I am sitting exactly one chair removed from where I composed my last post, at a Chilena run coffee shop in Puerto Natales called the Coffee Maker. For the first time since I arrived in Patagonia two weeks ago, the sky has descended to the sea, called here Last Hope Sound, blocking the mountains and creating a gray sand painting for the white catamaran to lilt through. They are playing Bon Iver and it seems that this lonesome dub step remix of Holocene was made for this place. A woefully matted, malnourished golden retriver is lying on the sidewalk looking out to sea, forlorn. His scarred flanks speak of lost battles. He has fought for a mate and lost, fought for scraps of chicken gristle and lost, fought for boredom and lost. The dog and I both sit and look at the catamaran and dream it will tack shoreward and land here at this very dock and a man with a wind crinkled forehead and kind eyes will pluck him from the street, will give him a name and fix his twisted foreleg. He will stop fighting with other dogs, will lose his taste for paper food containers, for fish intestines, for soiled napkins.
On February 1, I caught the 7:30am bus to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine and the noon catamaran to Refugio Paine Grande and began hiking the Torres del Paine Circuit, aka the “O,” counterclockwise. The hordes made for the refugio, I for the mountains. I walked a fairly flat 5 miles into the wind to Campamento Italiano and found a great squawking mass of humanity huddled together at the center of the camp zone like cormorants, their tents within an arms length of each other, 40 50 60 tents. They were Israelis and Chilenos and Germans and some Argentines and very few Americans. I found a more or less secluded site beside the river, shielded on two sides within a windbreak of stacked branches. After setting up my tent, I hiked up to Mirador Britanico, then returned in time to read a few pages of In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin, before the sun to sleep, the white noise of the river a sedative like the vortex noise fan I had as a child. The rivers and trickles and ponds and lakes here are full of old pure water fresh from the glacier and are potable without filtering.
The next day I hiked 16 miles from Italiano to the Mirador Base de Torres then back to Chileno for camp. The hike up to the mirador was steep, at times requiring the use of your hands to hoist yourself upward, and I was surprised at some of the people who made it to the top. I took the canonical Torres photograph, giving into the impulse to honor the mountain with photograph after photograph, each moment a photograph, filling my iPhone with reams of identifical photographs, no unique lighting or angle or framing to distinguish the one from the other. I pondered the irrationality of the behavior and my own inability to refrain from it despite my rational recognition of its irrationality. I thought about Christopher McCandless (of Into the Wild fame), his impossibly light body drained of idealism in his final moments, dead in the Alaskan mountains far from his flawed family who loved him, far from the friends he’d met during two years of relentless searching in cornfields and desert communes and finally, a hostile wilderness environment, for the capital P Present and capital T Truth, dead from the Idealism that defined him, and perhaps a little incompetence and overconfidence. He was found in an abandoned bus used by hunters deep in the Alaskan wilderness, his final thought scrawled on the wall: “Beauty is only real when shared.” Was this uncontrollable impulse to photograph a manifestation of Chris McCandless’s Truth? Or was there some prehistoric magnetism here, my utilization of the iPhone 6 – black, 64GB, ensconced in an ultra lightweight bicycle mount case – the mere obeisance to something older and more powerful? My finger cramped from clicking. I had the chubbier of two chubby friends or possibly lovers from Santiago take my photo and pinched to zoom in so I could inspect my hairline as the sun set behind the torres. On the way back to camp, a beautiful girl smiled at me, or possibly the man immediately behind me. I grimaced and flicked a token of sweat in her direction.
I had gone into the wilderness to become an ascetic, a shaman, a Siddhartha, a Thoreau, a Chris McCandless; Campamento Chileno was attached to a refugio that sold beer; I bought three beers and a canister of Pringles and became quietly buzzed while sitting on the concrete foundation of the Chilean flag. I wrote the following in my journal: “16 miles today. Experienced intermittent knee pain but felt good walking. Thought about Lena here so many years ago and wondered if any trace of her passage remained. I have hiked 27 miles out of 78 in 2 days and am thinking I’ll finish in 6 or 7 days instead of the planned 8.” That provides a concise summary of the trip.
