There are 4,000-some stories in the Adventure Journal archive, many of them evergreen, always ready to be dusted off, polished, and retold. Like this incredible story of driving the length of South America, an international adventure that sounds too good to be true in these pandemic days. -Ed.
For four long hours, the blunt nose of our baby blue 1973 Ford Taunus [ed: Yes, Taunas, a European-market Ford not to be confused with the Taurus] station wagon pressed into the buffeting wind, rumbling through the barren landscape between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, Chile, and here, just a half block from the end of the world, the engine stalled and died. Just One. Half. Block.
I stood there, shivering and empty and wearing the same dirty bathing suit and t-shirt I’d had on since the start of our road trip in Santiago, just looking at it.
The battery wouldn’t turn and water was angrily pouring from beneath the radiator fan. A wire connected to the amps gauge sparked and almost caught on fire. Our beloved Ford was now just a metal box on wheels. Heads bowed into the frigid gusts, we pushed her to a hostel.
From the moment the smelly, cramped public bus had brought us into Santiago, my girlfriend Khrystyne was determined to find a car. Two thousand coma-inducing miles from Lima, Peru, to the Chilean capital had soured her on public transport, and she was insistent. Me, I’d never owned a car. The thought was daunting.
We got online and spent a week floundering through forums filled with conflicting advice. Finally, we said the hell with it and visited a used auto yard, but left dejected and intimidated by the high prices and junky heaps. Nursing our frustration with ice cream cones, we wandered down Avenida Simón Bolívar, a quiet residential street on the outskirts of Santiago. “Hey what’s that blue car over there?” said Khrystyne.
Gleaming back at us was an old station wagon, baby blue and solid steel, bearing a sign: “Se Vende: S Wagon Ford.” From what our limited Spanish could discern, the car was for sale for approximately $1,600 U.S.
The house was brick, ominous, with overgrown shrubs and blinds drawn tight over the windows. Impulsively, I rang the bell. Fully two minutes later, an old man approached. He was neatly dressed and squinting through thick-rimmed glasses, formidable as if he had just stepped off a cattle ranch. “¿Que necesitan ustedes?” he asked.
We tried to explain in our best, most pitiful broken Spanish that we liked his car and wanted to buy it, “Encantamos el auto.” Thinking he would be as stoked to get rid of it as we were to buy it, I said we wanted to drive it all the way to Patagonia.
“No, no, no, this is a city car, no it can’t leave Santiago. And you know you need to be 18 to drive? Where are your parents?” he said. Melting ice cream ran through my fingers; he thought we were still in high school.
We went back three more times and each time Carlos tried to dissuade us. “Your knees will be in your stomach. It’s a beach car. It gets terrible gas mileage.” But every time we went back we fell more and more in love with the wagon.
On the second visit, Carlos finally let us in his front gate. He turned on the wagon, revved the engine, and my heart swelled. It purred like a cat. The fan cut through the air seamlessly, fanning the radiator with an intricate system of pulleys invented long before I was born. The paint was pristine and complemented by shiny silver bumpers and rounded headlights. The spotless bucket seats lacked headrests but felt like grand thrones. A sticker declaring “Polled Herefords” with a picture of a cow was on the back window (for “buena suerte” said Carlos). There was even a fire extinguisher in the back seat. And best of all, the wagon had less than 20,000 miles on it. The only thing Carlos had modified was adding seatbelts.
As if it couldn’t get any better, right before we made the deal, Carlos said, “Quinientos.”
“¿Quinientos? Can you write that down?”
Carlos scribbled in our notebook, “500.000” or $1,000 U.S. I already had the 800.000 Chilean pesos he was originally asking, a huge wad of cash in my front shirt pocket.
Instead, he voluntarily lowered the price, adding, “It’s an old car, rough condition, not worth any more.” All we could muster was “si, si” and remained silent. Moments later, Khrystyne sat in the driver’s seat with a glowing smile and posed for a picture with Carlos. “Don’t forget to add lead to the gas,” said Carlos, handing us a bottle of fluid lead substitute. We backed out of his driveway, the new owners of likely the only surviving 1973 Ford Taunus Wagon.
We called her Sally, and she gave us a new sense of direction and the freedom to explore places we never knew existed. The car became the trip. Every morning, we got out a gas station map and picked a random point as destination.
Sometimes we made it, and other times we did not, bones too rattled and stomachs too empty. But every morning was new, a mystery waiting to be revealed, and we pushed onward, zigzagging the long, narrow strip of Chile.
I started with zero mechanical skills, but that hastily changed the first time we broke down. After bouncing along gravel roads, crossing a gnarly lava field, and dodging guanacos, the car came to a grinding halt on the Pan American highway. Radiator overheating? Damn. We flagged down a passing tow truck. The driver slammed the brakes and pulled over. He popped the hood, jammed a loose rubber hose back into the engine, and sped away, all within five minutes.
We learned to troubleshoot and gained patience. Check the radiator. Is the water low? Add water but make sure it’s distilled. Check the oil. Check the tire pressure. Make sure all the hoses are firmly connected. Is it out of gas?
We learned more Spanish from scrutinizing the owner’s manual than years of schooling, and for the first time in my life, I had an intricate relationship with a mechanical object.
A few of our car troubles, however, were beyond me.
Halfway to Patagonia, a radiator hose had completely rusted through a metal pipe fixture. We pulled into a gas station and truck stop, a Chilean chain called Copec. I looked like a madman with an afro that hadn’t been washed in a week and a dusty floral Patagonia bathing suit. Nevertheless we knocked on the door of the first big truck we saw, where two drivers lay fast asleep. They jumped out eager to help. “Auto classic, we love your car!” they said. The younger guy searched the truck cab for any useful supplies while the older man tinkered with the pipe fixture. They wrapped a rubber strip from the truck around the crumbled pipe, good for another 100 kilometers, they promised.
Just north of the Lakes District, we pulled up to the ranger station at Laguna del Laja National Park, water steaming out of the radiator, the muffler louder than a semi-truck, and a windshield plastered with tierra.
Two park rangers emerged pointing and grinning at Sally. “Do you think we can make it to the campground?” we asked in feeble Spanish.
“Si, it’s only one more kilometer, good camping,” the first ranger said. “Where are you going next?”
They came over, smirking, and peered under the hood, tapping at the solid steel body. “¿En un auto clasico?” The ranger and his friend laughed hysterically. “¡Los dos del Ford!” The two with the Ford.
It was the end of March when we finally reached Patagonia and came to a slow-motion halt in the parking lot of the hostel. We killed time hiking in Torres del Paine National Park and then got the bad news from the mechanic in Punta Arenas: The alternator and water pump were broken, fried, done. Not wanting to risk spending the rest of our trip budget driving back to Santiago, we reluctantly decided to leave the wagon behind.
Tears filled our eyes as we hopped in the cab to the airport for a flight to Bolivia. But our Ford wagon had fulfilled its purpose – perhaps its destiny – to help us reach Patagonia safely.
Before this trip I thought of South America as an exotic hinterland, with people and places I couldn’t even fathom existed. But now that I’m back, my hometown in upstate New York seems to have much in common with the places we visited. There are still plenty of old rigs on the road, like the rusting truck hauling cow manure or the loaded down woodie, springs sagging, suggesting of stories told every time the ignition key was turned. As I looked around, I realized that we may have left Sally, but Sally never left us.
Photos by Alex Koeberle and Khrystyne Wilson.