A Father and Son Gravel Adventure
Words by Tom Haines
Photos by Luca and Tom Haines
A hand-written sign points the way toward Confluencia, and all that is there, aside from an abandoned gas station, is the merging of two rivers that gave the place its name. The terrain around is dry and rocky, stout green brush and brown earth. We rode into the setting sun on the dirt road that traces the smaller of the two rivers westward, then angled after several miles into a wide valley, climbing steadily. The northward turn brought the wind around to our backs, and after 35 miles of washboard road, much with punchy lakeside climbs, we were turning the pedals freely, eager to arrive at a place that had loomed during the New Hampshire winter: Paso Cordoba.
If the deeper meaning of our 40-day journey was in parts physical and cultural, it all began with the natural place, and along our 1300-mile route in Argentina and Chile several sections on remote gravel roads climbed deep into mountains. There, alone in the Andes, we encountered the most demanding and rewarding riding. Our plan that evening was to wild camp just below Paso Cordoba, setting us up for a morning ascent. But as the valley steepened, the narrow road weaving between high walls, night fell quickly. We had also mistimed our water supply and stopped at one small stream to pump some more, but had to flee as bees swarmed near the bank. Around another bend, a sandy slope offered the only good spot to pitch the tent before dark, and so we did.
That night proved a psychological crossing into place. An animal huffed among stout bushes in the dead of night, and the temperature dropped into the 20s, testing the limits of the summer clothing we had packed. At daybreak, we scrambled to pump water then pedal in all our layers until the sun cleared the ridge. Before noon, the temperature suddenly near 80 degrees, we stood on the pass, looking down the other side at a horseshoe switchback that straightened and ran like a ribbon beneath jagged peaks, onward.
The view, and the lure of the road ahead, was all the better for the effort it had taken to get there. Luca and I, when crafting this many-layered journey, were each drawn by the idea of working hard to arrive at a place more often traveled by car or truck. The reward was powerful: feeling natural rhythms of the landscape and knowing our place in the scale of the terrain.
“ The reward was powerful: feeling natural rhythms of the landscape and knowing our place in the scale of the terrain. ”
That first foray up and over Paso Cordoba proved good conditioning for a longer stretch days later, after crossing into Chile, rolling out to the Pacific, then, on one 120-mile day, back into the Andes. The volcanic region of Aracaunía is thick with the so-called monkey puzzle trees, all tight branches and towering trunks. From the town of Melipeuco, we set out in morning fog, everything even more hemmed in by forest. The road was smooth dirt, and we climbed a gentle grade for one mile after the next. A fire some years before had cleared many monkey trees of their branches, but sturdy trunks still stood, and Luca rode ahead beneath a blue sky and full sun. When we met in a shallow saddle, the top of the climb, we took shelter in the shade of a smaller tree and ate slices of salami and gouda cheese, staples we’d found in village markets.
After a long and sandy descent into the town of Lonquimay, we set out again into what remains a highlight: a two-day crossing along the edge of an active volcano, also called Lonquimay, and then around a reservoir created when the Bio Bio River, the largest in Chile, was dammed. The ride to Volcan Lonquimay brought two long climbs, the first on a dirt road traveled by a man walking alongside two oxen pulling a cart. That road descended toward a lush valley and another climb, this to the exposed volcanic ridge of black and brown rock sloping in smooth edges to the snow-capped peak of Lonquimay. Luca again spun on ahead, climbing for miles and rising above 6,000 feet of elevation. A strong wind rushed us from behind, and where the ridge opened beneath the summit wind swirled in gusts that shook.
We had found a steady rhythm during long days in the saddle, sometimes with six or seven hours of ride time. Stops were often short and measured only to take a swig of water, or dig out a maple waffle. But as Luca and I stood over our bikes on the side of the road beneath the peak of Lonquimay, we lingered: a 30-year-old lava flow, hard now but molten when the volcano erupted in 1989, ran down the northern slope for miles, filling the fertile valley floor with black rock. After an hour of joyful descent, we were standing beneath the static flow, resting again. It was late afternoon, and there were no other travelers on this remote road. After a mile of surfing through patches of thick sand, we dismounted and tucked our bikes behind some high bushes, heated up cans of lentils and salami, then slept.
“ We had found a steady rhythm during long days in the saddle, sometimes with six or seven hours of ride time. ”
Luca had built our route using Google maps and a GPS file from a friend of a friend who’d ridden this way before, though heading in the other direction. I’d expected, after the descent from Volcan Lonquimay, that we would follow the Bio Bio downstream in a fun run-out to lower ground. But the reservoir stood in the way, and that meant 15 miles of hard effort, pedaling up one 2000-foot climb, then pushing bikes up a tighter trail to a higher pass. Along the way, we stopped and watched a hawk hunt for food above the forest, and then, on a track alongside fenced pasture, two sheep knocking horns, again and again, only 20 feet from us. The trail steepened to grades of more than 30 percent. We both neared empty, as our rations of salami and crackers and cheese that were meant for lunch now carried us toward dinner. In the high heat of day, still several hundred feet to hike toward the pass, we leaned into our handle bars, shoving the bikes uphill. It was slow going, and we were tired, and sweaty, and unsure of the road ahead.
“ It was slow going, and we were tired, and sweaty, and unsure of the road ahead. ”