Carretera Austral

Dry soil worked loose by a backhoe whipped up into a haze of dust, swept over me, and blew into my eyes, nose and mouth. At intervals I would see the wind coming as the brown cloud took flight and sailed over the dry grass until it passed me and drifted down the long straight stretch of road that leads from the outskirts of Calafate to Ruta 40, the highway that heads north to south through Argentinean Patagonia.

I eyed the German couple hitchhiking a hundred yards up the road. My position didn’t seem ideal. Any car that was going to stop to pick up hitchhikers would pick them up, not me.  But I didn’t want to cut in front as they already had been standing out here on the edge of town when I first arrived.  And, after four hours of attempting to catch a ride, I was beginning to grow frustrated.  I had resolved just that morning to remain flexible even when the going might get wearisome and rough in this new phase of my journey.  I had learned that there would be times when the going would be hard, slow, and boring.  Otherwise no one would pay for seats on the busses that hurtled between these remote Patagonian settlements.  Plenty of cars also had been passing, and some drivers would wave to me.  Some would gesture in a circle with their finger to indicate that they were returning to town, others would look the other way.  But no one stopped.  I had just spent a few days after Torres Del Paine in a stuffy little resort town, and by now was stir crazy and desperate to get moving.

I had promised myself that I would hitchhike whenever possible, and had assumed that getting a ride out of this touristy town would be easy. I tried my best to embody the teacher and philosopher Laozi’s words  “A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”  So, I stood on the shoulder of the road--but reality was smashing this philosophical thought.

I had a vision of myself seated in the back of a pickup truck, watching Calafate grow smaller until it disappeared as we cruised across the flat pampas. I told myself, “I’ll wait another hour, and if nothing changes I’ll go buy a bus ticket.”  I looked up the road--the German couple had given up and were walking back to town. Excited, I took the spot where they had been standing next to the police check point that marked the border of town. Now, at least, if a car stopped it would be offering a ride to me.

I chatted with the sympathetic policeman who was standing by the side of the road, lazily inspecting the passing trucks. I thought to myself that when I am fishing without success, I often say, “Ok, one more cast”, an incantation that I inevitably end up saying a few hundred times. Now, here, “Ok, one more car. If that doesn’t stop I’m going to go buy a ticket before the last bus leaves town tonight.” So, I stuck my thumb out as a few cars slowed and then passed by.

Suddenly a grey sedan swerved over a few yards in front of me. “¿Donde va?” asked the man. “El Chaltén” I replied, and he nodded “yes”. I stuffed my backpack into the back seat and climbed in the passenger seat. I was tired, but elated. In the grand scheme of things, getting a ride hitchhiking seems like a minor victory, but for me, here and now, I couldn’t have been happier as we pulled away from the stretch of highway where I had stood for an entire afternoon. I had stayed the course and accomplished my goal of a ride just a moment before quitting. And I had taken the first step in undertaking my vagabond journey north up into Patagonia. Getting this first hitch was proof to me that I was capable of wandering and seeing in this new, less predictable manner.

I had heard from another traveler I met in Torres Del Paine about how he had crossed the Argentina-Chile border via a remote place accessible from the town of El Chaltén. From this border crossing, there was a ferry that ran a few times a week to Villa O’Higgins, the tiny outpost located at the southern end of the Carreteras Austral.

I had concluded that the soul of my journey would be in movement, and so had thrown away my plans of working for a month on a farm in northern Patagonia. With my only objective now being to reach the celebrated Pumalín Park at the northern terminus of the highway, this 1,240 kilometers mile long road seemed like a perfect, almost endless path to wander along. And what better way to begin such a journey than by crossing through the middle of nowhere, from the base of the mighty peak of Fitz Roy to the very start of the highway?

“Viajar a dedo,” I mulled over the Spanish phrase for hitchhiking as the barren landscape flew by. A solitary, perplexed ostrich stared at our passing car from the far side of a fence that divided the road from the expanse of land to our right. The driver, a high school math teacher, and I chatted a little, and then we both fell into silence. My chin dropped to my chest as I succumbed to the afternoon sun, and I fell asleep.

I woke up just as we passed along the shore of a brilliant blue lake that contrasted beautifully against the monotony of the brown landscape beside it. Coming to the desolate intersection of Ruta 40 and the road to El Chaltén we slowed down to a halt.  I thanked the driver and got out. His sedan continued down Ruta 40 and disappeared over a hill. As I shouldered my pack I was pleased to see a truck only a few yards away. As its driver circled the vehicle, carefully checking the tire pressure, I asked where he was headed. He answered, “Chaltén.” I inquired if I might join him, but he replied that there was no space.

