This is an excerpt from my book ‘Coming of Age in the Andes: An Adventure into the Mountains of South America’. Amazon link available at the end of the post!
Light rain soaked rolling verdant hills as a brooding fog began blanketing the valley. From El Bolson I’d, cut into Chile at the town of Chile Chico. I made my way through an idyllic stretch of off-the-beaten-track dirt road until the next major town of Coihayque. Hitching through Patagonia had been relatively easy – despite the loneliness factor – and the camping was pretty good overall. Chile was an altogether different story.
I trekked many days in bucketing rain and got stuck at roadsides because of heavy rock falls. I slept in shacks, buses, change rooms, homeless shelters and places that defy definition. And I met people that had immense lessons to share…sad, nostalgic, and inspirational.
I’m not sure what got into me, but I just had this powerful urge to walk on into the night. I’d never done anything like this before, it seemed completely crazy. I grabbed some bread and soup and then pulled on my rain gear. Meh, the weather didn’t look too bad. Shouldn’t rain too much. This of course is south-central Chile, where it rains heavily – I mean cats and dogs – for about 10 months in a year. But why is that any reason to twiddle your thumbs?
There was something remarkable about simply having the freedom to walk down a completely unknown road with absolutely no idea where I would stay for the night. I did of course have a tent, although not without its fair share of holes that still needed patching. The duct tape wasn’t holding so great and sometimes little pools of water would dam up inside. But that was OK, it mattered little compared to the thrill of journeying solo with all I needed on my back and a large bag of beginner’s luck, which I hoped was being balanced out by my bag of experience.
Walking down an unknown road not knowing where one will end up.
Isn’t this life? When we come into this world it’s a mystery. When we leave this world, well, it remains a mystery. And yet at the same time life is a grand journey of becoming. A myriad of trails into unchartered terrains of experience. The trails we choose are of our own making, and are yet inseparable from what’s come before us…the stories, ideas and people that’ve influenced and inspired us.
It’s the way we walk, not where, that really matters in the end. Our approach to the ineffable perplexity of it all that counts. I thought of Jorge and the Daoist pearls of wisdom he’d imparted weeks before in El Bolson and remembered the emphasis he’d placed on being in the now and taking the time to absorb the moment. He was right; the moment is all there is and all there ever will be. So be here now man, be here now.
After a few hours of trekking I was growing weary and seriously considering hunkering down under some trees. The rain had turned torrential and visibility diminished dramatically. My boots were absolutely saturated. My shoulders ached. A cup of hot coffee and something warm to eat sounded amazing. Great idea to wander aimlessly in the middle of the night. Just brilliant.
Then, like a mirage, a flicker of lights appeared in the distance. Civilization! My speed doubled as I neared my reprieve, a small fisherman’s residence with – rather oddly – an adjoining high-end spa. Topping off my gung-ho little jaunt there would’ve taken me from tramping in the mud to a mud massage, but this mind you, is shoestring adventure travel. Reserve the Thai massages – hopefully with happy endings – for times when you really need them. But that of course is a matter of personal choice.
I managed to hustle a place to stay in a change room and was amicably welcomed by the only fisherman awake. Thank god he was. He offered coffee, bread and jam, and jabbered away for about an hour, recounting stories about what life was like out here. I was once again overwhelmed by the immense hospitality that I’d so often already been shown in Argentina and Chile. As insane as it may have seemed, traipsing into the night placed me at the mercy of whoever might’ve crossed my path and allowed in some way, a stretched out hand of kindness and a generous dose of humanity.
‘’Oh yes life is tough out here. No doubt about that son. It rains a lot and we don’t get many breaks. And to make things worse, there are no women around here…just the ones we sometimes see which visit the spa…and that really drives us crazy. What would they want with us in any case, dirty men smelling of fish? Ay, it’s a shame.
‘’Wow, yeah, sounds grim. How long have you been working here?’’
‘’Mmmm…a few years now, can’t remember exactly. Time sort of stands still when nothing around you changes much. But we have a good team of guys here and we often sit and drink and tell stories of our younger days. In Santiago…Valparaiso… oh those were the days!’’
‘’Haha, the whiskey in Chile is pretty good yeah, and the ceviche is incredible, must be the best in the world. Hopefully the fish you catch makes it to the markets in the cities for people to enjoy.’’
