Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

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 28

March 18th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 28
Castro—Nercón—Castro

Castro has real charm but only after some wandering. Yesterday, while hurrying down a sidewalk 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. Later, when I bought a container of mussels and pulpo at the fish market, the woman laughed heartily after I accepted all the offered toppings which included cilantro, onions, and a good dose of fresh lemon juice. Near that market are decrepit stuccoed Deco buildings which makes me wonder if there was a time when the waterfront sparkled rather than moldered. What has struck me most is how grim people seem to be on the street, but how they come alive when I speak to them. Quick to smile and ready to laugh, they are interesting folks.

The morning was sunny so I walked up the harbor into the upper reaches of the Castro bay to perform my tourist duties by photographing the Costanera, a tidal basin where the houses are up on pilings. Much of the walk out was by houses similarly situated though you can’t really tell from the street unless you catch a glimpse between. The area is littered with boats in various stages of repair or decomposition, usually beached but floated by the tide. The deco influence here is interesting, with curved building edges but instead of masonry or stucco they are tabbed wood shingles, also in various stages of repair or decomposition. I stopped for coffee and was given a slice of pound cake and a folder of historical photographs to pass the time—the narrow gauge train when it was still running, buildings in the 30s, and the effects of a 1960s flood. Stuck in the sheaf was a picture of a fox. How is it that I could be over 60 years old and only now realize that a the name for fox is Zorro? Later I stopped to watch two men fishing in the bay, one young, the other very old and wearing a straw fedora. Each had a line with weight and a few baited hooks coiled in an old coffee can. They would cast by spinning the weight and line in a circle over their heads (as I imagine one would throw a bolo). The younger man cast and pulled in rapidly; the old man would cast and hold the line in a gnarled hand, fingering it lightly and with patience. Soon he had a small fat fish, which he let flop on the shingle beach while baiting and casting his line again.

My father, who grew up on the Chesapeake Bay, would have liked today as my walk took me past boats of all types—wooden rowboats, fishing boats of various sizes, and several double-ended wooden sailboats. In the afternoon I decided to walk to Nercón, a village about 5 km down the coast which has one of the UNESCO Jesuit churches. The path took me past more stilted tidal houses, but also by the fairly new Enjoy Casino and a small airport. The best parts besides the church were two wooden boat yards. The first had a very large hull mostly finished, but at the second all I could see from the road was a few ribs laid out on a template. What was exciting there was to see their sawtimbers—several logs from trees grown at a particular angle which they were sawing out as ribs. Using naturally bent timbers preserves grain continuity throughout the rib (no cuts across the grain) which multiplies overall strength to weight. Dad would have been fascinated to see old-style wood working in current practice.

The Iglesia de Nuestra Señora de Gracia de Nercón was built in 1887-1888 by those shipbuilders’ ancestors. A stunning structure not just because of its proportions but also its joinery. The columns outside use the same barrel construction as the Castro Cathedral, while the flying buttresses are simple exterior diagonal bracing with heavy wooden beams. The most important feature though is the wooden barrel vaulted ceiling, running the length of the chapel. The light, sound, and the air itself are reflected, focused, concentrated onto the pews below creating an aura throughout the space. You feel your heart rate change as you enter the nave. Restored in 2012, there are ladders up to the bell tower which lets you see the joinery—adze shaped knee braces, heavy mortise and tenon joints, and, above the barrel vaulting, ribbed bracing looking very much like an inverted ship. Suspended on strings from the ceiling into the chapel are three small model fishing boats.

On my way back, I had a late lunch in a shed near a boatyard which had two large old-fashioned wood-fired ovens where they baked the small round flat bread most commonly served. I had coffee and two buns stuffed with local cheese, playing peek-a-boo with a small Chilean child unused to foreigners. In the evening after a wander about the harbor where I talked with two different couples with whom I had crossed paths earlier on the trip, I found myself back at my current favorite place—Barra Cerveceria—an unassuming craft beer pub with a long list of Chiloe brews, a laughing staff, and a balcony out back looking out over the fish market and the bay. Good ending to a fascinating day.

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 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 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

In Patagonia Day 13

March 3rd, 2018

In Patagonia Day 13
Puerto Natales—El Calafate

Today was uneventful except for a border crossing—actually two as leaving Chile required an exit queuing in a dusty gravel wide spot in a narrow dusty gravel road. Then a couple clicks further, entrance queue to Argentina. Such processes remind me of many border crossings, always with a bit of tension and the absurdity of how meaningful an arbitrary line is. I’ll be in Argentina for a while, and since nothing else of note occurred today, I’ll just list some quick observations about my time in Chile.