As the fierce wind whipped across the barren plain I surveyed the road. Nothing, nada. I crouched down into a ball, instinctively trying to escape the wind, resigned to sit and wait. The expression, the “middle of nowhere”, is thrown around frequently in conversation, but I can say with sincerity that standing at this intersection I was certain that it was the central point of the most endless badlands that I ever seen. In this moment of need, I must have been a sad sight, for a few minutes later the very same truck that had refused me a ride pulled back onto the road. It slowed, and the door swung open. “Vamos”, the driver shouted from the cab, over the engine noise and wind. I ran up and threw my pack up to his assistant and then climbed up.

As I situated myself next to the assistant on the bench seat, the driver prepared Yerba Mate (the traditional Argentinean tea) while he steered and managed to keep the big refrigerated produce truck on the road. Unscrewing the top of the thermos bottle, he transferred the water into a gourd where loose tea had been readied. As we barreled down the empty road followed by swirls of dust, the gourd was passed continually among us as we shared the hot mate. Sharing tea like this serves as a communal ritual signifying friendship and is a classic accompaniment to conversation in Patagonia. Receiving such simple generosity from strangers filled me with a profound sense of gratitude as I gazed at the steep mountains on the horizon, their ridges and peaks breaking the uniformity of the plain. Like a mirage I could see the grayness of heavy rain drenching the valleys beneath cloud capped peaks. The mountains beckoned like an oasis in contrast to the dry land receding in the truck’s mirror.

Soon, buildings and ranches grew in frequency along the road, and we pulled into the tiny town of El Chaltén. I hopped out on the outskirts of this idyllically situated mountain village. I looked for a spot to pitch my tent, and found a small park that bordered the river that ran through town. While a sign said, “no camping”, this quiet spot looked like it would work for me. I found a secluded patch of grass between two streams surrounded by thick shrubs. As I set my tent up a few feet away from the crystal clear brook that cut through the tiny meadow, I marveled at Fitz Roy, the mountain’s jagged peak then obscured in clouds. As lay in my tent, I listened to the gurgle of the water passing over rounded stones and felt the almost magical satisfaction that comes from realizing a vision that existed previously only in imagination.

huemul, an endangered South Andean deer a few meters away

For the next few days I hiked in Los Glaciares National Park. Unsurprisingly, since the town bears the boast, “National Trekking Capital of Argentina”, the trails around Chaltén were overrun by hikers. Here, however, I had the great fortune to see two huemul, an endangered deer that inhabits small patches of territory in the southern Andes of Patagonia. The buck and doe passed half an hour just ten yards (and often less) from my tent. The presence and memory of this pair  (whose species is estimated to include only 1,500 survivors) stuck with me for the next two days as I wound my way in solitude along the less beaten trails that run through the more remote valleys of wilderness surrounding Fitz Roy.

The Fitz Roy's peak visible through a break in the clouds

While the weather had been wet and cold as I hiked on my last day to Chaltén, the clouds broke and I climbed a snowcapped prominence that afforded a magnificently beautiful view of the wild landscape of glaciers, forested valleys and the jagged peaks that make the range one of the most challenging mountaineering destinations in the world. Fitz Roy was called by the Tehuelche Aonikenk, meaning, “Smoking Mountain”, due to its peak typically being obscured by clouds. The peak was of great significance to this nomadic indigenous group, as its prominence served as a guide for their annual migrations. Seeing this 11,000-foot high mass of rock free of clouds, towering above all the other mighty snowcapped towers of rock, with shark toothed ridges that divide the multitude of deep narrow valleys, I began to understand its sacred significance to the Tehuelche. To the peak’s right I could see the valley that I would follow and that would lead my way to Chile.

The next morning I took off for border. There are several stages to the journey that one must undertake to access this backdoor to Chile. For those who have the money and would prefer the comfort of a seat, most of the way can be journeyed by a combination of truck and boat. But I had chosen to travel as much as possible without buying a ticket, so I had begun walking down the dusty 40 km track that led from Chaltén to Lago Desierto, stopping now and again and turning to stick out my thumb at the occasional passing car. After a few hours I grew tired in the unrelenting sun, my pack weighted down with all of my belongings, including my laptop and half a dozen books.

