March 6, 2018
Upsallata Argentina

Two days ago at breakfast Debbie Christian asked me to be on the lookout for her if she decided to take a break by the side of the road at some point during the day. She looked a little out of sorts. Half an hour later she was being packed into a cab and taken to the public hospital in Salta. It is unclear even at this moment what is actually going on, but speculation covered the waterfront from appendicitis to gall bladder inflammation to general GI distress to zombie apocalypse. By early afternoon it had been decided that she and Aillene Paull, a trauma nurse at home in Seattle, would fly to Santiago, Chile, and have the patient examined by the pros from Dover. There on Wednesday we would reunite.

The elite chase van crew, Jairo and your esteemed scribe, thus had its scheduled departure moved from 0800 to 1255, meaning that we would be racing the sun to the evening’s destination in Belén. I don’t dislike driving at night; I hate driving at night. There is nothing that can happen during the day to a motorcycle or a rider that will be in any way improved should the same thing happen after the sun goes down. Being in a car doesn’t make me feel much better. What with speed bumps, pedestrians, and animals the size of Mothra, Destroyer of Worlds, nothing good can ever be waiting for us in the dark.

Fortunately, we soon found ourselves on the prettiest road of the entire tour to date, La Ruta del Vino (The Wine Road) leading to Cafayate, a small town that could be right at home in the Napa Valley of California. The first store I saw was selling wine-flavored ice cream. If that weren’t enough of a draw for me, I discovered that a group of some 70 ex-pat Americans spends six months a year there playing golf and sopping up the local grape products. I am hopeful that Cafayate has not yet seen the last of me.

The road south was a gorgeous drive through a spectacular valley for at least 100 miles, then turned into an identical twin of U.S. 50 in Nevada. Helge calls these “Bob roads” because they’re long, flat, straight, and boring. I call them a state of tranquil bliss where I can understand the square root of -1 and other imaginary things. The only interruptions in this Eden are paved dips in the highway where rivers caused by flash floods cross the road surface. They are “los badenes,” a low-budget response to conditions where there isn’t enough money or concrete to build all the bridges you’d need to keep traffic moving. As long as the storms don’t get out of hand, the plan works. But steady rain can quickly turn dry river beds in the high desert into currents you’d be foolish to test in a tank. Read on.

The sun beat us to Belén by 15 minutes. By the time we’d finished dinner it was past 2300. I set two alarms for 0600 and 0601. The following day to San Juan, at just under 400 miles, would be the longest day of the entire trip.

Although I use the expression “chase van,” what we really are is a sweep vehicle, a term used in automobile rallying. Theoretically we are following the last of the bikes on the tracking line and sweeping up stragglers with our brooms along the way. There’s a time each morning when we’re scheduled to leave. The riders know it and try to beat us out of the gate. Not Paul. Not yesterday. Spike said his roommate was sleeping in. OK, he knows the risks.

So we occasionally get ahead of some riders, as we did yesterday morning, and have to turn back. The SPOT tracks show our negative progress beginning at about 0720 yesterday morning (all times are EST, though we are actually two time zones ahead of that now). Ron’s bike was having some kind of electrical problem. By the time we found him, he was running again.

The weather was worsening with the temperature dropping, wind kicking up, and storms firing all over the horizon ahead. Just after noon we received a message that a landslide had blocked our route. Nick and Franco with an early morning start had gotten through before the closure, but now all traffic was being diverted. Attentive readers will recall that when the tracking line fails as in the case of forced detours, all bets are off for GPS auto-routing. On his GPS Vince Cummings did a quick reroute and came up with a plot of 800 kilometers to the destination hotel, a prospect that would finish his day not much earlier than midnight. Helge’s GPS suggested a 485 km route, while Jairo’s GPS shaved it to 425 km. It was a kind of object lesson in chaos theory, where every model is completely dependent upon unique initial conditions.

And, as it turned out very quickly, none of it mattered much anyway because not ten minutes after the main group had decided upon a basic way to proceed, the road ahead was blocked by a flash flood that was literally carrying large logs across the highway without a great deal of effort. At least 50 vehicles were stacked up on each side of the cascading river, then about 25-30 meters across. After a few minutes of watching the flow, Ron grabbed Harrison’s hand and the two of them walked gingerly into the tide, crossed to the other side, bowed to applause, and walked back. That broke the ice. A gasoline truck was the first into the slop, quickly followed by Mike Paull’s and Helge’s sidecars. Moments later as we were congratulating ourselves on our bravery, we heard a report that Nick and Franco were backtracking from an impassable river. We thought they might be trapped.

As the afternoon wore on, Jairo and I lost touch with the rest of the field. The badenes were without number, though mercifully without a great deal of water either. Exiting from one particularly muddy badén, Jairo noticed that there were no motorcycle tire tracks. We stopped in the next town for an assessment of things. We were 245 km from San Juan. Bikes were scattered across northwest Argentina like BBs, apparently all heading to the barn. It would be a repeat of the day before where the brooms raced the sun to the hotel and lost. Nick and Franco arrived an hour after everyone else, but no one knows how they did it.

We know how Paul made it, however. He managed to get going around 0900, an hour after our sweep car began brooming the route. Following the green tracking line usually isn’t something he pays a lot of attention to, so he just plugged in the auto-route path and set sail. Around noon he had a leisurely lunch, took a half-hour nap along the side of the road an hour later, and cruised into San Juan at about 1730, two and one-one half hours before anyone else. Landslides? Nope. Impassable rivers? Nah. Just another day in the saddle for one of The Boys. That’s the Texas way.

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