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
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.
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.
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.
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.
We have been biking every day since we left Jasper on July 13th. There are no easy days on the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail. We are becoming a little battleworn. Brian and I are not novices In long distance bicycle journeys. We have been tested before. In our 60’s now, we also know the value and prudence in resting. On this ride the weather has been phenomenal. It’s hard to not continue riding in great conditions. Save the days off for wind or rain. We had gotten in to a good rhythm. A good team. We really didn’t talk about a day off.
However, in some of the days before Salida we started just going through the motions. The fatigue was more a mental thing. Just plain needed to change things up. We also needed to take the time to organize our eventual trip home. So……a day off in Salida it was.
Salida has become a hip town. Located south of Summit County and the big ski areas, Salida nonetheless is in the mountains and with great summers and winter weather in the 50’s, It really has become a touristy Mountain Bike town. Monarch Ski Area is here too with good snow in higher elevations. Still, when you think of this town it’s biking. The Arkansas River also adds water sports and rafting. I like this funky place.
We stayed in a little hostel named Simple Lodging and Hostel. It filled up with bikers like ourselves. We spent our day deciding just how many days were needed to reach Antelope Wells, a border town without the town. Just a border station post and a fence. The end of the southern push to our trip. Lined up a nights stay at Jeffery Sharp’s in Hachita. Jeffery has built a little business shuttling bikers to El Paso, Tucson or the nearest Greyhound Bus station to get to Phoenix. He keeps bike boxes there for people like us to pack their bikes in. He can ship them home for you via Fed-Ex or you can put them on the airplane home with you. He has lodging for us and promises beer for Brian. He is our guy to get from a desolate dusty fence on the border to a big blowtorch home.
Jeffery is affable and efficient on the phone and soon arrangements with him are a done deal. Plane tickets purchased. My friend Jonathon will bring my Toyota Bumblebee to Duluth for our final leg home and pick us up at the airport. It’s now 3 o’clock and time for a drink and some food. We feel pretty good about our day.
A couple hours later as we sat outside our accommodations, here came the four Italian women. There is a swirl of activity where ever they go. Yes, there is room for them and bikes are unloaded. Panniers are noisily marched upstairs and showers taken. Things are happening.
I found out later how they had beaten us to the border of Wyoming and Colorado and the Ladder Ranch. We had cycled two days and about 135 miles past them prior to hearing at the ranch that they had been there the night before. Sylvia explained that they were behind schedule to finish and make their flights. So they had hired a pickup and rode in that beyond us on the highway. They have also ridden some highway sections instead of the Trail to gain time. Regardless, they are a lively foursome and great entertainment.
Brian and I had ridden in to Salida with a Czech woman who had pulled beside me on the bike path through Breckenridge. She merely said, “I haven’t met you yet. My name is Jana.” Of course we bikers know from the amount of gear on a bike who is riding the Great Divide. Jana is in her mid-thirties and is a strong rider. Very independent, we enjoyed her company on the route to Salida. She is blunt, confident, and smokes cigarettes when not on the bike. Jana was looking for a camping spot in town. We will probably run into her again in the two weeks left in our journey.
Brian and I biked over Marshall Pass today at just under 11,000 feet. Availability of water dictated that we stop at only 45 miles. The next water was another 40 miles with climbing between. Too far. Thanks to Brian’s adept work with the map, we have determined the days remaining and each day’s endpoint. There are a number of big passes coming up. I look to enjoy these remaining two weeks.
Friends are the best things in the world. Good friends are our foundations and life support as we all find our own way forward.
I had invitations from good friends along the Great Divide Mountain Bike Trail. Come and stay with us! We’ll feed you, drink with you, do your laundry, and best of all, share stories with you.
So we put in a few longer days which allowed us to have short days biking when invitations were there.
Scott Beattie met us just outside of Steamboat Springs with coolers of cold drinks, energy bars, and big hugs from an old friend. He and his wife Mary had spent many years running their Pincushion B&B in Grand Marais. They had become a part of the fabric of Cook County. Even though their move to Colorado a few years ago put miles between them and their former home, the bonds remain strong. Scott showed us the town. Mary made a wonderful meal. And we shared stories till the sandman came. It was a great visit.
Scott biked with us for the first few miles out of town, then we headed for our first big pass in Colorado. There will be many more. Lynx Pass is around 10,500 ft but the climbing is spread out over 20 miles. No steep struggles with this one. It was truly a delight to enjoy the scenery while slowly working our way over the big rise. Lynx is not a well traveled pass. Rabbit Ear’s Pass and Gore Pass are much more widely used. After an easy go on the Pass we were confronted with very rugged rocky country on the other side. We struggled mightily on the small tote road as it snaked it’s way up and down the sharp hills. Finally reaching an actual descent, we found ourselves moving down the twisting rocky dirt path at a hardly controlled pace. It was the steepest downhill dirt road I’ve ever biked. Too late for brakes we skidded and slid our way along until a little break finally gave us a chance to slow down and breathe. Far below us we could see the remains of the Radium Mine. It was with a much more controlled pace that I reached the bottom.
We spent the night in Radium. Just a few buildings remain plus a small campground along the river that mainly served rafters and kayakers.
