Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 35

March 24th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 35
Valdivia—Niebla—Valdivia

Today I was re-reading Eduardo Kohn’s book on forests and anthropology, and came to a section on anxiety I had forgotten. He uses a personal story about risk while traveling to unpack Pierce’s semiotics and begin to work out his idea of forest thinking and an anthropology “beyond the human.” I had taken a bus to the village of Niebla, site of a complex of forts designed to defend the entrance of the waterway to Valdivia. Niebla was flattened by the 1960 earthquake, but the castle, which was cut from the solid rock cliffs above Corral Bay, survived (more or less) and now is a well-designed park/museum. After wandering around a bit, I found myself sitting in the town plaza on an old bench with peeling paint, waiting for the Cafe Motometa to open. I got to thinking about Kohn’s description of travel anxiety, and reflected on my own. The very beginning of this trip was a little unsettling as I experienced anxiety at a level I rarely if ever have. Just two years ago I rolled through a round-the-world walkabout with barely a care in the world, so my early stress on this trip was disconcerting. What I was sure of today was that sitting there in that square, listening to a man talk rapidly in a barely recognizable Spanish while a bird that seemed a small tame raptor pecked at the sidewalk, brought a feeling of simple peace.

One form of anxiety travel produces is the fear of missing out. Everyone compares lists of walks, climbs, or boat trips that are not to be missed. When long-distance trekking, that stress is relieved as what you are supposed to see is the path, day in and day out, but hopping from place to place brings an obligation to see the sights. Thankfully for me, Chatwin is a better guidebook. He sought out scenes, but his wandering was true wandering. He understood that something like sunrise on Fitz Roy should not be missed, but also that a walk down an empty country road, past a farm or orchard can also bring a full sense of being. He walked long and hard, exposed himself to the elements, but also spent days lounging about reading a book. No fear of missing out there.

Kohn’s anxiety was brought on by being on a bus caught in a landslide area, and was relieved by some bird watching (it was much more complicated than that). The psychic movement was from the uncertainty of an imagined “what if” to the grounding of seeing a striking (but familiar) bird in a place both wild (the jungle at the edge of town) and grounded (near the pavement of the road). His grounding wasn’t a sense of complete familiarity— what you live when you are “at home”—but instead the grounding you feel when you feel the ground (that is, when it is not sliding or quaking). I think when I started out on this trek, I was anxious about some simple physical abilities—recent eye surgery and a knee that severely limits activity—and also I was leaving behind that sense of being “at home,” that clearly defined material space that includes a soft bed, a son, and a really great hound dog. It took some walking to regain my sense of a walking home, of being grounded by being on the ground, or in this case, on a bench with a book in the plaza of a tiny village in Chile.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 31

March 21st, 2018

In Patagonia Day 31
Castro—Puerto Varas

The bus to Puerto Varas was long but uneventful, except a marker buoy mid-channel on the ferry ride covered with seals sunning themselves. I am glad I visited Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, Puerto Montt, and Castro before coming here as I would have gotten a completely different sense of Chile. Without doubt, this is a serious tourist town, clean to the point of sterility—grass actually growing in the median strips, tall new buildings (Radisson, etc.) many sheathed in wood with hipped roofs echoing the Germanic influence of late 19th century settlers. In the other cities, a fishing equipment store sold huge nets, ropes, hawsers, pulleys and turnbuckles. The ones here sell fly rods to Americans who are wearing Oakleys and camo hats. One bright spot, my hostel, up off the main area, is a massive old house built by a German family with high ceilings all completely sheathed in wood paneling. As the proprietor said, in those days wood was “free.”

