Despite growing up in a rural town and learning to drive tractors while still in elementary school, I somehow managed to miss (avoid?) lessons in driving a car with a manual transmission.I’ve always been intimidated by the thought of it and have a fear of ruining the clutch, stalling at an inopportune time, and/or being a hazard to myself and others if I attempted to try.
While planning for this trip I created a to-do list and one of the items listed was “learn to drive a stick” so I could relieve Alastair of driving duties with the campervan, and so I could drive if he was somehow unable to. Completing this task was a failure since my attempt at learning lasted about 30 minutes and only involved shifting from 1st to 2nd gears while meandering through a parking lot in my brother-in-law’s pick-up which is nearly impossible to stall (to be fair, Alastair had “learn to speak Spanish” on his to-do list and failed just as miserably; we’ll call it a draw). During our long drive from El Bolsón to El Chaltén, the time came for me to put my minimal skills to the test. Thankfully Alastair was kind enough to wait until we were on Ruta 40 which is a long, quiet highway with minimal distractions where I could cruise in 5th gear most of the time.
Once in the driver’s seat, I got my bearings, checked my mirrors, looked for traffic, and slowly pulled on to the highway in 1st gear. To get up to speed I obviously had to shift up. Alastair kindly informed me that the proper sequence of shifting is not, in fact, from 1st to 3rd to reverse to 4th to 5th. Oops. I got it eventually and was able to hang out in 5th gear for about 10 minutes until having to brake for an animal running across the road. I counted it as my first victory since I didn’t stall the van, was able to avoid shifting, and no animals were harmed in the process of my driving.
Then came the random roadside police stop. Crap, shifting was inevitable. In various cities we’ve seen police standing along the road, slowing traffic and randomly stopping vehicles for questions and inspections. I started to slow the van, shifted down to 4th gear and slowed to about 15 km/hr while approaching the police. There were no other vehicles in sight and the police were looking directly at us. They made no motions or signals to us as we got closer and eventually waved us on without having to stop. We made our (slow crawl of an) exit in 4th gear, Alastair and I resumed breathing, I eventually shifted back into 5th gear, and we had a celebratory high-five for successful shifting and for no police officers being harmed in the process of my driving.
After about 90 minutes of driving and only hitting a few potholes, we came to a hill. A long hill. With a slow-moving gravel truck about halfway up the ascent. Ugh. Alastair gave me a quick pep-talk to instill a little confidence but as we approached the truck it was clear I needed to pass him, and I needed to do it quickly and efficiently as I now had two cars riding my bumper (who were eager to pass any vehicle going slower than 10 km/hr over the speed limit which is common practice in Chile and Argentina despite the frequency of road signs indicating the unlawfulness of such behavior). Alastair must have sensed my panic and fear (or just happened to hear me saying, “what do I do now?!?!”) and automatically came to the rescue. Once I knew I had a clear gap to pass the truck, I told Alastair I was going for it and we started in a groove of stellar teamwork to make it happen. Because the situation was too stressful for me to manage both the stick shift and this mysterious third pedal, Alastair managed the shifting while I handled the footwork, following his instructions of “CLUTCH IN!!! ….. CLUTCH OUT!!! ….. CLUTCH IN!!! ….. CLUTCH OUT!!!”
Teamwork prevailed and we overtook the gravel truck without harming any others in the process of my (our) driving. We were then quickly passed by the two cars riding my bumper, as expected. Within a couple kilometers I could see we were approaching a section of road construction. I said “nope” and promptly returned to the passenger’s seat. I’d still call the experience a success but I definitely need more practice with a manual transmission before I’m on my own or let loose in an area with any obstacles.