Saturday, December 29, 2007

A Busy Week

When most people drive 2600+ miles across the country, they probably spend a few days relaxing. Not us.

After celebrating my mother's birthday in Lexington on the 22nd, we did relax a bit on the 23rd. However, on the 24th, I had to get an oil change, and then drive to Roanoke to do all the Christmas shopping I hadn't been able to do either overseas or driving across this large country of ours. When we came home, it was time to get ready for Christmas dinner, and then wrap all the presents we bought earlier. Before we knew it, it was 2 AM on Christmas Eve/Day, so it was time to go to bed.

We had a great Christmas Day, but got off to a slightly late start, and then drove down to Tarboro, NC, to visit my grandmother and mom's side of the family. While we had a great time, it was another 4 hours of driving after a relatively full week of traveling.

So, on the 26th, surely we went without driving, right? Wrong. We had a family reunion in the small burg of Ahoskie, NC, home of my great uncle.

The 27th? If you guessed more driving, you're either a Pavlovian dog, or you're beginning to pick up on the theme of this entry. We bade farewell to my family and headed to Raleigh to find our new home, hopefully as quickly as possible. We assumed it would take us a couple of days to find an apartment, but we were able to find one relatively quickly (more in another entry).

Because of how quickly we were able to find a great apartment, we then had the choice of either staying in Raleigh in a friend's house, with the friends on vacation, or going ahead and driving to Huntsville. If our friends had been in town, we would have stayed, but as it was, we decided to drive the 580 miles or so to Huntsville.

As the bulk of the southeastern US is mired in a substantial drought, rain is great, but it certainly didn't make for the easiest driving conditions, particularly through the mountains of I-40 along the NC/TN border. But, we made it, despite one of my new windshield wipers deciding that it didn't want to remain locked. Fortunately, we were right near an exit when this happened, but the locking mechanism on the windshield wiper broke, so the wiper completely popped out. We were able to see through the rain-covered windshield to find an auto parts store in Winston-Salem, and replace it.

That excitement aside, it looks like we finally get to stay put for a few days! We're pretty excited about it, and we're equally excited that we got to see our cats again. We hadn't seen them since late October (me)/early November (Erin), so we were definitely happy to see our guys again. They have certainly enjoyed having a big house to roam around in during our absence.

I'm curious to figure out roughly how many miles we've traveled in the last couple of months. Maybe I'll post it in another entry if I can find some of the mileages that we traveled within South America.


Sunday, December 23, 2007

We made it!

We're in Lexington after 4 days of driving across the country. Today was certainly the easiest day of the trip, with only about 6 hours and 15 minutes from Dayton, OH to Lexington. We were also helped by having no bad weather along the way, which after the previous 2 days, was a welcome relief.

We left Dayton a bit later this morning than we had had in mind, because our wakeup call never came. Oops. But, it didn't matter, as we hauled through Ohio, West Virginia, and then slowed down in time to pass 2 cops within 30 miles of the Virginia line. Welcome to VA, out-of-staters, where we like to rob your money while wearing disguises that look like policemen.

While West Virginia is a beautiful state, most of us are well aware of some of the stereotypes attached to the state. However, today, within literally one mile of the Ohio/WV border, we saw a dead deer on the side of the road with 2 dogs eating it. Welcome to West Virginia.

Anyway, we're here! Hope all of you with holiday travel plans have fast and easy trips!

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Our Route Explained

So, it occurred to me that some readers will have no clue why we chose the route we did. After all, if you enter "Pasadena, CA" and "Lexington, VA" into Google maps, you probably won't find anything close to our route.

Well...the ideal route would have been to pick up I-40 just north of Barstow, CA, and then stick with it all the way into eastern Rocky Top, where we would simply pick up I-81 into Lexington.

2 problems with that:
1) That's way, way too easy and danger-avoiding.
2) We just took I-40 all the way to Memphis in October.

So, to avoid repetition, we wanted to do something different. From south to north, here were our major choices of interstates:
I-10 - REALLY boring through Texas, depressing to drive nearly 900 miles in the same state, and goes really far out of the way to the south.
I-10 to I-20 - Possibly even more boring through Texas. Unbelievably flat on I-20.
I-40 - Already explained.
I-15 to I-70 to I-64 - A possibility, but I've been on I-64 from STL to Virginia more times than I'd like to count.
I-15 to I-70 all the way - Reasonable, but it hits Kansas, a state that I'd like to avoid. If you have to ask, you haven't driven that stretch of road.
I-15 to I-80, then south. Pretty cool, but a huge snowstorm was supposed to drill Salt Lake right as we got there, and my car wouldn't have done well in those mountains in a serious storm.
Any number higher than 80 - too far north.

So, we got our route by a combination of lots of factors. We got some snow, but nothing as bad as we would have hit further north. Also, this allowed us to cross the plains a day ahead of a snowstorm that's supposed to hit. Lastly, we avoid Kansas. Check, check, and check.

So, we ended up with:
I-210 in California
I-15 through CA, Vegas, 30 miles of Arizona, and about halfway north into Utah.
I-70 through Utah (desolate but gorgeous), Colorado (weather excitement).
I-76 up into Nebraska (avoids Kansas)
I-80 through Nebraska and Iowa (you have to cross the plains somewhere)
I-74 to Indianapolis (lots of fog)
I-70 to Dayton, OH, where we are now.
US-35 down to I-64, and on home.

So, that's the explanation. Apologies to Dorothy and Dwight Eisenhower.


Merry Christmas! EAT MORE BEEF.

So said a sign we passed in extreme northeastern Colorado on I-76, a predominantly agricultural region of the heartland.

So, without offense to any vegetarians out there, we'll let that be our Christmas greeting to you.

Enjoy that steak.

Rob and Erin

One Day More

Another Day, Another Destiny.

Ok, no more show tunes.

