Strapped for cash after my trip to Antarctica, I was stuck in Ushuaia. While the rest of the passengers departed on flights and prepaid first class bus tickets, I had to improvise a way out. I had spent a year getting to this point, and I hadn’t really considered (nor budgeted for) how I was going to get back north. What I did have was camping gear, a willingness to hitch, and some ten days to get to Bariloche before I had to start work on another expedition. Traveling by thumb back north would save me $150 and if the movie The Motorcycle Diaries was any indication of how fun route 40 could be, I was in a for a helluva time.
After an hour of hiking out of town, I acquired a sense of freedom, unmatched by any other feeling on the trip. Hitching would compel flexibility, to go with the flow of other travelers, and the ability to travel to and explore places where buses don’t venture. As I reflected on this mode of travel, a silver 2-door van with only one working headlight pulled over to see how I was doing. Inside was Walter, an Argentine father and manager of a plastics dispensary, a man would be my best friend for the next thirty hours. With Walter, I traveled out of Tierra del Fuego and across the Magellan Straits. We shared salami sandwiches, stood together in line for 3 hours at the Chilean border, and spent hours discussing the best road trips in Argentina. And then in an instant, we came across an intersection which split our intended routes, and I hopped out of the car, embraced him with a thank you, and said goodbye to Walter forever. Welcome to the life of a hitchhiker!
After a second night sleeping behind a gas station, and then a night in a family campground in Calafate, I arrived on a Monday morning to El Chalten, the most important place in all of Patagonia. It is here that is the starting point for climbing expeditions on Cerro Torre and Fitzroy, mountains so inspiring and challenging that the first climbers claimed that they had finally found a mountain “worth dying for.” As a climber, this is one of the must-dos. And for me, an out-of-shape ex-climber passerby, it was a must-see. Now, it’s just a matter of whether or not the weather cooperates.
As I approached the base camp for Cerro Torre, I came across an all-too-familiar, even gut-wrenching site…climbers waiting. You see, climbing in Patagonia is all about patience. Climbers come to this very point, from all over the world and spend months here, just to give a shot at Cerro Torre or her neighbors. Yet despite this investment in time and money, they know that given the unfavorable weather in Patagonia, they could sit out the entire summer without a single weather window in which to climb. With El Nino in full force, this was bound to be another one of those years.
I spent the evening with a group from Buenos Aires, huddled under a tarp, playing cards, and sipping wine. They had been doing this for two straight weeks. The next day, they threw in the towel to the weather gods, and walked the three hours back to town, hoping to salvage their trip with a little bit of roadside rock climbing. Despite the cloudy skies, I trekked out to the glacier (see “El Glaciar Torre”), shot the fantastic landscape, and returned to the road, happy just to get a glimpse of the historical routes that climb Cerro Torre. Seeing the abandoned climber campsites evoked bad memories of tent-bound storm days in British Colombia, and did little to inspire a return to these infamous towers.
After a lovely German couple dropped me off at a remote and gusty Patagonia crossroads, I waited. The wind picked up and I ducked behind a culvert. Following a few chapters of Bob Dylan’s autobiography, a generous group of Israelis picked me up. Upon finishing their mandatory military service, many Israelis venture to South America to let off steam. Like many of the other groups, these folks were traveling in large packs. Three in the front pick-up and four in the pick-up that followed behind, they had divided themselves into two groups: those who were kosher and those who were not. I jumped into the front “kosher” vehicle. My new friends joked to me that they were the good ones, and those behind were the sinners, the ones going to hell. I think I was in the wrong truck.
I spent a great time with six new Israeli friends, and I’m absolutely convinced that I want to visit their country one day. They took me on a mini trip through Jerusalem, we ate kosher together, and they introduced me to their favorite Borat tune, “Throw the Jew down the Well.” 24 hours later, when they took a left toward Chile, I got off once more.
Four rides from truckers, and I found myself truly in the middle of desert. Wind and darkness were rapidly embracing me, and I prepared myself for a cold night camping out. An hour later, as I was pondering how my tarp tent would handle the high winds, I was picked up by yet another pick-up. This time it was four men from the south, aged 18 to 45, on a 4-day road trip to find some a good joda (party). It was a match made in heaven, at least I figured at that point in time.
We arrived in a small town south of Esquel where we negotiated a couple of hotel rooms. The rodeo was in town that weekend, which meant that rooms had to be improvised. We then moved on to a tasty small-town asado and I got to know these shady characters a little better. They talked of their lives down south in Rio Gallegos, and of the beautiful prostitutes from the Domincan Republic who reside there. One of the men claimed that in addition to his wife, he had himself a Caribbean beauty. Figuring that the wine was getting to these fellows, and that Rio Gallegos was simply too frigid for a Dominican, I called them on their tall tales. Besides, I reasoned that the last thing Argentina would need to import was beautiful women.
On the next stop, it turned out the boys were intent on proving me wrong. I thought we were walking into just another shady small-town bar. When I was instantly groped by a voluptuous Dominican, I soon realized that I was in just another shady small-town whorehouse. I mean nothing against prostitutes, but this was not the place where I wanted to be. I felt dirty. In fact, I was dirty. Not having showered in a week, I felt just as dirty as the other fellows in the saloon. I told the woman who was all over me that I couldn’t cheat on my wife, bought her a cerveza, and escaped to the pool table for the evening. When I left the joint I discovered that her drink cost four times that of ours. Stupid gringo.
I spent the night on the floor of their hotel room, and the boys generously gave me a two hour ride to El Bolson. That night, after some eight days of thumbing and walking up route 40, I stumbled into base camp, exhausted and filthy. About to embark on another 39 structured days of work in the Patagonia wilderness, I was relieved that I had an extended period of wandering along the infamous Route 40.