The Ferry Evangelistas

The ferry taking us to Puerto Montt is a monstrous beast that can swallow whole semi-trucks through its gaping maw. They sit there, down in the hold, along with big containers, passenger cars, machinery, goods of all kinds, and (strapped to the wall on one side) our precious bicycles.

This ferry is a very spartan one for passengers. It is utilitarian. The cabins are small. Cramped small. Clammy. Claustropobic small. Food is poor. Light is poor. I have one roommate in a cabin with two bunkbeds. I can’t imagine how it would have worked if the other two bunks were occupied. Only one person at a time can fit in the aisle between beds. There is a tiny bathroom in one corner. We paid extra for this convenience. There are only 76 passengers onboard a vessel that holds 320. Also 44 crew members.

My roommate is a retired bank manager from Germany. He has that kind of physique that could be referred to as hulking. Maybe lumbering would more kind. About 6’3″ or so. A little too top-heavy. Like his body can only bend one part at a time. Getting into the lower bunk requires great patience as well as a plethora of grunts and groans. The betting odds partway through the process are less than 50-50. Sometimes he hits his head on the upper. He also mumbles to himself on a regular basis.

Getting into the upper bunk? I wouldn’t want to be there for that one.

He is here in Chile and Argentina to photograph steam locomotives. He’s traveled all over the world doing just that. He showed me a slide show of a book he has published of steam powered trains in Turkey. It is beautifully done. I have no great interest in the topic. One can always appreciate anything that is really well done.

It would have helped if the weather had not been so damp, foggy and oppressive. It is typical of what this coastal climate gives you. We did have one glorious afternoon with some sunshine, lower breezes and temps that allowed one layer to be shed. The seas calmed. We tromped out on the upper deck. We saw porpoises, whales, and various seabirds that I hesitate to mis-identify. Fresh air is so good for the soul. My cabin is not.

Since the open ocean portion of our voyage was relatively smooth sailing, our captain took advantage and spent more time there. It meant we would make better time and arrive early. It also meant we would miss seeing some of the highlights of the trip located along the inland passages. We missed seeing a ship that grounded on top of an earlier shipwreck in one of the main channels. Also an indigenous village of 120 residents that can only be reached by boat. Spending more time in the small channels also would have afforded us much closer views of the mountains, islands and fiords. Such is life.

We have over 80K to bike on Saturday once we get off the ship. We can’t leave until they can unload the cargo. Landing early will allow them to do just that and us to start pedaling sooner. We should reach Ensenada at a reasonable time. The open sea decision was not all bad.

Whale watching

Inland Passage to Puerto Montt

We have spent four days now off our bikes in Puerto Natales.  Located just north of Punta Arenas along the coast of southern Chile, Natales is a charming seacoast town of about 20,000 residents.  Whereas El Chalten is a hip little mountain town with a main street maybe just a little too Americanized,  Puerto Natales is just what it should be.  Earthy and authenic.  With Torres del Paine just a short bus ride away, the town attracts visitors worldwide. That afforded us plenty of great little restaurants to sample and shops to explore.

Lassitude is just now starting to set in for me.  A little too long off the bike.  I’m happy that our Navimag ferry will be docking today.  We can board tonight for our early morning departure.  It will be four days and three nights before we disembark in Puerto Montt.  The ferry spends most of the time traveling narrow waterways along the fjords of Patagonian Chile until sometime late on the third day when it breaks out into the open ocean for a few hours before pulling back inland on the last stages of the voyage to Puerto Montt. 

This boat is not a cruise ship. It’s a regular ferry carrying cars, trucks, freight and just over 300 passengers like me. There are simple meals and shared accommodations. No alcohol on board. Some snacks can be purchased on the way. No frills. No wi-fi. Perfect for us. They’ll take our bikes and us up to a point where we can finish our trip up where we started – Bariloche. The scenery should be fantastic. We’ll sail past and through coastal mountains, long fjords, lush temperate rain forests, and large volcanoes. We are promised views of marine mammals including whales plus birds of all stripes. What’s not to like.