We've spent the last 3 days driving across the country, and now sit in our hotel in Brookville, Ohio, just west of Dayton. We're ready to be home, but have a few more hours to go.

As a quick aside, for anyone looking for cheap but good hotel rooms, find "Room Saver" magazines in truck stops. They have pretty good deals on a decent range of hotels, and can easily save 20 or 25 bucks even off the AAA price. The more you know...

Yesterday morning, we woke up and tuned into the Weather Channel as we ate our continental breakfast near Grand Junction, CO. I-70 over the Rockies was going to be our tough day weather-wise, so we were anxious to see what lay ahead of us. There were a few bands of snow on the radar, but nothing too serious. So, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, we pulled out.

The first 40 miles or so was fine, so we got excited, but near the town of Glenwood Springs, snow started falling, and trucks were kicking up all kinds of garbage on the windshield. Now, when you live in southern California, changing windshield wiper blades isn't really something you think about. As a result, I crawled down the freeway to the next exit to buy some new wiper blades. The Conoco station at which we stopped didn't have any (???), but we were directed to a Target and found some, as well as some Starbucks to get our morning going.

An hour and a few curse words later, we figured out how to get the new blades on, so we took off again, after an unintentional tour of Glenwood Springs. We got back on the road, and saw that they were now requiring chains for all trucks. We had chains with us, but certainly preferred to not have to use them, so we hoped it would stay clear enough for our 2WD car to make it over the pass. As we slowly approached Vail Pass, the snow got quite a bit worse, so we eventually decided to pull off and take care of business and buy some water in case we got stuck on the pass. Naturally, the gas station promised by the blue interstate sign happened to be 3 miles off the road, but there wasn't another nearby exit, so we didn't have much choice. Of course, this road wasn't plowed at all, so I got to practice my winter mountain driving. "Turn into the skid." "The best way to pull a donut is..." All words of wisdom from my driver's ed teacher.

So, we crawled through the pass, sliding a bit, but never in serious danger of losing control of the car. We then had to stop again as we ran out of windshield washer fluid, but then we coasted through the Eisenhower Tunnel at over 11000 feet, and then eventually wound our way down into Denver, which was sunny and dry. Amazing the difference a couple of miles of elevation can make.

After an uneventful trip up I-76 into Nebraska, we dined at a Wendy's in North Platte, NE, and then moved onto York, where we spent the night.

We slept modestly at the Holiday Inn of York, NE, and then got up to cross the heartland. I led a guided tour of my childhood home, school, church, and various spots of mischief in Bellevue/Omaha, and then we crossed the Missouri into Iowa.

It turns out that there is a rule that any state that starts with an I must be completely socked in by fog. Literally a couple of miles into Iowa, we couldn't see anything beyond the road, and that continued all the way to the Indiana/Ohio border. At times, we couldn't drive at anywhere near interstate speeds. At least we didn't miss much scenery-wise.

The highlight of the day came with Erin sleeping and me driving, somewhere between Des Moines and Iowa City on I-80. We were going along at about 70 mph, a bit too fast given the fog, but fine as long as no one slammed on the brakes. However, the fog got worse suddenly, and everyone slammed on the brakes. I had left enough room in front of me to stop, but the guy on my tail had left about 4 inches, so I ended up swerving into the median so he wouldn't slam into my backside. A guy a few cars in front of my swerved so far into the snowy median that he almost slid into the oncoming westbound lane. He had passed me going way too fast for conditions a few seconds before, so it was hard not to feel as though he received his comeuppance. He was spinning his tires, unsuccessfully trying to get going when we drove by.

Otherwise, not much happened. The fog over the Mississippi was so bad that we couldn't see the water from the bridge on I-80. We wound our way down a foggy I-74 and picked up I-70 in Indianapolis, and then cruised to Dayton.

So, here we are! We're hoping for a smooth day tomorrow and a safe arrival in Lexington.


Thursday, December 20, 2007

Eastbound and Truckin'

Today was the first day of our cross-country drive. We began this morning with an incredibly full car in southern CA, and are now comfortably in a Comfort Inn in Fruita, Colorado, where it is officially butt-cold. We're about 20 miles east of the Utah-Colorado border after a solid drive of about 760 miles.

We had a smooth trip for most of the day, other than some thick clouds and rain in southern CA, of all places, particularly as we were climbing the pass on I-15 to head up toward Vegas. Fortunately, it was dry when we packed up the car, so we had that going well for us as we waved goodbye to our home of the past few years.

We got stuck in some traffic in Vegas, but other than that, didn't really have any problems on the road. Southern Utah is a particularly amazing area, and even the interstates travel through some amazing scenery. We were immediately glad that we didn't take I-40 again, which would have been the shortest/easiest route, but also carries with it a healthy dose of bordeom and flatness.

Tomorrow, we'll see if we regret our decision of trying to drive a 2 wheel drive car through the Eisenhower Tunnel in December. But at least we avoid the panhandle of Texas.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Culture Shock, Part 2

The biggest example of culture shock I've encountered so far was an unexpected one. While Christmas decorations were certainly ubiquitous in Argentina and Chile, they were, for the most part, relatively tasteful. Stores would have a wreath on the door, streetlights had standard snowflakes or twinkling lights. Houses might have had candles and wreaths, but not a lot more than that.

Enter America.

It's difficult to describe the experience of seeing the first behemoth inflatable snowman riding a motorcycle, 10 foot snowglobe, or 2-storey Santa Claus. It gets even harder to describe when you've been completely out of the country, thousands of miles both physically and culturally from the Griswolds. Fortunately, seeing houses along these lines has really put us in the Christmas spirit, significantly accelerating our acclimitization process.

It's as if someone greeted us at the airport. "Welcome back. The little lights are not twinkling."

On a completely unrelated note, as I've typed this entry, the "save now" button underneath the window in which I'm typing has grown with each keystroke. It's now several inches long, and it looks weird.


