Tonight I’m in Mendoza. It is a place that I’ve looked forward to since before my trip even began because of my time spent with good friend John Wood following our summit of Aconcagua. We spent our time walking through the plazas and parks, eating those two inch thick tornado steaks, listening to street music, and just totally relaxing in this great Latin American city. Like all cities and towns in this part of the world the place to be is the plaza (central park). It’s designed to be the physical and social gathering place for the whole community. In a city the size of Mendoza there are several plazas with the main one being the Plaza Independencia. I’m in the same hotel tonight that John and I stayed in ten years ago, just a block from this plaza. There are four other plazas surrounding the main one all just a couple of blocks away. These areas boast large shade trees, walking paths, beautiful flower beds and comfortable benches as well as fountains and statues of past dignitaries. In Mendoza, as well as the whole surrounding area, the lifeblood is the water coming out of the Andes through an amazing aquaduct system. You can actually see standing waves when it is really coming down – children sometimes drown when they get caught playing in it. This system feeds the vast network of vineyards and keeps the 2 million people of this city supplied with water thus turning the desert into an oasis. Argentina and Chile are famous for their wines, particularly the Malbecs, and they both depend totally on the melt from the largest mountains in the Western Hemisphere. The streets and avenues in this part of Mendoza are lined with large old shade trees that have a channel of water on the street side which keep the trees leaning over these surfaces blocking out the hot Argentinian sun. It’s a very comfortable place to be. We were joined in the climb by Gary Tabor, a longtime friend of John’s from Bozeman, Montana and Lucas Dauria from here in Mendoza. Since that trip in 2004, Lucas has married and has two children. I’ll get to see him tomorrow for dinner.
We had six days of cycling since our last rest day in Chilecito – the first two were through some beautiful canyon country and though they were long we enjoyed our rides and the pavement which made our days a little easier. I tried to cover as much ground as I could in the mornings before the heat became oppressive. The afternoon sun in this area can get really hot, creating temps well over 100 degrees F even this time of year here (spring). This strategy worked well for me the first couple of days. It’s also so much more relaxing to get into camp early. Our third day was 135K long with over 1800 meters of climbing. The first 100K’s were paved and I moved along rapidly, biking with Hardy. At the 99.7K mark we moved off the tarmac and onto a gravel road which started out pretty well but after about 6 or 7 K’s it turned into a miserable loose sand and rock mix with periods of teeth rattling washboard. You couldn’t escape the bad surface no matter how you tried to jump from one side to the other. The sand would bog you down and force you off the bike. The only option then was to push the bike along until it looked like the surface was solid enough to hop back on and pedal. The ride had turned into a slog – no way for me to escape the heat. This back country road was also uphill the whole way to our destination that day, Tacota. Tacota is a name which will live along with Cerro de Pasco forever in my memory bank. Cerro de Pasco was the miserable, cold, dirty high altitude mining town in the Cordillera Blanco area of Peru. We never got warm there with unheated hotels, restaurants and a miserable climb in to the town. We all cringe when somebody mentions it. Now we can add Tacota as another name which will bring a curse to our lips. This place consists only of a small national police facility on the top of the desert climb located there so horseback patrols can chaser poachers of vicuna. The Chilean border is less than 100K from here. The last 13K’s took forever for me as the sun produced temps over 100 degrees and the terrain was defeating me. Sand. Bicycles are not designed to go uphill in the sand. I could not drink enough to cool my body. Walk for a half a K , stop and rest, then make yourself get back on the bike and try to push through again until overheating put you back into step one again. I wasn’t having fun. I questioned just what the hell was I doing here. It was a desert with no real redeeming features for me. A road I couldn’t ride. I don’t do well in the heat and this was real heat. Ahead I saw the lunch truck which had passed me just a few K’s back when I was still moving along somewhat like a cyclist. They had a leak to fix in the fuel system. Hardy had gotten on the truck with a half dozen other riders. A full truck. I filled my two water bottles and drank my fill as well then moved on as I was assured that it was less than 10 K’s to go. It didn’t get any better despite the rest stop and precious water. The lunch truck passed me in what seemed like hours later (it was maybe an hour) and assured me that the campsite was in the trees just ahead. I struggled into camp totally exhausted to cheers and encouragement only to flop my bike down and dump cold water over my head. Sat in the shade and drank and drank. Others came over and I found that everyone had struggled mightily and were just as shattered as I was. Other difficult off pavement sections on the Andes Trail had all had redeeming vistas and features that helped move you along. This road to Tacota across a desert just had nothing redeeming to justify the effort. Hardy II rejoined us two days later (he went off on his own after Salta as he had planned) and related that he started on this track, found it too crazy, and retreated to the pavement around this area. After reaching Tacota we still had 54K’s downhill on this same sandy crazy surface the next day and 121K’s total. Some of our stronger cyclists could push through the sand on the downhill but most of us had real problems again moving down as well. I couldn’t really try to push through as I was afraid to fall again on my shoulder. Cyclists should not be pushing their bikes downhill but there I was. The result of this two day effort was a lot of really tired bikers. In my case I also had a problem with my derriere from all the washboard and bouncing. New Argentinian biking shorts added to the damage to my backside. I couldn’t ride the following day – had problems just sitting. I don’t think further description is necessary.
We lose one of my favorite cyclists in Mendoza as well as Ellen, our cook since Quito. Rien is going home to Holland to help his niece remodel and open a new store. He is probably our overall strongest biker when he decides to race, but he is also fun-loving and loves to spend time cycling with all others no matter what their ability. One day you might find him pushing the pace with James, Alfred, Joost and others and the next day just cruising along near the back of the pack chatting away and taking photos. He just loves to cycle. I’ll include a photo of Rien giving me the thumbs up. It’s also JR’s birthday. I’ve known JR from my days skiing the Tour of Anchorage XC ski race some years ago. He joined this Bike Dreams trip without knowing that I was already signed up. It’s great to have him here. Last night we had a barbecue in the campgrounds here in Mendoza to say goodbye to Rien and congratulate JR. Although some of our group had already made plans and left early to get into town, it was a really fun gathering and great food put together by Ellen and Gertie, our cook for the remainder of the trip. I’ll add a photo of JR as well.