I was relieved when a couple from Buenos Aires finally picked me up in their rental car, even though the ride with them only lasted the fifteen minutes until they reached their destination. I got out and then sat, ate my lunch, and admired the wild valley. It occurred to me that hitch hiking seemed to entail more “hiking” than “hitching”. As I shouldered my pack, I resolved that I might need to walk the whole 78 km to the ferry that would take me across Lago O’Higgins to the start of the Carreteras Austral.

However, I have found that my luck seems to change whenever I come to the reluctant conclusion that I will have to depend on my feet to get me where I am trying to go. Just then a truck screeched to a halt next to me. As I threw my bag into the truck’s bed, I noticed two neatly stowed fishing rods. The driver, a chef who was working for the summer in El Chalten, was headed to a favorite fishing spot on the river that runs parallel to the road. We talked easily about life as a chef in Patagonia and about fishing until we arrived at his favorite spot. I thanked him, and walked around to grab my pack. “¿Quires pescar?”  he asked as he handed me his extra rod. I was thrilled and grabbed the pole, dropping my bag on the shaded bank of the stream. We passed the next few hours casting to the numerous trout that could be seen swimming against the current of the slow bend of a crystalline stream.

Feeling refreshed after passing the afternoon on the cool and shady riverside, I set out to walk the last few miles to the lake. As the sun passed below the western mountains, I began to hike the undulating trail that heads around the eastern shore of the remote Lago Desierto. I pitched my tent about a third of the way down the shore of the long narrow lake, and as I cooked dinner on the beach, the ferry that runs a few times a day passed by on its last trip between the two Argentinean border outposts that sit at the southern and northern tips of the lake.

The Chile - Argentina border

The next day I made my way to the end of the lake, got my passport stamped to leave the country, and climbed up to the pass where the borderline ran through an expanse of forest and high slopes of rock and snow. Seeing the border was a reminder of how illusory political boundaries are. A triangular steel tripod stood in a small clearing. It had been painted orange and on top a cast iron sign read “Chile” on one side and “Argentina” on the other. Humans had drawn lines on a map, and cut a trail through the forest but there was nothing more. On both sides of the line there was forest-- the same forest, the same trees. This was simply a place of trees, rock, snow, and water that did not know or care how humans had chosen to demarcate it. Here, nature was autonomous, unaffected by a few signs humans had placed on top of a hill.

After 30 km of hard hiking with an overloaded pack, I was exhausted as I reached the Chilean customs booth (a few hours past the border line). With my papers then in order, I strolled down to the lakeside settlement known as Candelario Mansilla, where the ferry stops two times a week. Empty military barracks were positioned in an orderly row along the path. It seems that even in the remotest stretches of Chile and Argentina, the two countries seem posed to defend the lines of demarcation through wilderness.

I hadn’t expected Candelario Mansilla to be much, but I when I arrived at the end of the path I was surprised to see that it consisted only of a dock, and a lonely, simple homestead. Rain had begun to fall, and while the storm hung beautifully over the enormous lake, it was time for me to find shelter. I looked about, but nowhere seemed  suitable for camping. Eventually, I followed a sign with the shape of a tent drawn on it, down a road that led to the solitary farm. At the end of the road I opened a gate and wandered through a field situated on a ledge above the lake. The place had a deserted air, and after knocking in vain on the farmhouse door, I strolled around in the drizzle and out through the seemingly abandoned grounds. Under a sheet of roofing a group of cats huddled and peered out at me skeptically. Finally, I found an empty woodshed and tossed my pack down. Surprised, I nervously jumped back after realizing that there was a big golden retriever in the shed, curled up, camouflaged in the dry wood chips on the ground. Expecting the snarling greeting that trespassers usually receive from farm dogs, I was astonished and relieved when the dog sleepily opened on eye and then immediately fell back asleep.

I sat for a moment on a log and contemplated the surreal setting and the incredible emptiness of the hundreds of miles of lake and mountain I could see spreading out from this field. I got my stove out and cooked soup. A second “guard dog” trotted over wagging his tail in friendly greeting. Apparently, these dogs didn’t feel obliged to “protect” the belongings of the master who had left them to fend for themselves when he left for the holidays. With these two for company, I pitched my tent on the edge of the property and slept.  In the morning I hiked down to the dock to wait for the boat that would take me to the head of the Carreteras Austral.