Monday, December 17, 2007

Culture Shock

Well, not extreme culture shock, but it's amazing how quickly we noticed the sheer overwhelming number of options we have, as Americans, in nearly anything we could possibly want. As an example, when I was looking through the bookstores in the Miami airport, I was absolutely amazed by the insane number of magazines that I could have bought. Obviously, it's not like I didn't know that before, but after a couple of weeks in which my 2 primary English language options were "take it" or "leave it," it was certainly pretty shocking to see 14 different lawn care magazines after several weeks of seeing nothing in English.

The same thing was true in the realm of airport restaurants, although we didn't get to really enjoy our choices because for whatever reason, MIA keeps most of their restaurants before you get to security, and since you can't take drinks through, it's not a very layover-friendly airport. While Argentina and Chile have some franchises, they certainly are nowhere near the state of proliferation that they are in North America, although it's possible that Chile in particular has more fast-food restaurants than even the US does. Chile's, however, aren't generally franchises, other than the few McD's in Santiago.

On a completely unrelated note, after loading the page so much on South American computers, my blog's default language is now Spanish.


Sunday, December 16, 2007

Back in the US

We're back in LA! We had a long but uneventful trip home, landing early this morning in Miami and then connecting onto LA. That's one way to avoid the winter weather delays at airports, I suppose.

That was my first time in the Miami airport, but it rapidly moved up my most-hated airports list. We had to clear immigration, get our bags, go through customs, walk across Dade County, re-check-in, despite already having boarding passes and bag tags checked to LAX, then go through a heinous security line. After all this, we found out that Miami hardly has any restaurants on the far side of security, so we had to get breakfast sandwiches from Pizza Hut, of all places. Sweet. Who designs these airports anyway?

It should be noted that I've gotten so used to typing on Spanish setup keyboards that it's taking me several tries to remember where the various punctuation marks are on American style keyboards.

Anyway, we'll post more later.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Last Day

As with all good things, this trip too must come to an end. We are currently in the amazing city of Valparaíso, Chile, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is the second largest in Chile (I think), and is perched precariously on about 3 dozen hills above the harbor below. The city has been damaged several times by earthquakes, but each time manages to rebuild and prosper. Unique to the city are the ascensores, which are basically really old elevators that take passengers from the few low streets near the harbor to the various hills that rise sharply above. Most were built around the turn of the last century, and haven´t been introduced to a can of WD-40 since then. The really do sound awful, which isn´t reassuring when you´re sitting 200 feet off the ground.

Anyway, we´re going to go enjoy our last few hours in Valpo before we head back to Santiago and then back to the US overnight.

We will continue to update the blog after we get home, as I realize that more detailed accounts of our last couple of weeks are still lacking. Also, we´ll post pictures when we get them on our computer, so please keep checking in!


Grizzly Adams DID Have a Beard

In a sad turn of events yesterday, I had to shave my beard of nearly 2 weeks. I had planned on shaving before the trek started, but we had a couple of weeks of very limited hot water, so I ended up continuing to grow it through the hike.

I now know what it must be like to send a child off to the Peace Corps or some other distant land.

That might be a bit melodramatic, but you get the point. I did take pictures of each of the stages of shaving, including a goatee, handlebar moustache, and a Jeff Kent style moustache. Assuming they came out well, I can post them when we get home and settled.


Wednesday, December 12, 2007

We´re back!

We´ve survived our trek on the "W", the primary trail running through the beautiful Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, here in southern Chile.

As it was our first ever overnight backpacking trip, we probably bit off a bit more than was advisable, since it´s a 5 day, 4 night adventure. There are places at which you can buy (very, very overpriced) supplies should the need arise, but other than some bread, we went the whole time without purchasing anything.

That said, as it was our first backpacking trip, we were treated to the following:
More Rain
Even More Rain
Moderate Breezes
Gale Force Winds
Hurricane Force Gusts
Yet Again More Rain
Dust Storms
Getting Blown Over (Literally) By Wind (Several Times)
Lots of Hills
50 Miles of Hills

And more...

But, we had a great time overall, made some friends, and most importantly, survived.

We´ll write more later on. Tomorrow we fly up to Santiago and will spend the last couple of days of our trip there and in nearby Valparaíso.


Friday, December 7, 2007

Movies on Argentine Buses

This is a quick random thought, but I had wanted to mention it before and had forgotten.

Argentines show some seriously non-kid-friendly movies on buses. The most obvious example of this was Mel Gibson´s Apocalypto, which is so bloody that it makes "Saving Private Ryan" look like "Heidi." There are no volume controls, and there´s basically no way of keeping a child´s eyes off of the TV outside of trying to distract him. On a somewhat related note, watching a movie in Mayan with Spanish subtitles was a new one for me. Fortunately, you don´t have to be Cervantes to follow the movie, since it relies much more on visual imagery than on dialogue.

Some of the other movies they´ve shown have been pretty questionable as well or general audiences, although in fairness, at least language isn´t a problem for the kids, since most of the movies are in English with Spanish subtitles.


Chili in Chilly Chile

Enough of the horrible puns already!

With that out of my system, we´re in Puerto Natales, Chile, marking the first time that either of us has been more than 5 feet into Chile (see El Bolsón entries below if you´re confused). Yesterday, we said good-bye to Argentina, as we made our way to Punta Arenas, Chile. It was a pretty long day on the bus, but we managed to figure out the amount of pesos we´d need nearly exactly, so we don´t have any useless money in our wallets for the time being.

