Words/Vids: Ben Abrams | Photos: Ben Abrams and Darin Branton
Riding a motorcycle to the bottom of South America has been the next journey on my bucket list for years now. I’ve found that once the mystique of planting a flag and completing a motorcycle route wears off, attention soon shifts to the next “trip of a lifetime”. Seven years ago, when I arrived at the top of Alaska in Prudhoe Bay, aka Deadhorse, I immediately felt the pull to see the bottom of the Americas.
At the very bottom of Chile is Ushuaia, representing the southern most inhabited land mass before Antarctica. Thus, Ushuaia, in Tierra Del Fuego at the bottom of Patagonia became the next must-ride journey. The road down to the bottom is called the “ruta del fin del mundo” or “road to the end of the world”.
Thankfully, the same friend who rode with me to Deadhorse was up for the adventure to the “end of the earth”. It’s hard to find a riding companion who is matched in ability, can take the time off, and with whom I travel harmoniously. I am lucky to share both of these Bro-Motoventures with my good friend Greg. The days and weeks in a helmet can get lonely and having someone to philosophize and commiserate with is invaluable. On the last day, Greg remarked, “Two weeks with no break and we never wanted to kill each other…pretty impressive.”
After a grueling 72 hours of travel (you screwed the pooch LAN), and often feeling as if we’d never see our motorcycles, we finally landed in Chile. With no time for jet lag or culture shock, we instantly unpacked/repacked our gear, hopped on the bikes, and set off for the journey south.
Because of our delay, we had to catch up to the group and had 6 hours of non-stop riding in front of us. We stopped for a gas station hot dog before opening our throttles for the long haul. The weather was drastically hot and dry. We picked summer to ride down here, because that’s when Motoquest offered a tour, and because…duh it’s summer.
We also picked the BMW 1200GS because the KLR 650 (the bike we rode to Prudhoe) performs better as a “fair-weather dogsled” (Greg’s words) than as an extended tourer. Riding Alaska’s Dalton Highway was a 4 day roundtrip for us, this trip from Osorno to Ushuaia was 15 days of riding.
Performance and comfort wise, the bigger bike is better for faster speeds and longer distances but it’s undoubtedly a bit more to handle in the gravel and loose dirt. Cruise control came in handy too and grip warmers always save the day.
The Dalton Highway is not for the novice rider, nor is Ruta 7 (Chile) or Ruta 40 (Argentina). When the pavement stops, the surfaces will challenge your connection with the road, your machine, and your own mind and body. I learned plenty of lessons from the seat of my motorcycle when the gravel, the wind (omg…the wind), the dust, and the rain combined. This is why I take these trips: to get in touch with and strengthen the connection to myself using the motorcycle as a conduit. It’s a mental and physical boot camp all in one.
Aside from the honing of skills, experience of a new place, and philosophical masturbation, the simple zen that is motorcycling (to soundtracks such as Explosions in the Sky, Beach House, and Biggie) gave me more than my money’s worth.
The network expansion and guys’ time is a fantastic auxiliary benefit to joining a tour. When the other guys (and gal) on tour weren’t missing their better halves or complaining about them, we talked about sports, cars, bikes, trips taken, politics, family, pets, music, food, culture, etc. We started as a group of strangers, and after sharing such an intense experience, many of us said goodbye having mutual invitations to visit another’s hometown to ride together.
Notable characters from this tour include the 5’ tall, 100lb, 70 year old spitfire of a Kentucky grandmother who rides a 900lb Valkyrie to and from her own dental practice at home. She’s also a retired pilot and certified badass. Watching her command a huge (to her) dual sport motorcycle over gravel at speed, the tail swaying back and forth, with the biggest smile on her face…simply put, it was an honor to give her an Unfuckwithable sticker. There was the Vietnam vet (also a pilot) who had 2 purple hearts before he turned 20 and has been riding nonstop for 40 years (including with his dog at home in the sidecar of his Ural). First we were chasing him through sweepers at vMax only for him to pass us in the dirt like we were standing still – respect your elders bruh. Finally, the distinguished lawyer from Spain who collects vintage motorcycles and conducts tours with his family around the Alps and attracting friends from all over Europe. “There’s nothing more important in this world than your family” and “vintage bikes are like woman, you must be soft and pay attention,” are two of the pearls he gave to me. I’ve no doubt that these are people with whom I will keep in touch for they are mentors in every way.
