I. Chilean military escort
Leaving behind my new friends and the old comforts of Argentina was tough to do, but it had put new wind in my sails. Stripped of the comfort of friends, I was granted a new license to ride like a maniac without the fear of leaving anyone behind. I took advantage of this and rode like a man possessed, keenly aware that by this point she was already waiting on me in Perú.
The same afternoon that I had left Diego and Marco in San Rafael, I powered through a hail storm, met some foxy gas station attendants in Mendoza, and said "hello" to the highest mountain in the Americas before reaching the Chilean border at dusk.
The ascent from Mendoza follows rivers and mountain curves as it gradually climbs up to the border. Once you are on the Chilean side the road immediately shoots down the western side of the Andes like that first big hill of a roller coaster, and the altitude gained in the 115 miles from Mendoza to the border is undone as the road drops over 7500 feet in forty miles. After a four-hour wait at customs I crossed into Chile for the fourth time on this trip and coasted the majority of the forty miles downhill (although "downmountain" would be a more accurate word) to the town of Los Andes.
About thirty miles north of Santiago, nestled between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, is a vast network of vineyards and fruit orchards with a few towns scattered between them. The late morning sun emerged over the mountains in the east, warming the air into a thick mixture of sea humidity and dust as I wandered around the unmarked roads in search of the freeway. Warm weather, fresh fruit and wine, and being only an hour's ride from a beach made it easy to imagine spending a day or two in one of these quiet towns. Enticing as it was, I knew I had to keep going, so I resolved to get as far as I could from the valley before the laziness of the afternoon arrived. Eventually I found the highway and was able to put fifth gear to use again. Soon the miles of roadside fruit stands thinned out as the road stretched into Chile's dry northern half. I had a backpack full of energy drinks and nearly fifteen hundred miles of desert highway between me and Perú.
Somewhere on the high desert plain near Vallenar I noticed another bike in my mirrors. The rider soon caught up and then rode with me to Copiapó, where he signaled for me to follow him to a gas station. In light of the large "Lone Wolf, No Club" patch that he sported on the back of his jacket, I found it odd to receive such an invitation, but I followed him anyway. Once we had degloved and de-helmeted I introduced myself to the the round-faced, clean-cut man. He introduced himself as Oristarco, a member of the Chilean military's Special Forces, a fact that I didn't question after noticing the pins on his jacket and his awesome muscles.
I marveled at his ride, a Triumph Thunderbird with a customized Union Jack paintjob that made my dust-covered, overloaded beast look rougher than ever. Turns out he was nearly retired and had no children, which gives a man a lot more time and money to devote toward motorcycles and motorcycle trips.
As we prepared to head out, Oristarco asked if I'd like to ride with him until Antofagasta. Despite his lone wolf preferences, he respected the fact that I was riding solo so far from home. It didn't take me long to consider the circumstances and accept his offer. A free private escort by a member of Chile's version of Delta Force was an easy thing to agree to.
We tore into the desert, through twilight and into the night as Oristarco took the lead. The powerful Triumph set a pace that I was happy with, even in my extreme haste to get to Perú. After an unsuccessful attempt to find a hotel in Caldera, we wandered onto a nearby beach and made camp. As soon as we had settled in, Oristarco received a text from a friend of a friend in Caldera offering him a place to stay for the night. We laughed it off and soon I fell asleep to the metronomic sound of crashing waves.
The beach was foggy in the morning, and after two days of living off of cookies and energy drinks my mind was just as cloudy. Nevertheless, I appreciated Oristarco's straightforward military example as we packed camp and set up the coast. By the afternoon the road climbed again into the high desert plain.
I was aware that Atacama, the world's driest desert, was in northern Chile, but I had not anticipated just how truly barren the entire northern half of the country would be. My mother is from the desert of the southwestern US, and I have spent countless weekends hunting with my father in the West Texas scrub. The desert is not foreign to me, but what I found in this part of the world was something else entirely. There are no coyotes, or horny toads, or rattlesnakes, or jackrabbits, or even one shred of roadkill to denote the existence of any animals whatsoever. There are no plants, not even the grasses, low shrubs, or cacti that manage to grow in the Patagonian pampa of southern Argentina. A thousand miles of literally nothing but sand, rocks, and highway that I couldn't ride through fast enough. Nothing to do but keep an eye on the engine's temperature gauge and hope a gas station would appear soon.
After Oristarco took the turn-off for Antofagasta, I continued north through the Pampa de Tamarugal and the foreboding Pampa del Indio Muerto. Time on the barren pampas passed quickly, and the arrival of night caught me by surprise despite the desert's exaggerated sunset. I was exhausted and had made my way nearly one-fifth of the way across the world's second-longest country in a single day. However I refueled with empanadas and a can of Speed energy drink in Pozo Almonte, and resolved not to rest until Arica, on the border with Perú. Without the pressure of making camp before nightfall or the worry of running in to animals on the road, I continued cruising north.
After several hours on the flat pampa the road took a ninety-degree turn to the left. I had reached the first of two canyons that laid between me and Arica. The road snaked along the canyon's south wall down to the river at its bottom where it crossed before turning back and climbing up the canyon's north wall. I shifted down until I found neutral, killed the engine, and let the bike sail downhill in silence. The cool air washed over the engine, and I rolled along under the light of the moon whose surface I compared to the empty plains and hills around me. My thoughts drifted deeper and deeper into space. Every minute I grew less certain exactly which planet I was on....
....I opened my visor and the cool night air 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 of the canyon 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 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 night time race through the desert 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."