When we came back from dinner on Wednesday night, we had a message saying that our bus, which was supposed to come at 6 AM, had been changed to the even more unpleasant hour of 5:30. Sweet. As there are no actual buses from Ushuaia to Pta. Arenas on Thursdays, we had to take a mini-bus to the small town of Rio Grande, and then change to a real bus. So, we got up really really early, at some time I never care to even think of again, and waited for our minibus, which naturally, was 20 minutes late. At least it gave us time to leisurely finish our coffee before hitting the road. We both slept until the bus stopped in the town of Tolhuin (calling it a town is generous) at a local eatery.

While Erin found a restroom, I looked up, only to realize I was standing about 15 feet from a toucan. Seriously. A real, live toucan. Since I was still half-asleep, I was jolted out of my reverie by the shrieking of a large parrot on the other side of the room. It turns out that they have a small aviary, with 2 toucans, 2 large blue and green parrots, and several other bright species of jungle birds, in addition to a couple of birds more local to Tierra del Fuego, that look somewhat like pheasants, but without the longer feathers. They would have made a good meal.

Erin came out and got to see the wildlife as well, and then we headed toward Rio Grande. We arrived an hour before our next bus left, so I went to find a supermarket to spend the remainder of our pesos on lunch for the bus. Rio Grande is the only city on Tierra del Fuego of any size other than Ushuaia. In the 1970s, the government offered heavy incentives for people to move down to Rio Grande and work in the sheep-raising industry, and as a result, the population swelled to nearly 100,000. However, in the 90´s, the incentives were removed, and the town is fairly sad looking today, as many people have moved off. The fact that I haven´t seen the sun in a week didn´t help the overall depressingly gray atmosphere.

So, food in hand, we headed toward the Chile border. We crossed without a problem, despite being hassled by a Chilean border guard who insisted on speaking Spanish faster than the guy on the old Micro Machine commercials. Each time I´d ask him to repeat, making it very clear that I couldn´t understand him, he simply spoke faster and mumbled more. We eventually figured out that he thought we hadn´t each filled out an entry form, when in fact, I had handed him both of our forms. What a dweeb.

Our passports heavier due to the extra ink from a new stamp, we sat on the bus for most of the rest of the afternoon. I had some confusion as to what time it was, because everything I had read said that Chile was an hour behind Argentina, but it turns out that Chile observes daylight savings time, while Argentina doesn´t, so that makes them the same time for 6 months of the year. This proved to be inconvenient, because I had wanted to buy bus tickets for this morning, but the place had closed by the time I realized my mistake. Oops.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. We did see a ton of flamingos in lakes on our drive, which was unexpected. I had always thought they were tropical, but apparently they live down here in large numbers. At one point, we had to stop for a herd of literally a couple of thousand sheep to get out of the middle of the road. Our driver proceeded ever so slowly, sometimes honking to move the sheep. It probably caused a 5 minute delay total, and was quite a sight.

Our night was spent in a hostel in Punta Arenas, which is the largest town in this part of Chile by far. We took a nap after arriving, and slept a bit longer than we wanted to. It´s easy to do that when the sun is still shining bright late into the evening and night. We walked into the middle of the town, which was fairly pleasant, and had dinner at a solid place called La Luna. It had quite a bit of character, and included a map on the wall on which you could place a pin for your location. The LA area, as well as Raleigh, was already occupied by lots of pins, so we passed. I had a steak, and Erin had a Chilean Sea Bass (just Sea Bass down here), and prices seem to be even cheaper than in Argentina, although we´ve heard that´s not generally true. Regardless, the food was good and cheap, and we had a private room for less than 20 bucks, so I´m certainly not complaining.

An odd thing about Chile is that 500 Chilean Pesos make 1 American dollar, so I felt like a multimillionaire walking up to an ATM and withdrawing over 100,000 pesos.

We really haven´t seen the sun for about a week. It seems like it´s always gray and drizzly. Hopefully the weather is just preparing to be bright and sunny for our upcoming time in Torres del Paine National Park, where we will likely be camping for a few days, since the simple "rustic" lodging is quite expensive, and not in a "you get what you pay for" kind of way. We´ll decide that later today though.

That´s about it. We´ll post more later most likely, but if not, we´ll be offline for the next 5 days or so, while we hike in the National Park. Many consider it the best national park in South America, so we´re pretty excited about it.


Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Finis Terre

Everywhere you walk down here in Ushuaia, you see signs saying either the subject line, or "Fin del Mundo," which mean "End of the World." We are in the southernmost city in the world, according to all the signs, although standing on the Beagle Channel, it's possible to look southeast and see a small settlement on the Chilean side of the Channel. So, who knows. I do know that it's possible to get a "Fin del Mundo" stamp in my passport in a local museum here, so while, cheesy, it's pretty cool.

We're at nearly 55 degrees south latitude, so we're further from the equator than any point in the US outside of Alaska, and nearly any major city in Canada, unless you count Yellowknife or Whitehorse. The mountains down here are gorgeous, and due to the cold year-round climate, they are covered with snow down to about 1000 feet above sea level. We got snowed on quite a bit during a hike yesterday (beats the heck out of rain!), and the temperature today has struggled to get out of the 30's, with a biting wind. Yesterday, as the front came through, the wind was blowing (not counting gusts) to nearly 40 mph, making for a pretty chilly couple of days.

One cool thing down here is the fact that because we're so far south, we're getting well over 18 hours of daylight each day. Even at midnight, it's not completely dark on the southern horizon. Certainly beats the short northern hemisphere days at this time of the year. Maybe we'll have to come down here every year...

We'll post more on our time hear later, but that's where we are. We're only about 500 miles or so from Antarctica as the crow flies, and numerous boats are getting ready to leave from here in the coming weeks. Tickets don't come cheap, of course, as the cheapest thing we've seen has been for about $4000 US per person, and these ships aren't exactly cruise ships. Maybe some other time. I'll need to get there eventually, but that will have to wait until I have a bit more money.


