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Chile: 4x4 by 4,000 miles

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I 'VE got a thousand miles behind me and three thousand to go. I've got a dashboard tan. Hammer down. Radar love.

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.

Guidebooks call this part of northern Chile "lunar" or "Martian," and during the day it's understandable because the cracked lifelessness stretches to the ashy horizon. Water seems like folklore. But at night, well, night is different. Northern Chile has dark and transparent air — silver-lidded observatories eye the heavens from nearby mountaintops — and the sky is whitewashed with stars. You will never feel more Earthbound. Here you can appreciate your significance in the universe, and the news is not good.

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 timeBY 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.

"Driest … place I've ever seen," Charles writes grumpily in my notebook. "Spa treatment in order."

It's been an eventful few days. In Pica, a tiny oasis town out in the talc-white nothingness, we encounter Nicolas and Orion at a dusty cafe. They invite us to Nicolas' mother's birthday party. We're behind schedule, but he insists. "OOF-ah!" Nicolas says grandly over and over, which apparently is some kind of Peruvian affirmation. He claps my back with an oak-brown hand.

As we enter the dirt-floor dwelling, 12 people are gathered around a large table in a kitchen piled high with possessions — clothes and broken clocks and sewing machines, odd bottles retrieved from the desert. It's a great party and the food and wine flow. As a birthday gift, I stand and sing the old country song "Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine." All seem pleased with the gringo.

We don't always find the Chileans so hospitable. We stop in Calama to stock up on food and get some cash. We pull into the improbable Mall of Calama, a brightly lighted modern shopping mall, the only one of its kind for 500 miles. Unfortunately, the cash machine in the mall eats my ATM card. It takes an hour to explain myself to the manager in my infantile Spanish — far longer than we would normally leave the truck unguarded. As we walk out of the supermarket, I see broken glass around the truck. Thieves have bashed in a window and stolen my professional camera rig and Charles' backpack.

"Policia, policia?" I say to the security guard, making the telephone-to-the-ear gesture with one hand. He just keeps smoking. I'm pretty angry. "Carabinieri," he says finally.

With some difficulty, after midnight, we find the squalid carabinieri station and I wait for two hours to make a report to an indifferent clerk. All the while the cops are beating the ever-loving hell out of someone in the back.

There are a lot of ways to measure a trip like this. Miles under the keel, obviously, or hours or days on the road. Given Chile's unique geography, there's also degrees of latitude.

We could also measure by gallons of gas. The Land Rover is getting about 15 miles per gallon and, because of an intermittent fuel-pump problem, we have to keep the tank above half full (in Copiapó, the LR3 quits on us at 3 a.m., blocking a hotel's car park). As the trip progresses, the truck's appetite for gasoline — and the scarcity of gas stations — increasingly rules our itinerary.

For me, this trip has some shade of valediction about it. I love driving, but I understand better than most that the gas-powered automobile is an unsustainable technology, and something about the limping, station-to-station tempo of our trip makes it seem crazy. And yet I also understand what a miracle gasoline is — compact, lightweight, its golden thermochemical power able to push the railcar-shaped Land Rover through the air at 70 miles per hour with ease. Gasoline has a karmic quality. With gasoline, it's possible to see the sights of many lifetimes in a single incarnation — did the Buddha ever reckon on 97 octane?

What happens to the road trip, the self-authored adventure of miles, when gasoline goes away? Will there be a Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, Tod and Buz, Thelma and Louise, Charles and Dan, post-petroleum?

Unfortunately, wherever the automobile goes, it leaves its mark. In the dirt-street oasis of San Pedro de Atacama, we are chased into a doorway by a platoon of desert-rigged Citroen Deux Cheveux buggies brought over by French rally drivers. I thought I'd seen them in the desert the day before, churning up clouds of dust that looked like phosgene gas rising from among the rocky swales. It made me wince. All across the face of the Atacama, for hundreds of miles, are the winding, erratic tracks of off-road vehicles. In this climate, with zero precipitation, those tracks could be there for centuries. This is what the American West would look like if off-roaders had their way.

"There are some people here who tread lightly and watch where they are going," says Adrian Germishuizen, a tour guide for a company called Azimut. "There are others who don't give a damn where they go and just think of today."