View from the crossing of Lago O'Higgins, Chile

The boat arrived and while it waited by the dock more passengers arrived. A Japanese man with a backpack came down the hill from the border on a mountain bike, and a few employees of the tour company that owned the boat materialized from an isolated spot in the forest where they had been working. The boat untied, and soon we were motoring across the deepest lake in the Americas. A stout wind whipped the waves of Lago O’Higgins up to a formidable size, and the large vessel pitched forcefully in the surf. The blue lake water sparkled under the sunny sky. Around dusk we arrived at the dock that lies a few miles outside Villa O’Higgins. I had finally arrived at the terminus of the Carretas Austral.

A dirt highway had only been built and connected Villa O’Higgins to the rest of Chile since 2000. Only twelve years before my arrival, Villa O’Higgins had been accessible only by horse. And despite the dirt road, the town remained isolated and lacking in basic services (such as an ATM). I had hoped to hike for a few days in the wilderness surrounding the town, and then pass the holidays in another town, Cochrane, as I headed slowly northward. With my money running out, however, I realized my only option for getting cash would be to travel more than 14 hours and 500 km north to the distant, small city of Coyhaique. Reluctantly, I purchased a bus ticket. With only $5 U.S. in my pocket, I climbed on the bus early the next morning and headed north.

The morning was cloaked in mist, gray and clammy. As the hours passed, it was clear that humans are neither a prominent aspect nor dominant force on the landscape that we passed through. It is empty of people.  Trees choked the narrow dirt road that wound through valleys defined by slow, snaking rivers and crossed along the edges of steep mountains, not unlike those found at home in Vermont.

In 1976, Augusto Pinochet, the notorious Chilean dictator, had directed that a road be built as a defense measure to connect the isolated settlements that dot Chilean Patagonia. In 1988, the road was opened to traffic. Since then, Route 7’s name has been changed from the Carretera General Augusto Pinochet to the Carretera Austral (meaning Southern Highway), and has opened the towns along its path to an influx of development and tourism. It has come to be known as one of the most scenic roads in the world.  Most of the road is still unpaved and the land and towns it runs through are largely unmarked and undeveloped. The bus continued through the foggy wilderness, passing occasional, isolated ranches, and we finally arrived at Cochrane. The bus driver called for an hour rest, and as I strolled through the town in the drizzle, I thought about what the future might hold for the region. Debate over the town’s development is emblematic of the delicate balance in which all of central Patagonia now hangs. Does the region’s rugged and undeveloped landscape stand as a testament to the power of nature, representing something precious and increasingly rare in our world?  Or does it exist as an underexploited opportunity for economic development in a desolate and depressed region? While most of the decision lies in the hands of the central Chilean Government and multi-national corporations, local opinion carries some weight.

A recent New York Times article, “In Patagonia, Caught Between Visions of the Future”, paints a picture of two distinct paths for the region. “A short drive outside town, a $10 billion hydroelectric dam project, known as HidroAysén, is being planned, stirring a national outcry against what critics call the destruction of one of Chile’s most pristine ecosystems.” (NY Times, 2012)  The multi-national corporation backing the project, Endesa, has worked to gain local support, among other measures, by constructing a neighborhood of uniform yellow cottages for residents in Villa O’Higgins. Advocates of the dam say it will bring jobs at the local level and energy independence at the national level.

As the bus pulled out of Cochrane, we passed a HidroAysén billboard that read, “Let’s start the dialogue”. One opponent, the Sin Represas movement, has worked hard to raise local opposition to the project, arguing that the boon to the local economy will be short-lived and will destroy the rural culture. Soon we passed another billboard, this one reading “Patagonia Sin Represas” and featured a huge photo of an idyllic Patagonia landscape with power lines “photoshopped” across it. Critics contend that the dam project will open all of Patagonia to hydroelectric development both by precedent and through the construction of a massive power line between the dams and northern Chile, which additional dams will easily be able to tap into.

At the national level polls have indicated that a majority of Chileans oppose the dam project. Academic and media sources have indicated that close ties exist between top elected officials, who support the project, and the corporations involved.  Opponents contend that increased efficiency and alternative sources could meet the country’s energy needs. Doug Tompkins and other environmentalists with interests in Chile see an alternative future for the region, one focused on conservation and eco-tourism. Tompkins, an American businessman, has helped fund the creation of parks across Patagonia and much of the conservation of a huge tract of land near Cochrane. The park area is managed by an organization called Conservacion Patagonia that has focused on presenting the mutual goals of the park as both protecting nature and supporting the local economy.

