South With The Wind
This photo essay appeared in the 2018 summer issue of Overland Journal
“Panadareeha,” my dad said, slowly and methodically.
“Almost, but try to use the tip of your tongue.” We were nosing our rental truck through Santiago traffic, a city I left 7 years ago as a foreign exchange student. As we drove around, my dad decided his 4-week Spanish lesson had commenced.
With ripe ignorance, we had hatched a plan to drive from Santiago, Chile, to Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, in a Nissan Navara 4WD rental pickup truck. Preparation for this trip led us to blogs and photo essays of exquisite overland rigs with lift kits, winches, and roof top tents. Would we really need all of this to drive to the end of the world and return safely? Could we find a reliable rental truck, fly down with enough supplies, and buy what we couldn’t bring with us in Santiago?
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, fly-fish in the clear waters around Esquel, drift north toward Bariloche, ultimately launching over the Andes from Mendoza back to Santiago—10,000 kilometers later. The plan looked great on paper. But paper tears, gets lost easily, and ink runs when wet—which means a father and son exploring the desolate lands of Patagonia can only guarantee hardship, laughter, adventure, and at least a few wrong turns.
Our most valuable asset was my Spanish. Beyond that, we relied on as much information that we could gather online and in books before we set off. Neither of us had ever done anything even close to this. All the gear for the journey had to be either purchased in Santiago or stuffed in the plastic crates we checked as airline baggage.
The day before we left, I sat in the driveway looking at a massive pile of gear. As dad likes to say, “Stuff happens.” So he was compensating by bringing lots and lots of stuff. There was conflict before the trip even began. We were preparing for a journey 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.
We would soon find out that our gear list, navigation, and staying alive weren’t our only concerns. It was the dynamics between a father and son who would spend the next 29 days no more than 15 feet from each other—sleeping shoulder to shoulder, driving elbow to elbow, fighting neck and neck.
Our third night in Chile, we camped outside Pucón—a small resort town at the foot of Villarrica Volcano, which erupted just a few weeks after we left. We organized our gear and took inventory by firelight. Simplicity, we found out, was crucial. One crate was dedicated to food and cooking, the other crate for miscellaneous supplies, recovery tools, and camp gear. We used the rear passenger seats for clothing and items we didn’t want covered in dust. The rear cab also provided security for valuable items we didn’t want to leave unattended in the truck bed. We were a little nervous traveling with some of our gear exposed, but we didn’t run into any issues. Fortunately, for trips like this, you’re never very far from your truck.
After a 3-day drive from Santiago, we drifted south on a ferry that bobbed in the foamy swells. Tossing and turning in our matchbox-sized room, we woke up outside of Chaitén. We squinted on the observation deck as the ferry motored into port. Fog lingered in the upswept 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 soon know intimately. Sunbeams struck cobalt water as we drove off the ferry, smiling.
This was when the real adventure began—herds of sheep stopped traffic, distance between towns increased, and the irregularity of road maintenance escalated. Before we left Chaitén, we grabbed ingredients for dinner. The local butcher had a lazy eye and swung a meat cleaver as she asked about our origins. She disappeared to the back and pulled out a few well-cut steaks she usually reserved for herself. “Welcome to Chile; you must enjoy this beautiful country with beautiful food.”
The mountains commanded the landscape as we headed further south—diverting weather, clouds, rivers, and roads with authority. The glaciers that carved these mountains slowly melted into their topography, clinging to the valleys, refusing to let summer win, feeding the lakes and streams that now braid the landscape.
Outside Futaleufú we crawled our way across those braids and parked on a gravel bar in the middle of the river. Water swirled around our first real backcountry campsite as we prepped the coals for dinner. As the steaks seared, we sipped our drinks and watched the setting sun as the excitement of what the next 3 weeks held flickered through our minds.
Some areas ended up demanding our attention for a few days while we explored the surrounding wilderness, using the truck as a base camp. 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 prior with two numb butt cheeks, bad music, and the 27th blind corner that almost killed us.
To be fair, it was 2 a.m. “Slow down!” My dad yelled, tense and exhausted. “We’ll never get there if I can’t shift out of second gear,” I fired back.
“Or if we launch into the oblivion off this mountainside. Pull over, there, now. That’s where we’re sleeping tonight, I’ve had enough.”
It’s hard to hold a grudge in Patagonia, tempers settle quickly, and trivial concerns dissolve in a landscape where they have plenty 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 botanically diverse location; Patagonia, specifically, ebbs and flows between a variety of microclimates and geography that exhausts my vocabulary.
We inhaled the salty air of the coast in Puerto Aysén as we made breakfast, and drifted off to sleep in the fertile mountain valleys in Coyhaique all in the same day. We were one of the first people to experience Parque Patagonia, a new national park spearheaded by Doug and Kris Tompkins. Their efforts to restore overgrazed cattle pasture enclosed within miles of barbed wire fence back to a vast wild expanse, for everyone to enjoy, were truly remarkable.
