Two weeks until our second Christmas on the road and we were officially biking the Carretera Austral, an 800-mile stretch of gravel road [albeit increasingly paved] through Chilean Patagonia. A world-renowned destination for cycling tourists. Knowing we'd be in the company of many others, the section felt tame by comparison—a victory lap for all the hard-fought miles further north. We had even cased the first four hundred miles with Sam and Bina in their rental car in the weeks prior—in perfect weather—taking mental notes from the backseat. Assuming we were in for a beautifully uneventful time, there was no way to predict the impact this particular section of road would have on our trip.
“Summertime” [and the livin' is easy] played on the truck stereo. The cab windows completely fogged from the swampy exertion and soggy rain gear we’d brought with us into the backseat. Summertime in Patagonia, and the rain is torrential.
A couple sympathetic guys with an empty truckbed had just plucked us off the side of the road. We weren't actually hitchhiking, but they’d pulled over and insisted we load up for the ten miles remaining until the next closest village—Villa Santa Lucía.
"Vamanos!" They shouted.
Translated, "Don't be a hero [/idiot], get in!"
The driver was a hospedaje [hostel] owner from Chaitén—a village about fifty miles north that we'd passed through the day before—and the other, a journalist working on a story about the Carretera Austral’s construction. Because these days, the word most associated with the Carretera Austral—aside from cyclists—is construction.
We started with small talk, but eventually surrendered to the noisy rain and ironic song lyrics—staring in disbelief out the blurred windows as the livin’ seemed anything but easy.
In Villa Santa Lucía, the men dropped us off at Nachitos—a salon de té owned by a close friend of the driver. (Given Chaitén and Villa Santa Lucía’s proximity to one another in an otherwise remote stretch of road, many of the towns’ residents know one another.) We thanked the men as they drove away, shed drippy layers at the door and settled into the salon’s only folding table—doubling as the señora's dining room table. We positioned ourselves facing the television, as is custom in Latin American dining places, and asked for something hot. Just a cup to get us down the road, we told ourselves.
The quick cup morale booster quickly became an extended stay—a couple anxious hours of weather checks through the casita window. We put away multiple rounds of Nescafé and a belly's worth of sopapillas—fluffy fried bread presumably invented for days like these. We were effectively killing time, perfectly content to wait for the weather to do something—anything—different. Craning around the room in search of conversation starters, I took note of the intricate layers of clutter that result from inhabiting a place for a very long time. A herd of well-loved stuffed animals framed the television—playing a frantic, last-minute-Christmas-shopping-spree special beamed in from Santiago, seemingly worlds away. Instead of thinking about missing another family Christmas, Aidan kept it light, poked at the green fabric spewing from the nearest stuffed rabbit's mouth and asked, "Lettuce or the end of a carrot you think?" Poorly fabricated and thus indistinguishable. "Lettuce, I hope." I replied. And with increased concern, "You really think there's an entire carrot in that little guy's mouth?"
The señora beamed when she noticed Aidan touching her bunny. Smiling, she simply said, "canejo"—rabbit. She had warmed up to us, which we appreciated immensely as the world outside seemed increasingly cold—rain falling by the bucketful.
When our ride-gifting saints dropped us off, we'd been told that we could stay the night at Nachitos. In their words, "You will stay here tonight with the señora. Don't go back outside." She either never knew that was the plan or changed her mind because when we asked about a place to stay the night, she directed us back outside to a hospedaje down the street. We thanked her for the refuge—and half joked about seeing her in the morning for more sopapillas—before sprinting a few blocks through standing water to the “official” hospedaje. An 8.5”x11” sheet of white paper was taped in the front window simply reading B Y B—bed and breakfast. Whatever reservations we had regarding the lack of official signage disappeared when we saw another touring bike already on the front porch and a wood fire ripping inside. We'd ended up in the right place after all. With our clothes draped over every available bit of fire-front real estate, we entertained the appealing prospect of doing absolutely nothing for the rest of the day.