Sandwich Stand on the way to Coyhaique - Villa Cerro Castillo, Chile

Passing the almost glowing blue water of the Baker River, I couldn’t abide the thought of anything changing about this place. From my perspective it was the holy grail of nature, as close as to perfection as any place that I had ever seen. Eventually, the long drive north reached Coyhaique, and we passed the first chain store I had noticed in weeks, a massive construction materials center. It was 11 pm and even the long sun of Patagonian summer had set. It was cold and raining as I looked for taxi to take me to a hostel I had heard was a little way outside of town. I flagged one down, and five minutes later I was standing on a muddy dirt road that led up to the guesthouse. The road was far longer than I had expected and when I finally found the house I was soaked. I knocked on the locked door but no one came. Desperate I looked to see if I could find someone around back who could let me in. I found an open door, it led to the staff kitchen and I walked in. I found myself in the central room of the hostel. All was dark, deserted. I walked down the hallway and the door to each room was open, and each bed empty and perfectly made. “Is this place really so empty that even the staff left?” I thought to myself. I looked outside and found a dry woodshed. Exhausted I was content to sleep for free next to the unusually large ground slugs that had also taken shelter inside.

After resting for a few days, drawing out cash, and resupplying, I found myself on my way back south to visit a new park that was being developed and billed as an alternative to the HidroAysén project. How was it that rather than hitching, I was at the wheel of a red pickup truck speeding down a long straight away, dust billowing behind? The day after Christmas I had met two couples over breakfast at a hostel where I was staying.  They were travelers who had described their plan to rent a car together and visit the park that I also had been so keen to see, yet had been forced to skip as the bus passed by on it’s way to Coyhaique. The couples hadn’t been able to find a rental car in town with automatic transmission. I volunteered to drive down to the park and help teach them how to drive a manual transmission in exchange for a lift in their vehicle. They agreed and went to rent the truck. I rushed to throw my gear in my backpack and buy food, a fishing license and a rod. I hadn’t expected to return this far down south, and certainly hadn’t planned to leave the hostel that morning. At first I was hesitant, as it can sometimes be difficult for me to break away from the plans that I have fixed upon-- but then I remembered that I was trying to embrace spontaneity and the flowing current of the journey. An hour later I climbed behind the wheel and shifted into first gear.

The scenery that had been so obscured on the wet bus ride north blew me away under the perfect sunny sky.  I marveled at the snowcapped peaks that had been hidden from the bus window, and thought about the globalized experience of being in this red truck.  Of the two couples, each spoke a different native language. One couple had met in the U.S., and were from Singapore and Vietnam respectively. They lived in Brazil and worked for an Asian multinational. The other couple were an American living with her boyfriend, a Chilean, in Santiago. The American worked for a global freight shipping company, and her boyfriend for a Chilean firm that specialized in investments in Columbia and Peru.

Eventually, we turned off the Carreteras Austral and made our way down the road that led into the heart of the Chacabuco Valley and the compound of the Conservacion Patagonia project. Stopping at intervals to take photos of the large herds of Guanaco, the wild ancestor of the llama, we discussed how only a few years before almost the entire valley had been fenced as a massive sheep farm. My knowledge of this place and eagerness to visit had begun with seeing the movie “180 Degrees South”, in which a young mountaineer-surfer retraces the epic 1968 journey of Yvon Chouinard through Patagonia. It is an adventure film that espouses the raw power of nature, the value of the simple life, and conservation. The film depicts Chouinard and his friend, Doug Tompkins, (both later outdoor industry magnates) as  different types of corporate leaders, who shed extravagance for the solitude of the wild. I had been inspired by the idea of the “eco-baron” as Lonely Planet described Doug Tompkins, a renegade, a “barefoot” businessman committed to using his status and money to help “save nature”.

 The film “180 Degrees South” had romanticized rambling “dirtbag” adventures across Patagonia, and was a big reason I was here in Patagonia. Presciently, the film’s closing segment had described the threat of large dam projects, along with the Sin Represas movement, underscoring the conflicting possible futures for the region.

