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

DISCUSSION 10 Comments

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

DISCUSSION 41 Comments

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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Feb 2013

Blog, South America

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A Couple of Rejects

It was a blustery day in 1997. Brad Pitt plodded through the mountains in tattered footwear, his worn out jacket proving no match for the icy wind sweeping down from the slopes of Aconcagua – South America’s highest peak. While the film he was making was called Seven Years in Tibet, he was actually in Argentina, just a few miles outside of the small town of Uspallata. In 1997, actors staged a conflict between peaceful Tibetans and fierce Chinese soldiers bent on taking their land. Little known to Brad Pitt at the time, a similar conflict would take place 15 years later, not far from where the icy Aconcagua winds chilled him to the bone, between peaceful Americans and fierce Chilean border agents bent on taking their food.

Three days before the conflict…

We leave Mendoza and hook West toward the Andes. Scenes of vineyards and cottonwood trees soon give way to low shrubs and dry arroyos. On both sides of the road the hills grow into craggy peaks. An old railroad bed parallels the road, as does the Rio Mendoza, a wide river carrying glacial runoff to the fertile wine region below.

On the roadside we spot a shrine amid a sea of trash. Legend has it that a woman traveling with her infant child died of thirst in the desert, but her child survived by suckling the milk from her dead mother’s breast. In remembrance of the story, travelers are given free rein to throw their plastic bottles on the roadside, where the occasional whipping wind scatters them into the countryside and the Rio Mendoza.

Nine miles later, we coast into the village of Uspallata in a valley surrounded by towering peaks. We find a place near a stream and set up our home. Straight in front of Nacho, high in the towering mountains, forever roams the collective memory of Brad Pitt in his tattered jacket.

Two days before the conflict…

We explore the town – little more than a highway with a few unpaved offshoots that lead to estancias and the surrounding canyons. To protect the village from the harsh winds that come down like frozen avalanches from the Andes, extensive groves of deciduous trees have been planted around the town. The trees make the place seem tranquilo.

References to Tibet are all over the place. The Tibet bar punctuates one corner, while Tibet tours and Tibet markets abound. To someone unaware of the town’s famous recent past, the references would be very confusing indeed.

We hike to the top of a low hill outside of town where we find another shrine, this one devoid of any plastic trash.

In the evening we make a lasagna from scratch in our Dutch oven, watch a local teen flyfishing in our stream, and then retire to bed.

The day before the conflict…

I am awoken in the morning by a gaucho leading a herd of horses across the stream right in front of our camp. Throughout the day, more horses cross the stream. I am again awoken in the night by yet more horses crossing the stream, en masse. I start to wonder what’s up with all of the horses crossing the stream.

The day of the conflict…

We wake up early, have coffee and pancakes, and then tear down camp. We head West and climb farther into the Andes. The terrain looks remarkably similar to the Himalayas. I guess that explains why they chose this place to film Brad Pitt pretending to be a Himalayan mountaineer.

We eventually arrive at Aconcagua and pull over. Our plan is to hike up to the base of the mountain, but one step out the door puts those plans on the backburner; the wind is howling and it’s absolutely freezing. Springtime in the shadow of a 22,841 foot peak isn’t as balmy as we’d thought it would be. A quick walk around a field, a few minutes looking at a natural bridge and we duck inside of a tienda for some hot chocolate while sitting around a wood stove.

Back on the road we approach the Chilean border. With any luck, by nightfall we’ll be wearing fancy turtlenecks and quaffing expensive wine in a seaside restaurant in Viña del Mar. The abandoned train tracks paralleling the road are enclosed in a manmade tunnel of plate steel to protect it from the deep winter snows. The plate steel is rusty, dilapidated and sagging, giving the tracks an unreal scariness. They’re like Marilyn Manson reincarnated as train tracks.

The road approaches an unbelievably steep and towering triumvirate of mountains, seemingly impassible, and I wonder how we’ll get over them. My question is answered when the road dives into a tunnel straight through the biggest mountain. We drive for a few miles in the subterranean tunnel, icicles hanging from the roof, and then we see a sign hanging from the tunnel wall: Bienvenidos a la Republica de Chile. We’ve crossed the Chilean border underground.

Sheena ducks into the back of the van to do our routine of hiding all of the food before getting to the border guard shack. She’s getting pretty good at it by now; she tucks our meat, fruits and vegetables into every nook and cranny, while leaving a few straggling pieces of wilted vegetables in our fruit bowl as decoys for Customs to find and confiscate.

