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reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

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