Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 43

April 1st, 2018

In Patagonia Day 43
Valparaiso

In Valparaiso, the first time in a city for six weeks. Wandering Patagonia took me through a litany of fascinating but small towns—Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, El Calafate, El Chaltén, Castro, Puerto Varas, Pucón. Valparaiso is a true port, touched by the Beagle on its cruise with Darwin and visited by Herman Melville as a young sailor and also the port of origin for his fictionalized account of a slave ship uprising “Benito Cereno.” Today there are acres of concrete piers with multistory cranes casting long shadows over shipping containers stacked 10 high. The main part of the city is on a fairly flat band of land following the coast, looking very much like the earthquake uplifted land banding Wellington. There the high rises, corporate and government buildings, and warehouses fill in blocks relieved by the occasional park, including the imposing memorial in Sotomayor Square in the shadow of the Naval palace. I wandered through some of that area early Saturday morning from the bus, dodging the relics of some serious Good Friday debauchery. The port also accommodates tourists, and on this busy Easter weekend they swell the crowd.

I took the dollar harbor tour on one of the many elderly wooden boats (in some parts the paint was thicker than the wood). Though probably a city safety rule, it is a little disconcerting to see everyone wearing their life jackets before the boat pushes off from the pier. We coasted along the city to a point across the harbor where a decaying concrete dock provides habitat for some well-fed sea lions.

I’m sure they are oblivious to the fate of their ancestors at the hands of 19th century “sealers” like Amasa Delano, the other captain in Melville’s “Cereno” or the many inhabitants up and down the coasts pursuing skins and boiling blubber. Seeing the city from the water — as Ezra Pound would say “not as land looks on a map/ But as sea bord seen by men sailing”—shows how the city is formed and how the people live. Rising up from the lower level are a series of ridges, all covered with houses. Between ridges are deep ravines that effectively divide the city into segments. I walked up from the pier, climbing long steep stairs as the trolley was being repaired—many steep places are serviced by old vertical trolly cars—finding myself one ridge over from where I wanted to be, requiring my climbing to the very top of the high ridge and descending back into my neighborhood. Clearly affluence varies in relation to these different sections.

Superficially, this place that reminds me of Lisbon or Porto. Big fishing towns facing an ocean to the west, built on cliffs and steep hills making interesting levels. But some cultural differences make the comparison complicated. As always I found the best brew pub, and later a good seafood restaurant. The beer was great (including Jamaican Dream IPA which was green, really strange tasting and maybe a real 4/20 beer). And the fish was wonderful, but the staff in both places moved at a frenetic pace. Of course this is a holiday weekend and the city is packed with visitor (primarily from Santiago), and I understand the need for good, quick service, but both places made me nervous, wanting to finish quickly so the jumpy staff could fill the table with the next party. In Portugal, your table is yours—no one will hustle you out the door. The pace of life there is human, not economic. Perhaps I’m being unfair as it was a busy time, and I do love this city, particularly its out-of-kilter structures, sidewalk life, and of course the murals—pure delight.

T. Hugh Crawford

In Patagonia Day 32

March 21st, 2018

In Patagonia Day 32
Puerto Varas —Mt Osorno—Puerto Varas

In November of 1832 Darwin was on Chiloé, but he could see off to the northeast a sight: “26th.—The day rose splendidly clear. The volcano of Orsono was spouting out volumes of smoke. This most beautiful mountain, formed like a perfect cone, and white with snow, stands out in front of the Cordillera.” He was not witnessing an eruption from that perfect cone, but instead a heavy gas vent on the mountain’s shoulder. Walking up from the ski area (closed now as it is the first day of fall) the trail drifts to the east and soon the red crater appears. Not large, but clearly recent (in geological time) this semi-circular hole spewed gas and steam 186 years ago, a plume visible all the way to Chiloé— not surprising as today I could see the Pacific while standing near the crater. Volcanos on the Pacific coast were a particular attraction to both Darwin and Humboldt, the latter climbing a number of them. They do tend to form almost comically perfect cones in this part of the world.

Not long before I landed in New Zealand at the new year, Wellington had an earthquake. Today, wandering an area covered in ash from the recent eruption of Calbuco (2015) and still with ash bits and pumice grains in my beard even after a long shower, I think of the regular violence of the natural world. In a recent book, Bruno Latour, in typical Latourian overstatement, dramatizes humanity’s newfound confrontation with a very active nature, and our need to confront the anthropocenic moment. Buffeted by the winds on Osorno, wiping Calbuco’s ash from my eyes, I was without doubt “facing Gaia.”

