The Pan American Highway is a road system on the western coast of Latin America, spanning from Canada all the way down to Chile, before it turns eastward and heads to Argentina. The Pan-american highway also weaves itself in and out of my childhood and adolescence like a thread through fabric.
There are vast portions of the highway the cross thousands of miles through the some of the driest deserts in the world, including the Atacama (Dry as in half-an-inch of rain every 10 years). On many of those miles, this highway was a small two lane road, sometimes with steep drop offs on both sides into interminably shifting sand and gravel.
We travelled on the Pan American Highway often, and there were spans of it when there were absolutely no lights, no town or city for hundreds of miles. Rest stops were often just a stop on the side of the road and a search for a sand dune tall enough to provide some cover.
We drove back and forth on it in an old station wagon we called the grey goose. The back seat faced backwards, and if one layed down on it just right, one could look up at the stars at night, and see an amazing sight – a milky swath of stars so thick across the night sky, that its name’s source becomes obvious.
Sometimes, it was a very bumpy ride. Any approaching truck coming from the other direction would force dad to take the right wheels onto the sand. Mind you, when doing so we’d always be at risk of bottoming out on a ragged road edge or getting stuck in the sand. Given that vast portions of the highway were unlit, one also ran the risk of an unexpected collision with….animals, random dunes that were created during a sand storm, and more. One night we hit a hog. Yes. A huge wild hog. It almost completely dislodged our gas tank as it went under the car. We spent a good half-day on the side of the road siphoning out the gas manually (tube and mouth applied to tank), tying a rope around the tank and car to keep it in place, and siphoning the gas back in.
Sometimes, it was a smooth, gorgeous ride. Many of the beaches along the coast are desolate and beautiful. More than once, we’d stop for an afternoon break and enjoy a swim on pristine, untouched beaches. Dad would sometimes take the car and drive along the beach looking for a perfect spot – we’d drive for miles like this, with no one in sight but us. Peru’s coast is desert, volcanic desert. As such, much of the sand is mixed with tiny multicolored crystals. At dawn and dusk, the Peruvian dunes that spanned both sides of the Pan-American would turn into an earthy, gorgeous spectrum of red, brown and orange mounds.
This desolate, silent, and joyful beauty of an experience still speaks to me, and shapes me in more ways than I know. The Pan American Highway runs through me now, feeding ideas and inspiration at home and at work.
And that’s today’s story.