The bleak, grey sky sounded off with thunder as I reached the tiny shack that serves as a civil checkpoint at the entrance to the city. The uniformed guard waved me to a stop, and in my limited survival Spanish, I understood that she was warning me that the roads would be dangerously slippery and to be careful. I thanked her and started to pedal off just as hail began pelting my face. “This is bullshit,” I thought, as my mood turned more foul than the weather.
The seaside city of Ushuaia, Argentina was booming with tourism in December and reminded me of June in Seward, Alaska with its craggy mountains rising up from the sea, flowing glaciers within view, and cruise ships that loomed over the main wharf next to the tiny fishing boats. The air was crisp from the brisk winds that swirled north from Antarctica.
Ushuaia, nicknamed in Spanish “fin del mundo,” translates to “end of the world.” This South American port is regarded as the “southernmost city” in the world, which is exactly why I chose it as the starting point for a self-supported bicycle trip routed to take me north along the west coast of the Americas and back home to Alaska.
It was supposed to be summer in the southern hemisphere, but 54° south of the equator, Mother Nature is quite temperamental, and she was definitely thumbing her nose at me and my grand plan as I began my adventure. I responded by layering on warmer clothes and rain gear whilst standing next to the large stone pillars adorned with giant wood letters spelling Ushuaia. The timber-roofed bench area near the checkpoint that served as a grand welcome gate for tourists entering the city was the perfect place for me to take shelter until the torrential hail storm passed.
My head was swimming with thoughts of returning to the safety of a cozy room and others of continuing to ride. This estimated twenty month trek wasn’t going to be all perfect weather and sunshine. To stop before I even started would be mentally self-destructive, but proceeding into bad weather could be dangerous. My mind flashed headlines that read “Woman Setting Out to Bicycle from Ushuaia to Alaska Found Frozen on Road near Her Starting Point.” I imagined myself finding a place to stay in town, being delayed by multiple days of bad weather, and feeling defeated. I didn’t want to pay for an expensive bed in a hostel, nor did I want to face inquisitive backpackers asking me questions and having to admit my setback. I wanted to camp, but I couldn’t exactly camp in the city. And the scenario that rose to the forefront of my mind was of me being struck by a skidding car.
Unlike my first bike trip across the USA with my friend Betty, this second trip wasn’t even my idea. My friend Kim mentioned several times that she would like to do a bike trip with me someday. When I took her up on it, we set a date two years away to provide us time to squirrel away money. I suggested the route of the Americas bottom to top because I wanted to make the trip more monumental and adventurous than my last one. Sadly, two years came and went and neither of us had any money saved. A new time frame was set and again not met. Eventually, Kim’s life circumstances changed and she told me she would no longer be able to embark on the journey.
As a travel addict, I arrange my life to allow for several months of travel per year. Most of my friends don’t share my passion, or they are not able to leave their lives to travel like I do. Therefore, I am accustomed to traveling solo, and I convinced myself that this excursion would only be different because I would be pedaling. More importantly, I had already told enough people about the trip that I wasn’t comfortable abandoning it.
I was finding it nearly impossible to save funds until I landed a job working for the nine-month winter season at an isolated research station located at the South Pole. The idea was a drastic one, but it was a perfect financial plan; at the Pole I had no expenses, and money was virtually useless. I’ve always been an active person, but not one who enjoys working out, and despite my plans to bike 18,000 miles in 20 months, I didn’t take advantage of the research station’s beautifully equipped exercise room or gymnasium. I reasoned that my training would occur by starting off slowly, a rationale I seriously doubted as I stood struggling with my 135-pound cargo-laden bike on that dismal day.
While I was playing mental tennis about my predicament, a dog resembling a Labrador Retriever walked up to me to check me out. She had long silky black hair with a streak of white on her underside that ran from her neck to her belly. Her tail gave me no indication of her mood as it did not wag or tuck, but her red collar decorated with dog bones indicated to me that she had someone that cared for her somewhere. Although she was relatively clean, she was soaking wet so I petted her with one finger on top of her head. She appeared very sorrowful, and it was clear to me that she didn’t like the weather either. We commiserated in silence while I shivered.
I crossed the street and began looking for a camp spot that was hidden from the highway and the guards’ view. The black dog sniffed around as if assisting in the search. With no luck of uncovering the perfect spot, I returned to the seating area where I’d first met the dog, and she accompanied me. The road ahead, which was lined with thick bushes on both sides where I could camp unseen, looked promising. But the cold was beginning to sap the heat from me. Remembering my experiences in Antarctica, I was aware that eating food would generate energy and warmth for my body, so I began snacking on some peanut butter and crackers. Afraid to give the dog a reason to follow me, I didn’t share. I apologized out loud to her as I continued the occasional one finger petting while she gazed at me sadly.
