Wednesday, March 17, 2010


March 15, 2010

I could never get the straight scoop on Chaiten. “It’s a ghost town”. “No one is there, they all left”. “Chile is going to bulldoze it and be done with it all”… and “No, there is no longer a ferry running out from Chaiten to Chiloe Island”.

For the past week now I have been traveling up the Carretera Austral, a curvaceous dirt road that runs between the Pacific Ocean and The Andes Mountains. The road weaves between many glacier fed lakes, and the glaciers that feed them. It is an incredibly beautiful ride and very famous with overland travelers because of it.

Chaiten is small coastal town at the northern dead end of the road, or where Chile has yet to find a way to continue the road due to the many fjords, lakes, and the “squeeze” of the nearby Argentine border. With such a small population base it does not seem to make sense anyway. Therefore, the importance of Chaiten is that it has always been a hub for the ferry going to the island of Chiloe and the continuation of the road (the Pan-American Highway actually ends at the south end of the island), leading to the mainland at Puerto Montt. However, in 2008 the neighboring Michinmahuida volcano blew its lid and annihilated the town. Two days ago, in Coihaique, I bought I ferry ticket leaving from Chaiten, so here I sit.

Walking around the town could not be more eerie. It would all make sense if a film crew were to round the corner with Wes Craven or David Lynch directing from the arm of a crane, but the only activity on the streets are two police trucks constantly patrolling the grid. It appears that people left in a hurry with doors locked up, but that’s about it. A few people have come back, and there has been an effort to bulldoze the ash and sand from the streets, but it is far from welcoming. The hum of generators is omnipresent – there is no electricity here. There is a gas station and a couple of basic market stores, but only canned and packaged stuff – no refrigeration. I approached two different hotels thinking they were operational –they looked open complete with a hanging “Abierto” sign in the window, but approaching the door, the dust covered windows and faded posters of nearby attractions is the only indicator that their clocks stopped a long time ago. The fire station still has the ping-pong table set up with two dusty paddles atop, one with a ball wedge underneath it, ready to play. The produce market still has veggies on the shelves although a bit wilted. The travel information office still has its computer monitor atop the counter ready to book a sightseeing trip.

I did find a small cabana for rent (the only hotel in town) and the ferry dock is not far away. During another time my room with a view of the Gulf of Corcovado would have offered a pleasant sunset, but now it is a rather distressing view.

I don’t know the current politics of rebuilding or demolishing, but the town has an aura of being forgotten (not helped by the recent earthquake up north). However sad that may be, it may be the right thing to do, because the smoking gun that caused all of this is still smoking.


A Year on the Road

One Tuesday a year ago I woke up, had some coffee, pulled out of the driveway and drove south - a year later, I could go no further.

The Logistics:

  • Over 21,000 miles (20,960 from Seattle to Ushuaia).
  • Four complete tire changes
  • Six oil changes
  • Approximately 150 trips to the gas station
  • 14 different countries traveled
  • Three continents visited.
  • 20 border crossings (9 involving the Argentina/Chile border, and not including Antarctica)
  • Reached the most southern point of the trip (I think) at Longitude 65. 50'S.

March 10, 2010 marked my one-year anniversary on the road. If the plan sticks, I have four more left. On this particular day I found myself in Coihaique, Chile as I was navigating the dirt roads back up north. I have thought a lot about this date and what it would mean to me; what I have experienced since leaving, what I have missed, and how will I proceed. These are some of my "reflections":


