My heart is pounding rapidly and feels as though it has been pushed up into my throat. I look down and realize I am gripping the sides of my seat, my entire body tense. I look to my left and see a wide grin across Ale’s face. Suddenly I acknowledge what I am doing, the fear and worry of the future having pulled me from this present moment and instead distracted me with awful “what-ifs”. I decide to let go of those what-ifs and simply enjoy the ride, I let out a laugh with Ale and encouraged our trusty little Subaru we endearingly refer to as Super Burro forward through the thick mud and rocky uneven road. What’s the worst that can happen? Well I don’t want to spend to much more time imagining that, so instead I begin thinking, what’s the best that can happen, even if something bad happens? “You can do this Super Burro!” I yell and laugh. Just as suddenly as my attitude changes so does our progress- suddenly it becomes quiet as the car drops down and we are no longer powering forward and instead sit hopelessly stuck somewhere along the back roads of Chile. Ale and I look at each other as he again presses on the gas and we only feel the wheels spin- “Oh no…” we both say with wide eyes.
This could be a moment to again entertain those “what’s the worst that can happen” scenarios, we are, after all, in a pretty dire situation. We are miles from the nearest paved road and similarly miles from any other route that has anything remotely related to “traffic”. I step out of the car and my foot sinks up to my ankle in mud. Immediately I fear the entire car may be swallowed up within the hour. We don’t have any cell phone service, but even if we did who would we call? We are in the middle of nowhere surrounded by fields, mud and tropical sounding birds. The road we are on, like many we have traversed since arriving in Chile, bears no name, and any description would not likely bring help. What would we say, “Yes, so you turn left off the main road onto a dirt road, the dirt road takes you back through the fields and rapidly deteriorates, eventually bringing you down steep rocky hills and when the dirt turns quickly into mud before you even realize it, yes that is where you will find us.”? Not likely to garner a rescue.
Ale tries tirelessly to place boards beneath the tires and better position us so that we have some sort of traction. After hours of effort and little progress, we decide it is best for him to go look for help. Perhaps we’ll find a tractor in the field, or a friend along the road who can call another friend with a truck. I stay with the car and smile, thinking well, we certainly will have a story coming from this one…hopefully it’s a good one.
Those “worst that can happen” scenarios fall quiet. I sit, I write, I listen to the sounds of the forest surrounding me. The sun is incredibly warm and I am so very thankful it is not pouring down rain on us. I find a log that makes a great seat, away from the wet mud, and listen to the birds, their exotic calls taking me to tropical escapes. I imagine the luck Ale will have in finding help, in somehow managing to get us out of this mess. I wander further down the road a bit, trying to see if I can hear or see any sign of life without straying too far from our stranded steed. I try not to look at the road ahead, the deep pool of water and mud menacingly embracing the front end of our car. Deep breath, we are going to get out of this, and it’s going to be a good story, not a bad one.
A few hours later I hear the sound of a harness and clinking of a chain. I can hear Ale’s voice, and the constant prodding of heavy feet in the mud. I run up to the edge of the hill to find three dogs, Ale, an old man who must be close to 90 years old and two oxen. Oh boy I think….here comes that story I was hoping for. Don Fernando has arrived, a local farmer who lives far down the road we had traveled. Ale had found him out with his oxen and asked if they might be able to pull us free from the mud. I can’t imagine how this is actually going to work, and I notice the oxen are staring at Super Burro with wide eyes, it seems as though they are thinking the same thing.
We hitch the oxen to the back end of the car with the heavy chain attached to the yoke. Ale gets in the car, turns it on and puts it in reverse, hoping to help these massive beasts as they pull. I stand in awe and watch as the oxen pull, encouraged by Don Fernando’s feeble yelps and the barking of the dogs. My heart is again in my throat as I watch the wheels spin hopelessly and the mud is churned deeper. We try again, and still the weight and strength of the oxen is simply not enough to release Super Burro from the muddy depths of the road. Nervous butterflies tickle my stomach as I wonder again how we’re ever getting out of this. Eventually Don Fernando takes his trusty oxen home, he is old and very tired and the car simply seems too stuck. Perhaps a tractor will be better, he suggests, although he says that none of his neighbors have cars, so we must find a way to get to the nearest town. With a kiss Ale is again off, taking on the miles needed to meet the paved road in the hopes that he can hitch a ride into town and convince someone to get back here with a tractor. I am again alone in the woods with the sun and the birds. Again alone with my thoughts and imagination. The sun is dropping as the afternoon wears on.
