Nov 2013

Blog, South America


The Lost Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving morning and I’m sure the first thing on everyone’s mind when they wake up is, “I wonder what Nacho is doing today?” The truth is, this is the first time in our lives that we decided not to celebrate Thanksgiving. But don’t despair! We spent the day, and the last few for that matter, in the home of a wonderful family that has adopted us and treated us like one of their own. Our bellies are freshly full of water buffalo (mmm!) and tea, and we’re thankful.

But still, it is Thanksgiving, and so we thought we should do something thanky. As you might recall, last year we didn’t write a Thanksgiving entry either, so what follows is the story of last year’s Thanksgiving celebration in Patagonia. This is one of several new stories that were only included in our book.

Lastly, remember that tomorrow is Black Friday; it’s a day in America where we trample each other to a pulp at the gates of Wal Marts the nation over. As a shameless plug–the last one I’ll make this year–I will suggest that our book would make a great Christmas gift for the adventurer in your life. And it will save you from being trampled at Wal Mart. Saving lives and entertaining people, it’s what we do.

To the book >>

And without further ado…

We sat in hypnotized silence, swaying back and forth as we glided along the curvy shoreline of Lago Nahuel Huapi, the rain saturating our windshield just as fast as the wipers could clear it away. To our right, the dark water was made even more ominous by the jagged rows of rain-pocked waves, purposefully marching in rows across the lake’s surface, a deep opaque blue hinting at the extent of the water’s depth. The side of the road was lined with flowers waist high and three feet deep, vibrant yellows and blues and purples. We were surrounded on all sides by jagged Andean peaks bearing crowns of ice, and wearing streaks of iron ore and pumice and evergreen.

“Oh wow,” Sheena said, as if awoken from a trance. “Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.”

We’d had no use of knowing dates for so long, and often had to strain our minds to remember what month it was. Whenever I had to remember the date, I would start by trying to remember what season it was. From there I could work out the month, and then try to recall recent milestones that could give me some hint as to the day. Sitting in the passenger seat, being rocked back and forth along the winding lakeside road, Sheena must have been working it out in her head.

“What are we going to do? We haven’t even prepared?” It was true, a couple of months prior we had talked about doing a big Thanksgiving blowout. We had imagined cooking turkeys and sausage and stuffing, mashed potatoes, the whole bit, and all outdoors over a campfire. We would invite anyone we knew and have a great feast. But now we were a day away, the weather was cold and wet, and we had nobody to invite. It was looking like we’d spend the holiday alone, bundled up against the cold, eating whatever we happened to have in the van. Thanksgiving in Patagonia.

We drove on in silence, swaying with the curves as the rain battered the windshield.

An hour later the road had veered away from the lakeside, climbing and descending between mountains, crossing over rivers, and after a while the rain disappeared and was replaced by a strong wind pushing down on the road from the ridges above. We sailed out of the mountains and into the foothills, pushed along by a powerful tailwind. Up ahead we caught sight of what seemed to be several motorcycles cruising in the same direction as us. After a few minutes we had gotten close enough to realize that in fact they were bicycles. Four cyclists, bundled in their jackets, easily pedaled along at 45 miles per hour, helped along by the powerful tailwind. As we reached them, we realized that two of them were Matthias and Andrea, the Germans we’d met in Junin de los Andes after Nacho was burglarized.

We gunned the engine and pulled around them, Sheena waving frantically out the window. After we’d put a safe distance between us and them we pulled over and waited. Andrea arrived first, grinning wildly.

“Brad and Sheena! Hello! I can’t believe it!”

“Look who it is!” Matthias said, coming to rest in front of Nacho, out of the wind. “We have just ridden the fastest that we have ridden on our entire trip – 70 kilometers per hour! This wind is great! Meet our new friends, Wiebke and Axel.”

Wiebke was athletic and tall – perhaps six feet – and had wisps of blonde hair hanging down from her helmet. Axel had a nice smile and an athletic build. On the front of Wiebke’s bike sat her young daughter, Smilla, while Axel pulled a trailer carrying their other youngest girl, Selma, a three year old.

“Nice to meet you,” they said, shaking our hands, “these are our children.” Wiebke smiled at Smilla, who responded with a sweet, “hellooo!”

We exchanged greetings and talked for a while before we remembered Thanksgiving.

“As it turns out,” I said, “Thanksgiving is tomorrow—it’s the time of year when we North Americans celebrate the final meal that we shared with the Native Americans before driving them off their land. Basically a really big feast. Will you guys be around Bariloche tomorrow?”

“Ah yes, I saw it on an episode of Friends once,” Matthias said. “We will be in Bariloche, but we have been invited to stay at the house of a fellow cyclist who lives here.” He explained how this man, who has come to be known as “Pelado”—literally “Baldy,” on account of the fact that he has very little hair on his head—once tried riding his bicycle from Argentina to Alaska, but didn’t quite make it. Since returning home, he has opened his home to all cyclists who pass through. No reservations required, just show up and have free reign of the house, a bed to sleep in, a kitchen to use, and an instant friend. Only one catch: we were driving a car.

