In the Tiretracks of Heros

The second half of Peru was dedicated to checking off bucket-list tourist destinations like the Nazca lines and Machu Pichu. These are things most people have heard of in their everyday life. Some of us dream of visiting, assuming we’ll go one day in the future. Some people save and plan with these singular destinations in mind. Taylor and I were lucky enough to just sort of swing by and visit them along our regular route, only making small alterations in the fabric of our daily, but maybe not-so-ordinary, lives.

For Taylor, Peru and its attractions were major milestones in our travels.  For me, it was Bolivia, and the classic off-road opportunities its windswept Southwestern altiplano had to offer.

As a kid, well before I held a license to drive or owned my first 4x4, I combed through the pages of publications like Four Wheeler Magazine. I absorbed tech articles on how to waterproof electrics or how to strengthen the frame on square-body Chevys. I learned the differences between IFS and solid axles, what differential lockers were and how to use them, and which of the latest crop of late model SUVs and trucks offered the most capability after the pavement ended.

The articles I loved the most though, were those written about long-term, international travel. Pioneers like the Wescotts of The Turtle Expedition opened my eyes to a literal world of possibilities I’d never even considered.  Their stories took me to the jungles of the Amazon, the wastes of Siberia, and to the Salar de Uyuni and Lagunas Route of remote Bolivia.

While we’ve visited many places I looked forward to seeing, I suppose these two have been in my conscious the longest. Since well before learning to drive, I’ve dreamed of visiting them; of airing down and putting rubber to cracked, flat salt or to frigid, rocky soil.

The Salar is the ancient bed of several pre-historic lakes. The crust of salt left after they evaporated is feet thick and goes on for miles in all directions. It is nearly 4,000 square miles and almost perfectly flat. The whole thing never undulates more than a few feet in elevation, and over such long distances it is absolutely imperceptible to the human eye.

In fact, the place is so large and so perfectly flat that it is routinely used to calibrate the laser altimeters of earth-observation satellites. Trapped in the brine below the crusty surface, is an estimated 50-70% of the world’s lithium.

What all this means for us, is miles and miles of uninterrupted driving in any direction, and simply camping wherever we wish, whenever we want. There are no features to camp near and, despite the abundance of tourist filled Land Cruiser tours, no people to avoid once you’re a few miles from shore.

When we first entered the Salar, we planned to camp nearer the mountains along the Western edge. They didn’t look all that far away, but after 20 minutes of driving with no perceptible change we checked our maps. Turns out we were embarking on a 70 mile journey across the salt, so we altered the target. We decided that right where we were also happened to be the perfect camp. Identical in practically every way to every other few square meters of salt, but this one was ours.

We messed around snapping goofy photos, taking advantage of the weird effects on perspective, and then simply sat together in our camp chairs. We drank wine and marveled at the dreams we’d seen come true, then let the wine inspire new ones as the full moon chased the cold mountain sun from the sky.

From the Salar, we made our way into the small town of Uyuni. The truck had a hot water bath to remove all the corrosive salt, and we stocked up for the next and final leg of our Bolivian adventures- the Lagunas Route.

The Lagunas Route is really a series of twisting dirt tracks through the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, eventually connecting Uyuni Bolivia with San Pedro de Atacama Chile. Famed for its rough nature and remote location, the 300 miles are probably a bit tamer these days than in past decades.

There are trains of Landcruiser 80 and 100 series, loaded down with backpackers, zipping from sight to sight and raising colossal clouds of dust miles distant. There are a few hotels and hostels along the way as well, but not much else. You can find help and provisions if you need them, but it’s best to be stocked up with enough food, fuel, tools and spares for a few days and a few hundred miles in high altitude wilderness.

The landscape is otherworldly and the roads are ruined ribbons of rocky washboard. The days are cold and windy, the nights are well below freezing and crystal clear. Each morning we woke up to frost on our ceiling and to the distant squawks of thawing flamingos. We passed towering snow-capped mountains, the colorful Lagunas referenced in the name, and wind carved rock formations.

We gritted our teeth and bounced our way over miles of corrugated dirt, made impossible to avoid by all the creative lines through the desert taken by the hordes of Landcruisers before us.

The Lagunas wasn’t exactly what I’d imagined as a boy. It was much more just a bumpy dirt road with beautiful scenery than it was an epic adventure between two far-away and mysterious countries. A lot of that though, is partly what we’ve gone through to get here. For us, bumpy roads through beautiful landscapes far from home are our everyday now. We try our best to remember that and to appreciate the extraordinary life we’re living.

Even though the drive itself wasn’t particularly out of the ordinary for us, the famed 16,500’ boric acid plant aduana and the beautiful ribbon of pavement at the Chilean border are two highlights of this trip for me. These specific places have been on my mind and in my dreams for years. It was an honor to pass through them, in the footsteps of the people who inspired this life for us.