In Patagonia Day 6
Punta Arenas — Puerto Natales
I was thinking today about the couple of pages Hemingway wrote on the craft of writing that were to be part of “Big Two-Hearted River.” As I recall, he wants to write the way Cezanne painted—daubs of paint invoking the scene (apples I think) rather than filling in all the details. Perhaps that is a commonplace and Hemingway’s influence has long since passed, but I was struck to learn that Bruce Chatwin carried In Our Time with him while wandering South America. Near the end of his book, he writes, “The walls of the dining-room were a hard blue. The floor was covered with blue plastic tiles, and the tablecloths floated above it like chunks of ice.” Ernest was looking over his shoulder as he wrote that. This morning I skipped the hotel’s free coffee [sic] for one last tall cappuccino at the Tapiz. Today the sidewalks and cafe swarmed with backpackers, most with clean bright equipment to match their smiles. The barista proudly presented my order in a tall clear glass perfectly layered—dark coffee, milky middle and foamy top. It reminded me of Jello 1-2-3 from my youth, but was much more satisfying. The bus station was even more crowded by mammoth backpacks dwarfing their carriers. After some jostling and confusion, we made our way out of the city and past the airport. Now I finally got a sense of the sheer vastness of the Patagonian desert. Flat fields covered with brown grass and choked in places by gorse stretch to the distant horizon. Nothing interrupts the view except the occasional shabby estancia and, in the far north, the edges of the cordillera. The road runs close to the Argentinian border and it is definitely cattle country. The bus passed several towns or villages, it was hard to tell. Some seemed a main house surrounded by an expanding circle of smaller places. One was larger and looked to have some sort of stadium which I first thought was a soccer field, but a horse track is maybe more likely. A place for 21st century gauchos to show their skills. I never think of the word “gaucho” without being taken back to music classes at Woodstock Elementary School where Mrs. Danley taught us a song: “See the gaucho ride the pampas/ ride the pampas green and wide/ with his ? And ? And a bolo by his side.” I have no idea the provenance of that song, but it was the first time I learned of South American cowboys, bolos, and the pampas. Like all sorts of other detritus, it sloshes about my head even today (along with my gratitude for Mrs. Danley’s infinite patience).
Puerto Natales has the feeling of a ski town without skiers. Full of outdoor stores, equipment rentals, some micro-breweries, and lots of people wandering around in trekking clothes. Most of the houses are one-story sitting on small lots, and the town spreads out widely over the flats edging right up to the curve of the lake. Across is the Torres del Paine park. At one time this was a meatpacking town with a small train to move the product (I’m not sure if it was cattle or the butchered meat). The narrow gauge engine sits in a place of honor in its own square looking very much like a missing friend of Thomas the Tank Engine. Across the street is a brewpub that makes surprisingly good ale and has bottles of some great USA brews. Beside it is a restaurant roasting full carcasses on leaning iron crosses over an open fire, so the meat tradition continues. Getting reservations to trek distance in the park is like trying to thru-hike the White Mountains on a limited budget, but more difficult. I’ve gone from trying to do the O circuit, to the W, and now maybe just the I (I made that last one up). Have a day or two to get organized, and there will be plenty of trekking further north later so no worries. To be honest, the park is probably as crowded as the White mountains, so not exactly the solitude required for good trekking. For now I’m enjoying a very clean and pleasant hostel—when everyone speaks, it sounds like the UN.
T. Hugh Crawford