  • I have not answered a phone in over 11-months.
  • I have not received one speeding ticket nor been harassed by the police. For the most part, they have been my biggest fans – always interested and wanting to help. It is almost disappointing.
  • I have ridden almost every mile alone (the exception being a week in Central America). I do not object to riding with someone, but do admit I like traveling solo. However, it would be nice to have dinner with someone after a long day.
  • Adventure travel is an odd beast; you spend time poking around looking for trouble, while at the same trying to avoid it. The saying, “It doesn’t get interesting until something goes wrong”, contradicts your actions of constantly trying to prevent things from going wrong.
  • My peripheral vision has improved. I continue to keep a diligent eye on my belongings and on myself, but it seems to occur more naturally now, taking much less energy and stress to perform. I believe it is another one of those natural instinctive reflexes that we lose living in a safe and secure environment - the reflex simply goes dormant. Although, a stealthy dog attacking from the side can still scare the sh** out me.
  • The writer Paul Theroux once said, “Travel is not a vacation, and it is often the opposite of a rest.” With this in mind and when the opportunity presents its self, a day spent in bed watching cable is cherished and looked upon with great admiration.
  • The odds of running into someone that wants to help you are far greater than running into someone that wants to harm you
  • Warm places beget warm people.
  • The laptop remains to be a tether to the “outside world”. Sometimes I think I am missing out on a greater experience by having it. At this point, however, I am going to stick with it. I am not convinced that holding on is such a terrible thing.
  • Physically, my low back has been my weakest area. I can usually stay on top of it by doing my basic routine of back and abdominal exercises, although, I could be more consistent with them. Nothing has ever gotten too bad, but I have had some slowing moving days.
  • No matter how tired I am at the end of the day, my mind continues to race at 80-mph after the bike stops. I need to stop and chill for a bit - a cold beer can help. It’s a time where I unconsciously process day - the thousands of images and scenes that have played out, the smells, the temperature, the faces – everything. Sort of like “viewing the dailies” in the movie business, but incorporating all the senses.
  • The trip itself has been infinitely easier than the two years of preparation before leaving. I believe that this is in part to my thinking that the preparation would be so much easier than it was, and in contrast, had visualized the journey being so much more difficult and troublesome than it has been.
  • I consider this past year a great success, in many ways, but nothing compares to what we have been able to do with Write Around the World. A small group of friends started this project from scratch, not knowing anything about operating a non-profit corporation, raising funds, or how to ship goods to a third world country – nothing. Yet we managed to ship over 1000-pounds of needed school supplies (duty free) to Guatemala this past year, and have established ourselves to do more this year. I have never been prouder of anything and owe it all to Amy, Erin, Michelle, Debbie, Kelli, and Ray back home.
  • I think of Africa almost everyday. For me, Africa is the trip. It will be my biggest accomplishment and my biggest challenge. Everything I have done up to now has been in preparation for Africa.
  • If I had to sum up everything to date in one sentence, it would be this:
    I have a long way to go.

What’s Next ?: My Social Experiment

Now that I have attained my goal of making it to the bottom, and with a trip to Antarctica as icing on the cake, I want the trip back up north to be a different kind of experience. I want to return to what I liked best about South America. I have enjoyed Chile and Argentina, but they are a bit too well off for me. I know it is incredibly selfish to say, but I miss the struggle of the countries up north. There is something raw and honest about life there and an energy that appeals to me, attracts me even. It's also where ancient cultures continue to thrive. It’s not as though I enjoy seeing the poverty, it is incredibly sad and I hope for its betterment, but I also feel that I could be somewhat useful there. Not entirely sure how I could help, maybe just being there will mean something. Therefore, I am making my way back up to Sucre, Bolivia where I hope to volunteer at Write Around the World’s second project, enroll in Spanish classes, get in shape for Africa, and find a way to become self-sufficient through some sort of employment. I will get an apartment and plan on staying for several months. I have proven to myself that I can move a motorcycle from “A to B”, but I want to see what happens when I stop. I failed miserably in Punta Arenas, but this will be on my terms. I want to try and be part of a community again.

Finally, I will leave you with this: Seldom, when I think that all this wind and sun, bad food and cheap hotels, road grime and exhaust may be accelerating the ageing process, I read this quote from George Carlin that I keep with me….

Life’s journey is not to arrive at the grave safely in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally used up and worn out, shouting ‘… man, what a ride!

Antarctic Chill

I almost didn't go. It was a big expense and I had just gone through the costly delay in Punta Arenas, which itself would have paid for the Antarctica cruise. My downfall was reading Ernest Shackleton's memoir "South" on my Kindle. Just like your 4th grade teacher used to tell you, "reading can make history come alive". I then moved on to other Antarctic explorers, like Scott and Amundsen - it truly was the last continent on Earth left to explore and it had not changed much since they were there.

By that time, I was emotionally committed, so the value of the trip kept increasing as the price stayed the same. I had to go. My experience in Patagonia had been "good", but I was fairly certain that I would not be down this way again anytime soon. This was a opportunity not to miss.

All the cruises to the white continent leave from Ushuaia, Argentina. I had shopped around, but the season was coming to a close - the weather was changing and the penguin chicks would soon be old enough to leave their hatcheries for the open water, so I had to choose from the ships that had mid-February departure dates. I chose the Antarctic Dream.

When I say cruise, I don't mean onboard casinos, poolside lounge chairs, or climbing walls. Our cruise of 55 passengers was aboard a refurbished 1957 ship originally built for the Chilean Navy for the purpose of servicing the country's scientific bases in Antarctica. She was a true battle-axe reinforced for heavy ice, but proved plenty comfortable for our purposes.