Puerto Natales has many accommodations on all levels of luxury— my nights at the We Are Patagonia Hostal were as good as anyone could expect—clean place with wonderful staff who bent over backwards to make things smooth, but I’m curious about a group of Bucky Ball tents around the corner. I remain intrigued how Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic design functions as canvas sleeping quarters.

Surfer and rock climbing videos: sadly many bars/restaurants have hung TV screens on their walls, but rather than streaming live sports or maybe the news, they alternate films of surfers and rock climbers (I’m waiting for the sociological study of race, class, and gender when it comes to rock climbing).

Music: in Santiago music by local artists filled the air, in the deep south moving from cafe to cafe the “Eye of the Tiger” follows me around, along with many 80s power ballads, but then they play Sinatra. I took great pleasure listening to old blue eyes in La Lenka, an amazing restaurant in Puerto Natales, but was jarred a bit by the Aerosmith followup. And I still can’t quite embrace reggae versions of Pink Floyd.

Receipts: Chile is a country awash in bits of paper with a personal touch. Every transaction brings a handwritten receipt, often on plain white note paper. At first it seemed odd and probably inefficient, but it structures the time of the transaction, slowing it down, and making it very personal.

Dogs: Also already talked about this, but I remain struck by how loose dogs are simply part of the fabric of the city, in the same way as trees, streets, and sidewalks. They sleep on the stoops, greet you when you pass, control the speed of traffic as it moves through the towns. Last night I sat in a cafe overlooking a park and watched two dogs fight. At first I was concerned that this would be bloody, but they seem to recognize and understand limits. I couldn’t help comparing the fight with the current American political scene (i had made the mistake of reading the news). The difference is the dogs did understand limits and actually showed dignity.

I saw a condor near Lago Sofia. I’ve always wanted to see one fly, but all I got was the image of a big-ass buzzard huddled on a ledge.

Speaking of strange animals, on leaving the park at Torres Del Paine, I saw herds of guanacos grazing in the draws just above the waterfront. Beautiful animals with generally white and light brown fur looking like wild llamas, which is pretty much what they are. With some trepidation I ordered guanaco last night as a specialty of the restaurant (which was Puerto Natales’s primary locavore establishment). Have to admit it was tasty though I felt strange eating them. It was odd being in a town founded as a meatpacking center in a culture that has long been defiantly carnivorous.

El Calafate is a tourist town, crowded with travel agents and outdoor equipment stores. Everyone who walks by is dressed to withstand a Siberian blizzard . I’m enjoying a Esquél IPA (local brew) while REM echoes in the the bar. I did make the mistake of turning to see their TV screens are tuned to golf (Nobody needs to do the race/class/gender study of that one, it’s self evident). Tomorrow I set off with all the other tourists to see the Perito Moreno glacier. Will get that blue ice thing figured out.

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 Patagonian Day 10

February 27th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 10
Lago Grey—Grande Paine

Slept in a bunk room at the Lago Grey Refugio and in the morning snagged coffee from the dining hall while the sound system played Bob Marley—odd breakfast music, but all part of the experience. The park is truly magnificent, but the tourist experience is overwhelming. Last evening, while sitting outside watching the setting sun reflect off the mountainside, I had to put on headphones to drown the chatter from the sitting area inside. Never quite understood the need to fill up all the air and time with words. Imagine my exhilaration this morning when I walked the trail up the lake (away from Grande Paine) for about four kilometers, crossing two long swinging bridges to sit on a rock high above the glacier. The path went up through old beech and was absolutely quiet—no sign of any hikers until my way back. It was sacred. The only sound on my rock was the occasional crack of the ice and the faint tap-tapping of some type of woodpecker. The wind blows so hard here, it’s rare to hear a bird call, but I had noticed nesting holes in the older beeches and so had been puzzling about tappers. Never saw it, but she kept me company this morning. The hike back to the lake and my campsite tonight went fast, though by midday there were hordes heading up the trail. Found a good place to pitch my tent and discovered stuck on the back a campsite sticker from trekking in Iceland—a well-travelled tent. Tomorrow I repeat the transport cycle back to Puerto Natales, but tonight I get to sleep outside.

T. Hugh Crawford

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