Breakdowns are Part of the Adventure
I heard a metallic pop. The seat shifted back, and the handlebars moved forward a bit. Believing my KTM 640 was coming apart, I stopped dead in my tracks. As I looked around at the desolate scenery flanking the Carretera Austral, I thought about Augusto Pinochet’s soldiers, many of whom lost their lives in the 1970s during the ten years it took to construct the 1,300-kilometer dirt and gravel track through Chile’s southern reaches.
I briefly considered the possibility that I might be joining them.
The chassis on my KTM 640 splits open in the center to provide easier access to the mechanical guts, and it’s held together by two heavy bolts. Removing the seat and poking around, it was clear that somewhere behind, one of those bolts vibrated out. The metallic pop was the remaining bolt, which sheared off under the stress of unrelenting beatings from the road.
My plan was to hide the bike in some thick green brush just off-track, stash my gear, and walk the dirt road in search of a cabin. An occupant might have a bolt or two they’d be willing to sell. Standing there, feeling a little helpless, a backcountry van driven by a young Austrian couple rolled up, offering help. As fortune would have it, their fully-equipped adventure rig was packed with tools, including a battery-powered drill, which was necessary to drill out the hole that still held the remnants of the sheared bolt. Most incredibly, the Austrians had a tool box filled with a wide selection of spare bolts. Two bolts, in fact, which fit my chassis like a factory part. Only ‘‘KTM’’ stamped on each bolt could have made that situation more unbelievable.
What are the odds of finding bolts in a place so isolated and lonely? Serendipity, defined as making desirable discoveries by accident, seems to be on my side.
Pinochet might not have thought it at the time, but his men were building a veritable playground for future adventure riders. On top of the scenery, here I have the sensation that I am riding near the very end of the world. The stars at night are more than I ever imagined one could see, simply because the only neighbors are vast, unoccupied spaces—the south Atlantic and the South Pacific, and of course, the giant ice sheet of Antarctica. The nearest city, with its imposing lights, is days away. Services are scarce. People, too.
It takes 1,300 kilometers to cover a distance of only about 800 kilometers as the crow flies; at a consistent cruising speed I cover only a few hundred kilometers in eight hard hours on the road. Towering peaks and glaciers shift in and out of focus as I swerve to avoid ruts, loose gravel, the occasional passing truck, and some darting critters I could not name. Once in a while, a cluster of wooden shacks appears and disappears before my brain can even register the desire for a hot shower.
As it is when riding just about anywhere on Earth, things are happening on the bike. But the romance is elevated when you’re near the end of the world. At the immediate level, like a computer’s operating system, my mind is constantly managing the controls and reading the road surface for hazards. As if in a meditation, the processes within the mind are totally aware. When something enters the picture which requires a step-up from meditation, be that a glacier-topped volcano cone, or a road washout big enough to swallow a bike, the step-up happens.
That’s not what makes the riding interesting, though. While the mind is occupied with these operating functions, in that internal space the stream of thought is so eloquent; there exists an uncommon clarity, inspired, in part, by the idea that I’m a world away. Here, in that space within the mind, the steps to achieve all the love and success one would desire seem so evident.
When the riding stops, I’m back to being me. Just a guy who doesn’t really know where he’s going. Just a guy who isn’t much of a rider. Just a guy, in some ways, who’s thrown in the towel and thrown his fate to the machine-like gears of passing time.
With a start, I realize I’ve reached the Pacific Ocean. And I know, with a clarity as crisp as the midnight light from a zillion Patagonian stars, that I made the right decision when I turned down that job offer last fall. I could be in a posh office sitting around a conference table with guys wearing Docker’s slacks. Instead, at a tiny store in front of a sinking sun, I picked up a blonde Escudo in a liter-size bottle to pair with the pasta I’ll be cooking over my camp stove.
Next morning, braking ahead of another curve, down-shifting, then powering out, sucking up dust from the occasional passing truck, my mind was moving between the women I’d left and the women I’d lost. Religion, its absurdities and its practicalities. Banks and bankers.
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