The Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia.

The Patagonia Saga – Part Two: From the Pampa to the Bottom

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When I arrived to the town of Perito Moreno, a crossroads of sorts, I couldn’t have imagined how quickly I’d make it to Argentina’s southern parks. The road south was deserted, and the wind was so powerful it bent my ears forward when I’d turn my back to it. The sun here was just as strong as I’d expected, but I was so distracted by the moving air that I let the rays have their way over what I’ve always known to be my weak powdery delicate skin. So it goes.

Chile Chico faded behind after I’d bathed in Lago General Carrera one last time and before it changed its name to Lago Buenos Aires on the Argentine side. I’d spent half the day in the town’s library writing, and now I found myself walking down a long windy road flanked on both sides by what I’ve referred to my whole life as Van Gogh trees.

A car finally pulled over and it was the couple that had brought me to Chile Chico from Cochrane. We drove to the first border control, where I was stamped out of Chile after I’d convinced the immigration official that the new pages in my passport were legitimate. At the Argentinian control, the army green-clad ladies flipped through my struggling passport with little remorse, but then stamped me in and handed it back.

The couple dropped me off in the small town of Los Antiguos, known locally as a hub of cherry production. In fact, that Friday they would have their international cherry festival which would attract upwards of 100,000 people. Alas, I would not stay to see it.

I was in Argentina. After so many stories told by friends and randoms, I was finally in the land of pizza, free public health care and che (in more ways than one). The country is big, and we have the fertile land to thank for upwards of 45 million humans. Where was I though exactly? The answer is simple: I was in the pampa.

The Argentinian pampa is not a singularity but a collection of semi-diverse landscapes that make up the vast majority of the country’s territory. Each pampa goes by a different name, but I’ve heard that in general, they all have prairie grass or bush weed, and each is battered by strong winds. Despite the apparent desolation, I would observe many animals including hares, foxes, smaller relatives of the ostrich, and llama-types.

The winds descend from the ending of the Andes, and are relentless in their onslaught over the vast emptiness. Color themes hover around yellows and browns, and faded green sometimes peaks out from trickles of water or underground aquifers as though to say hello if only for the season.

At a police checkpoint outside of Los Antiguos, I was picked up by a sunglasses wearing man, destroying my conviction that sunglasses never pick me up.

“Damian,” he introduced himself as.

“Chael, nice to meet you.”

We conversed.

“So what is it that you do back in Chicago?” he asked.

“Oh no I’ve been on the road for two years. Now I write and work for food sometimes. It’s more like a lifestyle than anything, which makes travelling here in Patagonia where there are plenty of bicyclists and hitchers feel weird.”

His phone rang. “Excuse me,” he said as he picked up the cell. “Aurelio, I can’t talk right now …/… because I’m driving …/… it doesn’t matter, it’s always light here.”

He hung up and said: “Man, this kid calls me all the time.”

“A kid?”

“Yea I don’t know how he got my number. He’s three years old, and I have no idea who he is, and he doesn’t know me either. He just calls, but he never passes the phone to his mom. You know the credit must run deep because I talk with him for around an hour a day.”

“You chat with him?”

“Yea, he calls to ask how things are. I’m a plastic sculptor, and I—I don’t know man we just chat!” He smiled and looked at me from behind the glasses. “It’s weird right?”

“I think it’s kind of neat. Maybe you’re like a father figure. In fact that’s a great idea for a story,” I said.

We drove on, and the conversation rolled around the Argentinian education system. He told me that there was free public education here, but that the system was crumbling. “We need to have kids choosing specializations when they’re 15,” he said, “not when they’re 18.” I disagreed on the matter, saying that general knowledge was important to drive home, even if you never delve deep into each subject. I said that choosing a “career” at 15 sounded forced.

We drove on through long hills speckled with dry earth and foot-high brush, our sightline limitless. He dropped me off about 40 minutes later in Perito Moreno. The library was closed, so after a couple hours of internet at the YPF gas station (Important note: these gas stations are going to become a theme, what with their free wi-fi) I bought some cheese bread and filled my water bladder to begin hiking out of town.

It must have been around 7pm by the time I reached the southbound exit. Summiting a hill I came into the full wrath of the pampa wind. I tried to shrug it off, and sat in the shadow of a sign to throw my thumb for a number of hours. Here I was; at the crossroads of Perito Moreno with the famous Ruta 40. I’d known about the road for ages, El Negro having talked his mouth off about it in Quito, and plenty of fellow travelers contemplating its desolation as well.

And here I was in the thick of it. In the three hours I sat I was passed by two cars. They both stopped, and I turned down both rides since they would have landed me in the middle of nowhereland pampa.

However, when the third ride came and was also headed to nowhere-land, I had changed my mind, and hopped in. The multinational family—father German mother Argentinian, kids born in Barcelona—drove me to their turnoff to go see the “Cueva de las Manos” cave paintings. It seems I was wrong about tourists never picking me up.

Hitchhiking on Ruta 40 in Argentina's Patagonia.

Hitchhiking on Ruta 40 in Argentina’s Patagonia. Source.

 

This road is generally left unused for the most part, if the level of traffic was any indication. However, it being the most popular route for visitors to want to tackle in the summer months (these months), I would probably have an easy time making it to the south, south south.

