The month of February brought an exciting adventure we affectionately named “Vanuary”. For thirty days, we drove and camped our way across 3,860 kilometers of often unpaved and sometimes harrowing roads through Patagonia in a 2 person camper van. Our road trip started in the rolling hills of Chiloé island before returning to the continent of South America. Once back on the mainland, we hopped on the famed Carretera Austral, a beautiful and ambitious road carved through and around the southern Andes mountain range. We drove the Carretera Austral as far as we could without too much backtracking and then crossed into the grasslands, or *pampas*, of Argentina. The desolate stretch of land held amazing surprises and eventually took us back to Chile and we followed Ruta 9 all the way to the end of continental South America.
We named our chariot “La Piñata”. A manual-transmission, Chinese-made, American-branded utility van, she was bright and colorful, seemingly made of papier-mâché, and tossed us around on the roads like innocent pieces of candy. We had our doubts at times, but she made it from Puerto Varas to Punta Arenas, Chile.
The contrast in the landscape surpassed even our high expectations. We wandered through an rainforest-like jungle with droves of ferns encroaching along the highway. Later, we walked along frozen boardwalks watching giant cleaves of ice burst from the face of a glacier. We swatted swarms of devilish horseflies as sweat rolled from every pore. Later, desperately clung to every layer of clothing we’d packed and we faced stormy winds and dustings of snow. We stood, jaws open, in awe of the greens and blues before our eyes. Later, we drove through a vast, barren nothingness, wondering how far away was the nearest tree.
There is contrast in the roads we traveled. Our first official night on the Carretera Austral, we admired at the beautiful quality of the paved road—unmatched by many highways in the United States, even. Later, we laughed the laugh that only near death experiences can produce. Whose idea was it to build a coastal road with no shoulder to separate you from hundreds of feet of frightening nothingness, all above a frigid glacial lake? Oh, and by “road”, I meant “narrow winding pathway with inches of loose gravel worn into ruts”. Of course, we were also dodging novice mountain bikers out for a deadly day trip there as well. All while driving standard with a tiny engine. I digress...
The contrast roads empty for hours to narrowingly escaping unpredictable turns of 18 wheelers or seeing a camper crashed into a ditch on our very first day (the passengers were safe). Never will I forget the painfully sharp contrast of when serpentine belts are functioning and spinning round and round in their serpentine-belt-like fashion as opposed to when they snap violently and leave you stranded on the road for eighteen hours. And the classic vehicular contrast of when tires have air and they have no air (for no diagnosable reason).
The contrast in our ability to communicate back home heightened as we moved further away from the more populous regions of northern Patagonia. We’d go days without hearing from anyone or sending any updates. In the grand scheme of human history, the fact we can talk with family thousands of miles away is unprecedented. Though by modern standards, the experience of being disconnected can be rare. The communication gods smiled upon us the day my sister got engaged, and precious cell service allowed us to congratulate the two lovebirds.
There are few moments in life which evoke more delightfully wonderful contrast than the fleeting moments right before a surprisingly hot shower at a surprisingly nice campground and the few beautiful moments after when I swear I’ve never been so clean in my life. Hiking everyday and living in a van will do that to you.
Often, we were alone. Sure, we’d have light and friendly conversations when we’d stop for fuel or a snack. We talked for hours over the rattle of the Chinese-quality van, and listen to music or podcasts when the unpaved didn’t completely drown out the sound. So we drove and we hiked and we admired and we ventured and we slept.
More often than we expected, we experienced a sense of friendship and familiarity difficult to find outside of your place, your home. From our first day on the Carretera Austral, we picked up the first pair of many pairs of hitchhikers. It’s a popular summer trip for university students to get themselves down south with a pack and possibly some climbing gear, hang a thumb out over the road, and wait for a ride. That’s the culture of the Carretera. The added weight to La Piñata with hitchhikers proved difficult to handle at first, but Lane always managed to maneuver our ungraceful whale of a van. When we drove with mochileros in the back, conversations developed into some mix of an English and Spanish lessons. We met so many kind people who shared stories from their lives.
Friendship also came in the form of a delightful couple from the UK, Jane and James. Before departing on our road trip, we met them at our hostel’s breakfast table, and we passed the entire morning chatting away. The next night, we cooked dinner together and talked late into the evening. It was a pleasure and novelty to make some new, genuine friends, as it’s harder to do so on the road than you might think. But eventually, we had to split ways. While we planned to drive the Carretera Austral and beyond, they would be biking it! Before departing, we exchanged information and plans, hoping we might all see each other again. Thanks to several detours off the main route we made, we met and camped with Jane and James twice over the next few weeks. Given the limited communication we had and our vast differences in pace, it’s a miracle it happened at all. We haven’t experienced the simple joy of “meeting up with friends” for so long, it just made our time of the Carretera Austral even more special.
The contrast in our surroundings changed not only in the majesty of Patagonia but the level of access and tourism throughout the journey as well. We’d hike entire trails without another soul in sight. Later, we squeezed La Piñata around trains of tour buses and weaved our way through throngs of other hikers to some of the most sought-after views in Patagonia.
I recognized change in myself regarding the way I approached our hikes. As time passed, I spent less and less mental energy worrying about how difficult a hike might be or how long it would actually take me versus how long it should take. Soon, I wasn’t batting an eye at hiking over 20km or worrying if we’d started the hike too late in the day. I just did it and appreciated how strong and powerful my body is.
Yet another way I delineate my life into the before and after Vanuary is my now-realized love of penguins. Reaching adulthood, most superlatives from childhood—favorite color, favorite, dinosaur, favorite ice cream flavor—fade away in significance as you learn to appreciate variety. Now as an adult, I can say I have a new favorite animal: penguins And thanks to Chile, I’ve adoringly watched 3 of the 18 species in the world in their natural habitats. We waddled alongside Magdalena penguins on Isla Magdalena and watched in awe as a small colony of regal King penguins tended to their fat babies in Tierra del Fuego.
Many of the fears I had when we committed to this leg of the trip were-unfounded. Together, Lane and I made a good team, ready to take on the challenges of road tripping Patagonia. The decision to take this trip catalyzed one of the most amazing adventures we’ve had since leaving our Colorado home. Now, I will carry those beautiful memories, peace, simplicity, and awe with me for the rest of my life.