Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 24

March 16th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 24
Puerto Natalas—somewhere along Chilean coast on The Eden

I recall reading many narratives when I was young where the wanderer boarded a tramp steamer, heading off to adventures unknown. I would always picture a rusty steel hulk with a shady captain and crew trafficking in illicit goods. When not so suspicious, I’d imagine a still-rusty, generally shabby boat that travelled not so much a set route but instead where the cargo and weather dictated. All that is to say, I didn’t ship on a tramp steamer, though the Eden is definitely not a cruise ship. On a line up through the inland canals of the coast of Chile from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt (with a glancing stop at Puerto Eden) run a pair of 1980s ferry boats, hauling mainly cargo in the form of trucking trailers along with a few cars. The Eden has a series of cabins, a shabby lounge, a cafeteria, no internet (!) and therefore transports passengers who are generally not in a hurry to move from the south to the closer-to-the-north, nor overly concerned with luxury. The appeal is a peaceful cruise through an unpeopled land framed by glaciered mountains with waters populated by albatross and the occasional whale. We boarded late the night before, most people traveling in pairs sharing cabins with windows, but some of us in the equivalent of steerage, ending up in closed bunk rooms with random roommates. They are actually comfortable, feeling much like a hostel room, and Jens, my roommate, is a nice man from Germany. Most of the ship’s announcements are in Spanish and English, but at least on this trip, they should include German as that seems the dominate group. Not luxurious, but not a tramp steamer either.

El Niño is the controlling weather pattern here, so days are dominated by drizzle with occasional breaks of bright sun which inevitably produce rainbows. The passengers all seem to have a certain sense of adventure which manifests differently depending on nationality. There are the two couples from Australia I had seen at a coffee shop back in Natales (I had watched closely their response as the stereo in the shop cranked up “Take a Walk on the Wild Side), a kiwi long distance cyclist who wears shorts and flip flops while the rest shiver in multiple layers, a German man wanders with a horn about his neck, blowing it at random moments outside. There is a geomorphology professor from Humbolt University in Berlin with a host of students on their way to study the volcanos of the lake region. Four are in a room across my hall, charming and interesting people. But my favorites are an Italian couple from Genoa who generally keep to themselves. The woman’s excitement is palpable. She looks out the window from the lounge with a huge smile and often jumps up, gathers her camera and ducks out on deck to snap pictures, returning with an even bigger smile and a quick caress for her husband. There seems to be only one other American, an older woman who talks without interruption. Some poor Australians got caught and stood listening politely for long minutes, just like Coleridge’s wedding guest when buttonholed by the ancient mariner. The crew do their work on other decks, though there are several assigned to the passengers, including a multilingual polymath who delivers daily lectures (in both English and Spanish) on geology, flora, and fauna—he is knowledgeable but more to the point, enthusiastic.

The first day of cruising was calm and uneventful. Some dolphins danced off the bow, and parts of the day revealed clear views of mountains with a dusting of new snow, but what was most compelling was the sheer emptiness of the area. We cruise through islands, large and small, that have no trace of human habitation. I remember stories of sealers (Melville and perhaps Dana) who would come into Chilean coves to kill and process seals, and imagine their visits here or perhaps canoes or small boats of the Tehuelche moving from island to island, but clearly this is a place to pass through and not to linger long. The winds blow often with gale force, and the land is steepsided, with sheer cliffs coming straight to the waterline, and everywhere, on high, spout waterfalls fed by the distant glaciers.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 22-23

