Into the Belly of the Duck
A few years ago I attempted the Pines 2 Mines mountain bike race – an 80 mile off road jaunt from Flagstaff to Jerome – on my cyclocross bike. Everyone told me I was of unsound mind for wanting to ride this bike, which amounted to a road bike with knobby tires. “Too rough”, they would say. “So-and-so tried it a few years ago and said never again.” Naysayers. I went out there and gave it hell, and after the first fifteen miles I was in the top 5 and feeling pretty good. I sat in and planned where I’d break away. Maybe the final 20 mile climb to Jerome. At about this time I hit a rock and got a flat tire.
Before I even came to a stop I had my new tube out and partially inflated with my mouth, and had my pump in my hand. I hopped off my bike, pulled the old tube out, put the new one back in, and started pumping. Air sprayed out of the valve stem; my new tube was bad. I got my only other tube and put it into the tire and started pumping. Air sprayed out again. Both of my spare tubes were bad. I sat my ass on a rock, pulled out my patch kit, and started patching.
Fast forward to the 65 mile mark. I’ve endured 13 flat tires and a broken spoke. Yes, thirteen flats. At one point I had dropped a patch under the rock I was sitting on, and watched it fall down a snake hole. I sat in the dirt under the roasting sun and desperately stabbed the hole with sticks until I’d recovered my precious patch. Now I sit on the roadside wearing my spandex superhero costume with my wheel in my hand, the 105 degree sun beating down on me. There’s no shade, only dust and weeds and heat waves. I’m out of water, and I am out of patches. End of the road. I look down and realize I’m covered in dozens of spiders. It’s like a bad dream. Eventually I see a deer hunter driving by in his truck – the first truck I’ve seen in eight hours. I stand in front of him in my superhero costume so he has to stop. We drive together, a spandex-clad bike racer and Donny the deer hunter, in the cab of his beat up pickup truck. He recounts the time he hung out with two naked strippers from Flagstaff at a nearby hot spring while they worked on their stripper tans. I start to pass out from exhaustion in the passenger seat, and his story gets caught up in my delirium. Strippers are dying of heat stroke in the desert, covered in dirt and spiders.
Sometimes we go into the wild knowing good and well that we shouldn’t. And sometimes we find ourselves stranded in the desert, covered in spiders, begging horny deer hunters for help. But if we always heed the warnings, what on Earth will we tell our grandchildren about?
I’m pondering this conundrum in the shower on the last night we’ll spend at James and Lauren’s apartment in Huanchaco before heading into the wild. It’s only been a few days since we were last stranded by a mechanical problem, and they’ve been coming like punches ever since Costa Rica. The next day we plan to drop off the pavement and head into the Andes on a desolate dirt road climb that strings its way through dozens of hand-dug tunnels before depositing us in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru’s most massive mountain range. This is the famous Cañón del Pato. But to get to the start of the canyon we think we’ve found a short cut. Google Maps can’t make a route of it, but looking closely at the satellite imagery seems to show that the short cut goes through, and if it does, it would shave 17 miles off of the normal road that’s used to access the canyon. It would be a long path through the middle of an empty desert, through some mountains, and somehow crossing a large river. If we always heed the warnings, what on Earth will we tell our grandchildren about?
At about this time I’m slammed in the back of the head by a Louisville Slugger and the inside of the shower flashes an electric blue. Rather than my life flashing before my eyes, all of the times I’ve been electrocuted in the shower on this trip flash before my eyes. I snap out of it as the fireball dissipates and the shower walls return to their pale yellow hue. The echo of my yelp still echoes in my ears. Was this a sign? I chalk it up to Latin-American electricians not knowing what they’re doing. Just like the mechanics. These on-demand hot water shower heads consist of a rat’s nest of loose, hot wires that the water runs over to heat up. If some innocent shower-taker happens to touch the shower head and create a ground for the circuit, the poor bastard gets fried. This is the 9th or 10th time it’s happened to me; I feel like a prisoner in a Bush-era POW camp.
In the morning we brush aside all of the obvious warnings and head South. We still haven’t decided if we’ll take the ill-omened short cut when we roll up to it on the side of the highway. What’s the worst that could happen? Before we have a chance to decide against it, a man with a clipboard approaches. He takes down our information on his page; I spy the names on his sheet and see that only a couple of vehicles per day cross his post. This seems like a bad idea. For our future grandchildren’s sake, we press through. Before we know it we’re bumping along a rough dirt road toward a line of ominous, sandy desert mountains. We’re driving on the surface of Mars.
