Yes We Can
We should have seen it coming. The trip was going too well. Cruising along with reckless abandon through painfully beautiful landscapes, drinking cheap wine, eating big hamburgers, meeting great people and having no car trouble whatsoever. But the car could not withstand the punishment forever.
Leaving Perito Moreno, we headed south along Ruta 40, entering what is considered to be the most desolate section of an already, extremely desolate road. It was supposed to be the cream of the crop, by means of being the crap of the crap. Sevently miles south of Perito Moreno, the light drizzles of rain that had defined our morning began changing form. Slowly but surely the drizzle turned to light flakes of snow. The wind picked up, the snow fell harder and before long we found ourselves in a full on blizzard, getting nearly blown off the side of the road and crawling through whiteout conditions at approximately 10 miles an hour. It took us 4 hours to travel the 60 miles to Bajo Caracoles, a town of perhaps 20 people, and hardly distinguishable from a dump. Remnants of half-built houses, plastic wrap and piles of garbage swirled around the three dusty streets that made up Caracoles. At the center stood the gas station, store, hotel, only phone, and bar, all in one building run by the sort of man who seems friendly at first, but is fully aware of his monopolistic power over everything that comes in and goes out of town. Our stop was short, merely to use the bathroom and top off the gas tank before slicing off another section of Ruta 40. The weather had eased up and there was no more snow on the road. We were optimistic.
Allow me a moment to more fully describe what these roads are like. They are almost all gravel. Not the good gravel you might expect on a country road, or the long driveway of some southern estate. These are similar to forest service roads but often far worse. Washboard surfaces are nearly constant, limiting your speed to perhaps 25 miles per hour to prevent the car from rattling apart. There are pot holes everywhere, but so few cars that you can, and do, constantly swerve all over the road to avoid them. When it rains, these potholes quickly fill and become large pools of water. Beyond the edge of the road, there is usually a fence and then scrubland and grazing pastures as far as the eye can see, occasionally punctuated by low, rolling hills.
For the last few decades, Argentina has been at work to pave all of Ruta 40 and the evidence of its near completion is seen everywhere. The paving project creates mixed emotions for many. On the one hand, paving means more people can access this spectacular part of the country throughout the year. Now, the main paved road to the south runs only along the coast requiring long detours from the western edge of Argentina. However, a paved road will completely destroy the adventure, the struggle, the victories and failures of those stupid enough to try and ride its gravel strewn spine all the way to Tierra del Fuego. Another problem with paving is location, namely that it is being constructed directly beside the current gravel road. This means that as you are slipping, bouncing, sliding, pounding and trouncing through rocky hell, a smooth, shimmering line of blacktop is right next to you at all times. Some paved sections are open, but only as arbitrarily assigned detours lasting, at most, a few miles. It is exceptionally cruel.
As we pulled out of Caracoles, that wonderful blacktop stuck with us, running parallel to the gravel road. However, at this point there was very little gravel left. It had changed to a thick, brownie batter mix of mud and water with huge puddles that covered the entire road and extended for up to 60 feet. We had to balance each puddle crossing with enough power to avoid getting stuck and enough moderation to avoid losing control.
Things were questionable, but each patch of mud became a small victory and we were pressing on enthusiastically until suddenly, the car died. As simple as that, it stuttered and ground to a halt. Immediately thinking it was a strange anomaly, we of course tried starting the car but it would not turn over. Indy got out and checked the oil, coolant levels, air filter and the other vital engine parts that men should know about. I helped by looking at the engine with a very concerned and troubled look, touching parts from time to time but never affecting anything. At length we tried starting the car again, and it managed to fire. Excitedly we started forward, but the car died a few hundred feet later. It started snowing again.
I could tell you that we were scared or nervous, but that wouldn’t be too true. Mostly, we were shocked. Breaking down on Ruta 40 is a very bad thing, especially in a snow storm. It is the sort of experience you assume only happens to other people, like hurricanes, earthquakes, tax audits or getting McDonald’s chicken nuggets that turn out to be whole chicken heads. Now, it was happening to us. For me, the most striking part of the experience was the sound.
Before the car bought the farm, we were listening to loud music, the heater fan was whirring away, and the growl of the engine rose and fell with each entry and exit into new puddles. It was a symphony of sounds, each of which supported the idea that we were safe. When the car died, all those comforting noises disappeared, instantly replaced by the whistle of cold wind through the small weaknesses in the rubber molding around the doors of our very battered little rental car.
By some eternal grace, a truck came by a few minutes later and we flagged them down. Inside were three Argentinean men, on their way to an estancia for a hunting trip. Estancias are essentially large farms that often host guests for hunting fishing and general country-like activities. I explained to them in broken Spanish what was wrong with the car. We thought that there might be water in some part of the engine or fuel line, from going through the puddles. Upon mentioning ‘water’ and ‘no start’ in the same sentence, the men immediately nodded in agreement. Without question they pulled in front of us. All 3 men got out and started hooking up our car with a tow rope, laying in the snow and mud to attach the rope to the bumper, dirtying their clothes, freezing their hands and expending their valuable vacation time. We tried to help, but they worked all too efficiently as a unit and we seemed to only get in the way. When the cars were hooked up, the leader of their pack, a man named Carlo, got in our car and through a combination of hand signals, tows and patience, finally got our car started again. This took at least 5 separate occasions of towing and starting before the engine seemed strong enough to carry us back to Caracoles, our new destination based on the advice of our 3 new friends and the increasingly bad weather.
We limped back to Caracoles and stayed the night there, hopeful for better weather the following day and another shot south. The better weather showed up, but snow throughout the previous evening had made that route impossible for us.
And so, for the last few days, we limped back north, then east to the Atlantic coast of Argentina, working our way south along the paved monotony of Ruta 3 until we reached our current location in Rio Gallegos on the edge of Tierra del Fuego. We stopped off for one night at a delightful little town called Puerto San Julian, important only because it the location of Magellan’s discovery and naming of Patagonia in 1520. No big deal. To honor this important event, the town has a themed replica of Magellan’s ship which you can tour for a few bucks. It was fantastic to say the least, and well worth the 3 dollar entry fee.
The car has been extremely temperamental, climaxing in frustration today when it died at a stop light at the busiest intersection in town. I pushed and Indy steered the car onto a side street where we hung our heads in dismay. But again we put our faith in luck and Argentina, and once again we were rewarded. A random woman, seeing us outside the closed tourist information center, asked if we needed anything. Upon hearing out story she set out calling and eventually driving us to a service station where mechanics took a new battery out to the car, started it, and brought it back to their shop for repairs. All of this happening after service hours. I truly love the people of this country.