It would be nice if you all could close your eyes for just a moment and pray for good weather for us. It likes to rain along the coast.

When we reach Puerto Montt we will immediately hop on our bikes and pedal up to Petrohue on Lago Todos los Santos to spend the night. The next morning we’ll take a ferry for two hours down the length of this large Lago. The next section will find us biking some bad ripio for 28K and 1000 meters of climbing to the second ferry. We have about three hours to accomplish this before the ferry departs. Otherwise we have to wait till the following day at 4pm to catch it. We cross over to Argentina in this remote section. There is one more ferry and then about 25K to get to Bariloche. At that point our biking trip is over.

Chile and Argentina have been wonderful hosts to us. So warm and inviting, we couldn’t ask for more.

Life is good.

Torres del Paine

We’ve been incredibly lucky with weather on this trip in an area of the world which is notorious for foul weather. Rain, high winds, low lying cloud cover, and cold mists are the norm. A climate made for sweaters and rain gear. Warm socks and mittens.

When we biked in to Torres del Paine we were greeted by sunshine and just a whisper of a breeze. Not a cloud resting on the mountains. The iconic rock towers were visible from all aspects. I mentioned to Scott and Lee that you could spend a week here and never get views like this. Better take photos. It could change on a dime. Breath-taking scenery.

I should mention that Scott, Lee and I ride together each day. The tandem that Chris and Jane are on has a completely rythmn in the day’s cycling. Hills are a challenge and steep downhills require great caution. Yet it can fly on the flats and lower rolling changes in elevation. Everybody is riding at a pace where one can enjoy the countryside and stop often for photos. This rugged Patagonia ripio with its sharp climbs and steep descents dictates that we ride apart. So during the day we are often on two separate trips. My photos are of Scott and Lee. Chris and Jane’s photos are of themselves. Weather experiences can be different, so can the people we meet and the animals we see. However, each evening we are all together for meals, camping and catching up on the day.

We biked through the park in two days. The first day brought us all the photos you might have seen on FB and in our blogs. It was absolutely a stunning day. The second day was spent mostly in mist and clouds as we cycled to beat the high winds and rain scheduled to hit the park that evening and stay for the next two days. We arrived in Puerto Natales after a 96K day with lots of climbing before the weather hit. Chris and Jane also beat most of it – just getting wind and rain the last 15K or so.

We have four days to relax here before the ferry leaves for Puerto Montt. We hope to enjoy the countless fjords and wild coastline of Chile’s remote southern Patagonia in good weather. The ferry will bring us up to the latitude where we began our trip in Bariloche. From Puerto Montt we will bike generally east to finish where we began.

There are more photos on my Facebook page.

The backside of the iconic Towers

The towers from a distance.

A goucho and his dogs heading for work.
My camp.

The Carretera

It’s been sometime since I last communicated on this trip. We were heading south on a very bad stretch of ripio (gravel) below El Bolson when my phone was jarred out of its mount on my bicycle and onto the road. I didn’t notice when it happened. We were now about 11K out of town. I started backtracking to try to find it.

When I was planning for the trip there were, of course, many decisions having to do with weight and volume on the bike. There is only so much room to carry things. Weight is definitely a factor. I have to be self- sufficient. Tent, sleeping bag, clothing, food…you get the picture. Do I carry panniers. Do I use a seat bag. What tools to bring, All of the little decisions can have consequences. Most can be adjusted for somewhere along the way to varying degrees.

I carry a Garmin GPS unit to help stay on course. I used to carry a Canon G – series camera for quality photos. I also would carry my smart phone for communications. As the trips evolved and smart phones become great little cameras, the phone became more the central piece of equipment. Other than the bike, of course.

So my decision this trip was to buy a new phone (iPhone 11 Max Pro) with a great camera and forgo the new Sony camera. Only one piece of equipment to carry. Less volume, weight, and simple to keep track of…..unless you lose it. Or a car runs over it before you find it.

