Hitchhiking to the End of the World

by Meredith Hoffman

Sandwiched between a hulking grey backpack and an expandable bag on my chest, I stand on the shoulder of a steep road that winds up from a surreal aqua lake. I’m on the edge of the pristine Aspen-like town San Martin de los Andes in Argentina’s northern Patagonia. I have a purpose here. I just decided one hour ago: I am hitchhiking to Ushuaia, the southernmost tip in South America. I am hitchhiking to the End of the World.

I’ve been in the country for a month and only hitchhiked once before. I don’t know what I’m doing. “Stick out your thumb higher,” two passing Chilean hitchhikers call out to me. “You look hesitant!”

I imagine my dad panicking to know his only daughter is on the opposite end of the earth, alone, ready to leap in cars with strangers. Then I imagine him sticking out his own thumb, 40 years ago in the U.S., with his notebook in his pocket and his pen ready for bolts of inspiration, just like me. My blonde waves blow in the brisk mountain wind and I see his jet black curls dancing around in Alaska air: he launched his cross-country hitchhiking journey in the 1970’s when he was about my age. He slept on roadsides, smoked drivers’ hashish, and picked up stories of strangers who poured out their life confessions on the road. Last year he dredged his old journals for a wildly popular essay in the New York Times about the journey and how it linked him to the “spirit of adventure.”

A few months later, I decided to take off for Argentina after working in NYC as a daily reporter. My dad worried I’d throw away my stability and never get it back. “This is like Meredith’s ‘hitchhike,’” my mom reassured him: it would be a meaningful trip with a safe return to previous life. He had written at the end of his own essay, “My daughter Meredith thinks I should try the journey again. She’s as cavalier about risk as I was at her age. I certainly wouldn’t want her to do it.”

Once in Patagonia I realized — why did this have to be “like” a hitchhike? The trend may have withered in the U.S., but around here I saw plenty of backpackers trying to wave down cars — only no single females. Friends, hostel staff, and even fellow hitchhikers told me to be extra careful, so I pledged not to get into trucks and to ride with as many families as possible. Then I met one Colombian girl who said she’d traveled extensively “a dedo” (“by finger”) alone with no problems, so I made her my example.

I wanted to hitchhike solo — I always travel on my own, connecting more intimately with my surroundings and lavishing in the freedom to stop and go on a whim. I’m an only child. I’m a journalist used to approaching strangers alone. I’ve also never felt truly threatened traveling alone as a female — which I’ve done since I was 19.

But still I grew hesitant committing to the cross-Argentina trek, until I called my dad up for advice, conveniently leaving out the hitchhiking part.

“What an amazing time in your life, to have nothing but your backpack and to just pick up and go wherever you feel,” he said, applauding the trip he’d doubted before I left. “Can you write on the bus rides?”

“Sure,” I told him. Without knowing it, he sold me. It was my turn to fly through the unknown.

***After a steady stream of cars speed past without stopping to help, a Volkswagen pulls over and I run to toss my bags in the back.

“Do you have drugs? You better not have drugs or you’re not stepping into this car,” the stately silver-haired driver in a pressed plaid shirt yells at me in Spanish. “All you guys have drugs and I’m not having trouble with the cops, no way.”

“No, I promise, I promise I don’t!” I nearly start laughing — I’m supposed to be the nervous one, but he’s afraid of me. “Please, I’m just looking for a ride to Bariloche.”

He glances me up and down and finally nods in approval. I hop in smiling, expecting an awkward four hours in semi-silence — but he ends up talking the whole ride. He’s Domingo, a 61-year-old architect who’s spent his whole life in the lakeside city Bariloche, a tourist magnet also infamous for its history welcoming Nazis post-World War II. When I work up the courage to ask Domingo about the Nazi presence, he doesn’t hesitate to answer. Many of his friends are children of Nazis, and he even knew Nazi war criminal Erich Priebke, who hid out in Bariloche for decades.

“Humans are animals, but with an essence that is criminal,” Domingo passes along his words of wisdom. I’d rather think the opposite.

Domingo is kind to me, pulling over at lush mountain lookouts for me to snap a photo. He instructs me on the history of Argentina and asks about my parents, how old they are and what they do. “What am I like compared to your father?” he asks, when learning my dad is just one year younger than he. What a tough question — I barely know this man, and I know my dad almost too well to describe. I’m also thinking about the 60-year-old and 20-year-old versions of my father at the same time.

“Well, you’re a little more logic-based and scientific thinking, and he’s a little more whimsical and romantic, like me,” I say. “But also — I don’t think he would’ve picked up a hitchhiker on the side of the road. I guess he’s getting more cautious.”

Maybe he does pick up hitchhikers every once in a while. Maybe he just doesn’t tell me.

“Well why do you think you’re the way you are?” Domingo asks me.

“What do you mean?”

“You’re brave, and curious. And you have faith in people.”

“I think it’s because of my parents. They always see the good in people.”

