The following post details the Nowhere Men’s journey from February 20 – 24:
It took us nearly an entire day to get out of Uyuni. We had to get Velita the most complicated car wash conceivable, load up on gas the sneaky way, and then finally find all food and supplies necessary for an indiscriminate time on the road. We were bound for the Atacama Desert, known universally as the best stargazing stage on the planet. The trouble was, we were still 2 days shy of a full moon, meaning we’d have to kill time until a slimmer moon would take to the night’s sky. So, we reasoned to turn the typically 3 day Ruta de las Lagunas from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama into something more like a week. This meant we’d have to take our time, which luckily was something of our forte.
A minuscule hour outside of Uyuni was enough to find a campsite and call it a day at the onset of the newest leg of our yearlong excursion. In the back of a tiny little town without power we waited out a rainstorm by cackling in front of Alex’s computer screen and 22 Jump Street. Rain over, tent up, and into our sleeping bags we slivered under an overwhelmingly nearly full moon. We had a long way’s to go before the entire spread of stars could surface.
We took our precious time on day 2. We headed out late in the morning and didn’t get very far before deciding to turn off the road to find a fun place for lunch. Our first attempt did nothing but get us stuck in some thick mud, so we lingered on a bit further and pulled off right next to the road. Alex used our tarp to create a neat tent cover, where Brian cooked us some satisfying egg and veggie sandwiches.
Just after 3pm we’d found ourselves in the maroon rock valley aptly named Valle de las Rocas. In line with our slowed down pace, we concurred to make this our playground for the rest of the day and our camp spot later that night. Far removed from civilization, both behind us in time and before us, we surrendered ourselves to Pachamama’s (“Mother Earth” in quechua) next unique creation.
The winds blew warning signs of a stormy night, accompanied by floating silver skies and sharp strikes of lightning over the nearby mountains. We quickly learned our original camping spot was more of a wind pocket than we’d suspected, so we drove around the rock covered terrain in search of somewhere more suitable. By the time our tent was in a fixed place for the night, held down by poop rocks we later that night learned must have recently been used by another transit-goer to cover their tracks. Those tracks ended up stinking up our tent that night, which slammed and swirled from the heavy rain and winds that threatened to pick us up and toss us out of Kansas and into the land of Oz. Alex aptly described the conditions as “apocalyptic.”
In the new day the sun came out hot and we moved slowly. Sticking by our plan to saunter through the route to Chile, coffee and general foot-dragging kept us from moving until after 10am. The mountains on all sides had been magnificently plastered with snow from the events of the night. We got going.
It was not entirely clear to us where the turn off from the main road for Ruta de las Lagunas was. Based on our coordinates and the sight of a few tour groups on one side of the road, we deduced our exit from the main road, leaving the calm of paved roads for something much worse. Velita would never be the same again.
It wasn’t more than 100 meters into the bumpy tracks that the car whirled into tar-footedness. We slid into a blind mud patch that grew into a gargantuan river in the blink of an eye. Even more sudden was the rapid weather shift; from sunshine to rain and then quickly heavy hail, we were under siege by the elements from above and below. The car sank deeper and our desperate attempts to unseal her from the drenched death hold of the ground proved futile. It was problem time.
Within minutes a pair of tour groups trucked on by. We waved down their help and after a quick exchange and unclear advice from the drivers, they continued on down the road. We felt like we were stranded on a deserted island and the only planes flying over head ducked by to say hello, only to zoom off. But then, down the road, the caravan halted. As if instructed by their drivers in charge, a band of smiley-faced tourists popped out of their cars, collected some dry shrubbery growing nearby, and seized upon our increasingly endangered car.
