"Loos’d of limits" in Patagonia

Charlie and two other travelers hiking the last few miles to the Torres Del Paine park.

Charlie and two other travelers hiking the last few miles to the Torres Del Paine park.

I was still in a transitory place, after ten hours sitting in the Buenos Aires airport. With a flight to Patagonia the following morning, Charlie and I had decided to spend the night in the terminal after our flight from Bolivia. The hours passed by as I watched the motion and emotion play out all around us: a woman cries as she hugs her boyfriend, a family with four young children reluctantly releases their oldest son to the boarding area and the world, backpackers huddle in groups excited to arrive or return home. Things were beginning to get a little strange as I lay down for the night on the floor of the closed café. One rarely stops for long enough in such a hub to gain a “sense of place”-- to begin to feel its strange and unique energy. Most human structures and gathering places exist to be occupied, but the bus terminal, train station, or airport only exist to facilitate the process of going and coming. Inhabiting “the revolving doorway” was beginning to grow a bit surreal.

But I was in the plane with the “fasten seat belts” light on before I knew it. All the strangeness and discontent I had felt in the airport faded away as our plane began to soar above southern Argentina’s endless empty plains and broad valleys, etched by thin ridges of mountains and rivers. Victor Hugo once said "to travel is to be born and die at every instant” and I felt a surge of emotions as the expansive reality out the window washed away the delusion of the airport. We were on our way to Chile’s natural treasure Torres Del Paine. An internationally renowned trekking mecca (80% of visitors are foreigners), the park lies near the tip of the South American continent and close to the border of Chile and Argentina. The dramatic Cordillera del Paine, whose jagged peaks rise to 10,000 feet, forms the centerpiece of the park. An amazing diversity of ecosystems exists within the park’s 2,400 square kilometers, and the week-long hiking circuit that we were setting out on would take us from rugged prairie, to rainforest, over a snow covered alpine pass, along the side of a glacier several kilometers in width, and around numerous mountain lakes and torrents each of a different vivid hue.

From the plane we made our way to buses. As we ventured farther and farther south I could feel a shift in the fabric of my journey. Perhaps it was the expansiveness of this land I was passing, but something was falling away and at the same time building in me.  Surely one has a revelation in each transition when traveling, and perhaps I was growing better at the process of letting go and settling into the journey. I later stumbled across Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road, words that capture an energy that I had felt in a taxi climbing into the cloud forest of Peru and was feeling again two months later:

"From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines, Going where I list, my own master total and absolute, Listening to others, and considering well what they say, Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating, Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself o the holds that would hold me. I inhale great draughts of space; The east and west are mine, and the north and south are mine."

The craggy and captivating peaks of the torres came into view as our bus bumped along the access road. Soon, backpacks shouldered, we were strolling across the rolling hills towards the trailhead that would lead us in a circumnavigation of the high peaks. Over the course of the next few days we made our way across a tract of private land, and through huge fields of cattle feeding on lush grass at the foot of the peaks, and then, crossing into the actual park, we began to understand why it draws such praise. A green valley of meadow and smalls stands of forest stretched out below us. Short and haggard Lengas (a species of beech numerous in Patagonia) stood at intervals in dense clumps broken by expanses of grass. A wide slow river flowed by us, and as we followed its course, we watched it fan out and flow into numberless lakes that would inevitably narrow until the river formed again. As a wet and foggy morning lifted into the warmth of midday, the marvelous source of this tributary came into view in the crack between two snow-capped ridgelines. At first I mistook the vast grey form for a cloud hanging over the mountains, but as we drew closer I realized it was a field of ice, and my mind began to grasp the immensity of this glacier that lay ahead of us. We halted for lunch on a ridge from where we could see this massive grey arm of glacier bend its way downward and finally rest in Lake Dickson.

We began an ascent through a much damper and more spacious kind of mountain forest. From an exposed ridge we gazed down at the thick carpet of forest blanketing the valley and the mountainsides before it gave way to the scree and snow of the last winter. Passing under the canopy we paused again where a gorge had been cut into the thick forest. A torrent birthed from one of the numerous melting glaciers ran between the trees along the forest floor before dropping down over a fall into a shoot below us. The water boiled between mighty hardwoods bent over walls of bedrock. It thundered below us before passing in a sharp curve, and then was out of sight around the corner of the little gorge. Two ducks fearlessly relaxed on a log hanging over the white water, before one dare devilishly hopped into the froth, then struggled out and up onto a shelf of the cliff.

