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.