“Maybe if you get a cabin for the day we can come meet you for dinner.” They seemed sorry, but were already expected at Pelado’s house.

We loaded up and continued on toward Bariloche, sandwiched between Lago Nahuel Huapi and the towering snow-capped peaks of the Patagonian Andes. When we arrived it was late afternoon and cold. Rain fell in intervals and a freezing wind whipped up off of the southern shore of the lake, giving the town the feel of Zurich in the winter. We parked downtown and made our way to the office of tourism to find out about cabin rentals.

The woman at the tourism office showed us listings for several cabins, most of which were well out of our price range. We armed ourselves with the names of a few of the cheaper ones and hit the streets. For the remainder of the day we went from cabin to cabin, checking each one off of the list. Most were the size of small walk-in closets, which explained the low cost. Defeated, and with the sun gone over the horizon, we rolled out of town to the campground.

By the time we found the campground it was dark. We drove in and negotiated our way through the thick tangle of trees until the small dirt road ended. I would have to back up and turn around. Sheena got out and went to scour for possible camping spots on foot. Unable to see, I decided to back up blindly, aiming for what appeared to be a blank spot between enormous trees. Everything was looking good…looking fine…a little faster now…and CRACK! Nacho came to an immediate stop; I had slammed into a tree.

For a minute I just sat there, contemplating. Thanksgiving was a bust. I was cold. We had so looked forward to Bariloche, “The Gateway to Patagonia,” but it would more than likely be remembered at the freezing cold windy city where we crashed into a tree and ate Thanksgiving spaghetti.

“Brad!” Sheena said, running up to my window, “you’ve just run into a tree!”

In the morning our windows bore a thin skin of ice and we shivered in our down jackets as we brushed our teeth outside, trying in vain to capture a few stray rays of sunlight through the thick evergreen canopy. We loaded up our things and headed into town where we would check our email and then go to the grocery store to try to put together some kind of sad Thanksgiving dinner for two.

On the way to the store we swung by the Berlina microbrewery and hopped on their free Wi-Fi. The first message in my inbox was from Matthias, and had come the previous evening, right around the time I was slamming Nacho into a tree.

We finally found the “free house for cyclists.” Here is a very, very friendly family and we do feel a little bit like home. I think all the Germans gonna stay here a few days. But also we wanted to have a Thanksgiving dinner with our friends from Arizona. So I asked the guy if it would be ok to have a dinner all together in his house. He just says “Sí, Sí, Sí, no problem!” Here is a place of big hospitality and it’s no problem to find a place for Nacho (and for you to sleep)… there is a farmer in the neighborhood that sells meat and he was recommended by the people here. Should I ask for special meat?

We excitedly wrote back to Matthias and proceeded to drive to the grocery store, where we spent at least a week’s budget on all of the fixings for the best Thanksgiving blowout we could concoct.

“Bacon! Sheena, they have bacon! Can we do something with bacon?”

“Buy it!” Sheena wailed.

“I have some sausages here, how many sausages?”

“All of them!”


“Is this Bastille Day? No! Put those down and find some dinner rolls!”

When we pulled into Pelado’s driveway on the shore or Nahuel Huapi, Nacho was full up with bags and bags of American soul food. Matthias met us at the gate.

“They didn’t have any turkeys,” he said, “but they have some chickens bigger than I have ever seen. The farmer is preparing them for us now, we must pick them up at 2:00.”

Inside Pelado’s house we were introduced to his wife, Felicidad, who was hanging out with Axel, Wiebke, and their children. After a tour of the property and Pelado’s backyard bakery, we got under way.

Pelado made two loaves of fresh-baked braided bread. Andrea and Matthias made a radish salad, procured two turkey-sized chickens, and provided copious amounts of beer and wine. Felicidad made a second salad, composed entirely of edible plants from the yard. Sheena and I commandeered the kitchen and proceeded to season and roast the chickens and made garlic mashed potatoes, sausage stuffing (with bacon), green beans (with bacon), and fried potatoes and peppers (with bacon). For dessert, Andrea made apple pie from scratch, but without bacon.

“This is great,” Pelado said as we filled the table with food, “I once saw Thanksgiving on an episode of Friends!”

Just as dinner was served, two more cyclists arrived; Renata and Arturo from Brazil. They had heard through the grapevine that there was to be an American holiday celebration, popularized by the TV show Friends, and they wanted to see what it was all about.

The food was incredible, and our international group of friends took to the gluttonous tradition like David Schwimmer to paleontology. As we ate, Pelado recounted for us his experience during his attempted bicycle trip to Alaska.