Lee found it in the middle of the ripio. Face-down. Screen smashed. No more photos with this one. The touch-screen was gone. You couldn’t even open it up. All the info I had researched and saved for our trip now gone. Contacts gone. Maps and websites. At least a few things I had printed out. Ferry ticket. Basic itinerary.

All this to explain why you haven’t been getting my blog.

There are no iPhones to buy along these remote routes we are biking in Patagonia. No way to pull it all out of the Cloud. I did get a Samsung phone in Coyhaique that will keep me in email and FB contact. And take some adequate photos.

And the trip has been fantastic.

Great scenery. Wonderful people. Fresh air and wilderness. Good weather. All one could ask for.

I miss my phone for all the obvious reasons.

But the trip has been just as wonderful without being documented.

Tomorrow we enter Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. The next chapter in our bicycling route of Patagonia. I’ll try to get a few photos and a blog post out your way.

2020 Cycle Patagonia

Tomorrow, Sunday Feb 2, I head to Thunder Bay to fly to Bariloche, Argentina to embark on a bicycle trip along the Carretera Austral in Southern Patagonia.

It’s been 6 years since I was last in this beautiful area during my 2014 trip down the length of South America from Quito, Ecuador to Ushuaia at the bottom of the continent. I’ve been looking forward since that time to exploring this section in Chile more extensively. Now I get my chance.

There will be five of us this time around. We all hail from Grand Marais in northern Minnesota. Lee and Scott Bergstrom were with me on a cycle trip from the top of the North Island of New Zealand to Bluff at the southern tip of the South Island in 2016. It will be great to share this trip as well. We have had many adventures together. Jane Alexander and Chris O’Brien will be riding a tandem in Patagonia. It should be interesting as the tandem will be fast on the flats and screaming on the downs. The uphills will be more of a challenge. But they are very capable. It will be our first trip together and I very much look forward to it.

The bicycling part of our journey will be about 1700 miles from Bariloche in Argentina to Puerto Natales located along the Chilean coast. From there we will catch a ferry up to Puerto Montt. The ferry will follow an “inland passage” along the fiords of coastal Chile. We are all hoping for good weather on this part of the trip. Nobody wants rain, wind or seasickness on the boat. A few good wishes from all of you might be helpful. a 3 – 4 day cycle will bring us back to Bariloche.

We will be self-supported. That means all camping gear, clothing and food will be loaded on our bikes. This gives us the freedom (and necessity at times) to camp in this rugged dramatic countryside.

I’m hoping to include a map here. Since I haven’t mastered how to load our route on a map I borrowed someone else’s. It doesn’t show the lower part of our route to El Calafate or Puerto Natales. It does include Puerto Montt in the upper left where our ferry trip ends. You can visualize the cycle route back to Bariloche from Puerto Montt.

I hope you’ll join us by following this blog. We’d like to have you along. buckbenson.org

Antelope Wells

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Today my bike wheels rolled up to the Mexican border. After 3000 miles over single track, tote roads, dirt, gravel, water, mud, and even pavement, I have completed the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail. This last ride, just 45 miles, was completely flat and boring. Such an inappropriate ending for the richly rewarding experience this Bike Trail has been.

A couple of weeks ago, Brian asked me if this ride was epic for us. My first thought was that nothing I could do could be “epic.” Epic was Ben Hur. Epic was Shackleton’s voyage to South Georgia. The word just seemed too big. This was a bicycle ride that ordinary people like myself can do.

Brian’s question did trigger some introspection on just how I ended up on this ride though.

There was my first 50 mile Trail Race. A climb of the largest mountain in the hemisphere, Aconcagua in Argentina. A kayak trip in the wilds of remote Greenland. A bike trip through the Andes from the equator to Ushuaia at the bottom of South America. And others. Each of these were stepping stones in my confidence. A feeling that I belonged. That I could do these things. That a very ordinary person with the right attitude could succeed at these challenges if he/she put their mind to it.

