Tierra del Fuego. I lost count how many times I said this phrase when answering the questions of where I was headed. Land of Fire. Magellan named it as such because of the plumes of smoke and flames that rose from all over the island. He thought it was perennially on fire. In reality, these were fires from unseen native (Fuegian) camps. Fuegians. Years later Robert Fitzroy piloted the first voyage of the Beagle through the waters around Ushuaia, now called the Beagle Channel, he brought four native Fuegians back to England to meet the King and Queen. Later, Charles Darwin brought the three surviving Fuegians back to their homeland.
The four of us debarked the ferry in Porvenir and decided to take the slightly longer coastal route to the tiny Chile/Argentinean border settlement. The road was in good shape. Dirt, ripio, gravel or whatever you want to call it, it was fine. I could speed along at 50 or 60 miles per hour with no problem and with complete confidence. A couple of my Venezuelan friends liked to a go a bit faster. So we cruised at our own pace and caught up with each other at several points along the route. But why go fast? The sweeping expanses of golden grasslands where yellow finches would scatter as I motored along. Vast estancias stretched for kilometers neatly segregated by miles of wire fences and picturesque wooden gates. The hills gently rolled as my bike spit dust to anyone behind me.
Tierra del Fuego. The last of the southern frontiers. The Chilean border stop was simple albeit I happen to get there when a tour bus was being serviced. Filled up with gas and moved on. By the time we landed into Rio Grande it was pushing late afternoon. My friend Dario had given me a hot tip of a hostel in town that often is a catalyst for venturing bikers coming from or going to the bottom of the world. I’d heard the owner Graciela was fun and was anxious to see if there was any action here in Rio Grande. Maybe I’d stay the night and make an early pilgrimage to Ushuaia or maybe just stop in, say hi and move on.
With a cigarette loose lipped in her mouth and mop of curly black hair that fell in front of her eyes, Graciela gave me a tour of her hostel after making some coffee. The common area living room was a museum of odds and ends that travelers of all types left for her. There was a signed windshield, a broken piston, helmet, gloves and a host of other things from those who found this a haven near the bottom of the world. The weather was looking iffy. But there wasn’t much going on at Hotel Argentina today, so I bid Graciela farewell and promised to stay on my way out of town.
So I was solo again. My boys from Venezuela were probably within an hour or less to Ushuaia. It’d take me about 2 hours without stopping. I figured more like three. That would bring me into Ushuaia just before the sun dips behind the Beagle Canal and the ocean at the end of the world. I bit my tongue. Pulled my gloves on and gave Graciela the ubiquitous kiss on the cheek through my helmet and motored out of town. This is how I wanted to enter Ushuaia. Just as I started the trip. Solo.
According to all reports the road would be paved to within 30-40 miles of Ushuaia. I rolled the throttle as the wind from the east tossed me about. With the surf of the Atlantic Ocean gently pounding the shoreline to my left, I tried to remember what I’d imagined this would be like. This mind game was useless. I had no idea. I was caught up in the countdown at the same time trying to huddle close to my bike to stay warm while worrying about the impending rain. Or so I thought. Specks of blue dotted the gray skies. But only the skies were gloomy today. I was thrilled. My mind again ventured back. To early July 2005 when I set off on this Journey of Adventure & Discovery. I’d crossed more than 20 borders, visited more than 30 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, ridden more than 28,000 miles, spent three rear ties (including replacing a defective tire in Peru), was on my third chain, took thousands of photos, crashed three times, broke a leg, sprained an ankle, twisted a knee, spent two and a half days riding Bolivia with a Bolivian truck driver and yet there is still so much I’ve done and an incredible amount yet to do. But I thought.
I remembered arriving at the top of the world. If Ushuaia is the end of the world, then is DeadHorse at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic Ocean the beginning of the world? At the top of the world I remembered thinking that I had a long way to go. Ushuaia then seemed like a dream and so far away. But then the dream smacked me square in the face. As I walked out of my dormitory room at this homestay for oil field and pipeline workers in Deadhorse I ran into two motorcyclists. Not that this was unusual because by then I’d been on the road about two months and had a long list of new friends. No. These guys were different. My spanish language acumen back in August 2005 was pitiful. And that’s being nice. But tow guys introduce themselves as Pepe and Bepe. From where? Ushuaia. (take a moment and re-read my reports from the Dalton Highway in 2005 here, here and here). In the world of motorcycle adventure travel there are lots of stories and people who dream of riding from Deadhorse to Ushuaia. But here I was at the top of the world and my two newest friends were from the bottom of the world — the end of the world. The mystery of coincidence and circumstance continue to amaze me.
My mind drifted and wondered where Bepe and Pepe were today. That was well over a year ago. Would I run into these guys in Ushuaia? Could I somehow find them? There website had been defunct for over a year. We never talked after that smokey August morning when we departed DeadHorse. I continued my cruise on nice pavement and inched closer to Ushuaia. As the road turned west away from the Ocean I soon was riding through a forested enclave and through the town of Kaiken till finally Lago Fagnano came into view. Jotting around the coast of this lake even the heavy machinery working on the road didn’t distract me from the gorgeous views with trees and mountains reflecting in the deeply saturated blue water. Soon I was climbing. Then past another lake – Lago Escondido. The altimeter on my GPS clicked away the feet. I was climbing up and over the Garabaldi Pass and soon the Beagle Channel and the town of Ushuaia popped into view. Large tankers docked in the channel. A couple massive cruise liners at the docks close to town.
I was on a mission to find Javier’s Place. Recommended by Dario and Nano, Javier runs a small hostel just off the main drag in Ushuaia. There’s no sign. You just have to know. According to my Porteño friends, Javier owns a Yamaha Super Tenere motorcycle and welcomes motorcycle visitors. All I knew was the street name and that it was an incredibly steep incline to get to his place. Thankfully, the compactness of Ushuaia, I found Javier’s place in about 10 minutes after hitting the center of town.
I carefully position the bike in a 44 – 45 degree incline, delicately set the kicks stand on the solid pavement, hoisted my leg over the bike and turned it off. Just as I pulled the helmet off my head I heard a car honk and a guy and a girl approached me from across the street. Oh my god. It’s Pepe. After nearly 18 months to the day, and within ten minutes of entering into Ushuaia, barely off my bike and there’s Bepe. We exchanged hugs and he acknowledged that he’d tried my webpage but never could find it. Turns out he had the spelling off by a letter. But it was meant to be that on this day I’d ride into Ushuaia and find the only guy I’d ever known in the world from Ushuaia. He asked what took me so long. As I explained my Bolivian broken leg story he remarked how much my Spanish improved. Not sure if this was a compliment given my utter failure to communicate with him 18 months ago. But that didn’t matter. By some stroke of luck and that we’re all park of the big family of motorcyclists we met again. This time at the bottom of the world.
Hell. I’m here.
Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina – Earth
February 11, 2007 – 8:45pm