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reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 5

February 22nd, 2018

In Patagonia Day 5
Punta Arenas —Isla Magdalena—Punta Arenas

Traveled to Tres Puentes and from there boarded the Melinka, an old car ferry, heading east from Punta Arenas to Isla Magdalena in the middle of the Magellan Strait. The voyage up the coast was sunny and smooth, passing fishing communities crowding the coast. The shore is lined with brightly painted (usually blue) fishing boats, all hauled out of the water and up on skids. The enclosed upper deck of the ferry was furnished with rows of broken-down seats from an airliner—first class—and I was surrounded by a Chilean family. The father sat beside me reading a book by David Foster Wallace while the grandmother distributed to each laughing child donuts carefully wrapped in paper napkins. Magdalena Island is midchannel at the point where the strait turns due east and has long been an important navigation marker including a lighthouse built last century. Apart from some sheds by the shore, it is the only structure on the island unless you count the penguin nests. There is little vegetation except some wiry grass that is supposed to cause skin reactions if touched. The soil is dull red (volcanic?) interspersed with round grey stones. The latter form the primary material for the beach along with some red sand and a lot of kelp. There is no pier so the ferry did a good imitation of a landing craft, dropping the front gate onto the beach, though a metal walkway kept us from having to wade ashore. Classic tourist destination, a path bordered by rope fences led up the hill to the lighthouse, looped down to the beach and back to the boat. The scene was dominated by my companions from the boat, but also gulls and penguins—Magellanic Penguins (Spheniscus Magellánicus). A German couple behind me for a moment broke into English, talking about Happy Feet. The burrow-like nests were everywhere, as was the fuzz of molted feathers. The birds either clustered in groups a way off the path, or presented themselves alone, seemingly posing for pictures—without doubt, thousands were taken. If the penguins made a sound, it couldn’t be heard over the gull cacophony. Large white bodied gulls perched high on exposed rocks and flocked on the beach. Once hundreds rose in an instant, following some hidden signal, catching the wind currents and guided by the turbulence of each other’s wings, they rippled in a complex dance for a minute in the sky before us, then settled back to fishing and cawing. One mother gull had nested near the penguins and was feeding her two chicks, though they were quite grown and nearly her size. They would fight to get beneath her beak and she would throw up whatever food she had eaten, though it didn’t seem to satisfy them. One odd marking is a bright red dot on their yellow beaks, looking for all the world like a spot of blood. On the return voyage a cormorant flew alongside us, like a guide, while the boat shuddered and fought, probably working against the famous Magellanic current. I disembarked and returned from the port the same way I had come, by colectivos, a taxi that runs a set route at a set cost, so three of four people pile in and the driver races off, dodging the other colectivos, jamming brakes hard before the pedestrian speed bumps, and impatiently honking at anyone who slows for even a moment. As one would imagine, music permeates this culture, so every space tends to be full of sound. My colectivo driver was blasting salsa music at first, but that was soon followed by the one song surely decreed by the gods to never ever be remade: The Hollies’s “The Air that I breath.” Perhaps the end of the world is the place songs must come to die, but I had hoped this one had been swept out to sea decades ago. The rest of the afternoon was filled with travel arrangements, which did not go well, but, as Prufrock says, “there will be time.”

T. Hugh Crawford

Patagonia Day 3

February 21st, 2018

Patagonia Day 3
Santiago—Punta Arenas

The primary activity of parenting is making decisions—constant, sometimes difficult, often consequential decisions. Many pass gently, others have lasting impact. One site of unintentional cruelty is naming. Distinctive names can help form a child’s sense of individuality, but names that must be explained, while perhaps endearing, end up causing a lifetime of expliction. I’m not sure why my parents decided to call me by my middle name. My older brother’s first name was the same as my father’s and he did not want his son known as little Willie, so he was called by his middle name. Perhaps they just wanted to follow the same pattern. By and large I have no problem with the name “Hugh,” particularly in English speaking countries, but whenever I encounter documents—forms, credit card transactions, etc.—I have to explain that even though the printed name is Thomas, I go by my middle name. That also accounts for my stodgy academic name, “T. Hugh.” In Spanish speaking countries, going by Hugh brings a different set of problems: it is generally unpronounceable. So, for the next weeks, just call me Tomás. It was day of travel following a peaceful morning of coffee and short wandering about the neighborhood. The hotel arranged a car to take me to the airport, first winding through the middle of the city which, as the driver noted, is very colorful but dangerous for tourists, warning that your phone or camera will be snatched while you are using it. Passing through markets ringed by chain link and barbed wire with sidewalk stands selling bright colored cups of juice and fruit, we were soon on a highway lined by high-rise apartment buildings and corrugated steel shacks and workshops. I had time to look over the airport on this visit, confirming my sense that the main departure hall was one of those massive 1960s structures, this one with a curving roof reminiscent of Dulles in the States. In contrast, the domestic gates were in a new wing, replete with Starbucks, McDonald’s and Victoria’s Secret. I walked in long circles while waiting to be called to board, reading the names of strange towns at the departure gates—I know little about this long country. The Latam flight was a cramped A321, a little hard on stiff knees but the view from the window when the clouds cleared was of steep desert mountains with increasing snow as we flew south, large lakes with no visible outlet, no signs of roads or habitation, a braided river much like those on the South Island of New Zealand, and, on the tops of peaks, round blue lakes which must be volcano craters. As we flew further south the lakes and rivers were headed by glaciers, streaked with mud when seen from above. I had google maps open on my iPad before leaving so it had stored the area and was able to match the view from the window with the precise shape of the many lakes and inlets below. We flew directly over Torres De Paine which I hope to be trekking in a few days. Nearer to Punta Arenas the land became brown and desolate with many dry lake beds that looked like the salt flats Darwin described in another part of South America. Landed in one of those airports that really does feel like the end of the world and made my way to the city past many warehouses (old and new) and small wood frame houses. As would be expected, there is a shipyard here. Bruce Chatwin’s relative Charlie Milward among his many occupations in Punta Arenas, ran a shipyard, though perhaps smaller than the rails here now. The downtown section reveals a city that has been here a long while—solid masonry structures, parks and wide streets with greenswards—but still reflects the sheer brutality that the weather must bring. Dropped my bags at the Casa Haine (modest place) and went to O’Higgins street which is the center of restaurant district, enjoying crab cannelloni’s and discovering Austral (the Punta Arenas brewery) does make a (not very distinctive) pale ale. The Jekus is a warm wood-lined pub in an old building with arched brick windows and pleasant staff. As it filled up, the Spanish voices were drowned out by English, with the word “cheapest” most frequently uttered. It is near the height of tourist season at this end of the world, so I’ll expect more of all that, but no despair as I could not contain my excitement about seeing the straits of Magellan. How many narrations of ships making their way through this place have I read? Felt like a kid.

T. Hugh Crawford

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