I thanked the family after we’d pulled off down a dirt road that coiled through a set of peculiar hills that would make for good camping out of the wind. They drove off. It was 10pm and the sun was starting to fall to the ground. I threw my pack to the dirt and hiked up a hill to crouch in the shadow of another.

The scene was this: Long since dried of their veins of ice, any water stores having trickled out to leave behind tiny ravines, the surrounding hills appeared cracked and wrinkling. The wrinkles were like the moisture-less rippling of elephant skin, rippling white or orange ribbed tangerine colors that changed in the fading light. I went scaling some of the hills and the crunching sound beneath the soles of my shoes echoed in that dead silence in which a ceased wind leaves the pampa. Above me stretched out a sky that appeared so much bigger than any other and whose clouds seemed to travel from a great distance, gathering around that energetic orb and basking in its licks of flame. Indeed, the clouds had glowing underbellies where they were tanning and blue backs, and when finally the sun sank no more did it have rays but haze that blurred its origin, and clouds further out were purple, and they changed too—from purple to blue, mixing with the otherwise perfectly blue sky that sat awkward over an earth now already in shadow, except for the tip tops of orange cracked hills blasted in the last sunbursts and looking like they were pulsating with life. I wouldn’t have been surprised even if they’d begun the slow up and down of respiration. The hill changed from orange to red, and I sat rocking back and forth in my shadow and trying to think of better words—but it was a fruitless expenditure of thought, since before me lay the kind of sight you want to express not in words but in feeling.

How could something so big and precious be so quiet?

Argentina ruta 40 travel sketch

A travel sketch of the pampa roads along Argentina’s Ruta 40.

 

In the morning I packed my things and thumbed the first ride to go by—a big rig. On a road like the 40, it seems all the more savage when a car passes who must know that you’re alone without means to escape the pampa; or, they’ve hitched and know that you’ll eventually get your ride, anyway.

I pulled myself up into the cab after the trucker had told me to leave my pack on the flat trailer, just in front of his cargo: a giant yellow piece of gold mining machinery. When I climbed into the car, the man was looking at me with dime-sized pupils that pushed the blue iris to its thin periphery. I wondered if he was on something, but he seemed coherent enough that I didn’t mind.

The paved road quickly turned to dirt down the way. For two hours we drove through a hilly pampa paralleling construction work for a brand new Ruta 40 that would be laid out in asphalt. When we reached a “town” called Bajo Caracoles, I hopped out and he continued onward. My pack was coated in a thin layer of dirt.

Besides the view of far-off mountains hiding in the blue haze of distance, Bajo Caracoles was not pretty. Perhaps 7 or 8 houses huddled under the shade of foreign trees—for it is clear to me that trees are not at all native to this pampa. The grouping of houses looked decidedly like some kind of survivor refuge from the world of Mad Max.

At the sanitation post I filled my water with a hose that the man insisted be left constantly on, flooding the little patch of grass and several flowers, and which seemed a horrible waste in this semi-arid land.

I walked out of the place and found the other side to have a paved road. I followed its curve upward for a bit until I came to a mileage sign, under whose shadow I presently and quite happily sat. I took to drawing some of the surrounds and throwing my thumb now and again at cars or trucks—or rather, the car and the truck.

There are an awful lot of tinted windows in Argentina, it seems. The non-tinted trucks would pull over, tell me they were headed to an Estancia down the road and wish me luck before stuttering off.

On my map, the land is populated not with towns but with these estancias. Later I’d learn that they’re old outposts of pioneers or frontiersmen, and today some of them are communes and some of them are private, and still others are touristic. The towns too were once estancias, but luckily for them they’d attracted enough attention to become incorporated municipalities.

A few hours passed, I preoccupied with my bag of bread and carrots or with my thumb piano. Finally, though, a car pulled up. It was a Ford SUV, and there was a family inside. Two kids, a teenager and the parents. The license plate was Chilean.

“Where you headed?” I asked.

“Hop on in, we’re headed to El Calafate,” said the man.

And so it was that the 3 or 4 days I’d had planned to get south would be 3 rides instead. It was a ride right to El Calafate, my own destination. Why in the hell El Calafate? Allow me to explain how I chose it. My map is a simple map. Sometimes it presents small asterisks to mark interesting places, but it is generally empty of detailed indications. However, those giant campo de hielo ice fields that sit in the Andes of Patagonia were visible. I saw that from El Calafate, there was a road that went straight up to one of the long snaking arms of the glacial pack. It had to be interesting. And so it went.

However, I became suspicious that this family was headed there too, and upon asking a few questions and receiving responses with pamphlets and guide books handed my way, I learned that El Calafate was quite popular, particularly in this time of year. The glacier I was headed to was called Perito Moreno, and would cost 25 dollars to get in. I shrugged it off and reminded myself that sometimes, tourism is.

Travel brought me to Lago Viedma, Patagonia.

Travel brought me to Lago Viedma, Patagonia.

 

The drive brought us along on alternating dirt track and paved highway, but mostly the former. The white peaks of Andes Mountains hung below the horizon, clouds rallying above them but holding their stations low. We arrived to a wind-swept town called Tres Lagos that could pass as the setting for a new old western, its raw roads ringing its smallness. We continued on.

