I. Like meeting your girlfriend in rehab
II. Slaughterhouse Three
Introduction: this is the second part of the trip, departing from the "foot" (the name "Patagonia" roughly translate to "land of giant feet") to the "navel" of South America (in Incan cosmology, Cusco was considered the "navel of the world").
I opened my visor and the cool night wind splashed my face, jerking me back to full-consciousness. I took account of my senses again; the sound of the chain rolling over the sprockets and whistle of the wind inside of my helmet, the ache in my hands and back, the smell and taste of desert dust lingering in the air, and the reflection of lane markers as my headlight glided over the pavement. I flicked on the GPS to check the time--1:26 AM--and looked up again in time to make another turn as the road curved sharply to the left. Peering to the right of the road, the face of the canyon's walls softly glowed silver and blue in the moonlight, leading down to a narrow black squiggle far below that I knew to be the Río Loa. On my left the sheer rock face rose up and out of sight, and above it all hung a curtain of stars whose shimmer happens to be best appreciated from this part of Earth; the desert of northern Chile.
The lights of another eighteen-wheeler appeared in my mirrors as it rounded the curve just behind me, but I neither twisted the throttle nor feathered the brakes. The truck passed, but I still coasted along in neutral with the engine off, letting gravity do the work for me. I did not know if it was necessary or not, but in my fourteenth hour of riding that day I no longer had the will to calculate how much gas it would take me to arrive in Arica. I only figured any way of saving fuel was worth taking. Even if there were a gas station out here on the pampa it would be well past their closing time, and getting stranded simply was not an option.
The rumble of the passing truck was still reverberating in my ears when a familiar voice inside my head posed a question.
"Dude, what the hell are you doing?"
I recognized it as the voice of my own sense of logic and reason, and it had been asking me this question every hour or two for the past week. Normally I place more priority on what this voice says over that of myopic inner forces like emotion or physical fatigue, but over the past ten days I had become possessed by something completely different, similar to the nighttime race through the desert near when my dad was stranded out on the Patagonian pampa.
In spite of my deliriousness, I remembered my answer to the question:
"She is waiting on me. I have to get to her."
I. Like meeting your girlfriend in rehab
The drops of green on my boot no longer worried me. The highway signs told me I was only a few kilometers away from some town called Puerto San Julián, and by this time I had been irrigating Argentina's Ruta 3 with antifreeze for a day and a half. Back in Punta Arenas the bike's previous owner had told me about a slight leak in the radiator, but a local mechanic later told me he had this bike in his shop a week before and that I could surely make it to Santiago to have the radiator replaced. I needed to get to Perú as fast as I could, so I was happy to hear that I didn't need to wait in Punta Arenas any longer.
After tearing out of town on my new bike, fully-loaded and ready for the adventurous haul back north through Argentina and Chile, my soaring spirits were only a half-hour old when I noticed the first streaks of green on my boot. No matter, I thought, because I was carrying extra antifreeze and water. My spirits were completely dimmed upon my arrival in Rio Gallegos, Argentina, where I watched in utter panic as the engine's temperature gauge skyrocket while I searched for a place to refill the radiator.
Nearly a year earlier, back at home in Texas, I had just decided to merge my passions of riding offroad trails on dirtbikes and long-distance highway travel via streetbike. I had debated between two models of "dual-sport" motorcycle (i.e. street-legal motorcycles that are also capable of serious offroad riding). The Suzuki DR650 and the Kawasaki KLR650 are both very capable bikes, similarly priced, well-tested and beloved by their respective owners. In the end I opted for the Suzuki for one reason: the KLR, unlike the DR, is liquid-cooled instead of air-cooled, and in my eyes the radiator was just one more thing that could break while I was on the road.
By matter of circumstance, the bike for sale when I was in Punta Arenas was a KLR and not a DR. Despite my previous decision to favor the DR, I recalled that all my research the year before had affirmed that, all in all, the KLR was still an excellent dual-sport motorcycle.
Now here I was, one day into my first trip on the KLR that I had just bought, and I was cursing the mechanic in Punta Arenas for telling me wrong and cursing motorcycle Jesus for being so cruel. Every motorcycle, like every woman, has her flaws, but this was like meeting your girlfriend in rehab. Her flaws were the very thing I feared most about owning a KLR.
The next day the bike and I played "Free Willy" while I crawled north on Ruta 3; every hour or so the radiator would completely run dry of liquid, so I had to make sure I stopped to fill it up again before that happened. By mid-afternoon the liquid applications were taking place every fifteen to twenty miles, and there was no way I was making my planned destination, Comodoro Rivadavia, by nightfall.
I took the detour for Puerto San Julián and threw in the towel. There were two-hundred and twenty five miles of wind (yes, the Invisible Bully wasn't finished with me yet) and the barren Patagonian pampa between me and the next town, and there was no way I was wandering back out on to the pampa with a range of fifteen miles at a time. It was Sunday afternoon, so I decided to call it a day and find a mechanic in the morning.
Over a dinner of nerve-calming empanadas, I weighed my options. I could limp back to familiar Punta Arenas, but that would put me almost four hundred miles in the wrong direction and cost me at least three days of lost time. I could keep going on the road with the leaky beast, but I didn't know if I could carry all the extra water necessary to keep the radiator filled between stops. Maybe I could fix it here....I knew that whatever I did, I had to keep going toward Perú.
"She is waiting on me. I have to get to her."
