By Deia Schlosberg
January 20, 2008
Gregg and I did one pretty uneventful section around the entire Bariloche area before David, Gregg's brother, arrived in Puerto Montt. Uneventful in that nothing ridiculous happened; we hiked on some trail and some dirt track, through some woods and some desert-like areas. We met and met up with, respectively, some lovely local folks as well as some old friends (the Canadians, Sam and Dave, on their own epic tour). Then a confusing rendezvous brought brothers together for the first time in months, and we were quickly off to Cochamo, the start of the next section. From the maps, all of them, this hike is a clear-as-day, easy to follow route that arcs down to the Argentinian border town of Lago Puelo. As we were crossing the first foot-bridge into the forest, however, two men on horseback with ample trail-clearing tools passed us and informed us that they were heading up ahead to do some clean-up. What fortune. Had they not been there, and timed their task so perfectly, we would have doubled our trek-time. As it was, even cleared, the trail was no easy task. It turned out to be a marvel of 1880's trail maintenance, with myriad bog bridges and deeply-carved trail, however, 130 years of rains, season changes and horse traffic does not do wet wood well, nor muddy passages, and the usual downed trees and bamboo on top of this would have made it even more of a project. But as it was actual trail, it was appreciated, and as it was recently cleared, the men ahead of us, worshipped.
I realize writing this, and with the added perspective of having had David's outside eyes with us for several weeks, that my life here, doing this project, is extremely simple, and maddeningly complicated simultaneously. The route, the presence of a WAY, is everything. Gregg and I were feeling at an end about one week ago, having been rejected by a trail that was absolutely impossible to follow safely without horses or ropes (due to the number and difficulty of high river crossings). This trail, we believed at the time, was the only viable way toward the south that was humanly possible and not on roads; it was a symbol of our integrity in finishing this task the way we want to---without relying on roads, and through the mountains. So getting denied at the trail-head of this camino and turning around left us with a lot of questions. We are getting toward the end, but still have a not-so-small amount of distance to cover, and if simply finding a possible route is going to be this hard the rest of the way ... We did manage to find another not-exactly-south-bound route to take to keep us moving, but the question of a simple WAY has remained a shadow about our beings. Today however, a small shop in Coyhaique restored some light for us by having topographic maps and knowledge of the entire region just ahead of us. I can feel a weight lifted and have hope in the journey again. It's bizarre that such a simple, specific piece of information is responsible for my overall outlook on the world and my purpose for the time being. I'm not sure if I like that or not, but that is the reality of my life for now, and I'm very aware of it.
Acutely aware of it. I try not to judge myself one way or another for living as I am, but I know that while people in my very close circle have big things to think about like cancer and college, grad degrees and new houses, births, deaths, promotions, lay-offs, career changes, I am preoccupied with a single map. A single trail. Finding one person who might have some extra bread to sell us. One river to get water from, nine miles away. I wonder what lessons I will take with me from such a specific and complicated sustained simplicity when I return and have big things to be preoccupied with again. Not that the map isn't big. (Or the piece of bread, or the stream.) For us, it's everything.
David's everything was blisters. From the third day into the Cochamo hike, David was aware of his feet. David lives in a high-rise condo, blocks from downtown Chicago and dances with Macy Gray in nightclubs there. He is not used to picking bugs out of his drinking water and popping blood blisters between his toes. But he is open and adaptable, and pushed through everything we subjected him to with grace. He climbed steep, muddy slopes, grabbing onto bamboo stalks to keep from back-sliding and forded thigh-high rapids with the best of 'em. His feet, however, never took themselves out of the equation. The friction-induced bubbles of pain never left him alone, and by Esquel, Argentina, left him unable to walk. We had to employ a grocery cart to keep him mobile. But after a couple of rest days, and an unusually thrilling Monday night (again with old friends, including but not limited to the Canadians), he kept truckin' through it all.