“I left this house in 2001,” he began, “with the goal of riding all the way to Alaska. I just decided to drop everything and go. I was going to ride until I got there, it didn’t matter how long it took.

“Everything went fine until I got to the border of the United States. I spent all of my Mexican pesos before I left Mexico, and then crossed the border. The first thing I did was go to the ATM machine to get US dollars. But when I tried, it said I had no money left. I immediately called home to see what was happening, and I was told that our economy had collapsed overnight and that the banks had no more money. Everything we had was gone!

“So now I was in America with no money. I asked the border guard what I should do, and he didn’t know. He said I should try the Red Cross. I had never heard of this ‘Red Cross’ before, but I rode there. When I arrived I told them that I had no money and no food. They took me in and gave me a place to sleep, and then they opened their cabinets and told me to take all the food I wanted. They filled my bike trailer with canned food! I couldn’t believe it!

“I continued riding through America, going from Red Cross to Red Cross, and every time they gave me a place to sleep and food to eat. After this I love the Red Cross. I am a big fan now, and I tell everyone how much I love them!

“When I arrived in San Francisco it was September, and the Saudis attacked the Twin Towers. This was a very sad time and everybody got closer to one another. I felt so much love, and I started wearing a banner in support of the victims. People would clap when they saw me ride by because I was riding in honor of them.

“But then,” he continued, “I ran into trouble. My visa in the United States was for three months, but because of my troubles I had only made it as far as Seattle when my visa ran out. I was so close to the border! But I was stopped by the police, and they realized that my visa had expired. They arrested me and deported me back to Argentina. I had ridden my bicycle half way across the world, and they sent me home when I was so close to the border! I was heartbroken. I have been here ever since. When I got back here I built an oven and started baking bread, and selling it in Bariloche.”

Pelado’s story saddened us. To have been treated with such hospitality in so many places ourselves, and to have felt warmth from strangers, the thought of our country deporting Pelado and putting an end to his dream, gave us something to contemplate. But after all of it, he still loved the United States, and above all he loved the Red Cross mission.

As night closed in around Pelado’s house we looked around the table. We were Americans and Germans, Brazilians and Argentineans. Through serendipity and great fortune we had all ended up in the same home to break bread together, and in doing so we had enjoyed our best Thanksgiving to date. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.

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Mar 2013

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 17 Comments

Dirty Money, Clean Getaway

It shouldn’t have taken me as long as it did to realize that I was not sitting face to face with a stock broker, as I had been told, but with a boss in a money laundering ring.  After five months of selling illegal currency on Argentina’s black market I should have been less naïve, but clearly I was no more than a stable boy in this rodeo.

The building was nondescript, sandwiched between skyscrapers in downtown Buenos Aires, its windows mirrored and unmarked.  The blank hallway on the fourth floor was punctuated by nothing more than a green button on one wall.  The heavy deadbolt let out a metallic clunk, and we entered the office.

A deflated-looking receptionist sat on a flimsy chair behind a bare desk.  The meeting room where we waited for the money launderer contained a cheap desk, four chairs, and a telephone.  There wasn’t a computer in the whole building and what furniture there was seemed rented and cheap; the place could be evacuated in no time flat if the cops showed up.

We handed the man our stack of US dollars, and he handed us a bigger stack of Argentine pesos.  And just like that we saved ,411, or 35%, on the shipping container in which Nacho and two motorcycles would travel from Buenos Aires to Malaysia.

When it comes to beauty, Argentina comes up aces.  We are envious of its mountains.  We are envious of its rivers, streams, and its lakes.  We are envious of its gorgeous women and its handsome men with their slender bodies, perfect faces, olive skin, and long, dark, voluptuous hair.  But when it comes to its economy, Argentina is in shambles, swirling faster and faster into an uncontrollable toilet dive.  For this, we are not envious.

A few years ago, Argentina enjoyed a prosperous economy.  Its currency was tied to the US dollar, trading one to one.  The Argentine people vacationed to “cheap” places like Europe and the USA.  Then, in a series of botched economic moves, Argentina devalued its currency, inflation became rampant, the government went through a bond default, and the people’s bank accounts instantly vaporized.  With unbridled  inflation, the people began rebuilding their savings in US dollars; by keeping their savings in pesos, they would effectively lose ten, twenty, thirty percent per year due to inflation.

Then, in 2011, the government made it illegal to obtain US dollars in Argentina.  This, of course, gave rise to a black market for US currency.  When we arrived in Argentina five months ago, the official exchange rate between the peso and dollar was 4.7 to one.  Since we had US dollars with us, we were in a position to sell our dollars on the black market to Argentine people who needed them.  We made our first sale at 5.875 pesos to one dollar, effectively reducing the price of everything we would buy in Argentina by 25%.  We would make a sale every week to keep up with inflation.