We emerge from the tunnel into an unreal scene of snow-covered mountains sweeping down to the valley where the road and the abandoned train tracks are. A few kilometers more and we arrive at the Chilean border control building. It’s a busy day, so we sit in line for close to an hour before it’s our turn to enter the enormous A-frame drive-through building.

The conflict

We’re waved into vehicle control and find a place to park. We enter the building to get our passports stamped, our importation paperwork taken care of, and we sign an affidavit stating that, under penalty of a $1,000 fine, we aren’t transporting any food. It’s time for our Customs inspection.

Outside in the freezing air I scour the parking area for an inspector. I’m looking for the most relaxed and unintimidating one, so that if things start going wrong, they might be more easily distracted by shiny objects or random questions. I start going for the young girl whose inspector jacket is slightly too big, but she dodges me at the last minute, leaving me staring at a strict, intimidating-looking man in his thirties. Bollocks! Looks like he works out too.

“Ready for your inspection?” he asks. I take a deep breath and invite him over to Nacho, handing him my signed affidavit. After a cursory walk around the exterior, he asks Sheena to open the sliding door. He steps in and gets to work.

“Do you have any food in here?”

“Food? No sir, we don’t have any food in here,” I respond. I’m trying to look a little surprised by his question, as though the thought of having food inside of a car is completely stupid. My acting does nothing to convince him, so he starts opening things.

Drawer one: no food. Drawer two: no food. Drawer three: no food. Cabinet: completely stuffed with dry food. He slowly turns his head at me and shoots me a disbelieving look. The proverbial Nazi soldier has just found the proverbial stash of hidden Jews under the floorboards.

“I thought you said you didn’t have any food.” This must be very rewarding for him, watching liars like me squirm.

“Oh, right, sure that’s food. But I thought you were talking about things like fruits and vegetables. Is it illegal to cross the border with oatmeal and stuff?”

He slowly turns back and starts emptying the cabinet until every last crumb is out on the counter, and then he goes through it piece by piece.

“You signed the affidavit, right? Did you even read it?” he asks in a slightly insulting tone.

Not knowing how to break it to him that nobody ever reads anything that they sign at a border, I try to be vague. “Not very well, no.”

He begins throwing our food in a pile on the floor. Once he’s created a nice mound he moves on to Sheena’s clothing storage area under the couch. He withdraws her clothing piece by piece until, halfway through, he pulls out a bag of apples. He holds it up, turns to look at me, shakes his head, and throws the apples in the pile. A few shirts later he removes our cucumbers, cilantro, tomatoes, and bell peppers.

The inspector leans back and stretches his shoulders, and then turns his head to look at me. He’s done messing around.

“I will give you one more chance. Just tell me where all of your food is.”

I confidently explain to him that he’s found everything – that we keep all of our food up here in the front area. He definitely doesn’t believe me, and positions himself on the couch, ready to tear our whole world apart. He reaches his arm into Sheena’s sleeping bag and slowly withdraws a huge head of cabbage, and then gives me the stink eye.

“Do you always keep your cabbage in your sleeping bag?” he hisses. He lets out a disappointing sigh and starts getting rough. He claws at our belongings and throws them at me, and tells me he will remove everything from the van.

Within a few minutes, most of our belongings are on the ground in the parking lot and the pile of food on the floor has grown to include all of our meats, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, dried fruit, backpacking food, honey, and anything not in its original packaging. There’s over $200 worth of food on the ground, and he’s spilling it everywhere. Finally he looks behind a curtain and finds the carton of eggs.

“Are these eggs hard boiled or raw?” he asks.

“Raw,” Sheena says. We’re done lying; we’ve lost the battle.

Not satisfied with our too-little-too-late honesty, the inspector removes two eggs from the carton, holds them over Sheena’s pillow, and smashes them against each other. The eggs explode all over her pillow and the inspector’s hands. He wipes his hands on her pillow and hands it to me. Classy.

Sheena shoots me a furious glance; by now we’re all feeling a bit pissed off. Just like every traveler we’ve met, we always have food in our car. This is our home, after all. And just like every traveler, we always deny having food for the purpose of crossing borders. It’s a formality that no border agent has ever really cared about. This guy, however, deeply cares.

“Wait, stop. Just stop touching our stuff. We don’t want to go to Chile any more. We’re going back to Argentina.”

The inspector looks at me, eyebrows raised. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, just get out of our car.”

He jumps out of the van and asks me to follow him. I follow him to his group of inspector friends, where he informs them that we will be going back to Argentina. One of the women looks surprised and asks why we’re going back.