Everyone was barefoot and it was in that state that we all stood calf-deep in the flash river that had swallowed Velita. “It wasn’t a river when we got stuck!” Eric insisted to the affable group. In rounds we planted the loose hay-like weeds under the tires to provide some traction and together pushed. One of the tour drivers took the driver’s seat while the other coordinated the army of volunteers. The first few attempts faltered, but then we found some momentum. Soon enough we had a breakthrough and the car sputtered forward a few feet, just not enough to dislodge her from the river’s grip. Harder we pushed. More dried weeds. The driver stepped harder on the pedal. More attempts. And then, just like that, on what must have been attempt number ten, the car was freed and rose out from the river rut. We rejoiced and thanked the lot for their contributions with special gratitude paid to the local guides who had made it all happen. Without them, we might have been there all night. What a disaster that would’ve been.
Alone in the wilderness, we drove out into the embrace of a mountain-clad landscape, where dirt roads led us across the valley and to our first laguna. There was a real throwback vibe to our time in the Pamirs; long, beautiful stretches with nobody else around, just us and national geographic-worthy scenery. Like the Pamirs, it felt like we were the first people to ever cross through this place, like it was all ours and our camera was recording something entirely undiscovered.
What happened next we will never forget. It may in fact be our default answer to future questions, “what was the worst situation you guys were ever in?”
Near the softening terrain of the second Laguna, Velita skidded through a frozen mud patch and into a veiled clay sinkhole that swallowed the back right tire. The car stopped and stalled. We took a deep breath. Without saying anything, we tried to shift into first gear and give it another go. All that happened was a cringe-worthy “vroooom” and realization that we’d buried ourselves deeper. No words were necessary.
A futile push did nothing more than drain the energy from out of our increasingly impatient morale. We had to take a step back and take stock.
Velita couldn’t have chosen a more picturesque pose to freeze in place. In the long expanse of natural plains, with mountains of varying heights, distances and colors in all directions. The brown shimmer of the muddy water contrasted brilliantly with the still blue sky, touched with the structure of fluffed clouds. If it weren’t for the car’s unfortunate fixture right there, it would have been a glorious moment. Instead, it was the opposite.
We delivered a somber, discontented update of our situation to the camera and felt there was nothing left for us to do on our own. We’d come to terms with reality that’d be have to wait for the next 4×4 tour to come by. But no, that might not be for hours or longer. We chose to not give up.
It was getting darker and colder. The threat of a rainstorm menaced to the east. We would make one final plea with Machamama to spare us. About one kilometer away there was a rock field where we would retrieve stones to plant under our imperiled wheels. Without traction, at the least, we’d be going nowhere. We each carried what we could in our bare hands, Alex upping the ante by stuffing his day bag full of rocks as well. On the long haul from the rock field back to the car, the storm encircled us. Loud shouts from the sky shook the ground we walked on and jolts of electricity zapped overhead. A drizzle started. Then we places the rocks deep in the thick clay that engulfed our tires. With the rain and winds picking up, we made this one last push. Alex put the car back in first gear. Brian made a quick blessing to Pachamama. With what grip our cold wet feet could muster on the slippery muck on the Earth, we dug in deep and clutched the shell of the car. The engine shuttered. We tried again and failed.
Nothing but curses and utter dismay filled the air. The sun has now set and there was nothing left to try. It was out of our hands. We had to give up and wait for a new day.
Situations like these have a way of shaking the boredom out of us. In the heat of it, when we’re literally knee deep in the mud, it sucks. There’s no mincing words when we say this was a low point in our roller coaster ride of fortunes. But regardless, we knew, in the back of our minds, this was a story for the history books and some juicy television drama at that. In a sort of backwards way, these were the moments we cherish most. So there we were, somewhere in between our four eggs out-of-the-pan dinner and that hellish night sleep in the car, just us 3 with nobody near what felt like hundreds of miles, recognizing the hidden magic of the moment. Maybe that explained why cooking scrambled eggs in the front seat and eating straight out of the pan was so uproariously funny to us. The irony was mind-boggling: that we could feel so liberated and free in such a unmistakably imprisoned state. The full moon that night lit up our foreign environment like the exposed closet light of a dark bedroom at midnight, as we counted the seconds until daylight’s deliverance.