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Learning to Hitchhike


“I don’t want to walk anymore,” said Sandra.

We had hiked only about five miles, but she was already tired and hungry. She removed her backpack and dropped onto the side of the dusty road, not to be budged.

Our destination was the Andean town of Futaleufú, 125 miles to the north, and I still held out hope we would arrive by nightfall. Grime and sweat caked my body, and I was anxious to jump into the turquoise water of the Espolón River there. But here we were, alone without transport on the side of the Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia, surrounded by imposing mountains and a million trees. Sandra, now drowsing, seemed oblivious to the world.

Traffic is never heavy on the Carretera Austral, or Southern Highway, the gravel road former dictator Augusto Pinochet built to link the mountains, forests, fjords, rivers and sporadic towns of Chile’s far south with the rest of the nation. I stuck out my thumb, but the four cars that passed in the next hour paid us no heed.

Our southward jaunt down the 765-mile roadway had progressed smoothly. We swam in crystal clear rivers, clambered up mountains, admired glaciers, hiked trails overgrown with vegetation and camped among the trees, making it to Coihaique, about halfway down the Carretera Austral.

Now, headed back north, stalled en route to Futaleufú, we faced our first extended, unplanned stop. I wasn’t yet complaining, though. Given low traffic flows, it is folly to be on a tight schedule when hitching along the Carretera Austral. Plus, I had come from Santiago, where I live, intending to rough it.

There are to be no soft beds, no high-tech gizmos, no fancy food, I had proposed grandly as Sandra, my girlfriend, rolled her eyes. Just a tent, a gas stove, a sleeping bag and southern Chile’s unspoiled wilds. More significantly, we would travel exclusively by thumb or foot up the Carretera Austral.

Sandra, a Chilean, had previously hoofed it, hitched and camped along the Carretera Austral. But I was a rookie. On previous journeys to Europe or elsewhere in South America I had generally deferred to bus and train schedules, guidebooks and such amenities as beds and indoor plumbing. My plan was to dispatch such considerations and experience the rugged, remote zone on its own terms.

I wasn’t the only one – respite from cushy city living seems to underlie the thinking of most backpackers, the majority of them Chilean, who hit the Carretera Austral each summer. At the campgrounds we visited and even on the road, the twenty-something travelers bragged of hours spent vainly hitching for rides, money saved camping clandestinely in open fields and bone-chilling baths in rivers. It became a game of one-upmanship, as if the low mountains sinking into the Pacific, the pale blue glaciers atop the mountains and the friendly but scarce locals were secondary.

Francisco, from northern Chile, had already hitched a thousand miles when we met him on a ferry that shuttles Carretera Austral traffic around a stretch of Chile that the roadway could not conquer. He planned to thumb it another thousand to the end of the nation. A scruffy Argentine we shared spaghetti with had been traveling seven months with a mutt named Lucas, picking potatoes for $12 a day and taking other odd jobs to foot the bill.

We hadn’t had to hitch a thousand miles or pick potatoes. But waiting for the ride to Futaleufú, I faced my own test, at least in a small way.

Time crept – one hour, two hours – and the occasional car passed without slowing. Sandra dozed and a sense of stagnation took hold – we had advanced 15 miles all day, 10 by thumb the rest on foot – though maybe it was just after-effects of the cheap whisky we had downed the night before.

I leafed through a book, resting against my backpack. My mind wandered to the dog that had relieved itself on my backpack down in Puyuhuapi, a hamlet overlooking a deep blue bay we had walked through a few hours earlier. Damn dog. I tried to convince Sandra to get up so we could continue on foot.

“You ready to move on?” No answer.

I devoured a couple rolls and a can of ham-like sandwich spread I had bought in Puyuhuapi. I watched cars come, thumb extended, and watched cars go, thumb extended. I silently noted that if we had waited back in Puyuhuapi for the bus – one of only a few that sporadically ply the roadway – we’d have transport further north. I grumbled.

I climbed a nearby hill and caught a glimpse of Puyuhuapi back down the road. I imagined the cool blue Espolón River in Futaleufú, the namesake of another, rougher river that is one of the world’s best for rafting. I absorbed the sun, breathed in the fresh air and studied the greenery and mountains that enclosed me.

Finally a smile crossed my face. Hell, this isn’t so bad. I descended and even managed a catnap.

Then the small creaking bus I had pondered earlier rumbled toward us. Do we take it? Forget this talk of roughing it, discard this plot to hitchhike up the roadway? I already knew the answer.

The vehicle sputtered to a stop, breaks screaming, and the door slid open. The other passengers glared at us from their seats. “All full,” the driver said.

We’d most likely be camping in a random clearing on the side of the road. Maybe we’d have to fend off some wily landowner cursing us for trespassing. More significantly, Futaleufú and bathing would have to wait.

But it no longer mattered, in fact, I was glad as I watched the bus lumber off. We may be abandoned in the wilds of Chile, I thought somewhat dramatically, but with the stove, tent and water jug, we can face anything. Sandra finally stirred and we trudged on, some three hours after our pit stop had begun.

Not two minutes later, a pickup approached and slowed, heeding our extended thumbs. I paused for a moment, noting the oily mess in the bed of the vehicle, then quickly clambered aboard. I took a spot on one a wheel well to avoid the petroleum-based filth. Sandra, also moving swiftly and grinning happily, settled on a log beside a large oil drum.

After about 25 miles and 90 minutes (the driver stopped twice to attend to some business matter, his quiet sidekick remaining in the truck’s cab) we arrived in the flyspeck town of La Junta. Our clothing, stained during a ride the day before in the bed of a truck carrying a jackhammer, had new grease marks and the dusty film on our skin had thickened. Moreover, with the sun quickly descending, it was clear we wouldn’t make Futaleufú.

But we couldn’t be happier. We hadn’t fallen prey to public transport and we had advanced a few miles at least. Confident, cocky even, we ambled to a grassy field beside an auto shop on La Junta’s northern edge.

“Go ahead, camp,” said the short, cockeyed mechanic, clad in a greasy cap and blue jumpsuit. He gestured to an outdoor faucet beside the garage. “There’s water, and I’ll leave the garage open when I leave so you can use the bathroom.”

We started to set up our tent and the town drunk, our new next-door neighbor, sidled up to introduce himself, the tail of his tucked-in shirt sticking through the open fly of his trousers.

“I live in that little ranch over there,” he told us, clutching a bottle of white wine, tottering unsteadily and gesturing to a heap of scrap wood and corrugated metal. “You can come in, but it’s pretty small.”

We demurred, instead feasting at our own site on a bottle of cheap Chilean wine called Black Cat and, for the umpteenth time, spaghetti cooked over the stove.

At barely 8 o’clock the next morning we ambled to the Carretera Austral. The headlights of a pickup cutting through the early-morning fog approached as we settled our backpacks on the road’s edge. Our thumbs instinctively shot out. The truck slowed and we were bound for Futaleufú.

In Santa Lucía, 45 miles to the north, we waited nearly seven hours for a ride to Futaleufú, still 55 miles away. But by then I was a patient old hand. We ate grapes, slumbered in the sun, swapped stories with other travelers and watched several horses released from their pen for some reason gallop around town. Then a pickup slowed and we hopped aboard.

The sun still glimmered when we arrived in Futaleufú, high up in the Andes near the Argentine border, and we quickly made it to the Espolón River. We gulped mouthfuls of the river, and before the sun had set, our grimy, unwashed bodies were clean, our spirits sparkling.

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