In thinking back on Chiloé, a sentence from The Voyage of the Beagle has nagged me: “Many kinds of fine evergreen trees, and plants with a tropical character, here take the place of the gloomy beech of the southern shores.” Without doubt, Chiloé offers a greater variety and abundance of trees, but, having spent restful time in their shade, I bridle at the notion that the nothafagus—my favorite Lenga and Nirá—trees are gloomy. Of course readers of Darwin are used to judgmental adjectives creeping into his narrative which, for all its scientific detail, does not pretend to guidance from scientific objectivity. Comparing his descriptions of Chiloé with those made by Chatwin 150 years later, I can’t help but be struck by Darwin’s mild admiration and then outright condemnation of climate, soils, plants, and people. Chatwin, for his part, primarily tells the stories of people, not plants, and his voice is descriptively intense but more restrained in judgment.

That brings me back to why Darwin’s “gloomy trees” actually bothers me, which I will illustrate by an example. Several days ago, I described my walk from the bus station across Castro to a hostel: “…in the rain while the street venders pulled their wares under the buildings’ overhangs, I passed a round, pudgy boy no more than two, perched on a ledge eating sushi with clear gusto.” First I’ll be defensive—practicing the craft of travel writing, I was detailing what caught my eye, details that registered to me as matters of interest or concern. Much the way I will snap a photograph of an interesting building, or (the other day) a rusting abandoned playground, such descriptions are the reason for the writing. Ostensibly framed as a narrative or journey, most travel writing focuses on the moment, the detail, particularly what stands out as the foreign or other. But that is the rub, because it is also an active construction of an other, one that creates distance and objectifies. In some of Darwin’s prose the move is clearly hierarchical. His descriptions of the Maori can be appalling, but so is the “gloomy”on his southern trees. When I think of my description of a “pudgy” boy (or the American in the camo hat), I recall Michel Foucault’s description of the birth of the clinic in a book of that name. He details the development of the clinical method, a system to enable the physician “to see and to say” by tightly linking the objectification of the medical object (the patient) to the doctor’s visual perception and his medical discourse. He goes on to describe this as a form of violence, or at the very least aggressive objectification: “the descriptive act is, by right, a ‘seizure of being’ (une prise d’etre)….” To travel is to seek out the unique, the unusual, the other; to write about travel is to capture the other, to seize its being.

Travel writing has a double logic, as it rests on two qualitatively different events: the physical travel and the textual representation. The power relations between the two often flip in interesting ways. The traveler is usually vulnerable. One can accuse Darwin and Chatwin of exploiting white privilege but only if the real vulnerability they actually experienced on the ground is ignored. Darwin, in particular, spent a lot of time traveling in discomfort, difficulty, and genuine risk of his life (though he understated all that in his text), and Chatwin, though moving through a world with much more infrastructural support, still found himself abandoned at times and Patagonia is an unforgiving place. Then they turn to paper, representing for a broader audience the world they have visited. In the comfort of the study, physical vulnerability fades (though writing makes a person vulnerable in other perhaps more insidious ways). Back home in England, Darwin can savage the Tierra del Fuegean savages who nearly savaged him, while Chatwin can embellish (apparently in an unforgivable manner) the stories about Welsh settlers in Gaiman and environs. It is in this second move that othering, objectification, and mastery come into play, framing the essential tension of travel writing, and perhaps giving us its definition as a specific genre.

But travel writing has also always been a strange hybrid, usually drawing on other representational regimes. Those familiar with Chatwin’s work know that the line between reportage and fiction in Songlines and In Patagonia is smeared, and he readily exploits that. Similar to Melville’s first book, Typee where Herman traded mercilessly on the line between fiction and his purported eyewitness accounts as “the man who lived among cannibals,” Chatwin’s descriptive precision (while usually arresting) can never be taken as literal. Darwin, like his hero Humboldt, drew on a different rhetorical tradition. Both wrote texts of high adventure, describing huge risks in distant lands, but in nearly the same sentences would describe with scientific precision a plant or stone encountered. In The Voyage, Darwin constantly alternated his travel narrative with “objective” scientific discourse, giving particular resonance to pages where he describes native people rowing the boat as unbearably ugly, leaving the reader to surmise that “ugly” is an objective fact and not the product of an Englishman’s prejudice.