Sitting in the money launderer’s bleak office in Buenos Aires five months later, we would make our last trade at 7.5 pesos to one dollar, while the official rate had only risen to 4.9.  In five months, the peso had inflated 28%.

Over the course of our stay in Argentina, we would save over $2,000 by selling our dollars to ice cream shop owners, parking lot attendants, auto parts dealers, and money launderers.  To use an ATM was to throw perfectly good money in the trash.  The rivers and streams are pristine, the lakes and mountains are awe inspiring, the women and men are steamy hot, but there is no hope for Argentina’s economy.

A few weeks prior to arriving in Buenos Aires, we had been in El Chalten, the town at the base of Mount Fitz Roy.  While eating breakfast one morning, someone knocked on our door.  It was Kevin, a Canadian motorcyclist who reads our blog; he recognized Nacho and came over to say hello.  We got to talking, and learned that he and his riding partner, Jan, were also nearing the end of their trip South.

“So what are you doing next?”, he asked.

“Once we get to Buenos Aires we’ll ship Nacho to Malaysia, and then drive from there to Europe,” I said.  He considered it for a moment, and then pitched an idea.

“Mind if we come along to Malaysia?”

And just like that, Nacho would have two BMW motorcycles to use as padding in the shipping container for the long crossing to Malaysia.

When we reached Buenos Aires, the four of us rented an apartment in the San Telmo neighborhood.  It would serve as our basecamp while we drove around town for shipping broker meetings, customs visits, container loading, and meeting with money launderers.  While we were at it, we decided we might as well see what the city had to offer, and to our delight Buenos Aires turned out to be totally excellent.

Day after day we explored the city.  In la Boca we admired the urban art and street performers,  in San Telmo we explored the antique market and sampled restaurants, we found an extensive beer cave in Microcentro, and explored the most elaborate graveyard on the planet in Recoleta.

On the very last day before loading our shipping container, I decided that Nacho needed some tender loving care.  I cleaned our air filter and swapped out our water pump, which was on its last legs.  Last, I wanted to give Nacho a bath so that he would be shiny for the new continent.  First impressions.  I filled a couple of buckets with water, grabbed some dish soap, and went down to the street, where Nacho awaited.

I cleaned up the front, side, and back of the van, and then moved to the last side, which faced the street.  I set the bottle of soap on our folding chairs and went to work.  A few seconds later I came back around, and found my soap in the planter, and our folding chairs missing.

Some rat bastard had stolen our weather-beaten, dry-rotted, faded, rickety folding chairs right in front of my eyes!  He would have had to lug them a half a block before he’d be out of my sight, but I never saw a thing.  I asked the bystanders at the bus stop, but they didn’t see anything either.  All I could do was shake my head.  Why couldn’t people just earn money the honest way, like the money launderer?

Finally, after 24,000 miles of driving through 14 countries over the course of 13 months, we drove Nacho one final time to the port.  In our attempt at driving in a westward course around the world, we had finished the first year of driving over 3,000 miles East of where we started.  We clearly had a lot of work to do.

As we came to a stop inside of the shipping container, I glanced at the odometer; it read 299,999 miles.  The very first order of business when we open the shipping container in Malaysia will be to roll this puppy over to 300k.  Sounds like a good omen to the start of a new adventure.

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Mar 2013

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 11 Comments

Meeting the Magellanics

It was after hours and the sun was beginning to set.  The park hours on the entrance clearly stated they were closed.  However no gate stopped us from continuing forward.  We wound down the dirt road through the rolling desert brush.  Along the 20 mile stretch, signs were posted at every curve in the road: “Do not stop or get out of your vehicle”.  I felt like I was on a safari adventure.

We pulled into the parking lot and peered around.  So this is where they lived?  The water was supposed to be near but we couldn’t see it.  In the distance, I spotted a few motionless figures.  Could it really be?

“Brad!  I see penguins!”

He stared in their direction while letting out a mocking laugh.  “Sheena, those aren’t penguins.  Those are just statues”.

Oh silly me.  And then they moved.

Curious by this strange new environment, I cracked open Nacho’s passenger door.  Instantly Nacho was filled with crazy bellowing penguin hoots and hollers.  Surely the park wouldn’t allow us to spend the night here, yet no one appeared to tell us otherwise.  We started cooking dinner.  Just as Nacho became a sauna inside with mysteriously fogged windows, there was a tap on the window.  Damn.

The man outside introduced himself as the park ranger.  “What are you doing?  Have you gotten out of your vehicle?!  Have you paid for park entrance?  Are you sure you have not gotten out of your vehicle?”

With the promise that we would not exit our vehicle, we were granted permission to stay in the park for the evening.  However, while pointing to his house he said “If you want to watch television you are welcome to come by my house”.  I guess they would bend their own rules in the name of entertainment.

The following day felt like Christmas morning as a child.  I could hardly contain myself.

