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CRITIC'S CHOICE | CHILE

Adventure, Due South

One car, 16 days and 4,500 miles of Chilean roads.... You call this a dream drive?

November 27, 2005|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

Salar de Atacama, Chile — I 'VE got a thousand miles behind me and three thousand to go. I've got a dashboard tan. Hammer down. Radar love.

It's the middle of the night in the middle of the Atacama Desert, along a stretch of haunted ground called the Pampa del Indio Muerto. I don't speak Spanish but I get the idea. This is the land that rain forgot.

Guidebooks call this part of northern Chile "lunar" or "Martian," and during the day it's understandable because the cracked lifelessness stretches to the ashy horizon. Water seems like folklore. But at night, well, night is different. Northern Chile has dark and transparent air -- silver-lidded observatories eye the heavens from nearby mountaintops -- and the sky is whitewashed with stars. You will never feel more Earthbound. Here you can appreciate your significance in the universe, and the news is not good.

And so I'm driving, which is what I do and, in a bit of existential irony, who I am. I'm a driver. I'd rather be known for pioneering gene therapy or inventing the politician who doesn't lie. Instead, my identity is tangled up with this simple-minded and sensual act, piloting these wonderful, awful machines. It started when I was 8 years old and stole my mother's Mercury Comet. Three-million driving miles later, I'm here, endlessly falling into the well of my headlights.

I couldn't be happier. My respiration syncopates with the cadence of white lines.

I reckon when the editors asked me to take my ultimate car-centric trip, they expected that I would want to take a Ferrari down the Autobahn until the car's nose-cone glowed, or maybe bump and thump with a macked-out Rolls-Royce on Miami's South Beach.

I've done those things and they were nice. But the fact is, most of the world isn't paved, and that's the part I long to see. And so, even before I had an itinerary in mind, I knew what kind of car I wanted to drive: a big, ornery Land Rover LR3.

I really like these cars. Even as they have shed their agricultural dispositions and grown more refined and comfortable -- and become the status-laden lorries of pampered suburbia -- Land Rovers are still ferociously tough and capable off-road. Land Rover is still clubby and British, with the slight reek of Empire, still a secret handshake among owners and enthusiasts.

It seems simple enough, though it's not often said. We fall in love with cars because of what inner need they satisfy. I grew up poor and anxious and ignorant; I've spent a lot of my adult life traveling to far corners of the planet so I could claim some worldliness as my own.

And then there is Chile. The drag strip of nation states, Chile is more than 3,000 miles long and no more than 300 miles wide, like a geographic plumb bob running along its own curious longitude. This gives the country a satisfying, almost irresistible sense of ordinal direction, of destination, of here to there-ness -- a quality all road trips need.

I do my guidebook homework. Two highways stitch Chile together: The Ruta Cinco, also known as the Pan-American Highway, from Arica on the Peruvian border to Puerto Montt. North of La Serena, Ruta Cinco is a ragged and scary filament of one- or two-lane asphalt. South, it changes suddenly into a gorgeous and virtually uninhabited four-lane toll road that ends at Puerto Montt.

Beyond Puerto Montt, bridged by ferries, is the Carretera Austral, a tortuous gravel road 500 miles long.

Along these routes, Chile is a geographic changeling: In the north is the high-altitude desolation of the Altiplano. Farther south, sloping toward the sea for 750 miles, is the cruel Atacama Desert, one of driest places on Earth. At about the 30th southern parallel, the stern and arid landscape finally yields. There's the vineyard-strewn valleys of the central coast; the pen-ink-blue lakes and geometrically perfect, snowcapped volcanoes south of Temuco; and then, finally, the disordered flotilla of forested islands that run for 1,000 miles along the Pacific coast, the Chilean Archipelago. Hot springs, undiscovered beaches, hissing whitewater, rain forest, tumbling mountains of glacial ice, and all of it ends, as if with exclamation points, with the jutting spires of Torres Del Paine National Park in southern Patagonia.

It sounds like road-trip nirvana.

My driving partner, Charles LeGrand, and I fly into La Paz, Bolivia, on Oct. 27 to meet representatives from Land Rover, who hand over the LR3 HSE. This particular vehicle was already in Bolivia as part of Land Rover's G4 Challenge program -- an extreme-sports competition held in some of the wildest parts of the globe. So the square, pumpkin-colored truck is expedition-ready, with roof racks, jerrycans for gasoline, winch and dazzling auxiliary lights. In the abysmal black of the high desert, Charles will observe, the lights make the LR3 look like a terrestrial mini-sub.

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