It is hard to sum up the experience of visiting Antarctica, but in this case, absolutely a trip of a lifetime within a trip of a lifetime. The combination of unobstructed wildlife, historical adventure, and being the world’s premier sculpture park make it one of the most unique places on Earth. I had high expectations, and was not disappointed in the least.

Below is the ten-day itinerary and link to the video that coincides with it:

18 Feb 2010, Ushuaia 54º 48’S, 68º18.1’ W, Departure

The Antarctic Dream was docked alongside the pier in Ushuaia waiting for everyone to embark and start our journey to the Antarctic Peninsula. We boarded and started getting familiar with our new home for the next ten days to come. We participated on our first briefing introducing the expedition staff and the ship’s crew and we sailed just after 6pm. We watched Ushuaia from the outer decks at departure, our last view of civilization for ten days. After that we met for the safety drill and joined our new friends for a welcome cocktail and our first dinner onboard. We sailed the Beagle Channel and around 11pm the Argentinean pilot disembarked and we were underway towards the Drake Passage.

19 Feb 2010 – Drake Passage, Day at Sea

The weather conditions on our first day on the Drake Passage were very good. Throughout the day we had presentations on the natural history of the creatures we are most likely to see during our crossing of the Drake and at the Antarctic Peninsula as well as one introduction to Antarctica.

20 Feb 2010 – Drake Passage and South Shetland Islands

Our crossing of the Drake Passage continued smoothly. We started the morning with lectures on penguins and mammals, and we were briefed on the IAATO regulations and landing etiquette.

21 Feb 2010 – South Shetland Islands, Aitcho Is. 62º32´S, 59º47´W (Tº: -5ºC) , Half Moon is. 62º36´S, 59º55´W (Tº: -3ºC)

Our first landing! The morning was very cold. We disembarked on Barrientos Island, one of the Aitcho islands. During the visit we walked a short distance along the beach and had excellent views of Gentoo penguins sitting on their nests, guarding the chicks. We also saw a few busy Chinstrap penguins going to their nests, located on the higher side of the island. We continued walking on sand, snow and mud to reach the higher side of Aitcho, where we visited an elephant seal’s wallow, where they stay together while they moult their fur, helping each other keep warm. During lunch time the ship repositioned at Half Moon, an area formerly used by sealers, where the Argentinean base Cámara stands today. The Captain skilfully manoeuvred the ship into the bay and soon the zodiacs were on the water to start taking us ashore. We walked along the island until we reached a Chinstrap colony, and we spotted a group of Antarctic Fur seals basking on the beach. We returned aboard and sailed South on the Bransfield Strait.

22 Feb 2010 – Gerlache Strait, Neko Harbour 64º50´S, 62º33´W (Tº: 4ºC), Dorian Bay, Wiencke I. 64º49´S, 63º30´W (Tº: 5ºC)

In the morning we sailed towards Andvord Bay for Neko Harbour. Our intention was to set foot on the Antarctic continent. We started with a hike to a viewpoint, were we enjoyed a view of the whole bay, with its high mountains and glaciers. Then we slid down. At the landing site, the hotel staff was waiting for us with champagne, so we made a toast to our continental landing. Then we sailed to Wiencke Island, and we landed after lunch. The weather in the afternoon was very nice and clear. We climbed the hill, and we had a beautiful view of Dorian Bay, Goudier I., and Jougla Point.

23 Feb 2010 – Lemaire Channel, Petermann is. 65º10´S, 64º10`W (Tº: 6ºC), Pleneau 65º06´S, 64º02´W (Tº: 1ºC)

This morning we sailed through the Lemaire Channel aiming for our southernmost point of the expedition. We started the day with a visit to Petermann Island. Nesting on the island there were Blue-eyed shags, a small colony of Adelie penguins and the southernmost colony of Gentoo penguins. For the afternoon we went on another zodiac cruise, around Pleneau Island, and we enjoyed the beauty of the icebergs. We went further into the bay and found Leopard, Weddell and Crabeater seals, as well as Minke whales very close to the Zodiacs. The icebergs grounded in the vicinity of Pleneau had all sort of shapes and colours, each one a unique sculpture. We returned to the ship and prepared to abandon the Lemaire channel, this time returning north, and after dinner we anchored at Port Lockroy.

