Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire, a far off island that has all too quickly became the ground beneath my tires. Although never anything more than just an exotic name, this island has been locked into my consciousness for longer than I care to remember and it’s been calling me. As I met those calls and rolled off the early morning ferry from Punta Arenas, I not only moved onto a new land but also into a new chapter, one complete with a myriad of tantalising opportunities. Imagine cycling to the end of the world through a sparsely populated land nubbin of king penguins and gaucho culture. Now imagine doing that same ride in early winter… with five years of emotional cycle-ogical baggage.
After a few weeks easy (but amazing) rolling with a couple of tough ‘old’ birds it was time for me to leave the nest and spread my wings again. I saw Tierra del Fuego as an opportunity to get back to some long and harder days of exploration, a chance to push myself a little and rediscover some of the tour induced feelings I’d let fall dormant. Determined to explore both the Chilean and Argentine sides of this split island I devised a route that would loop south around through the Chilean segment before returning north to San Sabastian, the only border crossing open at this time of year. Spinning over flat lands in mid May when the early winter sun shines through still, sharp air, this was to be my victory lap. Then reality bit: sub-zero temperatures, intense rain, staunch headwinds and thick muddy roads. Those feelings I was chasing hit me like a tsunami, smashing my defenses and leaving me vulnerable and emotionally naked in the rain.
Of the many lessons I’ve taken from the roads of the Americas I think the most insightful have sprung from the journey inwards. I have discovered in myself an ability to focus and a fortitude of mind that I knew was there but had seldom cared to explore. I have also discovered that to maintain this strength my mind needs nurturing: mental health does not look after itself. We’re taught little tricks from an early age that help protect our physical bodies, such as washing our hands and not licking toilet seats, but no one seems to teach us how to defend our psychology. With so much time to ponder on a long bicycle tour there is a danger that your own thoughts will find a way to prise open the small chinks of mental vulnerability inherent in our humanity. This is what happened to me on this short ride through Chilean Tierra del Fuego. As conditions deteriorated and my energy dipped, I rode into a wall of home truths. I could feel my emotions peeling away and had to fight with everything to stop them fluttering off beyond my reach. For a couple of frightening days my sanity started feeling strangely and dangerously hollow. To put it bluntly… shit got real for me out there. It is neither a point of pride nor embarrassment that I found myself teetering precariously on the edge of a totally unforeseen emotional meltdown.
Flat and deserted, there is nowhere to hide from anything out on the Tierra del Fuego pampa. At this time of year the decision to cycle through the island is a commitment to the mercy of nature. The only ‘civilization’ is a smattering of estancia buildings and their resident Gauchos, latino cowboys who could arm-wrestle the wrist off their north American counterparts. These are good honest men and folks to whom I now owe more than they’ll ever know. As my course swung east and then north the weather quickly took a turn for the worse, forcing me to seek warm refuge. Whilst plugging north up the muddy road towards Rio Chico the elements got so aggressive it was no longer possible to continue. I aborted my ride in the only way possible, dragging my sorry state towards the earthy and hospitable fires of Gaucholandia. Forced to pull the one-armed bandit of survival I struck gold, stumbling into the welcoming home of 50 year-old Gaucho José Gonzalez. And there I stayed for two days and three nights, cowering from an onslaught of wind and rain so oppressive even my hardy weathered host stayed inside. With neither electricity nor distraction I was treated to two full days to focus on pulling myself together, time enough to tie down my loose and flailing nerves and work through the psychological realities of reaching the end of ‘my’ world.
Normally fiercely independent I found myself reliant on the kindness of others during this short leg of riding through Chilean Tierra del Fuego. It was not the conditions nor the riding that put me there it was my own emotional neglect. I’d been hiding from the realities of an ending tour and when that truth suddenly dawned I wasn’t ready to deal with it. Unbeknown to them the Gauchos saved me from myself and in doing so reconnected me with the value of humanity on my journey. This marked the start of a new phase of my tour, where once again I’m connecting with values more significant than just my hedonistic need to have fun on my bicycle.
Here is the story of my week long journey from Punta Arenas through Chilean Tierra del Fuego to Argentina…
With the benefit of hindsight it is obvious to me what was happening to me on this struggle through Chilean Tierra del Fuego. Spending time with the penguins triggered a reminder of how incredible a life I’ve been enjoying. Imagine what it feels like to lie in the grass under a friendly winter sun with 80 amazing King penguins. Understand what it means to string such powerful experiences together for five years without any thought they’d ever end and then wake up one morning to the sudden realization it’s all gone. Like a musician losing their hearing or a painter their sight, a long-term cyclist losing their direction is a change that strikes at the core of everything. I’d never thought to take the time to understand the nearing end of my tour down the Americas so when the strain of bad weather weakened my focus I was defenseless against the impending harshness of reality. For a few days I was in mourning for my best friend and the only thing that has ever given me direction in life, this stupid insignificant little bicycle tour.
Don’t worry, I’m alright now, this was just a process I needed to go through. And do you know what, again with hindsight, I have to say it was quite good fun! Some really gnarly dirt road business!
4 days, 330 km ( 205 miles), 2,530 m (8,300 ft.) of climbing
It is important to note that despite my struggles this is not a challenging route, my difficulties were personal. In the right season/weather conditions I’ve no doubt this would be an easy little spin. That said, it is unlikely that much value could be found in looping all the way back up north to Paso San Sabastian in summer as an alternative border crossing is open at Paso Bella Vista, on a road continuing east from Russfin towards Rio Grande in Argentina. My understanding is that Paso Bella Vista closes sometime in April.
No matter what your route plans I highly recommend taking time out to visit Parque Pingüino Rey. It’s only about 14 km of easy riding from the main road directly across to San Sabastian from Porvenir (junction at 96 km from Porvenir). Entry is $12.000 CLP. You can fill up with water, use the bathrooms and there is space to camp.
The original route I plotted from Google Earth differed slightly from that mapped at the top of this page which I actually rode. The only real difference was the network of small tracks leading directly to Chilean San Sabastian that I had to abandon due to flooding and mud. My original planned route can be viewed here.