HOL­LOW BE THY NAME

PAY­ING HIGH-AL­TI­TUDE PENANCE IN AR­GENTINA’S PUNA DE ATA­CAMA

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Edi­tor’s Note: Trek gave Bike the op­por­tu­nity to ex­pe­ri­ence the Full Stache first­hand in Ar­gentina’s Puna de Ata­cama re­gion, emu­lat­ing the rugged high-alpine en­vi­ron­ment where it was de­signed to ex­cel.

IT TOOK US THREE FULL DAYS TO GET HERE. NON­STOP TRAVEL. I’M tired and the rid­ing hasn’t even be­gun. Now I’m watch­ing the al­time­ter of our guide’s GPS spin like the reels of an old gas pump. Three thou­sand eight hun­dred; 3,850; 3,900; now … wait for it … 4,000. Four thou­sand fifty; 4,075. The diesel bur­bles to a stop on a rise. Four thou­sand one hun­dred six­teen me­ters. Thir­teen thou­sand five hun­dred feet. Our start­ing point. I creak open the door and am blasted by a gust. My head swims in heat, sti­fled.

The land­scape has the eerie haunt of Highway 50 in Ne­vada. Huge rounded lumps tak­ing their time to rise out of high, dry, desert. A monotony to empti­ness—hol­low that evokes help­less­ness and drains eyes upon view­ing. Fran­cisco José hoists his pack over his shoul­der. Lunchtime is over.

Pho­tog­ra­pher Dan Mil­ner, Trek’s Travis Brown and I fol­low José down the loose, dusty fire road dodg­ing run­nels while spilling into the val­ley’s base. Víc­tor Cuezzo is driv­ing the truck the un­avoid­ably very long way around to Co­ranzuli, a tiny, nearly de­serted for­mer min­ing and mil­i­tary out­post roughly 60 miles east of the Chilean bor­der. It’ll be our stop for the evening. Fac­ing us is a low-mileage, high-ef­fort, even-higher-el­e­va­tion trudge over an an­cient foot­path dat­ing back to pre-In­can times. The maze of foot­paths we’ll link over the next three days acted as trade routes, con­nect­ing Chile’s ocean to our west and Ar­gentina’s jun­gles to our east, pass­ing through where we are in the des­o­late Puna de Ata­cama plateau re­gion.

It Climbs

The one thing I don’t have is bear spray. Our faint sin­gle­track has led us up a drainage. To our right is a va­cant out­crop of low, stone houses penned in by a di­sheveled rock wall. Lin­ing our trail are charred stumps of scrub bushes. José ad­dresses our looks of con­fu­sion over nav­i­gat­ing the fire-roasted re­mains, “They burn them to scare away the puma, to pro­tect the herd,” he states, his arm ges­tur­ing for ef­fect in a broad hor­i­zon­tal sweep. There are prob­a­bly close to 15 black­ened heaps sur­round­ing us. How many pumas did they need to fend off?

As my stom­ach gur­gles on empty, tar­tas miss­ing, we’re thrust onto a spa­cious up­per plateau—some­how more

va­cant and ex­pan­sive than our start­ing val­ley and af­ter a few pedal strokes along its flank, our en­try drainage is all but in­vis­i­ble be­hind us. We’re in, open and airy, but some­how in, or at least upon—hoisted onto a lim­it­less ta­ble. Com­mit­ted. This now feels com­mit­ted. Across is the scar of our foot­path, il­log­i­cally etched ver­ti­cally into the next moun­tain’s broad shoul­der. Brown’s fad­ing fig­ure ped­als closer.

Be­fore my bike hits the ground, I’m al­ready swivel­ing my pack around, ex­hal­ing loudly and ey­ing my land­ing. The me­tal­lic ping of my cleats’ re­lease hasn’t left the air be­fore I’m al­ready seated. Sum­mit. Snack time. We were at well over 14,000 feet.

The sky dark­ens bring­ing with it a cool tinge, our mi­crowave has turned off. Far below us, a wide riverbed takes long, lack­adaisi­cal bends with shim­mer­ing rib­bons of wa­ter creas­ing its ser­pen­tine shape. Lay­ered ridges line the hori­zon and shad­owed hills darken its sides. In the sun­light’s re­prieve, the arid land­scape has a strangely Alaskan feel.

Un­fin­ished Busi­ness

The next morn­ing, while I’m huff­ing and puff­ing up switch­backs and Brown again fades from view, we come across a short el­derly woman tra­di­tion­ally at­tired—not to be con­fused with tired, which is how I feel while vaguely bat­tling a high-al­ti­tude headache. The woman bal­ances her box of goods on her hip and strikes up a con­ver­sa­tion with José. I can see her eyes glint­ing in the morn­ing rays be­neath her widely brimmed hat. I in­stinc­tively feel con­stric­tive tight­en­ing in my ch­est. This is her foot­path. We shouldn’t be here. It’s worse than poach­ing sin­gle­track in the States, it’s sac­ri­le­gious.