March 16th, 2018

In Patagonia Days 22-3
Puerto Natalas

Puerto Natales, a town with a cemetery where the mausoleums have aluminum storm doors, and the people (living) even in late summer bundle in winter coats, all wandering about looking like puffy hand-grenades. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Woodstock, Virginia, with a population then of somewhere around 2000. I only recall three major changes occurring to the town in those years—the integration and consolidation of the schools (around 1966), the building of a “shopping center” (what is now called a strip mall) on the northern end of town, and the opening of Interstate 81 in the late 60s. Each of these changes affected how people moved through and around the town. The integration of the schools primarily affected people already living in the town, but consolidation closed small schools in St. Luke, Zepp, and some others, bringing students from out in the county to the Woodstock schools. The shopping center, like most such “innovations” threatened to (but ultimately didn’t) destabilize the central commercial district. The interstate’s effects were, as in so many communities, profound. Traffic downtown was reduced but so were the businesses that catered to travelers on the valley turnpike—Rt. 11—which runs from Louisiana to Maine. All up and down the valley, small restaurants, diners, motels, and motor courts closed while gas stations and chain hotels opened out on the highway. I-81 also made it possible for families to move further from the “City” (Washington DC), some even settling in Woodstock. As a kid though, the town remained what it had always been, a place where an intrepid walker or bike rider could explore every street, alley, and backlot. Small town life meant knowing intimately the entire space where people lived, worked, and played.

I had nearly forgotten that sense of place as, on leaving Woodstock, I also left my childhood, living over the years in a number of different cities, but only knowing them superficially. These last weeks have not given me intimate knowledge of any specific place, but my lingering in El Chaltén and Puerto Natales with, because of logistics, plenty of time to wander aimlessly, renewed my sense of that same childhood wonder: new houses being built (so lots to explore), old houses decaying (so lots to explore), paths through back lots, that sense that you could walk over most of the town in a day, and just the pure hum and buzz of the local inhabitants (including dogs) occupying a small town. It was a time machine, and occasioned many smiles and sometimes laugh-out-loud pleasure.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 21

March 11th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 21
El Chaltén—Puerto Natalas

A transition day in preparation for a new phase of Patagonian peregrinations. Passing back through El Calatafe on my way back to Puerto Natales gave me a chance to reflect on the trekking culture I’ve been witnessing here which is much different from the long distance hiking world I know best. To state the obvious, no one here is off on a 2000 mile thru hike, so people’s attitudes, expectations, and mein are quite different. There are the kids—college-age big backpack hustlers off for the most experiences at the cheapest price. They are fascinating to watch and listen to—rapid information transfer about the best way to get by, keep costs down, and extend the trip. More often when they head off on an extended hike it is to sleep in a tent and avoid hostel fees. The opposite end are the upscale all-inclusive experience purchasers, those for whom glamping is roughing it. But the folks in the middle are an interesting lot. There are experienced world travelers with their worn gear (usually Deuter), who know how to get what needs doing done, know their capabilities and plan accordingly. They are the ones who smile knowingly at a campsite when all is properly pitched and the evening settles in. But the others in this middle group I find most interesting are the newbies. Brand new equipment, usually in groups of four or more and often with guides, even for a day hike. You see their pain going up a steep grade and their joy when arriving at an overlook or a peak. This is group that is transitioning their experience of the big outside —no longer just looking at it but instead being in it—and their excitement is palpable. Some just suffer and return to nature documentaries on television, but others learn the satisfaction of the path, the rhythmic pleasure of walking. Yes, the views are great, as are the occasional sightings of giant woodpeckers or foxes (saw both in the last two days), but, cliches aside, it all is heightened, indeed determined, by being in that world rather than just seeing it through a lens frame or on a screen (see Brutal Beauty).

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 20

March 11th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 20
El Chaltén—Lago del Desierto—El Chaltén

Today was about borders—national, hydrological, botanical, and geological. My last day in Argentina’s Glacier National Park was a shuttle ride up a rough gravel road with many one-lane wooden bridges to Lago del Desierto, a long narrow lake 37 kilometers from El Chaltén. The plan was simple: visit the lake, climb up to Huemul glacier, then mountain bike back to town, so maybe the first border I should mention is the one between me and the bicycle seat—wish I had packed the spandex riding shorts. The primary border that framed today, what has defined this area in the last 50+ years, is the watershed, the continental divide which, after much contention, settles national borders. A drop of rain falling on the mountains just past Lago del Desierto either flows to the Pacific and therefore is Chilean water, or it ends up Argentinian Atlantic water. It has not always been so simple (and probably still isn’t) but here in the 1960s, the two Patagonian countries argued about who governed a nearly empty (of humans) and generally unstudied region. In 1965, following a dispute about which country a farmer owed allegiance, there was an incident between Chilean and Argentinian forces near the lake. A Chilean, Lieutenant Hernán Merino Correa, was killed and now is considered a hero, buried in a special cemetery in Santiago. Both governments were in some internal political turmoil in that era, and the argument was not really settled until 1994, but now the area is officially part of Argentina, though from the base of the lake you can see Chilean mountains. It had occupied a place long ignored by both Argentina and Chile, so it was a marginal zone crowded in by mountains, glaciers, and impenetrable ice fields.

