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reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

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