But de­spite the con­ver­sa­tion oc­cur­ring in Span­ish, I can tell it’s pos­i­tive. José smiles, nods, ban­ters back and she re­torts in un­du­lat­ing, vi­va­cious bub­bling. I have no idea what is said, but both are beam­ing.

“I came here two weeks ago,” ex­plains José. “She was very up­set. She did not want tourism com­ing to this re­gion and doubted I would ac­tu­ally guide peo­ple here with me, she did not un­der­stand bi­cy­cles. Now she sees that here we are and we have sup­ported the lo­cal town,” he smiles.

“We will see her daugh­ter and hus­band down the trail at her home, they will not be ex­pect­ing us but she is pleased we will meet them.”

As the day pro­gresses, we tra­verse a high crust, ero­sion deeply claw­ing into sun­baked gray con­glom­er­ate. We pass springs spilling over with vi­brant, vel­veteen-soft, Kelly-green patches of vega, and hard­ened llareta plants en­velop­ing the land­scape. I feel mois­ture in the air. Stone ru­ins peek from crevices and folds. The stark con­trast be­tween parched land and bab­bling brook is in­tox­i­cat­ing.

Three sig­nif­i­cant stone build­ings sur­round our health­i­est trib­u­tary of the day. Rock heaps pressed to­gether by fen­ce­posts form an el­e­vated wall, guarded by an ail­ing shade awning. We’re in the court­yard of the com­pound be­fore we re­al­ize oth­er­wise, un­nec­es­sar­ily feel­ing voyeuris­tic from our foot­path’s in­va­sion of pri­vacy.

We gen­tly lay our bikes on the vega, a peace­ful act of self-dis­ar­ma­ment and Mil­ner and José ap­proach the wall as we hear goats bleat­ing. A young woman and older man peer over the fence. The woman’s eyes flicker as José of­fers an in­nocu­ous hola and she jumps be­hind the fen­ce­post, safe­guarded from view. The old man stays planted, un­af­fected. Mil­ner con­verses with him and slowly, cau­tiously, the young woman with­draws from her post, fear of the un­known still ev­i­dent on her young face. This is the home of our el­derly tourism ad­vo­cate.

In to­day’s age of found gems, it’s pretty hard to not fol­low the foot­steps of some­body In­sta­gram Fa­mous. I will never for­get the look on the young woman’s face.

Death March

Day three breaks and we’re in a tan­gle of red-rock canyons be­fore we know it, be­neath an un­re­lent­ing maze of rims and it hazes over any hint of ori­en­ta­tion I once had. Beyond that, it’s hot. Re­ally hot. The trail has all but van­ished, it’s a guess­ing game of which ridgetop is right, how to cob­ble to­gether cairns across slabs that seem de­void of or­ga­ni­za­tion. How could In­cans ever line up this mess?

We eat lunch atop a rise that gives a bit of van­tage. There seems no end to this sea. The red rock ruf­fles for eter­nity, fill­ing the hori­zon. Plump lumps in the dis­tance be­neath patchy clouds still in­dif­fer­ently wall us in. As I stare at hunks of salami, hunger de­pleted by heat, I can see them sweat­ing. How will I muster the gump­tion to fin­ish?

This is the land­scape where cow­boys die. When the can­teen tum­bles from their shoul­der, last drop trick­ling onto red sand and they slump, de­posited in a heap off their horse, never to move again. We’re there. I rec­og­nize the walls sur­round­ing us.

Af­ter an­other scratchy scram­ble, we buoy­antly pop onto an erod­ing or­ange ridge skirt­ing a canyon. Across, its pocked walls con­tort into a mil­lion grue­some faces. Is it the heat, or is it me? They al­most look foggy. We press on, crunch­ing across sand­stone, shrubs and gran­u­lar trail. My wa­ter is hot.

It feels like an out-of-body ex­pe­ri­ence. I can’t see my­self from above, but I don’t be­lieve I’m con­nected to what I see bum­bling and feel­ing for trac­tion. I walk down tech sec­tions I could eas­ily ride. Doesn’t mat­ter, I’m ob­serv­ing any­way.

Our rock fin fades into the chasm of faces, at its base is liq­uid, for­merly wa­ter. I flop and fill my reser­voir, wa­ter strid­ers skit­ter­ing the sur­face. Gulp­ing shame­lessly, I look up. The sky has turned. I ask José if he’s ever ridden this be­fore. He pauses, “Yes …” he seems wary to com­mit to my ac­cu­sa­tion. “Why?” I ask, I can’t hide my dis­dain. “I love the land,” he says calmly, look­ing away. I can al­most feel his eyes roll, though I’m sure they don’t. This white kid just doesn’t get it. Can’t hack it.

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