November 27, 2006 GMT

There is a lot of water on the approach to Rio Grande. Early evening and mist smokes off the lakes and ponds and streams. Cold closes in. Visibility drops and my spectacles fog over. The fuel gauge is on reserve (this is a first in 22,000 Ks). There must have been a gas pump at the Automobile Club hostal. Why didn’t I stop? Had I stopped, I wouldn’t have lost the bike’s documents; I wouldn’t be cold and tired and depressed. I wouldn’t be scared of running out of gas and being stranded in the dark in the middle of nowhereland.
What has happened? Is it simply that I am near the end and want to get the journey over with – or has the cold and distance finally reached into my brain and flicked the off switch?

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 03:11 PM GMT

I fill with gas, take a right at The Liverpool Pub, an immediate left and a second right on the main avenue. Hotel Argentina is the low, single-floor tin building on the right. You can’t miss it. Graciela has worked it over with a bucket of yellow paint. Graciela is the owner. She has grown kids and has kept young. I find her reading Tarot cards at the kitchen table in company with three women friends. I ask if they are a coven or the Rio Grande chapter of the Feminist Union.
“Both,” says Graciela.
Two student-age young men join us at the table. They are expert in that student skill of both being there and not being there while taking up considerable space.
Graciela tells the one to take his cap off in the house so she can see his face and tells the other to get his feet of the chair.
I love her.
I remark on a monument to Argentine ownership of the Malvinas coexisting with The Liverpool Pub. One of the coven tells me that the cost of maintaining the Malvinas will be too great for Britain. In a matter of years the islands will be absorbed by Argentina. She talks of the islands as if they are uninhabited. On TV the news shows a battle between two political factions. The factions are participating in the re-internment of Peron at San Vicente. Most are armed with staves and baseball bats. One man fires a pistol. Imagine a kelper (Falkland Islander) watching on TV. Would he or she wish to be part of this society?

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 03:13 PM GMT

Rincon de Julio in Rio Grande is across the highway from the gas station. Julio is where the locals eat, those serious about food. Don’t try the smart restaurant attached to the expensive hotel. Julio’s is the semi shack next door. Be there before 9.30 or you won’t get a table. I had intended dropping by the Liverpool Pub for a pre-dinner drink. The pub was closed. An cop was on guard at the door and a couple of officers were out back searching the grass. Disappointing - I wanted to ask the owner whether he had named his pub in honour of the city or the football club, whether he had visited England - and how he felt about LOS MALVINAS SON ARGENTINAS at the next intersection. Dinner was good.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 03:16 PM GMT

I eat an excellent grill and stroll back passed the Liverpool Pub. The cops remain in occupation. The kitchen at the Hotel Argentina is welcoming. The coven and the students slope off to watch a couple of rented horror films on TV. Graciela and I sit and chat of this and that. Hotel Argentina is the best budget option in Rio Grande and Graciela gets the travellers. Most are good and easy. Some are weird; some have chemically recalibrated their brains; a few suffer from tangled wires in their heads. A young Frenchman stayed two months. He believed that Graciela was the Virgin Mary reincarnated. He was John the Baptist. He tended to stare at Graciela; this put her off cooking. Imagine attempting a mayonnaise with someone gazing at you, someone with such expectations. Virginal is a tough demand when you have three grown kids and have suffered a recent divorce.
I sit there in the kitchen utterly content while Graciela tells me of her life. She is both extraordinarily youthful and very adult. She has humour and she reads books.
I have been biking five months and have enjoyed no proper (nor improper) female company apart from those few days in Nazcar. I prefer a woman’s company. Men don’t do it for me. I miss Bernadette. I miss all four boys. I want to cuddle my grandson. And I want to visit with my daughter. Yeah, yeah, yeah...Get to bed, you old fool. It is 1.30 a.m. and you ride to Ushuaia in the morning. Thank you, Graciela.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 03:18 PM GMT

I have gained a day. I had a Friday yesterday. Now I discover that today is Friday. One day in six months is no big deal. I ride out of Rio Grande with regret. The Hotel Argentina has been good for me. Losing the bike documents dumped me into a deep depression. Graciela dug me out. Wind is standard in Patagonia. So is the cold. I ride across sheep country, cross rivers, pass by ponds, see the occasional farmhouse tucked into a clump of trees, wave to a Hereford bull (he ignores me).
The tail end of the Andes squeezes in from the west. Snowcaps march across the horizon. A forest of strange conifers trails moss. A huge lake opens to the right. I enter a World War One battlefield. It is a scene of grim devastation in which shattered trees are tumbled one on another. The few trunks that remain standing are stripped of branches; their peaks are shared and ragged and resemble the rotting teeth of some huge prehistoric animal. What happened?

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 03:20 PM GMT

Honda and I are on the final climb of our journey. Snow closes in. Sun-lit peaks shimmer. I stop for lunch at a restaurant on the right of the road. The owner quizzes me. Where do I go next? Where will I leave my bike? At the Honda agency. I, in turn, ask what happened to the trees. Beavers did the killing. The beavers were imports from Canada.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 03:21 PM GMT

I cross the final mountain pass to Ushuaia. A few specks of snow sting my cheeks. Snow turns to rain as I dip into town. Ahead lies the Beagle channel. I book into the Hostal Cruz del Sur. The owner, Luca, is Italian. He is a friend of Graciela’s. This is his birthday. He is thirty-three. Luca shows me to a bunkroom. Bunkrooms are unsuitable accommodation for an old man. How will I manage the climb to an upper bunk in the middle of the night? I cross the street to a hotel with rooms that have private baths. I look back over my shoulder and see Luca watching me. Argentine friends are preparing the barbecue on the sidewalk. Luca has invited me. I feel a traitor. I circle to a grocery and buy three bottles of red wine.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 03:23 PM GMT

I share the bunkroom (four bunks) with an absent Japanese. I unload the bike and ride out of town to the Honda agency. The owner of the restaurant where I stopped for lunch has called to announce my impending arrival. The manager expects me. The owner of the agency also owns a warehouse and cold store. The bike is to be garaged there. I ride back to town and park on the waterfront. A passing tourist takes my picture.

Posted by Simon Gandolfi at 03:25 PM GMT

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