The O, ignoring the side hikes which throw off the geometry of the conceit, can be roughly blocked into three sectors that can as easily be defined by their pestilence as by their terrain. The first, which I will henceforth refer to as Zone 1, stretches from Italiano to close to Chileno and consists of earth scarred first by a Czech trekker who used a gas stove illegally in 2005 then by an Israeli camper who started an illegal bonfire in 2011 and then again the same year by another Israeli who for some reason felt compelled to burn some toilet paper. The forests stand rooted and strong as before, but their trunks are ashen and charred and their branches bear no leaves nor fruit nor birds. A smattering of wildflowers and low groundcover hints at a recovery that will doubtlessly take hundreds of years. In all likelihood, given the flow of humans, the nascent reduction to ash, the unique human capacity to contaminate ecosystems, and the inevitability of future stupid trekkers, Zone 1 will never truly be the same. Zone 1’s pestilence: gnats. I sat there under the Chilean flag at the crossroads of Zone 1 and Zone 2, becoming what at this point in a nod to Chris McCandless’s capital T Truth I have to call a little bit capital D Drunk, Drunk off a mere unHemingwayan 3 beers (but of course the miles, the sweat, the sun, the trail mix diet), and tried to come up with a thunderous literary symbolic purpose for the fucking gnats. We are gnats, I thought. I am the mountain. I swatted avalanches at the gnats but their numbers did not notably reduce. I bought a fourth beer.
The next day I entered Zone 2. Zone 2 stretches from Chileno to Hotel Torres to just beyond Campamento Seron, the absolute epicenter and epitome of Zone 2. Zone 2 is the Mojave desert, the dusty eastern wasteland of heat and dust that lines every great mountain range. One suffers in Zone 2. One sweats in Zone 2. One removes one’s shirt and lies with it held in hand as a whip, a lethal trap with cunningly proferred flesh – thighs, calves, stomach, sweaty pack – as bait in Zone 2. For Zone 2’s pestilence is the horse fly. I don’t know the origin of my deep hatred for the horse fly; I have never been bitten.. I do, however, recall summers spent at Sequoia swim club in Nashville, fleeing the horse fly for the pool, feeling its buzzing madness always on the back of the neck, terror that transcended that felt for bees and even the cruel looking wasp, already present. Zone 2, to break up the monotomy of the dusty scrub and horse shit and barbed wire, features copses (not to be confused with Zone 1’s corpses) of trees that hug the crisp mountain streams that rain mercifully down from the westward mountains. These provide essential resting points where you can gather your reserves, palpate your increasingly lifeless lips, reapply sunscreen, and hunt your antagonizers. I passed a bevvy of beautiful Chilenas lying languidly to either side of the trail, came across a stream, refilled my water bottle, ate several fistfulls of trailmix, and transformed myself into a human fly trap. With two quick snaps of the wrist I stunned the two horseflies that had foolishly landed on my leg. I inspected my conscience and found it clear – what, I asked myself, would a puma do? Or the affable guanaco? I ground them into the dust with my heel and hiked onward. I passed several gringos, including a 40ish gay couple, whom I later learned to be excessively fond of casual F bombs and phrases like, “Oh my god this hill can suck my fucking donkey dick,” and “Fuck this shit dick bitch,” and were from Portland and later ended up taking several doubtlessly iconic shots of me at Paso John Gardner. I knew I was getting close when I heard the rumble of a generator. The oasic corridor that escorted the river, the color of blue Gatorade powder mixed with milk, spat me out suddenly in front of a double wide trailer. I had flashbacks to the brutal southern section of the ACA Sierra Cascades bicycle tour with its “trailer park resorts.” There were five or six trees on the property, and the shade of each was filled with tents. People were literally picking up their tents and moving them as the sun and shade shifted. I set my tent up next to that of a Japanese couple, who, I later observed, began each day with dawn yoga and ended it by walking on each other’s backs. They both had nice smiles and willowy limbs. A couple from Baltimore, arrived after me and more accurately predicted the sun’s path, setting their tent in a sun-scorched patch that soon cooled and allowed them to lounge just as my formerly shady nest began to smoke. They proved to be friendly and thoughtful, later providing me with protective tape for my blisters.
