Mendoza, Argentina, late morning, the sky is overcast and a cold wind is blowing from the north. In front of us, a climb of 200 km to reach the pass of Christ Redemptor at 3,200m above sea level, to find the ocean and the way back. This is the end, the last great test of the trip. This is our last chance to go beyond our ultimate limit because up there, in the snow lies, is hidden our inner border.
From the series of streets behind the hostel, we follow the map to reach the southern suburbs. But again, we are overwhelmed by the size of the big city. Mendoza is endless, the road is long and several hours are needed to break free from its last neighborhoods. Behind our handlebars, we watch the brightness fall and we stop 2 times to eat ice creams to give ourselves a little courage. Once again, we look at the map with humility.
Not yet out of the city that the atmosphere of the high mountains surrounds us. No one on the road, the sun is invisible and still no tree in this world of dust. We sleep in this empty campsite, cold, dirty and expensive at the exit of the city. Apart from the guardian, we are alone. Caroline does not take a shower, she does not want to be cold. One more bad surprise and that would be too much. Me, I’m doing it, I make a fire for an hour to take a shower of 2 minutes. I put on my shoes so I do not walk in the dirt. I come out pretty clean but a bit ridiculous to need much comfort, comfort.
Rainy morning, boring straight line between cornfields and refineries. On the electric poles, a huge raptor, head of bastard, is attacked by a couple of angry rattles. The size ratio is huge, but they still hit the giant to chase him. This big raptor, smiles like a man, and the two birds that try to chase him do not get tired. When one finishes his attack, the other gains momentum. Such a will, such a romanticism in the face of a lost battle touches me. But the big bird is impassive, it remains resting on his solid electric pole digesting. So I take sides and aim with my slingshot without reaching the raptor. We look so much like these two rattles.
On the long road that leads to the pass, each turn past plunges us a little more in this atmosphere at the end of the world. Argentina is a huge country, even China leases land. The old railway of the Altiplano, the one that winds on the crumbled banks of the Rio Mendoza accompanies us once again in this semi-desert landscape. Old catenaries collapse on the track and in places the rusty steel rails twist like burning paper. In the distance we can see the big peaks, but we approach slowly. So slowly that we never think of getting there. In the infinite, time does not matter, so we stop and sleep one night in an annex at the edge of Lake Potrerillos at 1450 m altitude. A very old Renault 10 major and some planted trees break the dusty monotony. A fire, a piece of beef and the encouragement of the Argentineans who welcome us and we leave on the road to the pass. We silently contemplate the wide valleys, the peaks in the distance and the road that climbs behind the horizon.
I feel that Caroline is tired of the trip, the endless climbs, the surpassing oneself and the sacrifices do not give her the impression to confront something big. There must be something at the bottom that justifies all this reality. By looking for these limits, thus confronting nature I think I rise above but I dive a little deeper into me. It is a desire to destroy oneself a little as one destroys matter to see what it is made of. Yet, no grail at the bottom, it is only black matter, sticky haunting my dreams since my childhood. There is nothing in this fund which is not infinite, apart from the human dimensions, no sense, no point of awakening. This ultimate test is an obvious quest for nonsense.
This search for meaning that Caroline instantly captures the absurdity, yet it accompanies me in the momentum. On the one hand because she is stubborn and on the other because staying together is more important than all the rest.
She is like a bird caught in a big migration. And when I look at her with her bike, it’s this fragile little bird that I see flying.
Have you ever cycled next to a small bird? Did you notice his way of flying? It is not a straight line, but in the form of an inverted cycloid. 3 shots wings to gain height and he lets himself hover by opening his wings. Almost at ground level, when it is too low, it restores 3 small wing shots to go up and continues until reaching its destination. Small effort, little comfort, he enjoys every moment.
Caroline gives 3 quick pedal strokes, she overtakes me and lets herself rest on her speed, then slowed by the wind she goes back behind me. She stops almost then gives back 3 small pedal strokes. She rides like a yoyo. So beautiful and stubborn, her head in her daydreams. Unable to fly, she spends her time hovering. But to have asked her the question, I know what her thoughts are made: her dreams are strictly greedy. A true universe of dishes to taste. A kingdom of ice cream, melted cheese, fresh fruit … Caroline is not very tall, but her legs are long enough to touch the pedals and her arms long enough to shake the pans. It is a concentrated product.
