Out of Curacuatin, I stitch together a web of logging-roads with my GPS working overtime as I take a convoluted, dusty path more-or-less northwards. Tiny towns like Quilleco offer up Neruda inspiration and an attempt to set me up with one of the locals before I main line it into Antuco.
After a layover in Antuco tending to the after effects of bad water on my system, I head up into Parque Nacional Laguna Del Laja. The lunar like landscape is some of the best yet with rich volcanic soil stretching out to a snow capped mountain beyond.
Apart from the incredible environment, one of the key moments of the park is the Tragedia de Antuco memorial. My first contact with it the comes over a rise with only the backlit tower set in a sea of black volcanic soil and the grey blue Laguna Laja below. The tower marks the hypothermic death of a forty-four soldiers and one sergeant in a military exercise on May 17, 2005 around the base of Volcan Antuco. In addition to the tower, there are forty-five graves strung out over a few miles marking where the bodies were discovered, with only a group of six together. It is a grim reminder that most of the group died alone in a complete white out a few hundred yards from the next. It still stands as Chile's worst peacetime military disaster.
I shut it down for the night between borders and enjoy a walk up to a rise to enjoy a spectacular sky and silence.
With a bit of pushing and riding like I'm seven years old and can't make it up the "big" hill without zigzagging, I shakily inch up to the saddle of Paso Pichachen on legs and a stomach still feeling the effects of Antuco. It is one of the first true border passes I've crossed thus far and makes me eager for more to come.
After stamping me in and squeezing tires, the less officious Argentinian border crew invites me around back to watch El Jefe from the nearest estancia slice two billy goats into prime asado ready meat.
Dropping steadily out of the mountains, I stay to the left and wander up towards El Chalor following the border guard's suggestion that it's a much more beautiful entry to Chos Malal.
It is definitely that. The ripio serpentines through long ascents and descents with spectacular views of Rio Neuquen down below.
I shut it down for another day in Chos Malal to let my stomach turn around. A wise decision, as the next day I pick up Mike Howarth's tracks and head up into Reserva Tromen with a slow steady climb for 30k.
Juan Pablo greets me at the top as I enjoy a roadside lunch with Volcan Tromen in the background. He offers me water from his tiny casita around the corner, but it's so dry out there i decide he probably needs it more than I.
Back down into the smoggy soup, I roll into Barrancas dusty but thankful to arrive with no snapped spokes on a truly New Mexican-esque stretch of ripio.
The key to being a dog in Barrancas, apparently, is to lie around in the shade all day sleeping and then bark all night amongst each other. Coupled with the pre-dawn rising ducks next to my campsite, I roll out of town a bleary eyed and mindlessly ease off some pavement miles before getting deposited back onto ripio winding through the arid landscape past some hardscrabble living.
Afternoon brings the black line back.
A surprising lush valley ushers in the final miles to Bardas Blancas where I pull up short of town alongside a river and enjoy the days fading light.
After shooting the breeze with the owner of the only kiosko in the truck-stop town of Bardas Blancas, I clear the decks, line 'em up, and climb for almost 20k to a nameless pass. In the US there would be a restaurant at the top selling postcards and snow globes. Here, there's nothing. No sign. No elevation marker. Nada.
Nothing more than a headwind and a downward bend in the road running out into the stuff that begins to test one's genetic predisposition toward perserverance.
As I roll out of Malargue, the mountains stand out there tauntingly while the white line rolls on incessantly.
Occasional detritus breaks the routine.
A strange one-sided row of poplars leads me out of El Sosneado for 60k of dead-ass straight grinding into a stout headwind.
As the day begins to wind down, I hang a left out into the Pampa del Diamante onto a run of sandy washboard not even a fatbike can smooth out.
With low water and no refill until mid-morning, I flag down a passing truck and two dudes send me on my way with a liter of Sprite. I decide to save it for dessert and the sunset. Even warm, it is the best damn Sprite I've had in a long time.
One of the great advantages of the big sky out on the papa is you can lie in your tent and watch the sunset and then roll over the following morning and watch the sunrise from the same height on the horizon.
Agua del Toro dam offers up a chance to escape the sun and refill water
before heading back out under the cloudless afternoon sky.
The other side of the Pampa del Diamante drops me off in Pareditas, where I camp and listen to trucks rumble past all night. In the morning, I dial in the Rich Roll Podcast for a time trial stretch of Ruta 40. It is the first section of the trip where it is just about mileage and I barely lift my gaze off the white line and my ear off the roar of upcoming trucks. In Urgateche I finally escape the two-lane soullessness and follow the wine country backroads through outlying barrios into Mendoza.
Mendoza is a bustling city with beautiful plazas, people, every kind of luxury you can imagine, and wine everywhere you turn. I find a home for my bike and make a last minute decision to take a lateral over to Uruguay via Cordoba without bike to visit friends Monica and Brian. It is that time of the journey where things are starting to break and Sherpa Lee is packed and ready for delivery.
Curacuatin - Mulchen - Quilleco - Antuco - Paso Pichachen - Chos Malal - Barrancas - Bardas Blaancas - Malargue - Ruta 150 - Pareditas - Mendoza.