Hours pass before I hear voices in the distance and the sound of a motor. Gleefully I jump up and run to see who our rescuer is now. Ale is coming down the mountain, his gators caked in mud. Behind him I see a large red 4×4 pickup truck parked at the top of the hill. A man is standing on top of a rock peering down nervously. He is wearing a large brimmed leather hat, a button down plaid shirt, a pair of khaki pants and white socks with leather sandals. I can hear the uncertainty in his voice as he yells rapid fire Spanish to Ale. This is Don Luis.
Eventually Don Luis decides it is in fact possible for him to bring his truck down into the gully where we had managed to get stuck, although by doing so he seems to create a zig zagging slip and slide of muddy ditches that I can hardly imagine our little Subaru being able to clear. My heart is again in my throat…
As he hooks his truck up to the back end of our car, Don Luis alternates between an attitude of unwillingness to that of overzealous belief in his ability to get us out. He yells loudly for Ale to step on the gas as he slams on his, the truck jerking forward before being jolted to the sides, sliding back and forth in the mud. We try, try again, and for a moment we see the small light of progress as the front end slightly emerges from the deep mud. Suddenly Don Luis and Ale are speaking fast in Spanish, the words jumble in my ears as I work strenuously to decipher what is happening. He doesn’t pull forward any longer, instead he gets out of his truck and nervously looks at his phone, trying to find a signal. He steps delicately around the blocks of mud, careful not to get his white socks browned, hiking up the hill and leaving us with both cars. I look at Ale questioningly, “He’s stuck,” Ale informs me matter-of-factly.
At this point I can’t help but laugh. Oh boy! What are we going to do!? I seriously cannot imagine a possible solution, as I look up the road, back the way we came, where Don Luis has now churned the thick mud into deep, cavernous ruts. I look at the two cars, back to back, both stuck in the deep mud, well beyond our capacity to remove them in our current state. The sun has dropped and I can feel the temperature cooling. I grab a sweater from the car and realize it is 6:30. An hour and a half of daylight left, it looks as though we might be sleeping here.
Eventually Don Luis returns. He has called his friend who has a pair of oxen, they will come to pull us out. I look doubtfully at Ale, remembering the lack of progress we had with Don Fernando’s team, wondering how they will actually be able to pull out this massive truck now as well. But I am advised that this is a younger team and a younger farmer, so they will be stronger. This is how it works here, I am told, you need the oxen, a truck or tractor will never work.
We spend the next hour or so speaking with Don Luis, learning his story, hearing about his family, his farm, his parcels of land and simple little store where Ale had collected him. He speaks no English, and gets a kick out of the fact that I am American, and that I have been here sitting with the car all day. He asks if I was afraid to be out here alone, of strangers that could come around with ill intentions. I make a joke which Ale translates, something to the extent of being more afraid of strangers in cities than those I encounter out in the woods. He looks at the sky and says we should leave the woods though before it gets dark, since the pumas will arrive then. He seems only half joking now.
Soon enough we again hear the clinking of chains hanging against the yoke of another pair of oxen. I look up the path hopefully and see a younger looking farmer with work boots and thick clothes, carrying a long pole and clicking to his team of oxen. This is Don Pepe. I don’t want to believe it but the pair of oxen he has brought are significantly smaller than those of Don Fernando… oh how on earth are we going to get out of this!?
He first hooks the oxen up to the front end of the truck. The oxen bow their heads, ready to pull, Don Pepe lets out a shrill “Owwyeeeee!” and the oxen power forward. In the same moment Don Luis hits the gas and his truck miraculously lurches forward. He is free!!! The oxen had done it! They continue to pull him further up the muddy hill, as he zig zags and weaves he again forms new ruts in the soft earth, but I don’t care now, I believe that this can be done, and these two oxen can do it!
Once Don Luis is back up the hill he parks the truck and runs down to us. We have hooked up the oxen to our car and Ale sits ready on the gas. With rapid clicking, numerous yelps of “Owwyeeeee!” the oxen pull, but again the wheels only spin, mud kicking up and splattering the edges but no lurches of freedom can be realized. We all look at one another, the evening darkness rapidly approaching. It is quickly decided we must leave the car for the night and come back in the morning with a winch that will make the power of the oxen stronger. With that, Don Pepe believes we will be able to move the car. Don Luis invites us to his home for the evening, also inviting Don Pepe to come by for a drink once he has returned his oxen to their field. I smile as I quickly stuff overnight clothes in a backpack, wondering where this little twist of fate is taking us, and who these characters are whose lives have intertwined with ours.
