Notes From The Ruta 40
Notes from a 32 hour bus ride up the Ruta 40 from Southern Patagonia to the Lake District.
The 9 pm bus to Bariloche is idling at the Calafate terminal. It’s January 8th. At 5 am on the 10th, I’ll disembark in El Bolson, the Promised Land.
Forty days I’ve traversed Santa Cruz province. One month of guidebook work, interspersed by two blessed wine-soaked weeks with friends from college. It feels good to be finished, good to be free, good to be on the road again…
I just wish it didn't have to be the same damn road.
Back in my favorite Calafate guesthouse over one last Quilmes, Pablo asked how I was getting to Bolson.
“The Ruta 40,” I said ruefully. “For the second time in ten days. Crazy.”
Pablo laughed. “Not crazy,” he said. “Fucking stupid.”
The 40 is the loneliest road this side of Siberia, running along the eastern edge of the southern Andes through barren Patagonian steppe. It’s a once in a lifetime roadtrip experience. And here I am, doing it twice.
Not that I was awake the first time. It was New Years Day, the last night with my college friends; we drank wine all day by a waterfall, ate sirloin steaks for dinner and skanked until dawn with the local ska/punk band of El Chalten - a trekking village (pop. 700) at the base of Mt. Fitzroy, the peak whose stylized silhouette forms the Patagonia clothing brand logo.
At 8 am I caught the bus and slept hard against the windowpane, waking up at each lonesome stop – at crossroad gas stations, at an Estancia that was actually called La Siberia – until we reached the town of Perito Moreno, which can’t have changed much since 1974.
In Perito Moreno I slept in the backyard of a benevolently insane retired policeman named Raul. He cooked me dinner, put on his old uniform and marched in circles around his tiny hut, saluting and shouting out commands. If you go to Perito Moreno, stay with Raul. Ask anyone in town for directions. Trust me.
As much as I wanted to continue north to the Promised Land, I still had to cover a few towns on the coast for the guidebook, so instead of continuing up the 40 I went east, across a landscape of utter desolation, then south, catching a string of early morning buses, camping in fields and writing peppy descriptions of penguin colonies and rundown hotels.
Puerto Santa Cruz was the last stop. I arrived at 4 am – the last sliver of moon hung over a ridge, 4 planets encircling it like a necklace – Mars the ruby, Venus the pearl, Jupiter and Saturn: two brilliant tiny diamonds in the early morning sky.
I couldn’t find the campground, until a policeman in a checkpoint booth said he’d accompany me there. I made camp, laid out my sleeping bag and lay awake for a while, listening to horses shift around and songbirds greet the dawn.
Two nights I slept in Puerto Santa Cruz. For a while I tried to go to an Estancia. When that plan fell through I drank coffee for a while, then switched to beer, then went and meditated by the river. It was 6 pm and bright as noon. The bus south left at 5 am. I went to my tent and tried to read Darwin and tried to sleep and failed at both activities. At 3 am it started to rain. At 4 am I packed up camp and trudged a mile to the bus station. My boots were caked in mud, and the tired lady at the counter told me the bus was full.
“I’ll see what I can do when the driver comes,” she told me.
The driver arrived in a gleeful mood, drinking mate and smoking a cigarette, practically dancing into the ticket booth. Together he and the lady counted the receipts. Then they counted them again. Each time they got the same number: 58.
“Sorry,” they said. “It’s impossible.”
Maybe it was my face, or maybe the driver was just in a good mood, because he made a gesture that said “what the hell” and beckoned me along. I squeezed next to him, riding shotgun with my rucksack on my knees, and man, it was beautiful as the sun rose pink on gray over the plains.
At Rio Gallegos I checked my facts at the provincial tourism office and made a decision: I couldn’t backtrack up the coast again – I would go west to Calafate, gateway to the glaciers, where I have friends, then cross into Chile and take the ferry north. A good plan.
Except, when I got to Calafate and asked about the ferry it didn’t sound so great. $370 USD for a three nights in a cramped bunk and a whole lot of looking at mist…all I wanted was to get to the Promised Land. The quickest way was the 40. The bus left that night. Fuck it. I bought my ticket.
And here I am. A pale band of light on the horizon is all that’s left of the day, which means it’s almost midnight now. No moon tonight. If the clouds clear there will be marvelous stars. Friends and family – it’s good to have you along for the ride.
10 am the next morning. I got a little sleep last night, but mostly just shifted around trying to stay warm and comfortable.
I’m in the seat directly behind the driver and his music is playing pretty loud. At one point last night he was playing Jay Z, and maybe that’s why I had such a weird dream – of loading up a van with strippers and cocaine and driving to Las Vegas. Out of character for me, but a lot of fun while it lasted. I wonder if I twitched during the night.
Classic Ruta 40 country now. Flat Straight Dirt Road. Dull yellow plains on either side. Crack the back, stretch the legs, squeeze out a silent morning fart and swig some water. 19 hours to go.
I remember the last time I left Perito Moreno. As the bus pulled out of town I took a look down Av. San Martin and said to myself, well, I’ll never come here again.
10 days later and there I was, walking down San Martin, going to visit Raul while the bus detoured to Los Antiguos.
Raul was watering his vegetable garden when I arrived. He’s about 60 years old, short and solid as a rock, with huge biceps, a squashed face and the bright, hopeful eyes of a sincere little boy. He was thrilled to see me again – “El Escritor! El Escritor!” (the writer! the writer!) – he kept saying, ushering me into his hut for coffee.
Raul was born in Perito Moreno to parents of Lebanese descent. From what I could make out from his monologues and the biography in a poetry collection published by the Perito Moreno Cultural Center, Raul served in the army and as a policeman, at one point was committed to an asylum in Buenos Aires, eventually escaped and returned to his hometown.
Raul is justifiably proud of his guestbooks – tattered volumes filled with thank you notes from Israelis, Canadians, Austrians… “If you’ve just arrived, don’t be afraid,” began one note. “Raul is the sweetest man in the world. Let him make you tea, and listen to his stories.”
For the second time in ten days I wrote a note in Raul’s book and said goodbye. As the bus pulled out this time, I just sank into my seat and smiled. 14 hours to go.
Long shadow light on the steppe. 25 hours and the scenery hasn’t changed, but at least the road is paved now. We stop for a 10 minute break at the roadside. I run a few wind sprints and do some sun salutations, pressing my palms into the asphalt and feeling the burn in my the muscles of my legs. 9 hours to go.
The bus swerves and I jerk my head up from my book in time to see a skunk disappear under the front-right tire. “Mierda,” says the driver. He gropes under his seat for a spray bottle and fills the air with a rose scented mist that makes me sneeze. 8 hours to go.
Midnight, totally dark. That’s a change from yesterday – a couple lines of latitude means shorter days. 5 hours to go.
The Promised Land turns out to be a Petro Bras gas station and it's pouring rain. I pull on a fleece, and a windbreaker, and a wool sweater and my rain suit over it all, hump my pack over to a campground and sleep like a dead man until 2 in the afternoon.