Pan-American Highway (Ruta 5), Chile; Aug. 11: Driving is an art. If you ask an experienced off-road driver, he will tell you that no two roads are alike and that there are an infinite number of variables that affect the drive, including road curves, rock size and shape, weather, the way the car is packed and how much weight is on the roof. He will tell you that highway driving bores him to tears. If you ask a back-seat journalist, she will tell that she prays every hour for a strip of paved road.
Every once in a while -- like now -- we end up on the highway. But most of our 10 hours a day in the car are spent tackling windy, bumpy, muddy roads. Yesterday, I found myself wrapping my arms around my head as a helmet to soften the blow when a bump in the road at 30 mph caused me to slam into the window or the roof of the car. At its worst, the ride's bumps knock my ribs up into my throat. At its best, it's a moderate vibration that makes my spine feel like a slinky caught under a jackhammer.
Dean Vergillo and Greg Thomas -- the two members of the U.S. team, with whom I'm bouncing through South America -- are extremely competent drivers, but some of the muddy, rocky, icy roads scare me so much I just squeeze my eyes shut like I used to do on roller coasters and wait for it all to be over. We had another conversation this morning about rolling a car, and I learned that you have to end up back on four wheels to make it an official roll, as opposed to a top-heavy vehicle just falling over, where it lands on one of its sides or its roof. If you know you're going to roll, Greg said, tuck your head in and keep your hands away from the roll bars. Ahhh, the comfort of being prepared.
The back seat of our Freelander shrinks by the day; soon, we'll attempt to get in the car and find that there's no more room for people. Six days ago, we started with my laptop on the floor and a camera bag the size of a microwave on the seat between another journalist and me. By the second day, there were dozens of items we needed at our fingertips: a Spanish dictionary, an Arctic headlamp, extra batteries, water and several layers of clothes. Behind our heads is a net hammock filled with first aid supplies and snacks: Power Bars, raisins, nuts, chocolate bars, beef jerky and black licorice. In comparison to the back, the front of the car is highly organized, to Dean's delight. Everything that could be Velcro-ed has been Velcro-ed, including the calculator to the dashboard and pencils to the VHF radio. Velcro-ed pens hang from the ceiling like stalactites. And the rubber duck -- once on the ceiling as well -- has a new, less turbulent home on the dash.
For a couple of days, our handle on the radio was "Rubber Ducky," and our Defender was called "Barbie," thanks to the doll our tag-along Russian journalist had contributed as a gag gift. She is attached to the hood of the Defender with zip ties strapped around her legs (after electrical tape didn't hold in the sleet), and quite honestly, she's had a rough few days out there in the cold. Her pink dress is jacked up from driving at 50 mph, she's lost her panties and her blond locks and smooth legs are splattered with mud. Her situation has made me realize that constant car sickness, back pain and hairy legs aren't so bad after all. In comparison to Barbie, my job as a back-seat journalist seems positively glamorous.
San Martin de los Andes, Argentina; Aug. 12: Today is the eighth day of the Camel Trophy, and I've finally adopted the priorities of the team, which include, and are limited to, driving and sleeping. I fought it at first, but now I see the big picture, and in it, going to the bathroom and eating are on the sidelines. I also have concluded that the feeling of having to go to the bathroom is one that is largely mind over matter. Nature's calls aren't nearly as demanding as they once were. The other night, I slept in a 6-by-6-foot tent, so close to two other bodies that sardines would cringe, and the idea of moving -- not to mention leaving the tent in the snow and exposing myself to the dark, wee hours of the morning -- was hardly inspiring.
Once in a while, we stop for gas and are rewarded with toilets. We have coupons for diesel fuel at Shell stations, so we rank them based on their baqo facilities, snacks and overall modernity. The top Shell thus far had a separate building for bathrooms and a short, curly-haired woman selling toilet paper at three squares for 100 pesos. (The worst station had one pump, neither snacks nor bathrooms and three red buckets of water hanging under an awning, which we concluded was an antiquated fire-extinguishing system.) At a less inviting bathroom in a shopping square, I tracked down the woman with the keys, and I was thrilled when she dug into her pockets for a few crumpled squares of t.p.
Last night we slept in a cozy cabana with a wood-burning stove near the Argentine border so we could be there when it opened at 8 a.m. We actually slept through sunrise -- an absurdity in Camel Trophy -- and I had a few minutes to boil water for oatmeal in my all-purpose, stainless steel mug. The more typical morning has us out of our sleeping bags before sunrise, packed up and ready to drive away in minutes. Brushing our teeth and showering are luxuries we can't afford.
Between the Chilean border crossing and the Argentine border crossing is about 45 minutes of snow-covered no-man's-land, otherwise known as the Andes. The mountains have allowed communities to develop independently of each other in Chile and Argentina. Just over the border, I noticed differences that indicated a higher standard of living in Argentina: more street signs, smoother roads, nicer gas stations, fewer Datsuns, more Volvos and little gardens in the center of town. We drove through several resort ski villages that look like they belong at the foot of the Alps instead of the Andes, with quaint chalets and stores with wooden fronts. The people look different, too, with longer, more defined faces and lighter hair.