In a cool drizzle we hiked higher up the forested valley and crossed paths with the stream again. I gazed from the bank across the jade-colored water and emerald vegetation to the thin stream of water that fell hundreds of feet down until joining the tributary. Around a bend in the trail the trees ended abruptly on the margin of a long mound of gravel that ringed a brown iceberg-filled pond. A hanging glacier towered above us. As we watched, a section of its lip crumbled and fell down the face of the cliff, and was  pulverized in a thunderous crash that we felt from across the water. I was in the company of a landscape whose immensity, forms and characteristics I had never before even imagined. I was insignificant, only a spectator to this slow geological drama, and dwarfed by forces of wind, rock and rain that were beyond my ability to comprehend. And where was the trail we were supposed to be following? Wind-whipped raindrops stung our face as we wondered where exactly we were. We re-entered the wet forest, and, too tired to do more, pitched camp.

In the morning we climbed far above the lush valley and up onto the alpine landscape that led to John Gardner Pass, from where later in the day we would descend into the wide glacial valley. We scrambled over rocks, and then moved onto a snowfield that elegantly blanketed and smoothed the folds of the peaks and ridges that horseshoed around us. The pitch of the snow-covered slope increased until we were reaching out in front with our hands in the snow, climbing upward with all of our limbs. Above me, my new friend Zack, who we had been hiking with for the last few days, was working his way up the slope, his churango (a Bolivian string instrument) strapped to a pack that contained all the possessions he had been traveling with for the last nine months. This was probably the first time anyone had carried a guitar over John Gardner Pass, which travel writers and the park authorities emphasize as an arduous and dangerous undertaking even without musical instruments in tow. But without complaint, Zack carried on. A track athlete in college, since graduating he had worked as a journalist and then toured with a popular folk band, before deciding to leave the United States for two years of rambling in South America. Zack’s parents had split up and soon after his father had been diagnosed with cancer. At this difficult juncture in his life his father had urged him to take to the road, and had given him a journal empty except for the last twenty lines of the poem “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which he had written out for his son. Its closing lines read:

“Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are,--
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Zack and Charlie heading up the start of John Gardner Pass. 

The night before, Zack had reflected, “My dad urged me to be wary of the typical vacation experience – he said to fuel the fear rather than be too safe, and not to avoid uncomfortable situations. I had lost my creativity after the last few years, lost my character. I came down here to rediscover myself, to search for experiences where I could learn from others, and see how others live - have authentic experiences. I can’t go home until I find what I’m looking for.”

At night, Zack would play the instrument he carried, and the music he played so skillfully was wonderful to hear over the wind tugging at our tents. He was traveling with an instrument only because of a strange accident. While in a small town in Bolivia, Zack had been bitten by a deranged-looking dog that died soon after. He prudently returned to La Paz to receive treatment for rabies. This required a course of shots that forced him to stay put in the city for a month. Rather than bemoan the incident, Zack took the time as an opportunity and formed a relationship with a luthier, assisting him with his work. At the end of a month-long apprenticeship in the workshop, the luthier presented Zack with the handmade chorongo.

Not all of Zack’s trip had ebbed and flowed in this intrepid vein. He started his travels in Santiago with a friend who had planned to stay in South America for three months, but returned home prematurely, uncomfortable with the cultural difference of being abroad. Unexpectedly alone, Zack didn’t know what to do with him self. Then Zack met an Argentinean in his hostel. The man had been traveling for 11 years, hitch hiking and doing odd jobs where he could find them. Zack committed to try living like this man who owned nothing more than the backpack he shouldered. They journeyed together north to San Pedro. For a week they hitchhiked, sleeping in bus stops and behind gas stations. Zack did as the Argentinean did, including often going hungry.  Zack told me, “I didn’t want to be rude eating in front of him, and I also wanted to experience how it felt to live this way. Sometimes it was dangerous and hard, scraping around for bread and freezing at night. Traveling with him was hell, but it’s an incredible time to look back on.”

Zack explained that many poorer Argentinians can only travel by hitchhiking as they work, moving here and there selling crafts. For this man, his journey had no end. There was no home to return to, and no real social tie bound him to a particular place or provided a permanent link of connection. Zack told me, “I got in his head, and began to think like he did. If we didn’t get picked up on the highway there was nothing, sometimes it was hours between rides. Sometimes he would be happy and give me advice. Other times he would tell me how he thought of killing himself, and how he was so alone that no one would ever be able to identify his body. That no one could love him as an ugly homeless man. He didn’t take much stock in his life.” What Zack came away with was not these dark moments though. “He understood more about people than anyone I’ve ever met. He never made blanket statements about people, and he had an ability to look into someone’s eyes and know whether they would help him or not. He relied on and fully understood human compassion.”