The kids were excited to play with my thumb piano, and I dozed off now and again. We came to bluish gray lakes and took photos. Finally, after some 6 hours, we passed a police checkpoint and descended into El Calafate. The town sat among foreign trees in the trough of wavy hills, and enjoyed a stretch of lake, the source of which could only be the impending glaciers.

The Chilean family driving in Argentina's Patagonia.

The Chilean family driving in Argentina’s Patagonia.

 

I thanked the family and strode into the center of town. It was touristy like San Pedro de Atacama. In fact, I didn’t trust my inclination to ask directions of passersby because it seemed they were all tourists. I could tell either by of the structures of their faces or their bright new synthetic outdoors clothing that the majority of them probably bought for this one trip. Many went about with faces buried in maps or hands clenched lightly around guidebooks like priest and their Bibles, or looking somehow lost in such a small place. Of course, this must seem—to you—a rather negative observation, but I assure you I realize that it is only an outward projection comparing my own travel to theirs, and I realize that it makes me sound ironically bigoted.

At the supermarket I purchased more carrots and bread, and it was expensive. Then I hit the road west out of town. I followed it up a hill and found a sign that read “Perito Moreno 80km.” After a short while of many cars giving me the sign “I’m going in your direction, but I assume you don’t want to go as short a distance as I am going,” (the sign being them pointing down the road), a red pick-up pulled over.

The family inside made room for me and we were off. They stopped off first at the Ice Museum before we would continue on to the entrance of the Glaciers National Park. I sat on my pack behind the truck while the family went into the museum, trying to find refuge out of the damning winds. But soon the family returned. The man had locked his keys in the car. My food and umbrella were also in there.

Thus began an hour and a half of trying all sorts of things to get the car open, from hammered metal rods to twisted hangers and even a fishing hook hung from dental floss—all failed. The museum had by then closed, and the sun looked around 7pm for Patagonia.

Their little daughter suggested with a squeaking voice, “you can just break the glass!”

A man came to the car beside ours and saw the struggle.

“Ah, I just recently left my kit behind in Rio Gallegos,” he told us. “But I’ve seen some methods that work. Once, they took thread and passed it through the door—not the window—and had little loops tied in order to grab onto the lock and pull it up.”

That man departed and the struggle continued. I watched with a creeping sense of urgency, but then I noticed my ride’s shirt. It said in English: “Fuck the Clock.”

“Haha, that’s a great shirt!” I exclaimed uncharacteristically. But the occasion merited it; that shirt was more than appropriate.

He stopped fiddling with the door for a moment. “Yeah? I never knew what it meant,” he said. When I told him, he smiled with the corner of his mouth and his wife giggled.

I have picked door locks before, so I tried my hand at the car one, but to no avail. Julio was the name of the man with the shirt, and he and his son took the other’s advice. They drew a long thread through the cracks in the door, tying small adjustable loops in its length. They guided it down to the rod-shaped lock, and twisted the string. After a few tries everyone screamed with excitement as he managed to wrap a loop around the lock, tug it tight, and pull up successfully—the car was open!

The Argentinian family with the man's epic t-shirt.

The Argentinian family with the man’s epic t-shirt.

 

We assumed the park would be closed, but they decided to take me along to the entrance anyway. My plan, of course, was to sneak in. The landscape changed from barren to tree. Around a curve we came to the entrance to the park, a large structure spanning the highway beside a wooded hill and terminating in a ranger’s lodge.

A guard came out to greet us as we all got out of the car. He and Julio spoke as I was thanking the rest of the family, shaking the little girl’s hand. I was in a good mood and mentioned Julio’s shirt once more.

“You like it?” he asked.

“It’s a great shirt,” I replied. To this, he took it off and handed it to me. I laughed, but he insisted I keep it. So, I have my first cotton shirt in over two years. They also gave me their card and told me to look them up if ever I were to arrive to Mendoza, a city just across the border from Santiago.

They drove off, and I attended my pack. The guard came up to me.

“Oye amigo! De donde vienes? / Hey friend, where ya come from?” he asked. I told him. I also told him I was there to camp somewhere far from El Calafate’s wind. “Camp? You wanna come inside?” he said, motioning to the guardhouse.

“Sure,” I replied. It surprised me. We walked into a main room. The tiger ribbon glossy design of an electric guitar sat on its amplifier. “You play?” I asked.

“Yea man, for sure. Well, it’s been a while really. I sing mostly,” he replied.

“Right on right on. I play the drums. Not the greatest instrument for traveling, though.”

“A drummer? Very good, well it’s nice to meet you—what was your name?”

“I’m Chael,” I said with a short explanation of its pronunciation.

“Ariel,” he said.

“Thanks for inviting me in,” I said.

“Hey, it’s no problem, I’ve traveled too. Well, with my band.”

“You’re in a band?”

“I was. Singer. We traveled to La Paz, Santiago, Lima, Cusco… lots of places really. We were pretty big for the humble crowds in Lima. You can look up Grupo Yoga on YouTube, and you’ll find some videos of our performances.”

“Man, that must be some fun way to travel,” I said.

“Yea, it was really something. But lots of partying.”

“I imagine.”

“Then I had some kids, some obligations. You want a coffee?” he asked.