She must be seen screaming against the trucks, crying with rage, we must see her clutch and shake the world that feels it. We must see the strength of her heart to fight against misfortune.
No mode can guide Caroline’s ideas. The anchoring in the real is immutable. It is this feeling of being right and in tune with her environment that gives her her seat. If she is in a hurry to get to the end of the road, she will storm day after day against her unjust obstacles, which will oppose her. Wind, rain, hills, trucks, roads, snow. Congested with impatience. She will scream until exhaustion but will never give up. Nothing can trim her integrity, she is the most beautiful patriot of her values. Those she can not forget, even for an ingot of simplicity, impossible, she will never disguise the reality. No optimism, no pessimism, just a reality to face as it comes.
And this reality must end in this dark gray sky that can be seen in the distance. It’s snowing heavily on the peaks and over there it’s the end.
Tonight, we stop at a hospetaje in Uspallata and tomorrow we will really tackle the mountain road. Hot soup, grilling in the village restaurant and a clean bed, all we need.
In the morning, early on the road, we will spin quickly and leaving on the right the last fork before the pass, the last half-turn possible. The objective of the day is a campsite 50km away. Announced on my map full of errors. Caroline asks me if I am sure about this camping in the middle of nowhere. I tell her of course, I know we can always manage.
The wide valleys close abruptly on us and the distant peaks are approaching. We are at 2000 m above sea level and the headwind channeled by this valley is violent. But the landscapes are incredible, between desert and mountains. We are alone to face this magnificent hostile landscape. Caroline storms against the wind and the rain, they consume piece by piece her energy.
At noon, we find shelter under a truck trailer to eat and rest a little. It’s sordid, but you can sit on a cross and stay a little sheltered.
We walk along the cliff. Between tunnel and sodden road we arrive at the supposed position of the campsite, but there is nothing, nothing at all. There has never been any camping here.
While scanning the map on the edge of the road, appears a snow plow. Led by Daniel who invites us to his home at about ten kilometers. There is an old mine there with old barracks of miners. We find Daniel who opens the door of one of these houses of pink bricks and offers us to spend the night. We camp happily in this old, wet and cold shack at 2300 m above sea level watching the snow fall on the summits.
There is no furniture, so we have music and discussions on the next climb. Caroline prepares grilled vegetables and I set up the tent in the next room. We sleep well in the shelter in our sleeping bags.
In the morning on waking, the wind and the storm are gone, it’s nice and it’s magic to see the sun after so much absence; how it can light the bottom of the valley. We start the climb by walking next to our bikes, it climbs hard this morning. With the sun, goes the optimism and like 2 prisoners who dream of the world where they will be released, we discuss the return, the post-trip and the next projects. The road for us alone, we move quickly.
At the end of a straight line, we see an enigmatic stupa with a white roof, these little Buddhist temples, so strange here. It is a center of the humanist party of Silo, the Argentine thinker.
We continue the climb and the snow that approaches gives us the impression of reaching our destination and we leave the path of Aconcagua on our right.
We only have 100 Argentine pesos left. What to pay for a sandwich each. We must pass the pass today, or camp. But now that everything is white, camping becomes complicated. So we go down again on the road. Looking at our wheels, looking at at our legs. Another trick, another trick. Focus on simple things to try to hypnotize myself to escape mentally, to try to forget what I live to accept the present. This is my method for moving forward. Caroline does everything by force of will.
We pass Puente del Inca and the wind rises. The last points of blue skies have disappeared. Heavy, thick clouds turn on the pass road. They swallowed the peaks and descended the sky a few tens of meters above us. It snows firmly and the road whitens totally. We roll on the snow. We wear all the clothes that can keep us warm. Double pair of gloves, hat, fleece neck warmer. We even put on 1 or 2 dirty t-shirts. Caroline is exhausted, she is pale. She talks about “how are we going to do now”, “having to turn around”, “What’s your idea”, “why are you stubborn? “. This is the absolute storm.
But how to accept to turn back? Can we accept one day to have given up? With this climb, we approach the essence of the great journey, we will pass to 2 fingers of life. It’s victory at the pass, but limbo everywhere around. Forgive me for being so stubborn, but perseverance alone would never have allowed that. In any adventure the will is never enough. I sold my reason for stupid obstination.
The wind that descends from the neck pulls the freshly laid snow and sends it back to our frozen bodies and our last fragments of will.