Listening to Zack, I was reminded of the tale of Tosui the Zen master who left his temple to live under a bridge with beggars. It was intriguing to think that these two men, Tosui and the Argentinean wanderer, thousands of years apart and with very different intentions, had both been led toward this way of being; that a seeker of spirituality and wisdom had intentionally chosen and in a way legitimised destitution; that despite the fact that the Argentinean and the monk had so little in common except their homelessness, they might have ultimately shared many of the same insights about the experience of existing on the fringe of their societies.

Eventually Zack and the Argentinean made it to San Pedro and parted ways. “He just disappeared but I will think about him for the rest of my life.” The experience altered the trajectory of Zack’s journey. “I had been spending money, going to bars. I came here with the mentality that my money could buy me so much. Then I began to think about how much things cost from the perspective of people who actually live in these places.” He grew a beard, stopped replacing his clothes when they got holes in them, and decided to see how little money he could possibly spend. “I am middle class at home, but down here I pretend I have no money. I find myself in much more interesting situations. My appearance lowers barriers”. Zack made an effort to work with locals whenever he could. He had handed out flyers on a street corner for a week in northern Chile and even tried working in a mine. In addition to the relationship he had developed with the luthier, Zack became close with a family in Cusco and experienced life in a neighborhood far outside the city’s gringo bubble. Zack’s approach to travel grew into a philosophy that he describes as “natural hedonism” – that is, seeking and indulging in the simple pleasures of life. Zack extolled the scene in Into the Wild when Alexander Supertramp burns his remaining money before setting off on the road. “It would be so much better to travel that way. It’s just too easy to fall back on my money.”

The end of Glacier Grey.

While I thought of the monk Tosui under the bridge, we hiked. To our right the glacier occupied 180 degrees of our field of vision. We had been walking along a narrow trail cut into the mountain that climbed above the glacier’s margin. The ice field with its white and grey patterns of fissures and cracks was vast and captivating, and it was difficult to focus on the trail ahead of us. We had descended from John Gardner Pass, and were now nearing the center of tourism within Torres Del Paine – the “W” circuit. More popular than the trail we had been on, this was a shorter, less demanding section that becomes over-run with most of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to the park during the short Patagonian summer. We began to run into more and more hikers.

That evening one of the resort style lodges that the park has developed came into view. The infrastructure stood in stark contrast to the quiet expansiveness of the mighty peak that towered above the camping area where we pitched our tent. As the famous wind of Patagonia began to pick up and pulled furiously at the many dozens of tents pitched around us, an employee walked over and asked us whether we had paid. As we each forked over twelve dollars, we watched a cheap tent snap and fly away, its surprised owners dropping their dinner to give chase.

Three days later, as we camped together for our last night in the park, the mob scene had begun to grow old. The park’s numerous fees and fancy lodges spaced at intervals along the trail were seriously detracting from a wilderness experience. Torres Del Paine was beginning to feel more like a large resort than a huge unspoiled park. But we persisited on, climbing up the valley and camping at a quieter site (one of the park’s few free camps). Invigorated by a break in the rain and strong wind that had kept us tent bound for a day, we had hiked to the park’s most famous lookout and stood at the base of the mighty torres. Exhilarated, we returned and cooked dinner in the shelter with other hikers, most of whom were from the United States. I had been in the presence of only a handful of travellers from my own country for the last two months, and being surrounded by so many Americans was both odd and pleasant.

As I stirred the powdered mashed potatoes into my bowl of hot water, I listened as two college students from the U.S. recounted their adventures in South America. Seeking a break from academics the two students had decided to take a semester leave from Colby and have a classic South American adventure. Mike, a boisterous but enjoyably gregarious kid with a mullet from Wyoming, described excitedly how they had decided to travel from Quito, Ecuador to Patagonia on motorcycles. Once in Quito the duo had realized that the only motorcycles in their price range were undersized and poorly built bikes intended for commutes, rather than road trips. Ignoring the advice of the retailer who had warned that they would need more powerful and rugged Enduro motorcycles, they purchased two bikes for $500 U.S. apiece and were off. Only ninety kilometers outside Quito their motorcycle road trip came to a halt. Mike’s companion (a Vermonter like myself) had entered a construction zone and immediately been tossed over his handlebars. His knee was dislocated, his bike’s front rim crushed where it had hit the lip of torn up pavement, and his friend was nowhere to be seen.

