This is a situation that I am sure you have faced yourself, it is a common element to many adventures, excursions, and family road trips. The wrong turn. This is a plot device that has motivated the action of drama, adventure, and horror stories since time forgotten. Ancient Greeks, Sumerians and Mesopotamians were not immune to the wrong turn, and neither were the likes of Clark W. Griswald or Bugs Bunny and the infamous Albuquerque. Whether appearing as historical fact or contemporary fiction, the wrong turn plays a crucial role, its consequences opening up so many unexpected possibilities for folly and a redemption. It would have been unthinkable for our crew to think that our Bolivian excursion would be immune from such a formidable and entrenched narrative device. There was no precedent for our trip, our maps were more than 40 years old, and it quickly became apparent that since they had been drawn many new roads and paths had been constructed. There was maybe a tacit acceptance in the group of an outside possibility that we would, at some point, follow an incorrect path or choose the wrong direction, but the consequences of such a mistake had extremely high potential for disaster—as in true disaster, as in emotional, physical, and mortal disaster—that we chose to not take it seriously, choosing to instead to rely on luck, less than accurate maps, and the scattered bits of trash on the side of the road to help guide us to the town of Curva, our end point.
“It is important to note that trash is omnipresent in Bolivia.”
The country is one of the poorest in the western hemisphere and lacks many of the modern conveniences that you and I take for granted, trash removal being one of them. In the small campamentos of the Altiplano and the Cordillera Apolobambas refuse is omnipresent, scattered like mundane confetti. The idea of “pack out what you pack in” that has been ingrained into our outdoor psyche since childhood is also dependent on a plurality of luxuries that make up our culture, luxuries that have yet to affect the lives of your average Bolivian. To have the energy and the time to pack out your trash is a luxury of convenience, of surplus energy, of public services, and of health. This is not a condemnation, simply an observation worth noting because trash, throughout our adventure, would act as a type of breadcrumb trail. Once out of town wrappers and bottles littered the side of the roads and trails; the higher the frequency of travel the higher the frequency of litter. This was the flotsam and jetsam of travelers past.
So this is where we found ourselves, at a crossroads, high above Pelechuco. We had spent that previous half day riding, pushing, and panting our way up the side of the mountain. On our map there was one route, one path, and we were not expecting to have to make a decision. But here it was. James and I argued about which path to take, poring over the vague shapes on the map to determine which route would take us over the correct pass and into Hilo Hilo. I say vague because the maps we were using were zoomed-in color photocopies of screenshots from Google Earth and the original images were of such a low resolution that staring at them felt like you were looking through goggles smudged with grease. Specifics were not forthcoming, details were scarce. We would need to rely on circumstantial evidence, living up to our project’s namesake, we would need to do some Dead Reckoning. What we knew: the road going to the left was steeper and appeared older with washout and rock fall covering its path, while the road to the right appeared to have been recently constructed or plowed. Yonder Journal’s previous trip experience told us that you take the older, steeper, more damaged road because these trips aren’t supposed to be easy. Up the steep winding switchbacks of the road on the left we went, following what looked to be recently churned tire tracks, past a few hanging valleys, and through a pile of rocks shaped like a wall that lined the saddle of what appeared to be a pass. We rejoiced, had a snack, used the restroom, and then followed the trail down the backside. We are on a new road, we are flying, and boy do these Fatboys get moving when you head down hill.
“We smash switchback after switchback, quickly losing altitude, then suddenly, it stops. The road ends.”
There are three men and a rugged SUV in front of us. We have been descending for 15 minutes. It is drizzling, and the man closest to use is wearing sandals while he rolls one basketball sized boulder after another off the road. He stares at us for a moment, giving us a wide, tooth-poor smile before getting back to work. From behind him steps a man wearing track suit pants and a few thin gold chains around his neck; he is obviously the foreman. We ask him in our awful broken Spanish, “Is this is the road to Hilo Hilo?” “No,” he says, “this road turns into a trail that dead ends another mile down the hill.” He is annoyed by our presence, we are annoyed by our presence. We ask him if he is sure. He doesn’t answer, but gives us a looks that says, “I don’t give a shit what you think, I just don’t want you around me.” His vehicle is stuck. It is getting late. The situation is miserable. We turn around. That 15 minutes of blissful descending takes us three hours to climb and by the time we reach the crossroads it is twilight and the drizzle has turned to a downpour. We have two options: ride all the way back down the hill to Pelechuco, losing all of our day’s work and risking a detrimental blow to our overall trip motivation or bivouac here on the mountain, saving the work we put in on the climb but facing another night of sleeplessness at elevation. We settle for the latter and strike camp in the indigo blue light of the coming night.