I spent a long time walking to the outskirts of the city, and then a long time waiting for a ride. But when I finally got one, he took me all the way to Copiapó. It was no surprise; there were only a few small villages in between. I was looking at the possibility of arriving today!
The driver told me about the miners who had gotten trapped in a mine a few years ago- that was just north of Copiapó. In 2010, 32 Chileans and 1 Argentine were trapped 5 kms deep in a mine after a cave in. Remarkably, and under heavy media coverage, all were rescued.
We got to Copiapó around 1PM. After that, Things slowed significantly. I was taken in the wrong direction by a couple in a van, and wound up walking the wrong way before I got better directions from a car parts store. My back was starting to ache, so I dumped the contents of my spare water bottles. To my surprise, an old man driving a disabled persons' bus gave me a lift to the intersection which would take me to Paso San Francisco, the pass to Argentina. It was more walking after that.
It seemed as if there were no people living around here; the only vehicles were pickup trucks with large orange antennas attached, presumably mining vehicles. I walked past what appeared to be a Hooverville or circus in the desert... I have no idea what it was. Finally, I got a ride with a dump truck to the last turn I would have to make. I was now on a packed dirt road. The only thing in sight, aside from rocky hills and sand, was a trailer with two guys sitting on the porch. I went over to make small talk, but they were not very sociable. I did learn that there was little traffic along this route, maybe one car every fifteen or twenty minutes.
This was true, and I passed the time juggling rocks, or just sitting on my backpack and listening to the nothing. Except for when a car passed, it was absolutely quiet.
A dump truck stopped. The driver said he was only going a few kilometers to a copper mine. I said that was fine. The more isolated a hitchhiker is, the better chance he has of getting a lift.
The driver, like the others, warned me about the lack of traffic along this route. He also warned me of the cold nights in the desert. The sun was low on the sandy crests and he told me it can get down to 5C. I scoffed at his warning and told him I was an expert hitchhiker.
My next driver was also a dump truck. I got the same warnings, this time being told that it got down to -6C. That's pretty cold. But what do these people think I am? Some kind of pussy? I told him I was a professional, and could spend a night in the desert.
I was dropped off next to a pile of rocks. Their lime-greenish hue made them easy to identify as copper ore. An episode of Bear Grylls taught me to build a fire next to a big rock, and it will absorb the heat and stay warm into the night. Copper's low specific heat capacity made it a perfect candidate. So I started digging a bed to build the fire in. The sun had already gone down behind the jagged hills.
Whenever a car came, I would try my luck, and to my surprise, a minivan full of taciturn indians brought me a half hour up the road. They then turned off onto another dirt road, marked by a sign showing a few villages some kilometers away. Fortunately, there was another pile of copper ore and I began digging in again. This time, I didn't stop to ask for rides. The sky was purpling. It was hard work digging a big-enough hole in the pile because it kept caving in on itself. I seemed to be next to a dried up streambed with a patch of gnarled brush, which was very dry. I built the fire using the twigs, and kept feeding it, since they burned quickly. Running back and forth had me out of breath, and I was regretting dumping my water. I don't always sleep in the desert, but when I do, I am alone and have no water.
Location of my campsite on Google Maps
I let the blaze die down as it got dark and sat next to the hot coals. When I stopped moving and held my breath, I could hear no sound whatsoever, an experience I had never felt in my life. There was no wind, no traffic, not even a faint hum of distant machines. The silence was so deep it was maddening. I found a dirty foam mattress in the streambed and beat the dust off it. I then laid it over the remaining coals, then put my blankets on top. I spent some time gazing at the billions of stars, then drifted off around 8 PM.
I must have still been slightly conscious, because I remember hearing the rocks shift above me, before a >soccer> ball-sized boulder landed on my forehead and left me rattled. It felt like it would bruise, but when I felt the spot, just below my hairline, my fingers were bloody. I fumbled in the moonlight for my hygiene kit and flashlight. I got out my piece of mirror and shone the light on my face. There was a little gash and a trickle of blood running down to my nose.
It was a surprise, because of the isolation, to see a car at that hour. I imagine how I must have looked to the driver, wide-eyed and bloodied in the headlights, sitting half-buried in rocks in the middle of the desert. The car turned down the side road and went another 500 meters before stopping. Was the driver considering offering help, like the good Samaritan, or questioning his sanity. The car rested there for a long time, so maybe a small argument was going on inside. In any case, it drove away.
I found my first aid kit and put some of my "antiséptico" on the wound, which I'd been carrying dutifully since San Luis Potosi. I then dressed it with cheesecloth and covered it with my beanie. I feel back asleep.
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