“A cop stopped, but I didn’t know any Spanish yet. He just threw my bike in the back of his pickup truck and I climbed in next to it,” Tim recounted. “It was a terrible moment. I couldn’t focus on bandaging my leg because I was so angry that I had ruined our trip. We found Mike and then the cop took us to a mechanic. Only once the tire was fixed, did he decide to take me to a hospital. The cop had offered to buy my bike and he took us to dinner at his house while he went to get the money.”

Mike laughed without bitterness at their bad luck. “I sold my bike to the milkman who stopped by the house. I lost a few hundred dollars on the whole affair but he threw in a crate of milk.” Nevertheless they had carried on, traveling from Ecuador through Peru and south across all of Chile hitchhiking and sleeping with feral kittens in abandoned buildings. I admired these two for their boldness and endurance--Mike was just wrapping up a five day fast that he had maintained while hiking a dozen miles a day.

I’ve discovered that for today’s college kids, South America is a sort of mecca for the ultimate backpacking adventure. The continent holds the allure of the unspoiled, whether it be “authentic culture” or “untouched nature”, and exists in the backpacker’s imagination as a last refuge for “wild” people and places. The anthropologist in the room would argue that both these ideas are idealized cultural constructions - more fantasy than actuality. But there is something about this place that excites the imagination and draws so many southward to shed the baggage of their “western” lives. “Authentic culture” was an idea that came up again and again in conversations with other travelers. It was the appeal of a purer mode of existing beyond the daily commute, desk job, and suburban home. During a tourists time in South America much of what they will come in contact with and consider to be rich, indigenous culture – was in reality “packaged” and presented solely for their consumption. Nonetheless all across the continent lie an extraordinary diversity of communities who have maintained ancient traditions and livelihoods both through isolation and persistent pride in their identity.

The smaller economies of most South American countries are no façade. People have less. The cycle of advertising, consuming and working to spend has not yet gained the momentum found in Europe and the North America. The backpacker seeks to witness a glamorized “liberation” that comes through the simplicity born from scarcity of money and belongings. Since I was young I have been fascinated by the romantic emancipation of the “open road” that’s such a common thread in so many great American creative works: the stepping with courage out into the world, with only the essentials in the pack on your back. Growing up my father had introduced me to Kerouac and the Beats before I could even read. My mother had read me “The Hobbit” and Japanese haikus. My parents’ ideas of what is worthwhile and valuable in life were different from many of my friends, and included a real respect for the pilgrim, mendicant, itinerant. As I grew older, I began to come to understand the wanderer as one who should be admired rather than avoided.

Reading “Into The Wild” in high school redefined the idea of a pilgrimage for me. Just as Alexander Supertramp had been present in Zack’s mind, this character was living in mine. Dying in the process, Supertramp had re-romanticized “rebellion through rambling” for my generation. Setting off for South America, I craved life in nature and on the edge, a South American odyssey in the spirit of Alexander Supertramp’s. At times I had felt this freedom, but I yearned for a “purer” taste of a real journey and a closer connection to the lives that I passed by. Zack’s tale re-inspired me. And all it took for me to form a plan for the next phase was to learn of the Carreteras Austral highway. In the way one often discovers their next step when traveling, I had heard from an Austrian about his experience hitch hiking from the north of Chile down to Torres Del Paine along this two lane dirt road that cuts through the remotest corners of central Patagonia. I threw my previous plans out the window and decided to take the next sixty days as they would come, wandering through this final frontier.

After two months together, the time had come for my friend Charlie and I to part ways. It was a sad moment as we hugged and then walked away, but we were both ready for what lay ahead. I knew Charlie had gotten what he was searching for in South America and was ready to go home for Christmas, and I knew I was ready for the challenge of traveling alone again. So as Charlie stepped on to the airport shuttle, I set off on foot and headed out of town. As my solitude sunk in, I thought back to a moment a few weeks before when Charlie and I had been hiking together in silence. Out of nowhere he had said “Tourists don’t know where they are because they carry more expectations than travelers. They are so wrapped up in their expectations that they aren’t really observing. Travelers don’t know where they are going because they don’t have expectations.” On our hikes, Charlie and I had mulled often over Paul Theroux’s line, “Tourists don't know where they've been, travelers don't know where they're going”, and now finally, after many a mile, this familiar quote had finally become personal epiphany.

Torres Del Paine at sunset

Sources

  • Lord Tennyson, Alfred. Ulysses. 1833. N.p.: n.p., n.d. N. pag. Print.
  •  Reps, Paul. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen & Pre-Zen Writings. Garden City, NY: Anchor /Doubleday, 1961. Print.
  •  Whitman, Walt, Christopher Morley, and Lewis Daniel. Leaves of Grass;. New York: Doubleday, Doran &, 1940. Print.

Comment