I want to call and tell them the compliment, since I talk to them all the time even in Argentina. But I know this is my time to keep some secrets to myself, so I scribble notes in my journal.

***My dad as a 20-something was a fiery risk-taker who followed his passion: writing what he wanted, how he wanted. He challenged prestigious magazine editors (who were his bosses, but not for long). He lived in a one-room apartment in Chelsea and freelanced while spinning out his first great novel, which he published at 29. He roamed around Latin America, befriended steadfast socialists and grew his beard long and bushy like Moses.

His dad wanted him to be a lawyer.

Now, when I complain about writing or the journalism business, my dad often half-jokes: “I always told you you could be a lawyer like Grandaddy.” After my grandfather died a few years ago my dad — the only son and youngest child in his family — got more cautious, stepping a bit into his father’s shoes. My dad never pushed me, but he did see the instability of a writer’s life, a journalist’s life, when the newspaper where he worked laid off most of its staff.

So when I landed what seemed to be one of the five full-time jobs in all of New York City as a daily reporter — with a salary and health insurance — he was relieved and buoyant. But a few years later I wanted to flee, seeking adventure, unpredictability, and most of all, writing growth. If not now, when? It’s time for me to live out of a backpack and watch autumn turn on the opposite hemisphere. His discouragement was the only thing that made me doubt myself, but my mother tells me that back in the States he’s now boasting of my adventures. When I hear that, I feel like I’ve made the right move. People say you should make decisions for yourself, not your parents, but my parents are a part of me.

After Domingo I have dreamlike luck: a Chilean family picks me up from Bariloche and takes me all the way to my day’s destination, the hippie holdout El Bolson, where I spend a week bonding with dreadlocked jugglers and Buenos Aires transplants who preach the existence of forest gnomes.

The family’s teen daughters get fake hair wraps and then we all go for ice cream at my favorite creamery. In a minute my old acquaintance, the grey shaggy-haired Spanish ukulele player Roberto, strolls up to join. He’s a skinny pseudo-vegan who’s sworn off technology (even watches), lives in a tent and spent years following the Grateful Dead.

“Good for you, kid!” the 1970’s flower child applauds my hitchhiking mission. “We ‘mochileros’ (backpackers) know how to live!”

Roberto’s life captivates me; I fantasize about denouncing technology, singing for pesos and sleeping in a tent for years to come. My mind already feels clearer in Patagonia, away from the chatter of city life, Facebook and text messages. I think about how my generation has ride-share websites as a secure alternative to hitchhiking, and even Couchsurfing site to connect unlikely strangers — but nothing beats the improvisation and physicality of marching to a roadside to wave down a ride.

***The next day after a string of disheartening 20-minute rides, I thrust my thumb high on a desolate stretch of Route 40 (dubbed “the loneliest road in the world” by tourist books) with no civilization in sight. I wait for some car, any car, to appear. An hour passes and I start to lose hope. And then — voila! — a grey SUV pulls over, and I go running to catch it.

It’s a 29-year-old Israeli guy with orange sunglasses named Noam, a fellow traveler who’s also headed far south. I feel lucky beyond belief.

We soar through the desert, past bushes like bobbing heads of troll hair and sandy speckled hills. There are no humans, but sheep colonies and wild horses leap around gravel bends.I whip my unbrushed hair like my dad to the Doors, screaming his favorite song through the Suzuki’s speakers. I jot down thoughts madly in my notebook — writing freely the way he does on the beach in Alabama, where my parents now live.

“It’s always so easy for you to write!” I’ve chided him when home, frustrated at my own lack of concentration. But now I’m on a roll.

“Do you have a tent?” Noam breaks into my thoughts as our car rocks like a boat on the uneven road.

“No!” My arms shoot through the open window to a roller coaster of wind. The western sky’s the ominous pink of dried blood, and the east is fading to black.

“Then we may have to share. I don’t think we’re making it to Rio Mayo tonight.”

We make it to a 100-person town with no phone lines or heat even in wintertime. I have no choice but to share Noam’s tent and to borrow his blankets as harsh winds rip through our campsite all night, and I realize I could have been stranded with no resources on a freezing roadside if he hadn’t stopped for me.

Noam and I quickly become like family, riding the next couple of days together since he’s also headed South, and talking for hours and hours about our lives — he just left 10 years in the military and bought a car in Chile to traverse South America for a year. He lends me fleeces and socks and shares his instant coffee and chips, and I make him sandwiches and act as the Spanish speaker.

One day we search for food and halt at a ten-cottage community whose sign boasts a deli and craft shop, but a gap-toothed authority pokes his head out a shack to tell us everything is closed.

“When will they be open again?”

“Tomorrow, from 11 to 11:45.”

“Only 45 minutes a day?”

“Yep. That’s when the train comes.” A rusted railway lines the parched olive green land, and a few kids play on two hollow wood boxcars but dart away when they see me looking. I climb onto one myself, and suspend my body between the beams. Upside-down mountains like Egyptian pyramids feed my eyes, and the solitude sparks a thrill.

