BICYCLING TO TIERRA DEL FUEGO
By Peter Fredson
In High School, back in about 1936-38, I was a voracious reader. Mark Twain, Robert Benchley, Stephen Leacock and Rudyard Kipling were some of my favorite authors. Nietzche and Schopenhauer my favorite philosophers. Siddhartha Gautama my favorite ethicist. I was strongly influenced by reading Richard Halliburton and Harry Franck. Franck as author of “Working North from Patagonia”, “Vagabonding Down the Andes”, and “A Vagabond Journey Around the World” seemed the epitome of carefree wanderer. I decided to emulate Franck by bicycling from Wisconsin all the way through Mexico, Central America, down to the tip of Tierra del Fuego.
I had just received a nice check for $75 for back pay as a printer’s apprentice, which I used to buy the latest model of Montgomery Ward Bicycle, complete with horn, headlight, 3-speed gear shift, coaster brakes, and large rear luggage rack.
A High School chum, Clifford Campbell, and I had discussed riding bikes down to the tip of South America in Tierra del Fuego. Harry Franck’s writings were very convincing in showing us exactly how he could travel around the world without money. But the decisive author was Aime Tschiffely, the famous equestrian who made a 10,000 mile ride on horseback from Argentina to Washington, D.C. in 1925.
A blurb from his publisher explains our fascination:
“Readers won’t be surprised then to discover that exotic people, faraway places and equestrian adventure make up the background to the explorer’s autobiography. “Bohemia Junction” is packed with the amazing assortment of humanity that Tschiffely met during his lifetime of travel, including cowboys, prize-fighters, writers, Indians, and the eccentric riff-raff of three continents.
From Cape Horn to New York, Tschiffely journeyed wherever his vagabond fancy took him. And each region explored had its quota of “bohemians” in the old sense of the word – men and women for whom love of adventure was a reality.”
Well, it was obvious that if a horse could get through Central America, we should be able to do it by bike. And it was obvious that we would meet cowboys, prize-fighters, writers and Indians along the way, and then write a book about our adventures.
Then Clifford moved, I believe it was to Washington state. We kept in touch by mail, and agreed we would meet at Yellowstone Park and travel together to Tierra del Fuego.
I regret that I did not keep a daily log or journal, so exact times, dates and the infinity of places passed is hazy. It was sometime in 1939 I believe, but don’t hold me to it.
Besides the bike, I had a pup-tent of a silken very light material, a blanket, knapsack, several changes of clothing, soap, and the rest I don’t remember. I had about $30 cash, and that was all. We were in depression days and were used to hardship, full of optimism and avid for adventure.
I soon found that dogs got upset and would charge after me, snapping at my legs, so I invested in a water pistol and a small bottle of ammonia. If a dog got dangerously close to cutting short my adventure I would aim at his head and let fly a spray. That usually sent the dog yelping back to his home yard. I disliked doing that as I like dogs. Later I carried a long thin branch on the bike frame to ward off dogs.
I left from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on the banks of Lake Michigan, and made Wisconsin Rapids before dark. The next day I made Wyalusing State Park on the border with Minnesota.
I usually made from 50 to 85 miles a day. One day with a strong wind at my back, I covered about 140 miles, using a sail made of clothing and a branch strapped to my back, coasting most of the day.
I usually waited until after dark to set up my camp in some field. Sometimes I would sleep in a corner of a city or state park, sometimes on a band-stand, shed, in a barn. If I saw a farmer near the road I often asked for permission to sleep in his barn. Usually after saying that I was going down to South America the farmer would laugh, offer a meal, show me a bed, give me breakfast, and usually make some sandwiches for me to take along. In those days people were friendly.
Once I stopped at a city park, found an equipment shed open and camped for the night. Evidently someone saw me, called the city police and about midnight the police with drawn guns and flashlights awoke me, demanding to know what I was doing. When I said I was bicycling down to South America they laughed heartily, apologized for waking me, and the next morning one policeman brought me some food and milk to send me on my merry way.
I reached the Black Hills of South Dakota, and glimpsed some activity on a mountain side. Curious, I got close and saw workmen on a cliff-side with jack hammers carving out and drilling into Mount Rushmore. I asked a man, who was casually standing around, what was going on. He turned out to be Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor. He took me into his large workplace to show me a model of the monument for the presidents, and explained his dream of working the giant figures to scale.
Later I traversed the Bad Lands of South Dakota, but the landscape was stark, barren, inhospitable, hot, so I hurried through it quickly. Several days later I reached Cody, Wyoming, where I slept in a car in a used car lot.
The next day I started up the mountain pass into Yellowstone National Park. It was hard work pushing my bike uphill. Soon snow began to fall all around, and it was then that I noticed that there was no traffic on the road. The snow began piling up, the road became obscured, and darkness descended. I had no idea how far I had gone, but was tired and looked for some place to camp. I noticed a road scraper parked off to the side and thought I might sleep in the cab, but soon found that there was no room and that the scraper afforded very little protection. It was then that I became worried about survival.
However I saw a light off the road, hurried to it, and found the home of the person who ran the snow scraper. It was a modest Mormon cabin, and they welcomed me in, fed me and listened to my stories. When bedtime came, they lent me a large blanket and let me sleep in the family car. I’m sure they saved my life that night as temperatures reached zero.
The next morning they gave me breakfast, and I continued on to Yellowstone Park, rested, fed and content. The welcoming Ranger told me they had closed the road shortly after I began the climb up the mountain, as the weather report showed dangerous conditions.
To be continued