Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Lands of Fire and Ice

In California, this summer’s been a hot one and, perhaps, the worst wildfire season in our history. Here in Oakland, our worst was the 1991 firestorm—which came close enough to our Rockridge residence that my wife and daughter stayed with friends—but this year’s events have occurred mostly in rural wildlands and we’ve only seen occasional ashfall from them.
Until last Friday, I'd never seen Argentine plates in California.
Coincidentally, though, I received a reminder of another “land of fire” when, walking the dog last Friday, I turned the corner to see a Citroën Xsara Picasso with Argentine plates—the first such plates I’ve ever seen in California—that was decorated with a map of the Americas and the legend “Todo por América, Ushuaia – Alaska.” When I stopped to speak with them, the owners were a bit surprised to hear someone speaking (more or less) Argentine Spanish, but I invited Eduardo Ybarra and Emilia Florencio (and their Australian shepherd Ona) around the corner to meet my (Argentine) wife.
Emilia sips yerba mate, with Eduardo in the driver's seat and Ona in the back.
Eduardo and Emilia, though, had car problems—the starter had given out on their 2012 vehicle and the Citroën itself is almost unknown in this country except, perhaps, for a few collectors. Parking outside, they had to leave the car running (and locked) because they could only start it on an incline. After a brief visit and a thermos of mate, drunk while Ona cavorted with my daughter’s boxer mix in the garden (my elderly and arthritic malamute could only observe), I accompanied them to our local mechanic, who told us they couldn’t work on the exotic French vehicle (Citroën have not been sold in the US since 1974).
In 1991-2, our Peugeot 404 was a frequent guest of Patagonian mechanics.
Fortunately, using the mobile app iOverlander, they located a Guatemalan mechanic who managed to repair the starter, but their situation suggests a greater problem worth the attention of anyone who takes a Pan-American road trip. I myself have driven extensively in southernmost South America, first with a rattletrap Peugeot 404 that belonged to my late father-in-law and somehow survived the ruggedest stretches of Patagonia’s legendary Ruta 40—with help from talented street mechanics—in the days before that highway was even partly paved. In some cases, the surface was not gravel, but rather stones the size of my first.

I have even shipped cars from California—in one case an aging Datsun pickup and, in another, a more versatile Toyota Xtra Cab. In Chile, I now own an SUV, a 2007 Suzuki Grand Nomade with relatively low mileage, and I’ve occasionally encountered other gringos who’ve traveled the length of the Americas, though not necessarily from Alaska.

The type of vehicle makes a difference precisely because of parts availability and mechanical assistance. If, for example, you drive a Prius to South America, finding replacement parts would be nearly impossible, as these hybrid vehicles are only now starting to appear in Argentina and Chile. In my opinion, our new Argentine friends were fortunate to find a capable mechanic willing to tackle their problem—I expect he had to improvise—but if something gives out on the remote Alaska Highway, will they be so fortunate again?
If you're northbound from California, keep an eye out for Eduardo and Emilia.
I’ve never driven to or even visited Alaska, though I suspect that anybody along the route will lend the help they can in case of breakdown, but I still feel the Citroën is something of a ticking time bomb. Alaska also has a short summer, and I would hope they get started soon, as a long drive remains. You can follow their progress at Todo por América.
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