San Pedro de Atacama, Chile 1 Dec 06
Odometer 14,463 m 23,256 km

In the last 3 months I’ve endured a few travails. I resuscitated my tired but loyal companion, El Viento. I ran the Brazilian border and forged my way into Argentina, only to be strip-searched. I fell ill, was struck by a truck, and broke down in the middle of nowhere. Then I got lost, was ripped off, and watched a riding partner crash hard--twice.

No matter.
Nothing was going to prevent me from reaching my pan-American odyssey’s penultimate goal: exploring Bolivia’s incomparable Salar de Uyuni.

In my entire route from Alaska to Argentina the Salar stood out as the singular most important stop. A quick spin of the globe reveals why. On Bolivia’s high Altiplano there’s a permanent white spot. A unique, 4,085 square mile white spot, to be exact, differing from the polar regions in that it lies near the equator.

That’s because the Salar de Uyuni isn’t frozen. It isn’t even water. It’s salt.
10 billion tons of it.
So committed was I to riding across this unique landform, I rerouted my entire trip to do it. For those who’ve been following my trek, you’ll remember that I first entered Bolivia in January 2006 on my way south from Peru. Then, torrential rains turned the unpaved route into a mudfest. My riding partner broke his leg and was medivac’ed to the United States. I was pinned down for days. The mythical salt flats were under water.
Unable to advance, I was forced to escape through Chile’s dry Atacama Desert. Bolivia’s rainy season would eventually end, but not before I would have to continue south to avoid the Patagonian winter. Waterlogged and demoralized, I vowed to return.

In September, I did. I flew back to Rio de Janeiro to
rejoin El Viento and traverse the South American continent once again. When I arrived in Uyuni, the tiny Bolivian outpost perched on the edge of the ancient lake, my quixotic trek had finally reached the fabled salt pan.

The locals were unequivocal, telling me in Spanish, “Don’t go out there alone. There’s no water. The sun is brutal. You can’t hide from the ferocious winds and there are no landmarks in the white expanse to help you find your way back.” They continued with dismay, “Every year someone gets lost out there and dies; every year some fool doesn’t listen.”

Fortunately, I ran into Wie Ming Ang, a fellow motorcycle traveler from Indonesia who faced the same predicament. Together, we prepared our machines and plied the local market for provisions. Then, for six days we ventured out into a strange new world. Of scenes more spectacular than any photo could impart. Of ancient mummies, live volcanoes, disorienting horizons, boulder-strewn “islands,” furry cacti, star-filled galaxies, kangaroo-like viscachas, roofless stone houses, and campsites the likes of which I’ve never experienced in my thousands of nights spent outdoors.
Wie Ming Ang adjusts his bike out on the salt.
It’s impossible to describe this place; all superlatives are woefully inapt. Picture rolling across a giant frozen lake covered with an icing of thin, slushy snow. For miles and miles and miles--at speed. It’s crunchy, vast, blinding, cold, dry, bleak, windy, hostile, desolate, lonely, and remarkably fragile. In short, it’s the closest place on earth to actually being on another planet.

Our bikes encrusted with salt, we grudgingly bade the Salar farewell and pushed on for four more days towards Chile. This equally fantastical route through horribly deep sand and gravel led us to towering ranges of multi-hued volcanoes, steaming geysers, wind-sculpted towers, and chromatic high-altitude lakes full of brine shrimp and incongruent pink flamingos.

Moon-like rocks spilled under our tires as the wind washed us sideways from one rut to another. We struggled to stay upright. We struggled to keep our eyes in front of our wheels when the vistas cried out,
“Look at me! Look at me!”

When we finally crossed the Chilean border, we leapt from our bikes and bowed down to kiss the recently paved road. Thrilled to have experienced a unique landscape that few others will ever see, we were nonetheless thankful to have made it back to civilization. Now, it was time to rest and reflect.

The odyssey will continue; I’m still a long way from home. But the primary objective of exploring Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni has at last been achieved. I’ll sleep well tonight--having lived today like it was my last.

In 2009, well after my time out on the salt, I learned that Bolivia's Salar de Uyuni is threatened. I mistakenly thought the Salar would forever remain wilderness, due to its remote location and inhospitable environment.

Unfortunately, underneath all of that salt is hiding a rare mineral, one that virtually every electronic device we use now requires:

The Bolivian government, along with a number of multinational corporations, is currently examining ways to exploit the resource, estimated to be as much as half of the world's supply.

This will mean the death of one of the planet's last great places--and we'll all have a hand in its demise. God help us.

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