The story of El Chaltén itself helps explain the complexities of stabilizing borders. The Rio de Los Vueltas valley had been partly settled by Scandinavian farmers setting up estancias. Perhaps most famous was Andreas Madsen, a Dane who wrote Hunting Pumas in Patagonia and Tales of the Old Patagonia (books I have not been able to find). Still, the upper reaches had been largely ignored, and Argentina’s response after the 1965 skirmish was to push a road up to the lake and a rough path further on to the border. Today that point is occupied by the military and is a checkpoint for intrepid souls hiking through to O’Higgins township on the Chilean side. The real political move though was establishing El Chaltén itself. The youngest town in all of Argentina, it was founded in 1985 in order to open the land around Fitz Roy and Torres to tourism, and essentially to occupy a place that had previously been scarcely experienced by large groups of humans. The native Tehuelche who did not settle that particular site and who were pretty much exterminated in 19th century by General Roca, called Fitz Roy “Chaltén” which means “the mountain that smokes.” It doesn’t have the feel of a planned community. The bus station is at the entrance to the town and a wide boulevard leads to the first major intersection, continuing on after a dogleg to the left until it meets a terrace with grid steel walkways to go up to the next level. If you take a right back at the first major intersection followed by an immediate left, you are on the main road heading out toward Lago del Desierto and the Chilean border. It is initially lined with restaurants (with their competing happy hours), hostels, and outdoor adventure storefronts. Unlike El Calatafe, El Chaltén is much more relaxed. They aren’t hustling tourists to the Perito Moreno glacier but instead simply let everyone wander off on spectacular day hikes or multi-day treks. Although I have no idea what life is like there in the off-season, it does seem a vital community. Across from my hostel was a school full of boisterous children. Roberta, the hostel owner, has a daughter who attends. And isolated as Chaltén might be, that small population was out marching on International Women’s Day. It is hard to comprehend that 35 years ago, this was a windswept plain. Had Bruce Chatwin’s peregrinations taken him here, he would had to seek shelter from one of a few widely spaced estancia houses. I was enchanted by this outpost at the end of the road and near the end of the world.

Those estancias stretching up the Rio de Los Vueltas valley and in the plains to the east bring a different border awareness— the thin soil horizon, often absent, that gives ground to tufts of some tough grasses and provides grazing land for sheep, horses, and cattle. It is difficult not to be struck by the miles of fencing even in the most isolate desolate areas. At the end of summer with plenty of rain the plants are still brown and crisp. Often there are simply large open patches of granite gravel— river wash—which forms the foundation for the thin soils. It’s some hard living for plants, animals and humans. The farmhouses are easy to pick out at a distance as they are planted up with Lombardy Poplar windbreaks (similar to the high hedges on windswept farms in New Zealand). You can imagine the calm refuge they must provide and the shock of stepping out of the lee to head off into the lea for daily chores. The poplars are not indigenous but seem to thrive. The surrounding mountains are generally bare, so it is easy to see their geological architecture, but in sections sheltered from the more brutal winds, two varieties of nothofagus live. Indigenous to the area, the larger are the celebrated Lenga (Nothofagus pumilio, the best restaurant on Puerto Natales is called Lenga). A nearly identical appearing but smaller variety is the Ñire. By observing their clusters, you can understand other sorts of borders—soil horizons and microclimates. Early 20th century ranchers burned off sections of hillside to stimulate the growth of grass, but since much of the area is now National Park (the Glacier National Park is a UNESCO world heritage site) and the surrounding private land has some use restrictions, the nothafagus forests are regenerating. In the marshy and heavily disturbed areas, the Ñire do their work, and in the more stable (though still thin soiled) areas the Lenga go about transforming the barren and windswept into calm peace.

