When you take a long road trip spanning multiple states or countries, the wheels that get you there become very much a part of the journey, an extension of who you are as a group, or in our case, the third travel companion.
After dumping a significant amount of money into an offshore bank account, with all of our hopes tied up in an informal email voucher confirming our reservation of a little Ford Eco Sport, we arrived at the El Calafate airport and anxiously searched for the sign with my last name in bold, capital letters.
All of the signs started to disappear as other groups made their connections, until there were no more signs, no more options.
My worst fear about this trip was coming true. We had been hoodwinked.
Turns out, the dude who was supposed to meet us just had the times wrong (or from the looks of him when he arrived, overslept) and showed up an hour later. So after your typical rental car information exchange (follow posted speed limits, no driving over 110 km or you’ll probably blow over, watch out for guanacos, the “big dumb animals,” because they will just run right into you, a reminder about insurance being important because something was probably going to happen out there, reassurance we wouldn’t get lost because there’s really just one road to follow, etc.), we were on our way.
Over the next 11 days, we spent a lot of time with our little Ford, getting to know each other quite intimately. We quickly learned Argentinians completely disregard all posted speed limits, as cars blew past us going at least double. We slowly increased our speed, still afraid of flying off of a cliff or simply blowing away, but more scared of the convulsions that occurred at speeds over 110 km. The check engine light came on right about the same time we noticed the little oil change sticker on the windshield indicating the next change was due at 66,000 km. We were pushing 150,000 km.
On the second day, we discovered two educated brains could not figure out how to lock the back doors of a simple vehicle. We searched for hidden buttons, unhidden buttons, tried little tricks, checked the manual, no dice. We trusted the good people of El Chaltén would be good, and they were. Back in El Calafate, an erratic driver followed us for a few miles, flashing his lights and signaling left. I just assumed Michelle cut him off or broke some unknown Argentinian rule of the road. Later when he showed up at our table in the restaurant where we were wining more than dining, we learned the erratic driver was our rental car agent. The dedicated employee had seen our car and attempted to flag us down to deliver the documents necessary to cross the Chilean border, which he had forgotten to bring to the airport the first time. (Borderline stalkerish, or really good service?) And we were embarrassed to learn that a simple pushed-in door handle resulted in a locked door, which explained how one of the doors mysteriously locked somehow the day before. So obvious, yet in the age of beep-boops and automated everything, so easily overlooked. We just accepted our idiocy.
Equipped with the new ability to secure our belongings, the Ford became our home on wheels. We used it as our kitchen, liquor cabinet, garbage, and closet. Our once carefully packed bags exploded into every crevice of the car. When we crossed the Chilean border, instead of passing our luggage through the conveyor belt like everyone else, we asked if the customs officer would rather just search our car due to the luggage vomit. We used the Ford as our living room and fireplace, taking naps and warming up our cold, wet limbs from the long, rainy hikes down from mountain peaks. We transformed it into our bedroom the night after driving hours down the never-ending washboard, pothole-filled-with-deep-muddy-puddles, dirt road from Puerto Delgada to San Sebastian, at the end of which, Michelle noted it looked like a baby had just hovered above the car and shat diarrhea all over us. She was not wrong. We woke up on the outskirts of Rio Grande, and frightened by the big city bustle, high-tailed it to Ushuaia.
Like any good relationship, we encountered some not so literal bumps in the road as well. On the winding gravel road through Torres del Paine, we tried to avoid head-on collisions with huge trucks driving too fast in both directions, and were rewarded with a giant rock to the windshield. Over the next few days, we watched as the long spider arms stretched the full height and length of the windshield of our third companion. It looked much worse than the actual incident that had caused it. Maybe we should have paid more attention during the insurance talk.
And our very last day together, as we hastily attempted to re-pack the entrails of our luggage, we stared helplessly at that little Ford, wondering what to do. It had rained all night, and after a few…mistakes, we found ourselves stuck in the mud. While trying to improve our situation, we became VERY stuck in the mud. We tried forward, backward, pushing, wooden planks, praying, wishing, hoping. We stared at the dirt-covered car, front wheels half buried in a muddy puddle. Combined with the broken windshield, it looked like we had just gotten into a car accident with mother nature. It looked bad. It was bad.
After 11 long days of bonding, our third companion failed us. We were literally stuck, in the end of the word, with no cellular service, no transportation, and no means to get out of the mud. Alone. With nothing. Except a flight to catch, departing in two hours.
A man exited the tent next to us. A man!? I’ve never been one to put all of my egg’s in a man’s basket, but at this point, when we had nothing else, it was worth a shot. Surely he could get this car out of the mud. That’s what men do! Right? Instead, Peter, the kind Englishman whose slumber we so rudely interrupted with our repeated attempts to break free from our mud prison, confirmed there was no way we were getting out of that brown mess without another vehicle pulling us out.
Determined not to miss our flight, we woke up the park official on duty who unhelpfully claimed he had no phone, no car, no way to help us at all (though I am pretty sure I saw a phone and a truck parked out front) after Peter helpfully translated we had gotten our truck stuck in the donkey (burro, barro, so close). Peter then suggested finding the owners of one of the three visible cars (most people get there by bus) and beg them to take us to the airport. The lucky winners were a sleepy German couple who unluckily happened to be sleeping in their car. Jackpot. They couldn’t even lie and say they didn’t have a car. Though it was extremely obvious they really did not want to do this, they kindly, but very slowly packed up the mess from their romantic evening in the car the night before, and drove painfully slowly to the airport, cautiously avoiding each dip in the road, each minute ticking by loudly in my head.
We made the executive decision to leave our home and third companion behind, stuck deep in the Tierra del Fuego National Park mud, left in the hands of the Argentinian wilderness and Peter from England. We also made our flight.
Back in Buenos Aires, I dreaded emailing the rental car company about our sticky situation. Especially since once they made it to the park, they would discover we also destroyed the windshield. But as I sit here on a bus home from Chicago, I feel pretty okay about leaving the fallen soldier behind. Maybe things will work out. Maybe we’ll owe a crap ton of money. Maybe our little Ford is still stuck in the mud. Maybe it’s even deeper. Maybe it got towed to an unknown place, lost forever. Maybe Peter stole it and sold it.
I will live in fear of checking my email until this saga ends. But right now I am one hour from home, and Ushuaia is so, so far away.