That type of moment — hanging on a boxcar; stumbling upon South America’s longest lake; racing up a sticker-covered hill on my ride’s cigarette break and finding elegant guanacos; watching white dust ghosts kicked up from a pickup truck — is so clear and strong. The landscape is a storyline and I keep wandering south.

***Noam and I part. I take a few-day break to hike around the towns El Chalten and El Calafate — renowned tourist magnets with stunning mountains and a powder blue glacier on the edge of a lake — and I realize again that I am alone. In the same way the journalist flits from one brief interaction to the next, I am doing this with my rides.

I get a little melancholy and can’t help but call my parents, my one constant. I let it slip to my mom that I’ve been hitchhiking. She handles it surprisingly well but begs me to be careful, and I ask her not to tell my dad. For such an independent 26-year-old, I can still feel like a child, needing their support.

I remember asking a boy I once had a fling with, “Do you ever think about how no one else really cares about or sees your whole life, other than your parents? And then they die. So really we’re all alone.” (He didn’t know how to respond and left my apartment soon thereafter.) That thought doesn’t depress or scare me as it once did, and the aloneness, I’ve realized, is a choice.

My dad and I have sat and written side-by-side on our screen porch in Alabama, but there’s no way around the simple fact: writing is a solo act. I believe in his wisdom, so my reflex is to consult him over every decision — but I’m learning, sometimes, to hold back.

***My next ride is the 4-by-4 truck of a gaucho named Christian, a squinty-eyed sheep herder with a blue cap and an inflated belly. He keeps patting my leg when he talks, even though I huddle by the car door. He puts on a CD and starts singing along to the love songs, gazing more at me than at the highway. Then he turns down a back road to pick up tools at his friend’s farm, and my imagination starts running wild.

I have no cell phone service, no Internet, and no one tracking where I am exactly. Fortunately he proves my anxiety outlandish and drives me to my next destination, Rio Gallegos, which is refreshingly void of tourists, but infamous even by locals for its ugliness. It’s the capital city of its province, an industrial magnet with trash scattered on the streets.

I find a house that rents rooms. The owner greets me with a glass of wine and I start asking him about the town. He’s in his late 60s, lips purple from his drink, eyes jumping like a puppy that’s been left too long alone.

“Why did you move here?” I ask him when finding he’s from northern Argentina.

“I believe in energy,” he tells me, voice getting low and grave. “It’s not a decision, not logic, why we are where we are. Why are you sitting across from me like this? Just because you like to travel? Everything is circumstance, and energy. We move, as a part of the world.”

I feel it — the chance of life magnified by the chance of travel.

“Remember this quote,” he tells me. “La vida es un camino de ida. It’s by a Taoist philosopher.”

Life is a path of progress forward. I’m moving forward with some purpose, at least one more day: Tomorrow I’ll arrive at the End of the World.

***My final day I get physically lost: walking around Rio Gallegos, looking for the right highway.

“Thanks, Dad,” I laughingly sing into the air as I tromp across a graffiti-coated bridge in the same jeans and sweater I’ve worn the past two weeks. My New York life seems like a secret that even I begin to forget. I am just a lone girl carting a backpack through South America.

I finally settle on a road (the wrong one) and a concerned cop with a teenage daughter stops to pick me up. He tells me I’m making a dangerous decision and drops me at the police station for help getting a ride. Is this what my dad would do, now? I wonder.

At the station a baby-faced guy my age, Eduardo, is the lead officer working and he’s checking cars and asking where they’re heading — and when he finds out I’m headed to Ushuaia he starts asking drivers with that destination if they’ll give me a lift.

I stand 20 feet down the road, not sure whether to hold out my thumb. Does this still count as hitchhiking? Sure enough, the cop finds me my final ride: a Falkland Islands war veteran and his stepson. We spend the next 11 hours jumping through the journey’s final hoops, and finally we arrive.

Ushuaia is a touristy city, with a giant casino, expensive restaurants and visitors who’ve flown in from all over the world. I visit the national park, run my hands along the clams on the shore, and stare out at the canal, waiting for it to hit me. I’ve arrived.

Instead I feel confused: where do I go from here?

I call my parents, finally ready to tell my dad about the journey — but my mom admits she’s already told him. “He’s kind of touched that he inspired you to do this,” she says, and I can hear her knowing smirk.

But when he talks to me, and I’m mad with ideas for all the things I want to write, he’s rational. “Don’t get overwhelmed, focus on one thing at a time,” he says. He suggests I start with the strongest and simplest story I have: a first-person essay, about hitchhiking to Ushuaia.

Meredith Hoffman is a freelance journalist and writer who’s written for the New York Times, Slate, Tablet and World Policy Journal, and who previously worked as a reporter for DNAinfo.com New York. You can follow her on Twitter @merhoffman.