The first time I tried to hitch-hike, I only got as far the main highway outside Valparaíso, Chile. Inspired by two French girls at my hostel, I had decided the next leg of my journey was the perfect opportunity to push my comfort zone and try something I’d always wanted – but never had the courage – to do.
Chile is renowned as a hitch-hiker’s paradise. It’s normal to see young Chilean backpackers on the side of the highway with thumbs out. In Spanish, it’s called hacer dedo – ‘to make finger.’ But being from Australia, the first thing I associated with hitch-hiking was being murdered by Ivan Milat.
Yet I was determined to overcome this fear. The girls were headed for the Argentine border, but I was headed north, to the city of La Serena. Being veterans, they set out at eight in the morning. I still had to buy supplies and had stayed up late planning my journey – drawing maps, reading forums, the works. So I didn’t arrive at my incredibly well-researched position until 1:30pm. There I stood, friendly smile on my face and brand-new sign in hand: ‘Ruta Cinco.’
The Panamericana. A set of interconnected roads stretching 30,000 kilometres, almost the entire way from Argentina to Alaska. Once I was on it, I’d be able to catch all the northbound traffic. It was only a short distance from Valparaíso, and it wasn’t long before someone stopped to pick me up.
By the time we reached the highway, though, it was nearing 2:30. La Serena was six hours away, and I didn’t fancy taking the trip in darkness. There was no need to hurtle through my comfort zone. Edging it out would work just as well. I resolved to try until 4:30, then cross the road and hitch back the other way.
It was about 4 when another car stopped. Unfortunately, Maricius wasn’t going to La Serena. He worked for the highway company and had come to tell me I couldn’t stand at the turn-off; it was dangerous. Seeing that he wasn’t going to leave until I moved, I crossed the road and flipped my sign. But no-one stopped. As the sun began to set, I started preparing for the uncomfortable possibility of camping out by the side of the road.
Once again, though, Mauricius came to the rescue, pulling up and gesturing for me to hop in. He dropped me at the city bus terminal, where I promptly bought an overnight ticket to La Serena. Still, I refused to be disappointed. It was a valiant first effort, I had learned much and technically had been successful in hitching a ride without being murdered.
My next opportunity came a week later when I arrived back in La Serena after camping in the Valle de Elqui. I spent the night at the bus terminal, sleeping – at the guard’s insistence – in a sitting position. This time, I had no difficulty starting early. My destination was San Pedro de Atacama, a small tourist oasis at the mouth of the driest desert in the world. It was a journey of 1200 kilometres. For 33,000 Pesos ($70AUD), a bus would take you there in a single, 18-hour trip. I suspected my own journey would take two days, at least.
At the first gas station on the Ruta Cinco north of La Serena, I didn’t have to wait 45 minutes before a truck – camion in Spanish – pulled up. Out hopped the camionero, Christian, and his wife, Maria. They were headed to Arica on the Peruvian border and would take me as far north on the Ruta Cinco as I needed.
Maria was accompanying Christian until they reached her parents’ home. She sat in the middle and worked on macrame decorations, some of which were already hanging from the windscreen, alongside a sign indicating they were for sale.
Christian had driven the route for years and proved a more interesting guide than any tour operator. He waved to every camionero that passed while telling me the names of the mountains and the valleys, pointing out Pre-Columbian ruins, and even a desert race-track for 4×4 buggies. Maria showed me photos of the two of them posing in a meadow of purple flowers that had sprung up miraculously amidst the arid hills the year before.
We spoke of politics, too. The high cost of living in Chile and the waves of immigrants from other Latin countries. They thought Allende – the Communist president from the 70’s – was a coward for committing suicide in the face of General Pinochet’s coup. “The politicians in South America are thieves,” Christian said.
Later, as we stopped for lunch at a highway diner, he leaned across the table and warned me: “Be careful. Going alone like this, you must be alert. If you ever feel unsafe, forget about the bags, just get out of there and run.”
“Do you think its dangerous?” I asked him.
“Not so much,” he replied. “But still, be careful.”
For dinner, we stopped on the outskirts of the city of Chañaral and made sandwiches in the truck. Maria put on a pot of tea and an episode of ‘Orange is the New Black’ on her dash-mounted phone, followed by the 90’s disaster flic, ‘Deep Impact.’ Both were dubbed in Spanish, and the latter played as we set off again into the desert, destined for the rest stop of Agua Verde.
Outside, banks of mist were rolling up onto the road. Lit by the headlights, the way forward seemed a ghostly silver tunnel through the shimmering dunes. All day the desert had offered such wondrous colours as these. In the morning, there had been martian reds as we circuited ridges and canyons. The afternoon had seen the yellows and greens of smooth hills and shrubby plains. Then, in the evening, as we drove along the narrow stretch of coast between the mountains and the sea, we had entered some kind of moon country. The black crags rose high above sand of sulphuric grey. The sun set over the sea, turning the sky vermillion-gold. Now, as we whirled through the desert night, I spotted lightning firing soundless on the dark horizon.
It had all been like some beautiful dream of the end of time, and I had been able to appreciate it with the panoramic view of the front passenger seat.
Arriving at Agua Verde, Christian and Maria set about preparing their bunk in the cabin, while I looked for a place to camp. Behind the gas station stood the ruined shells of abandoned buildings, providing good shelter from the desert wind. Trucks hurtled by, masses of darkness and blinking red lights, like satellites zooming through space. As I set up my tent, I looked up to see a shooting star blazing a trail across the night. I thought of all the moments of fear I had overcome in order to arrive at that exact point, at that exact time, and could not help but feel it a benediction of the journey so far, and a blessing on the adventure yet to come.