Highway Kings

For in tonight I pondered wearily,
mixed with the richest potions, 
and other fearful notions..........

                            Thomas Eames

Two days out of the Chilean town of Los Andes, I was nearing the boarder crossing known as Pasa de los Liberatores. The road climbed steadily towards Aconcagua. I could have hitched it, but, chose not to. Seeking the solace that only shoe leather on bitumen can lend. The freedom of the road. Salty residue deposit in the armpits of my shirt, dirt in the neck collar, creak in my bones, the oily excretion of toil oozing from every pore.  I allow my mind to wander through fallow fields void of thought, the transcendental plough turning the soil of inspiration to await the seed of new ideas.

Trucks and pickups laden with bewildered faces passed on their way to the mines high in the Andes. Pilgrims going to worship at the coalface of capitalism in a hole two miles deep, with sweat dripping from their brow. Families to feed, mortgages to pay, penance for pesos. Their look of indifference towards me on their ascent exchanged for an envious smile 8 hours later as they descended after their shift in the mine. In 8 hours I could advance 12 or so miles at a leisurely pace.

 On the morning of the third day a truck pulled over in the layby ahead of me. It’s sole occupant had observed my progress since los Andes and told me I would be unable to proceed on foot much farther. Road widening projects had put a halt to all pedestrian traffic. Only those with a permit could proceed to the international boarder during work hours. I climbed in and he drove me towards Argentina. A few miles before the boarder we were stopped by the Carabineros and told we would have to wait until 8pm when the traffic flow through the tunnel dividing the two nations would be reversed and we could proceed. leaving me by the outpost at 2pm my ‘chauffeur’ continued with his permit as a road worker.  

A steady line of trucks formed in the hard shoulder to await the opening of the boarder. By 7pm the line of trucks was over 2 kilometres long. I decided it was time to plead for my passage, but one after another the truckers turned me down. I returned to the head of the queue where an old man was sleeping in his 4X4. 
I politely tapped on his window stepping back as he slowly rolled it down. My heart sank, he appeared as though he’d never heard of the art of hitch hiking before. But on hearing of my plight he said get in. Enrique was his name, a 69 year old retired Argentinian. On his way to Neuquén, about half way to Puelo. Sure, he’d take me. Lets go.
the last of the traffic from the Argentinian side passes us and after a half hour wait the Carabineros raise the barrier and wave us through. 

In the night we wind our way up the switchback road, I look back and see a trail of lights behind us about 2 miles long. The headlights of cars and trucks in a steady stream down as far as the eye can see in a mesmerising display, the likes of which I’ve never seen. A giant elongated serpent with us as its head making its way up the western slopes of the Andes. A mechanical Dragon all smoke and deafening din, with fire and lightning emanating from its shimmering scales, an unstoppable armored beast that is part man and part machine. Simultaneous engines of a hundred vehicles roar, snorting toxic fumes. The sequential compression breaking of the trucks echoing in the valley, trumpeting like Hannibal's elephants heralding our arrival. Everyone feels it. We are highway kings.

 We passed through the tunnel under the mountain and arrived at the Aduana. With the formalities of entering Argentina complete Enrique asked me where I would sleep. It was already after 11, He had a rendezvous with a lady friend in a town just over the boarder. He could hardly show up with a vagabond in tow. He let me out by an abandoned service station, its bowsers rusted and bent and he told me he would pick me up the following day around 9am.
I climbed out into the freezing night air, delicate snowflakes danced in the night breeze. I shuddered. the air was misty, the sky starless, I looked for a sheltered  place to camp for the night. I found an out of use playground. The roundabout squeaked slowly clockwise. A swing swayed childless in the wind.
 Its a strange eerie feeling you get from somewhere or something thats out of context. A children’s playground at witching hour playing the part of a murderous clown in my imagination. Harmless by day but ever so creepy at night.
On top of a climbing frame sits a small wooden castle, I climb up and peer inside. Perfect. I roll out my bivvy and slide in fully clothed save for my boots. 
I’m awake again around 5. Too cold to sleep. I wait for the sun which doesn’t arrive, 6, 7, nothing, then a dawn of sorts prevails. The mist wasn’t a mist at all. At this altitude I was in the clouds.
At 9 Enrique showed up, refreshed from his night of passion. he was more talkative than the night before. But I was jaded. In the shadow of the great Aconcagua he allowed me to sleep silently, until I awoke somewhere south of Mendoza to the sight of spent vines, rusting in fields of golden sunshine as far as the horizon. We were passing through Argentina’s wine country on a late autumn morning.
Another hour later we were in the desert, travelling on a straight featureless road with the snowcapped Andes to the west of us.
We talked about life, about mine on the road, and he about his women. It seemed as though he was spending his retirement visiting various women throughout Argentina. It kept him quite busy and by all appearances it was doing him no harm. He was clocking up 50 thousand kilometres a year, more than when he was working. Just then he got a phone call, he had to let me out at the next service station. One of his lady friends required attention so he wouldn’t be able to take me to Neuquén that day.
About 80 kilometres north of the town he let me out and I picked up another ride in a matter of minutes. 
The following day is a public holiday, the roads a deserted, so I decide to walk the road south out of Neuquén. I pass through Plottier and head for Senillosa. As night falls so too does the rain and I take refuge in a roadside hermitage dedicated to one ‘Gauchito Gil’. An Argentinian folk hero, worshipped by those on the road.
The hermitage is brightly decorated with red prayer flags like a Tibetan stupa. Inside the hermitage the is a statue of the man himself surrounded by red candles burning bright. There is just enough room inside for one tired pilgrim.
The next morning a light frost was covering everything. I decided to make a small fire and cook damper. Someone had conveniently dumbed a pile of wooden latticed fruit boxes by the hermitage. It made excelent firewood. I warmed myself by the flames and as they died down and the thin wooden panels became bright orange embers I prepared the masa in my hand. A fist full of flour slowly adding water till I had a firm ball of dough in my hand. These I shaped into disks and placed them one by one on a small metal grill I’d found.  I ate one right away as a form of central heating and to stay any pangs of hunger. The remaining three I wrapped in a tea towel and put them away.
I said my thanks to Gauchito Gil and walked the last ten kilometres into Senillosa.

Photos:    http://www.flickr.com/photos/97342378@N07/


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