Behind us, Bolivia. We had never seen such ethereal, other-worldly landscapes, nor been so remote. We were feeling whole again—grateful for the opportunities Bolivian people had extended to us, to share what their lives were like, and gratified by the effort we had undertaken to meet them there. We had made companions with all things fluorescent, extremophile, and fantastic—we felt like Lucy when she first tumbled out of the wardrobe, out of Narnia, tripping over herself with excitement to tell the others of a whole shimmering, real-life dreamland passing quietly behind moth-eaten coats, where no one would ever bother looking. But as we looked forward, into the mystery of our next country, we understood it wasn’t likely we’d find ourselves back there again.
Four-thirty p.m. We pulled up to a sturdy white warehouse; the first we had seen on Chilean soil. I banged on the rolling metal door and waited in the howling wind. Banged again. All the metal blinds in the windows had been twiddled shut. I glanced back at Nathan straddling the bike in as many layers of clothing as he could manage and banged on the door again—for a long while, and without the courtesy I might have employed if I was under the impression that someone was actually there. I began to take mental inventory of our rations, though I knew that less than half a liter of water remained of our four day supply, and that we were still above 4,100 meters. Rather than use it to cook our remaining spaghetti, it would be better to depend on the hunger-suppressing qualities of coca over the long night ahead. The landscape was barren and mercilessly exposed.
After about ten minutes, a clattering sound came from behind the door, and it began to roll upwards. A black-and-navy uniformed agent stood regarding us.
Buenas, he said simply, and turned to lead us int0 the processing offices.
Truthfully, in all our trepidation of the challenges of the Bolivian Lagunas route, we had hardly given a second thought to the details of the Chilean border crossing. We hadn’t considered whether any special documentation might be required in advance, or whether we might be carrying fresh produce contraband.
My journal, I explained, as he lifted the rectangular block wrapped in a plastic grocery bag from the contents of our luggage spread out across a steel table.
Did you hear that? He called over to Nathan, who was attending Horace and the vehicle inspector, and waved the book over his head, laughing.
I’m not gonna translate that, I replied, playing along, which was sufficient for the officer to conclude the survey of our well-worn and mostly dirty personal belongings. And while customs agents had paid no mind to our remaining coca leaves in their telltale green plastic baggie, they sternly confiscated our chia seeds and Palo Santo incense sticks.
It was the most efficient and orderly border crossing we had undertaken, and strict building codes had obviously been observed in the construction of this locale. Central heating was on full-blast as the wind howled and rattled the high-quality window casings. But what I found most shocking after emerging from the wilderness was the empty pizza box sitting on a ping-pong table in the officials’ recreation area. How could we be so close to such a vast, unforgiving landscape, and yet be so close to civilization as to be able to overhear the refrain,
Eh, how ‘bout delivery?
The air was dry and clear in the Republic of Chile, and as we rapidly descended about 1,000 meters, we could feel the declining, pinkish sunlight penetrate our heavy attire. The vistas across the landscape were wide; the features and colors clear yet surreal, like a watercolor backdrop in an old film, but which had been painted with the perspective of a child—the scenery a little too neatly arranged along a horizon too near the subject in the foreground. We were hedged all around by volcanoes and mountains. The red sandstone, ravines, sugarcane fields, and electrical storms of Argentina's Jujuy province lay distantly to the East; the flat sands and Very Large Telescope and the pristine sky of the Chilean Atacama stretched out to the West. Snow-capped Volcán Licancabur hulked, lonely and one-dimensional, between us and Bolivia, as if to confirm that our time there was up. As if the wooden panels at the back of the wardrobe were materializing before our eyes.
Our plans had been to skirt down northern Chile quickly toward the famous sculpture of El Mano del Desierto, the Hand of the Desert, and then make straight for Argentina. It was early January—already high summer in Patagonia. The road south was long, and our window of fair-enough weather was already slim. But as we marveled at the fresh, smooth Chilean pavement and luxuriated in our newfound warmth, the whirring of our wheels rose up abruptly in the silence of our engine. Horace, it suddenly became clear, had other plans.
We glided to the side of the road in the matter-of-factness of having no choice. A black burro ambled by, feigning disinterest but curiously hovering behind us as we fiddled with Horace's spark plugs in the emergency truck pull-out. A truck driver headed in the opposite direction slowed to a stop next to us, and I mentally prepared my polite reply that we were alright but had not yet diagnosed the problem. The preparation was unnecessary. The driver poked his head out of the window and shouted a reprimand for stopping in an area reserved for trucks. As if we had willed our engine dead and as if it would have been safe enough to unroll our tools and crouch in the middle of the lane. Shiny BMWs zoomed past us, tooting their horns and waving in oblivious brand kinship. It had been so long since we had had any issues—why now? It wasn’t the introduction we had imagined. We shrugged. At least it wasn’t the freezing no-man’s land of 45 minutes earlier.
