"Struggle, Beautiful Struggle"
By Deia Schlosberg
December 17, 2007
This has been a section of beauty and a section of struggle. The views that have entered my eye lenses and passed through my optic nerves to my brain have registered as some of the most purely Edenistic sights I have seen. It must get old hearing that; it always seems to be more beautiful than the last time. But really. The sights we've been waiting the whole walk to see are before us: woods of pine trees, forests of arucarias (those trees shown in every photo of Patagonia that look like they have been transplanted from the Cretaceous Period), sparkling blue-green lakes with volcanoes rising up from their shores, and fields of bright yellow, red, purple flowers in full bloom as the foreground to it all. The thing is though, beauty does not necessarily mean ease of step. The only part made easier is that every time I emerge from the dense tangle of bamboo and downed tree limbs and mud and brush long enough to see a view, it is beyond spectacular and I get a little reminder of where I am in the world and how special, untouched places still exist. And as much as the land has made itself apparent in the last several weeks, so have the people. We have been taken into homes/camps and given food and conversation as much here in the south as in the northern countries, which we did not expect to be the case.
This whole experience is so more subtle than a narration can explain. More and more I get glimpses of my final understandings. Spliced between all of these are the specifics, the details that will come back in flashes. Brief, intense memories, like birds flying in front of a cloudy sky of general understandings.
...my numb fingers fumble to get the poles into the tent grommets. The wind pounds our bodies and roars in our ears, stinging our skin as the waves of cinders and droplets of precipitation somewhere between solid and liquid strike. But we are safe; we are not so high up the volcano that we can't turn around and go the few hours down to relative calmness, but the constant driving wind gives an urgency to everything, a sense of panic where none should be. We hurry to cram our gear in the shaking tent, hurry to stake out the rainfly so we may escape to our small domed home and feel mildly sheltered. Before we can find possible locations for the stakes on the rocky slope to get the tent stabilized, however, an overwhelming gust comes and pummels the tent, a pole snaps, the sharp metal corners cut through the fabric of the tent; we are homeless in a wind storm. Nearly at the ridge crest and not wanting to turn around after so many setbacks already, we didn't have the heart to retreat, and so we braved the long night high up on Lanin. We lie sleepless through the wild night, brushing cinders from our faces and pulling the material of the limp tent tighter over our heads in a futile effort to shield ourselves enough to drift off...
... Carlos made cooing sounds in the dark little hut, illuminated by a single bulb three inches off the floor, kicking off just enough heat to keep the turkey chicks warm. He picked up the cut-off plastic jugs and hurled the dirty poop and seed-filled water out the doorway, refilling them with clear water that would be equally dirtied by the time we shut the door, two minutes later. Carlos dropped some seed in the corner with the adults and some more in the adult-proof lightbulb area for the chicks who would otherwise be left with none. We shut the door and walked back to the house, Carlos explaining that he loves giving life. Once back in our assigned seats around the kitchen table, drinking our 16th round of mate for the day, it was not long before Carlos was up again, out the door to get a prop for his latest story. This time he came back with a metal tub of fossils and crystals, old rusty spurs, some forks and other items he has collected from the land around his estancia. The gem of this batch though, was a portion of a smooth sphere of rock, about a foot in diameter, the cross-section of which revealed a petrified item inside, something wing-like and fist-sized. Gregg and I quickly, excitedly, and without any authority whatsoever, came to the conclusion that it was a disosaur egg. In my hands. A brief discussion about the object belonging in a museum was initiated and promptly cabashed. More fresh bread, more tea. Direct TV ever-present and on with low volume behind me, something on the Discovery Channel about wolves, some country music, sharks now. Carlos talks. Gregg and I get anxious from sitting so long. How could we have refused to stay? So nice, so kind, so generous. Lonely perhaps? We have to stay. I return from grabbing something from the tent to see Gregg helping to vaccinate the sheep. Damn. Missed it. We retreat to the kitchen. More mate, more crackers, more stories...
... There's nowhere to move. I have no contol over my limbs--I want to put my right arm HERE, but something is keeping it from-- and my left foot is six inches off the ground and won't go any further, won't make contact, so I can just step. I lean forward, feel the shoulder straps tighten, my pack is not budging. I am in a bamboo prison. I have been here for two days. My hands and arms are covered in red lines from the dry stalks scraping against them as I force my way through the green leafy mess. Cracking and snapping and crunching and grunting. I am a person who likes control. I like to be careful in every action, every movement. I place things carefully so as to avoid damage. I don't like to break things or yell. Gaaaaarrrrrhhhh!!!---SNAP! My left foot is now on the ground. I shift my weight to it and can twist my body enough to free my pack. I lurch forward as the arching bamboo pole slides over the top of my pack and releases me. Two kilometers of similar growth lies behind us, who knows how many in front. Hope keeps us pushing toward the southwest, where there might be a clear trail near Lago Quillen. One of the maps we consulted showed there was. How old was the information used to make that map? How old were the satellite images? What source can be trusted? --SNAP. We push on ...