I thanked him. “So are you from El Calafate?” I asked.

“I’m from Juyjuy, north of the country. I came down here after I separated from my wife.”

“I see.”

“She just wasn’t good for me or our two kids. I’d work all day and I’d have to come home and cook, clean and change diapers. She just slept!” he said.

“Sounds like a rough deal,” I replied.

“It was! But now I’m here, I met another woman who became my wife, and now I’m with another kid. And you know what, my ex she called me one day and said she couldn’t handle our kids any longer, and with all the money I send her!”

“What does she do with it?” I asked hesitantly.

“I don’t know, I think she just drinks,” he replied. He sipped from the steaming mug. “I don’t drink any longer. Lots of drinking, lots of smoking. I said to her ‘Carolina, fine. You send me those kids—I’ll be responsible for them. And she did, and now I’m here with my three kids and my lovely wife. We go to the church. Have you read the Bible?”

“I tried to, but I couldn’t get passed Genesis. ‘And Abraham begot Issac, who begot so-and-so, who begot a bunch of others’,” I said.

“It’s really a helpful thing. It’s a guide. Many different people wrote books which were grouped into the Bible, and it all went together—without any of the authors having known each other!” he said. We continued to talk about the Bible, and he told me about his church. He said some people let the Holy Spirit take them to heaven, during which time their bodies spoke in tongues. “What do you think about that?” he asked me, his bright eyes looking at me expectantly.

“Me? What, about the tongues?” I asked.

“Yeah, I mean, what do you feel about that?”

I’d seen some of examples of speaking in tongues, most notably from Jesus Camp and from Ali G’s Boris parody. I said: “Well, personally, what you told me about the 13 year old who went with God into heaven and who told the congregation that the streets were paved in gold and there were mansions with addresses, I don’t really believe that that happened. Our minds play a lot of tricks. But that’s me personally, for me.” I said.

“I understand, I understand,” said Ariel.

The conversation was a first—sure, plenty of times people have talked about God with me. I’ve been gifted two Bibles. But this was different. We were discussing tongues. I did not have the courage to put my opinion into quotes for Ariel, but if I had I would’ve read this timely citation from William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury:

“They talked about what they would do with 25 dollars. They all talked at once, their voices insistent and contradictory and impatient, making of unreality a possibility, then a probability, then an incontrovertible fact, as people will when their desires become words.”

“On the other hand, believing in that other something helps people—like you said yourself. Since you started going to that little church only good things have come your way—I think that’s wonderful,” I said.

“It really has been a wonderful thing,” he replied.

We spoke a little bit more about the church, and about belief in general. I decided that I appreciate the questioning of existence and the exploration of higherness, but I’m turned off by clear convictions one way or the other that God exists or not.

Ariel turned on the guitar and strummed simple songs, but sang with a powerful voice. He sang typically latino songs about the girl, the love and the forgiveness (“perdoname”). But he sang quite well, and I think even the jittery walls were grateful.

“You look tired, man,” he said. “You can set up in the back, let me show you.”

We went into the back room where the guards keep their lockers. I used the bathroom, then blew up my mattress and laid out my sleeping bag, then stood and looked at it briefly.

“You should go to the park tomorrow,” he said. “Look, the best thing to do is wake up at 5:30. Actually at 7 the park opens. You can wake early, and walk into the park from here. The glacier is 30 kilometers away, but you can maybe hide in the bushes until later in the day, then hitch a ride there.”

I hesitated, somewhat unbelievingly. I already had planned a day of sneaking, because there was no way I was paying the 25 dollar entrance fee. But to have the night guard of the entire park not only treat me to Argentinian hospitality, but also to give me the low-down on sneaking into the park—it surprised me.

“Wow, thanks a lot Ariel,” I said.

“Yeah, descansa no mas,” he said, “I’ll wake you in the morning.”

I slept comfortably. 5:30 seemed to come quickly.

“Chael, time to head out my man,” he said. “Here, you should go out this window cause people have already arrived to be the first ones in.”

He led me to a back window, and I climbed through with my pack.

“Man, I don’t know how to thank you,” I said.

“You don’t have to. Just don’t tell them it was me if you get caught—but you won’t, no one is going to ask for your ticket beyond here.”

We shook hands, and I drifted out the window and down the curving road. It was drizzling slightly, but the large span of my umbrella kept the drops off of me. I went over in my mind the fortuitousness of the previous night. Later I would look up Ariel’s band. It turns out they were hot shots back in the day—the day being 5 years ago. I felt gratification to have met a good person who did this in his life.

The road followed the curve of the hill. A kilometer further I decided to hike up the forested slope to find a place to sleep a bit more. It was a good decision as for some reason a car had driven down the road just as I’d left it—someone official. The sun was peaking and once I felt sufficiently away from view, I laid out my sleeping bag on fluffy grass and fell once more into sleep. And I slept for 5 hours.

Upon waking, I packed all my gear, threw the rain cover over my pack and hid it in the brush. Back down on the road the cars had been passing for many hours. A bright sun lit the landscape, showing off a slightly gray emerald lake littered with the debris of a constantly shifting glacier somewhere down the way—somewhere 30 kilometers down the way.

