“I’m not camping with someone who waits all morning for the sun to heat up a sack of water dangling from a tree so they can take a shower.”
“Ok forget it, but I’m bringing the water filter I made,” my dad drew the line.
If weight limits allowed, he would of brought an assortment of weird and unnecessary accouterments, he made, modified, or rigged for his personal use: trip wires that triggered alarms and homemade camera gimbals with magnetic stabilizers. He did bring various types of tape and Velcro with adhesives specific to their use, the water filter we used once, and a hot pot that plugs into the DC outlet in the truck that promised boiling water on your crotch when you hit the first pothole.
“Dad, we have no space for any of this, and I’m not sure how useful any of it will be.”
“Yeah but you just never know, it could happen to anybody.”
“Stuff, you know, stuff happens.”
Stuff happens, so my dad compensated by bringing lots and lots of stuff. There was conflict before the trip even began. To be fair, we were amateurs, preparing for a trip that would take us to the edge of our wildest dreams, and encourage us to take another step. We didn’t know what we would need, what we would encounter, and the only way to cope with the anxiety of preparing for this expedition was to bring as much as we possibly could, weight limits be damned.
As father and son, we would soon find out that navigation and staying alive wasn’t our only concern—it was the abrasive dynamics between a father and son who would spend the next twenty-nine days no more then 15 feet from each other—sleeping shoulder to shoulder, driving elbow to elbow, fighting neck and neck.
With our ripe ignorance we hatched the plan to drive from Santiago, Chile to Tierra Del Fuego in a 4x4 pickup truck. Our little truck would carry us south, jouncing on the dirt road that would become our home. The southernmost city in the world, Ushuaia, was our destination. Once northbound we would skirt the eastern shoreline of Argentina, drift west towards Bariloche, flyfish in the clear waters around Esqel, ultimately launching over the Andes from Mendoza back to Santiago—10,000km later. That was the plan and it looked great on paper. But paper tears, the ink runs when wet, it gets lost easily—which means a father and son exploring the desolate lands of Patagonia can only guarantee hardship, laugher, adventure and at least a few wrong turns.
The thought of this trip rested in the crevices of our minds for a while. The same crevices many of us carve out, filling with hopes and ambitions but end up burying after a few years, disappearing under piles of responsibility. A few years went by, I went to college, my dad started a watch business, and siblings got married; one unremarkable day in September my dad called, his voice anxious with the idea getting lost in South America, and probably finalizing the plans on his water filter.
“So what do you think?” my dad asked.
“Who’s going to watch my dog?” I asked, voicing my largest concern.
“Don’t worry about that yet, just think about it.”
We arrived under the hot sun of Santiago in January, a city that never left my memory since I left its smoggy grasp when I was a foreign exchange student for a year in high school. We rented a 4x4 pickup truck in Santiago that quickly filled up with our gear. We would live out of the pickup truck for the remaining four weeks, camping under the stars, cooking on the tailgate, and arguing about what music to listen to.
As we drove around the crowded city, my dad decided his four-week Spanish lesson commenced. “What does that mean? What about that? You Sure? How do your pronounce it? Like this?”
My time abroad rewarded me with fluency in Spanish, but it had been a few years, and I still needed some practice, and my dad decided to capitalize on that. Fortunately it came back quickly—but my dad’s curiosity never faded. I was happy to define words for him, it was when he tried to pronounce them that provided the trip with laughter from his lingual aggravation.
After a three-day drive from Santiago, we drifted south, with the help of a sharp northern breeze, towards the small town of Chaiten. The ferry—a steel vessel with flaking orange and blue paint, bobbed wildly in the swells. We drifted through fog throughout the night, tossing and turning in our room the size of a matchbox that we shared with another family and their infant son.
In the morning, on the observation deck, our tired eyes squinted at our new surroundings. Fog lingered in the upsweeping mountainsides green as jade, engaging the wind that carried the lofty fragrance of the wild we suddenly found ourselves in—enigmatic, tenacious folds of land we would know intimately. Sunbeams struck cobalt water as we motored into port—smiling.
This is when the real adventure began—where herds of sheep stopped traffic, distance between towns increased and the irregularity of road maintenance escalated.
The mountains took on a higher domain as we headed further south. Commanding the landscape—diverting weather, clouds, rivers and roads with authority. The glaciers that carved these mountains slowly melted in their topography—clinging to the valleys, refusing to let summer win, feeding the lakes and streams that unwound through the rolling landscape.
