Squeezed lemons on the Ruta 40You’re never alone on the road. In Cachi we meet Luis. He’s barely six months and by far the youngest adventurer we’ve met on the Panamericana so far. He’s conceived somewhere in Central Asia and born in Lima. Now he bungles happily in a small cart behind a bike or in a baby sling on the back off one his French parents. They travel across Argentina towards the east of Brasil where his first adventure will end for now. Cyclists are hard. They drift heavily packed across endless roads, live in too small tents and are being chased by their own body smell from time to time. Very occasionally you meet a complete family of which the children merrily pedal along towards the end of the world. They have the guts.
Far away two white legs bungle out of a baby sling. It’s Luís who dangles on the back of his mother on the Ruta 40. Simon, his father, ride a bit in front of them with another Fench couple and their two young children whom we met in Abra Pampa a while ago. They form a small pack a few 100 meters ahead of me - an ideal to close the gap quickly. At our campers a bit a further down the road they stop for a chat. Every time we’re surprised on how cyclist can survive in these primitive circumstances. But on the road everything is possible. With a little bit of creativity you even carry along a six-months old toddler. The closer we get to the finish in Ushuaia the more our respect for these brave pedalers grows.
Shuffling at the border
The last few weeks towards Argentina were hellish. The height and endless ripio, dirt roads strewn with rocks and washboards, squeezed us like lemons. On wobbly legs we stumble across the Argentinian border. Only 5.121 kilometers until Ushuaia mark the white lettres on the green traffic sign. Actually we should be dancing of joy, but we’re only capable to shuffle around the sign. Lately we’re dead tired and it becomes more difficult to run a marathon every day. Bolivia sucked all energy out of our body. Again we have to dig for energy. We have to aim higher one more time.
In Argentina the Bolivian altiplano continues for a little while. The barren land slowly slides by on the rhythmic stomping of our feet. The straight road on which we run is endless and is perpendicular on the horizon. On left and right vast meadows, some llamas and from time to time a small farm. In the far distance the road dissolve in the rough sides of the Andes and a bit further is the Abra del Acay, one last hurdle of nearly 5.000 meters we have to overcome before we start to descent towards Patagonia. The dust road towards the mountain pass is not more than an old worn-out track that dissolves into a pallet of orange, green and grey. The immense Andenian mountain peaks are emerging out of nothing. Even from 3.500 meters height they look impressive. It’s as if the land was grabbed by her neck, squeezed hard and never took back the form it had before. You perfectly see where the fingers formed the mountains.
In a few days we’ll climb the Abra de Acay. From San Antonio de los Cobres, a dusty miners town, we see how the cloud mass thickens above the pass. Rain pours out of pitch-dark clouds. Hopefully it’ll stay dry during our crossing. Rain would make our climb nearly impossible. We won’t get our campers across the dust road and her endless hairpin bends. We eat a veggie lasagne and well-done cooked piece of llama in the only hotel in town. Pale tourist in adventure clothing come and go - an obligatory stop between the vines of Cafayate and colourful rocks of Purmamarca. The waiter doesn’t leave us alone. He’s impressed about our adventure and our little houses on wheels. “Jefe, tomorrow a day of rest and then the climb”, he asks time and time again. “What a fantastic challenge… I’ll follow you towards Ushuaia. Locos Belgas!”
Pushing through one more time
Hairpin bends are a challenge for every runner. Not to follow them, but to cut the short by just running straight up or down where the bend starts. Weking ran the first mountain pass between Chile and Bolivia. Now it’s my turn. After the hard work on the Bolivian altiplano I feel surprisingly fresh and am eager to swing some fireworks out of my legs. I try climb as fast as possible, cut off bends and sneak in one straight line towards the summit. Weking directs me up. “Take the donkey trail, you’ll have a clear view on the summit.” The weather is perfect. Not one cloud. The climbing goes well. After two hours I push one more time trough and I am at the top. The campers rock slowly in the heavy wind. We eat some noodles, drink a few coffees and take some pictures at the sign of the mountain pass before I start the descent.
Now it’s only down. All heavy mountain passes are finally behind us. That thought encourages us. I tie the laces of my running shoes and dive like a hawk into unknown depths. While descending I use the tactics while climbing - one straight line. I scramble down the mountain flanks. “Are you going down here”, An points down in the precipice. “Yup, this shortcut is too nice.” At the end of the day we took a short cut of 10 kilometers. Our campers may say No Shortcuts but the these byroads are too nice to ignore.
We park our campers at a small river and cool down with a glass of cheap Torrontés. The wine is almost bad. It has been too long in the refrigerator. We’re not so picky anymore. All means are good to celebrate a new victory. With our feet in the ice cold water we close one the roughest periods of our adventure. Hopefully our bony bodies can regain power for the last stretch.
The landscape opens widely again. The endless asphalt of the Ruta 40 dances in the heath. It’s deathly quiet. We are far away from loud cities and villages. The zooming of wasp around my head sounds deafening. How hard I try I can’t remember one moment like this one in Belgium. There’s always something going on in the far distance. Always someone wants to make his presence felt. After one and a half year of traveling we realise how free and unlimited our live is at this moment. Absolute freedom without too much rules. Together with all the physical borders we erase the last mental barriers.
But while the kilometers towards Ushuaia decrease some doubts out of the past reappear. Doubts with which we tried to settle the bill with in vain. Now the end of our adventure is in sight they kick back hard and make live the four us difficult. Living 24/7 together makes it difficult for us. The Pan American highway taught us a lot about ourselves but not how we can defuse difficult circumstances. We’re still the communicative failures as before. Some things don’t change unfortunately. After some shouting across the table we pledge we will speek our mind sooner. If we’ll do it nobody knows. Towards Patagonia we’ll pump some fresh oxygen in our relationship.