The front porch bicycle count reached five by mid afternoon—others seeking shelter stacked their rigs next to ours. The initial bike belonged to an old Japanese man who'd been holed up at the hospedaje for three days already. We learned this when the owner shrugged, pointed at the man, and told us that he showed up three days ago and simply hasn't left. He doesn't like the rain. Striking cultural differences and an accompanying language barrier made the entire scenario very endearing. Every morning the Japanese man awakes and looks out the window—nope, not today—and returns to bed. We wondered if he'd ever leave given Patagonia's relentlessness.
The final two bikes belonged to a couple English gals "on holiday" who had been riding together for the past month—a blonde and a brunette. They'd taken their last pedal strokes [together] into Villa Santa Lucía with plans of splitting up in the morning—one headed north to return home, and the other—allotted more vacation time—continuing south down the Carretera Austral.
The rain did not let up until early the next morning. We’ve never seen weather like it and questioned how a place could possibly handle so much moisture. It seemed unsustainable—even for Patagonia. A suspicion that would prove fateful in time. Our evening excursion to the neighboring tienda was an instant soaking—and about all the excitement I could handle. Sprinting from one awning to the next, I shrieked dramatically. Nothing keeps us from our calories.
Stocked and re-cozied into our separate twin beds, I took pleasure in the window-thwapping, roof-rumbling rain as it validated our gluttonous Netflix and snacking behavior. Between episodes and rounds of maté [and sleeves of cookies], I finished my journal entry for that day with, "Intimidated by tomorrow."
I cracked the whip the next morning. Although Aidan will claim this as the usge, I was especially eager to get going before the lure of bottomless cups of coffee and wood stove warmth impaired my decision making.
It had started raining again as we bid farewell to the other cyclists. The English girls left first. We watched through the window as they embraced in a huge hug before riding in opposite directions. Blonde to the north, brunette to the south. I stepped outside and offered to take a commemorative photo. The Japanese man moved more slowly. Still in sweatpants and slippers, we were sure he was pretending to get ready—set to crawl back into bed after we pedaled away. As we packed our bikes and the rain really began to unleash, a moment of weakness had me envisioning a cozy day by the fireplace. Before Aidan could sense my hesitation, I stared down the road and employed the rally cry from the previous day,
Translated, "Let's get gone before I change my mind!"
We'd only made it a few miles down the road when a truck towing a fishing boat—that had passed minutes before going the opposite direction—pulled up beside me. The men inside all talked at once. Although speaking in perfect English, their approach was disorienting—firing questions out of order—eventually confirming that I had, in fact, just left Villa Santa Lucía. The front passenger finally spelled it out, "The town you've just come from is gone. You are very lucky."
And then in no particular order used the words:
It seemed dramatized coming from a couple of gringos on a fishing excursion. Nothing they said made sense to me at the time. If it was truly an emergency, why weren't they helping instead of scaring cyclists down the road? Should we turn around and see if we can help? By the time I caught up with Aidan down the road, his facial expression communicated that the truck had stopped for him as well. Confused what to do with the information—or lack thereof—we just kept riding.
Over the next few hours, emergency vehicles tore past, helicopters flew overhead and eventually, a panicked Japanese man appeared on the horizon behind us. He used a lot of arm motions and a mix of English and Spanish to communicate the severity of the situation. That, in fact, much of the town had been destroyed and that we were lucky. Apparently as he ate his breakfast—the one he sat down to as we pedaled away—the landslide bulldozed town, causing gas explosions and enough horrific noise to send him running out of the hospedaje and down the street. According to his extended arms the mud stopped mere feet from the front door. After waiting patiently in front of the fireplace for three days [for the rain to stop], there he stood in front of us—not even in his rain gear yet—completely soaked and freaked out.