One last border—the Pacific Ocean, not as an end point but as a new barrier separating lands that had once been cheek by jowl. Recently scientists using flora and fauna similarities have agued that New Zealand was once nestled against the Patagonian coast. Apart from marked similarities in geological activity, those two places are one of the few places where nothafagus exist indigenously, though instead of Ñira and Lenga, the Kiwis have red, hard, mountain, and black. As Joan Maloof and Peter Wohlleben each observe, the beech is a tree with special qualities, as anyone who has wandered through an old growth beech forest can attest. Technically the nothofagus are not actual beeches, hence the appellation “false beech.” The Patagonian/New Zealand versions are different from their European and North American counterparts, but as someone who has had the opportunity to wander through groves of each, they are every bit as magical.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 19

March 8th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 19
D’Agostini Campground to El Chaltén

Woke to the sound of light rain on the tent and a distinct chill in the air. Dozed a bit, looked out at the other tents where no one was stirring. My cold, wet-weather New Zealand training kicked in, and methodically I gathered my things, filled compression bags, and stuffed my pack, so on emerging I was nearly ready to leave. Wasn’t really in a hurry as the way back to town is only nine km, but also didn’t want to sit around long in the rain. The camp was quiet, so my jetboil actually seemed loud. Couple of cups of coffee and I was off, just as the tents started rustle. The first two thirds of the walk were flat and easy. The surface was primarily water rounded stones embedded in sandy granite gravel, so the trail was almost a sidewalk. It followed closely the river which was pretty high and rough from all the rain and glaciel melt. The clouds were low and a light rain continued, so the mountains forming the valley were mere shadows.

In The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd talks about how the mist doesn’t inhibit vision but instead lets you see that which doesn’t ordinarily appear in the brightness of clear air. The same can be said of sound. Early morning sharp sounds—bird cries, branches breaking—were not so much muffled as modulated. The thick air thickens the sound, giving a different, perhaps richer timbre. The dominant sound was the river which rumbled constantly but without rhythm—a chaotic wall of sound muted by heavy air. As paths are wont to do, it glanced off the riverbank, drifted into groves of massive old Lenga trees which further attenuated the roar. I recalled a passage in Walden where Thoreau pauses while hoeing beans to hear Concord church bells peal, commenting on how the distance and the trees transformed that music. As you might suspect, that first hour was uninterrupted by footsteps, voices, or the obligatory “Holas” to each passing trekker. Instead it was just me, a path, a river, a forest, in a purity of sound almost unimagined, almost unlived.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 18

March 8th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 18
Poincenot Campground—D’Agostini Campground

Woke to a cloudy windy morning but the rain had stopped. Took my time leaving as the wind soon dried my wet hiking clothes (which meant I still have dry clothes in my bag—always a good idea). Today I walked the trail that connects the Fitzroy loop with the Torres loop. This is not a common route, so I had it to myself, hiking beside two long lakes, and then winding through a magnificent grove of Lenga trees before finally descending into another river valley, fed by the Torres cluster of glaciers. The path went up that river which was nearly out of its banks. For some reason it is the Fitzroy River even though it has no connection to the peak. The Beagle’s (and Darwin’s) captain sure got around. Arrived at the campsite around lunchtime again, so followed the same drill—set up tent (glad I did as the camp became very crowded later in the day), ate some lunch, packed gear in daypack and headed up to Laguna Torre. What a difference a day makes. An easy walk half a click from the campground, the skies clear, windy but tolerable. The path led to the base of a round lake surrounded by three peaks. The sun baked down on the rocks so I was soon reclining and basking. Earlier in the day I had to cross a flooded stream, so took off my soaked shoes and let the wind and sun have at it. A parade of day hikers continued to pass, and I got to see them right when they crested the ridge and the scene opened up to them. They always said “beautiful” but in their own (many) languages. I think the greatest pleasure was in being able to linger at the mirador. I’ve arrived at so many places where the view is breathtaking, but so is the wind limiting the chance to take it all in.