‘’Oh yes absolutely! It does! But we catch mostly freshwater fish here, so it’s not as popular as seafood. Anyway, where are you going boy? This is rather a strange time to be walking.’’
‘’I’m headed for Bolivia and Peru, going climbing there. I just came from Patagonia and want to experience the big mountains of the Andes.’’
‘’Bravo! Bravo! You have that wild spirit that I often wish I had more of when I was young. Keep going son, not many people have the courage to travel like you are. And don’t forget it when you get older either! Age can do funny things to people, worst of which the disenchantment of dreams of faraway places and the love of adventure. Keep going.’’
I had to get up before the fishermen arrived from their barracks to grab their coats from the room I’d slept in. I snuck a quick coffee – not much happens before I get my caffeine fix – and then stood under a narrow roof ledge in pelting rain, not exactly chomping at the bit to start walking. And there weren’t any vehicles coming through either. Rivulets began forming on the unpaved road and small rocks rolled down muddy slopes.
”Would it be at all possible for me to stay here until the rain stops please sir?” I sheepishly asked the fishermen in charge of the operation.
”No! You cannot stay here boy, we are working! Can’t you see? And this is not a hostel! You need to move on now. GET GOING!” OK, bro geez, keep your panties on. The head honcho strapped on an orange helmet, zipped up his jacket and began barking orders at the rest of the crew.
I’m afraid you’ll have to take my flowery compliments about Chilean hospitality with a pinch of salt. So back into the thick of things I trundled, boots still soggy from the previous evening. Not the most ideal start to the day, but hell, it was actually kinda fun, dodging falling rocks and jumping over deep puddles. Well into the morning an old bus chugged up the mud-clogged road and began slowing down almost immediately after I whipped up my thumb in the classic hitch-hiker’s pose. Score again! Against the run of play!
”Jump in friend! You must be freezing! Did you miss your bus or something?” The jovial driver quipped, wiping his beard clean of beer foam with a grubby jacket sleeve.
”Thank you so much! I’m actually hitch-hiking! I know it must sound crazy! But I’m enjoying it! Chile is a beautiful country…even if it won’t stop raining!”
”Alright! Haha! C’mon, I’ll take you as far as I can. I must tell you though, the road isn’t very good ahead, we might have to wait for some rock falls to be cleared.” Never a dull moment but I’d expected making headway to be difficult in these conditions.
As the driver had foreseen, the road came to a landslide induced dead-end in a few kilometers. Rock and earth piled up at least three meters high on both sides of a steep curve. The rain hadn’t abated, but this time I didn’t have to look far for a place to hit the hay for the night. With an uncanny movie set feel, the open-air shed invited me in with bold lettered black graffiti;
‘FREE YOUR MIND’.
There were no buildings to jump across, as was the task set by Morpheus to Neo in the Matrix. Instead, this was a call to open to the journey ahead and remain in the present moment. To free my mind from worry, from over-analyzing things, those circular thoughts that can become linked into chains in your head. Thinking about it in hindsight, the prompt on the shed echoes the Sanskrit word mantra; ‘man’ = mind, and ‘tra’ = free.
I was to delve into Vaishnavism – a Hindu tradition that emphasizes deism – a year and a half later during undergraduate studies at the University of Cape Town when I got involved in the Hare Krishna movement there. But that is another story. I managed a fire with damp wood and rolled out my shitty sleeping mat on the grubby floor. Not a trouble in the world.
Around noon the next day a team of workers had cleared the rubble and the rain finally stopped, almost at the same time the last shovel full of earth was tossed into a mud splashed pickup truck. I continued at a decent speed along the Carrera Astral to Coyhaique, around 60km away. Rides were easy to come by, local families on day trips being especially helpful and seemingly unbothered by the horrendous state of my boots and pack.
Now you might be wondering what all the ‘woo-ha’ is about concerning hitch-hiking – a more and more popular way of travelling these days – and why on earth you’d put yourself at the mercy of people you don’t know from a bar of soap instead of simply taking public transport.
Apart from the obvious cash-conserving advantage, hitch-hiking offers a means of travel that is both exhilarating and unpredictable. It makes for encounters with people that are spontaneous and memorable, because you just never know who’s going to pick you up. And in most – but by no means all cases – the characters you meet along the way are warm and friendly and have interesting things to tell you.