Typical Chilean hospitality welcomed us at a campsite outside of Villa O’Higgins on an old homestead at the base of a glacier. We pitched our tent as a friendly couple exited a handmade cabin and built us a small fire, bringing us vegetables and fresh bread in the shade of a willow tree. They showed their unmistakable love for the land and their evident joy in sharing Patagonia with visitors as they told the story of their property and its grim future. The Chilean government planned to build a dam on the nearby river that would put their home and livelihood 25 feet underwater.
The area between San Martín de los Andes and Esquel made us question why we only set aside 4 weeks for this trip. The area begged us to cut all emotional ties to home and loved ones, without looking back. Exceptional dining awaits in Bariloche, while the surrounding national parks provide all the solitude and adventure anyone could ask for. The rivers and lakes are an angler’s paradise—landlocked salmon, gin-clear trout waters, and remote lakes. We savored our time here, reminding ourselves that it would still be here when we left.
You find fellowship in this remote landscape, even if you’ve come here to avoid people. Despite most of our ambitions to explore in a remote wilderness, we found comfort in the interdependence on like-minded travelers. They will spread out maps on dusty tailgates, jot down the name of a favorite place or scenic drive on a candy wrapper, or help you plug a tire.
We found our favorite fishing spot through friendly locals wiping ceviche from their chins in a small restaurant. We followed them across a narrow 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 stream bed, engaging and green as it boiled to the surface in the deeper pools where fish rose to nip our flies. Our friend wore a beret and smoked a cigarette, standing hip deep in the middle of the stream as he made long, accurate casts.
The day we turned onto Route 23, a small recently paved road that rounds the edge of Lago Viedma, the granite towers of Fitz Roy became our ultimate objective. We climbed the long, winding trail to its glaciated flank, through forests stunted from the relentless Patagonia winds, briefly passing through more protected sections that grow taller and thicker. We were rewarded with the chance to absorb what nature gives them before the wind takes it away. There were small signs indicating that the stream water is pure and safe to drink before we ascended a steep and loose trail of mountain scree. Arriving at the blue lagoon that swirls at the foot of Fitz Roy and the Cerro Torre Massif, we sat and admired. That’s all we could do really, seeking shelter from the wind, standing in awe of one of the most impressive rock faces either of us had seen in person. We reflected on how far we’d come, and how impossible it was to anticipate moments like this, moments of pure 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 sun set, the celestial twilight hung a dense blue canopy—a few early stars glowing in the darker shades, its fringes fading to orange, red, pink. Larger clouds stood further to the east, flowing in a transparent cascade to the end of the earth as we stared blankly into this wild expanse.
One can’t visit Patagonia and not bring home a deeper respect for the wind. Its lyrical resonance follows you no matter how hard you try to avoid it. It will always be there. We climbed through mountains dark with evergreen, pale with granite, quilted with snow on the higher elevations. Slivers of water splash down their vertical faces, as rainbows glimmer in the mist. Mundane rituals morphed into special ceremonies: packing up the tent, cooking breakfast, deflating your sleeping pad, brushing teeth—in the presence of such beauty, all seemed unfamiliar, magical.
In this unforgiving environment, my Dad and I learned how to cope with Patagonia’s tonic, served cold. But I think it was each other’s tonic, or personalities, that became our ultimate objective. We never took ourselves too seriously, usually laughing at our mistakes after the fact, like paying $36 a pound for freshly roasted coffee beans in a country that only drinks Nescafé, or leaving the car jack on the side of the road in a rush to go set up camp.
Owning a personal overland rig is certainly a nice luxury. But this trip proved to us that flying to a county and renting a 4WD vehicle can be a cost-effective way to experience some remarkable places. The vehicle may lack certain equipment that would let you safely venture into rougher terrain, but my dad and I found more solitude and adventure than we knew what to do with. We never found ourselves in particularly dicey situations where massive tires, a winch, or a snorkel was necessary. There are many benefits when you forgo certain luxuries for the sake of convenience, cost, and simplicity. We completed a 10,000-kilometer road trip with everything we could fit into four airline duffle bags. Driving to the ends of the earth simply demands an indisputable sense of patience, a dash of grit, and a patient travel partner.
The reckless enthusiasm that brought us to Patagonia also ended up bringing us closer together, as travel partners, and father and son. Conflict, it turns out, can be a good thing. I walked away from this trip with much more than memories and better Spanish. I always loved and respected my dad, but never realized how far he was willing to go to help me grow and develop into the man he had become. There are always gaps to fill and knowledge to glean though—we are all on the same journey.