Music to drive byDAY 10. For the first part of the trip, we think the CD player is broken. It turns out it's just hard to operate. At 1,280 miles, at 26 degrees southern latitude, the car sound system erupts with Prince's greatest hits. Charles and I high-five each other. A good day.

Along the coast north of Santiago, we make a more-or-less random right turn onto a farm road, which leads for miles through a beautiful cactus garden dusted with purple and yellow flowers. The trail ends at a black cliff plunging into the incandescent blue ocean. If this place were in California, it would have guards around it.

Around Santiago, we head for the Termas de Chillán, the country's best ski area, with its natural hot springs. But the drive into the Andes takes three hours on a narrow gravel road, and we arrive after midnight. The next morning, road-weary and needing a good soak, we talk our way into the private hot springs on the property of the Grand Hotel. It's a series of interlocked, bubbling pools at the foot of a grassy expanse, the winter piste. It looks like Aspen. It's all I can do to get Charles out of the hot springs to face another day in the car, and, I think, I lose him right there.

On we drive, hour after hour, down the Pan-American Highway, with the serrated horizon of the snowy Andes ever to the east. At the speed limit of 120 kilometers per hour (74 mph), the Land Rover thrums like a Tibetan throat singer, the engine turning at 2,100 rpm. Hour after hour after hour. What others might find monotonous I think of as a kind of centering peace, a spiritual retreat in the whistling wind, a soul migration.

But that's me. Charles is just bored. It's not easy spending so much time on the road with another person, and Charles and I are feeling the strain. The lag in the conversations, the thin-skinned irritation. The road can cement friendships or expose their fault lines. We drove across the United States six years ago for a story in Car and Driver. We got along well then, but now he's 30 years old and I wouldn't blame him if he's weary of playing copilot to my pilot.

About midnight, approaching the city of Puerto Montt, almost 3,000 miles into the trip, I look over at him. He's sleeping, held upright by his seat belts, his head hanging heavily. He looks miserable. When he wakes up, I tell him he can go home if he wants to.

"Man, I'm just sick of being in the car," he says. That right there is the difference between him and me.

Eleven hours later, Charles is on a plane headed north and I'm pondering a solo drive of the Carretera Austral and the Argentine pampas. I'm not sure I can do it.

An all-seeing new copilotDAY 12. Less than two hours after Charles leaves, at a ferry crossing south of Puerto Montt, a place that looks like something in the Greek isles, I meet Juan Pablo Chovar, a 26-year-old tour guide from Temuco. In 10 minutes, he volunteers to serve as navigator for the rest of my trip. He's a charmer, a shaman, a gleeful dharma bum and polymath who tapes a tiny Olmec statuette on the dash after he throws his gear in the back. We talk about Kerouac and Ginsberg and "The Celestine Prophesy."

"When I get sleepy I get … prophetic," Juan says mysteriously.

"Well, tell me," I say, "are we going to run out of gas?"

UFOs, past lives, Atlantis. Juan accuses me of being a skeptic. "Open yourself up to the universe," he says. "This is such a pristine blue experience!"

He's winning me over.

At another ferry crossing, we meet Col. Henry Day and Paul Newby, British mountaineers on a climbing vacation through South America. They are driving a 1998 Land Rover Defender 110, a brute of a machine rigged with a rooftop tent, propane gas, water system, roll bars and security cages.

I've got total vehicle envy and ask for a tour of the Defender. They happily oblige.

It's hard to explain how odd this coincidence is. Their vehicle is actually a retired Camel Trophy truck — Camel Trophy was the famously grueling off-road competition Land Rover sponsored for years, much like the G4 Challenge. Both men have had lifelong romances with these trucks. Newby, who worked as a surveyor for the British government in some of the wildest holdings of the Empire, actually spent his honeymoon training at Solihull, England, where Land Rovers are made.

Day is interested in the LR3, but he's not sure it's quite got the rhino hide of the old Defenders. "I'll wait to see what the new Defenders are like," he says.

Obviously, we're a matched set of some kind — mates, in fact — and we decide to caravan south together.

A day later, at an unmarked crossroad somewhere on the Carretera Austral, Juan and I pick up a couple of trekkers, Tomer and Shukyy, who have recently mustered out of the Israeli army. Now we are an impromptu expedition of six, and when we stop in Puerto Aisén we find — miraculously arranged for us by Juan — a proper Patagonian feast waiting for us.

