Walking Home

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