I rub my hands vigorously but I can not warm them up anymore. There is 200m of vertical drop and I have no energy to oppose what happens to us. Doubt invades me once more. Then when I look at Caroline I see that these eyelashes have turned white. Caroline’s closed face and icy eyes bring me back to responsibilities. While I had so much promised not to give up, I stopped at the edge of the road.
It’s not the will we need, it’s help. I stop stubbornly. I give up my pride to wind and snow. To preserve the essential, I am outraging the obstinacy that has brought us here. I leave here the ultimate limit of my strength. I lay at my feet the unsurpassable horizon of our courage. When there is no more will, when all the construction has collapsed and my eyes can see without pride, there remains only the love I have for you, the simplicity of the things that bind us, the strength of our connection.
We decide to hitchhike. I do not know if we really believe it, or that we have no other solution, but we fold the bikes, and we wait like 2 rinsed refugees who try to look good on the edge of the frozen road to get take hitchhiking.
Hannibal, with his rusted break of the 90’s pick us up. He makes the trip twice a week to refuel his mountain guinguette for poetic enough to want to stop eating a sandwich at the highest point of their course. We leave our refugee status on the road. It’s insane, when we faced hopelessly Nature 5 minutes ago, we find ourselves safe, listening to the Hispanic soup on the radio and Hannibal who asks us the usual questions while juggling between the trucks blocked by the closure of the pass. Sitting between a pack of cans of coca and buckets of chicken, we are safe.
Hannibal drops us off at his restaurant on the pass. With our latest pesos, we warm up in front of a milanesa mayonnaise and a gas stove that heats this poorly insulated inn. We play with the cat by wiping our fat fingers on the tail and outside our bikes are covered with snow. The cook is huge, he must be at least 250 kg. This nice guy smiles sweetly every time he comes back from the red break arms filled with a box of mayonnaise and a pack of oil bottle. He is so big that I wonder if Hannibal leaves him at the restaurant when he comes down to refuel to avoid forcing the car in the climb.
To be honest, I have resentment. The cook has nothing to do with it, but I think I’m angry that I did not make this last effort on my bike. 200 kilometers climb to stop 5 kilometers from the pass, it’s like the milanesa too fat, I have trouble digesting it. It’s all me, hardly out of business, that I regret already. I forget so easily what made me make this decision, I do not know already in what situation we were. My reason has taken precedence over my obstinacy, but now that we are far from danger, my obstinacy is like a desire to vomit, I clench my teeth, but there are always pieces that pass through.
With this last event, this last gargantuan climb of 200 km, we approach the end, we tend to the asymptote of the trip. This pass has allowed us to find the ocean, to find Léna and Aner in Santiago, Kikou in Valparaiso, then we went down to the Isla de Chiloe through the region of 7 lakes and crossing the border twice more. Argentina-Chile. The island of Chiloe ends the Panamerican and we reach this ultimate limit. Never again will we go so far. It is not just a point on the map, it is a construction made of sweat, obstinacy, stupidity, futility, strength and will. I saw you crying, screaming and shouting at the misfortune of travelers who have ventured too far. But we have built together this crazy distance and distance is a force.
And we offer to ourselves a sunset at the end of the world at the price of your courage and your tears.
The implicit search for meaning that accompanied us all the journey did not yield the expected conclusion. It is not in the effort and tension that awakening appeared, but in simplicity, openness and acceptance. In contemplation rather than violent introspection. I searched deep within myself for this sublime truth, and found only intuition that the solution is on the surface. Whatever goals are set, they are all artificial, they are all there to prove to themselves that the day comes we will cross the border. They are made to inflate our hypertrophied ego. We have not managed to climb this pass by ourselves and despite the difficulties we will not make the affront to find excuses or to comfort ourselves on what we have already done.
This trip was to prove something to us, it was to take our first sigh. But I searched the wrong side of reality and I had to get to the end to see the impasse. The evidence of the trip is in the encounter. There is only love and compassion, useless to dig deep inside, the light shines outside. This inner journey was only a flight, a wandering; we almost lost ourselves when we reached our destination.
Our geographical journey ends, the end of the world was behind this pass, but our personal adventure is just beginning. It will not take us to the end of the world, it will not seek in the abyss the meaning of things, it will let us come to us this reality, this infinite daily life, this peace that surrounds us. And to us to accept it.
So today, this trip seems geographically finished. We have exceeded the horizon. The mysteries that fascinate us led us to make this trip. We went out looking around the world for something we are missing and now we are going back to find it.