Sam and I fume at opposite ends of the terminal. I sneak glances at his smug, punchable face, fantasize about tearing it apart. He turns toward me; I look away.
We’re in Santiago’s International Airport waiting for Sam’s father, Steve. He’s flying down to ride with us through the Atacama Desert. We came early because he doesn’t speak Spanish, and we were afraid he would get lost on public transportation.
We arrived at the airport, got snacks, and sat to wait on a wide staircase overlooking the gate, the only exit for international flights. It was crowded. A tall blond couple stood in front of us, chatting to each other in Dutch. Their heads were a foot above the crowd, and from our vantage point we could see people furtively starting at them at them. It felt good not to be the most obvious outsider.
We exhausted our small talk a month ago, and we don’t have anything to share that the other didn’t directly experience. It was twenty minutes before we struck up a conversation.
Later, we would describe it as our biggest fight. We joked through the question until we found our positions; then the niggling began. Over the next twenty minutes we whisper-yelled and gesticulated wildly, tensing and raising our voices until we were ready to throttle each other.
Only the threat of Steve’s arrival stopped us, sent us slinking to opposite ends of the terminal. Neither of us wanted to explain a black eye.
It was a simple conversation. It didn’t segue into deeper issues, didn’t touch on longstanding feuds, didn’t even veer from the central question: “Would you rather be invisible or have the ability to fly?”
I like telling this story because it makes people laugh. The action are exaggerated, the cause slight. It’s an anecdote that illustrates — but doesn’t delve into — the uncomfortable truth of our trip. I’ve hated Sam more than anyone else I know, and Sam’s hated me just as much.
We’ve been friends for nearly a decade. We’ve gone to high school together, worked together, and even lived together. We don’t always get along, but we’ve always been jovial, always been able to put our squabbles in the context of our friendship. By my simple definition, friends are people who choose to be around each other. So what happens when you take away that choice?
I could hide Sam’s body.
It’s a small body, easy to bury in sand or roll off a cliff. I could fold it into my bike trailer, ride into the desert, and leave it for the vultures. I could be back in time for breakfast alone. These are my thoughts as I fall asleep in my tent.
“You’ve thought about killing me, right?” I ask Sam over coffee a few days later.
“Oh yes,” Sam nods vigorously. “All the time.”
We laugh. We’re past trying to hide our frustration. If it weren’t clear from the occasional days of silence — difficult when your days are spent together — it’s unmistakable when it bursts out in streams of curses.
We understand why we’re upset: we’re adventuring together. We ride together, work on our bikes together, and set up camp together. We eat in the same restaurants and stay at the same hostels. We make every decision together, which means that every decision is a compromise.
Where are we camping? Compromise. Where are we getting lunch? Compromise. What movie are we seeing at the theater? Harry Potter 7. What time are we going? Compromise. I describe this to my mom over Skype, and she chuckles knowingly: “It sounds like you’re married.”
I have to believe this undersells marriage. When I share my mom’s analysis with Sam, I scramble to find a silver lining: “In a real marriage the fighting would probably be mitigated by sex.”
“Really?” Sam asks. “When was the last time you talked to a married person?”
Thanks for killing my optimism, Sam. That really helps our bitter, sexless marriage.
We’re within sight of Torres del Paines, one of Chile’s southernmost national parks. The road winds past beautiful plains and lakes, green from the frequent rain.
It’s growing late; we begin looking for a campsite. We get excited about a lake that follows the road for a stretch, blocked off by an old barbed-wire fence. On the far side is a serene patch of untouched grass. We bike along the fence, looking for a spot where we can hop over, until we find a large sign that reads “Danger: Landmines.”
We ride further. We’re tired, hungry, and we don’t want to be outside after sunset; the temperature dips below freezing. Soon we round a knoll and find a shed to the side of the road.
We’ve read about these on the blogs of other cyclists — small roadside sheds built for desperate travelers. This one is made from tin. It’s dirty, but convenient. We roll our bikes off the road, lift them over a ditch, and lean them against the shed.
It’s not roomy, but it has a fireplace (an old oil barrel with a hole cut into it shoddily joined to a stovepipe). The floor is dirt, and squeezed into the tiny space is a wobbly bunk bed made of 2x4s. There are no mattresses, not even a flat place for our sleeping bags —only wooden slats holding up a few pieces of cardboard.
We hesitate — our camp setup is more comfortable — but opt for protection from the wind and the warmth of the fireplace. It’s been a week since we’ve been warm at night.
We move all our things inside and begin to gather firewood. It’s easy; a nearby cow pasture is full of dry branches. We light our kindling ecstatically, huddling close to the meager flames. We continue to add wood, desperate for heat, until we begin to choke.
Despite the grate of ashes — a promise of recent use — the stove is a sieve. We throw the door open, hoping to empty out the smoke, but it’s too late. The stove is filled with kindling; we’re trapped outside until it burns through.
We look at each other, exasperated. We’re too hungry to wait out the smoke. We decided set up our camp stove outside, braving short trips into the smoke to rescue vegetables. The wind picks up, and the sun drops below the mountains to the west.
We finish setting up and squat to watch the food cook. We start to make a plan. I think we ought to give up on the fire and get inside, but Sam disagrees. He says that if we can get through the kindling to the denser logs the smoke will dissipate. We’ll eat in a warm tin shed and watch a clean burning log as we fall asleep.
We explain our positions with relative calm as we grill our vegetables, come to a conclusion, and dine happily together.
Sam strains to make sense of the muffled curses I’m forcing through the towel wrapped around my mouth (I ran out of layers). He tries to reason with me, but I hold my cooking pan as aggressively as I can and gesticulate wildly. I imply that if I’m not inside soon, I will strangle Sam in his sleep.
We move inside at the first opportunity. Our food isn’t ready, so we bring the camp stove in as well. It runs on gasoline, the only fuel we can find this far south, and we’re unsure if the fumes will fill the shed to kill us.
We debate the issue through the door. I close it, Sam opens it. Ten minutes, no speaking.
It’s a study in passive aggression. Finally our rice burns. We split the pot without a word and retire to our slats.
As we fall asleep, Sam complains about strange headaches. I hope they’re debilitating.
I visit Sam in Grants Pass, Oregon, two months before we leave on our bike ride. He manages a river rafting operation in the summer, and I’ve come to raft, hang out, and finalize our trip plans. It’s a week of busy days, but by the end of it we’ve scrambled a loose plan; we’ll train, get matching gear, and take things as they go.
The night before I leave for Portland, Sam drives us down the Rogue River Highway. We park near a bridge to share beers over the river.
We make dumb jokes and toasts, promise not to abandon the other if we’re kidnapped, and speculate wildly about future exploits with South American girls. Sam tells me about his last year of school. I fill him in on my odd year living in Portland. We’ve been on opposite sides of the country for four years, and won’t see each other again until we meet in Colombia’s Bogota airport.
Finally we quiet. I stare at the dark river as it moves to the sea, the murmur of it barely audible. I’m awed by the scope of the trip, so unlike anything I’ve done before. I’m a novice, an idiot when it comes to this, and I’m happy to be in the company of another idiot.
“This is going to be a good thing,” I say to Sam, “It’ll to be nice to finally have some real time together.”