Ice, Ice, Baby

From El Chaltén, we headed back down to El Calafate to see the primary sight in the area, the fantastic Perito Moreno Glacier, which is in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. It´s the primary reason that people visit El Calafate, and as our bus arrived relatively late in the evening, we found that the "Big Ice" tour was booked up, so we had to go for the much less cool-sounding "minitrekking". I still haven't figured out why "hikes" to Americans are "treks" to anyone else, but that's beside the point. I have trouble making myself call walking for a couple of hours along a well-marked trail in the woods a "trek," but again, therein lies a story for another day.

El Calafate lies in the foothills of the Andes, but itself is only 700 or 800 feet above sea level, lying on the shores just above Lago Argentino. Because it's 50 km east of the Andes, it lies more in the Patagonian steppe, which is a glorified way of calling something a desert, except it doesn't really have the typical warm climate of a desert, so they call it something else. But, for all practical purposes, it doesn't rain that much, and is fairly brown.

All that to say, we awoke to a sunny day and obviously didn't expect things to be much different barely 30 miles away in the park, or 50 miles away at the glacier itself. Oops. With each mile as we approached the mountains, the skies got more and more gray and then the drizzle started, and didn't let up for virtually the entire day, only varying in its overall intensity. Fortunately, as we were going to be walking on ice, we were dressed well, and while the weather certainly wasn't pleasant, it wasn't a problem either.

We were awakened by a knock on our door at about 7:10 saying that our bus would pick us up in 20 minutes. Interestingly enough, the night before, our hostel clerk said to come to the desk around 7:30, and they would let us know what time we'd be picked up, and we'd have time to have breakfast and get ready and all that jazz. So, in a flash, we got our stuff together, threw down breakfast, and hopped on our bus.

We had a bilingual guide, which was helpful, on our way into the park, who told us a few things about the glacier. Unlike many glaciers in the northern hemisphere, many glaciers in the Andes are either in a state of equilibrium or even gaining mass in recent years, and the Perito Moreno Glacier is in a fairly interesting state combining both equilibrium and growth, and has been in this state since 1917.

The glacier comes down from higher elevations and eventually reaches the shores of the aforementioned Lago Argentino, which eventually flows out into the Atlantic. In a normal state, it covers most of the lake. However, as it grows, it eventually ends up reaching land on the other side of the lake, which divides the lake in two. The main body of water, Lago Argentino, continues to drain into the Atlantic, but the other side is left without an outlet. Over the next year or two, snowmelt and rainwater fill the other side of the lake, so at times it's nearly 10 meters higher in elevation than Lago Argentino. The extra water creates extra pressure on the portion of the glacier that is dividing the two sides of the lake. Eventually, the water is able to force its way through the glacier, carving a small arch. Within a few days of the initial arch being carved, the arch grows rapidly, and eventually, what's left of the ice can't support its own weight, and it all comes crashing down in tremendous fashion. The park had time-lapse pictures of this event, and because huge chunks of ice fall from heights of over 200 feet, it looks as though a bomb exploded in the glacier. It causes waves and splashes that inundate spots over 100 feet up on the nearby hillsides, and obviously, boats aren't allowed on the lake when this event is about to happen. It happens once every few years, depending on precipitation/temperature/etc over the previous few years. It didn't happen for 16 years before 2004, but then happened again in 2006, and the glacier has already reached the other side of the lake again, indicating a possibility that it will happen next year.

Ok, enough science.

We got to see the standard panoramic view of the glacier from a couple of miles away, which, while impressive, didn't really do much, as it looks the same as any other glacier. Fortunately, the bus took us closer, so we spent about an hour and a half on various pedestrian-friendly trails that let you get relatively close to the glacier, and it was then that we realized just how huge the glacier was. At many spots the ice is hundreds of feet thick, and even in the relatively warmer climate right at the level of the lake, the glacier was almost 200 feet high. Later in the summer, large chunks of ice fall into the lake from those heights as the glacier calves and apparently the walkways are lined with photographers trying to get the perfect picture. Still in the springtime now, we saw some still large chunks of ice fall, but not nearly to the extent of what we would have seen in February and March.

From there, we drove around to the other side of the glacier (the side of the lake that gets shut off by the glacier, as described above), and then we took a boat out in front of the glacier. We obviously didn't get too close, but it was an amazing change in perspective from the land-based views. It's quite an experience to look up and see 20 storeys of ice looming above you.

The boat dropped us off at a small shelter where we had lunch, and then hiked over with our guide to a point at which we would start walking on the glacier. I had walked on a glacier once before, in Banff-Jasper in Canada, but that was a relatively lame glacier compared to this. We were fitted for crampons, and then began our "mini-trek."

During our trek, we got to walk up and down really steep faces of ice, and were eventually out toward the middle of the glacier. While we could still see land, in most directions, all we could see was the white/blue of the glacier. At times, it looked like something out of the movie "Alive," with the plane crash in the Andes in winter (minus the cannibalism, thankfully). If you got thirsty, you could walk over to the numerous little pools of glacial water and just take a drink. Definitely won the "best-tasting water I've ever had" award, other than the numbness-then-stinging-pain in my hands.

From there, we eventually walked back to land on the side of the glacier and crawled around in an ice cave. As a note to anyone who might be going on a group tour of any kind, if you want to take pictures, please do so in a way so as to minimize the inconvenience to anyone else. We managed to get stuck behind this obnoxious couple who insisted on filming every aspect of their trip through the cave, both with video and still cameras, except it wasn't wide enough to get around them. It took us about 10 minutes longer than everyone else because of this. Grumble...

We walked back on the ice for a while, took some more pictures, and then found that they had set up a table with snacks and scotch. So, I officially rang in my 28th birthday by drinking scotch (good stuff too, not the Argentine swill) while standing on a glacier. Not bad!

We eventually worked our way back home and enjoyed our night in El Calafate. I had a filet mignon to celebrate my birthday (for 10 bucks), and an overall great day.


