By Deia Schlosberg
March 14, 2008
This is, believe it or not, the last update from the trail. The next update, God willing, ojalá, inshallah, knock on wood, will read: "we have finished." And then perhaps a few more details. But that is jumping ahead. Thoughts on the end will be saved until the end. For now, there is much to say about the hike in its current, presently happening form. We have walked our way to the northern end of the Torres del Paine National Park, perhaps the most famous, iconic site in all of Patagonia. To get here we have gone through and next to many of Patagonia's other goodies: Cerro Castillo, the North and South Patagonian Ice Fields, Mount Fitzroy, the Perito Moreno glacier, and so on, plus many less widely-known, also magnificent places.
Thoughts on the end will wait, but thoughts and feelings about getting close to the end are constantly, perpetually, ever-present. They are an ephemeral conglomerate of fear and joy and anxiety and excitement and everything one would expect from two people about to complete a two-year-long task where every minute is significant. Both of us recently had birthdays, and we were happy to realize that aging is not a scary thing if you spend the time you have making it count, packing it with meaningful interaction, always learning, evolving. In what other two year period in my life am I able to remember each individual day as distinct from every other day? That epiphany was incredible, and that said, would I keep living this way once this project is over? Nope. Many parts of my being are beyond ready to be done. Done with the daily struggle, with missing people I love, with missing other projects and pursuits that I love. Everything is a balance, everything has multiple facets. The done part of me and the appreciative part of me are locked in stalemate for now, which I suppose is a healthy place to be with only six weeks left. Perhaps in the next six weeks their boundaries will begin to fade, and their opposing positions will melt into one stance of resolution. We shall see. A ver.
When I was twelve, I went with my parents on a cross-country trip in the States, visiting loads of national parks along the way, and seeing many "firsts." I remember walking, with much anticipation, from our campsite in Grand Canyon National Park toward the rim for my first view, expecting to see a large trench of sorts with a river in the bottom. What did reveal itself as I closed in on it was beyond my comprehension of what can exist in the world. I had no words and felt a small bit of something like fear as my understanding of the Earth was immediately and acutely stretched in the few seconds it took me to bring the entire expanse of canyon into view. A few weeks ago, I talked with Gregg about that sensation. We found that we shared the same worry that we could no longer achieve that grand wow, because we have seen so much beauty and magnificence on this hike. We would still be impressed and inspired and appreciative of everything yet to come, but we would never again be silenced with pure awe. A few days later, we saw Fitzroy for the first time and humbly ate our words, tears in our eyes, laughing, wordless.
It's not that it's flat around Mount Fitzroy and that's the reason the thing looks so grand, in fact, there are some respectable-looking mountains surrounding it. It's just that the mass that is Fitzroy is bizarrely and almost grotesquely pulled directly upward toward the heavens in such a way that the granite sides of the peak form several-thousand foot near-vertical walls as they lead upward toward the small, pointed summit. The views of the peak from a distance give some sense of its alien-fairytale fusion of a form, though from close up, the foreshortening that happens doesn't nearly do it justice. We had the fortune of having some beers with a few climbers who had just finished summitting the beast, and they showed us their photos from the climb. Looking down from its walls, the space portrayed in the pictures was unfathomable. To look well over a mile away, straight down, is something unique to this place, and something very few people ever get a chance to see. We spent a couple of days getting our minds naturally expanded as we meandered our way through the great tower's home, Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. From there we descended to El Chaltén, the town below the rock, which shares its original name. El Chaltén is a flurry of tourism-minded construction sites, which we expected to greatly dislike for the money-seeking scar it puts on the natural land. In fact, Chaltén is chock-full of wonderful people, most notably Manú and Blanca of the town's only brewery (whom we met through a friend, a fellow, and we had to rip ourselves away well before we were ready to go. Winter down south waits for no hiker, no matter how much she or he wants or needs time with new friends. Sigh.
For a week, however, we were lucky enough to have some company on the trek. Ross, a lovely English dude, met us hiking in Cerro Castillo National Park, and though we parted there at the time, the invitation to join us at some point had apparently rolled around in his head. Soon after, we got an email that he was waiting for us in Cochrane, Chile to join us for a section. We can't hand out invitations to hike with us lightly, but it was clear he had enough experience to partake in some walking, as well as ample tolerance to put up with a healthy (or maybe not so healthy) about of ridiculousness. He had already done more than a fair share of travelling and hiking and experiencing, just not in one continuous line through the Andes. But who would do that? From Cochrane to Puerto O'Higgans we ended up having a spectacularly panoramic section over a presently-remote pass (soon to have a road over it, and Chile progresses), next to the tallest mountain in Patagonia, beside our first ice flow, through a long, soggy valley with a load of river crossings and bushwhackings, and encountering several of the kindest gauchos to date. Having Ross with us, again new eyes on the situation, enabled me to think outside of our situation a bit and see the land and the people and the trek slightly differently. I was reminded that my views from having done the trek and my views while on the trek are not exactly the same thing. I get buried in it sometimes and don't stop and look as much as I would like to. So thanks, Ross, for spending a not-at-all-easy week with us and sharing your company and perspective.