It wasn’t long before a family picked me up. They were from Corrientes, in the far north of the country. There were the parents and two teenage kids, who once we had come to a viewpoint over the scene, wanted photos with me. So it goes.

We spoke about traveling and about the father’s desire to andar in motorcycle one day. Argentinian Spanish is quite similar to the dance of Italian, speakers drawing out their vowels like vocal tails. My ear was already becoming accustomed to the Argentine dialect, but of course I’d already encountered plenty of Argentinian travelers. They seem to say “que se yo,” “voludo” and “mira vos” a lot. In Spanish (called castellano in Latin America), there are two ways to address someone in the second person informal: tu and vos. Here, and in Colombia, for example, they say vos. I would not, because it would only confuse me if I were to switch from the Mexican tu.

Around another pass there suddenly came into view the glacier Perito Moreno. It was a huge thing, its mass flowing down through countless mountains, like an army swarming in their white hordes.

We arrived to the parking lot and hopped on a free shuttle to the main park building, which was complete with expensive restaurant, post card shop and bathroom (which had the peculiar feature of a tip jar but no attendants). Speaking of hordes, there were hordes of tourists. A mixture of emotion ran through me, having bested the entry fee with the help of the guard, but now being one among the crowds.

The father disappeared and reappeared with some water bottles, handing one to me. I went with the family down the many, many well-constructed walkways that lead from the hilltop facing the glacier right down to just half a football pitch from the icy walls. Although these pasarelas facilitated the visiting of the glacier for everyone, it had the unfortunate result of destroying any natural effect you might feel of having come upon the glacier through nature alone. The father pointed out the old footpaths that he as a kid had to hike down to reach the glacier.

The Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia.

The Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia.

 

I eventually parted ways from the family, the father explaining that they were headed to a part where he had spread his mother’s ashes. “Her last dying wish was to rest for all time here at the glacier,” he’d said. So they left me with contacts info and a lonely view of the ice.

At that moment I realized I was indeed alone, somehow away from any other tourist. So, one could find solitude even at a site visited by over 2,000 people per day. The glacier wall was so close I could feel its freeze, and the wind held dominance from the granite peaks all the way to my face. The thing was making noises like the deep bass sound of a cracking log, and other unseen disturbances in the ice fields echoed throughout. From time to time, chunks of the 3-story wall broke off and fell violently into the water below, adding to the already puzzle piece design of floating ice. I saw the real color of the glacier where crevices hid the pulsating, ominous blue of shadow, a deep contrast against the blinding white where sunlight reflected back.

They say the glacier is constantly moving forward and then receding. It makes landfall on the land to its sides and on the hill in front of it where these walkways were built. On either side of this front hill, the melt formed lakes, one always higher than the other. The resulting flow from one lake to the other formed, every 4 years, an ice tunnel. The tunnel itself eventually would collapse and the process would repeat. A glacial lifecycle, as it were.

I drew the thing, and then grabbed a shuttle back to the parking lot. I waited an hour before finally someone agreed to take me back to the entrance. And lucky for me, it was a motorcycle. A green motorcycle. Probably one of the coolest vehicles to pick me up, ever. The man had a strange accent, but I recognized it.

Perito Moreno Glacier drawing in Patagonia Argentina.

Travel sketch of the Perito Moreno glacier.

 

“Vous etes Quebecois, c’est sur/You must be from Quebec“ I said.

He had a wind-burnt face that looked in its 50th year, and he nodded, solemnly and silently. We spoke little during the awesome ride that brought us passed a few more viewpoints and all the way back to just before the guardhouse, the wind blasting weeks of dirt from my hair, and multilateral 360 views all the way.

The Quebecois motorcycle at Perito Moreno in Argentina's Patagonia.

The Quebecois motorcycle at Perito Moreno in Argentina’s Patagonia.

 

“Bon chance,” he said, but changed his mind and said, “bonne route!” –literally, good route, the perfect well-wish for a traveler… like “happy trails” maybe.

He continued onward to the guardhouse just around the bend. Unfortunately I could see one of the guards looking my way just at the edge of the brush, and so I hurried quickly up my hill to retrieve my pack.

If there was one thing I had learned from getting caught trying to sneak into the Huascaran National Park in Peru, it’s that I should always give guardhouses a wide berth. Ariel was no longer there—it was garrisoned by more concrete-minded folk who would most likely not be lenient in their questioning of a person arriving by foot from 30 kilometers away. Or, I should not say that they were more concrete-minded, but rather they were several. It is always more difficult to change the mind of a person if they’re in a group of people whose minds would also have to be changed (hence never-ending pointless political campaigns, for example).

So, I spent a good 35 minutes bush-whacking through dense forest and rotten logs to where I could see that I was around the first bend from the guardhouse. From there, I returned to the road under a fence. If that guard had seen me, he hadn’t found me.

After hopping another fence to walk out to the emerald gray lake for a refreshing splash of the face, I returned again to the road and began walking toward El Calafate. A couple picked me up and took me into town. There, I bought a few more supplies and then walked for about an hour and a half to well outside the town, stopping at a police checkpoint. I had to register my passport and tell the cops that “no, I haven’t seen that missing girl, officer,” when they showed me a photo, and then I sat in the shade thumbing cars as they were going by.