Our next day brought us to Silverthorne. My life long friend and fellow adventurer Becky was awaiting us. We had a small two day window to catch her before she left for Minnesota to visit her relatives. We made it happen.
Becky lives just a couple blocks off the Divide Trail. She moved to Summit County after retiring from a long teaching career. Her love of skiing, hiking and adventure made this place a natural fit. Over the years I have enjoyed so many outdoor adventures with her that it feels like home to me too. I couldn’t find a better friend.
After a great night of food, stories and drink with Becky and her son Adam we had to hit the Trail again.
Once again we were headed for a big Pass. This one is the Boreas Pass just below Breckenridge. We didn’t know what to expect as it is 11,492 feet high. Our highest pass thus far. Fortunately, Boreas Pass was originally built as a railroad crossing. The grades are all easy- we had an unexpectantly easy day. A very good day.
I left Brian on the Divide Trail to bike over to FairPlay where Pat and Karen Neal have a beautiful home built high on a foothill with a huge view. I will connect with him in the morning in Hartzell. As with my other hosts, Pat and Karen have had a long time presence in Cook County and have a home there as well. Karen has invited me to their home several times over the years. I was looking forward to the honor.
Pat has spent a lifetime as a pilot. Now in his eighties, macular degeneration is threatening even his driving license. Despite two cochlear transplants he struggles to hear. A-fib limits his physical activities. Yet his attitude is great and we shared stories here in his living room at over 10,000 feet.
Karen has hiked many 14ers here in Colorado and continues to do so with friends of all ages. She does beautiful glass mosaics in her downstairs studio – artwork fills their home here. She’s dreaming of a hiking trip to Patagonia in the next year. Full of energy.
i enjoyed a great evening of good food and conversation with the Neal’s. And a comfortable bed.
Today I’ll reconnect with Brian. We are heading to Salida continuing our biking adventure.
For a kid from the shores of Gitchi Gummi and wilds of the Northwoods, the Great Basin of Wyoming might as well be the moon. We spent several days crossing it. We saw Antelope, Sage Grouse, a lonely coyote, and a lot of dead rabbits. They all must have a hard life in this forlorn place. It is a land of sagebrush and waves of windswept hills. Dry air and drier ground. We very rarely saw a vehicle.
What I will remember most about our journey here will be the ceaseless hills all met by our road at 90 degrees and too steep to clear by the momentum of the previous hill. It was the worst biking of our trip. Aggravating and endless. They taxed our reserves. Also our patience. It did get better as the land flattened moving south. However, never completely let up.
There have been some good Basin memories. Laying in my tent at night listening to the chorus of coyotes rising to a crescendo then falling away. Seeing remnants of previous generations struggles to make something happen here. A forlorn cabin. Once a dream, now a sad commentary on a life just too hard. Maybe the well went dry. Who knows since it could have been any of many things wrong here. But it is nice to think that people tried.
Today we reached not only trees, but are camped just on the Colorado side of the Wyoming border. We are tenting on a large ranch begun by the present owners great grandfather when the Native people and white settlers were still locked in battle over the use of the land. Her forbears had planted the huge willow trees that so majestically surround the old original homestead where we cooked our dinner this evening. The creek just below the homestead is called Battle Creek. The story of that battle resulted in the long history the present owners have on this land. Also the end of a much longer history of peoples before.
They were having a dinner party here including a US Senator and several conservation groups. We kept a low profile.
Tomorrow we will be in Steamboat Springs to visit old friends, Scott and Mary Beattie. We look forward to our time in Colorado.
Biking south from Pinedale we moved rapidly on a great road with downhill being the key part of it. A flowing downhill. The road would take us towards the big hills until we seems certain to be facing a climb, then a quick turn and we would slide through on a weaving trail back into the open desolate land. It is a dry rocky landscape where one should not tread without a good supply of water. The smaller hills we soon met head-on were like big ripples of irritation since the next one was so close to the one we had just climbed. Ceaseless. They were steep and too close for momentum to be of any help. I would be cussing them all day.
We traveled 86 miles today since there was nothing until we reached Atlantic City. The place is a long way from the ocean and a far cry from being a city but it is home for the night. I was very tired and hungry. We pulled into one of the two bar/restaurants. They had a cabin out back. We took it. A shower, internet, electric for charging our stuff and a washer/dryer for our clothes. Never would have imagined when we biked in.
One of the Italian bikers had given me a decal from their non-profit organization when we rode out of Crooked Creek Lodge the other morning. She said, “Look up who we are – what we are doing.” As I learned from their website Ciclistepercaso.com they are a very accomplished group of women. Linda Ronzoni is a graphic designer who heads a very successful firm. She is also a writer. Her friend, Sylvia Gottardi, is a former pro basketball player who was a member of the Italian National team. She is a sports media personality doing commentary and creates sports documentaries for television. She rode her pink car around the world raising 70,000 Euros for women’s causes. The other two women weren’t mentioned in the website.
This trip is fully funded for them including all of the equipment. The money they raise is spent on women’s causes through their non-profit.
We are a full day ahead of them now. Probably won’t see them again. It was inspiring to see their efforts on a really tough bicycle route. They will succeed – they are just as tough. Sent from my iPhone