Finally, the sky ceased hailing and began drizzling lightly, and with no excuses left, I pedaled away from the security of Ushuaia. My new friend ignored my multi-lingual commands telling her to go home. She ran alongside me, seeming to know to keep on the outside edge of the road. As I descended a hill and increased speed, I watched the dog’s reflection grow smaller and smaller in my water-spotted mirror. I was relieved to think she would go home, but as the road climbed again, she caught up to me. It seemed as though I had a new shadow.
The dog reminded me of a plump, furry black Labrador my friend Tenecia was trying to give to a good home. Munchy was always excited to see me, and with his expectant eyes and wagging tail he never failed to coax me into giving him a lot of attention. Noticing this, Tenecia jokingly asked if I wanted to take Munchy with me on my bike trip. I giggled at the thought, half-heartedly wishing it were possible, but understanding the logistics would be a nightmare. It made me smile on that bleak day to pretend I ended up with Munchy after all. In keeping with the Spanish flair, I decided to call my new friend Munchita, or Munchi for short.
On a dirt path leading away from the main road not far from Ushuaia, I found a hidden spot and set up my tent. When I retired inside, I tried to coax Munchi into the vestibule where it was warm and dry, but she seemed uninterested. Midway through the night, I awoke to a noise and a rough shaking of my tent. I jumped up and called out “Qué pasó?” As the hair stood up on the back of my neck, I saw a shape slither alongside my tent. Suddenly, there was tension on the door fly as a bulge pushed against it. I breathed relief as Munchi’s nose became visible under the bottom edge of the fabric, and she popped her body into the vestibule. She snuggled in close to me where only a thin piece of screen separated our bodies, and we fell into slumber to the pitter-patter on the nylon above us.
The morning introduced fresh snow on the surrounding mountains, and the frigid air was thick with moisture. My breath had formed beads of precipitation on the tent walls. A loud river cried its presence from afar, and I followed the sound down a ravine through the thick, wet trees to gather water. Munchita shadowed me throughout the day while I lay in my cozy sleeping bag reading, napping, eating, and then walking in the rain.
The next day, the sun presented warmth and blue skies. I packed up camp, and we set off as a team. After five hours on the road, my muscles cried for rest, so I inquired at a closed restaurant about a place to camp. Munchi waited outside on the top doorstep while I gained permission from the caretaker to camp on the property. My faithful companion danced out of my way as I set up my tent under the igloo-shaped recreation facility that usually sat dormant until ski season. A small group of cyclists arrived to share our camp spot and Munchi, standing between us, growled at the two Argentinians – an endearing display that increased my fondness for my new friend.
That night, I shared with the other cyclists the story of how Munchi adopted me. I kept to myself how my imagination had gone wild envisioning appearing on Oprah with the miracle dog who followed me home across two continents to Alaska! Mom would be so proud. Then came a reality check when one of them suggested it would be difficult to cross international borders with a dog that had no papers. I conceded that at the U.S. and Canadian borders I might encounter a problem, but I seriously doubted that the officials of the other countries in my proposed route (Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Central America and Mexico) would care about a dog crossing the border. The bikers insisted that the border officials of Chile were especially strict about protecting their country from contamination and routinely confiscated fruits, vegetables, and animal products. I speculated that at the borders I could feign ignorance of her presence. Then again, I supposed performing an act would be difficult when she was constantly beside me. I entertained the thought of having her examined by a veterinarian before entering Chile, and I hoped she wouldn’t need much else to acquire the necessary documents.
I truly had no idea what would be required to make Munchi official, nor did I know what any of the border crossings had in store for me. I had never crossed a border by bicycle, much less with a dog. If I were to reach a boundary that didn’t permit her to cross, then I might be facing hundreds of miles of detours. I was suddenly overwhelmed with the prospective decisions I would face should I continue traveling with Munchi. My conviction to be spontaneous instead of planning everything was weakening.
On our third day together, I was thrilled when we encountered a house and restaurant where incessant barking alerted us to the presence of several excited huskies. Upon explaining my plight to a hostess, the owner produced about a pound and a half of dog food and graciously refused to take money in exchange. I allotted space for Munchi’s kibble in a waterproof stuff sack and strapped it to the top of my sleeping bag, smiling when I thought of constructing a saddlebag so Munchi could carry her own food. She would look so cute running alongside me sporting her own little pack.
Munchi never missed playing in any of the plentiful water spots whenever I would stop to rest or refill my water bottle. She seemed to ask permission to leave my side by waiting patiently until it was obvious to her that I would be stationary for longer than a minute. While she rolled like a puppy in the tall swampy grasses, chased ducks, or played in the ponds, she would keep a sharp eye on me. Like a ritual, I would wait for her to have a little fun and let her know when it was time to depart. It felt like we had been travel mates for a long time. Gradually, she grew more emotional–her tail came alive more often, and it was becoming difficult to imagine traveling without her.
Munchi moseyed along while I huffed and puffed my way up the steep climb of my first small mountain pass.