For over a year, our goal had been to proceed South until we could not go any farther.  We made it to Ushuaia but our drive in the Americas was far from over.  Our final destination was Buenos Aires, 1,500 miles to the Northeast.  As we drove up the Atlantic coast, we finally hung up our jackets and pulled back out our tank tops and shorts.

In the most unlikely of climates and terrain we found ourselves at Punta Tombo, the largest Magellanic penguin rookery outside of Antarctica.  All around us, 250,000 breeding pairs of penguins were waddling in the brush and skinny dipping on the beach.

“You are the first ones in the park this morning.  It is just you and the penguins! The penguins here have had a long journey and are very hungry.  If they cross your path, please, don’t block them”.  Do people really do that?

Everything I know about penguins was learned from the movie March of the Penguins.  They march for months through the cold frigid winds, hungry and tired, only to find another cold torturous place to lay their eggs.  Then, due to the frigid cold temperatures, they sit on their eggs for months, balanced between their pouch and feet.  They sit and wait for as long as it takes for their spouse to return back with food.  Then, they would repeat it all over again.

Perhaps the penguins here hadn’t seen that film.  They discovered much warmer places in the world to enjoy their winter.  Dugout burrows covered the hillsides and everywhere we looked, penguins were scattered.  The landscape was low lying desert brush and hamster-like mice scurried across the ground.  Guanacos grazed.  Everything was in harmony.

It was baby season when we arrived and all the baby penguins were two to three months old, losing their fluffy down, and weeks away from learning how to fish.  In a few short months they’d begin their annual migration, lasting five to six months.  As for this particular morning, various activities were going on.  Penguins carried sticks across fields, families nestled under the brush, and some male penguins attempted to show their dominance, sword fighting with their beaks.  Female penguins basked in the sun, grooming their babies while slowly getting ready for the day.  Babies stood motionless, whining constantly, hungry and needy.  And then like clockwork, the parents would head out in parties to the sea, ready to fish.

Indifferent to humans, they were so easy to watch.  They had no personal bubble and loved examining us as much as we loved examining them.  We crouched down low, looked at them eye to eye and said goodbye.

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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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Mar 2013

Blog, South America

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Falling Buildings and Tidal Waves

Brad and I had waited a long time to see this place, and now, as we sipped our Nescafe, we peered into the distance in awe.  Butterflies raced in my stomach and my mind was filled with anticipation.  The feeling wasn’t so much caused by the view, but by the set of vocal pipes on this thing.  It creaked and moaned yearning for our attention, attempting to resist the pressure of the ice pushing its massive body forward.  Creak, pop, crash!  We were teased to come closer.

We followed the catwalk through the forest until we broke through the barrier of green and were left with an open and uninterrupted view of the glacier.  We were dumbstruck.  It was truly like nothing I had ever seen in my life. As far as the eye could see, it stretched back into the nethermost regions of the mountains, eventually coming to a standstill before us, bold and beautiful.  It was hard to grasp its immensity; it seemed impossible that it could be any larger.  My central and peripheral vision were at capacity.  Yet, from a bird’s eye view, we were only seeing the very tip of this glacier.

This massive tongue of ice stretched 18 miles into the mountains, its width 3 miles, and it towered into the sky like a solid row of 22 story buildings, having an average height of 240 feet.  I felt like an ant on the sidewalk; small and insignificant; in an instant I could be swallowed whole in one minor crevasse of its mass.  And the colors!  The glacier was a swirl of white and blue; the blue formed from densely compact ice, while the white from trapped air bubbles after numerous melting and freezing cycles.  If the glacier hadn’t stolen the view, surely the milky grayish blue water of Lake Argentina would have. The strange color was the result of the sun’s rays diffracting against unsettled sediment of “glacial flour” in the water.  Simply spectacular.

Perito Moreno is famous in the world of glaciers.  It is a fighter and one of the few glaciers in existence that is still advancing; stretching forward an average of seven feet a day.  However, while it is advancing; simultaneously, building-sized chunks of ice are breaking from the face. Its growth, counteracted by the ice sloughing off of its face, make this one of the few stable glaciers in a time of global warming.

We watched for hours, unable to pull away.  We listened to the creaks and pops while we waited, frozen in place, for the glacier to calve off 240 foot high chunks into the water, releasing an instant rippling tidal wave.  Like lightning and thunder, there was always a split second between the belly flopping of a hunk of ice and the explosion of sound in our ear drums.

Amazing views in Patagonia were not exclusive to Perito Moreno; they seemed to exist in all directions.  In the South, on the Chilean side of the Andes we visited Lago Grey, where chunks of pockmarked icebergs floated in the water, and where Torres del Paine’s 3000 foot tall vertical shafts of basalt jut up into the sky.   At its base, shiny rock faces stream with water, draining into a crisp blue glacial lake below.