... headed out of the town of Caviahue, Argentina, a yellow lab, a steet dog I presumed, whom I had petted briefly tagged along. She came through the neighborhood streets and then the outlying areas with a few buildings in construction. We figured at the edge of town she would turn around. At the edge of town we crossed a bridge, the lab lagged behind digging in the dirt on the side of the road. OK, that's as far as she's coming, we thought. She got bored with us. Running to catch up, she drops a baseball-size rock at our feet. Gregg chucks it some distance and the dog's excitement pours from her as she tries to keep her feet under her body long enough to fetch it. This is a rock-fetching dog, and now she has playmates. We stopped paying attention to her; we didn't want to lead her on. We cannot support a dog when we struggle to support ourselves. Still she followed. Not exactly followed, as maintained a position exactly half-way between Gregg and I, be it side by side or some distance apart up the trail. We were still fairly certain that she would soon turn around. Not only were we mistaken, but it was around this time, when we entered the arucaria forest, that we noticed that not only had this yellow lab followed us from town, but a smaller, more shepard-like black dog was tagging along as well, drifting quietly in and out of shadows at a safe distance. Certainly they would turn around before the mountain pass to Chile. It was misty and spitting wetness from the cold air. A wind was blowing, and we knew it would be much colder and wetter as we climbed higher, losing the shelter of the trees. These dogs could be tucked away in an empty building, in a town full of scraps and kind people. Instead, it seemed, they had opted for a journey. They were ready for a change. As predicted, the weather worsened. My hands grew numb. We crossed rivers in the bitter cold and the dogs followed. By the time we set up camp, we were still four strong. The lab, now named Achemar after a star in the southern sky, was never more that two feet from at least one of us, often tripping over and stepping on our possessions to gain such a position. The black dog, aptly named Dido (for Escondido, or hidden) was off in the brush, looking for a meal, and possibly, we thought, headed back home to security, as it was clear we would provide very little of either. Though he remained hidden until just before we departed the next morning, we left with two dogs in tow and remained that way for several days. It's amazing how fast personalities emerge and connections form when travelling together. We were soon making detours to provide food for our pup friends. The dogs made it abundantly clear that they would stand by our sides whether there was food offered or not. Essentially we had no choice and it became cruel to not find something to sustain them in their march of blind faith, in their trust in two strangers and desire to get out. So we bought them sausages and kicked ourselves for being such saps. Several days in and Dido's thick black coat was too much for him in the first heat wave of summer. He decided to call it quits with the hiking and remain on a goat farm, where he could more easily find shade and water. Achemar, however, continued with us the rest of the hundred miles to Lonquimay, Chile. As we were going to the city of Temuco for Thanksgiving and could not continue to support our friend the way she deserved, we were forced to leave her behind. A sad time, but we introduced her to some other friendly dogs and left her with some more meat-product and fresh water. To date, that is the longest a new friend, species aside, has walked with us. What does it say about us that the only being that we can get to hike a full section with us fetches rocks ...
... we're dirty. Covered in dirt from dragging ourselves through forest and crawling on hands and knees under fallen logs, through mud and dead leaves. Sliding down lichen-covered logs in the rain and getting black very-organic soil under my nails as I stop myself from sliding too far. I have grit--sand and ash and cinder in my hair, lining my scalp from the winds and the sediments they carry. I want to be clean, to see the brown water get washed down the drain and turn gradually to clear, to see soap suds and feel that my skin is my skin and not a film insulating my body from the sun and the breeze. We stop in a hostel, ask to use the shower there, the communal shower, ask if we can pay a little for the use of their water to finally feel clean again. We need to start fresh and wipe away the grime that tells our old story, because this time we are beginning again. We are making decisions that will let us move, let us walk freely, let us fly toward the end of this huge and beautiful and almost impossible continent. But the young girl working the hostel doesn't have the authority to let us bathe. She makes a phone call, says a quick explanation into the reciever, then holds it against her chest and looks to us.
"Where are you from?"
"The U.S." she says into the reciever.
We are in a tourist town. This reminds us. People are not people here, they are an embodiment of every person from their country that has stepped foot here before them, and nothing can change that. They finish their brief conversation, the girl and the owner of the hostel on the phone. She hangs up.
That's more than we pay to stay at a hostel. We leave. Dirty. Next time we will be from Bolivia.
I love what we're doing down here, and I'm proud of it, and it's certainly an education no grad degree could provide. I meet amazing people and have an understanding of the Earth that would otherwise be impossible to attain. There is pretty much nothing I would trade for this experience. That said, I never want to be away from family for this long again. Perhaps that is as big a lesson as any of the others. My thoughts are with my family now, especially. J.B.M., I love you.