Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 38

March 28th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 38
Pucon—Huerquehue National Park—Pucon

Some years ago I spent a year living with my family in Maastricht, Netherlands. While walking Umbro the dog around the neighborhood, I always stopped to puzzle over a tree that was strange to me—contorted branches covered with thick green scaly leaves. On the one hand, it resembled a really bad artificial Christmas tree, but on the other, it was a truly fascinating plant. My neighbor called it a Monkey Puzzle Tree. From then until now, I always assumed it was an interesting if odd ornamental landscape tree. Today I learned different.

I caught the early bus out of Pucon to the Huerquehue National Park, one of the oldest such parks in Chile. My plan was to hike a fairly short but still rigorous trail up out of the valley to a series of high Andean lakes, and return. In hindsight, I should have planned to camp there, but I was to meet back up with my German geographer friends in Pucon that night, so my trekking speed was determined by the return bus departure time. Even though my pace remained constant, time itself slowed considerably. I was walking primarily to see high lakes and granite upthrust, but I soon found myself in an ancient forest. There were the by now familiar Nothafagus Alpina, but they were growing on a scale I had not encountered. Indeed, I probably wouldn’t have recognized them except the path, just as in New Zealand and southern Patagonia, was layered in that carpet of dry brown leaves so perfect for old knees. The higher I climbed Alerce started to mix in. Not a tree I recall ever seeing, the Alerce looks a lot like a sequoia—huge tall trunks, limbless until the tops which are green with short thick needles. The steepness of the terrain and the mix of large trees made it difficult to separate out an individual tree for contemplation. It was even hard to connect visually the base of any given tree with its crown, so none stood out as the perfect isolated specimen. Instead I was invited to see them all as part of an incredibly diverse and complex forest, which by the way, is how we probably should regard trees. I appreciate the notion of individual “Champion” trees—most states or cities in the U.S. keep a register—but to know trees is to see them as forest.

Which brings me back to that isolated Dutch Monkey Puzzle tree. On gaining the plateau with the high lakes, I entered an area with a concentration of Araucaria araucana (Monkey Puzzle) in their actual habitat. Here the trees are not strangers in a strange land, but instead have long made their home. Not garden specimens, this ancient forest contains trees well over 1000 years of age with trunk diameters of 5 feet or more. At one point the trail went through a recently fallen trunk that had been cut through to enable passage. Its diameter was easily greater than three feet. The living trunks can be distinguished from Lenga and Alerce by an almost rectangular bark pattern with a grey-green moss growing in the interstices highlighting the shape. Of course a glance up gives glimpse of the distinctive branch/leaf pattern, but even then, they are clearly part of a forest, albeit a forest of giants.

T. Hugh Crawford