Mar 2013

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 42 Comments

The End of the Road

The air smelled of salt and the wind whipped my hair into a blazing Jerry curl as I stood at the bow of the ferry.  The low moan of the engines rose and fell with each passing wave.  It had been 42 months since I stood at my desk at work and sporadically blurted out the question that would change the course of our lives:

“Hey Steve, what do you say we drive your hippie bus to Tierra del Fuego?”

and Steve’s curt answer:


In the months that followed we would buy our own bus, start saving our money, quit our jobs, and then set off to the South.  Life is short, we figured.  Might as well do something interesting.

And now here we were.  Behind us, the South American continent shrunk to a thin line on the horizon, while before us the island of Tierra del Fuego rose up from the ocean like an ominous rogue wave.

For the last year of driving I had imagined what it would be like when we arrived in Tierra del Fuego.  I had envisioned a place from a Tolkien novel; a land carved by volcanic eruptions, where craggy old trees dripped with moss and clear streams cascaded off of shelves of hardened magma.  It would be an otherworldly, nearly impenetrable place.

When the ferry landed in Tierra del Fuego, we disembarked not into a mysterious forest of eerie, moss-laden trees, but onto a flat plain with nothing but grass and wind for as far as the eye could see.  Could this be right? we wondered.  After driving up the ramp and onto the main road, our doubts were put to rest.  A large sign declared, “Welcome to Tierra del Fuego”.  We had made it to the Land of Fire, and the Land of Fire looked just like Nebraska.

For the first mile of Tierra del Fuego, we thought we’d really scored.  The road was nicely paved, straight, and smooth.  We sailed along at Nebraska speeds, all the while checking out the grass and the wind.  After that mile, things took a turn for the worst.  The pavement abruptly ended and we bumped onto the dirt road which, over the course of the next 100 miles, we would get to know all too well.

The other passengers on the car ferry were mostly big rigs, carrying food and supplies to the towns in Tierra del Fuego.  In this place, with its blasting wind, cold climate, and permanent chill, food had to be brought in from the warmer and more fertile North. As we bumped along the potholed, washboard road, I kept asking myself, where are these trucks going?  How can Argentina justify sending supplies all this way? And it really is a long way.

Southern Patagonia – and I’m talking the lower 1,500 miles of it, is so sparsely populated that many primary “highways” are still dirt.  We frequently came close to running out of gas due to the long distances between the tiny towns.  It was like driving from Phoenix to New Orleans on Jeep roads.  Since there was usually no place to pull off of the road, we slept several nights adjacent to the dirt track, rocking to sleep in the fierce winds.

After 100 miles of the bone-jarring dirt road through Chile’s portion of Tierra del Fuego, we crossed the Argentine border at around 11:00 in the evening, just as the sun was setting.  Where the road met the Atlantic Coast we found a construction site, and retreated from the wind behind a towering pile of dirt.  As we drifted off to sleep, sometime around midnight, twilight still waned above our campsite on one of the Earth’s southernmost fingers of land.

The next day we rose early and hit the road.  Argentina took better care of its portion of the island, paving the last two hundred miles of Ruta 3 to ease the burden on the supply truckers.  About a hundred miles into the day, the landscape started to shift.  It began with the appearance of trees; moss-laden ones, no less.  Next, streams began to crisscross the landscape, and the plains turned into bumpy, low hills.  Soon we were driving through a full-fledged forest dotted with lakes, and the low hills sprang up from the roadsides into towering mountains.

We had reconnected with the Andes as they swept down to terminate at the southern tip of the continent.  The fact that we had reached the Andes by traveling directly South meant that we were virtually there – at the place where South America narrows to a sweeping arrow tip.

We passed a lake, and began to climb.  We switched back and crossed along the exposed face of a rocky peak, and then we were there: at the top of our very last Andean pass.  From here, it would be all downhill to the end of the world.

The rain began to batter our windshield as we descended the windward side of the mountains, and our hearts began to race.

Six months ago, while stranded on a farm in Colombia with a failed transmission, Sheena and I had a serious talk.  Nacho had had his first mechanical failure in Mexico, only a month after leaving home.  From there, the failures rained down in a steady stream.  Greasy hands smashed, battered, and wrenched on Nacho in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panama, and now Colombia.  After the first seven months of our trip, we had spent an average of $662 per month on car repairs.  Sheena and I had to answer the question: at what point do we say enough is enough?  Would it realistically be possible to make it to Ushuaia?