Despite the sun already suggesting 8 or 9pm, I wanted out of El Calafate. I wanted to at least make La Esperanza, about an hour and a half away. The light of day would not fade until 11pm, so I had plenty of time. Thank you, Patagonian summer.

Though, I waited another hour. In this hour, I gained more support for my theory that the Argentinian gauchos never pick you up. Then again, who can blame them—their lands, at least in this time of year, are saturated with tourists and hitchhikers—how are they supposed to know that they should pick me up?

Eventually a pick-up pulled over, and the man took me all the way to La Esperanza, passed endless plains of curt dry bush dressed in sun setting orange. It was cold in La Esperanza, but I found a flat space for my tent and scooted into the warmth of my sleeping bag once it was set.

 

Flowers of the Argentinian pampa.

Flowers of the Argentinian pampa.

 

La Esperanza was a crossroads, not much bigger than Bajo Caracoles, and most of the traffic headed towards Rio Gallegos, the first big Argentinian city in the south. My road was a small desolate thing coiling west toward Rio Turbio and the Chilean border. The idea was to re-enter Chile to go see its famous Torres del Paine National Park, and also to see Pame (from the Cuartel in Valparaiso),who was working at a nearby hotel.

After 3 hours of no luck, too much wind, and thin traffic, I was becoming a tad impatient. I busied myself with various contemplations. For instance, I thought that perhaps it was an omen to be hitching away from a town called Hope. I also walked some, and came across a sign that portrayed a palm tree being blown sideways to signify that the stretch of road was quite windy. I thought how globalized the image that reminds us of scenes of hurricanes in the Caribbean has become if in an arid treeless plain a palm tree is needed to depict wind.

I had been reading when a truck surprised me and almost went by thumbless. It stopped. It seems to me that standing or sitting is not enough to convince rides that you’re human. Reading, juggling, dancing, walking, smiling or shifting in your clothes or your backpack somehow all create a thread more of evidence that yes, you are a person.

We drove through more of the same landscape. Eventually we rounded a curve and in the distance I could clearly see the rocky towers that are so well-known in Chile. The Torres del Paine mountain range looked more or less like any other, except for the barren vertical towers that stood out like white pegs in molasses—though it would be a blue molasses.

We didn’t speak much, so I let my mind wander. Perito Moreno had been not only the town where I’d began hitching the 40, but it had also been a National Park halfway down, and it had been a glacier. Popular name. I thought about Washington being our popular name for places, or Lincoln. Then I got to thinking about New York. New York, named after England’s city of York. Today, we stress the “York,” but I wonder if, at the birth of the nation, we had pronounced it stressing the “New”.

A few hours later we arrived to Rio Turbio and I jumped out where my ride went left on the outskirts of town. “Argentina Immigration 13 kilometers,” it read. Beside it there was a sign that should have read “Entrada y salida de vehiculos,” but was defamed to read “Entrada y salida de culos/Entering and Exiting of asses.” Beyond was Rio Turbio, a town that exists because of a large coal mine in the area, and which would soon see my feet.

But that was not to be. A Chilean man picked me up and we drove not only through town but through the border as well and onward to Puerto Natales. The border posed little problem. The usual stamping of the pages took place, the official encouraged that my new pages were real probably by the fact that others had already stamped it. We arrived to Chilean immigration.

“What’s in the plastic bag sir?” an official asked me.

“Just—“ I ruffled through the bag, opening it enough that the guard could see that it was filled with other bags. “I have a carrot.”

“Gonna have to eat it,” he said. You cannot take fresh fruit or vegetables or dairy of any kind into Chile. I ate the carrot, and they let me through. I also had onions, more carrots, bread and cheese in the bag, but the guard had been distracted by my ruffling. So it goes. So it went.

The only other time I’d been made to eat fruit or vegetable at a border crossing was in 2006. I was in a bus headed to Vancouver, Canada. I was eating an apple. The official boarded the bus as we drove from American to Canadian immigration.

“Sir, you can’t take the apple into the country,” he’d told me.

“Alright, I’ll eat it,” I’d replied.

When I was left only with the core, he’d said: “You can’t take any part of the apple into Canada.”

“Well, where’s the garbage?” I asked.

“I’m sorry sir there’s no garbage option here.”

“Well I’ll just chuck it out the window.”

“Can’t do that, sir,” he’d said.

“Well damn it I have to eat this thing?”

The man had been stern, so I ate the core and unpleasing part around the seeds. I ate the seeds too, and was left with just the stem. To my infinite surprised, he made me eat that, too. It had been a lesson in the ridiculousness of border control—where the rules were so strict but if only I had had the apple in my backpack nothing would have come of it.

Anyway, back in Chile they’d stamped me in despite several hesitations as to the new pages. I should be grateful for the European Union. I passed so many damn borders on that continent it would have be a brain tumor for me if the union didn’t make it so that you can freely cross national lines.

I thanked my ride—the man’s name was Andres—as I hopped out of the car once in Puerto Natales. The town was just over the hills from the Argentinian pampa, safe from horrid winds and desolation. Puerto Natales was a small town sitting on Canal Señoret, but one could easily be convinced it was a lake, not a canal. The port was empty, but it would be here that the tourist ship from Puerto Montt would make its call after three days through the wildness of Chile’s southwestern fjordage. That would have been a 300 dollar trip. Not to toot my own horn, but I made it from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales spending all of 20 dollars in 10 days. Then again, I didn’t get to pass in luxury through the Angostura Inglesa, a thin channel flanked by 900 meter sheer cliffs. Lucky bastards.