Strangely, examples of car culture were hard to find in Chile and Argentina. The trends that jumped out were the repurposing of Mercedes Benz buses into RV’s, the rental vans painted with pop culture murals, and the countless impressive expedition/tour vehicles.
But, for the most part, vehicles exist for function only in this part of the world. They are for hauling people and things across vast swaths of land. They must withstand horrendous road conditions when the asphalt turns to “ripio”. The death of shocks and tires were evident everyday. The dust is so rampant that it would be impossible to keep a car clean. In 2 weeks on the road, the closest thing I saw to a luxury car was a ten year old Porsche Cayenne.
The landscape primarily supports livestock and birds (2 less birds after Greg and I each claimed a life on the road). One day after the other, we found ourselves burying little feathered friends who flew across the road at inopportune moments. I hope our avian karma is now in balance again.
Between autoculture and agriculture, there is no question which is more present or more important to the people of Chile and Argentina. However, the cuisine on the road wasn’t teeming with variety. We usually found beef and lamb for dinner but occasionally found lamb and beef. Feed animals had a consistent presence on the road. We even went to bed to the soundtrack of mooing cows or bleating sheep. They were everywhere we turned.
The livestock dotting the road makes life feel more honest. In the US, we’re shielded from our food, whereas in Patagonia, it’s a constant reminder of the food chain. And while I’ve never been a huge fan of eating lamb (cue my ominvore’s guilt), both times I opted in on this trip were some of the most flavorful mouth explosions I can remember. I believe it was because of the “estancia to table” experience – the traditional ovens and methods undoubtedly enhanced the connection. Not entirely sure, don’t care. Meat good.
Also common to this part of the world is the Guanaco, a wild camel-ish animal with a friendly face who enjoys posing for pictures but won’t let you come in for the close-up. They also like to run across the roads. At 30mph. Their population is seemingly healthy as their predators (cougars/jaguars) are less abundant. Often times, I would ride around a corner and feel a face atop a long neck staring at me. One day, after dodging many as they darted back and forth across the road, we caught an intimate moment more commonly seen on the Discovery channel that also explains their growing population.
Oh, and dogs. Dogs everywhere. Some did not like us but most did. It was a pleasant surprise for two guys who love dogs. These weren’t typical mangy bush dogs, most were well fed and looked after by townspeople and villagers. Many a butt scratch occurred. To the two little blonde pups in Punta Arenas, you’re welcome for the french fries.
When not on the dirt, we were often monotonously clocking miles on the pavement and I would get lost in the size of the sky. Yes, the size of the sky. I’m not sure why it felt bigger/thicker/rounder but Montana has nothing on Patagonia’s sky. And at night, with so little ambient light to pollute the sky, the stars were more expansive and crystal clear than I’d seen in a long time. Argentina (along with Alaska and Iceland) rounds out the top 3 list of most impressive nighttime skies I’ve been fortunate enough to witness first hand.
However, back on the road, that big sky also means that conditions are harsh without caution and protection. Birds of prey circle above and thrive. The dead trees (killed from fires or volcanic ash) are a constant reminder of nature’s brutality there. Wrecked cars are left on the road as a symbol to drive with care. I had to overcome the urge to stop for these wrecks once I realized that no one was inside.
Signs and painted stars adorn the road where fatal accidents have happened. When the paved road was less straight, the sweepers were astonishingly expansive and fast. Take a minute and consider what a ten second turn feels like. Police outposts randomly dot the landscape existing simply to keep speeds down. Care must be taken on pavement – random breaks and potholes can swallow you whole. When surface deviations gang up, they’ll rattle your bike and your very being – more on that later.