So when I asked Brian if he wanted to join me in doing this trip, I never even questioned that we could do it. When I was getting ready to climb Denali in 2010 my great friend Nancy said, “Buck doesn’t know his limitations.” There is a lot of truth in that.

Back to the “epic” thing.

Along the way from Jasper down, I was so impressed by encouragement by people of all ages and types. Signs in all communities offer discounts to bikers and hikers. Some lodging is even hikers and/or bikers only. People wave at us. Cars beep their horns. Folks stop to talk to us about our ride. People along this route are all very conscious of what this route and the people biking it mean to their communities.

We met more international riders than we did Americans. This Mountain Bike Trail has become iconic worldwide. In just 20 years. We are riding with Italians, Scots, French, Japanese, Czechs and many more nationalities. It has become famous as the best and longest mountain bike trail anywhere.

Is this an epic trail? There’s no question about it. This has been an epic trail for us too.

There is nobody meeting you at Antelope Wells. No friends with hugs and congratulations. No medals. In fact it may be the quietest border crossing in the US. Almost too quiet for two good friends to end their epic ride. We gave each other a big hug. We poured ourselves into this ride and absorbed all we could. I thanked Brian for being such a good friend.

Rain, Rain Rain and the Toaster House

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I’d been dreading the heat of New Mexico. I should have been more concerned with the rain and wind. Monsoon season.

We left the friendly but maybe a little strange confines of the Chaco Trading Post around nine am heading for Grants NM. Something about the lights in a laundromat are a little eerie.

The clouds have been gathering every afternoon into black thunderheads that roll by in several directions. This day was no different. As the road wound around different elevations we kept either ahead or behind trouble. However when we finally approached Grants and our resupply box at the Post Office a huge black mass covered the sky. Pressure lowered and lightning followed the booms. We had to find cover. With our box and new map in hand, we rode hard for the nearest motel.

Grants is a dying town. More businesses seemed to be closed than open. Once a uranium mining town, now the only thing keeping it going are the prisons constructed throughout the community.

Fifteen minutes after getting into our room, the sky let loose with a deluge of wind and rain. So happy to be indoors, warm and dry. We busied ourselves with internet and phone calls.

A couple of hours later with the storm subsided, the four Italians arrived. They too were looking for the nearest motel. They weren’t as lucky as we had been. The storm had found them.

We headed for Pie Town the next morning with 30 miles of highway then another 30 miles of gravel to get there. Sometime just before we found the gravel a club cab pick up came flying by with 4 Italians waving and yelling out the windows. They had hired a pickup to take them to Pie Town. Crazy Italians!

Rain was chasing us as we arrived so we looked for the odd little hostel named Toaster House that we had heard about rather than camp. We stopped in the local cafe to find out how to get there. Hunger got the best of us so lunch and then pie was the first order of the day. Then Simona came walking in the cafe. “The Toaster House is just down the hill.” We were off.

The Italians had taken the upstairs rooms. We grabbed a downstairs bedroom. Simona and Silvia left to go grocery shopping, Linda was busy writing the Italian’s blog while Ramona worked on their video. In the meantime Jana the Czech and her friend Stacie showed up. They put their sleeping bags in the living room.

The Toaster House is the former home of a Pie Town woman who raised her kids here. When they were gone and she had built a new home, she decided to allow hikers and bikers to stay at the house on the honor system. Put a donation in the jar and leave it better than you found it. That was years ago. The place smells a little funky, grass is wild outside, and there is an odd collection of items parked in various places around the yard. Definitely deteriorating. But there is a ton of dried food in tubs and cupboards in the kitchen, the shower facilities work great, and we were going to be dry despite the storm tonight.

There is a beautiful new bicycle repair stand in the yard here. Complete with tools and high pressure pump it is a wonderful addition to the Toaster House.