Zone 2 ended abruptly in a sheer wall of earth that rose 800 vertical feet straight up some mile or so from Campamento Seron. I rounded a bend and saw the flourescent pack covers of hikers strung out in the hill, seemingly not moving, and I thought to myself, No, do not be a banty rooster, rise above it, I said, be better, but my blood was up and soon my pelvic tilt became more acute and my shoes started kicking up dust and my pace grew to what no one could possibly take for anything remotely casual or relaxed. But know this: My father is a noted banty rooster, my brother as well. The grandfather I was fortunate to know was also a banty rooster (in his 50s with aching arthritic knees and a rockhard watermelon stomach, he challenged his prime-of-life son-in-law, my father, fresh off a 19:03 5k, to a footrace; he did not win). I imagine there are more banty roosters in my family tree than not. I can’t help it. Did I charge? Does a guanaco shit in the desert? A phrase I’d used earlier popped into my head. “The bovine hikers,” I’d said, or something of the sort. It became my contemptuous mantra. Bovine bovine bovine bovine. My face shot geysers of sweat into their bovine eyes. They wiped furiously to better witness my passing. Such speed and power, their slackjawed cuddy herbivorous bovine faces said. Such stamina. Such – I passed them all. Every one of them. Great swaths of dead and wounded behind me, my canines dipped in blood. My exultant cry was cut short by two things: 1) I rounded the bend to find Zone 3 – verdant, stately, snow-capped, glacial Zone 3 – before me; and 2) I took my first step down on the descent and realized, immediately, that my left knee was totally fucked.
Zone 3 stretches from just beyond Campamento Seron to Glacier Grey. It is the highest Zone, both barometrically and spiritually. It includes Campamentos Dickson, Perros, and Paso, the last of which, in retrospect, I should not have skipped. It is the most remote. Its pestilence is the mosquito. There were many tiendas on the O. Chileno, Torres, Seron, Dickson, Perros, Grey all had tiendas. They sold 9 varieties of cookies, all made by Nestle, 3 types of condom – regular, ribbed, ultra ribbed –, ultralight quick dry microfiber towels, several brands of chewing gum, some obscure and truly atrocious German beer, in addition to the surprisingly good (and some not so good) local stuff, but no bug spray. None of the people I swatted mosquitoes with had thought to bring bug spray. We suffered together. The terrain was so beautiful that no one really minded. And the pass I’d heard so many mention as this great, potentially insurmountable challenge, proved to be much easier than many of the climbs in the Smokies or Cascades. Even I with my fucked knee had no trouble getting up and over without so much as a break. And Glacier Grey. My god. When you crest John Gardner Pass it is 3600 feet below you, though it is so large that is impossible to tell. Apparently, you can see 25km of glacier from the pass. It disappears into the hazy distance, some 100km of it hidden to the north. Blue fissures lace the glacier and remind you where the phrase, “icy blue” originated. You can hear the wind whistling across it even from the Pass. The trail on the far side is a hack job of bolted wood steps and eroded detours and jerry rigged metal ladders, but it is mostly slow becase of the halting views that demand extra iCloud storage.
The people I got to know in Zone 3 were: Peter and Julia from Boulder, Co; Sonja and Jason from Missoula, MT; the Baltimore couple whose names I forgot; the Portland couple whose names I forgot; Jodi from Barcelona; and Drew from Squamish, Canada. Each proved remarkably friendly and articulate; each had an aura of some vague dissatisfaction back at home; and each had interesting stories. I’ll limit myself to the two most interesting cases.