It took a transmission failure and a month of being stranded to possess us to ask that question, but once we had asked it, the weight of our situation dawned on us.  Everything that we had worked for was in jeopardy if we kept rolling with the status quo.  There was only one thing to do: whatever it was going to take.  We weren’t abandoning ship, and that was final.

During our long and therapeutic stay on the farm, it occurred to me: most of our mechanical issues had been caused by botched work by local Latin-American mechanics that I’d hired to fix Nacho.  I decided to go through the van and fix everything that anyone else had touched since we’d left home.

By the time we crossed the equator, we were done with mechanical issues.  Aside from the occasional lingering local mechanic legacy problems, we had made it from the equator to the tip of the continent without any failures.  We had saved our trip with nothing more than motivation, hard work, a modest toolbox, and a big green Bentley manual.

If I could give one piece of advice to anyone driving the Pan-American in the future, it would be this:

Never, ever, under any circumstances, should you ever let any local mechanics tough your rig. EVER!

Just learn to work on your own car. Buy a shop manual and bring a toolbox.  It’s not that difficult.  You worked really hard to buy your freedom, now don’t ruin it.  Oh, wait…

Not even for an OIL CHANGE! NEVER!

We descended from the Andes before an unforgettable backdrop; Tierra del Fuego suddenly terminated into the chilly waters of the Beagle Channel. On the horizon, Navarino Island lurked under cover of an ominous rain cloud. Beyond it lay Cape Horn, and then nothing until Antarctica.  This was the end of the road.

We emerged from a canyon, hooking to the right, and then we saw it.  The buildings clung to the sides of the mountains encircling the bay, and the port sprawled out into the channel at the center of town.  The National Geographic Explorer sat moored in the bay, ready to leave for Antarctica.  Craggy peaks capped with snow cast their shadows over mossy forests and eerie canyons of hardened magma.  It was an otherworldly, nearly impenetrable place, straight out of a Tolkien novel.  It was Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world.  And we had driven there.

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  1. Mike

    Congrats Guy’s, well done great trip and now for another epic trip, getting back.
    Looking forwards to your amazing blogs.

    Comment by Mike on March 10, 2013 at 6:33 pm

  2. @Mike, fortunately we’re far from finished. Many more to come!

    Comment by Brad on March 10, 2013 at 6:40 pm

  3. Ernie

    Congratulations, even when some in your family (me) doubted whether or not you could make it, you did! We all learned something from this adventure. I just mostly miss having my buddies around to play with. Here is to another year of this uneasy pride I have for Sheena my daughter and Brad my Son in law, my good buddies. Hope you have lots of challenges to test and strengthen your character.

    Comment by Ernie on March 10, 2013 at 6:51 pm

  4. Rich

    Africa awaits.

    Comment by Rich on March 10, 2013 at 6:53 pm

  5. Hang in there, @Ernie, we’ll be right back! Thanks for the support, and remember that you always have a home-away-from-home downstairs in Nacho. Just an airplane ride away :)

    Comment by Brad on March 10, 2013 at 6:56 pm

  6. @Rich, it’s great to hear from you. The true inspiration for our trip! I hope Amanda is well. Actually, we’re taking a less common route for our next step; we’re headed to Southeast Asia with Nacho for leg #2 of the round-the-world drive!

    Comment by Brad on March 10, 2013 at 6:57 pm

  7. Congratulations on making it to the “end of the road”. At least in the Americas.

    You two get my vote for the best adventure blog out there… and a second vote for the best written blog out there.

    Looking forward to the adventures to come.


    Comment by Thom Hoch on March 10, 2013 at 7:30 pm

  8. Congrats. And now, C’mon S.E. Asia!

    Chapeau mes amis! You made the right decision in keeping going. Remember whatever happens, it’s all part of the adventure!


    Comment by Marc on March 10, 2013 at 7:56 pm

  9. KJ

    Brad and Sheena,
    Congratulations on this leg of your adventurous journey! I’m looking forward to pages more of this wonderful trip! Best wishes!

    KJ of Lakeview, Michigan!

    Comment by KJ on March 10, 2013 at 8:14 pm

  10. Dragana

    Congratulations, guys! That is a great achievement. I wish you the very best of luck in the future and I wish me lots more of your blogs. Now is the time to fall in love with Africa. Take care of your Nacho – as I take good care of mine. I have a puppy named Nacho ! ;)

    Comment by Dragana on March 10, 2013 at 8:42 pm

  11. Louise

    Fantastic trip! This is the best roadtrip blog ever. Congrats from the west coast of Canada at the other end of the highway!