It was clear at that point that something truly terrible had happened. Lingering questions as to what extent would be answered [that evening] once we reached the next town—La Junta—and bumped into BOTH the English gals. As we sorted through the tienda’s dismal cookie selection, the two appeared—together—causing a startling moment of confusion. Amy, the northbounder, stood with shaking hands and explained why she was there. She'd been stranded on a portion of the Carretera Austral with a few construction workers after witnessing the landslide tear past, swallow the road below, and eventually, most of town. The path of destruction was five miles long. Shaky YouTube videos show her teal coat and blonde hair in the middle of a lot of panicked Spanish shouting, and a river of mud and tree trunks sweeping through the background. If she had left town three minutes earlier or later, she wouldn't have made it. Caught in a section of preserved road cut off above and below, she and a few others were choppered to safety on the south end of town. Her bicycle never made it into the helicopter. She’d hitchhiked to La Junta with an arms full of panniers in search of alternate means of transportation. She never gave the bicycle a second thought—grateful to have sacrificed so little.
Aerial footage played on the news—truly an unbelievable disaster. 5 dead and 15 missing—a death toll that unfortunately would quadruple over the next few weeks as search efforts continued. It's been nearly a month and villagers remain unaccounted for—desaparecidos. The area had received over four inches of rain in twenty four hours—more than Santiago's annual rainfall.
The landslide made BBC [and countless other international news outlets] within 24 hours. A panicked note went out to our parents as a result. Aidan’s folks, Meg and Philip, are social media saavy—the scariest type of saavy amidst a developing disaster as news tends to break in those platforms. Although #’s and @‘s are not Donn and Dory’s strong suit, they are capable of out-researching us all when provided Googleables. Dory often replies to our whereabouts with lengthy, book report-style e-mails. All is to say that during our gluttonous, wifi-rich afternoon indoors, we had unintentionally provided all the necessary keywords to yield terrifying search results.
We fixated on the disaster for the next few days—weeks really. A lot of time on a quiet road led our minds to eerie places. Taking stock of our connection to the place and people. A lot of what ifs. The further we rode south, the more literal and figurative distance grew between us and the experience. Eventually it was no longer the focal point of all my thoughts, but I never stopped wondering about the fate of those in town and whether Nachitos and the sweet, stuffed animal-loving señora had survived.
Our time on the Carretera Austral ended on the afternoon of New Year's Eve in Villa O'Higgins—the road's official [dead] end. There's a cosmic cliche somewhere in there about endings and new beginnings. With daylight until 10:30PM, we stayed up late enough to properly celebrate NYE for the first time in years. Pisco on the rocks for all. The hostel owner ran glacier tours and had brought out a tray carrying a sizable chunk from which he chipped raw cubes of 3,000 year-old glacial ice. A craft cocktail Portland would love to hate. We sang dining room karaoke until 5:30 in the morning with the owners, a gaucho grandpa, an uncle (type) and the three other travelers also staying the night. In between songs, we ate hot dogs on toothpicks and got to know one another. An Austrian couple caught us off guard when—after learning that we were Americans on bicycles—exclaimed, "YOU are the two who have been riding for seventeen months." We hadn’t told them that yet. They sensed our confusion and added, "Villa Santa Lucía.” The Austrians had been staying in Chaitén at the truck driver’s hospedaje the morning of the landslide—the morning after he’d kindly delivered us to Nachitos. He poured his heart out to the Austrians, confessing his responsibility for dropping us off with the señora. After hearing their account, it was obvious that the man believed we hadn’t made it. He assumed the worst because the salon de té had been completely buried, and the señora had died the same morning—the morning we’d pedaled straight out of town without even stopping for a second round of sopapillas.
Hit with an unexpected small worldism and bizarre sense of closure, we took a moment to digest what all of it actually meant. Although warming to know we could send a message to the truck driver, it was chilling—of course—to learn about the señora. We felt connected—however passingly—to the deep tragedy that swept through that tiny town. Sobered, we felt lucky all over again. Our host pulled the room back together and everyone raised their glasses to the middle of the table, “Salud y feliz año nuevo a todos—Cheers and happy new year to everyone.” And then, we simply passed the microphone and platter of hot dogs to the next person.
The beautiful, famous Carretera Austral was unforgiving after all. In the end, there was nothing tame about it. Overwhelmingly full of experience, our victory lap was flipped on its head by freakish winter weather, tragedy and humanity.
Currently in El Calafaté—heading to the iconic Torres del Paine in the morning—we are learning how to navigate heavy-hitting attractions amidst Patagonia’s peak tourist season. There will be penguins.