Sunday, December 2, 2007

Hiking in El Chaltén

After our two long days of bus trips (and mishaps), we arrived in the small and remote village of El Chaltén, which is at the northern edge of Los Glaciares National Park and sits at the base of Mount Fitz Roy, approximately 12,000 feet. The Fitz Roy area is an amazing (and highly photographed) series of tall point peaks that tower about glaciers and lakes. The town itself was an odd mix of having little to offer besides spectacular scenery and amazing hiking and being extremely touristy at the same time. This is the area where we pretty much stopped posting blogs since there wasn't a decent internet connection anywhere.

On our first day trek, we hiked up to Laguna Torre at the foot of Cerro Torre, which is about a 10,000 foot peak that is situated just underneath Fitz Roy . This was a really nice and scenic hike that followed along next to the Rio Fitz Roy. Before we left for our hike, we asked at our hostel about the weather forcast. The lady working at the desk told us, somewhat ominously that there is never really a forecast and no one ever knows what the weather will be. After looking at these peaks, it was clear that they pretty much make their own weather patterns. Everything we read said to "dress like an onion" and be prepared for the weather to change dramatically within a matter of minutes. So, we set off for our hike with a wide variety of clothes and layers. The weather was quite nice for the first part of the hike, so we felt like we way overestimated the elements and stopped quickly to shed a few layers. The hike ends up at a small lake (Laguna Torre) situated at the bottom of Glacier Torre. By the time we reached the lake, the weather had changed dramatically and was insanely windy, blowing between 50 and 60 mph...seriously! Actually, "windy" really doesn't do that justice. We were working hard to just to remain standing, and at several points we both felt like the wind was about to pick us up and toss us around. The lake had big icebergs floating around it, and the wind was blowing the icy water around like crazy. Supposedly, this spot has really nice views of Mount Fitz Roy on a clear day, but Fitz Roy was conspicuously hiding behind a cloud. We had planned to spend some time here and enjoy the serene glacial lake, but we made a beeline back to the trail and the shelter of the woods. Round trip, this was about a 14-mile hike (3 hours each way), so we were quite tired by the end.

The next morning, we set off to do an even longer and notoriously challenging hike to Laguna de los Tres. This hike seemed to be THE trek to do in the area and was supposed to give the most spectacular views of Fitz Roy. Round trip, it is about a 16-mile hike (4-5 hours each way) and climbs 2500 feet. Fortunately for our legs, the trail has an initial climb of 1200, is virtually flat for a while and then turns brutal and climbs another 1250 feet in only 1 km. We were pretty excited about this, but also prepared to feel like whipped puppies by the end. The hike was absolutely beautiful, and the weather seemed like it was just about perfect. The trail seemed like it was climbing at about 89 degrees, over a loose surface of sand and rocks. For every foot we gained, it seemed like we were sliding back 6 inches.

Finally, however, we reached the top. The "Laguna de los Tres" refers to the laguna at the bottom of the three main peaks in the cluster, which are Fitz Roy, Poincenot, and Saint-Exupéry. Fitz Roy, the tallest of the three, towers about 7000 feet above the lake, and yet seems like it´s close enough to touch. It´s certainly no wonder that everyone and their mothers seemed to be out on the trail to see this mountain!

On the way down, we wished we could have put on a pair of skis, gotten about 6 feet of snow, and skied down, as it would have been quite a bit easier on the knees. Instead, we labored down, and while obviously easier than going up, we had to go fairly slowly so we didn´t fall and end up a few hundred feet down the switchbacked trail. We then made great time on the rest of the walk and arrived back at the lodge around 8 pm, in plenty of time to beat the sunset, which wasn´t until 9:30 or 10.

Our last day in El Chaltén was a relatively low-key day. We had planned on doing a couple of shorter hikes to kill some time before our late afternoon bus to El Calafate, but by the time we were about to leave the ranger station for the nearby national park, the heavens opened up and the infamously rapidly changing weather struck, with torrential downpours and heavy winds. We said a quick prayer of thanks for the great weather the previous two days, and ran over to a little chocolate shop/café for some hot chocolate and lunch, where we sat and read until the weather calmed down, nearly in time for us to get to our bus in windy though dry conditions.

We boarded our bus toward El Calafate, bade farewell to El Chaltén, and 3.5 hours later, we arrived, ready to tackle the glaciers the next day. About the only thing of note on the bus trip was that we stopped at Hotel Leona, which is this little outpost that really does seem like something out of an old Western. The hotel sits in a scenic, though very isolated spot on Lago Viedma, and was apparently a hideout for Butch Cassidy in the early 1900´s. According to local legend, the gang hid out from various South American authorities for a month while waiting for things to cool down. Whether it´s true or not, who knows?

Erin and Rob, Contributing Editors.+

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Mishaps on the Bus

From Puerto Madryn, we took a long, long bus ride and eventually ended up in El Chalten. As boring as that sounds, we managed to make things a bit more exciting than necessary.

First off, as much as it would help Argentina, they certainly don't have anything like a national bus carrier like Greyhound, or at least a way to shop efficiently for bus tickets from different companies, like we can use Orbitz or Travelocity. To get from Pto. Madryn to El Chalten, we had to:

1) Bus from Pto Madryn to Comodoro Rivadavia (6 hours)
2) Bus from C. Rivadavia to Rio Gallegos (11 hours)
3) Bus from Rio Gallegos to El Calafate (4 hours, different company)
4) Bus from El Calafate to El Chalten (3.5 hours, yet another company)

Additionally, you can't buy your tickets for some of the smaller companies online or over the phone; rather, you have to buy tickets at the bus station or an agency for that company, which is generally found only in the bus station of a city served by the bus (or Buenos Aires, which wasn't any good for us, obviously). In the summer, the fewer services further south mean that buses frequently sell out. But, you can't buy tickets ahead of time if you're not down here. I assume you can all see various problems here.