JD Pauls, a Canadian with little bike experience had decided to ride the Divide Trail in 2012. He bought a Walmart bike, got a few provisions and was off. He also wrote a blog during the trip which was widely read. The Walmart bike lasted less than two weeks. He decided to try again next year. In the meantime, word of his first attempt spread. He found himself with a new donated bike. New equipment kept appearing at his door. Off he went in 2013. When he got to Pie Town, a broken seat post looked to end his ride. A local stepped to the plate and repaired the post. JD finished the Divide with that seat post. Sadly, Paul’s died of cancer a couple years later. He requested that a bike repair stand be installed at the Toaster House in appreciation of the help he got in Pie Town.

The ladies returned with their larder plus some beer for Brian and a bottle of red that I shared. They proceeded to make pasta. Making pasta for an Italian is an art. Great food is a must in their culture. Try as she may. Linda could not overcome the poor quality of the pasta from the store. We thought it was great.

Jana and Stacie joined in. Beer and wine consumed, Jana regaled us all with great stories of her time in Banff as a tourist guide around Lake Louise. She is an archeologist by trade but also holds a biology degree and has dealt with more than a few encounters with the grizzlies while having tourists in tow.

It rained very hard all night. The gravel roads turn into an unrideable mess here when wet. Our discussions that morning centered around taking the gravel anyway or riding down the pavement to Silver City. We all wanted to stay on the gravel trail. Brian and I have experienced what can happen and didn’t want to be pushing our bikes for miles through the mud and sand. We opted to take the highway.

Brian and I will be in Silver City tomorrow. We have gained another day so will be taking a day off there. It is our second day off on this 3000 mile trip.

Stay Off the Mesas

It was a downhill slide to the town of Chama after our big day getting to Platoro over Indiana and Stunner Passes. Also a dramatic change in scenery. The big tree forests have become mesquite and lots of erosion. Stunning colors. Long vistas broken up by buttes and flat topped rock mesas.

We camped along the river in Chama. We were early arriving with very little climbing and a good road. Dodging a storm along the way, it caught up to us just after getting our tents up. Hail pounded my tent while I lay inside, happy to be warm and dry. The hailstorm we were experiencing was simultaneously hitting the Italians on the route to Platoro. They took shelter with workers on a reservoir project as they were freezing cold. Strange being cold in New Mexico at this time of year.

Chama to Abiquiú is a beautiful ride. Echo Amphitheater and the adjacent rock formations are quite amazing. Georgia O’Keefe had a home in Abiquiú. There is now a Center there devoted to her work. We camped in a funky little place along the river just before Abiquiú. The owner had told us to watch for a big red mailbox with crows attached to it, then follow the crows along a driveway to the river. There it was and we followed around a bend and through a horse gate to her eclectic little group of buildings where we set up our tents under some very big shady cottonwoods. Jackie had rooms in her home, little cabins that had started out as storage sheds, a teepee, and a hammock for guests. There was also a solar hot tub and sauna, outdoor shower, and a compost outhouse in the compound. An outdoor kitchen made the facilities complete. She said that she just couldn’t seem to stop creating little buildings. It was a very comfortable and quiet place to relax. That night the coyotes gave us a great little concert.

The ride to Cuba started out perfect – a great road with nice grades and rugged scenery belied what was to come. The dirt road turned to the west. We could see the cut in the mountains ahead. What followed was our longest and worst biking day of the trip. The road took us up on a Mesa that seemed to last forever. The Jeep trail consisted of rock whose surface soil had been scraped off and replaced with sand between the rock. We climbed and we toiled and we slid but mostly we got pounded by the rough rocky surface. Bone jarring downhills and uphills with no apparent route around and through the uneven rocky mess. This went on for hours. We started that morning at 8 am. We didn’t get to Cuba until 6:40 that evening. Only took a 15 minute rest at lunch. Very tired boys who had biked 78 miles with 7500 ft of climbing and almost 11 hours in the saddle.

Some angel had let 2 gallons of water about halfway on the route. Very remote country.