Max Neugemen – a seasoned adventurer and contributor to the informative site http://www.hitchwiki.org – quips that ”the good thing about hitch-hiking is that the assholes drive right on by.” Well, most of the time at least, also depending I guess on your definition of an asshole. The experience of catching rides by sticking out your thumb – especially in places you’ve never been to be before – is all about the unexpected turn of events…the freshness of taking each day one at a time and falling inquisitively into the now.
‘Bumming a ride’ has arguably existed ever since people invented modes of transportation faster and more efficient than ambulation. Hitch-hiking could thus be said to be as old as the wheel, which the Sumerians first used on carts in the middle of the Chalcolithic era, around 4,000 BC. Hitching could also be extended to include rides on pack animals such as horses for example. The earliest domestication of man’s most valuable four-legged companion began in about 3,500 BC by the Botai people on the vast steppes of Kazakhstan. Verifiable accounts of ancient hitch-hiking are tricky to come by, yet the etymology of the word ‘hitchhike’ is far better understood.
One popular, although contested theory traces its roots to 18th century America. In 1737, David Garrick and Samuel Johnson completed a 150 mile journey with only one horse. Due to this transport limitation, they came up with a strategy that wouldn’t overburden their steed. One man would ride a certain distance, hitch the horse to a tree and begin hiking, allowing his partner – once he’d reached the tie-off spot – a bit of a rest before swopping again.
This practice is perhaps as old as the domestication of horses – as mentioned – but Garrick and Johnson were the first recorded travelers to make use of the method. Though quaint, many etymologists take this story to be a touch overboard on poetic license. Oh come on, sounds legit enough. The journey itself is not disputed, yet its direct association with the word ‘hitchhiker’ is.
A more plausible, although less adventurous theory suggests the term was coined in the early years of the automobile era. The prototypical models were so slow that a hiker could literally “hitch” himself to the running board of a car, hence the compound word we know today. The double sense of the word ‘hitch’ is also extremely apt, describing the action of attaching oneself to a moving vehicle as well as the gesture of raising one’s thumb to express approval.
The origins of hitch-hiking may be confined to legends, but what’s certain is that the phrase and past-time gained immense popularity in the mid-20th century, particularly in the US and Western Europe. Hitchhiking was a necessity during the Great Depression, as portrayed in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. But it wasn’t until Kerouac’s On the Road that its appeal took on an altogether new meaning.
The generation of vagabonds of the 60s and 70s portrayed in the novel satisfied the urge to go off the beaten path by stepping on the beaten path and very quickly a nationwide community of ‘thumbers’ emerged. Seekers, hippies, minimalists, rebels, beats; labels that were dwarfed by the pervasive spirit of exploration, peace and communalism.
This generation, driven by their anti-establishment attitudes and embracing of indiscriminate love for all, set the stage for the Age of Aquarius. Dean Moriarity – the protagonist of Kerouac’s legendary narrative – famously remarks that ”the road must eventually lead to the whole world.” An approach to life and to travel, epitomized by hitch-hiking thus cleaves open a path to meeting people from all walks of life. It’s a path that demands and engenders humility, gratitude and aliveness.
From the busy town of Coyhaique, nestled amidst stunning mountains, and the main jumping off point to Chilean Patagonia, I did a couple of spectacular multi-day hikes. Being alone and getting deep into a trail with just a simple map and some food and fuel for a few days is an incredible feeling. Many people prefer trekking and camping in groups, but if you’ve never gone into the wild by yourself it offers a kind of intimacy with nature that’s hard to beat.
Beans and rice, black coffee, snickers bars, nuts and raisins, apples and bananas. The gentle hum of snowy peaks watching over me. The soothing trickle of mountain streams. Glittering stars at night. The simplicity of having nothing to do and everything to be.
After a couple of weeks of pretty hardcore hitch-hiking and solo trekking in ridiculously wet conditions, I decided to take buses again and get moving through Chile, bound for the Bolivian and Peruvian Andes. The mountains were calling, pulling me north.
I visited Puerto Mont, Osorno and Valdivia and then arrived at the eclectic city of Temuco. The landscape changed dramatically compared to the south. An array of mountainous panoramas featured abrupt rock formations and patches of red forest. Snow-coated volcanoes receded like great white pyramids in the alluring distance. It was time to take a bit of breather from camping, trekking and hitching and explore more of Chile’s towns and peoples. And what an exploration into different ways of living it turned out to be.