So, with tickets for the first 2 legs of the trip in hand, we boarded our bus in Pto Madryn. 45 minutes later, we made it to the industrial town of Trelew, where my limited Spanish allowed me to understand that we would be stopping for 25 minutes. I even confirmed this with another passenger, because the loudspeakers on the bus sound worse than Charlie Brown's mom.

Erin and I decided that I would go get some food from the Trelew bus station and a couple of bottles of water, while she stayed behind to watch our backpacks. So, I went in, bought some water, only to glance outside and see our bus backing out of its parking spot. I ran over to the bus, waved at the driver, who made what I interpreted as a "I'm just turning around" motion with his finger, and didn't seem concerned at all. You can imagine my surprise when he pulled out of the parking lot and sped down the street. The windows on the bus were tinted, so I couldn't see Erin at all.

Assuming the bus would be coming back at any moment, I sat there wondering what on Earth just happened. Over the course of the next few minutes, several buses of the same company pulled in, but none was our bus. I wasn't entirely sure what to do, because I obviously didn't want to leave the parking lot, but at the same time, I didn't want the bus to get any further away than it already was. I also assumed that Erin wouldn't have let the bus get too far down the highway without me on it. The scary thing, for me, was worrying about Erin, who had no Argentine money, and doesn't speak Spanish, dealing with the bus company people, who steadfastly refuse to speak a single word of English. But, I decided to wait the 25 minutes and see what happened.

Still no bus.

My concern was steadily growing. All along, there had been a good number of people waiting for what I assumed was my bus, but then they all got on another bus that came and then left, leaving only a couple of other people. I finally asked one of them who said not to worry, that the bus was coming back, and when I explained that Erin was on the bus, she said that she had understood that we were all supposed to get off the bus...oops again.

Finally, about 35 minutes later, the bus returned. I got on, went upstairs, and found Erin in a similar state to me. Turns out they had gone to a bus company service area, but none of the crew had noticed Erin on the bus until they were nearly back in the station.

It's definitely a strange feeling to be in a foreign country, with all your earthly belongings either in storage in Los Angeles or on a bus which contains your wife in an undisclosed location.

Random Thoughts and Observations

Here is a collection of random thoughts and observations from our trip.

If you're ever in El Bolson and want to listen to great music, visit the restaurant "El Rey De Sandwich" between 1:30 and 2:30 PM on weekdays. Then, they have a special segment called "Planeta Ochenta." Spanish speakers will be able to ascertain the genre of music played during this time from the title of the segment. For everyone else, we heard a Michael Jackson medley, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," a Rick Astley tune, Phil Collins' "Another Day in Paradise," and the Bangles' only hit. Yep, "ochenta" means 80, and they didn't disappoint. It was commercial-free during that hour as well. The really funny thing is that the restaurant was a complete dive that served really cheap empanadas, and no one older than us was in the restaurant. Go figure.

Argentines really like their 80's music. In addition to that episode, it seems like everywhere we've been has frequently had 80's music on the radio. On one of our bus trips, they played a DVD that was a series of videos from about 1981 to 1993 or so, and heavily leaned toward the 80's portion of that time frame. It's already quite a privilege to hear Michael Bolton's voice in "How Am I Supposed to Live Without You?," but quite another when that voice is immediately followed by an image of Freddie Mercury with his classic moustache and yellow spandex tanktop belting out "We Will Rock You."

The Lake District of Argentina has the best ice cream I've ever tasted. We especially recommend a little nameless place right outside of Lago Puelo NP's entrance, but all the shops in El Bolson we tried were ridiculously good.

In Puerto Madryn, we saw a guy driving around with a dog on top of his car. It was bad enough that we saw it on the first day we were there, but at least then we could (naively) dismiss it as a fluke. However, we saw it again the next day. Poor collie. I asked our waitress that night at dinner about it, and she said that while it's not normal at all, that guy has done it for a while now. I'm thankful that PETA doesn't want me to eat a steak, but they're nowhere to be seen when a guy drives around with a dog on top of his car.

That's all for now. I'm sure we'll have more to say later.


Whale-Watching in Wild Patagonia

The day after visiting the Penguin colony (see previous entry), we took a wildlife and whale-watching tour of the Penisula Valdés, which is on the Southern Atlantic coast. The Southern Right Whales migrate down to this peninsula for mating and breeding baby whales. Supposedly, this is one of the best whale-watching spots in the world, so naturally we were pretty excited about this. Even though we awoke to winds so strong that it sounded like the roof of our hotel was about to rip off, it was sunny, reasonably warm, and all of the guides kept telling us that we had perfect weather conditions for whale-watching.

Our bus picked us up at our hostel and then made the rounds of other hotels in Puerto Madryn to pick up other tourists. After a few minutes, an American woman who we had previously met on a bus in El Bolsón stepped onto our bus. We immediately recognized each other, and she took the seat behind us. She was in her late sixties and traveling by herself. We certainly enjoyed chatting with her on both occasions. It seems that it is a small world even when traveling in a foreign country.

Our first stop of the day was at Caleta Valdés to view a large colony of elephant seals. Hundreds of elephant seals come to this area of beach every year during mating season. We had to keep our distance, but there were hundreds of these large, blubbery creatures all over the beach. We watched some maneuver themselves in and out of the water, which is just as amusing to watch as penguins waddling all over the place. We were hoping to see a big fight between the male elephant seals defending their harems or lady seals, but most of seals seemed to be taking advantage of the long siesta time.

We drove for a while on the bus, and it seemed that there was wildlife at every turn, both somewhat standard and exotic in nature. We saw:

A zillion sheep
Guanacos (look like a cross between llamas and camels)
Baby Guanacos
Lots of Rhea (Argentine ostrich)
A group of about 10 baby rhea running in a line with their father in the middle
Mara (a cross between a giant rabbit with short ears and a deer)
Baby Mara
More Magellanic penguins.