So perhaps travel writing works on a double-double logic: physical vulnerability+representational mastery//biographical adventure writing+ another familiar genre.

And perhaps the reason for isolated objectifications is to forward the question of how and why over time do specific moments—glimpses—come to matter so much.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 29

March 19th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 29
Castro—Cucao

Today I crossed Chiloé from Castro to the village of Cucao, following the footsteps of Darwin and Chatwin, though they both chose to avoid difficult roads by taking a boat across the lakes. As Chatwin notes, the island is nearly bisected by two long narrow lakes starting a few kilometers outside Chonchi and continuing to the west coast. Infrastructure has improved in the last decades so I just caught one of the many buses running out of Castro to Cucao and the National Park, though I did look longingly at the lake, wishing I could make the water passage. Darwin describes this part of the island as nearly uninhabited. While that is not the case today, thinly populated could be a good description. Development is limited by the National Park which protects a rainforest and a large number of ecologically important plant and animal species (including a fox that, at the time was so tame that Darwin snuck up behind and killed with a geology hammer). Chatwin notes the land is covered by fuchsia and bamboo, and while not completely off, there are a lot of other plants of note, along with birds—from hawks to hummingbirds, and  many species of myrtle—there is much to see and hear while wandering the park.

I guess I’ve done my share of complaining about the weather, but still can’t touch Darwin who describes Chiloé this way: “In winter the climate is detestable, and in summer it is only a little better. I should think there are few parts of the world, within the temperate regions, where so much rain falls. The winds are very boisterous, and the sky almost always clouded….” He was not impressed with Castro, noting “the streets and plaza were coated with fine green turf, on which sheep were browsing. The church, which stands in the middle, is entirely built of plank, and has a picturesque and venerable appearance.” As he made his way down the coast before turning west to Cucao, he passed villages that today contain those UNESCO world heritage churches (though in all fairness, these were probably earlier structures): “We proceeded to the south—generally following the coast, and passing through several hamlets, each with its large barn-like chapel built of wood.” Of course they don’t resemble the picturesque stone chapels dotting the English countryside, but I’ve found those “barns” imposing structures. Chatwin caught the ferry, Darwin was rowed in a “periagua … a strange rough boat, but the crew were still stranger: I doubt if six uglier little men ever got into a boat together.” Just like in Tierra del Fuego and the Australian outback, Darwin, always the judge of human pulchritude.

My trip over was uneventful except a moment when a steer wandered into the road. I found La Paloma campground, dumped my pack and spent the day wandering the rainforest path of the park, the dunes, and then trekked up to see one of those “barn-like” churches. The area has no grocery stores so I am curious how people get their food, but I scrounged enough for tomorrow’s hike north, found an empty restaurant for a cerveza and seafood dinner just as the rain moved in. That might impact tomorrow’s plans, but for now, I’m warm and dry, eating a massive seafood stew.

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 12

March 1st, 2018

In Patagonia Day 12
Puerto Natales—Mylodon Cave—Puerto Natales

In a glass case at the Salesian Museum in Punta Arenas are two pieces of mylodon hide. Although extinct for at least 10,000 years, the fur looks fresh as if the animal were killed this year. Bruce Chatwin begins his book In Patagonia describing a piece of the same hide, but his was in a glass case at his grandmother’s house in England (and was later lost in a move). His obsession with the hide—first he thought it was brontosaurus, then mylodon (giant ground sloth)—is the ficelle for his book (see Day 4 below for more on that).