    Comment by Louise on March 10, 2013 at 8:50 pm

  12. Dragana

    Ha ha ha… sorry about my mistake in my previous note.. meant to say “fall in love with Asia”, but I guess my heart carried me to Africa. :)
    Have fun, be safe and blog… we are traveling with you!
    Happy travels!

    Comment by Dragana on March 10, 2013 at 9:07 pm

  13. Mary Moss

    I love your blog and I’ve forwarded images of “Nacho” to many friends. I recently quit my job and moved to Saigon and next week I’m moving to Vung Tau to do some teaching. I adore SEA:-)

    Comment by Mary Moss on March 10, 2013 at 9:40 pm

  14. Rich

    Amanda is great… thanks for asking. Southeast Asia, Wow! We cannot wait to read about it.

    Comment by Rich on March 10, 2013 at 9:55 pm

  15. Congratulations!!:) It’s been a great ride so far!

    Comment by Karen on March 10, 2013 at 10:00 pm

  16. Thanks @Thom!

    Comment by Brad on March 10, 2013 at 10:09 pm

  17. Thanks everyone for the nice comments. We’re stoked about getting to Asia, and I’m especially excited about eating copious amounts of street food!

    Comment by Brad on March 10, 2013 at 10:14 pm

  18. Gonzo

    Another great read over morning coffee, adventuring away from my laptop to lands unknown. My wife wears her Nacho baby doll-T with pride while riding shotgun/ navigator in our Westy. Hope to meet you both on the road one day. Congrats on the S. American accomplishment, safe travels. :)

    Comment by Gonzo on March 11, 2013 at 5:32 am

  19. mario

    bien…ya estan a mitad de camino………….
    desconozco su iterinario de regreso.
    les ofrezco mi casa y mecanica para uds y nacho
    vivo en la mitad de Chile…………..

    Comment by mario on March 11, 2013 at 7:21 am

  20. @Gonzo, I’m glad to know that there’s a Drive Nacho Drive shirt plying the roads out there in a Westy. Do us proud like!

    Comment by Brad on March 11, 2013 at 8:15 am

  21. @Mario, ya llegamos a Buenos Aires para enviar Nacho a Malasia en barco. Es la proxima escala en nuestra vuelta al mundo con Nacho. Gracias; la proxima vez!

    Comment by Brad on March 11, 2013 at 8:19 am

  22. Mack

    EXCELLENT!! Congrats, I am so happy for you guys!! Great adventure!!

    I laughed so hard, I almost cried. I have been now 14 years in Costa Rica and finally know ONE good car mechanic!

    On the bright side, we do have the best potholes in the world here, LOL.

    In Kenya I learned the true nature and quality of the VW vans, they are awesome, and I am sure you guys will be fine for the rest of your trip!

    Looking forward to the next of the post!


    Comment by Mack on March 11, 2013 at 8:52 am

  23. Lenella

    I want to say congrats as well!

    On another note, I home school my granddaughter. The interesting thing is that I picked up your blog a few weeks ago, through a tiny house blog. The second interesting this is that my granddaughter’s curriculum at that point in time turned to South America, and we have been studying all the places that you have visited on this trip.

    I would like to say thank you for bringing her curriculum to life with your real life adventures. We have been reading your blog, and enjoying it immensely. We took every opportunity to look up on the map your tip course and to compare it to what she was learning.It has brought this part of her history and geography lesson to life.

    Thanks again.


    Comment by Lenella on March 11, 2013 at 8:56 am

  24. Wow, that’s great @Lenella! If I’d known children were watching I would have tried to be more educationally relevant ;) Thanks for reading, and I hope you (and we) enjoy our upcoming Asian leg.

    Comment by Brad on March 11, 2013 at 9:24 am

  25. Coreen

    “There is no moment of delight in any pilgrimage like the beginning of it.” – Charles Dudley Warner
    Happy travels, Brad and Sheena. Look forward to reading many more of your wonderful blogs!

    Comment by Coreen on March 11, 2013 at 11:22 am

  26. Thanks @Coreen, wish we had had time to meet up. Fly on out to Asia if you get the chance and we’ll go on a culinary tour!

    Comment by Brad on March 11, 2013 at 11:29 am

  27. David

    Congratulations. Not only did you make it (which is really a small club by any standards), but you came to the Zen-like answer to all automotive truths… you need to do it yourself when off in the world. This truth holds the same for long distance sailing (my area of experience) as well as nearly every other form of transportation that crosses multiple borders – or oceans.