Not too shabby, if I say so myself.

The highlight of the day was our whale-watching tour. In the afternoon, we took a boat out into the bay. Within a few minutes, we saw our first of many Southern Right Whales. Our first sighting was an adolescent whale by himself, supposedly playing with some algae. There was a naturalist on board our boat, and she informed us that it was quite unusual to see this playful behavior at this time of year. We then moved over to a different section of the bay. We could see that there was another boat also in this area, so we were getting excited about what we might see. Our boat company allowed all passengers to come up to the front of the boat on a rotational basis. It was our turn, so we headed up the the front. Within a matter of minutes, we saw a huge 15 meter whale come up out of the water. This particular whale also kept bringing its tail fin up out of the water, and in general put on quite the show! We definitely timed our turn at the front of the boat perfectly. It's so hard to adequately describe seeing these maginificent and enormous creature some up out of the water. I have never seen anything quite like it...incredible! There was also a seagull following this whale around, and the seagull kept landing on the whale's back like it was trying to start a game of tag. The whale didn't seem to be too interested in playing tag with a seagull, though. Definitely funny to watch! As if all of this wasn't spectacular enough, we then saw two baby whales swimming along next to their mothers. The babies seemed to be mimicking what the mother did. The mother would come up for air, and then the baby would rythmically come up right after her. Apparently, the mother whales spend a full year with their babies before separating. The naturalist told us that in this year, the mother and the baby form such a close bond and are absolutely inseparable. I certainly thought it would be cool to see any whales in the wild, but seeing the baby whales with their mothers was absolutely amazing!

We also saw tons of Giant Petrol birds in the water with the whales. They were absolutely enormous and somewhat bizarre looking. They would then take off from a complete standstill in the water, but would run their feet along the surface of the water to build up momentum. During this process, it seriously looked like they were running on water...kind of bizarre.


Catch-up Time

Ok, we finally are in a place with a relatively fast internet connection. Additionally, we can change the keyboard to an American English configuration, so I should be able to type at a normal speed. The downside is, I can't type accent marks, so Spanish language purists will have to suffer.

I think our last day that wasn't covered was our last day in El Bolson, the village in the Lake District in which we spent a few days before the whales/penguins on Argentina's east coast. So, I'll pick up there.

We spent our final day in El Bolson doing a relatively long day hike, to an area known as Cajon del Azul. The Azul River is a river that is fed by glaciers high up in the Andes and then comes down the mountains, eventually ending in nearby Lago Puelo, the subject of a previous blog, en route to the Pacific. As a result, the water is a gorgeous turquoise color. It is also quite cold and sediment-laden, and therefore carves out quite a scenic path as it winds its way south and west.

We took a pre-arranged taxi to the beginning of the hike and agreed on a time to meet back at the same spot, and then started off on our hike. The first bit of the hike was along a 4WD road to the level of the river, which was quite downhill, although we didn't really realize this until it was time to trudge up the hill at the end of the hike. Funny how it always seems to work out that way.

We then reached the river, trudged through some guy's yard ('s part of the trail), and then found ourselves staring at a footbridge across the river that would have left Indiana Jones with a pair of wet underpants. This thing seriously seemed like something the Argentine Park Service put up about 30 years ago and hadn't maintained since. However, being the trusting souls we were, I ventured out over the icy water (we had to go one at a time, per the signs) and crossed successfully. Erin followed, and we were on our merry way for another 10 minutes or so.

Turns out, the first bridge was acutally a warm-up bridge for the second, even longer, even more rickety looking bridge. The designer of that bridge evidently had the Tacoma Narrows in mind, and we swayed quite a bit back and forth (again, one at a time) before kissing the ground on the other side.

The trail took a sharp turn uphill, much to our chagrin, but afforded fantastic views over the glacial valley and into an alpine meadow when we reached the top. Along the way, we were walking about the same pace as a guy our age who had a black lab in tow. I asked him if the dog could cross the bridge, because the footing was questionable even being able to hang on to the side, and he said that the dog can not only cross the bridges, but also cross the river when the water level was a bit lower. Pretty darn impressive.

The rest of the walk was scenic and relatively flat, to our liking. The last kilometer or so involved some minor scrambling over some rocks, and at last, 10 km later, we came to the natural highlight of the hike, the gorge formed by the river. At this point, the gorge is less than 2 meters wide, but over 40 meters deep, and is quite a sight. When you look down from the bridge, it's hard to even see the water at first.

After that came the real highlight, the refugio (shelter) at the end of the walk, which meant "cerveza casera" for only a few pesos. It turns out that this homemade beer was some combination of the Beast, Keystone Light, and Mickey's, but after a long hike, who's counting?

The refugio was fantastic by all other counts, and it served as a great place for us to talk to the few other hikers out there, as well as the people who live up there. They basically serve hikers and raise sheep for a living, and have accumulated a good number of other animals living with them as well. By our count, there were at least 7 cats, a dog, 2394723497 sheep, and probably a few other things we missed. We ate our lunch, chased the sheep around, watched a kitten try unsuccessfully to pounce on a sheep, and then headed back to meet our taxi.

About 2 km into our walk back, we heard a noise behind us. Turning around and expecting to see a hiker, we were surprised to see the dog from the refugio had evidently followed us down. Hopefully he could find his way home.

We made it back to the first bridge with quite a bit of time to spare, so we sat under the shade of a tree at a picnic table and read for a while to kill some time. When we started again, we realized quickly that we had erred in our judgment on the uphill nature of the remainder of our walk, and I actually had to jog at the end to make sure I got to the taxi driver in time to let him know we hadn't skipped town...oops.

All in all, a great hike. We headed back into town, got some ice cream and other food, and then caught our bus south and east.