Beyond the water mountains populated the horizon. I spent some time walking around town, bought some supplies and made camp near a creek just north of the center.

 


 

A beautifuly photograph of Puerto Natales, in Chile's southern Patagonia.

A beautifuly photograph of Puerto Natales, in Chile’s southern Patagonia.

 

In the morning I spent more time watching the mountains opposite this small port. They were not uniform; they didn’t form a taller, rockier horizon line; no, instead they were like giant autonomous mounds apart from one another, and each of them framed perfectly in the wedge shape of nearer mountains’ slopes. As I looked at these mountains, the thought that entered my head, after passing through a series of alterations, was “I’m not searching.” At least that’s what I had written down in my notebook.

The day unfolded in a strange way. The sun was bright enough, but my head was elsewhere. There were too many damn hitchhikers. I can’t blame them for being there—in fact, they should be there, and this is the perfect time to be there. Right on, man, I should think, but damn it all why the hell are you here?

Patagonia spider drawing traveling in Argentina, puerto Natales

Drawing of a spider in Patagonia. It was almost neon green

 

I was hitching from a sign, hiding in its shadow to escape the powerful rays when cars weren’t passing. For such a transited road, I was having shitty luck. I had sent a message to Pame that I’d come today, but she hadn’t responded. I didn’t feel enthusiastic as I should. Maybe I should just go on to the end of the world, I thought, referring to Punta Arenas and Ushuaia. Trying to get to the Torres del Paine might be the final straw that was truly depleting my patience for ultra-touristic places. But then a car pulled over.

There were two girls and a guy. They must’ve been around 19 years old.

“Heeey maaaaan,” said the girl. She had running eyeliner and yellowish teeth—if she’d been chewing gum it would’ve made sense.

The guy poked his head out from the back window. “Yo compadre, if you pay for some gas we’ll drive you somewhere,” he said.

I went up to the car and said plainly, “I ain’t one of your typically green-pocketed tourists, friend.”

He smiled big and laughed, “ooooo huevon! Right on man, Buena onda, good vibes! Get in man it’s no problem, get in!”

I threw my gear into the trunk and hopped in the back. The girl in the passenger’s seat had a tattoo of a dolphin on the back of her hand between the thumb and forefinger, which is typically the place for gang tats. Some kind of misguided decision, I thought to myself, unless this is the Puerto Natales gang, perhaps the Malignant Three.

Down the road we picked up two more hitchers, Chileans decked out in Patagonia and North Face. These ones agreed to pay 3 lucas for some petrol. So, we turned the car around.

“Oye drive straight voludo,” the guy yelled at the girl driving.

Her eyes were red and she screamed in a high voice. “Leave me alone! Fuck! I know how to drive!” She stalled the car. “Fuck!”

When finally we made it to the gas station, the other hitchers said they’d pay but only if they could drive. When the girl stubbornly refused, they got out of the car, saying “We’re not going to die over hitchhiking.” I, on the other hand, decided to wait for something to happen.

The girl was shitfaced. The other girl was too. The guy seemed less so as he lit up a joint and talked to the Petrobras attendant. The thing happened, and the guy took over driving responsibilities.

Down the road we went once more, them asking me where I was headed. I said “Cerro Castillo” several times. The girls were—pardon the French—very fucking annoying. The guy drove fine and the drunk one kept screaming to downshift and the other girl kept screaming to pull over—“why?” asked the guy; “because!” she hissed.

Finally we were about 15 kilometers of 50 toward Cerro Castillo when, on the third time they’d asked where I was going and I responded, the guy said, “oye, huevon that’s kinda far, and like, we got so little gas man.”

We pulled over near a crossroads and I hopped out of the car, irritated to say the least. I can get fuming mad but it would be hard for a stranger to notice. I think this was one of those moments. The guy and I took pisses and he yelled at me “Buena onda huevon! Man I’m sorry the bitches are bitches!” Back at the car I said something amusing when the girls had made fun of my umbrella, and apparently it was clever enough that they wanted me to come back to town and keep drinking with them. I told them I was pressed for time, and then watched them drive off, the guy throwing his arm out the window and yelling “buena onda!”

I was in the middle of nowhere, and I knew there were other hitchers in front of me. The two hours I stood there only made me feel crappier. I started to walk down the other road toward a place called “Cave of the Milodon Giant Sloth”, but then I stopped and returned to the crossroads, muttering the whole way, “stupid prehistoric giant sloth in his stupid giant cave.” I didn’t want any more tourism right then.

It took 5 minutes to hitch a ride back to Puerto Natales. The closer you are to somewhere, the easier the hitching, since they assume that you’ll only be in their car for a short while. At least, that’s what I thought at the time.

I sat on the beach and skipped some rocks, trying to figure out what to do. It’s amazing the contrasts the planet shows us, like these ridged mounds of unmoving mountain backdropping the unpredictable movements and sparkling of water. Despite the thought, I felt little motivation for anything. I like traveling, I thought. This shit really doesn’t matter, though, I thought. Man, if only I’d gotten a ride straight to Pame’s hotel, I wouldn’t be in this fucking lull, I thought.