Back on day 4 of this trip, I described how I like to go into a cathedral and, rather than wander, just sit in a pew waiting to see where my eyes take me. Today’s mirador was like a church, and that pile of rocks was my pew. Directly in front was the lake, almost perfectly round. I could see across the lower part of the glacier where the meltwater flowed in, and off to my left, the roar of the Fitzroy river leaving. But in the middle, opaque milky brownish water with the wind whipping up big waves, driving them toward where I sat. In the apse on my left, there were at the top the now familiar sharp granite crags, the pure upthrust of molten rock, but part way down was a band of lighter, almost yellow stone (the rounded fragments of which mix with the granite stones that make up the round-rock and sand landscape of my end of the lake). Down the middle of that mountain trails a wild swirl of a waterfall. To my right is another peak of similar height but much different appearance. It has its share of granite crags, but just beneath them are layer upon layer of slightly tilted strata. This entire mountain was uplifted with those layers nearly intact. Perhaps because of that, huge piles of rocky scree slope down to the water’s edge, as if this mountain is in a hurry to slide down to the lake below. Like all my views of Mt. Fitzroy, Torres was also encased in clouds, only offering shadowy glimpses of the true heights. Its base was crowded with glaciers of very shade of blue and every shade of white.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 17

March 8th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 17
El Chaltén —Poincenot Campground

As is often the case with full day trekking, it was a day with a split personality. None of these sections involve any real distance, so I caught the 9:30 shuttle to the trailhead, accompanied by a number of folks including two American couples with a baby packing in steaks and eggs. The first part of the day felt like any number of Te Araroa days. The bus was more of a truck with a compartment on the back— you entered from the rear by climbing a pullout ladder. The road was gravel and followed a fast moving braided river. The bus turned at the opening of a smaller river valley and dropped us off. I made haste to get distance from the crowd. Just like so many days on the South Island of NZ, the path followed along a fast moving glacial stream, slowly gaining elevation, then after a bit turning uphill and gradually climbing to a saddle which is usually crossed around midday. This was not a a hard climb but it was beautiful, passing a high mountain glacier feeding a nearly as high lake which of course emptied via a high waterfall. The wind was strong and occasionally there were sprinkles but the morning was mostly in the sun. I arrived at the campsite midday. It which was in a grove of very old growth Lenga trees. Previous campers had piled large logs and branches upwind on the camping clearings, signaling the weather to expect. I set up my trusty Zpack solo, ate some cheese and crackers, put my foul weather gear in a daypack and took off for Laguna de Los Tres, which was only a few kilometers up from camp. In these mountains, the glaciers crowd the peaks, with their meltwater converging in high mountain lakes which spill out to form the milky torrents cascading to the valley. Laguna de Los Tres is one such lake, catching the water from glaciers coming off the Mount Fitzroy cluster. At first the climb was easy and still sunny, but soon it was incredibly steep and the rain started to settle in. I pushed on, wishing I had my trekking poles (I had left them holding up my tent). By the time I was 3/4s up, visibility was near zero, the wind was strong enough to blow off my glasses, and I was soaked completely through. Yes a schizoid day. Made it to the top, the clouds held back long enough to take in a view (barely got pictures as it was too wet to get my phone to open), then proceeded to the long slow climb down, arriving back after a long hour’s descent. Quickly made some pasta and climbed into my tent just as the rain really hit. It poured and howled all night, soaking many fellow campers, but, as usual, my Zpacks solo (which is the merest wisp of a tent weighing in at 1 lb.) held firm and kept me dry. What a brutal evening.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 16

