The water rushed by cold and fast, and like a dog that’s scared of swimming, I padded back and forth at the river’s edge, waiting for the courage to make the plunge and swim for it. Or in this case, ride my tiny motorcycle to the other side. When I set out to do this part of Ruta 40 in the arid northwestern corner of Argentina, I didn’t expect to find myself fording rivers. But here I was, and it was time to take the plunge. This was not a hot summer day, but a fall afternoon ride that would take us 175km to biting air up 16,000 feet in the Andes range. With wet gear. Tom, standing in the river to find the best route, gave me the thumbs up and indicated like one of those guys in neon vests and light sabers on airport runways. I opened the throttle and bombed into the river, excited at the depth and chill of the icy current. Keeping my eyes up (and well away from that little rapid and drop off just a few feet away), I gunned it across and found myself emerging on the other bank unscathed. We would do this half a dozen more times by the end of the afternoon.
The ride was slow and hard going. I felt like Fred Flintstones peddling my little Honda up the side of the biggest mountains I’ve ever traveled over. Even well before approaching the summit at 16,000 feet, I was as out of breathe as my bike. I knocked her into 1st gear and slowly, slowly jerked forward until I reached flatter ground. Flat ground quickly turned vertical and I spent the next couple of hours fiddling with the fuel intake and coaxing the girl up and around hairpin turns and narrow switchbacks along cliff edges until at last, staggering to the top and frozen through, we snapped a few hasty pictures and hurried towards the decent in the dying light of day. Of the 175km of dirt road we would ride that day between Cachi and San Antonio de Cobres, we still had another 50km before reaching civilization. The last thing I wanted was to be caught having to camp in the cold alpine altiplano with damp gear and plain noodles for dinner.
By evening, we had only seen one other vehicle, two shepherds, a handful of inquisitive chinchillas and a few hundred startled llamas, their long puckered faces turned towards us and ears perked up high. By nightfall, we were following a dusty road when my headlight fizzled out, just before rounding the bend to the lights of a dusty town in the valley below.
It was the most beautiful and desolate ride of these last 12,000km through Chile and Argentina, and even though I write this just a few days later, it feels like it could have been weeks ago. The density of experiences each day pushes even recent adventures far back in memory, but certainly not to be forgotten.