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why i didn’t go to ushuaia (or, how to avoid the end of the world)

Well, the border was closed. The river had risen and the men in uniform deemed it unsafe. I should ride to San Sebastian, cross the border there, and follow Highway No. 3. That is, back track 150 kilometres. And, then, 250 kilometres of pavement, traffic, towns.

The river appears around thigh deep. I appeal to reason. Cite my qualifications, my previous experience of river crossings. Show them photos to prove my case. Deaf ears. These men don’t care. I am a woman, a foreigner. What would I know?

So I ride south on the road available to me on the Chilean side of the border in the golden light of a lingering Indian summer. The day is still, warm, sunny. Last week’s snow, sleet and rain gone as if it never were. I ride through turning trees, across dun brown pampas. Herds of guanaco wheeze at me with aggressive disapproval. Condors soar overhead.

I ride where nobody can stop me – through the forest, past lakes, alongside streams, over two mountain passes – until suddenly the road ends again with another barrier.  A red sign screams – STOP!

This is frontier country. On both sides of the border there is a history of aggressive military government and there are still unresolved territorial claims in this continent’s far southern reaches. Argentina’s chip of Tierra del Fuego is densely populated while Chile’s claim is barely inhabited and that makes the Chileans edgy.

I turn to one side, to a less formidable gate, and enter. Forest closes overhead. The track ends in a footpath which leads to a cottage surrounded by ancient dogs dozing alongside it, all with one wary eye open. I stand before the barking cantankerous pack and call out uncertainly until an elderly man limps unsteadily onto the veranda.

“I don’t know why I am here,” I admit. “But I am looking for the end of the world.”

“It’s a bit further that way.” He gestures.

“There is a gate,” I say.

His wife offers me lunch.

In this house, on the shores of Lake Fanango, I am 30 kilometres from Ushuaia, as the crow flies, and 9 kilometres from the border. It is a three day walk by way of the lake and over another mountain range. The old man, Don German, tells me that you can see the reflection of Ushuaia’s lights, from here, on the snow clouds over the mountains.

I want to walk. I don’t want to retrace my steps to Rio Bella Vista to argue, again, my apparently hopeless case with the men in uniform who will not let me pass a river that is eminently passable and then, thwarted, ride to San Sebastian to cross the border there and ride on to Ushuaia on despised highway. Walking from here would be fun – an adventure – but there is still the border to cross, which complicates things. Those damnable men in uniforms.

I have no reason to go to Ushuaia anyway: it’s just what people on bikes do to finish off their America tour. It occurs to me that I have lost my way. It is a sudden revelation: the Carratera Austral bored me rigid. I realise, that I don’t particular enjoy riding the ‘classic’ routes. That I don’t want to trek in well-trodden National Parks, no matter how beautiful they are. It is not beauty I seek, but wildness.

While I contemplate these thoughts engendered, no doubt, by my proximity to the end of the world, I remain with Maricela and Don German. My tent is tucked away in amongst the trees, which provide an abundance of fallen wood to build a cracking fire at night. The days are still uncommonly sunny, windless, warm. It seems an enchanted realm.

The old man and his wife have lived in this place for 40 years and there has only been a vehicular access road to their property for the last eight of them. It used to be a three day ride on horseback from the nearest estancia, over the mountains, camping on the way, with their two daughters. The enormous cast iron wood burning stove that stands in the centre of the kitchen was carried in that way.

I try, one afternoon, to ride as far as the sea, to Catela Maria, but a bored soldier, watching television in the huts behind the barrier on the road prevents me. The soldiers are responsible for the on-going construction of this road, which will eventually reach as far as the Beagle Channel and connect, by ferry, to Isla Navarino and, thus, Puerto Williams, the southern most town in the world.

Over lunch, Maricela consoles me with the promise of a trip to Caleta Maria tomorrow, in the truck, with Don German – who no-one would presume to stop – and Jorge, an Argentinian friend, who is expecting the arrival of a boat there, from Puerto Williams.

And so, one thing leads to another, and it isn’t long before I find myself on a boat heading to Puerto Williams, marvelling at the serendipity of it all. And I feel like somehow, miraculously, I have managed to avoid the end of the world.






{ 5 } Comments

  1. Michael | June 4, 2014 at 2:54 am | Permalink

    Lindas fotos. Buena suerte en tu viaje al Norte.

  2. Neil | June 4, 2014 at 5:33 pm | Permalink

    So glad you found a more ‘you’ route to the end of the world! I hear you on the beauty/classic routes. Adventures and wildness are what’s important to me these days.
    Have you ever read Jay Griffith’s ‘Wild’?
    Keep on doing the unusual – need some vicarious adventures at the moment!

  3. tim joe comstock | June 4, 2014 at 10:52 pm | Permalink

    I thought this god-forsaken trailer park was the end of the world, actually. But you seem to have found the true finite source of the world, which is of course resides in the good hearts of those who dwell there.

    Your Don German reminds me of another, a one called Don Genaro…all of which makes for an enigmatic comment leading nowhere other than to say that I am happy to read yer stuff again and how do you get back? Across Antarctica? I gotta get my globe out…

  4. tim joe comstock | June 4, 2014 at 10:53 pm | Permalink

    syntax be damned

  5. anna | June 5, 2014 at 4:07 am | Permalink

    And I’m glad to be here with all you guys, again.

    I wish, I wish, I’d gone via Antarctica, but no – all will be revealed in the next post or two… but nothing so glamorous and far-flung.

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