We settled into a routine after the first week on the road. Driving most of the day, and looking for a good camping spot en-route. It was out of our own conviction that our personal routine should be followed by our travel partner, because it was the best and made the most sense. If you’re in charge of fetching water, you want to conserve it, not dump all of it on the tailgate to wash off the dust so you can cook. The same dust you’ve been breathing for the past 8 hours, which also covers every item of clothing you own and square inch of the cab. My dad wouldn’t cook on a dusty tailgate, and I became an expert water fetcher. Water consumption didn’t dissipate in the mornings as we waited for water to boil after breakfast, my dad under the haunting memories from his days as a boy scout that if we didn’t do our dishes with boiling water, we’d get sick. I was just glad he left the solar shower.
After dish duty we would finish the plan we started to make by firelight and scotch in a tin cup the night before—where to go. Guided by various resources, marks on the map we made at home, loose notes about places to see, or tips from locals, the adventure unwound in a perfectly random order. Some areas demanded our attention for a few days while we explored the surrounding wilderness, using the truck as a base camp. We spoke with other tourists about their favorite places, or good campsites, and found that all the hard work we didn’t do at home, paid off. Not surprisingly, we came across fellow overlanders, the official term for vagabonds who seek adventure and over priced diesel in far reaches of the world. They proved to be invaluable, telling us which scenic roads not to miss, and finally how to download offline GPS on our iPhones.
But sometimes, there was no agreement, map scanning, or exploring; it was when my dad had had enough. For most normal people the “enough” line had been crossed 4 days ago with two numb butt cheeks, bad music and the 27th blind corner that almost killed us.
“Slow down!” My dad tense and exhausted.
“We’ll never get there if I can’t shift out of second gear.”
“Or if we launch into the oblivion off this mountainside….Pull over, there, now.”
“The shoulder of the highway where people throw their trash?”
“That’s where we’re sleeping tonight, I’ve had enough.”
Driving was an endless source of frustration between my dad and I. We did a lot of it, 6-14 hours a day—when to stop, where to pull over, what to eat, where to go, how to fast to go there, what to listen to… Dad’s are weird, twenty-something are reckless. This is where our different personalities shone through brightly. My dad, slows down in the sections of pot holes and pulls over on the shoulder to let the tour bus and the line of cars behind it pass. I accelerate through the potholes, and swerve around the blind corner quickly so we don’t have to wait for the parade.
It’s hard to hold a grudge in Patagonia, tempers settle quickly and trivial concerns dissolve in a landscape where they have lots of room to roam. We took turns driving as the truck bounced along dirt roads into a territory that evolved around every turn. From north to south Chile is a diverse and botanically exuberant location; Patagonia, specifically, ebbs and flows between a variety of microclimates and geography that exhausts my vocabulary. And this happiness, these feelings of wonderment, were so much more meaningful when you have someone to share them with, or see the look of joy on peoples faces in a land that has too much to give.
You find fellowship in this remote landscape, even if you’ve come here to avoid it. Individuals who are here for the same reason, and despite most of our ambitions to explore in a remote wilderness—we find comfort in this interdependence on fellow travelers, even if the independence of this journey is what brought us here. They will spread out maps on dusty tailgates, jot down the name of the highway on a candy wrapper, or help you patch a tire.
We found our favorite fishing spot through friendly locals wiping ceviche from their chins in a small restaurant. We followed them across the suspension bridge barely strong enough to hold the sheep it was built for—the truck’s side mirror flicking the fraying threads of steel cable as it swung above the current. A small trout stream that rarely hears the elated shouts of a gringo waited for us on the other side. The water flowed blue and clear over the steam bed, engaging and green as it boiled to the surface in the deeper pools where the fish rose to sip our flies. Our friend wore a beret and smoked a cigarette in the middle of the stream as he made long accurate casts.
My dad and I quickly learned the limits of our gringo expectations: expecting gas stations to have gas or making accurate distance and travel time judgments. Sure the next town may only be 100 miles away, but it’ll take us 7 hours to get there. Fortunately, when the gas station is out of gas, the innkeeper down the road can siphon some diesel with his mouth into an old water jug and sell it to you for 4 times the price to get you to the next station, that may or may not have fuel.
