What I Would Do For A Hot Bath

Cuenca is the third-largest city in Ecuador, and it’s historic downtown area is listed as a UNESCO world heritage trust site, due to the many beautiful colonial-style buildings.

The Troll Boys enjoyed the beauties of the city, especially the New Cathedral, an opulent church filled with expensive marbles imported directly from Italy. However, we soon succumbed to the exhaustion that comes from climbing several thousand feet of elevation every day, and we retired to our room to eat two large pizzas and watch The Fellowship of the Ring.

Bike touring tip #4: Rest days are a necessity. When you push your body to the limit for several days in a row, it is essential that recovery time is scheduled where you can recuperate from the vigors of the road.

Once we had taken sufficient rest in Cuenca, we hit the road again, excited to get back on the bikes and head directly towards our next watering hole, the hot-spring baths of Baños, Ecuador. We calculated that it would take a full six days of riding to accomplish our goal, so we added an extra day of rest in the middle to remain true to tip #4.

On a trip as long and as intense as this in a foreign land, it is important to share the burden of leadership equally. Jon helpfully suggested that we could take turns shouldering the responsibility of tasks such as navigating, cooking, and communicating with locals using a method from his work with NOLS called “leader of the day.” Each day, it would be the turn of one of the members of the team to step forward and take charge, allowing the other two to assume a follower role for the duration of the shift. This method is designed to streamline all decision-making processes, as the general day-to-day affairs are easily handled by the one person who has planned ahead for their specific day (such as this picture of Cody navigating through mountain dirt roads).

Over our next three days to our rest-stop in the city of San Pedro de Alausi, each of us struggled in different ways with the weight of leadership, working out seemingly simple things like how much food to buy, when to find a campsite, and how long to bike before taking short snack breaks. Luckily, each mistake informed our future choices, and we even ended up benefitting on occasion from our errors, like the night that a friendly stranger offered us a beautiful campsite long after we had accepted the fact that we would be sleeping in a cold and windy abandoned building.

Finally after several days of biking through gorgeous mountains, we rolled into the town of San Pedro de Alausi on the morning of September 21st, the main station for the Nariz del Diablo (Nose of the Devil), a train that traverses one of the most dangerous railways in the world due to intense and sudden changes in elevation made necessary by the sheer walls of the mountain through which it passes. Unfortunately, Jon was feeling a bit ill, and so we decided another day of Lord of the Rings and lying in bed with chocolate milk was in order.

After a day of regenerating stamina for the mountain roads ahead, we continued on through beautiful ridges and small towns where we stopped for lunch breaks and chatted with curious schoolchildren.

And then came the infamous “Splat and Splurge Saturday,” so named by yours truly for an adventure that unfortunately tested the generosity of the Ecuadorian healthcare system. First, a little backstory. In Ecuador, many of the natives own dogs, and far too many of these rascals are unused to bikers, and so chase you across the property. This makes a rider a bit nervous in the best of circumstances, as a dog tangled between the wheels could make for a quick disaster, but when a larger, more aggressive dog comes out and snarls while nipping at your ankles, it is time to take steps to defend yourself. The first line of defense is typically a threatening yell, but sometimes throwing rocks to scare off the dogs is a necessity. On “Splat and Splurge Saturday,” the Troll Boys were practicing their defensive bombardment on cow-crossing signs we were passing, and in an ironic twist of fate (literally), I ended up wrenching the handlebars just enough as I threw, to land on my chin with my bike flipping over me. In case you were wondering, Cody had perfect aim and hit the sign dead-on.

The casualty count: One broken molar, one profusely bleeding chin, and one very bruised jaw.

Luckily, Jon was able to patch me up as Cody flagged down a passing vehicle to take us to a hospital in the nearby city of Riobamba. The Ecuadorian healthcare was amazing, getting me in and out of the hospital and a dentist for FREE in about three hours total, while Jon and Cody secured a meal to eat and a place to stay. Hence the Splurge part of the day, where in their infinite wisdom, they decided that spending more money on a comfortable room was in our best interest as a group. The Troll Boys streamed an exciting game of Hawkeye football against Penn State and ate pizza, and the next morning, were ready to roll the last few miles to Baños.