Chatwin begins his adventures in northern Patagonia, works his way south to Tierra del Fuego, then up the Chilean coast, first Punta Arenas, then a bit further north to Puerto Natales (then Puerto Consuelo), to the story’s origin and the culmination of his quest. On his arrival in 1974, Chatwin had to seek out Herman Eberhard’s grandson for directions and access to an isolated cave carved by ancient seas in a conglomerate hump, barely a mountain, rising out of the flat plain beside the Devil’s Seat rock formation. Today the mountain and its caves are part of a small national park complete with a visitors center (selling mylodon tchotchkes) and a network of trails doubling as mountain bike paths. Rather than an example of crass commercialization, there is something endearing about the whole place. The larger region caters to tourists ready to spend a lot of money to be shown mountains, fjords, and glaciers, but my trip to the cave was a morning drive in a plain passenger van complete with a mylodon decal on the side accompanied by a driver and four Americans looking to spend a morning away from high stress tourism. On one level the caves are underwhelming, so they serve exactly that function. The primary cave is grand with a high arching ceiling and a flat fine grained dirt floor. Apart from some very simple explanatory plaques and a life-sized model of a mylodon, there is little else to see. But of course there is much more.

Chatwin’s arrival at more or less the end of his journey and more or less the end of his book was also underwhelming. He enters the cave unhampered by today’s sidewalk and boundary ropes, digs around in the dirt, finds some “leathery turds”of extinct sloth (all I saw on the dirt were old footprints and many round stones that had fallen from the ceiling. If you squint a bit, they could be turds). He looks into some of the holes his grand uncle helped dynamite in order to make off with bones and fur, and comes up with a few familiar reddish hairs which will happily serve as substitute for the lost hide, but what he does not see is a past: “I tried to picture the cave with sloths in it, but I could not erase the fanged monster I associate with a blacked-out bedroom in wartime England.” He could not reconcile his childhood image of the hide’s source with science’s depiction. Given the numerous mylodon images in and around Puerto Natales, it is perhaps a disappointing monster. But more to the point, In Patagonia is a book of stories—the stories of people. The mylodon is connected to the story of his relative, Charlie Milward. The actual sloth is never more than prompt and a bit of extinct flesh. This morning I had the advantage of seeing a cave without the lens of human history. The conglomerate erratic “Devil’s Seat” has a story, one of ancient lakes, eroding mountains, underwater debris and pressure. It is also the story of upthrust and the receding of Lake Sofia, and finally the story of how it came to be where it now rests. Clearly it travelled, a wandering rock, from a place closer to the cave or perhaps from an even more distant formation. Darwin speculates that many large erratics in this region arrived on icebergs.

The twisted strata of the surrounding hills tell tales of slow sedimentation and violent disruption. On closer timescales, the cave tells of inhabitation by extinct horses, sabre-tooth tigers, ground sloths, and early humans. Their lives—sleeping, eating (or being eaten), living, dying—still reverberate in that place. Of course Chatwin saw and heard; his ability to listen was incomparable. He simply had another story to tell, and at this point in the narrative, it is his own. The recovery of the fur sample takes him back to childhood memories, and his wild things, which at least in part keeps him from seeing the wild things in the actual cave, ones that “roared their terrible roars and gnashed their terrible teeth and rolled their terrible eyes and showed their terrible claws.”

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 11

March 1st, 2018

In Patagonia Day 11
Grande Paine—Puerto Natales

This morning the sun came up over the ridge as brutally strong winds whipped up Lago Grey, dragging aloft a fine mist which made rainbows.

One of the most common words in The Voyage of the Beagle is “wind,” but of course that’s to be expected in a nineteenth century book about a sea voyage. Winds always howl and even scream when literary ships round the Horn, but the word appears just as often in Darwin’s descriptions of his land journeys, and the bulk of those are in Patagonia. The Voyage details a nearly five year circumnavigation, touching at numerous exotic places (he was one of the world’s first eco-tourists), so I find it striking that in the conclusion Darwin singles out Patagonia: “In calling up images of the past, I find that the plains of Patagonia frequently cross before my eyes; yet these plains are pronounced by all wretched and useless.” When I let my mind simply drift over long treks, what is most vivid is usually not the picturesque—more often the memory partakes of the open: the vast, the empty, and usually the windy. Darwin’s “plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely passable, and hence unknown: they bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time.” Of course they are passable. The cordillera and some strong rivers make passage difficult, but what Darwin speaks of is not obstacle but difficulty, rugged terrain, profound weather, and an abiding sense that, like Thoreau’s Ktaadn, this is not a place for humans to linger.