Boarder crossings became a nervous ritual that depended on the mood the boarder-crossing agent was in, and the crossing’s proximity to civilization. We crossed the boarder between Chile and Argentina seven times. Becoming proficient in each countries rules and regulations, and wondering how they were going to enforce them, was as obscure as the Chilean Spanish dialect—a loose assemblage of slang and verb conjugations that change with the speakers mood and social status. Some days they raised the gate and waived us through smiling, others they tore through our gear looking for contraband like peaches, and avocados they figured we just couldn’t live without and felt inclined to stow them in the nooks of our duffel bags. Chile does have amazing avocados.
The day we turned onto route 23, a small recently paved road that rounds the edge of Lago Veidma, the granite towers of Fitz Roy became our ultimate objective. We would climb the long winding trail to its glaciated flank, winding through forests stunted from the relentless Patagonia winds, briefly passing through more protected sections that grow taller and thicker, rewarded with the chance to absorb what nature gives them before the wind takes it away. We passed small signs that tell us the water is pure and OK to drink before we ascend a steep and loose trail of mountain scree. When we arrived at the blue lagoon that swirls at the foot of Fitz Roy and the Cerro Massif, we sit and admire. That’s all we can do really, seeking shelter from the wind and stand in awe of one of the most impressive rock faces either of us has seen in person. Reflecting on how far we’ve come, and how impossible it would be to anticipate moments like this, moments of pure joy and satisfaction.
Headed north, through Las Pampas in Argentina, low clouds pushed by the relentless western wind scudded above grasslands glowing in the evening sun. As the sunsets the celestial twilight hangs a dense blue canopy—a few early stars glowing in the darker shades—its fringes fading to orange, red, pink. Larger clouds stand further to the east, flowing in a transitive transparent cascade to the end of the earth. One of many moments throughout the trip when we’d pull over, to stare blankly into this wild expanse, wondering where these feelings come from, and what it takes to summon their effects.
This journey took us to a part of the world both of us knew was there, but had no idea just what effort God had gone to sculpt a mass of land with the attention and mastery only he himself beholds. Violent weather throughout most of the year, erodes, and transforms this landscape under the guise of master and creator, but much more is at play, it must be, Patagonia is no accident. We climbed through mountains dark with evergreen, pale with granite, quilted with snow on the higher elevations where condors soar in the thermals. Slivers of water splash down their vertical faces, as rainbows glimmer in their mist. Mundane rituals morph into special little ceremonies—cooking breakfast, deflating your air mattress, going to the bathroom, all in the presence of such beauty makes it all seem unfamiliar, magical.
Patagonia didn’t care. It didn’t care about the differences that stood between my dad and I from having a great trip, or a miserable one. It didn’t care how many spare tires we brought or what temperature our sleeping bags was rated to—unapologetic winds kept us up all night as our teeth chattered—tearing at the fabric of our sanity, our nylon tent, and our relationship.
In this unforgiving environment, my Dad and I learned how to cope with Patagonia’s tonic, served cold. But I think it was each others tonic, or personalities, that became our ultimate objective, learning how to cope, and enjoy the reason we came here, and realize we couldn’t do it without the each other. We never really took ourselves too seriously, usually laughing at our mistakes after the fact, like paying $36 dollars a pound for freshly roasted coffee beans in a country the only drinks instant Nescafé.
It was up to us how we dealt with each other, which would reflect the outcome of this journey. The perfect travel partner isn’t someone who seeks the qualities in someone else to make their trip better, but looks at themselves and how they can change to be a better travel partner. You don’t need Patagonia, steely blue glaciers, and indomitable mountains, but it helps. We found ourselves in a place much more powerful and dominate then our trivial concerns, a place that encouraged moving on. It was our mutual dependence on each other and how our surroundings encouraged and inspired growth and compensation,that kept this trip from crumbling into a pile of hurt feelings.
It was our reckless enthusiasm that brought us to Patagonia, which also ended up bringing us closer together, as travel partners, as father and son. Conflict, it turns out, is a good thing. It was each of us voicing our concerns, opinions, and not sulking in dissatisfaction, but having the courage to speak up, even if it’s uncomfortable. Maturity, and willingness to set aside differences and find a common ground. I walked away from this trip with much more then memories and better Spanish. It was a relationship with someone I always loved and respected, but never realized how far he was willing to go, to help me grow, develop into the man he had become, but was humble enough to realize none of us never really get there, there are gaps to fill, knowledge to glean, and he himself was on the same journey. It couldn’t of happened any other way, barreling down an abandoned road at dusk, but certainly in another place, which only left us with one question when we got back home—where to next?