Inexplicably, a pair of Argentinian fraternal twins on small Bajaj motorcycles, freshly embarked on their two-wheeled man-cation to Machu Picchu, rolled to a stop. They were neither seasoned riders, nor mechanically savvy, nor familiar with the area, but they refused to leave us stranded. When we confirmed that the problem wasn’t as simple as a disconnected cable or spark plug, they gave us a push and we coasted nearly the whole remaining seven miles to the town of San Pedro de Atacama, which lay mostly downhill from us. And when the land finally leveled out, one of the brothers, a chauffeur, tied Horace behind his compact Bajaj with a cringe-ingly short line, while I hopped into the de facto passenger seat behind the other brother, Pedro, a pilates instructor.
While we had planned to spend only a few days in town, we ended up spending nearly two weeks there, performing various diagnostic tests and attempting to source a compatible ignition control unit from the nearest city of Calama, which was an hour away by tour bus. We came to cherish a refrain we would hear over and over throughout our time in Chile—Oh, I’d love to help but I’m too busy right now; really, I should be retired, but so-and-s0 is a decent enough specialist anyway, and they’ll definitely have what you need. Contrary to our experience everywhere else, it seemed that Chilean business owners had more work than their operations could comfortably manage, and could offer neither the willingness to improvise nor the wiggle-room in their schedules to accommodate our needs. We also happened upon a two and a half hour siesta, the longest and most thoroughly-observed period of rest we had yet encountered in Latin America.
In between scrubbing away at the stubborn Lagunas Route mud clinging to Horace’s frame and trying to get the engine to start, we luxuriated in the ease and availability of canned beans, drinkable tap water, good espresso, French baguettes, and a shameful number of chocolate croissants. But whiling away our days in an expensive town while waiting for parts to be shipped across the country wasn’t our favorite activity, and we itched to be on the move again. In our quick-drying adventure shorts and threadbare t-shirts, we felt out of place amongst the galactic-bohemian-chic and Fyre Festival-bound regalia carefully donned by the hoards of other tourists with the intent of complementing the surreal skylines and highly salinated swimming holes. The cost of accommodations, of food, of everything, appalled us, not only for having recently exited Boliva, but for their similitude to San Francisco’s cost of living. Sure, we relaxed, but we longed to find our own way, to ride under stars without having to opt into a packaged tour.
We left San Pedro and made our first foray into the pampa, the vast stretches of barren plain where the wind barrels wildly between one isolated roadside sanctuary and the next. These were grand Chilean interpretations of the bird house-sized structures we’d become accustomed to; large enough to accommodate ten people and made of painted corrugate, old tires, silk flowers, and bits of religious paraphernalia.
As the golden light of evening came on, we pulled off the road, our sights set on the skeletal remains of a mining town abandoned by its inhabitants in 1927. Our bi-wheeled, bi-headed shadow splashed dark and tall across the broken, single-roomed homes; over patches of pastel plaster still clinging to crumbling adobe. The dry ground was scattered with tire-gauging roofing nails, bits of rope, and old shoes that had evidently been hurled from the highway. Suggestions of an administrative building, its floor and stairs tiled in robin’s egg blue, stood apart in the dirt. Beyond the residences hung a heavy chain and a No Trespassing sign, where the buried saltpeter mine entrance lay. For shelter, we selected one of the few cubicles in which cinder blocks and rusty metal scraps had not been heaped. A fireman had at some point scrawled his name and occupation onto the cracked yellow walls. Pablo. Bombero.
This kind of accommodation was more like it. Comfort, the funny thing, had assumed so many different shapes according to our circumstances over the past fourteen months. And that night, we had everything we needed. We made quesadillas with Pancho Villa brand tortillas (a figure to whom the whole of South American-Mexican cuisine makes allusion), purchased from Walmart’s Chilean branch, Lider. We were comfortable. We were happy. Our ceiling of yesteryear had long been obliterated, like most everything else around us. We watched the sun go down on the pampa and stared up at the stars.
After a brief stop in the city of Antofagasta, where we consulted a reputable shop that was swamped until the following week but was happy to advise us on the state of our front wheel bearings, we rode to a beach outside of Parque Nacional Pan de Azucar. We followed a winding, rocky road to secluded alcoves scattered among the dunes. We had been so far from anyone's coast for some time. The color palette was soft and hazy, very much like California’s northern coast—rocks were tinged with sea foam, aubergine, taupe, and grey—and we were back on the shores of the Pacific. Home. The scene could have been pulled directly from my childhood, from memories of whole afternoons spent scrambling over the ruined Sutro Bath House and disturbing flocks of sea gulls at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach. But the sea air felt tacky and strange on our skin after two weeks in the driest desert in the world.