In the morning I filled the radiator and limped for a few laps around the seaside village looking for a mechanic. Every garage in town seemed to be closed or out of business, so I found a gas station and asked if they knew of a place I could take the bike. The cashier told me that most of the garages were closed for Carnaval. She added that they would be closed the next day, too, but there might be one place still open out on the outskirts of town. I forced a smile and thanked her as I stepped out the door.
After a few confused circles around the dusty perimeter of junkyards and warehouses near the highway, I rolled into a grocery store parking lot and parked the bike. The employees here must have sensed my frustration, because they were genuinely sorry to tell me that the garage I was looking for was closed for the holiday as well. "Well," I told myself, "I guess I'm fixing to learn about radiators." After rolling the bike around to the shady side of the building, I unloaded my tools and started dismantling my leaky lady.
Fixing a motorcycle radiator in a grocery store parking lot on a summer afternoon is never a party. That having been said, if you ever have to do this, it is best to do it in Argentina. By this time it was no surprise to me when curious locals approached to asked if I needed help or advice, and then hung around for awhile simply to chat. By the end of the afternoon I was familiar with most of the grocery store staff, a few local remis drivers, and numerous folks stopping by to pick up barbecue supplies for the holiday.
After dumping what antifreeze was left in the engine, I removed the radiator and spotted the culprit of my woes: a crack in one of the tubes, no doubt much smaller when I had left Punta Arenas, had now grown to nearly an inch long. As soon as the engine's heat started to rise, all the hot liquid was streaming out of the cracked tube. Armed with a few dobs of JB Weld, and the support of new friends, I plucked out the aluminum fins around the crack, smothered it in JB Weld, and left it in the sun to bake for a couple of hours. In the meanwhile a pair of new friends, Sebastián and Matias, had parked their Motomel 150 next to my bike while they tried to fix a busted clutch cable, so I lent them tools and a hand. After we fixed the little 150, we waited on the patch to set on my radiator and enjoyed a few cold ones in the parking lot, which I assume wasn't an issue because we were chatting with the store's security guards all the while.
As the late afternoon sun crawled toward the desert hills in the west, it was time to test the radiator. Every twist of the wrench was a silent prayer to motorcycle Jesus, apologizing for cursing him the day before and pleading him to spare me from having to return to Punta Arenas. For nearly two days a nervous feeling had sat in the pit of my guts, deeper than my stomach, and I knew it was the fear of letting someone down. It seemed to be swelling, but I did not know if that meant it was getting more severe or if it was on the verge of dissolving.
Sensing my nervousness, one of the security guards told me that no matter how it turned out with the bike I was welcome to stay at his house for the night. By this time my ordeal had the interest of a small audience. We all waited anxiously as I started the bike, rolled on the throttle, and watched for any drops from the radiator.
II. Slaughterhouse Three
Five minutes, ten, then fifteen, and the patch on the radiator was still holding.
The weight in my gut felt different, and as the minutes passed without precipitation from the engine I could feel it melt away. Each granule dissolved into my bloodstream and carried the thrill of success through every cell in my body. I was so overcome with happiness and a sense of accomplishment that I didn't think twice about following Matias and Sebastián on a sunset ride to an abandoned slaughterhouse outside of town. Twenty minutes on a gravel road is not exactly "taking it easy" on a newly-patched radiator, but luckily it held just fine.
The road took us north through the desert outside of town, over a big hill, and then emerged near the Bay of San Julián (which I later found out was a surprisingly important place in the history of the Age of Exploration). With the calm blue bay on my right, the late afternoon sun on my left, and its golden glow on the desert all around me, I knew my troubles were over.
We arrived at the slaughterhouse, though it was now just a shell of a building. A concrete wall here and a red brick wall there were joined with rusted steel girders, and pipes ran up the walls, sprawled overhead, or sprouted off the side of the roof like metallic vines. The floors of former "rooms" were littered with chunks of broken concrete and the occasional piece of equipment that was bolted to the floor or just too heavy to remove.
A steel staircase on the outside of the building, although it was now just two parallel steel beams running up the side of the building with a few rusty "stairs" hanging between them that looked ready to collapse at the next breeze. The side of the building itself was no more than tattered sheets of tin. We shimmied up the rails to the second floor--which is no easy task in motorcycle boots--where we found what appeared to be rows of pipes and concrete basins that used to hold sinks. Overhead between each of the rows was a steel rail, an it was easy to imagine the lines of sheep carcasses on hooks making their way between the rows. It was fascinating and disgusting to imagine what kinds of animal bits and fluids once ran down those drains and covered the floor we walked on now.
We used a pipe and a wall to climb on to the roof, and looked down in to the brick warehouses on the southern side of the building. Each of them had a small set of tracks running out toward a small inlet on the bay. Down in the inlet was a small boat with the name "SWIFT" on its smokestack, and suddenly I remembered seeing cans of "Swift" meat paté earlier that afternoon in the grocery store.
We waled through a brick building next door, whose long hallways and rows of small rooms on each side was reminiscent of a college dorm. Each room had a small nook for a closet, and some still had rusted bedframes inside. In the communal bathroom we all had a laugh. Even though the building had been left to nature for at least thirty years, animals still had manners enough to do their business in the bathroom stalls.
Matias and Sebastián commended me on my bravery and told me I had upset lots of their yanqui preconceptions. We headed back to town in twilight, and they led me to the house of the security guard who had invited me to stay at his house for the night. I thanked them for the beer, the awesome tour, and buena onda in general, and they rode off into the sunset. The headlight on the Mighty Motomel 150 didn't work, so they had to make it home before dark. That didn't make the manner of their departure any less heroic.