Walking Home

reveries of an amateur long-distance hiker

In Patagonia Day 22-23

March 16th, 2018

In Patagonia Days 22-3
Puerto Natalas

Puerto Natales, a town with a cemetery where the mausoleums have aluminum storm doors, and the people (living) even in late summer bundle in winter coats, all wandering about looking like puffy hand-grenades. I spent the first 18 years of my life in Woodstock, Virginia, with a population then of somewhere around 2000. I only recall three major changes occurring to the town in those years—the integration and consolidation of the schools (around 1966), the building of a “shopping center” (what is now called a strip mall) on the northern end of town, and the opening of Interstate 81 in the late 60s. Each of these changes affected how people moved through and around the town. The integration of the schools primarily affected people already living in the town, but consolidation closed small schools in St. Luke, Zepp, and some others, bringing students from out in the county to the Woodstock schools. The shopping center, like most such “innovations” threatened to (but ultimately didn’t) destabilize the central commercial district. The interstate’s effects were, as in so many communities, profound. Traffic downtown was reduced but so were the businesses that catered to travelers on the valley turnpike—Rt. 11—which runs from Louisiana to Maine. All up and down the valley, small restaurants, diners, motels, and motor courts closed while gas stations and chain hotels opened out on the highway. I-81 also made it possible for families to move further from the “City” (Washington DC), some even settling in Woodstock. As a kid though, the town remained what it had always been, a place where an intrepid walker or bike rider could explore every street, alley, and backlot. Small town life meant knowing intimately the entire space where people lived, worked, and played.

I had nearly forgotten that sense of place as, on leaving Woodstock, I also left my childhood, living over the years in a number of different cities, but only knowing them superficially. These last weeks have not given me intimate knowledge of any specific place, but my lingering in El Chaltén and Puerto Natales with, because of logistics, plenty of time to wander aimlessly, renewed my sense of that same childhood wonder: new houses being built (so lots to explore), old houses decaying (so lots to explore), paths through back lots, that sense that you could walk over most of the town in a day, and just the pure hum and buzz of the local inhabitants (including dogs) occupying a small town. It was a time machine, and occasioned many smiles and sometimes laugh-out-loud pleasure.


T. Hugh Crawford

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

In Patagonia Day 6

February 24th, 2018

In Patagonia Day 6
Punta Arenas — Puerto Natales

I was thinking today about the couple of pages Hemingway wrote on the craft of writing that were to be part of “Big Two-Hearted River.” As I recall, he wants to write the way Cezanne painted—daubs of paint invoking the scene (apples I think) rather than filling in all the details. Perhaps that is a commonplace and Hemingway’s influence has long since passed, but I was struck to learn that Bruce Chatwin carried In Our Time with him while wandering South America. Near the end of his book, he writes, “The walls of the dining-room were a hard blue. The floor was covered with blue plastic tiles, and the tablecloths floated above it like chunks of ice.” Ernest was looking over his shoulder as he wrote that. This morning I skipped the hotel’s free coffee [sic] for one last tall cappuccino at the Tapiz. Today the sidewalks and cafe swarmed with backpackers, most with clean bright equipment to match their smiles. The barista proudly presented my order in a tall clear glass perfectly layered—dark coffee, milky middle and foamy top. It reminded me of Jello 1-2-3 from my youth, but was much more satisfying. The bus station was even more crowded by mammoth backpacks dwarfing their carriers. After some jostling and confusion, we made our way out of the city and past the airport. Now I finally got a sense of the sheer vastness of the Patagonian desert. Flat fields covered with brown grass and choked in places by gorse stretch to the distant horizon. Nothing interrupts the view except the occasional shabby estancia and, in the far north, the edges of the cordillera. The road runs close to the Argentinian border and it is definitely cattle country. The bus passed several towns or villages, it was hard to tell. Some seemed a main house surrounded by an expanding circle of smaller places. One was larger and looked to have some sort of stadium which I first thought was a soccer field, but a horse track is maybe more likely. A place for 21st century gauchos to show their skills. I never think of the word “gaucho” without being taken back to music classes at Woodstock Elementary School where Mrs. Danley taught us a song: “See the gaucho ride the pampas/ ride the pampas green and wide/ with his ? And ? And a bolo by his side.” I have no idea the provenance of that song, but it was the first time I learned of South American cowboys, bolos, and the pampas. Like all sorts of other detritus, it sloshes about my head even today (along with my gratitude for Mrs. Danley’s infinite patience).

Puerto Natales has the feeling of a ski town without skiers. Full of outdoor stores, equipment rentals, some micro-breweries, and lots of people wandering around in trekking clothes. Most of the houses are one-story sitting on small lots, and the town spreads out widely over the flats edging right up to the curve of the lake. Across is the Torres del Paine park. At one time this was a meatpacking town with a small train to move the product (I’m not sure if it was cattle or the butchered meat). The narrow gauge engine sits in a place of honor in its own square looking very much like a missing friend of Thomas the Tank Engine. Across the street is a brewpub that makes surprisingly good ale and has bottles of some great USA brews. Beside it is a restaurant roasting full carcasses on leaning iron crosses over an open fire, so the meat tradition continues. Getting reservations to trek distance in the park is like trying to thru-hike the White Mountains on a limited budget, but more difficult. I’ve gone from trying to do the O circuit, to the W, and now maybe just the I (I made that last one up). Have a day or two to get organized, and there will be plenty of trekking further north later so no worries. To be honest, the park is probably as crowded as the White mountains, so not exactly the solitude required for good trekking. For now I’m enjoying a very clean and pleasant hostel—when everyone speaks, it sounds like the UN.

T. Hugh Crawford