 

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 30

March 20th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 30
Cucao—Castro

Ramshackle—without design, out of square, loosely connected, out of kilter. Buildings in Chiloé, particularly out in the country, ramble with a certain insouciance. Additions jut at angles making impossible rooflines. The Hospedaje Paloma in Cucao is one such establishment. I ended up with a newly added small (unheated) room all to myself—real luxury after weeks of bunk rooms or the divine privacy of a tent. Even though his rooms meander over the lot behind the old church and community soccer field, they are well built. I’m fairly certain Victor, the proprietor, is also the carpenter and a careful craftsman, even though he must of necessity (transportation costs for materials must be high on this side of the island) make do with what comes to hand. In other words, the hospedaje is bricolage.

Rain poured on the corrugated steel roof all night, but the morning was briefly clear. I packed, ready for my trek up to Colé Colé, a beach and some highlands about 16 km up the coast. I would be following more or less the same path as Darwin— down the road for a while, then on the beach before plunging into the bush for the last, most difficult part. Victor invited me into the kitchen for coffee , bread and butter. Most houses (and restaurants for that matter) heat with wood, and even though we are technically still in summer, the weather is cold and damp, so people spend a great deal of time sitting near wood stoves. Victor and Elena’s kitchen is a place to savor. The walls and ceiling were carefully joined and vanished pine. Along one wall are wide benches that could double as bunks near a large black and chrome wood cookstove. A fire burned brightly, heating a kettle for the coffee, but also a little one for Victor’s maté which he sipped constantly through the standard metal straw. A large cylindrical water tank encircled the stovepipe, both heating water and providing thermal mass to stabilize the room temperature.

In hostels and small places in the country, the coffee is usually instant Nescafé, and is always served with very hot water—it takes a long time to finish a cup— which this morning was good as the skies opened up while I sat, a serious downpour. No one else in the room spoke any English and their rural accents made it impossible for me to even begin to follow their talk. Victor asked if I was going to Castro and I replied that I was heading to Colé Colé. At that, his friend (a bus driver) said no—no one would go to Colé Colé today. I decided I’d see how the day would unfold, and unfold it did. Starting north I could see the clouds moving off to the east, and a huge blue sky open before me. With a good spring in my step, assisted by masses of ripe blackberries growing on the roadside, I soon covered the road/bridge section of the hike to Colé Colé. The first bridge, which I had seen yesterday on my churchyard wandering, is most peculiar. A single lane, woodtimbered bridge is common, but this one has a curving bulge in the middle, looking every bit like it was made from an old wooden ship. The curved decking and bulkhead in the middle even has portholes. I couldn’t decide if it was all functional—to enable fishing from the bridge—or pure whimsy. Crossing the next low bridge, I found myself on a wide, hardpacked beach, with the waves crashing several hundred meters from the dune line. The sun still shone bright where I was, but over the water clouds gathered. I set off at a brisk pace, hoping to cover the 6 km before the weather turned. With the first drop, I dropped pack and geared up. No sooner did I zip in my rain pants than the skies opened like a small explosion. Were I on a long-distance trek, there would have been no question but to continue right into the teeth of it, but this was just a pleasure outing, almost a day hike, so, measuring the distance between the far exit point and my nearby entry, I did a rapid about-face and headed back.

Normally such a move would have brought disappointment, even a sense of failure, but the trekking/adventure gods were properly propitiated because soon, appearing out of the storm and honking a horn, was a four-wheel drive pickup—small Toyota club cab—full of local farmers. This area is populated by the descendants of those same native dwellers Darwin derided on his boat ride. They motioned for me to hop in the back, so I wasn’t out of the rain, but I also wasn’t walking in it. Clearly experienced driving on the beach, the driver maneuvered through several small streams, then abruptly turned left, heading straight to the river flowing at the base of the hills. Right before splashdown, he spun hard right, crossed some outflow watercourses and drove with the left wheels in the river straight at the dune protecting the low bridge just past. We bounced, pitched, yawed, but didn’t roll and soon were on the road, retracing in minutes what had taken me a good part of the morning to cross on foot. They deposited me at the gate to National Park in front of the bus stop, which I took as both a sign and a judgment—time it head back to Castro. They shook hands, waved, and spun off to their chores, and I warmed up with a cup of coffee and soon found myself on the return route to Castro, disappointment tempered by a twenty minute thrill ride in the wild dunes of Chiloé.

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 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