In both Chile and Argentina, local people are crazy about the Camel Trophy. Almost every car we pass on the road flashes its lights, and a stop at the Shell station is no less exciting than the circus coming to town. We must look like the circus, getting out of our yellow cars in what we think is practical, outdoor clothing. Actually, we're all wearing clunky, 30-below-zero-rated boots, khaki pants and big, bright blue coats with American flag patches and a dozen pockets. If we don't look like clowns, we look like astronauts. When we stop to fill up on gas we attract a small crowd of children in school uniforms and grown-ups in sombreros. We hand out Camel Trophy stickers and Team USA pins. When I stopped in a coffee shop in Pucon, Chile, to track down some news on the embassy bombings, the French-speaking owner only wanted to talk about Camel Trophy, which was featured on the local news and in the local paper. In another town, a road was closed for construction, and the workers -- who looked as if they were discussing the weather rather than working on the road -- offered to build a ramp for us so we could drive from the dirt section of road up to the concrete section two feet higher.
As we travel south, however, fewer people recognize our cars or know what Camel Trophy is. We pass farmers on the side of the road, and their sad eyes follow us, but they show little expression on their sun-worn faces. When our photographer jumped out of the car to snap a picture of a man walking his pig on a leash, the man scooted his pig along as if to get him away from the paparazzi. And in a perverse way, that's exactly what we are.
Rio Manso, Argentina; Aug. 14: Team morale is low. In the past couple days we have lost a few bags from the roof of the car, missed getting to several checkpoints, and yesterday, after I had switched seats and moved into the front seat of the Defender, the Freelander skidded off a wet snowy road to within three feet of the edge of a cliff with no guardrail. The damage was a flat tire and some spooked passengers, but we spent 20 minutes looking at the frightful tracks in the snow -- the scene of the near-accident. The scare has temporarily slowed the pace and sharpened the focus of Team USA. Those drives where Dean and Greg talked at length about their favorite Charlie's Angel are over; now it's all about coordinates, kilometers, time, strategy and safety.
The U.S. team is one of the strongest and most competitive, but there also is a sense of wanting to stop and smell the roses. The checkpoints are located at some of the most spectacular places in Patagonia: near a 160-foot waterfall, next to an open-air church and a 20-foot statue of the Virgin Mary, in the middle of a bamboo forest, in South America's longest tunnel, across a lake surrounded by a lava field surrounded by snow-capped mountains. This morning, we reached a point in front of Butch Cassidy's house in the Cholila Valley, but we couldn't see the house in the morning darkness, and no one questioned the team's decision to drive away before sunrise.
We have a 136-page book of 225 possible competition locations with rudimentary maps, coordinates and some hints: "The location marker is fixed to a rock on the north side of Antuco Volcano at an elevation of 1,950 meters above sea level." The book sends us to beautiful and striking parts of the region, but the surprise sights are the most fantastic, bar none. Yesterday, we drove in brutal winds around a huge, rich blue lake here in Argentina. The wind violently tossed the water around and lifted droplets high enough to catch the sun's rays and create a brilliant, 180-degree rainbow over the lake -- without a rain cloud in the sky.
Futaleufu, Chile; Aug. 15: We entered Chile again last night. This time, the tiny Argentine border crossing facility had a bronze crucifix above the man handwriting our passport numbers into a notebook. The Chilean facility had a ping-pong table.
Futaleufu, a farming town of 892 on the Rio Grande, is a mandatory meeting spot for all Camel Trophy teams. This morning, we rafted down the freezing river with a Chilean Chilly Willy as our river guide. We passed cows on the rocky banks and snowy peaks in the distance. The U.S. boat made it through the class IV-plus rapid called "Initiation" without anyone swimming, and we were finished by 10:30 a.m. with a day to relax by the campfire at the farm on the river.
Wet and cold, we went into the wide-open changing barn to put on warm, dry clothes. There was hot chocolate brewing in the rear of the barn and sunlight squeezing through the panels of wood onto the dirt floor. As I peeled off my wet suit and booties, one of the Portuguese team members -- Goncalo Pinheiro -- sat shirtless on the log bench toward the back of the barn, singing to himself in Portuguese and lacing his boots. And for the first time since the Camel Trophy began, I found something to be extremely sexy.
What surprised me the most is that I felt this feeling as if for the first time ever. For almost two weeks, I have been surrounded by confident, capable, handsome men, and the schedule has been too hectic, the car too smelly, the focus too intense for me to appreciate my situation. My only concerns have been sleeping, eating and writing. But Goncalo stopped me dead in my wet suit-peeling tracks.
Dean caught me ogling, and he humored me with a serenade of his own: "Melanie, my mantequilla ..." ("butter" is the only Spanish word he knows). I explained to him that it wasn't just the soft singing, or just the bare chest, or just the nice cheekbones and dark hair. It was the warm sunlight and the hot chocolate and the post-rafting exhilaration that completed the package to make it the sexiest scene in Patagonia. And with precious, non-driving time to daydream, I started to miss my man at home.