In a community house, a wooden structure called a quincho, we find two long tables laden with salads, relishes and roasted vegetables. In an adjacent room are two lamb carcasses roasting over a pit fire. The smoke is as thick as incense.

Soon steaming plates of the grilled meat are passed around. After we've eaten our fill, the travelers take turns reciting poems for our supper. I recite "Jabberwocky," the universal poem.

In the fire-lit night, I look around to admire all my new friends, people I would never have met except for the strange workings of a thing called automobile. And not just these. The beautiful tollbooth worker with black hair and glacier-blue eyes — she looked as if she wanted to climb in and drive away. The old woman who lives across from the crashed airplane — she sold us the best eggs I've ever eaten. The scallop divers and gas-station attendants and the police clerk who types with one finger. If, as Mark Twain said, travel is the death of prejudice, the automobile is the sword.

It's getting late, and Juan and I have another 1,000 miles of fierce Patagonian road ahead. Juan has a rendezvous with a beautiful Norwegian he hasn't met yet. As for me, with the end in sight, every mile brings me closer to home. All I ask is an orange truck and a star to steer her by.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Long and sport of it

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, La Paz, American, Lan Air and Aero California have connecting service (change of plane) to La Paz, Bolivia. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $979 until Dec. 7, increasing to $1,059 until Dec. 24.

La Paz is 150 miles from Tambo Quemado, Chile.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 56 (country code for Chile) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Santa Rosa Resort, Pica; 55-741711, resortsantarosa.cl. (Only Spanish spoken.) A small complex of bungalows in a fruited oasis in the heart of the Atacama Desert. Rooms for two $67, cabins for two $87. Reservations can also be made through Extremo Norte, 57-326606, extremonorte.cl.

Hostelria San Pedro de Atacama, 460 Toconao, San Pedro de Atacama; 55-851011, diegodealmagrohoteles.cl. Upscale hacienda-style complex in tourist-hip San Pedro de Atacama, with inviting pool and great service. Doubles $100-$120.

Los Balcones de Aragon, 289 Cienfuegos, La Serena; 51-212419, http://www.losbalconesdearagon.cl . In the heart of the city, with secure parking and quiet courtyard. Doubles from $57.

Hotel Viento Sur, 200 Ejército 200, Puerto Montt; 65-258701, hotelvientosur.cl. Seafarers' residence overlooking the port converted into a stylish but understated tourist hotel. Doubles $70.

Hotel Bellavista, 060 Avenida Vicente Pérez Rosales, Puerto Varas; 65-232011, http://www.hotelbellavista.cl . Lives up to its name, with extraordinary waterside view of Lake Llanquihue and the Osorno volcano, plus impeccable amenities. Doubles $67, including breakfast.

TO LEARN MORE:

Embassy of Chile, (202) 785-1746, chile-usa.org.

— Dan Neil

*

Driving tips

Vehicles: If your route includes the high deserts of the north or the Carretera Austral in the south, or if you plan to visit in fall and winter (our spring and summer), rent a high-clearance 4x4 vehicle — particularly with extra fuel cans, spare tires and other off-roading gear. The Toyota Hi-Lux 4x4, a four-door pickup with a diesel engine, is fuel efficient, comfortable and virtually indestructible.

Rentals: Because of Chile's linearity, anyone renting a car for an extended visit probably will want to return it in another city. Be prepared to pay for the convenience. A one-month rental from Hertz of a Toyota Hi-Lux, with pickup in Arica and drop-off in Punta Arenas, costs $4,860.65, including a whopping $1,360 drop-off fee.

Driving: The rules of the road are familiar, and other drivers are aware and courteous. Most of Chile's natural wonders are accessible from main highways on well-groomed hardpan dirt and gravel roads, easily negotiated in a front-drive car.

Fuel: In El Norte Grande, running out of fuel is a serious hassle. For this reason, most vehicles use diesel fuel, which gives better range.

Maps: The best is the Guia Rutera of Chile and Argentina, available at YPF service stations. This is indispensable in the north because it indicates service station locations.

Money: Most large towns and cities have bank machines that allow you to withdraw up to 100,000 Chilean pesos ($189.23) a day. Most hotels and merchants accept credit cards.

— Dan Neil

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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