Arriving in the central parking lot of the Conservacion Patagonia project after driving for an hour through the uninhabited Chacabuco valley, I was surprised to see a cluster of large stone buildings. I rationalized to myself that this sort of infrastructure development was necessary for stimulating tourism within the park and providing a viable economic alternative for locals to the hydroelectric project. The park was still two years away from its official opening, but I couldn’t help feeling that it already had some of the unsettling, “resorty” feel of Torres Del Paine.

I pitched my tent at the exceptionally nice campground that the organization has built in a small meadow below the impressive mesa that hangs over the park’s headquarters. The next morning I hiked a twelve-mile loop that brought me up on the elevated bench of pampas and along a series of high mountain lakes. The view was dramatic as I looked out over the Chacabuco Valley to the endless line of snowy peaks on the horizon. Condors circled low over my head as the day passed. I encountered puma tracks and numerous herds of guanaco whose pensive males stood perched on outcroppings of rock pondering the expanse beyond them.

As I came to the end of the loop I lost the trail and while scrambling down a steep slope of scree, I heard a “yelp”. A fox stood a few hundred feet away from me on a rocky ledge. Aggravated by the intrusion on its territory it barked at me in a sharp, high tone. I made my way cautiously around, not eager to get into a wrestling match with a scrappy canine. After climbing down and onto the grated road that lay below, I came over a hill and saw that the road led to a large building constructed in the same manner as the other Conservacion Patagonia structures. It stood apart though, hidden from the trail by a bluff, and obscured by a low hill from the park’s central compound.  The building seemed oddly located, and when I hiked down to question a park employee about the trek I would be starting the next day, I asked him about it.  He told me, “Oh, that’s Doug and Kris Tompkins’s house, where they stay when they come visit. V.I.P. donors stay there too.”

Our conversation turned to “180 Degrees South”, the movie that had done so much to promote the park. I inquired what relationship the filmmakers had to Tompkins, Chouinard, and the park. The park employee explained, “Well most of the money for the film came from Patagonia, the clothing company formerly owned by Chouinard, and run by Kris Tompkins, and a lot of the guys in the movie work at Patagonia.” Until hearing this, I hadn’t been aware of how connected the movie was to the clothing company.

I had been interested in the film’s background, and while I couldn’t find out much online I had assumed that the filmmakers had been independent of the clothing company. In reality it appeared that the film had been created as a piece of low-key advertising for Patagonia and that Chouinard and Tompkins probably had a good deal of control over how they were depicted in the film. It was a brilliant piece of marketing for the park, these eco-leaders, and the clothing company, and these individuals had in the end spearheaded the conservation of a huge track of land that I had spent the day reveling in.

In the moment, though, the romantic fantasy that I had held for the last few years in my mind had popped. What I had viewed as art was actually subtly effective public relations, and discovering this left me feeling depressed. From a business perspective, though, the film had perfectly pitched its message to a demographic of eco-outdoor types who are wary of the traditional corporate world. It seemed Patagonia was doing an astonishingly good job at branding itself as the “anti-corporate” corporation.

In fact, the central theme of the movie is the freedom of the minimalist, “dirt bag” outdoorsmen, shunning society and comfort, to push the limits of their sports and touch the core of nature. It was simplicity of thought and action that inspired me, especially during a scene where Chouinard and Tompkins discuss their philosophies and the notion of conservation ethics in a tiny cabin out in the Patagonian wilderness. Learning that the big house I had stumbled across at the end of my hike existed for the Tompkins’ use picked at the romance of that scene and at my belief in the idyllic simplicity of their lifestyles. Simply put, the house, restaurant, lodge, administration center, workers quarters, and large camping area did not seem in line with the philosophy of deep ecology with which Tompkins has aligned himself. Most of this built up infrastructure (including the wood-paneled lodge) and services seemed to exist to serve the donors who came to visit the tangible fruit of their philanthropy. These individuals had been behind the conservation of Pumalín Park, Corcovado National Park, Monte Leon National Park, and the future Patagonia National Park, in short some of Patagonia’s largest and most incredible parks.

Feeling a little less naïve, I set off for the Valle de Aviles to be in communion with wilderness through my own “minimalist” means. I began to walk down a road that led to Argentina and cut through the middle of the park and led far away from the buildings and extravagance. An hour down the road, I caught a ride, and a half hour later I was fishing in the slow-moving river next to the trailhead. All was again good in the world.