The next day was grueling as we traversed canyon gorges over rickety bridges and biked up sandy roads where the wind blew debris into our eyes.

And that, dear readers, is what I would do to reach a hot bath in Baños with my wonderful friends Cody and Jon.

Over the next few days, we enjoyed the famous Swing at the End of the World and went from wallowing hole to wallowing hole across the town, keeping our chins up in the face of adversity (in my case literally because those hot-springs probably had bacteria) and gathering our strength for the next bit of adventure.

Before I sign off, I want to leave you with one more piece of advice:

Bike touring tip #5: Don’t get hurt. But if you must, do so in a country with free health-care!

To Conquer the Earth Itself

It seems you are often told in life that the most important part of accomplishing your goals is the journey it takes to get there. I can now definitively assure you that it is indeed character-building to bike from sea-level to nearly 14,000 ft in three days. Yes, you read that correctly! Three straight days of grueling, uphill movement at a snail’s pace to reach Cajas National Park near Cuenca, Ecuador.

For now, though, let us start at the beginning. The Troll Boys rode out of Guayaquil early on the morning of September 11th, skirting the busy highways out of the city by passing through the nature reserve on nearby Isla Santay, accessible on both sides via large bridges suitable for pedestrians or bikers.

Passing through many towns in the flat-lands on their journey to the mountains, the Troll Boys made sure to stock up well on food and water, and found their first opportunities to wallow a little before beginning their arduous climb the next day.

Perhaps there are those among you who are familiar with the agony of trudging up a steep mountain in exhausting 25-minute increments while carrying nearly 85 lbs of weight, all the while knowing that tomorrow will be exactly the same. Jon tried to warn Cody and I, as he had experience biking in the mountains on his previous trip from Mexico to Argentina with our good friends Kai Ashland and Ben Harney. But nothing really prepares you like experience itself.

Bike touring tip #2: Never be ashamed to walk your bike if necessary.

It was simply impossible for our leg muscles to pedal endlessly up the mountain, and it soon became clear that any forward movement was important. For the most part, we split our exercise into segments of 25 minutes that we called God’s own ratio for it’s ability to test the limits of our mental and physical endurance. These segments consisted of 13 minutes of biking, then 5 minutes of walking, followed by a final 7 minutes of biking before a well-earned break.

Our first night of camping brought us to a small village centered around a newly-built school, where the locals generously shared their freshly ground coffee and beautiful views over our early climb and the lights of Guayaquil far in the distance.

Our second day of climbing at nearly 4 miles an hour brought us to a beautiful panaroma at lunchtime, where we got an important energy boost with Gatorades and seco de pollo (chicken and rice). In the evening, we chatted to a curious farmer who allowed us to camp on his land, not far away from his equally inquisitive cows.

On the third and final day of the upward slog, we finally reached Cajas National Park, a frigid park with breathtaking lakes, free of the ubiquitous trash found lower on the mountain. This was a night of celebration as we ate delicious trout and played hide-and-seek with two delightful four-year-old girls at the cabin next to our campsite. Our spirits were high at 4002 meters of altitude, a little over 13,000 feet.

In the morning, we accomplished the few hundred feet in half an hour, and we went whizzing downhill to Cuenca in an hour and a half. We surely felt like we earned that downhill, but it was strange that each day of climbing up a mountain only translated to 30 minutes of flying back down.

Bike touring tip #3: Test your brakes before heading downhill. Also, expect to be cold while traveling quickly down a mountain.

The Troll Boys rolled safely into Cuenca and celebrated their heroic feats with a hot shower and a cold beer, looking forward to the rest days in warm and comfortable beds to come!

 

Before signing off, I want to leave you a poem I wrote about our experience thus far.

 

To Conquer the Earth Itself

By Ryson Stuart

Where the cool mountain wind gently rustles the wild grasses and soothes my struggling spirit,

I sit for an eternal moment and behold the wise and craggy visages of the rocky giants who gaze back unflinchingly,

Unmoved by either my plea for mercy or the stirrings of civilization that adorn their slopes like a pearly necklace.

Above, I see a distant bird floating high on thermal winds, and I set my determination to conquer myself and the earth itself,

That my spirit, too, may soar.