Driving through the desert between mountains and cliff walls, it’s easy to imagine that we’re in Iran or Pakistan. The road winds through sandy spires and through low passes until finally we emerge at the river. Across the canyon we can see the primary road that ultimately leads into Canyon del Pato. This is the point at which our short cut becomes ambiguous; neither Google Maps nor our GPS give a clear indication of a way across the river. The GPS shows a route, which turns out not to be real. Google had said we’d cross over a small dam, which also turns out not to be possible. We continue on for miles along the rough dirt road clinging to the canyon wall while on the other side a nice paved road shuttles cars along at high speed. Finally, at long last, we come to a guard shack next to a rickety wooden bridge. We stop to pay our toll for using the bridge, and then a man lifts a metal pole with a rope and we drive through, finally reconnecting with pavement. No spiders, no deer hunters.
By early afternoon we’ve reached the mouth of the canyon. Two soldiers stand guard over the entrance to the canyon. Desert clowns. We chat for a while about nothing and one of them asks me if I had taken any pictures of them. Unsure of the best response, I play the dumb tourist and tell him in broken Spanish that the canyon is pretty. Soon we’re free of his boredom trap and driving through the canyon, past inhabited structures that could have been plucked straight out of a rural settlement in Afghanistan.
Given the fame of this canyon road, there are surprisingly few vehicles. It doesn’t bode well for the mechanical failure that we’re expecting to happen at any moment. Construction on this road was started in 1952, and a French company now operates a hydroelectric dam near the top of the canyon. We occasionally pass pickup trucks emblazoned with the company’s logo, their roofs covered in elevated steel mesh to minimize the damage from rocks that fall from the sheer cliff walls. A new road has since been built farther South to access the Cordillera Blanca, but this one is still here for those with confidence in their vehicles and adventure in their hearts. We press on, passing through one hand dug tunnel after another, clinging to the cliff wall on the narrow dirt track. Below us, the Rio Santa batters the sandstone cliff walls with its emerald-colored torrent.
By evening we’ve only made it halfway, so we look for a place to camp. We come across a bridge spanning the canyon, and on the other side there is a large open area above the river. The bridge sounds as if it’ll come apart as we drive across it; the boards comprising its driving surface are held together by steel bands, and the rivets holding the steel bands on have all come apart. The steel rattles and the boards shift, my eyes intently focus on finding the best driving line, and Sheena nervously eyes the swift current passing underneath us.
In the morning the sun slowly crawls over the canyon rim, illuminating the multicolored sandstone walls across the river. The night’s chill is transformed into a still heat. It’s a classic desert morning; we sip our coffee and take in the smell of the desert plants and rocks as they’re heated by the sun. Mornings in the desert have a distinct smell, as if the night has deposited a layer of condensation on everything. When touched by the sun, this condensation turns into an evaporating perfume that smells like shale, cactus, mesquite, and dry sticks. It reminds us of Arizona.
After crossing back over the rickety bridge we’re back on the road, gaining elevation through the Canyon of the Duck. We realize that yesterday’s drive was just the mundane prelude to the real show. Quickly the canyon walls close in and the road winds along one wall, ducking through tunnels, the opposing wall sometimes less than 20 feet away, while the sheer cliff faces rise upwards on either side of the river a hundred feet or more. This must have been one hell of a road construction project. We see almost nobody else on the road for hours.
I remember sitting on the couch at Sheena’s parents’ house watching an episode about this road on some sort of Death Road Trucker TV show. It was about six months before we left on our trip, and I told them we’d be driving that road. It seemed so far away, like it would never actually come to pass. Yet here we are, driving our Nacho, of questionable mechanical integrity, through those tunnels, along those precipices, and across those bridges. It doesn’t seem as deadly in person.
The insides of the tunnels are rough. It’s as if they were blasted with dynamite and carved out with picks until just passable, and then the workers moved on to the next tunnel. There are 35 single lane tunnels in all. The actors on Death Road Truckers had scared looks on their faces as they passed through these tunnels. They crept along slowly, cameras showed their tires pushing pebbles off the edge into the rushing river below. At any moment, it seemed, their world could be turned upside down by a collapsing tunnel, a failed bridge, or a landslide.
We just thought it was fun. This is how we know that we’re more hard-core than Death Road Truckers.
By day’s end we emerge above the rim of Cañón del Pato and reconnect with pavement. Nacho has survived the trip and so have we. Our eyes are rewarded by views of the snow-capped peaks of the Cordillera Blanca as we sail down smooth pavement toward the mountain Hamlet of Caraz. Warning signs be damned; our grandchildren will have plenty of stories to listen to.