The realities and politics of conservation were far away. It was just me and two days of backcountry travel through the heart of Patagonia. After catching some trout for dinner I headed up into the Aviles Valley, and cooked my fish in an old gaucho’s shack. The next morning I crossed a bridge that Conservacion Patagonia had finished constructing days before and climbed deeper and deeper into the endless expanse of wilderness. Rain began to fall and as I reached the end of the valley I stopped to camp, uncertain what the next day would hold. I had been told that from now on the trail was unmarked, and that I would have to cross a high snowy pass before descending into a perpendicular valley that would lead to Jeinimeni National Park and the road to Chile Chico. I was soaked, cold, and working determinedly to avoid getting hypothermia. After eventually getting warm, I fell asleep, tired but apprehensive of the coming, solo bushwhack through the remote area where I was unlikely to encounter another human being.

In the morning I woke to a blue sky and heavy storm clouds rising from mountain peaks that had been previously obscured in the rain. I packed and walked on but I continued to follow pieces of surveyor tape tied to trees , blazing through a dense and beautiful stretch of rainforest. Suddenly the forest ended and a wide gravel riverbed stood in front of me. I felt a great elation as I stood under the warm sun and surveyed the massive glaciated peaks that surrounded me on every side. I continued down the valley walking on smooth stones, crossing back and forth over streams that diverged and joined together as they wound through the open center of the valley.

A few hours later a lake came into view. I knew from its position that it was Lago Verde, and understood exactly where I was on my map. I pulled my rod from my back and cast my line into the brilliant blue water as I walked along the shore. I crossed a shallow stream at its confluence with the lake. The crystal clear water above my knees, my pack on my back, I watched as a foot long trout followed and then took my spinner. As I reeled I walked and pulled the long brown trout up on the bank. I gutted the fish and surveyed my position. I was wedged between one of the most picturesque bodies of water I had ever seen and a broad valley cut between glaciated peaks. Patagonia had outdone itself again.

Trout fishing in Parque Nacional Lago Jeinimeni

As I hiked around the lake, the shore steepened until it became sheer cliff and I crossed up and over a forested pass on an old trail and then down into a parallel valley. So many streams ran along the rocky floor that I seemed to be wading through a single shallow river. Late in the afternoon I reached a road that led around the lake. I had no idea of how I would get to the town of Chile Chico, 50 km away, but again just as I came to the realization that I would need to hike the distance, a campground and a few parked cars came into view. It was December 31, 2012, and it had been two days since I had seen another person. Content to be in the presence of humans on the last day of the year, I pitched my tent and fished again as the sun went down. I cooked the day’s catch over a fire and soon fell asleep.

In the morning I rose early and began the trek to town. Within an hour of walking, what had been a wet and forested landscape turned back into the barren pampas that I had grown so used to. Three hours passed as I made my way across the dry cattle-filled plains. I began to climb a bluff and turned to survey the view. Off in the distance a ribbon of dust rose from the road. A few minutes later I was surveying the extraordinary panorama pass behind me from the bed of a truck. It was the first day of 2013, and I was bound for Chile Chico.

View from the pass above Lago Verde - Reserva Nacional Lago Jeinimeni, Chile

My feelings about the park that had inspired me from afar were now mixed. I still don’t know for certain what to think about the people or organization involved. I realized, though, that simply because a person or group does not precisely fulfill my idealized expectations, it does not mean that they are at fault. To buy into an idealized depiction of individuals was my own blunder.  The land and the Park were a reality, and I was unqualifiedly glad that the land I had passed through would remain in its spellbinding grandeur forever.  As Conservacion Patagonia declares on their website, their work is meant to be a “testament to the effectiveness of public-private collaboration and the power of private philanthropy to secure lasting conservation results.” Once again, I saw and learned that the reality of the places I had visited was far more complex than my early romantic visions had allowed me to understand. I had smashed and then, step by step, transcended a fantasy of this place and someone else’s work and journey through it. On the ground, foot-by-foot, I had felt the power of my own deepening connection to this wild land, well beyond daydreams inspired by books or a movie. Rarely have I been able to say that any one day, or even single moment, has exceeded the norm, the usual, or the expected. But, here, in Patagonia, the last day of 2012 had been without doubt the best day of what had been a wonderful year in my life so far.  It will linger in my memory as one of those perfect moments - a day free of time, spent between a warm sun and cool clear water.


Nelsen, Aaron. "In Patagonia, Caught Between Visions of the Future." New York Times [New York] 1 Mar. 2012: n. pag. Print.