Farther North we visited the other half of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, with Mount Fitz Roy stealing the show.  We met up with wonderful friends, hiked in the mountains, camped, and explored the many eating and drinking establishments in the tiny town of El Chalten, which serves as a basecamp for Fitz Roy.  Before we left town, Brad assisted some of our new friends in the age old tradition of a Vanagon push start.

Finally, after having our fill of glaciers and National Parks, it was time to finish this thing off.  We boarded Nacho and pointed his big white nose southward.

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Mar 2013

Blog, South America

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The Worst Day of My Life

My trembling hands did their best to keep my pint of ale from spilling across the rough hewn wooden table.  The day was cold, but despite being indoors I couldn’t warm up.  The exhilaration followed by such tragedy had sapped my body of its ability to regulate blood flow to my chilly extremities, but it wasn’t the cold that caused me to tremble. The body that I had held in my hands only hours before had slipped away, never to be recovered, and was now replaced by this lifeless substitute; a cold golden ale, which I now clenched in my fingers, quivering from a deep, soul-shattering anguish.  My heart became a lead weight behind my sternum.  I was inconsolable.  Patrons came and went through the screen door, their jackets pulled tight against the cold.

And that damned song.  Was this some kind of cruel torture?

Maybe I didn’t love you

Quite as often as I could have

And maybe I didn’t treat you

Quite as good as I should have

I tried to block it out by gazing into my beer, concentrating on the bubbles.  How they formed at the bottom of the glass like baby tadpoles.  How they floated – the epitome of freedom – through the golden ether.  And then how they bobbed to the surface, died, and were gone forever.

You were always on my mind

You were always on my mind

I tried to forget.  I needed to forget.  I took a deep, medicinal swig of ale and retreated into happier memories.

While driving along a stream in Patagonia’s northern Lake District, we spotted a tiny track leading into the trees.  Pushing our way through overhanging bamboo beneath lush oak trees, we came into a clearing.  We situated ourselves so that Nacho’s sliding door would open up to the sand bank and the crystal clear trout stream.  I fished all day, up and down the banks, reeling in a dozen or more rainbow and Patagonian brown trout, all too small to keep.  I showed Sheena how to fish where the creek hooked to the right, creating a perfect eddy in front of our camp.  Times were good.  Scratch that.  Times were great.

My lip began to tremble, and I noticed that my glass was empty.  Why wouldn’t my hands warm up?  I was losing control.  I couldn’t let myself lose composure.  What would the others think?  Would they stare, or would they be kind and pretend not to see?  I tipped a finger to the waiter and pointed to my glass.

And that damned song.  It would be the death of me.  It was on repeat, midway through its third revolution.  Was a grand puppeteer watching me, pulling these strings that caused me to teeter on the edge of sanity?  Damn you puppeteer!  And damn your song!

And maybe I didn’t hold you

All those lonely, lonely times

And I guess I never told you

I’m so happy that you’re mine

He pulled my empty glass away and set down a fresh one.  I held the glass in my hands, just as I would have held her had she not slipped away into the darkness, never to be seen again.  No parting glance, no chance to say goodbye.  I again retreated into my mind, where better times awaited.  Better times, like when we camped on the Rio Quillen.

In the morning we had turned onto a dirt road that skirted the river.  Sheena and I had smiled at each other across the front seats while we bumped along, looking for a good fishing hole.  Spotting a rock outcropping in the middle of the strong, crystal clear water held promise of rising trout.  Sheena sat on a warm rock in the Patagonia sun while I let out line and set the fly just upstream of the outcropping.  My fly bobbed in the current, sweeping around the rock, and was quickly taken by a beautiful rainbow trout.  Eighteen inches!  Boy, it was a beauty; strong and shiny and perfect.

Throughout that day and the next I landed three eighteen inch rainbows.  We found a campsite under a weeping willow tree next to the river, built a fire, and ate like a king and queen.  Those were the good times.  I wondered if I would ever again know good times.  My heart ached and it felt as if I’d never recover. I had lost my joie de vivre.

Just then a couple entered the establishment.  The woman’s shiny brown hair nearly reached her waist, and she brushed it off of her shoulder as she entered.  The man unbuttoned his overcoat and smiled at his wife.  Their happiness reminded me of my sorrow and I took another drink.  The song played on.

Little things I should have said and done

I just never took the time

But you were always on my mind

You were always on my mind

By now my heart was numb, and I was able to reenact the day’s events.  I slowly relived each moment, wishing that I could go back, just for one second, to make things better.  To somehow change the way things ended.

After several days of driving along Chile’s Carretera Austral, we had arrived at the town of Coyhaique.  We had passed through town and found a camp site at the edge of a bend in the Rio Coyhaique.  We were surrounded by green hills where the river passed under a bridge.  From our bed we could hear the water bubbling over rocks at the edges of the river.  My fly rod waited patiently for the morning, and I kissed Sheena good night.