24 Feb 2010 – Gerlache Strait, Goudier Is. Jougla P. 64º49´S, 63º30´W (Tº: -2ºC; 7ºC), Dallmann Bay 64º20´S, 62º55´W (Tº: 1ºC; 10ºC)

In the morning, the weather conditions were not good for landing, so the captain decided to cancel the visit to Port Lockroy. So, we continued our trip northwards to Dallmann Bay. The weather at Paradise Bay was better, so we could visit the Chilean base Gonzalez Videla. There, we sent postcards and visited the photographic museum and the base’s buildings. In the afternoon, we entered Dallmann Bay in search of wildlife. The Captain cruised slowly into the bay allowing us to have great views of the seals resting on the ice floes. Then the sun appeared and it was the perfect time to enjoy the magic of Antarctica. We found Humpback and Minke Whales, and a big pod of Orcas.

25 Feb 2010 – South Shetland Islands, Deception Island 62º57´S, 60º38´W (-3ºC; 6ºC)

In the morning, we navigated through “Neptune’s Bellows” into the caldera of an active volcano: Deception Island. Once inside we could see the bay, the conditions were good, so we landed in Pendulum Cove. After a nice walk along the beach, most of us swam in the steaming waters. We sailed away from Deception and at 5pm we exited by the Nelson Strait into the Drake Passage. As soon as we left from the South Shetland Islands we found a nice Drake Passage

25 Jan 2010 – Drake Passage At Sea

In the morning, the Drake conditions were quite good and we could observe birds like giant and cape petrels, wandering albatrosses and others. We continued with the lectures of Antarctic history and the discovery of Penguins.

26 Jan 2010 – Drake Passage – Beagle Channel At Sea

During the night the waves weren´t so mellow. The day continued with some improvements as we approached the Beagle Channel.The Antarctic Dream finally entered the Beagle Channel. In the afternoon we enjoyed the presentation of the final log and a slideshow that the expedition staff prepared. The conditions were excellent,making possible for everyone to fully enjoy our last dinner onboard and get prepared for our disembarkation the following day in Ushuaia.

Antarctic Chill Video

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Fin Del Mundo

Photos: top, the famous sign at the end of Highway 3. Commerson's Dolphin from ferry crossing onto island of Tierra del Fuego. Flag tree. Shipwreck along Strait of Megallen

02/12/10: Life is good again. I am back fighting headwinds, but not because I am just trying to walk across the street, but because I am finally on the bike again. I swear I have never blown out of a place with such enthusiasm as I did with Punta Arenas. By the end of the day I will reach my goal of making it to the end of the road in South America. However, I know not to celebrate too fast...

While I was in Ushuaia at Christmas with Kristin, we invited a biker from Canada to join us for lunch at our table at the Irish Pub. Because the highway ends in Ushuaia, it is the destination for many overland travelers, and a tradition to be there on New Year’s Eve. Over lunch he was telling us of a recent mishap that took place involving a female motorcyclist. As he told me more, I began to ask questions. The woman he was talking about was Annette!

I had met Annette back in La Paz, Bolivia. We were staying at the same hotel and had shared a dinner together. She was from New Zealand, and was in the midst of riding her Suzuki DR650 from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska (the beginning of the road) to the end of the road in Ushuaia. When I met her, she was in a bit of a slump and was questioning whether she wanted to finish the ride or not. We talked quite a bit and we have been “friends” on Facebook ever since. The news was not good: She had just woken up in a hospital after three days in intensive care only three hours north of Ushuaia, in Rio Grande. She was found along the road with several broken ribs, a punctured lung, broken wrist, facial lacerations, and severe concussion, and her bike nearby in shambles. She had no recollection of what had happened, but everyone that has ever ridden that portion of paved road along the Atlantic coast will tell you that the crosswinds coming off the western plains feel like they are going to blow you into the ocean. Even with your bike leaning 20-30 degrees into the wind, it can still blow you sideways. If your bike drifts enough and reaches the shoulder at speed your front wheel will be swallowed by the soft gravel and, well, “lights out”.

Thankfully, Annette is fine now, and she made it to Ushuaia, but unfortunately, only to catch a flight back home. Disappointing yes, but for someone who had barely ridden at all before this trip she has an amazing adventure to tell.

The Patagonian winds in general are unrelenting and tiresome to say the least. Gusts can make you feel like a powerless ragdoll, but on the day I crossed the island of Tierra del Fuego, the angry wind gods must have been sleeping because I made it to the end of the road without incident. With my ultimate goal of reaching the top and bottom (via roads) of all our major landmasses, this was my the first check off that list.