    Great writing which makes great reading for those of us plotting our own escapes, again… Thank you! Keep it up!!

    Comment by David on March 11, 2013 at 12:05 pm

  28. Thanks David. No matter how evangelical I am about the DIY thing, I still watch people hand their babies over to the strangling hands of local Lat-Am mechanics, with devastating results. It’s hard to watch! I’m just glad Nacho survived the first leg :)

    Comment by Brad on March 11, 2013 at 12:31 pm

  29. Melanie Colavito

    Congrats! I love reading your posts. So inspiring. Keep it up!

    Comment by Melanie Colavito on March 11, 2013 at 2:05 pm

  30. Coreen

    I would in a heartbeat, Brad! So glad we got to talk.

    Comment by Coreen on March 11, 2013 at 2:17 pm

  31. tona

    awesome, I smile every time i read your blog keep the good stories coming
    you guys are so inspiring
    good travels

    Comment by tona on March 11, 2013 at 3:29 pm

  32. sherrie aoki

    Akemashite omedetou, Brad-san to Sheena-san to Nacho-kun!!!
    A little Japanese lesson for your Asian tour…it means Congrats!!!
    Will you be visiting Japan at any point? I’ve got plenty of pitstops at the ready for you if you do make it there. I love the shots of the three of you. Should be the next big seller on a Life Is Good t-shirt…We are so cool…in Tierra del Fuego!!! It took me about three paragraphs into this one to determine that the jerry curl was on Brad, not Sheena, as the picture had been painted in my mind’s eye! (:

    Comment by sherrie aoki on March 11, 2013 at 4:20 pm

  33. mike in Scotland

    Still following from up in the Highlands of Scotland – your great reporting from the frontline of adventure travel. This combination of great travel writing, classic photographs and food stories and more, is an excellent mix – and each installment is anticipated (and much more interesting than rest of my inbox ;-)).
    Looking forward to finding out what you make of Asia – the people, (the mechanics?) the land and the food – and wherever the road takes you after that.

    Inspired by some of the comments above – I am off to get the globe out to show my 6 year old your travels so far……

    Comment by mike in Scotland on March 11, 2013 at 4:33 pm

  34. Gary Peebles

    You are so good at describing your adventure. It really makes those memories of our trip to Tierra Del Fuego seem like it was yesterday. Thanks for your enthusiasm.

    Comment by Gary Peebles on March 11, 2013 at 4:44 pm

  35. Brad

    @Sherrie, we don’t plan to go to Japan at this point. The plan is SE Asia, and then start driving West. If anything changes we’ll let you know!

    Comment by Brad on March 11, 2013 at 5:53 pm

  36. mashoud

    FELICITATIONS for a remarkable accomplishment, both in coaxing Nacho along and giving incredible pleasure to those that followed your journey eagerly to the ‘World’s end’.

    Congratulations also for the remarkable display of your characters and the spirit of your souls…you have enriched many in pursuit of enriching yourself.

    God speed on your next phase . S.E. Asia would really enthrall you to no end.

    Be safe…


    Comment by mashoud on March 11, 2013 at 10:38 pm

  37. If I ever decide to have an adventure like this, will definitely take your advice on not ever letting the mechanics work on my vehicle.

    Following your journey from start to this point has me feeling very … bittersweet.

    But I am psyched to read the next chapter, nay, the next book!

    Comment by Kenneth on March 13, 2013 at 8:31 am

  38. Very nicely written, enjoyed the blog quite a bit. I lived in Southern Argentina for over 16 seasons , brought back many memories!

    Comment by Mark Daly on March 21, 2013 at 9:58 am

  39. […] and spend the cash on a reliable Toyota and camper or you could do it in a 1984 VW Vanagon Drive Nacho Drive The End of the Road There are thousands of ways to drive long distances. It sounds like you have proof of concept […]

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  40. Sunday

    Brad, Sheena

    I know I am behind the eight ball on this, but just wanted to say I am truly impressed. Hope I can run into you at some point!

    Comment by Sunday on April 2, 2013 at 4:21 pm

  41. […] a year ago when we arrived in Tierra del Fuego, Nacho’s engine started idle surfing worse than usual. At idle, the engine would cycle […]

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  42. […] there. Then one day over our morning coffee we regard with amazement the way that the jagged tip of Tierra del Fuego slices into the sea, the very end of the Americas, the end of the road. But for every momentous morning coffee view […]

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