A Father and Son Gravel Adventure
Words by Tom Haines
Photos by Luca and Tom Haines
Neither Luca nor I expected, after seven miles of rocky gravel climb and descent toward Lago Traful, to end our day watching El Classico, the soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid. We had already tuned out the wider world, even on our second day of a weeks-long bikepacking trip into the Andes. But as we turned into a campground set along the banks of a stream that fed the lake, we found two families circled to watch the game.
The families were spending the summer as campground hosts, and their tents were staked nearby. A tangle of cords, one connected to a generator, ran to a flat-screen TV set atop a folding table. Kids and adults had pulled up canvas chairs. “One of the players is from Chile,” an Argentine man told us, with a smile, as a player from a neighboring country was all the more reason to watch a game an ocean away in Spain.
The match soon ended, and the kids scattered, and Luca and I moved on to make camp. I set up our tent, and Luca wandered back to hang out with the families, who soon were watching the movie Captain Fantastic, dubbed into Spanish. Forty minutes later, Luca returned to our site, buzzing from the experience of chatting in his quickly evolving Spanish with strangers-turned-friends, trading information about our journey for details of their life along the lake.
Our journey through the Andes offered a perfect blend of isolated adventure and social recovery at crossroads and in villages and towns along the way. We often found fast, if fleeting, friendships. Many connections came when arriving in a town square hot and tired and sweaty at end of day. As a father and son so far from home, bikes heavy with full packs, we appeared vulnerable, I’m sure. As we rested in shade, snacking or nearly sleeping, someone would inevitably wander by, pause, and ask, “where are you going?” Such curiosity and the conversation that followed made us feel more a part of the place.
“ As a father and son so far from home, bikes heavy with full packs, we appeared vulnerable, I’m sure. ”
When we rolled into Chile a few days after the soccer match, we had to wait for a ferry to traverse the long arc of Lago Perihueico. A tumble-down restaurant by the terminal was otherwise empty, and Luca and I hung out at a wooden table as hot wind turned tree branches overhead. We had ordered a few savory empanadas, and a man from Santiago joined us at the table, asking about our bikes. He hustled off and returned with a gift of sweet watermelon, then pointed at surrounding peaks and talked of past volcanic eruptions. His wife strolled over and took a seat across from Luca. She described the ruins of an old hotel on the other side of the terminal and suggested it as a worthy stop before boarding the ferry. Luca found a groove in his Spanish, for the first time seeming not to care if he needed to search for a word or made a mistake, diving into the conversation. Then it was time for the ferry to pull up to the dock, and we moved on again.
Some encounters were born of necessity – a chat with a border guard while handing over passports, or banter with a barber, in the town of Lonquimay. During Luca’s time in the chair, as a woman buzzed longer hair down short, she told him he was good looking, then glanced at me with a smirk. “You must get your good looks from your mother,” she told Luca, sending other customers into peals of laughter. When we stopped at a hardware store in Santa Barbara for WD-40, three men on the sidewalk out front offered to store our bikes safely in the back of a vegetable market, then bought us Fanta when we sat for lunch at a neighboring restaurant.
“ ‘You must get your good looks from your mother,’ she told Luca, sending other customers into peals of laughter. "
On one long jaunt, a four-day crossing from Chile back into Argentina, we made the steady climb to Paso Pichachen with only a single car passing in more than an hour. But near the top, a giant grader slowly arrived from behind. The driver had been smoothing the gravel roadway behind us, and he parked the machine at the pass, took photos of the vista he knew from previous trips, and then invited us for a picnic. We dug through our packs for tired salami and warm cheese, but Fidel, our unexpected host, told us not to worry. He had plump tomatoes from his garden, cans of tuna, oil and spices, and fresh bread from the market that morning. He mixed a fresh salad, and Luca and I tried to chew slowly as we devoured one forkful after another.
“ He had plump tomatoes from his garden, cans of tuna, oil and spices, and fresh bread from the market that morning. ”
Several days later, as we neared our final destination, my friend Gabriel’s vineyard, we faced a particularly rough 60-mile slog along rocky desert road. We spent two hours in the shade of the only tree we saw that morning, then set out again beneath the sun for a final push. Luca was ahead and a that had passed me slowed alongside him. He heard “Coca-Cola,” and answered quickly, “Si, por favor.” We stopped and stood over our bikes, as the passengers emerged, two 20-something couples returning to their homes in Mendoza, a few hours north. One man pulled a 2-liter bottle of cold Coke from icy water in a cooler and filled our bottles. I chugged mine, and then he filled it again. The strangers-turned-saviors did not seem to fathom why we would pedal a bike rather than ride in a car through such daunting terrain. We chugged more cold Coca-Cola, and they cheered us on into the desert.