W. H. Hudson, always ready to defend the Patagonia he cherished in Idle Days finds the wind salubrious, “I do not myself believe there is any climate in the world to compare with the winter of the east coast of Patagonia; and although its summer might seem disagreeable to some persons on account of the violent winds that prevail at that season, the atmosphere at all times is so dry and pure as to make pulmonary complaints unknown.” Of course he describes the eastern region near Rio Negro and not the dry dust of the west. Odds are, some pulmonary complaints have been lodged there. Chatwin is the one who brings together the magic and the violence of the air, “a country of clean air and open spaces; of black mesas and blue mountains; of grey scrub breaking into yellow flowers, a country of bones picked clean by hawks, stripped by the wind, stripping men to the raw.”

There is something special about the wind in the Southern Hemisphere. Apart from being in or near hurricanes, or perhaps standing on top of Mt. Washington, I don’t recall any time in the north where I felt I would actually be sent sprawling by common, everyday wind. In the deep (global) south it’s another story. I was blown off the north side of Mt. Tongariro with gale force winds, horizontal rain, and zero visibility. Just outside of Wellington I crossed a ridge where I first staggered, and then had to hold onto my pack to keep it from being torn off. Several times on the South Island I simply had to sit to avoid falling. My walk yesterday back from the Grey glacier was in calm weather, enough to make me forget how strong the wind blew the day before. When I arrived at Paine Grande, the flags were simply rustling, but I considered what I thought would be prevailing winds when setting up my tent. A word about my tent— I have an unnatural attachment to my one pound, Cuben fiber ZPacks soloplex. My trekking poles are the tent poles, and the floor is exactly the size for my gear + me. I have spent many a comfortable night in it, but it is open all around, so wind generally makes it heave and shake, but not fail. The only exception thus far was my second night in it. After spending my first on New Zealand’s Te Araroa Trail in a campsite, I had to follow the ninety mile beach and therefore camped one night just back in the dunes. Of course that night a huge storm blew in, the pegs would not hold in sand, so I spent most of the night in the rain lying on top of my now-favorite tent to keep it from blowing away. Since then, it has never failed, though I have spent some nights awake holding the poles in place as the wind howled and sometimes screamed.

Last night, I went to sleep in a sweet calm (after the American college students in the next tent who clearly had skipped high school goverment class finished talking politics). Around 2:00 the winds came in and did not stop the rest of the night—no sleep, just constant flapping. I well remember spending summers on the ocean at Nags Head, North Carolina, where you might not know what day of the week it was, but you damn sure knew when the tide came in and which way the wind was blowing. Wandering the Southern Hemisphere brings back that element. Daily life is significantly directed by the strength and direction of the winds, and in some circumstances, your very life is dictated by it. I think what drew Darwin’s (and Chatwin’s) memory to Patagonia is this elemental nature, one that brings awareness, and strips you raw.

 

T. Hugh Crawford

 

In Patagonia Day 8

February 25th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 8
Puerto Natales

Time is heaped up helter-skelter in Patagonia. As the Beagle circled the land and Darwin took numerous excursions into the interior, the great naturalist puzzled over the geology he encountered. I always associated his thought with biology—mammals, birds, earthworms—but most of the Voyage is about rocks, specifically speculation about the strata of fossil shells high up on table land— uplift, erosion. There is much more Lyell than Malthus in The Voyage of the Beagle. In Patagonia, time is right on the surface. Water, wind and geological upheaval expose dinosaur bones, mixing them (at least in the imagination) with more recent but still long extinct species: toxodon, mylodon, megatherium, astrapotherium and the macrauchenia. And those are mingled with modern monsters—bones from the great whales hunted in these waters. Bones, fossil or just old, small but often large, adorn the lobbies of hostels, crowd restaurant coffee tables, turn up in unexpected places. Here dinosaur bones dine with whales and with humans.