March 8th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 16
El Chaltén

Thoreau called Katadhin a “cloud machine,” a well-deserved appellation though the day Bennett, Tom, and I summited to finish the Appalachian Trail, it was perfectly clear. We could see what seemed the entire state of Maine. Mount Fitzroy is also a cloud (and wind) machine. Today was one to get organized for a couple day (probably rainy) trek in Glacier National Park to get close to Fitzroy and Torres, but I took an 4 km stroll up to a mirador to see the mountain I’ll be following for a few days. It is a 3000+ meter magmatic upthrust of pure granite surrounded by a number of shorter but still sharp and jagged peaks. The terrain around is also volcanic in origin, primarily rhyolites. Every morning, the buses from Calatafe disgorge their passengers, many of whom are here for the day, so they put on wind gear, strap into day packs and take off up the mountain. A well-designed and maintained trail, it probably could use two lanes to deal with the traffic. The town is completely devoted to tourism with every bar and cafe supplied by local breweries competing for the best happy hour. They all seem successful.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 15

March 5th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 15
El Calatafe—El Chaltén

I started reading Jason Moore’s Capitalism in the Web of Life the other day. In the opening chapters he lays out an argument familiar in 21st century environmental philosophy criticizing the notion that humans are actors—agents of history— acting on a mute and stable Nature. Societies have history, Nature does not (ironically, what we today call science was once referred to as natural history). Of course people have long recognized that nature is always in some flux—earthquakes, eruptions, floods are all transformative—but the science that emerged in the Modern era was a description of underlying stabilities, uniformities, laws, and it rests on familiar binaries: subject/object, society/Nature, what in a slightly different form Alfred North Whitehead called the “bifurcation of nature.” But Moore’s is not a science studies book; rather he wants to understand how capitalism(s) use (and indeed are constituted by) the capital “N”Nature of modern science.

Reading is a material practice. Words can’t be abstracted from their substrate, but instead participate in specific material economies. It matters where and how words are produced and consumed. People often comment on how different a book is on re-reading, but such a claim depends on abstracting that text from the point of its consumption. From a materialist perspective, there is no such thing as re-reading as all readings necessarily involve a different configuration, setting, and materiality. That is all just to say I was reading and thinking about Moore while moving about in southern Patagonia. The question that nagged was why modern science—depending on atemporal, universal objects—emerges in Europe. It is, of course, a tired question, one chewed over by philosophers and historians for centuries, and probably not one to even ask in a hastily written blog about walking, so I’ll limit myself to walking speculation.

The Pennine Way runs up the backbone of England 200+ miles from Edale (near Manchester) to Kirk Yetholm just across the Scottish border. Days walking this path usually involve loitering in pubs in the Yorkshire Dales, strolling from picturesque village to picturesque village, occasionally up and over a ridge in high wind and blustery weather—the heights truly do wuther. Generally it is a peaceful, intimate environment though there are moments when, for example, entering Malham Cove or gazing out from High Cup Nick you feel something momentous and non-human has happened there, some environmental upheaval. But by and large, the walk is one through human history, one deeply felt. An early center of Modern Science was the English Royal Society, where the fellows defined the principles and practices necessary to articulate truth claims about the objective world. Much has been written about the complex politics of these emerging protocols (in particular Shapin and Schaffer’s magisterial Leviathan and the Air Pump). Later, in the 19th century Lyell and Darwin were able to bring long-scale earth history into the discourse, but remained magisterial. Still, I just want to make one small observation. Walking across England produces a sense of an environmentally stable world —Nature—written all over by Human history.

