Cyclist's South American Trek a Journey of Self-Discovery

Article excerpt

Byline: Edward Russo The Register-Guard

Jude Kirstein of Eugene didn't leave for South America in January to prove something.

But she did, mostly about herself.

Kirstein, 25, and two friends are near the end of a three-month, 3,000-mile bicycle trip that took them from Buenos Aires, Argentina, up and over the Andes to the island of Tierra Del Fuego, at the tip of South America.

Kirstein is a bicycle mechanic, bike tour leader and custom bike wheel builder, with aspirations to become a writer. Her traveling companions are Leah Stargardter, 27, of Madison, Wis., and Cari Stebbins, 20, of Spring Green, Wis.

Kirstein and her friends have been enriched by the trip, which began Jan. 9 and ends next Tuesday.

After bicycling up Andes mountaintops, they've seen glaciers, expansive valleys and high mountain lakes. They've enjoyed the hospitality of Argentineans and Chileans.

But the young women have been tested by hot weather, rocky roads, grueling mountain climbs, heavy rains, and gale-force winds.

Kirstein said she's gained self-confidence by overcoming those challenges. "I tried something that I thought was really hard, and found that I had it in me all along to do it," she in an e-mail from Puntas Arenas, Chile, near Tierra Del Fuego.

By camping along the way, Kirstein came to appreciate things often taken for granted. "I have never experienced a time in my life where I have been so thankful for a warm shower, a delicious meal, a shelter from a storm, or cup of warm milk after being thoroughly drenched and freezing cold," she said. "I have also never been so appreciative of friendship; people to share the road with, new stories and new smiles."

Kirstein has a blog about the trip with journal entries and photos from the trip at overtheandes.blogspot.com. She updated the blog from cafes with computers and Internet access.

Born and reared in Chicago, Kirstein was an avid bicyclist before moving to Eugene a few years ago to attend the University of Oregon.

She went to work at the REI outdoors store. She became a bike mechanic, taught bike repair clinics for women and began building custom bike wheels. Last summer, she took time off to be a guide for Sojourn, a Vermont-based bicycling touring company.

Kirstein is "absolutely full of life," said Rachel Bannister, a Eugene friend. "She enjoys meeting people and finding out what is unique in people. She is very optimistic and very adventurous."

Her friends and co-workers aren't surprised that she decided to bicycle the main South American mountain range. "She is one of those people who is always looking for challenges," said Jay Middleton, an REI assistant store manager. "It's a growth thing for her."

Kirstein and Stargardter met a couple of years ago in Guatemala, where they repaired bikes and built pedal-powered machinery for small businesses. This winter, the friends were ready for an extended bike-riding vacation but they didn't want to stay in the states.

"So we threw a bunch of places in a hat and chose the one that was cheapest to fly to," Kirstein said. "We didn't plan a thing, and it's been a joy."

Kirstein built a bike for the trip. She combined a used Trek 930 road bike frame with her own handbuilt wheels and other components to fashion a sturdy ride. She also took a bike trailer packed with 50 pounds of camping equipment, clothes and other supplies.

Kirstein viewed the trip as part adventure and self-exploration, plus a way to test whether her bike wheels would remain true, or balanced, under rigorous conditions.

The three women began their journey Jan. …