Bruce Chatwin starts In Patagonia with a similar jumble, as his grandmother identifies the piece of mylodon skin (mylodons are extinct ground sloths whose imaginative profile decorates every street sign in Puerto Natales) with that of a brontosaurus. Both are ancient by human standards, but in geological time, the mylodon is fresh as a daisy. What is fascinating in that opening chapter is Chatwin’s leap from historical extinctions to possible human extinction through nuclear war. He notes that his interest in Patagonia was rekindled in school when Cold War planners explained blast zones and possible safe regions. Maps had to be redrawn and the strategy re-articulated with each new development of increasingly devastating bombs, so Chatwin looks to his atlas and discovers the end of the earth, the place out of the circles of destruction. Nuclear war hovers over his book, sometimes explicitly as when he speaks with an elderly Argentinian who may have known Butch Cassidy: “The old man had come out and was standing behind me. ‘No one would want to drop an atom bomb on Patagonia,’ he said.” But also implicitly as the book is haunted by fossils and by isolated survivors, people dispossessed of their own history, keeping it alive with simple details—songs, clocks, paintings—in their own distant versions of a bomb shelter. In Patagonia is a chronicle of those isolatos and in some ways is a meditation on the end of the earth taking place at the end of the earth.

Chatwin recounts childhood bullying when he spoke of his family’s (mistaken) ownership of brontosaurus skin, then turns to his schoolboy fear inspired by the bomb. This puts in sharp relief the impact of schoolyard terror, something particularly poignant in the USA today given the impact of the most recent school shooting and the political firestorm it has ignited. Most heartbreaking in the news was a student describing his as the “school shooting generation.” Theirs is, in so many ways, much more palpable than that of the “bomb shelter generation,” but the latter is the context through which to read Chatwin and perhaps understand some wanderers who have Baudelaire’s malady, the horror of one’s own home.

Chatwin’s childhood atlas search for a blast-free space brought home sharply the nuclear-meteorological stories of my youth. Of course each region has its own narrative, but in Shenandoah County, Virginia, it went something like this: even though Washington DC was only 100 miles away, the prevailing winds —usually coming strongly from the west—and the mountain range would shelter the area from any fallout. To the west was West Virginia and no one would waste a warhead on it. Those of us in Woodstock would survive the initial blast; it was the aftermath that was ambiguous. Of course each house had a basement supplied with canned goods—Chef Boy-R-D sold a generation’s worth of raviolios in those years. As children, even though we had to practice hiding under desks, we were more or less sheltered from the bomb shelter mania as the threat remained nebulous (unlike today’s gunfire threats). It was only occasionally we were reminded of possible extinction, living instead in a world where it seemed (at least as children) that nothing could touch us. The sight of a rifle prompted questions about the hunt, not schoolhouse drills.

 

Apparently the US government subscribed to roughly the same narrative as they built a number of secret facilities west of Washington DC designed to house those who might be left were armageddon to occur. One that remains famous is the Greenbriar, a luxury retreat that still has a direct train line to DC. Another that is less clear is a mountain somewhere near Strasburg Virginia which is supposedly hollowed out and ready to receive the Congress. To bring this closer to my story, there are parts of my father’s life that remain ambiguous to me. Coincidentally, he was born in Greenbriar County near what would be that Cold War facility. He went to Virginia Military Institute during WWII—class of 45, though they accelerated the program in those years—so he transitioned immediately to medical school at the University of Virginia. On graduation did his residency at Johns Hopkins (he loved to relate a story about steaming a bushel of oysters in the autoclave one night on emergency room duty). He was commissioned in the Public Health Service and was on a career that would have taken him to Washington and the offices of the Surgeon General (I well remember the uniform in the attic cedar closet). Instead, he overshot and took up a rural surgery practice in small-town Shenandoah County. I heard a number of explanations for this move, including the idea that the valley would survive a first-wave atomic attack, but what is burned in my memory is a small, old-fashioned suitcase that remained in the hall closet in our house on Summit Avenue in Woodstock. Of course we asked about it. Children explore every inch of the house where they grow up, and I knew it as well as Chatwin did his mylodon skin. I finally got an explanation which I first heard with amazement, then later with a teenager’s skepticism. Supposedly my father was the official surgeon for the underground facility near Strasburg about 15 miles away (it was probably the Mt. Weather facility in Bluemont). Of course this was a story I could not tell, and as the Cold War slowly thawed, it faded from my memory, becoming a tale I gave little credence until in my own middle-age, raising my children in the shelter of the shadow of that same mountain range. he died and I sorted out his papers including the documentation of his appointment (just now, here at the end of the earth, I try to remember the exact papers, and all I can say is that they confirmed the childhood legend).

