and talk with them, people from Connecticut, California, Colorado, North Carolina, France, Germany, United Kingdom, Holland, Argentina, Australia, Israel! Folks from all over, and here we all are, at the southernmost city on Earth!
It was weird to take all my things off Valeria and know that I wouldn't be putting them back on again.
I went out to celebrate at a popular bar and didn't pay for a drink all night. Had a good time singing and dancing with friendly folks, drinking the southernmost beer in the world, seven months after I'd had the northernmost beer in the world in Coldfoot, AK.
It was good to be finished, and would be even better to be home. It's been one hell of a ride, and I've seen all kinds of cool places. It's a beautiful, complex, mysterious, fascinating world we live in. I've grown attached to it. But I've missed you, Texas. And as much as I love meeting all these interesting new people every day, I haven't had any kind of close relationship for seven months, and I miss that too. At times, it would've been nice to slow down here and there, but I'm glad I'm coming home for the holidays!