After eight months of riding and a three and half hour flight I've finally hit the end of the line: Ushuaia. It's been a great few days getting down here from Santiago. I had two nights to kill after Mom left and I spent the entire time either at Subway or right next to the wireless router at my hostel. I downloaded about 15 gigs of entertainment in two days, enough to keep me going for the duration of the trip. I also took the bike back to Suzuki on Tuesday and had them install a new horn. I laughed out loud when they brought it out; it's all chrome with red detailing and about twice the size as my previous. Probably came off a Grand Vitara. They had it installed in fifteen minutes and it is loud. There will be no missing me on the road from here on out. I plan to honk it as often as possible to make up for lost noise pollution.
Thursday my flight took off early afternoon. I was chomping at the bit, so excited to get south and continue the journey with my mates. It was great having Mom down, and good to have her familiarity around for two weeks. I left the bike parked next to Charlie's at the hostel, sparkling new for when I get back. My only regret about this part of the trip was missing Torres del Paine. The Aussie's had just spent the last three days hiking and horseback riding through the park. Charlie's pictures on facebook looked incredible. Regardless, you can't see it all, and I haven't. The boys would pick me up in Punta Arenas and we'd head south for Ushuaia from there.
As luck would have it, though, the skies were crystal clear all afternoon and our pilot decided to fly right over the most recognizable mountain in Patagonia with my window looking out across it. It was an incredibly exhilarating moment when I peaked up from my movie only to see one of the most alien peaks in the world just below me. The jagged teeth of Torres del Paine were just as incredible as I had imagined, each spire it's own monolith. It just hung below for about ten minutes while a stared out the window in disbelief. Just south was Glacier Grey, one of the classic ice superhighways that fill an entire valley. I got to see it all from 20,000 feet. A view money can't buy. Luck I never imagined to hope for. The Aussies had to hike in 15 miles to see the peaks; it probably meant more to them, but I was plenty smitten. Just south of Torres del Paine the Andes petered out for the first time since Colombia and we touched down half an hour later.
Charlie, Andrew, and Greg picked me up in the Hilux right on time and with that we went into town. The boys already had a room set up and within minutes of dropping my bag on the floor we were into the boxed wine. It pretty quickly turned into a fast night and the very end found us all in the local casino together. Andrew and Greg were up big while Charlie and I were reminiscing about the trip and discussing the endless options for the next one. I would have loved to have slept in until about 3:00pm the next day, but somehow we all managed to pile into the truck by 9:00am. Punta Arenas had a tsunami drill scheduled for Friday and if we weren't out of town by 10:00am they'd force us to participate. Just before we pulled out Greg decided to stay behind. His return flight is from Santiago in a couple days and he decided Punta Arenas was his best bet on actually getting back there. We said goodbye and got out before the fake wave washed us all away.
It was 180 miserable kilometers to the ferry landing we had to catch. Heading off along the shore on the way out Charlie spotted some ice burgs. They really do exist. We ended up waiting there for two hours when a semi broke down coming up the ramp off the ferry. It took two other semis strung up like a train to pull him out. After the twenty minute passage we arrived in Tierra del Fuego. I didn't really have any expectations for Tierra del Fuego, but I was still surprised to see that it's a desolate wind-swept prairie full of sparse, dry, dead looking vegetation. We continued south through a lot of sheep herds and eventually crossed back into Argentina. From there it was another 300k to Ushuaia. The Argentina section turned was beautiful. The southern tip is home to a small mountain range. It's full of waterfalls, rivers, and lakes. Very colorful and a mountaineer's dream. It reminded me a lot of Alaska, which make perfect sense. It's actually a perfect contrast to my Alaskan winter in Fairbanks exactly one year ago. Instead of three hours of daylight, we're getting three hours of darkness down here. I'm really glad someone else is up there driving the ice roads right now instead of me. That was a good place to make money, this is a better place to spend it.
We pulled into Ushuaia at 9:00pm in broad daylight, found a hotel, and crashed real hard real fast. It had been a long day after a long night. If it weren't for the sun staying up, I doubt we would have had the energy to make it. Ushuaia is nothing like I imagined. I expected hard, dirty port city at the end of a windy spit. Instead it's tucked in the shadow of the mountains behind it and surrounded with greenery. The place is teeming with tourism and in the daytime it's warm enough to get around in jeans and a tee shirt. This morning the three of us went out and toured the main streets. There's a lot to do here. Helicopter flights, penguin tours, trips to Antarctica. For me though, just being here will be enough. The place isn't cheap and neither is the entertainment. After eight months of adventure though, the idea of paying for a good time is kind of lost on me. Charlie and I long ago distinguished ourselves as separate from the tourists. Cramming into a tour van with ten of them and hearing about the unbelievable first five days of their two week vacation would make my ears bleed.
Andrew flies out on the 13th from Santiago which means we can't stay long. It's a shame because Ushuaia is wonderful. It's one of only a handful of places in the last eight months that enchants me. All the other big cities are nice, but once you've seen the colonial town center, the market and a couple bars, they all start to feel the same. Ushuaia is raw though, completely different. You feel adventurous just waking up here. The similarities to how I felt in Alaska are overwhelming. You don't have to look at a map to know you're at the ends of the Earth.
The drive back north will be a long one. We plan to head through El Bolson and Bariloche on the way. We're planning on two monstrous days behind the wheel to get up there and then a few more to get all the way. I do wish I had brought the bike down here. There's a slight sense that I left something unfinished, more like left something behind. But truthfully I was sick and tired of the ride for a while there and finally I can appreciate it again. If you ask Charlie, the wind and rain the whole way down would have only broken my spirits further. And I didn't start in Prudhoe Bay on the bike either. I flew from Fairbanks to Seattle, rode a bike 20,000 miles to Santiago, and flew to Ushuaia. It's nearly a mirror image in both hemispheres. Pole to pole in twelve months; good enough for me. I think anywhere I go from now on I'll wish I had that bike. Every time I step on an airplane I'll be wondering how many days it would take to ride to the destination. That's the feeling I want to be here with. The bike is the most beautiful method of transportation I've ever encountered.
Today Alex starts a twenty-hour trip home from Buenos Aires, not something I'm looking forward to. We had a good Skype chat from Santiago and can't wait to hit the road together back in Seattle on the first clear day. I want to thank everyone for all the comments so far, especially Chief and Rich; it's a good reminder how far I've come. It's hard to wrap my head around, but tomorrow I head north... for the first time in over a year.