Chatwin provides a new perspective on wanderlust. Professionally he found himself in the middle of writing a scholarly book on nomads that he knew no one would ever want to read, and while on an assignment to write something also inconsequential, he fled to Patagonia to seek stories that would help him make sense of his own. Fleeing is of course a survival instinct, but fleeing-from always brings a fleeing-to, and the world is every bit as immanent where you find yourself as it was where you were. The bomb-shelter generation’s watchword was “alienation,” a sense of displacement usually ascribed to stifling middle class values, the American business ethic, and a certain nomadism built into an emerging western culture. But, as we are learning from both the proliferation of weapons of cruelty along with global environmental degradation, alienation also grows from the shadow of impending extinction. My father’s position at a facility at the moment of Cold War apocalypse was a form of patriotic duty framed by historical circumstances, but what is left out of the story is that he was to report for duty alone, trusting the safety of his family to neighbors in an uncertain environment. Coming close on the heels of the great sacrifices of WWII where patriotism was articulated differently than today, his is a decision I cannot even begin to judge. Rather, like Chatwin teaches in his own indirect way, we all have to struggle to understand and reconcile solitude, obligation, and love with the end of the world.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 6

February 24th, 2018

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

In Patagonia Day 4

February 22nd, 2018

In Patagonia Day 4
Punta Arenas

My hotel is a creaking structure that defines the term “ramshackle.” The upper story is clad with flaking exterior chipboard and my room is a lean-to off the lobby, so the slightest step or voice sounds as if it is directly beside me. The breakfast (included) included the worst cup of coffee — no exaggeration— I’ve ever had, and I’ll drink any coffee—still, all part of the adventure. Ventured out into the town, made arrangements to boat out on the straits tomorrow, then went directly to Tapiz, a cafe I passed last night, resolving then to return in the morning. Another warm, wood-lined space, this one with overstuffed chairs in the window and tables made of thick-slabbed tree trunks. They redeemed coffee for consumption, though their breakfasts seem to be primarily huge slabs of pie (echoing the theme of their tables).

My very loose guidebook (as marked by the title of this trek) is Bruce Chatwin’s beautiful if quirky book, In Patagonia. I imagine I’ll post several “pointless essays” on it as the journey unfolds and hope to one day teach it in a walking class. Given how otherworldly Patagonia emerges in his book (and in Darwin, Hudson, and Bridges), it seemed necessary to walk about in it, but today was simply sight-seeing—inventorying the places and objects Chatwin describes. The prompt —the ficelle in Henry James’s terms—for In Patagonia is a piece skin or hide covered with coarse red hair in a glass cabinet in Chatwin’s grandmother’s house. She claimed it was a piece of brontosaurus hide given to her as a wedding present by a cousin, Charlie Milward, who was an adventurer in Patagonia. Although not a bit of brontosaurus, the artifact was part of the remains of a long-extinct animal called a mylodon— a giant ground sloth—that Milward had discovered in a cave in southern Chile. Young Chatwin was fascinated by the hairy item and, some years later set out to find not a brontosaurus or mylodon, but instead a family story. He ended up finding many many stories that make up the 90+ chapters of his book.