In the morning I said a quick goodbye and set out to the north, along the banks of the river.  It was a cold day and the black rocks along the bank became slick with the spray of misty rain.  I navigated my way down a slanted rock face to the base of an imposing stone wall where the strong current churned and dove to untold depths.  I pulled out several arm lengths of line and whipped it in a cyclical motion over the surface of the water until my neon yellow leader reached the base of the wall.  I set my fly down and let the current grab it, sinking my line in front of the wall, and watched the neon yellow disappear into the darkness below the rocks.

A minute passed, and then I started retrieving the line.  Pull, relax, pull, relax.  I imagined the fly pulsing through the water like a little fish.

Pull, relax, pull, relax, pull – KABOOM!  Something hit my fly with the force of a freight train, pulling ten feet of line out of my hands before I knew what had happened.

“FUH-FUH-FUH…!” I couldn’t get the expletive out – there was no time!  I squeezed the line to add some resistance.  This thing was huge!  I had caught a salmon on the Rio Futaleufu a couple of days earlier, but this was far bigger.  It pulled more line out; fifteen feet, twenty, twenty five.  I guessed how far she had gone and figured she was just about to reach the point where the current funneled into a raging jet between two rocks.  She would surely break my eight pound tippet if I let her get into that current.  I eased back on the line and started making some progress in pulling her in.

I fought, pulling some line in and then letting her take it back, for ten or fifteen minutes.  Whatever this was, I needed to wear it out before I would have a chance to pull it in.

My hands trembled, my heart pounded out of my chest.  The mist beaded up on my jacket and tumbled onto the rocks, and I shuffled my feet to position myself near the water’s edge without slipping in and being carried away.  I looked to see if Sheena was around.  She was nowhere to be seen.

Soon, my line was taut, and pointed straight into the dark water at my feet. I still couldn’t see the fish, but I could tell that it was right in front of me.  Suddenly she twisted, revealing the side of her body.  A blaze of silver the size of a toddler flashed from beneath, and again the expletive stuttered on my tongue.


I positioned my net, but it was awkward.  The rocks under the water were like the Alps in miniature, surrounding the fish.  I managed to situate the net directly above the fish, and brought it down.  It all happened so fast.

As the net came down, it became clear that she was too big to fit through the opening.  The net’s metal frame bisected her, but she would not go in.  The fish – the most enormous rainbow trout I’ve ever laid eyes on – gathered her strength.  While I tried to capture her in the net, my heart pounded the back of my sternum.  I wasn’t breathing any more, I was wheezing.  And then, in the struggle to get her in the net, she gave one final, violent kick, and my line went slack.

I stood up, line in hand, and looked at the end hanging limply where my fly used to be.

“FUUUUUUU*$@#^&K!”  I evacuated my lungs, funneling all of the power from my adrenaline-filled muscles, into one long, drawn out, echoing expletive.  Somewhere deep in that river, through the tumultuous current, over the noise of clanging rocks and rushing water, that fish heard my heart breaking through the vibration of my vocal cords.

“If only I would have…positioned the net…like this,” I slurred, holding my frigid fingers out over the wooden table, “I woulda had her.  I woulda…had her.”

“Snap out of it, my love,” Sheena urged, “it was just a silly fish. Life will go on.”

But to me she wasn’t just a fish.  She was a Homeric siren, as big as a tiny human, and she was beautiful.  I raised my glass as a tear collected in the corner of my eye, and the puppeteer played that incessant song.

You were always on my mind

You were always on my mind

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Mar 2013

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 13 Comments

Nacho of the High Seas

“When you get to the top of a wall, there’s nothing up there…the end result is absolutely useless.  But every time I travel I learn something new, and hopefully I get to be a better person.”

– Yvon Chouinard, 180° South

We slept very little on account of the wind, tossing Nacho about like Shackleton’s rowboat.  I drank my coffee, finished my oatmeal, and then emerged from the sliding door into the eerie, gray morning.  Something was different.  Alarmingly different.  The sand dunes that had surrounded Nacho the previous evening were all gone. Smooth, wet ground was all that remained.  The windshield and front grill were coated with sand, and a tide pool stood like a partial moat around Nacho.

While we slept, the waves had crept inward and engulfed our camp site.  They were frightening waves, breaking in sets twelve at a time, white caps stripping off into the air like the licking flames of a fire by the terrorizing wind.  These waves had crossed the sandy wasteland that had separated us from the ocean while we slept.  While I danced with lollipops and wagons in my dream world, Nacho braved the high seas, just like Shackleton’s rowboat, in the real world.  Pacific Ocean: a misnomer if there ever was one.

I paced back and forth, circling Nacho in disbelief.  While I did, a couple of jacketed figures made their way up the otherwise abandoned, remote beach, fighting the oppressive wind.  Inspecting the wheels and undercarriage it was impossible to tell how high the water had come.  Spitting rain and ocean spray had coated everything in a fine, salty mist.  The figures approached so I put up a confident façade, as if we hadn’t nearly been swept away into southern Chile’s penguin and shark infested waters in our hippie bus.