David's first trek with us ended on New Year's Eve. Not because that was the natural end-date, but because we, along with a critical handful of other folks, made it that way. We had hoped to be in El Bolson for New Year's, the closest city, so that we could be with other people and have the experience of a nearly-universal fiesta in a different culture. Our New Year's Eve ended up being an eastward dash using whatever means of transportation were available to do so, including, in some order, our feet for a few miles, the back of a pickup truck (in which I sat on a bike), our feet for several more miles, David's in particularly bad shape at this point, another pickup, more walking through fields, along small dirt tracks, through woods, to lake and onto a small motor boat that, after a heated and amusing exchange, dropped us off at a second smaller motor boat, which brought us to the opposite shore of a large lake, where we took a trail to a small outpost of the Chilean military police so that we could get an exit stamp in our passports. From here we were in Limbo between countries, not quite legal anywhere in the world. And the dash continued. Down a steep trail to yet another large lake, where a third motorboat brought us to the other end of the body of water where we climbed up the steep embankment and found a trail that took us over the actual physical border between Chile and Argentina, as usual, marked by a red and white metal pylon and nothing else. The trail dissipated, also as usual, and we bushwhacked ourselves onto the rocky shore of the river that connected our previous lake to our last lake of the day. A boat a small distance away waved at us, motored toward us and cruised down a rapid and to the shore, waiting only seconds for us to jump on before motoring up the very same rapid in the wrong direction and carrying us across the lake to Lago Puelo where Argentinian customs sat.
Argentinian customs closes at 8:00.
But it's 7:15, we have plenty of time.
There is a time change.
But two weeks ago when we were last in Argentina, they were the same time!
Now they aren't.
We are not supposed to do this, you are bad, but we will make an exception because it is New Year's.
And so we became the last people of 2007 to enter Argentina on land. The New Year's celebration itself involved a quiet midnight sitting in the El Bolson plaza, a few fireworks, a few cars driving by yelling, "¡Felíz año!" and then the actual town celebration that started up at 1:30 in the morning with bars and pizza and mini-bowling with guys that hide up above the pins and replace them by hand and roll the balls back and then hide on their perches again. Of course we met up with the Canadians, or one of them at least, holding a German Shepherd in his arms and insisting on speaking to us only in Spanish. All in all, definitely worth the scrambled chaos that brought us there.
The El Bolson to Esquel section of the hike was dubbed, "The Death Section" by David, as it was very dry, very open, very hot, and everywhere we went, there was dead livestock, not to mention the strange ghost town of Mayocco. We thought perhaps a disease had swept through the region at some point last year, taking with it more than a few sheep and cows. Though easy to make progress here, it was definitely a mental challenge of its own, reminding us of the northern Argentine pampas and much of Bolivia. Gotta keep gong. Gotta make it to the river. Gotta keep going.
The Futaleufu is a river known to all in the kayaking and rafting worlds. It is a legend. Our route happened to pass next to it, along the famed rapids of lore. The river also happens to be the focus of a large hydroelectric plan drawn up by the Chilean government: several dams are to be built along this most famous section of the Futaleufu within four years, flooding it and permanently altering some of the most well-known rapids in the world, and moreover, significantly impacting the entire ecosystem of the area. We decided to experience the Futa while we had the chance. It did not disappoint.
One of the last days of hiking of the section brought with it the biggest afternoon thunderstorm we have had to date down here, with flashes of lightning all around us and claps of thunder startling overhead. We ran through the woods, spaced apart for safety and soon made it to an open barn with a horse and a few calves inside. The rest of the storm was spent in their company, until a man showed up at the door, smiling at us, seemingly getting some amusement from our wet huddled forms keeping his horse company. He soon had us in his kitchen with his wife and granddaughter, drinking tea and hanging our clothes to dry over the woodstove. The Reyes family took good care of us, and it was wonderful to spend a night, as they invited us to stay, with a few very kind souls. As we walked to Ja Lunta the next morning in the post-storm clearness, the three of us did some processing of David's visit, and what he would bring back home to Chicago from the experience. I'm curious for him, and I'm curious for myself. After a year and half, I still have very little idea of how these stories and feelings and daily challenges are going to transfer to a more structured life, a more social life, a very different life. Vamos a ver. We shall see.