“We’re going back because you’re stealing all of our food,” I say. I’m still pissed about the eggs, and I’m not doing much to mask my anger. At this, our inspector’s eyes nearly pop out of his head and he charges at me, stopping an inch from my face.

“Did you say STEALING!? You signed the affidavit, right!?”

At this, I realize that in fact he’s right, and that we’re really the bad guys. In our minds we think he’s a jerk because he’s the first border Customs agent we’ve ever met who actually cares about people smuggling food over international lines. We later find out that Chile in general is very serious about crossing borders with food because of their lack of invasive insect species, and their desire to keep it that way.

Still fuming, I tell the agent that my Spanish vocabulary is lacking, and that “stealing” is the only word I know to describe the act of taking away someone else’s property. The agent scribbles “VOID” across my completed importation paperwork, and shoves it in my hand. We retrace our steps through all of the border control processes and get stamped out of Chile.

Once we arrive back at the Argentine side, we have to explain why we’re back so soon from Chile, and why we don’t have properly discharged Chilean import paperwork. When asked whether we’re carrying any food, we look a little surprised and say no. We’re casually waved through, back into good old Argentina.

When evening rolls around, we camp in the same place by the river outside of Uspallata. I drift off to sleep thinking about Tibet and Brad Pitt. It’s almost as if today never happened. A horse crosses the stream outside of our window, and I fall asleep wondering, what’s up with all of these horses?

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Jan 2013

Blog, South America

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Shakira Man

Nacho rests serenely at the mirador above the Valley of the Moon, the shadows from the jagged cliffs spilling like water into the dry valley as the sun begins its slow slide below the horizon. Inside, Brad and Sheena sit on the couch; Shakira is on the stereo. They both gyrate their hips to the music. It’s not a tasteful gyration either; it borders on crass. They each hold their t-shirts up to reveal their skinny bellies moving in and out like the pulsating chest of a dying fish to the snappy Latin-pop music. Brad has always been the better Shakira gyrator, and Sheena knows it. His hips don’t lie. Sheena pours Brad another glass of pisco, and he drinks it. Suddenly, she slams his head into the plastic shoe bin. Blindsided. Sheena flashes the lights on and off like a strobe light, making scary faces at Brad. All at once they both stop, look at each other, and one of them says it: “What would people think if they actually saw this?”

It’s hard to believe, I know. Shakira? You guys listen to Shakira? To understand this, we need to go way back.

In 2002 I found myself in the back seat of my friend Scott’s pickup truck, headed South. A mountain bike racing team from Mexico had scored some cash from the Mexican government, and had used it to bring some American riders down to compete in their racing scene. The local media was informed, and in true Mexico fashion they created a fictitious rivalry between one of our guys and their National Champion, Ziranda Madrigal. Interviews were held, and the radio blared promos about the clash between their national hero and the invader from the North as if it were some kind of lucha libre match. The stage was set – all we had to do was get there. And to do so, we did what any self respecting adventure seekers would do: we loaded a bunch of sweaty, totally macho dudes into a couple of pickup trucks and headed for the border.

Before we reached the border, the mood inside the truck was calm. We were composed. Conversations were had, speculations were made, and stories were told.

After we crossed the border, Scott did something risky. While surrounded by a bunch of sweaty, totally macho dudes, he slid a Shakira CD into the CD player. I waited for the side punch to land on Scott’s cheekbone, but it never came. Instead of filling our hearts with pain and our heads with feelings of killing Scott – the pansy – something else happened. Actually, it kind of worked. Shakira’s spicy accent narrated our journey Southward, forever linking her voice to the barren landscapes, dry arroyos, cinder block towns, and highway taco stands in our subconscious minds. Her voice sneaked through our open windows and into the passing desert like a nimble cat. And only dios knows how much I like cats.

That’s right, I’m a cat man, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. And I’m also a Shakira man.

The Atacama desert in Northern Chile is a vast and expansive place. We drove for three days across lands where, throughout the entire expanse of recorded history, rain has never fallen; the only substances in all directions for as far as the eye could see were sand, pebbles, and heat waves. With nothing to do except watch the hours turn into days and stare at the skinny dotted line from steering wheel to horizon, we had to find a way to pass the time. And what better way than to wriggle our hips to the sweet meowing voice of Shakira.

Need a good start to a soundtrack for your next road trip South of the border? Here are three songs that, for me, capture the very essence of Mexico and fill my nose with the sweet smell of nostalgia for my first experiences with southward travel:

Shakira – Suerte >>

Refreshments – Mexico >>

Cake – Mexico >>

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