Charlie Milward had a varied career. Not only a searcher for long-gone animals, he sailed, built and repaired boats, ran a foundry, and even served as the British consul at Punta Arenas. After long wandering in the northern parts of Patagonia, Chatwin finally arrives in Punta Arenas, visiting the places I visited today. Milward built a magnificent house—part church, part castle, all unusual—though today it is crowded between other buildings including on one side a large, unremarkable warehouse. Its primary claim to fame is that Shackleton stayed there while organizing the rescue on Elephant island. Around the corner is St. James’s Anglican Church—Milward had a pew there—but today it was locked so all I could do was admire its outward simplicity. Perhaps the most important draw for Chatwin was the Salesian Museum which, I can confirm, does have several pieces of hairy mylodon flesh displayed in their natural history section (no mention there of Milward or Chatwin). Entering the museum chapel called attention to the weather in an indirect way. Like many churches, it has double doors in the vestibule, with the outer ones open when the church was. The space there was a sunny but also still space, so for the first time I watched flies circle without being buffeted by the Magellanic winds—completely arresting. Chatwin also describes the ceremony commemorating the Magellan statue in the middle of the main square, commenting that “A statue of Magellan pranced over a pair of fallen Indians, which the sculptor had modelled on ‘The Dying Gaul’.” And he visited the cemetery— an amazing complex of plants, paths, and mausoleums—containing the graves of many important Punta Arenas citizens, including Charlie Milward.

Although Chatwin set today’s agenda, he did not control it. In my time trekking the Camino Santiago, I learned (from a friend) how to see churches, particularly old historic ones. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but seeing a beautiful old church requires slipping in quietly, finding a pew near the apex (if cruciform) and simply letting your eyes play over the scene (which has been designed to be seen) while listening intently to the sounds which rush about almost silently. After your eyes and ears have been caught by most (never all) the scene offers, you are free to circumambulate the building, pausing at the various chapels for however much time they demand. Today I got to visit the Punta Arenas Cathedral just on the main plaza, and the more elaborate church of the Salesian mission. I want to say they were somehow typical, as all Catholic Churches participate in a certain typicality, but of course there were many distinguishing features. The Cathedral, which apparently burned at some point last century, was clean and spare. No exposed wood, all masonry and stucco, limited stained glass and paintings. All focus is on a mosaic Jesus in the upper apse. The Salesian chapel was full of stained glass and generally grander. The common decorations — at least what caught my eye—were bas relief marble carvings of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” in minute detail fronting the altars. Perhaps a regular feature in Catholic Churches but one I had not noticed.

After exiting the city cemetery, I followed Boulevard Bulnes past the sheep farming memorial, a multi-object bronze sculpture of a sheepdog, herd of sheep, shepherd and a saddled but un-ridden pony. Like the foot of the Native American on the base of Magellan’s statue, the saddle of the pony was polished bright by countless visitors, in this case mounting and dismounting for photos. Next was the horserace track Chatwin visited, concerned about his shabby dress. Given its general disrepair today, old Bruce would now have no qualms attending. From there I looped through what I think is North Beach to the water, following the beachline back to town. In that area, the houses are small, almost like vacation cabins, in a variety of styles and repair. Some new, with gambrel roofs surrounded by stern and sturdy fencing. Others sided with whatever material was available—interior tongue and groove siding, corrugated steel, sheet metal—in various stages of repair. All were fenced, creating a fortress mentality that makes me curious. Is it a current concern for crime or a longstanding colonial impulse for fortification? Whatever the reason, they prize their security systems. They do employ another, more familiar security as well. The place is crawling with dogs, some penned, some roaming freely, most loungers. I was strangely taken back to my childhood in Woodstock Virginia, remembering the days before poop bags and leash laws when everyone had a dog and they were always loose. Some might be slightly menacing (I remember a neighbor with penned German Shepherds) but we generally knew them all, so more often than not, they would barely raise their heads as we passed.

T. Hugh Crawford

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