Exposure to the elements is as real a threat as careless driving and there are countless shrines to people lost. Powerful in particular is the story of the woman and child who succumbed to dehydration while traveling on foot – the shrine in their honor is constantly replenished with full bottles of water.
There was a noteworthy presence of backpackers and touring cyclists on the road. While beautifully verdant portions exist in both Chile and Argentina, I don’t see the appeal of cycling or hitchhiking through the exposed/less topographically interesting sections. I envied not a single cyclist or hiker I passed.
There was also water EVERYWHERE. A fixture to the landscape in this part of the world. The hugest, emptiest lakes I’ve ever seen, rivers, waterfalls, glaciers, the ocean. It kept me grounded while we covered hundreds of miles every day and in awe to be surrounded by such prominent features in all shades of blue. Glaciers equal awesome.
When the pavement ended is where the real lessons were learned. I’ve got experience on varied surfaces and on many different bikes but I’m still always learning. There’s no reason to stop learning until it’s second nature, and then there’s still no reason to stop. The dirt roads of Patagonia are a destination for riders and adventurers alike because they humble and excite simultaneously. They make grown men kiss the ground when the pavement starts up again. They make you want to plant a flag and let others know you’ve been there.
Wind – The wind in Patagonia tips over tour buses, extinguishes coffee from their cups, and makes the trees grow sideways. It makes motorcycles bounce off their side stand. At speed, wind on the bike can be soul sucking, a constant beat-down, pushing me across lanes while the turbulence of oncoming traffic wreaks its own havoc. It forces me to ride consistently at 10-15 degrees, “fighting a ghost” as Greg says. The strain on my neck and shoulder from holding the lean was worthy of 2 Advil + a glass of Jack each night.
On the paved sections (the long, straight, boring paved sections) the steady wind beat on my helmet and the effect is that of an amplified white noise machine, lulling me into fatigue. The amount of work required to stay upright and in the desired path of travel is strenuous and, before too long, I found myself trying to stay awake while also fighting the ghost to not blow me off the road. It’s a strange state of consciousness indeed.
*I’m currently reading Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers and found/modified this quote*
“It’s deafening, whatever it is. The bass wind is massive, invasive, the bass wind knocks loudly and then just pushes like floodwater into our brains and then is everywhere, forcing out all thinking; it brings ten suitcases and sets up in the master bedroom; it rearranges the furniture; the bass wind vibrates through our heads, adding a sound track to our synapses, to everything stored there.”
Most harrowing of all is riding the dirt in windy conditions because the safe path of travel is already a much narrower track. Getting blown from harder packed dirt to looser dirt further destabilizes an already sketchy situation. Standing, I become a sail in the wind, making the whole situation graduate to full on “pucker” mode. These portions of the trip, when the wind and dirt combined in full fury, led to some defining “kiss the ground” moments.
Dust – Unless lucky enough to ride the dirt fresh after a rain or a water truck’s pass, the dust is a serious force to contend with. It is a constant stormy cloud on the scale of Fury Road that infiltrates all seams and crevices, blinding and overwhelming at times. Within these dust clouds, the sun shines through the trees and plays tricks on my eyes, forcing my vision to constantly adjust around the light to stay on track.
Trying to pass a bus with only glimpses of a safe conclusion is quite a moment. It requires equal parts confidence and (ahem) blind faith in both my goal (a successful pass) and also my “out” (successfully avoiding a collision). At several points, my concentration was so intense that I wasn’t blinking and my eyes dried out. When I finally did blink, I felt a thin layer of dust on my eye. Dust – 1, helmet – 0
Construction – Seemingly, both countries are always under construction. It’s improbable to travel a full day without hitting serious construction zones several times. This means, narrow roads, slower speeds, traffic that’s close for comfort, construction equipment and workers on the road, no shortage of bikers and hikers, and obviously uneven surfaces.