Carrion birds and other scavengers didn’t seem to come here. For the moment, the beach was free of footprints besides our own. Carcasses of penguins, cormorants, and sea lions lay all over the beach, in various states of decomposition and largely undisturbed; the articulation of the bones correct as they had been in life. Many of them, regardless of the animal to which they had once given form, were blue—a bright, unmistakable powder blue that glowed in the beige sand. It was a sign of copper contamination, caused by run-off into the sea from the copper mines in the nearby town of Chañar, where we had stopped to buy provisions earlier. A small porpoise lay on the shore, its dusky, bullet-like body beginning to slowly disintegrate and darken the sand beneath it. But its head remained complete, its open jaws revealing blunt, perfectly-spaced teeth. It vaguely called to mind the carved saints and religious figurines we had seen tucked into church shrines across Latin America; their small lacquered faces and hands drowning in satin ruffles and patina’d with age. Their features, hard and inhuman. Still, they beguiled us with the detail painted into their shining, lifeless eyeballs, with centuries of polishing by human hands. Soon, the flies and the stench of the carcass would send any passerby reeling. Soon, any lingering evidence of mammalian warmth, of anything about the creature that might strike one as remotely like me, would be gone.
I’ve felt a strange pull towards the animal bones we’ve found throughout this trip which I haven’t quite been able to explain. Something between fascination and reverence; a desire to collect and a desire to honor. Certainly, in the back of my mind, there’s been the desire to take a something from my journey back home with me, something more than sentimental, more than a token. The word relic filtered into my mind. I think of pilgrimages to the shrines of Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Lourdes, of the Camino de Santiago. Certainly, if we had told our tale on the road to Canterbury, with our own motley cast of characters and mishaps, Chaucer would more likely have lumped us in with his swashbuckling Miller than with his noble Knight. But it had never occurred to me to think of our journey as a pilgrimage before. I never expected anything miraculous.
In all the llama skulls and seal scapulae, I've witnessed Nature allowed to take her full course, unabashed and without remorse. Sometimes—copper contamination aside—bones uncared for and un-grieved for are the closest one can get to beholding the pure wild, a state of being in which nothing can be considered lost and nothing can go awry. Everything that is goes it’s merry, frightening, harsh, nurturing, grotesque, and awesome way. And in these moments, it’s my own wonder, too, that I behold. Not the absence of an answer, not a faltering tongue in the face of the indescribable, but an invitation to be still, to receive, and to be filled. Nothing I behold in wonder gets left behind. And so, this is the relic—life, unrepentant life; my own, glowing back at me from the blue, porous bones. I curl my fingers around it.
Six-point-seven. It wasn’t the first earthquake we had weathered together. We had pulled off the dirt highway onto a bank above a thinly snaking creek. All around, we were enclosed by warm, coppery hills. An old mare and a stallion, picking their way through the weeds, merely flicked their ears in our direction as we clambered off the bike. We set up our tent near a lone algarrobo tree not yet bearing its sweet, nutritious peas. We had passed a few shepherds’ dwellings along the quiet dirt road, and the dusty field to our left was greening with orderly rows of sprouts. Yet no one in a truck or on horseback passed. We were alone. The air was hot and dry; the late afternoon sky as clear as ever in the Atacama. We approximated a stew with a box of pre-cooked lentils, and tossed the leftover nubs of our carrots to the horses. After eating, we sat back to wait for night to wash over us. The light changed, but night out here was as bright as day. The moon rose, huge and brilliant, like a prop silver disc being reeled up directly behind the hills ahead of us. I’d never seen the moon look so close, and it bathed the entire landscape in an equally theatrical sort of light. We retired to the tent, intending to read until our eyes fluttered shut. But I was restless. One of the horses suddenly sprung off in a spastic gallup. Biting flies, we figured, and I peered out through the mesh door of our tent. The horse was no where to be seen. Only the bright sandy earth stretched out before me, and I lay back down.
Minutes later, we were jolted into alertness by a liquid undulation of the ground beneath us. What do we do? I asked aloud. It was a silly question. Of course, we would simply wait it out. There were no structures nearby, nothing to topple over or crumble onto us. We would wait for the earth to still its surge and resume the solidity we associate with it under our sleeping mats. Just wait it out, I told myself, as my mind conjured fantastic images of the ground opening up and swallowing us whole. It was the strongest quake I had experienced to memory, as I was not yet two years old when Loma Prieta quake struck the Bay Area in 1989. The tremors continued for about 45 seconds, and then quieted. I recalled how, years ago now, a man standing below the window of Nathan’s Mission District studio apartment continued chatting away on his cell phone, unperturbed as the window blinds rattled and the picture frames on the wall shook, and we grabbed each other’s hands and lay quietly. It wasn’t serious, only a 3.5 on the richter scale. And at the time, neither were we, nor were the various dreams we were just beginning to entertain. What a distance we'd traveled since then.