Retired German tourists.  Pretty far from civilization, I thought.  The whole situation had a Tim Burton air about it.

“Looks like it’s going to be a balmy day,” I said, trying to lighten the mood.  The man tightened the hood of his rain jacket around his face against the wind.  The woman opened her mouth to speak, and as she did I recoiled in fear.  Her thin face was gray and sunken, and when she spoke, her lips parted to reveal teeth smeared with thick trails of blood.

Sweet baby Jesus H. Christ!

She said something, but the little attention I was able to spare was not enough to make heads or tails of it.  It was a heinously botched flossing job, complete with swollen gums and squirting blood.  I hadn’t seen anything so grotesque since the last time I tried flossing.

In the adventure documentary 180° South, a young man follows in the footsteps of Yvon Chouinard on a southbound journey into Chile’s Patagonia region.  The culmination of the voyage puts the traveler in Chile’s Parque Nacional Pumalín, a large swath of land put into conservation by North Face founder Doug Tompkins and his wife Kris.  In the film, Chouinard accompanies the young adventurer in an attempt to ascend Cerro Corcovado – a peak which has only been summited once, by Tompkins.

Were the sky not so heavily cloaked by thick gray clouds, Corcovado would have been visible from Chiloe, the small island off the Pacific coast of southern Chile where we were camped.  The park that Doug Tompkins helped create is visible from the island, only a few miles to the East.  We later realized that our camp site on the windy beach, where we were nearly swept away by the tide, and where we were exposed to the gruesome floss bloodbath, was a filming location in 180° South.


Parque Nacional Pumalín, while an important conservation project, caused some navigational issues for us in our attempt to reach the island of Chiloe.  When Tompkins started buying land – around two million acres in all – he raised the suspicions of the Chilean people.  Upon consolidating all of his purchases into one account, it became evident that he’d acquired a tract of land stretching from sea to border; a strip that split the country in two.  And by placing it into conservation, no roads would be built to connect one side to the other, effectively cutting southern Chile off from the North.  In order to reach southern Chile, one would have to cross into Argentina, adding 500 miles to the trip, or else take a pretty expensive ride on a ship.

A week earlier we had made it as far South as the small Welsh town of Trevelin, in Argentina, approximately level with the bottom of Chiloe.  Our plan was to cross the Andes and take the ship to the island, which would allow us to circumvent the national park.  The day before we intended to sail, we were informed that the ship was down for maintenance for at least a week.  Unable to drive through Pumalín, we would have to retrace our steps 500 miles through Argentina and part of Chile to reach it from the North.

The last time we were in Chile, we crossed the driest place on Earth – the Atacama desert.  The first thing that we noticed upon crossing into southern Chile was the ample orographic precipitation.  As soon as we crossed the border it began to rain, and it would not stop for 20 days.

The rain became the soundtrack to our drive through the Andes.  The repetitive whooshing of our windshield wipers announced our arrival in Puerto Montt after the one-day 500 mile jaunt, placing us near the northern end of Chiloe.  The bulbous drops battered the roof of the corrugated parking shelter where we camped for four days in the city, and the downpour continued while we explored the fish market and the water front.  It rained on the drive to the ferry port, and it rained on us while we camped at the penguin colony on the northern end of the island.  In the end we were sure of two things; I can’t remember what the first thing was, but the second is that it rains a lot in Chile.

The day before arriving at our windy beach outpost, we had attempted to reach the Pacific Ocean via a route that we had scoped out on our map.  The map’s key described it as a secondary dirt road for the first half, turning into “huella” for the second half, indicated by a thin dashed line.  The route looked tortuous, and seemed to guarantee adventure.  Huella?  Something less good than a secondary dirt road?  “Let’s do it!” I told Sheena.

Two hours later, after leaving Sheena and Nacho near a mud bog and walking through the forest to a deep water crossing, I learned that huella is Spanish for “hiking trail”.  Trial and error, I’m finding, is a highly effective method of burning new Spanish vocabulary into my brain.  Thus, the night before sleeping in the shallows of the Pacific Ocean, we slept near a crystal clear stream surrounded by green grass and big trees at the end of a secondary road, just where the huella to the ocean begins.

We eventually left the barren and windy beach, making our way through colorful villages and striking landscapes on our northward trajectory.  An official at the ferry port informed us that the southbound ship was still down for maintenance.  With Parque Pumalín in our way, we were left with no other choice than to drive the 500 miles through Argentina, back to where we had started.

This whole thing will eventually come to an end, and perhaps it will be utterly useless.  But after all is said and done we may learn something new, and maybe even emerge better people.

“The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.”

– Jeff Johnson, 180° South

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