Here are some things I learned from Peter over the course of our conversations: 1) His dad, I learnd after some vague comments on his part and pressing on mine, had acquired CMT in its infancy and sold it to Sony, made bank, and purchased a cattle ranch in Montana. 2) His dad now supposedly spends his time watching Fox News, fruitlessly attempting to prop up every hopelessly talentless Coloradan country music singer that cross his path, and glancing intermittently at the bottom line. 3) A friend of his from Waldorff school had recently moved to Whidbey and gained some fame for a published article about his addiction to touching his penis while watching online pornography (according to Peter, comically named, given the context, the friend had specifically and repeatedly verbalized the masturbatory component of the activity rather than mercifully saying, “addicted to porn,” a decision that had, it seemed, cost him his friendship with Peter, being just a little too much). I told him that, strangely enough, a native Whidbeyite had recently gained some fame himself for a documentary he made about the trials and tribulations of having a tiny penis (I exaggerated a bit and told Peter that he’d even tied rocks to his genitals in an attempt to stretch them and included a time lapse of their gradual ineffective blackening in the documentary) and that another Whidbeyite had infamously and tragically, I’d heard, cut off a man’s penis in a drug deal gone bad. During a lull in conversation we simultaneously became uncomfortably aware that we’d said the word, “penis,” at least a couple dozen times a piece and decided to change the subject to the marginally more comfortable subject of destructive drugs. 4) Meth is destroying Colorado and Montana. Recently, he was at a friend’s house when the door rang. He opened it, saw two twenty somethings who looked like they’d fit in with his friend and, assuming they were in fact friends with his friend. He discovered they were not in fact friends of anyone at all when they tried to sell he and his confused friend, emerged from the bedroom, a subscription to a clearly nonexistent magazine. The premise was not even close to believable, the paperwork hopelessly amateur and desperate; they didn’t even believe in the magazine. His friend gave them an old, broken snowboard and they left, their eyes alight with the meth that the snowboard would buy. 5) 80% of the molly, cocaine, and similar drugs sold on the street (the literal street, music festivals, house parties, etc.) is actually bath salts, of the Bath Salt Zombie Apocalypse media scare of a year or so ago that followed the high homeless man’s cannibalism of another man’s face. On a Miami greenway. In broad daylight. The Bath Salt Zombie Apocalypse is real, Peter whispered, his face tight. He had seen with his own two eyes a guy take a line of bath salts, thinking it was cocaine, and become quite literally blind in one eye.
Sonja and Jason work for Trek Adventures, a branch of Trek Bikes that falls loosely under marketing and involves taking very wealthy people out for very cush bicycle tours on the newest, most expensive Trek bicycles, in places like the Italian Dolomites and the French Alps. The work season stretches from March to November. They are both lean and handsome and blue eyed but claim that they grow fat during the season, despite the cycling, from 4-course lunches, wine tastings, and 5-course dinners. It’s a hard life, they say without irony. We seem like we’re having fun to the group, Jason said, but behind closed doors we’re going fucking nuts. You would not believe what these people expect, Sonja said. Each offseason, they return to Missoula for a few weeks then travel; their scant belongings live in a storage shed. This year, during their offseason from leading bicycle tours, they decided to bicycle tour from Bariloche to Calafate on Ruta 40 and the Carretera Austral. We planned for 50 miles or so a day, man, but no fucking way man, Jason said. That shit is fucking hard. I had no idea man! I thought, you know, we’re fucking bicycle tour guides, you know? We had to take a bus a few times, he said. That shit fucked us up. I told them about my own busing to Puerto Natales and Rafael suffering and busing down Ruta 40 to Rio Grande and asked them about the most interesting thing they’d seen. They told me about the Hungarian Horse Tourist.
They were taking a break on the road south from Lago O’Higgons to El Chalten when they heard a horse approaching through the trees. A man emerged on horseback from the forest and told them in crisp though distinctly accented English that he was from Hungary and he was on a horse tour and he would happily share the road with them for a bit if they would allow it. They asked him if he had always ridden horses and he said, no, he had never owned a horse until he came to Chile a month or two back. But it is easy, he said. The horse he eat grass and shit grass and that is all. We walk through yards and when he see a fence he jump it and if he cannot jump it he walks until there is a gap and then we walk through it. They pedaled alongside him that day and marveled as he demonstrated his horse’s leaping ability over stumps and banks and ditches and fence. You see this ditch? he’d say. Now we jump it. And he’d lock eyes with one or another of them and the horse would jump it and he’d nod and they’d all continue companionably on. They came upon a beautiful Dutch woman hitchhiking south. The Hungarian Horse Tourist picked her up. That night, the cyclists laid awake late into the night as the Hungarian made love to his hitchhiker under the stars. When they awoke in the morning, she had hitched a ride from a trucker. The Hungarian Horse Tourist hopped a fence and continued southward, his horse dropping a stream of turds that glinted in the morning sun like gold coins.