Northbound in Patagonia

By Eric Liddle


Exhausted and burnt out on trail mix, Kevin and I headed to the only open restaurant in El Chaltén for a much deserved cold beer and a feast. We had just finished the descent of Mt. Fitz Roy in Patagonia.

We'd been backpacking through Patagonia up Highway 40 from Ushuaia to Mendoza - taking every opportunity to explore along the way.

That night, after our third beer and our first hearty meal in days, we decided it was time to hit the road again. Wandering over to the bus station, one of the few non-restaurant businesses in town, Kevin stepped up and purchased a one-way ticket north with the remaining cash that we'd scraped together. I was up next and much to my disappointment Kevin had been given the last ticket for the bus. No refunds.

I vividly remember the conversation, “It’s no biggie - I’ll get the next one and we’ll meet up in Perito Moreno” - I think we even high fived - I turned back to the teller and purchased a ticket for the following bus and said goodbye to Kevin.

The next bus turned up four hours later and much to my pleasure I snagged the entire front bench to myself. I had a 17-hour bus ride ahead of me, and getting stuck in the back of that 1970’s rickety yellow school bus would have been torture.

By hour four, I’d eaten everything I'd packed - mainly out of pure boredom. I began to chat up the driver, we covered everything from his children and grandchildren to Argentine politics, the reason he wouldn’t share his secret chimichurri recipe with me, and stories of the good ol' days in his remote Patagonian town. Nine hours into the ride, I considered us to be new friends.

We were headed North up Highway 40, which meant the Andes were on our left, bursting out of the flatlands. To my right was an endless abyss of desolate desert. A few rocks, the occasional cactus, and the bumpy dirt road were our only companions on what seemed to be a never-ending journey.

By hour ten, I desperately needed to stretch the legs. At 6'3" you can imagine my relief when the driver pulled into a gas station, the only man-made structure we’d seen in hours. I leaned forward, asking Victor if I had time to run into the convenience store to restock. Looking back, he threw me a thumbs up and a nod.

The bus began to unload, each passenger giving a big groan and a stretch as they shuffled off. I quickly ran inside to grab a pack of cookies, at the register, I placed the only thing I had grabbed from the bus - pesos - on the counter. As the clerk handed me my receipt, I noticed a mirror behind him and in that mirror I saw a big yellow bus driving back onto the highway.

I looked over to where I exited the bus, and to my disbelief, my bus and Victor had left me.

Wide eyed and beginning to panic, I speechlessly turned to the cashier.

He looked back calmly and said: “Corre amigo” which loosely translated to: Run for your life, dude. I grabbed my cookies and sprinted out the door. The other gas station attendants belly laughing as I hoofed it North.

The weight of this event was no small matter. On my left I had the Andes, to my right I had the desert, over my head was the beating sun, and due North, were all of my belongings, my wallet, cell phone, camera, passport and every form of identification I had in the country.

Time began to blur together - all mental activity became so focused that I have no idea how long or how far that run actually was.

Soon enough, that old yellow bus began to disappear into the dusty horizon and I came to the conclusion that I was completely fucked.

Slowing to a walk, and on the verge of a mental breakdown, I cast my thumb out not even looking as I had only seen three cars since leaving El Chaltén. Miraculously, in less than a minute, a beat-up two door South American Civic, pulled over and a full car of Chileans ushered me into their space - an act I will forever be grateful for.

There were seven of us in the car - the father, who was driving, the mother who’d graciously given me her front seat to sit in the back, her four children, and myself. I remember struggling to explain what had happened, as my normally fluid Spanish was completely absent.

Using hand gestures and some broken Spanish, I expressed that I had no money or anything valuable and that the only belongings I could give them were cookies and the shirt off my back. Silently nodding in comprehension, the father looked at me and smiled - handing everyone including his children cold beers. I thought to myself, “Is this a red flag?”

Off we went, following the only road out there. Determined to not end up ashamed in the US Embassy, I sat in the front seat with my eyes on the horizon. An hour and a half passed, and the conversation in the car slowed to a halt. I had offered my cookies to the car at least four times and no one wanted them. It was 3:00 pm and I was starting to lose hope.

The natural landscape of the region meant the road wove its way along the base of the mountains, occasionally bending around a protruding outcropping. It was then, after coming around a corner that we saw it. That glorious piece-of-shit yellow bus.

Once again at a loss for words, I excitedly pointed to the bus and we began to speed up. The bumpy dirt road ceased to annoy me. The prize was in sight, we had caught it.

As we began to close in on the bus, conversation in the car came to a complete standstill. I noticed, but paid no mind, I had half my body out of this Civic ready to give the bus driver a piece of my mind.

We pulled alongside the driver, and being mostly outside the vehicle, I waved frantically. The bus driver paid no attention. Then we passed the bus. It all happened very quickly.

Confused, I came back through the window into the silent car, looked at the driver, and in very clear Spanish said: “Can I get out”?

No response.

I repeated myself, but again no response. Ignored.

Sitting back in my chair, I felt the acceleration of the vehicle and the heat of the sun coming through the windshield. We were going much too fast for that dirt road. I began to fear for my life. Every memory of why you shouldn’t get into cars with strangers came to the front of my mind, and once again I felt very vulnerable.

My hand moved to release my seatbelt as my mind transitioned into escape mode, I was ready to tuck and roll.

Taking a moment of pause to evaluate my surroundings, I realized I was in no place to escape. I needed something other than rocks and cactus to land on and we were moving too fast. An uncalculated move and I would surely find myself broken in some capacity.

So I sat still - waiting for my moment to escape.

Time inched along as I sat in silence - a prisoner in my seat - until finally in the distance I saw what appeared to be a small town. I could see houses with trees and lawns. I knew this was my opportunity.

As we approached the town, we began to slow down, coming closer and closer to a safe-ish exit. I picked a lawn just past an intersection on the right side of the street.

Unbuckled seatbelt, hand on the door, I was ready.

Suddenly we hung a right and pulled into the bus station, the car jolting to a halt in front of the terminal. The driver looked at me smiled, winked and the car erupted in laughter. I was the butt of their hilarious joke. I was never in any danger.

Shaken after what was my third curveball of the day I stepped out of the car with wobbly legs said thank you and took a seat on someone’s front yard, half waving as they carried on their merry way.

Moments later, up rolls the bus. Victor, perched obnoxiously in the front seat throws me a wave. 

I never thought I'd be so happy to see that bastard.