She would solicit petting during my frequent rest stops and paused while I took commemorating photos standing at the elevation marker at the summit. The air was cooler at the top where the panorama encompassed the valley to Ushuaia and the opposing lake towards Tolhuin. On the downhill side, instead of tucking my body aerodynamically for the reward of the fast ride, I engaged my brakes constantly as Munchi barely kept up with me. I struggled to keep her in close proximity on the shoulder-less road as cars passed.
Munchi was a great companion, and I felt it didn’t matter that she was slowing me down because in time, like me, she would be able to go farther and faster. I knew somebody was probably missing her though, most likely the person who so carefully placed that red collar around her neck, and now I had brought her more than forty miles away from home. I shrugged off the thought because I loved her company and didn’t want to let go of the idea of taking her all the way to Alaska.
A long distance motorcyclist named Marcos stopped and introduced himself to Munchi and me. In Tolhuin, he said there was a baker known to provide a place to stay for traveling cyclists. The foreigners I had met at the igloo substantiated the story and encouraged me to make a point to meet this kind man. Upon reaching Tolhuin, I found the bakery and was immediately led by one of the workers to the production area. Within the large, dark and flour-dusted warehouse, there were a few beds in a windowless room that served as a crash pad for bikers. Evidence of the travelers who were there before me was all around: the walls were decorated with scribbles of various blog sites, signatures, and dates, along with stick figures on crude maps of the world and notes thanking the baker for his hospitality. Across the space were a toilet, a sink, and a very cold shower. I was invited to use everything, and my bike was placed securely inside, leaning on a giant tower of flour sacks.
Munchi, however, was told to wait outside.
It tugged at my heartstrings to see her sad eyes as she waited expectantly at the door, and I thought anxiously about how many situations similar to this awaited us if I chose to keep her. I decided then that I needed to find a home for Munchi or to have her transported back to Ushuaia where she found me.
The area in front of the bakery was alive with pedestrians and vendors who had set up tables of wares to sell on the days preceding the Christmas holiday. I went inside and purchased some pastries as Munchi kept an eye on me through the commotion on the sidewalk and the large pane windows.
I met Emilio, the baker, and his English-speaking son, Franco, and thanked them profusely for the hospitality. I told Franco about my dilemma with Munchi. He explained that even small dogs are prohibited on buses, and it was doubtful any driver would allow her passage back to Ushuaia. Sensing my concern for someone who might be missing Munchi, he revealed that it was common in Ushuaia for people to remain for a season and then abandon their dogs on the street. He expressed that Tolhuin would be a better place for her to live because the sympathetic people there would feed stray dogs. I conveyed my preference of finding her a family and knowing she was in good hands. He apologized that he couldn’t take her, but I was hopeful when he mentioned a family he knew who lived by the lake and might be interested in keeping her. I still worried she would try to follow me, making it all the more difficult to leave her.
I don’t remember exactly when it occurred to me that Munchi was no longer at the bakery window. I recalled seeing her alert to two strolling uniformed men, and I remembered that the only time when Munchi was not striving to be by my side (besides when she was in the water) was two days prior when we had passed another civil checkpoint station and she wandered over to the guards to have a sniff around. When the nearby stray dogs started posturing, I called out to her to come back, and she returned to me after some hesitation. At the time it meant nothing, but afterwards I realized that maybe she gravitated towards people in uniform since she had adopted me in front of the civil checkpoint shack in Ushuaia. I stepped outside the bakery amidst the vendors and carefully looked up and down the street, but she simply wasn’t there. Suddenly, it was apparent to me that as easily as Munchi had come into my life, she had also departed it.
Over the next day and a half as I wandered through Tolhuin, my eyes ached to catch sight of Munchi somewhere, even from a distance, to know what happened to her. I never saw her again. I felt responsible for my friend, and her absence had created a very real void. My conscience defensively painted scenes of her being adopted by those two uniformed men and perhaps becoming their mascot of sorts. I envisioned her on walkabouts with them and sleeping in their warm barracks at night. I latched onto those thoughts and held them as tightly as I held the memories of those five days she so selflessly gave to me. Although I never had the chance to say goodbye, selfishly, I was thankful that Munchi’s fate was removed from me.
The Chinese proverb, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,” resonates with me when I think of the beginning of my biking adventure. Munchi gave me the courage to take the first step, or more appropriately, the first pedal, of a journey that lasted several thousand miles. She offered me immeasurable companionship during my first nights of camping in bushes off the highway, in horrible weather, and over that first mountain pass as I struggled with the weight of my bike. She found me at the intersection of indecision and strife and left me with confidence, determination, and inspiration.
HOLLY ALLIN refers to Anchorage, Alaska as home, but there are no roots growing under her feet. She has traveled in over 50 countries on 7 continents and bicycled more than 13,000 miles. She shares about her last bicycling adventure at Holly Would On A Bike and is in the process of writing a book of her travels. She is one of less than two hundred women who have spent the winter at the South Pole. “A Single Step” is Holly’s publishing debut.