*From the soundtrack in my helmet*
“I felt your voice as it carried with the wind like a fire in my ears, like the darkness of fear, like the voice of God. And now it turned to dust and the ground will shake for you, like a song in your ears, like a ghost in the field.” – “Beginnings”, Houses
Riding Dynamics: Gravel and dirt surfaces exist on spectrums with degrees of difficulty. Some dirt is easier than other dirt. There’s hairpins, twisties, straights, and everything in between. Regardless of the road, the goal to safe riding is staying centered on the bike with your hands, feet, and eyes working in harmony. Such as in life.
Weight belongs on the pegs not the bars. By tricking my brain into not feeling the tail of the bike wagging to and fro, it’s easier to keep speeds up. Eyes belong down the road but not on the road. Keeping attention focused in front of me instead of under me feels counterintuitive. It’s almost as if I must devalue gravity and favor momentum. At first, it’s disconcerting standing up at 80mph, but feels much more efficient as it becomes second nature, and my calves stop cramping.
Potholes – A single pothole will surprise the handlebars with a quick up and down but it won’t necessarily disrupt the front wheel side to side. When the potholes gang up, the front wheel motion quickly jumps into a full-blown violent wobble. Retraining myself not to clench my grip tighter, to forcefully counteract this wobble, is again, counterintuitive but is nevertheless what needs to happen. Don’t slow down, don’t look down, don’t overreact. All will return to normal. The bike always finds neutral.
These surfaces can turn the bike into a slippery, bucking animal requiring equal parts control and holding on. It’s important not to visually follow the rider in front of me. Ride my line, not his. Look through him and don’t watch what his rear tire is doing. I’ll only get distracted by trying to avoid what is unavoidable…loss of traction is the new normal on the dirt; it’s better to let it happen then fight it.
Covering 3000 miles over 2 weeks, it gives a guy a lot of time to philosophize and I find there are many parallels to life on the dirt. Getting in our own way and making our own lives harder is typically second nature. Trips like these aid in un-training me from bad habits, both on and off the bike. Regardless of how slippery the surface, regardless of how strong the wind is gusting, look up and ahead. Target fixate on where I want to go, not where I don’t want to go. Stand up, keep balance, and twist the throttle on.
Wrapping up…Ushuaia was very much about the journey. Riding enjoyment came primarily through pushing through the dirt. Doing that, being there. However, the road leading into Ushuaia (Garibaldi Pass) was a phenomenal section of road similar to an Alpine pass but shorter in duration and lower in elevation. The twisties were few and far between and never lasted long enough.
The actual “end of the earth” was, honestly, anticlimactic – marked by a sign in a park and a boardwalk ending at a viewing deck that was saturated with tour bus filler. The town itself is a tourist trap, a port for cruise ships, and filled with stores selling (strangely) baby clothes and outdoor products.
However, I’ve found that going into trips like this without expectation helps to avoid disappointment. Regardless of what the destination is or isn’t, the journey is one I’ll never forget and already has me thinking of the next.
Most importantly, everyone on tour arrived to Ushuaia unscathed and the BMW bikes took everything thrown at them with amazing ease. The group rode fast and tight. Motoquest kept our chains taut, oil topped, and air in our tires. Jeff, Darrin, and Victor – many thanks for everything and I look forward to next time. Until then, ride well.
I’ll end with a story. On a free day, Greg wanted to find Maté as I’d never tried it. Maté is a supercharged Argentinian green tea, drunk from gourds and filtered straws and passed around a group by a “Maté Master”. Healthy people like Maté. We quickly got distracted on our quest and took a road out of town that led to an isolated and empty beach. The winds in Patagonia are so intense that gorgeous beaches are completely vacant. We came across a Chilean couple who had driven their suv onto the sand and gotten stuck. Greg and I both eat our Wheaties and helped push them back onto the road. The couple said many thanks, and serendipitously offered us their Maté.
In our broken Spanglish conversation, we talked about the wind and the Chilean man commented “Yes, it’s always like this. Without wind there is no Patagonia.”
The most important lessons of the entire trip were learned that afternoon: Surround yourself with friends, set goals, get distracted, seek beauty and adventure, help people along the way, achieve goals, and respect the wind of Patagonia.