For two days we had been walking across the Steppe (the flat, notoriously windy, dry area of southern Patagonia), and because the mountains to the west were off-limits temporarily due to enormous lakes and some of the biggest glaciers on Earth, we were following dirt roads that skirted these uncrossable hurdles to the east. The going was quick but seemingly slow with the unchanging terrain, thirst and lack of diversion. Small mesas of dry, layered rock and occasional dead guanaco were the only variations in our fields of view. At about 6 in the afternoon (and it is afternoon here, as the sun doesn't set for several more hours), I spotted a dark blotch on the horizon moving toward us along the road. It neared and began taking the shape of a biker. I expected that we would pass each other, a wave and smile and nod exchanged in shared understanding of a human-powered journey across land usually breezed through by visitors, napping on their buses en route between the destinations of Mount Fitzroy and the Perito Moreno glacier. As the biker neared though, he slowed to a stop, and hopped off his lightly-panniered cycle just next to us. He immediately asked where we had walked from. Indeed, we were in the trekking capitol of the world, but we were clearly on no trek, and he was someone who seemed to immediately understand something more. We told him and he grinned. He was Felipe, a 24-year-old biker from Mexico City, riding from Ushuia back home. We were weeks from the end of our journey, and he was weeks from the beginning of his. Our atypical-for-us route on the road had enabled us to cross paths in the act. The encounter, for obvious reasons, had a significance beyond the norm. I flashed back to several weeks into our journey, in Ecuador, with so much left to walk, and was reminded of how changed I am. It was special to look into the eyes of someone about to go through a similar, though entirely different and personal, profound transformation. With both parties conscious of the few remaining hours of daylight left and the kilometers still to cover before arriving at water in our respective directions, we exchanged contact info, took a picture, and parted. Us toward the south, him toward the north. As we walked, Gregg started to observe that Felipe was young, only 24, and then remembered that he, too, was 24 when we set out. Damn ... it's been a long way, and a long time.
Perito Moreno glacier was a side trip for us, since it lay 50 miles to our right, but there was no question that the detour was worth it. This is not a lot of ice from afar that makes a pretty picture; this is a living, growing, very dynamic being that one can get downright intimate with. The Argentine park service has built a system of viewing platforms directly opposite the terminus of the glacier (as many people, standing too close, had previously been killed by flying ice shards as it calved), which enables folks to safely be within approximately 150 meters of the frozen wall. The expanse that this thing covers (250 square km) can mostly be seen> by looking straight up its valley, but that certainly isn't to say understood. Vast is not a big enough word. But then to quickly discover, standing on the platform, that Perito Moreno is constantly moving, shifting, creaking, groaning and crashing by great chunks into the lake, brings a new meaning to that 250 square kilometers of mass looking you directly in the face. We spent several hours listening to the giant form breathe and heave, watching the shadows of its jagged spires spread farther eastward. The glacier is only one of three in all of Patagonia that isn't receding. I didn't realize it until I was there in front of the ice, but so far when seeing glaciers--on mountaintops or filling valleys--my sense has been one of partial sadness for the loss that it has experienced and will continue to experience. This was one spot though, where I could be fully happy looking at a glacier, being in its presence, knowing it would be around for a while.
I sit here awaiting the arrival of my parents, who decided to come down and walk with us briefly to be a part of journey (not that they weren't already, but in a more literal sense now). I am thrilled that they have chosen to do this and can't wait to share some of my South American life with them. Gregg and I have 360 crow miles left to walk (but quite a bit more than that in reality, as we have a large curve in our route) to get to our destination: Cabo San Pio, the southernmost point on the island of Tierra del Fuego. The number is getting smaller, but the unknown is always infinite. I look forward to what it will bring. A special thanks this time to the wonderful people we have encountered lately. So many locals and fellow travellers have given us an unbelievable amount of warmth over the past several weeks, and it has certainly made a huge impact on both of us.
Until the flip side ...