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Bridget Gleeson Travel Writer

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Highway to hell

I’m kidding. But it wasn’t easy traveling up one of the world’s most rugged and desolate highways on a beat-up old bus with thirty backpackers – and my mom.

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Ruta 40, otherwise known as ‘La Cuarenta,’ is the stuff of legends. It’s one of the longest roads on the planet, running parallel to the Andes, crossing Argentina from north to south and passing 18 major rivers, 236 bridges and twenty national parks. Che Guevara cruised down it on his motorcycle.

It’s clear to me now that Che must have been on the northern half of this highway, near Bariloche and the lake district, where the road is paved. But down in Patagonia, it’s another story. The road is barren and rocky with nothing to see for hundreds of miles at a time – if you bust a flat tire or need a jump start, you could wait for hours or days for another car (or man on horseback) to pass by.

I knew – well ahead of time – that I would have to take this lonely stretch of highway myself as part of my Lonely Planet research trip to Patagonia. I’d be going in the off season and I was intimidated, especially when I received e-mails from two other LP writers who had gone before me. One said ‘I bought a Jeep and took it, but only because my husband was willing to go with me. Don’t do it unless you’re traveling with a mechanic.’ The other writer said ‘no public transportation runs outside the summer hours. How are you going to do this?’ I looked into it; no one was running a bus, and no rental cars were available along that stretch; the risk of damage to the vehicle was too high. To make matters more stressful, I knew that my trusty travel companion – my mom – would be with me for this leg of the trip. She’s a flexible traveler, but I didn’t want to expose her to anything dangerous.

As a traveler, sometimes you have to just hit the road and hope to figure out some of the details down the line. That’s exactly what happened. One snowy afternoon in Ushuaia, I walked into a travel agency where a very large lady was sitting alone with an ancient desktop computer. She knew of a single bus that was going to leave El Chalten for Perito Moreno the following Thursday. I purchased two tickets on the spot.

The night we boarded that bus, the wind was whipping in El Chalten. The bus was supposed to leave at midnight; at 1:30AM, we were still waiting in the bus shelter with 30 backpackers from all over the world. When the bus finally pulled up, we climbed on – and realized that not only was this an old, cramped and fairly malodorous bus, but we didn’t have seats together for the 15-hour ride. My mom’s seat was partly obstructed by the right thigh of a very heavyset German man. My seat was in the very back, next to a vaguely creepy-looking man in a black hooded sweatshirt. Great, I thought.

It was a long night bumping over the unpaved road, backpackers trying to sleep sitting up, nothing to see outside except the moon and a thin white line in the distance – the snowy upper ridge of the Andes – running parallel to the highway. When the sun came up and the road started evening out, we thought we’d made it.

That was the moment the bus broke down. We filed off the bus, blinking in the sunshine. There was a general store and a rustic ‘gas station.’

Oh, we were exhausted, but we had that ‘we’re all in this together!’ feeling that you sometimes experience on a long journey. We talked to a young couple from France. I was amazed, in a way, that they were doing this on their vacation. When times get tough for me on the road, I say ‘well, I have to do it, it’s my job.’ But these two, like the others on our bus, were traveling for the sake of travel. Today I still find myself thinking about our long-haul bus companions – they remind me why I wanted to get into this kind of work to begin with.

My mom and I each had about five cups of cafe con leche that morning, one for each hour we waited on the roadside. We were just relieved that the worst was over. The guy in the red fleece behind us was not as enthralled.

We still had a long day ahead of us: unpleasant bus transfers, a sudden rainstorm, the power down in the town of Perito Moreno and the news that no one could take us to see the region’s famous rock paintings because a dirt road had been washed out. But all of that, in retrospect, was part of the appeal.

‘If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.’

(Name that movie. Think Tom Hanks, early nineties.)