Walking in Patagonia is imbued with a hyperawareness of environmental conditions. It is raw, elemental. The wind flays you, the temperature swings cause constant adjustment, and its sheer vastness makes you feel insignificant. It is a land in flux—the actual land. Early European explorers derided the people they found living in this part of the world, criticizing their hygiene, clothing, housing, food, and social practices (even as late as the 19th century, Darwin was particularly vicious in his appraisal of the Tierra del Fuegeans). They were also condemned for their non-modernity, their failure to see the earth as object and instead finding all manner of spirits, animisms, and active agents in their Nature. They lived in a world full of what Jane Bennett would call in the 21st century “Vibrant Matter.” Most people who travel to southern Patagonia try to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier. It is an amazing sight (see “Day 14” below). Glaciers bring geological time into awareness, enabling us to see ice-age conditions and the massive disruption caused by the slow movement of active matter. Something visitors tend to miss, though, are the peaks that loom over the glacial valley. From the lake you can see four, each heavily eroded revealing clear strata marking upheaval and slow erosion. What struck me was how the first two showed perfect horizons of strata, level lines marking out the ticking of a long slow clock, while the the next two, made from what appears the same temporal and material strata but thrust up by different forces, were a twisted curving, almost writhing mass of flux. Looking at those peaks doesn’t give the sense of long past environmental transformation. You too are caught up in the geological maelstrom. I can imagine an emerging scientific practice here that does not start with a subject/object distinction, but instead begins with a world tangled up, erasing human/nonhuman binaries, and vastly complicating any sense of time’s arrow.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 14

March 3rd, 2018

In Patagonia Day 14
El Calafate—Perito Moreno Glacier—El Calafate

Yesterday evening I had a good IPA Esquél at the Wanaco bar looking out the window onto the main street of the old section of El Calatafe. It is lined with tour agencies, souvenir shops, restaurants, and hiking equipment stores. Divided by a green median with an alley of tall trees, its cars pass sporadically, chased by mongrel hounds. Trekkers with large packs march past on their way to some hostel, while couples young and old peruse the restaurant menus, and kids eat ice cream dashing madly up and down the sidewalk. A young woman walking arm in arm with an elderly lady passed the window several times. In profile, it was clear they were related, pretty sure a granddaughter out with her grandmother. Unlike nearly everyone else on the street (who tend to wear some variation of Patagonia or Northface gear), the granddaughter wore a long blue wool coat, one you would see in a large city, while her grandmother had a long quilted coat with (probably fake) fur on the cuffs and collar. Her hair was up in an old fashioned style, and she carried a wooden cane with a shiny brass handle. What initially drew my attention was how solicitous the younger one was—they walked with such care. What then became clear was a deep affection between them, bordering on conspiracy. Much more than familial obligation, it was obvious these two genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. They were good friends. I was touched, and grateful for a rare glimpse of deep human connection and compassion.

Apart from people watching and souvenir shopping, the reason everyone comes to El Calatafe is the Perito Moreno glacier in a park 70km west of the city. It is possible to take a bus there, but with a little bit of a splurge, you can go on a small tour bus and also spend an hour on a boat cruising the face of the glacier. I splurged, and you can imagine my pleasure when I boarded the tour bus and there seated in the front row were last night’s strollers, complete with cane, coats, with the addition of big knit wool hats. Erica, the guide couldn’t quite suppress a frown on learning that my Spanish was too weak to follow her discursus on all things glacial during the day-long excursion. Everyone else spoke Spanish or Portuguese (the two women were from Buenos Aires), so Erica would talk a long while, complete with visual aids, then glance down at me and deliver the condensed version in English. I did learn a lot, and she sure put on a show, all but rolling a drum as we rounded the bend for our first sight of the glacier. It was drumroll-worthy. From that point on, words were unnecessary. The boat was a large catamaran with glassed-in seating surrounded by a catwalk. The morning had started off cold and pouring rain, but by the time we were onboard, the skies were clear and the sun was shining, though it was still fairly cold—those were many square miles of ice we sailed next to. The hour on the boat was spent slack jawed staring at a wall of ice fissured with blue. The rest was moving around the catwalk taking photos, selfies, and snapping portraits for those leaning on nearby rails.

Recovering terra semi-firma, we bused up to the balconies— a vast complex of wood, stone, and steel walkways winding about a point of land affording views of both faces of the glacier (I only saw one face from the boat). We all spent several hours taking in every angle possible. The grandmother was only able to walk out to the first high balcony, but on my leaving, I witnessed yet another scene of true tenderness between the two when, because of the wind, the young woman lit her grandmother’s cigarette for her.

T. Hugh Crawford

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