In Cuba we ran into the Italians again. They had taken the highway bypassing Abiquiú and the Mesa route that had brutalized us on our way to Cuba. We had dinner with them that night. The Czech woman Jana was here as well with a woman from Colorado named Stacy. Jana had cut her tire on a rock. She repaired it with duct tape. I dug around in my bike bags and found her a boot for the tire. She was grateful and took it but decided to leave the tape on till it failed.

A 45 mile ride brought us to the Chaco Trading Post and Laundromat. It is the only facility between Cuba and Grants, a stretch of 120 miles. They allowed us to put our tents up behind the place. We spent our day hanging out in the Laundromat. I got to talk to a few Navajo elders who were doing their laundry. Easy to talk with and great storytellers, they talk in their native Navajo language when not speaking with this white guy from Minnesota.

Next up is Grants, our resupply box at the Post Office and six more days of cycling.

Indiana Pass and Platoro

Yesterday we crossed two passes on our way to Del Norte. Marshall and Cadera. As we sailed down the second I saw four figures in the road ahead of me. Bikes scattered in different directions. Parts and packs finished the disarray. The Italians. One had a flat. They had the tire off. Two were inspecting the tire for the cause of the flat. Silvia was finding a new inner tube. Simona was grabbing the pump. It was their 5th flat of the trip. Brian and I stopped. They greeted us happily but insisted they could handle the situation. We should leave before the storm clouds overhead let loose. I decided to just watch for a couple of minutes. Brian did too. They really didn’t know how to get the tire and tube back on the rim. Their pump didn’t work. We were slowly enlisted into the process. Brian pulled out his tire pump. We both got to work with the tire and rim. Soon the tire was back into good repair. Silvia had her video camera out shooting the whole process. We posed for photos then they insisted again that we shouldn’t get wet. “Thank you.” We’ll see you in Del Norte.” We left them to put the tire back on the bike.

We were tired puppy dogs coming into Del Norte. We found a cute little Hostel with a restaurant next door. Beer for Brian. Red Wine for me. Of course about 3 big glasses of lemonade before the glass of red. Came in the door hungry and left with no room for another bite.

Here came the Italians. They took the four beds in one side of our accommodation- we had the other side. We had a great time. Conversation flowing – these are very bright and alive women. They are taking the next day off to go over video and post photos for their sponsors.

Today was our big day. We had ridden 18 extra miles yesterday to make today shorter. Indiana Pass, the highest Pass on the Divide Trail at 11,938ft followed at the end of the day by Stunner Pass at 10,561 ft before getting to Platoro. We started the day around 7800 ft so we had our work cut out for us.

The countryside here is stunning. Big mountains heavily forested with occasional soft meadows and big treeless pillows above. As with all our passes here in Colorado the lower grades of our gravel road climbs allowed us to breathe as we wound ourselves up the mountain. The highest grade was 7 to 8 percent. Very doable by bike. We were over Indiana Pass in 2 and a quarter hours. It was a good feeling. There was no sign. I had been looking forward to a photo.

We came into Platoro after being caught in a big rain with hale and falling temps on the way down our second pass. It was the first rain while biking since we started the trip on July 13th. And did it rain.  Hailed too.  Had to retreat under spruce trees twice for protection. The rain abated and soon we could see the little town of Platoro.

This might be the oddest town I’ve ever experienced. Houses are all types of log constructions from many different eras and phases of disrepair. All face whatever direction they feel like. The dirt streets wind through the town with no apparent pattern. Old mining homes, lean-tos fit at any angle to sheds and outhouses. RV’s of any vintage are scattered amok throughout the clutter.  Felt a little like the Twilight Zone.

We check in to a cabin next to one of the two restaurants in town. We find that there is no internet service anywhere in town. In fact, no where in 200 square miles around the town. There is no cell service. There are no stores. This baby is remote. Brian can’t even buy a beer here.

We have what we need tho. A restaurant, laundry facilities at our lodging for guests. We badly needed that. Lodging where we can recover from the day.

All is well.