We spend the night in the very simple and gracious home of Don Luis and his wife, telling stories and laughing well passed midnight. A dinner of bread and cheese is presented, and Don Luis excitedly remarks to his wife to “mira la niña en la cocina” after I take up his offer to cook some eggs gathered from the chickens out back. We share rum and beer and my broken Spanish mixes with their low-toned Chilean Spanish, Ale often lending an ear to try to translate, although even for him there are words used in Chile that are foreign. By the end of the night they are referring to me as “hija”, or daughter, and making us promise, with tears in their eyes, that every time we drive this way we stop by and stay, because we are family now. Oh what a moment, oh what a time, and oh how significant it felt that our paths had crossed in the moment and manner in which they did.
The next morning Don Pepe arrives bright and early, as promised. We rush through breakfast, grab our bag and run outside to jump in his truck, finding the truck bed full of men from the small village. Don Pepe’s father sits in the front of the truck, his grey hair neatly tucked under a clean blond hat, his presence stately compared to the rag-tag team in the back. We proceeded to drive down a few dirt side streets, collecting two more men along the way. It literally felt as though we were bringing half the village to get us out.
Driving through pastures, we eventually come to the field where the oxen sit grazing. What peculiar site we must have been, walking down that dirt road, 7 men from the town, the old father of Don Pepe walking with his cane, Ale chatting with Don Pepe alongside the trusty oxen and me, the only woman among us.
As we arrive to the hill, we look down and see Super Burro still sitting where we left it the night before. A little part of me seriously believed it would be swallowed up in the sinking mud, so I let out a quiet breath of relief. We again connect the oxen to the back of the car with the same chain, but this time also connect it to a winch that the men tie to the tree. Ale revs the gas and the oxen begin to pull as Don Pepe lets out another shrill “Owwyeeeee”! My heart is racing now, the anticipation and hope that this works feels simply palpable.
Nothing. The car does not budge. My heart feels as though it drops down to my stomach…now what?
The men have gathered around the car, all of them bracing the front and the sides. They are all yelling to one another as Don Pepe readies the oxen once more. Ale steps on the gas, a loud “Owwyeeeee!” mixes with the calls of the pushing men and with a sudden jolt Super Burro is free from the muddy pit and is being pulled backwards with great force.
Everyone stops and cheers. The winch is removed and the oxen pull Super Burro up the hill, easily towing the car across the deep ruts made by Don Luis the day before. It is truly an incredible site…the sheer strength of the animals is simply shocking and their power is obvious. Finally our little steed is free. At the top of the hill Ale is able to back up and turn the car around. He slowly drives forward as the rest of us walk behind, ensuring there are no future problems with some of the ruts further on. There is a relieved energy that resonates among all of us.
Once we are beyond the deep mud and back on solid stones, we say farewell to the men and the oxen. There is no request for money, there is no demand of anything, only well wishes on our journey and some laughter with advice to stick to actual “roads” in the future. I give everyone a hug, my heart fit to burst with gratitude for their time and energy and selfless willingness to help us in our moment of need. We stop by Don Fernando’s house on the way out to show him our liberated Super Burro, he smiles a wide toothless smile and nods and laughs, hugging me as we bid farewell.
What a funny way to embrace a disaster. At the end of the day, it was a grand adventure. Although getting the car stuck was one of my original “worst that can happen” scenarios, the people, the stories, the heartfelt gratitude and laughter were all elements of my “best that can happen” scenarios. And that acknowledgement made all the difference. Oh what fun these little twists of fate can be when we simply decide to smile and laugh no matter what!
Have you ever been on the brink of disaster and chosen instead to imagine the positive that could come from being in a bad spot? I bet the chance will arise at any moment….so don’t forget, worrying about the negative possibilities only takes you away from experiencing the present moment, and if you lean into that moment, even when bad things happen there is always opportunity for beauty and laughter to grow out of it. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you will find the kindness of strangers ready to embrace you, no matter how hopeless your state may seem.