There was a rattling noise and the truck stalled, but that had happened before. Roi restarted it and tried to accelerate, but it didn’t move. Unconcernedly, we got out to see what was wrong.
One of the back wheels was half covered with sand and the bottom of the cargo bed was almost buried.
We’d wanted to test out the rental truck’s “off-road capabilities.” The test has failed spectacularly.
We were in the middle of the driest desert in the world, about 2km away from the road. The nearest town, San Pedro de Atacama, was an hour and a half drive away. We had no service or radio.
John, a guy we had met at our hostel who had foolishly agreed to come with us, spoke up first.
“We should get to the road…”
It was decided that him and I would walk back to the road to get help, and Roi would stay with the truck.
We began trudging through the gravely sand, shoulders hunched against the whipping wind. When we were almost to the road, John voiced a sudden thought.
“Wait. What if we have to hitchhike back to San Pedro to get someone to tow it out? We can’t just leave Roi there alone, we have no idea how long that could take.”
I sighed at his faultless logic, and turned to walk back to get Roi.
By the time Roi and I got to the road, John had some good news. He had stopped a tour van, and the woman said that she’d radio the police at the Bolivia border, about 45 minutes away, and they would come pull our truck out.
“Two hours, at most,” She’d said.
Feeling relieved, the three of us perched on the metal barrier at the side of the road to wait. Despite the fact that we were in a desert, it was extremely cold. The wind beat against us mercilessly, and we huddled together for warmth.
After an hour and a half, John looked a bit off. “Not sure I feel too good,” He muttered. He was trying to breathe steadily. We were at 4,500m, and the altitude was beginning to affect him.
Immediately, we agreed that he should hitchhike back to town with the next car and Roi and I would stay and wait for the police.
It was another half an hour before a car appeared. He was hesitant to go without us, but we practically pushed him into the truck of the nice American who’d stopped at our frantic hand-waving.
Roi and I were left alone. An hour later, no one had come and my limbs were shaking uncontrollably. The wind was biting ceaselessly, and breathing in the chilled, dry air made the inside of my nose hurt.
We had just begun debating whether we should hitchhike back to town when we saw a familiar car pull up beside us. It was the American who’d taken John.
“Dropped your friend off at the police checkpoint,” He explained. “They gave him some oxygen and they’re coming to get you. You’ll have to leave the truck, though.”
Confused, we pressed him for more information. He told us that the police had no idea that we were there, that they hadn’t gotten any radio message, and that they couldn’t pull our car out. Frustrated but relieved to climb into his truck and be out of the icy wind, we waited with him until we saw the flashing lights of the police vehicle.
We scrambled up into the police truck next to a very pale-looking John, who had a blanket draped over his lap that he quickly spread over us.
The two police officers in front were sullen and silent, dressed in olive green army-style uniforms with M16s propped up between their legs. Almost without a word, they drove us all the way back to San Pedro as the three of us pondered what to do about the truck still stuck in the sand in the middle of the Atacama.
As soon as we got back to the hostel, we asked one of the employees if he knew anyone that could help us. The last thing we were about to do was call the rental company, who were sure to charge us a fortune.
“Well,” He began, “I know a taxi driver that might known someone with a 4×4…”
He made a call. The taxi driver referred him to a friend, who said he wasn’t available but referred him to his friend, who said he didn’t have a 4×4 but contacted another friend, who said, “Yeah, no problem.”
Within half an hour, an elderly man with a tanned, droopy face appeared at our door. By this time, the sun had set, but we didn’t think it would be too big of a deal to pull the car out in the dark- providing that he could actually get it out.
We hopped into his 4×4 and drove back the hour and a half to kilometer eighty-fucking-seven, where we had turned off the main road.
It was pitch dark. The sky was overflowing with stars, but they did little to light up the empty desert around us. A shooting star shot through the night, its fiery tail streaking behind it, and was gone in a second.
We began driving through the sand, searching for any sign of the truck.
For some reason, we had spent so much time worrying about whether or not the local man would be able to pull the car out, that we had totally neglected worrying about how we would find the car to begin with.
For two long hours, we circled the patch of desert, each part looking the same as the other- empty and dark. My sense of direction became wildly confused; most of the time I had no idea where the road was or where we were in relation to it.
The old Chilean was mad. He kept yelling out in Spanish and gesturing with his hands. We didn’t know what he was saying, but the meaning was clear: “How fucking stupid are you?”
I had given up. I was certain we’d have to leave and come back in the morning. I took a deep breath and glanced up at the brilliant sky. Never had I seen so many stars, and never had I cared less. I was freezing and miserable.
“One last try,” Roi insisted. He told the Chilean to drive back to the road and then he got out of the car. With a flashlight, he began searching the ground for the footprints we had left earlier. He found a trail and began to follow them methodically, one by one.
At points he would run, confident of the trail. At others, he would stop and look searchingly around him before hesitantly continuing.
Orion was coming up over the horizon, which meant it was near midnight (as I’d learned during our astronomical tour the night before).
All of sudden, after half an hour of following the prints, we saw a faint glimmer of light. The taillights from our truck were reflecting the headlights.
Tracking level: Aragorn.
“Toyota!” The Chilean man snorted, as if the company had personally insulted him by letting one of their cars get stuck here.
It took him exactly one minute to pull us out of the sand. The moment we were out of the hole he came galloping over, slapping the back of his hand against his other palm and yelling, “Dinero! Dinero! Money!”
“But what if we get stuck again driving back to the road?!” We tried to ask him. He didn’t stop his frantic gesturing and shouting. We handed over the cash.
“Propina! Propina!” He spat in our faces. Tip. He jammed his finger over and over again against his watch. “Doce por la noche!” Twelve at night. We handed over another bill.
He was finally satisfied, and told us in a calmer tone to follow right behind him. After several large bumps, with the whole car shaking beneath us and the skin around my fingers bitten raw from anxiety, the truck shuddered onto the road.
As we drove back, I felt like I did when we’d gotten back to our hostel after the Choquequirao trek- like it was a fucking miracle that we were there.