It's the middle of the night in the middle of the Atacama Desert, along a stretch of haunted ground called the Pampa del Indio Muerto. I don't speak Spanish but I get the idea. This is the land that rain forgot.
And so I'm driving, which is what I do and, in a bit of existential irony, who I am. I'm a driver. I'd rather be known for pioneering gene therapy or inventing the politician who doesn't lie. Instead, my identity is tangled up with this simple-minded and sensual act, piloting these wonderful, awful machines. It started when I was 8 years old and stole my mother's Mercury Comet. Three-million driving miles later, I'm here, endlessly falling into the well of my headlights.
I couldn't be happier. My respiration syncopates with the cadence of white lines.
I reckon when the editors asked me to take my ultimate car-centric trip, they expected that I would want to take a Ferrari down the Autobahn until the car's nose-cone glowed, or maybe bump and thump with a macked-out Rolls-Royce on Miami's South Beach.
I've done those things and they were nice. But the fact is, most of the world isn't paved, and that's the part I long to see. And so, even before I had an itinerary in mind, I knew what kind of car I wanted to drive: a big, ornery Land Rover LR3.
I really like these cars. Even as they have shed their agricultural dispositions and grown more refined and comfortable — and become the status-laden lorries of pampered suburbia — Land Rovers are still ferociously tough and capable off-road. Land Rover is still clubby and British, with the slight reek of Empire, still a secret handshake among owners and enthusiasts.
It seems simple enough, though it's not often said. We fall in love with cars because of what inner need they satisfy. I grew up poor and anxious and ignorant; I've spent a lot of my adult life traveling to far corners of the planet so I could claim some worldliness as my own.
And then there is Chile. The drag strip of nation states, Chile is more than 3,000 miles long and no more than 300 miles wide, like a geographic plumb bob running along its own curious longitude. This gives the country a satisfying, almost irresistible sense of ordinal direction, of destination, of here to there-ness — a quality all road trips need.
I do my guidebook homework. Two highways stitch Chile together: The Ruta Cinco, also known as the Pan-American Highway, from Arica on the Peruvian border to Puerto Montt. North of La Serena, Ruta Cinco is a ragged and scary filament of one- or two-lane asphalt. South, it changes suddenly into a gorgeous and virtually uninhabited four-lane toll road that ends at Puerto Montt.
Beyond Puerto Montt, bridged by ferries, is the Carretera Austral, a tortuous gravel road 500 miles long.
Along these routes, Chile is a geographic changeling: In the north is the high-altitude desolation of the Altiplano. Farther south, sloping toward the sea for 750 miles, is the cruel Atacama Desert, one of driest places on Earth. At about the 30th southern parallel, the stern and arid landscape finally yields. There's the vineyard-strewn valleys of the central coast; the pen-ink-blue lakes and geometrically perfect, snowcapped volcanoes south of Temuco; and then, finally, the disordered flotilla of forested islands that run for 1,000 miles along the Pacific coast, the Chilean Archipelago. Hot springs, undiscovered beaches, hissing whitewater, rain forest, tumbling mountains of glacial ice, and all of it ends, as if with exclamation points, with the jutting spires of Torres Del Paine National Park in southern Patagonia.
It sounds like road-trip nirvana.
My driving partner, Charles LeGrand, and I fly into La Paz, Bolivia, on Oct. 27 to meet representatives from Land Rover, who hand over the LR3 HSE. This particular vehicle was already in Bolivia as part of Land Rover's G4 Challenge program — an extreme-sports competition held in some of the wildest parts of the globe. So the square, pumpkin-colored truck is expedition-ready, with roof racks, jerrycans for gasoline, winch and dazzling auxiliary lights. In the abysmal black of the high desert, Charles will observe, the lights make the LR3 look like a terrestrial mini-sub.
We leave La Paz on Oct. 28. The game plan seems simple enough: Drive the length of Chile from north to south, from a place called Tambo Quemado on the Bolivian border to Punta Arenas on the shore of the Magellan Straits, on the frayed tip of the continent. But any idea of simple dries up pretty quickly. The road from La Paz to the Chilean border is forbidding and unnerving. This is the Altiplano, an unearthly sprawl of pretty pastel lagoons that pool like acid, endless fields of padlock-hard rock and volcanoes that rip cloudy seams in the sky. It looks a lot bigger and meaner from ground level. As we cross into Chile, I reset the odometer — 0.0 miles.
In the end, I'll drive more than 4,500 miles in 16 days, over every kind of road — from rock-thorned cart path to polished superhighway — and it will turn out to be more of an adventure than I ever bargained for. I'll make new friends and alienate an old one, feel the warm embrace of Chilean hospitality and the back of its thieving hand, pull a truck out of a ditch and unlock another with a coat hanger. I will kill an armadillo and Death will whisper in my ear half a dozen times. And still, I'll drive, because that's what I do and who I am.
It's party time
BY Day 5, Charles and I are heading west on a hardpan mining road across the Salar de Atacama, 50 miles of pink-salt crust in a stupendous valley east of the Cordillera de Domeyko. The Land Rover boils up a trail of dust that drifts behind like a smokescreen.