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The following are stories written for the Selkirk Journal and the Comox Valley Record during my 11-month bicycle expedition through South America, from January to November, 2004:

Border Bound (a pre-trip introduction)
Against the Wind Through Tierra del Fuego
Hurry Up and Slow Down (cycling in Patagonia)
Chugging Through Chile (cycling Chile's Carretera Austral)
Argentina a Lot Like Canada (crossing the Argentina pampas)
South America's Hidden Gem (travels in Uruguay)
The Bolivian Paradox
Pushing Through Peru (misadventures on a Peruvian riverboat)
Jungle Journey a Drag (cycling the Brazilian Amazon
Grand Finale (cycling Venezuela)

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Against the Wind Through Tierra del Fuego
by Ryan Parton

At the southern tail of the Americas, a mighty wind roars south from the Patagonian steppe, mercilessly buffetting the rugged land known as Tierra del Fuego, the windswept archipelago standing sentinel at the end of the world.

As I labouriously pedalled my fully loaded bike into this formidable force, I wondered how a bike trip against the wind through Tierra del Fuego had ever sounded like fun.

In 1520, when Ferdinand Magellan first navigated the confusing passage that now bears his name, he looked south and saw the many fires of the Yamana people, one of the original Fuegian tribes, and named this unknown land Tierra del Fuego, or "Land of Fire." Although the name refers to the entire collection of islands stretching south from the Strait of Magellan to Cape Horn, itīs generally used in reference to La Isla Grande, the main Fuegian island and the host of my masochistic cycling adventure. The Yamana, for their part, were eventually all but wiped out by the disease and violence of colonization.

My journey had began in Ushuaia, Argentina, a pretty little city nestled between the glacier-capped mountains of southern Tierra del Fuego and the frigid waters of the Beagle Channel. Touted as the southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia attracts hordes of adventure-seeking tourists, including most of those continuing south to Antarctica. As a result, the city has a well-developed tourist infrastructure and is an easy spot to ease into Fuegian culture.

Just west of Ushuaia lies the southern terminus of Argentinaīs RN-3, the highway that begins 3,242 kilometres away in Buenos Aires, and which would lead me through the Fuegian countryside.

The first 150 kilometres of my journey had had their difficulties, in the form of dusty gravel stretches and a torrential downpour, but the beautiful mountain scenery had kept my spirits high and had offered protection from the full force of the wind.

But at the otherwise amiable town of Tolhuin, the RN-3 turns north towards the Atlantic coast, the mountains and forests dissolve into flat pampas, or plains, and the highway becomes completely exposed to the harsh elements. The landscape became a monotonously flat plain in hues of yellow and green, like an oil painting at a rich auntīs, or a box of shredded wheat left open in the cupboard for too long. As I tediously chipped away at the kilometres, even the few trees that remained, gnarled and grotesquely twisted by the wind, faded into the vast bareness of the pampas.

Six days into my journey I arrived exhausted at the surprisingly unattractive city of Rio Grande, on the islandīs Atlantic coast. Primarily an oil town, Rio Grande was hit hard by Argentinaīs recent economic collapse, and you get the impression that itīs never fully recovered. The city, which calls itself "the international trout capital," is trying hard to build its image as a tourist destination, but as far as I could tell its only remarkable feature is an absurd abundance of shoe stores and grafitti.

Past Rio Grande the RN-3 continues along the islandīs northeastern flank, but rarely gets close enough to afford a scenic view. Instead, I could have been cycling through southern Alberta, with slightly rolling grasslands dancing a horizontal lambada with the wind, and a few lonely oil rigs pumping methodically in the distance.

At the tiny border post of San Sebastian I bid farewell to the paved RN-3 and headed west, into the eye of the gale, down a rocky road that stretches some 150 kilometres to Porvenir, the only town of any significance in Chilean Tierra del Fuego.

For two more days the scenery was unimaginably unimaginative; parched grasslands interrupted only infrequently by the wooden gates of roadside estancias, the vast ranches that divide up northern Tierra del Fuego.

From time to time Iīd see a lone guanaco, similar to a llama but more lithe, standing stoically on the horizon. Hammered as I was by the wind, however, it would pass with all the speed and enjoyment of a kidney stone.

It was an almost welcome, and certainly rare, adrenaline rush when one of only a handful of passing cars clipped me from behind, fatally wounding my rear wheel but luckily leaving me unscathed. With the wind howling in my ears it had been impossible to hear any traffic sneaking up from behind.

About 40 kilometres from Porvenir the road begins to hug the northern shore of Bahia Inutil, literally "Useless Bay," whose brilliant blue sheen was a wonderful relief to my pampas-weary eyes. The now undulating road even offered some variety in the form of ups and downs as I limped along on my battered wheel.

After one final hill I was rewarded with an almost unbelievable sight: Porvenir, and not a moment too soon, spread out before me along the edge of its own tranquil bay.

Porvenir was founded as a mining town in the late 19th century, but the local gold rush never lived up to expectations, and I suppose neither did Porvenir. The place has the air of a ghost town, with rusting skeletons of ancient cars gradually being overtaken by nature along its streets and nary a soul wandering its sidewalks. Nonetheless, its colourful tin-sided homes and friendly inhabitants, once found, made it an enjoyable place to spend a few days resting my weary body.

What got me was that, after 11 days and more than 500 kilometres of cycling, the wind seemed to back off just a touch as I arrived in Porvenir, an almost sportsmanlike gesture. It was as if the Fuegian wind itself was nodding its head and saying, "Well done."

And, just in case my breezy nemesis is out there reading this somewhere, Iīd like to mention that in five years of cycling, in six different countries, Iīve never faced a more worthy opponent.


Next
Previous

Border Bound (a pre-trip introduction)
Against the Wind Through Tierra del Fuego
Hurry Up and Slow Down (cycling in Patagonia)
Chugging Through Chile (cycling Chile's Carretera Austral)
Argentina a Lot Like Canada (crossing the Argentina pampas)
South America's Hidden Gem (travels in Uruguay)
The Bolivian Paradox
Pushing Through Peru (misadventures on a Peruvian riverboat)
Jungle Journey a Drag (cycling the Brazilian Amazon
Grand Finale (cycling Venezuela)

Back to my writing samples
Back to Atravesando Fronteras home page