At that, I shouldered my pack, and walked up and out of Puerto Natales, direction Punta Arenas.

In little time a guy pulled over in his big red pick-up and off we went. 3 hours over tiring pampa, through parts where the sun-bleached trunks of long since dead trees still stuck up from their roots.

“The Czech settlers burned a lot of this land’s forest for cattle raising,” the man had said. “I think that they didn’t mean to burn all of it, but back then they didn’t have any way to put those fires out.”

We arrived to Punta Arenas around 11pm, since I’d begun hitching out of Natales so late. I still had the Copec guidebook that Claudio had given me all the way back in Iquique. I’d been using it for months now, and with it I’d decided to get off at the northern Copec station before entering the city of Punta Arenas. It was cold here, and the sky was overcast—I could tell because the light of day lingered still.

I thanked the cellular tower installer for the ride and instantly went to set up my tent in the corner of the property, there to fall quickly into sleep—but not before noticing the GeoGas station where Copec attendants pumped the city cabs’ engines with natural gas. On that note, I crashed.

In the morning it was Sunday. It was bloody Sunday, in the English colloquial sense of the word. It was a weird high blue cloud overcast day, and I had still not come out of whatever rut was keeping me down. Despite this, I packed my gear, shouldered it, and began walking into town.

It was a long walk.

Someone had said something to me at some point that Punta Arenas had the most beautiful cemetery in all of South America. I found it on my walk, hidden behind a long, tall white ring wall.

Inside I found why it carries the reputation that it does. Wide pebble lanes coil around 20-30 foot high family mausoleums, or mausoleums dedicated to the “French Society, “Carabineros de Chile,” or firemen. Each structure was intimately decorated with bronze ornaments, plaques and statuettes, and some mausoleums were stone while others marble, each of different design, size and color. The pebble lanes had names like “Los Pensamientos” or “Las Rosas.” Flower arrangements hung or popped out from everywhere, like colorful breaks in a sea of gray. The most distinct and attractive feature of the Sara Braun Municipal Cemetery were the Cyprus trees. 2-story high bulbous green trees lined the aisles and dotted the property, from head to toe their dense green foliage trimmed to smoothness so incredibly thick that you could not see the trunks. They looked like fingers—the earth reaching up for the deceased, perhaps.

How appropriate it was that in my rut I lingered in such a place. In my contemplating, the joyous screams of a young girl with her dog echoed off the marble facades of death houses, and were lost somewhere in the open and yet somehow stale air. And despite the beautiful surrounds and walking people, I was duly aware of an emptiness so profound that it left me weak in the knees. A day sitting so long in a place like that should bring only grimness, melancholy and sorrow.

I spent little time in the city center once I had continued my walk and reached it. I sat in the plaza looking at the statue of Magellan, that famous explorer from who the strait along which the city sits takes its name, and who in his ego trip in the far Pacific was left marooned and slaughtered by islanders by his own men—they who eventually returned to Spain. So it goes. So it went.

The seaside was gray, and while I looked at the rotting pylons of docks long since collapsed, a drain of waste water was opened and the stench of living and closed spaces flowed over the rocks and beach to the sea.

I bought some supplies and listened to burly Russian sailors walk past. The city had pleasant streetlamps and welcome open spaces, and there were plenty of monuments to navigators—one with a face so intricate it made me reflect, “I like to watch people remember.”

But like I said I didn’t stay long. I knew little about the city, but the places I might’ve visited—the Cerveceria Austral, the Regional Museum or the Naval Museum—were all closed. Bloody Sunday.

A statue in Punta Arenas, Chile.

A statue in Punta Arenas, Chile. Source.

 

I found free wi-fi at a supermarket’s café. When I left, I asked a guard if she’d mind if I picked up a few of the pieces of food people had left uneaten, and which would be thrown into the trash if not for vagabonds. She smiled, and so I helped myself to a bread roll and a whole half piece of caramel cake. Think. You. What is it that we find so repulsive about a piece of food with bite marks which is left alone? You’d kiss an attractive person without a second thought.

The caramel cake was delicious, and for some reason it made me think that one way or another, you live on chocolate in France. I walked on, back to the edge of the city where for a second night I pitched my tent at the gas station.

My frigid fingers pulled open the tent flaps. The wind that came in must have greeted a pale face and dark cupped eyes, which looked up at the sky and couldn’t tell if they were seeing dawn, day or dusk. So it was that I packed camp and took to the pavement walking—north. Onward, to the last island with highways—the last bastion, as it were, of freely connected civilization—Tierra del Fuego.

The day would begin normally, with wait times usual for thumbing. But I was still in a bitter way, filling my notebook with insights or insults attacking the –ness of it all. Those hours waiting, and waiting, and it seemed that Punta Arenas didn’t want to let me go. Even when I’d spent too much time at the last gas station, everyone seemed to either be going just a few clicks or they’d give me the excuse of traveling with family—I have a family, I wanted to say, are you afraid I’ll steal your child? But of course it’s one excuse I might empathize with, and I had to let it go without a word. But excuses, all the same, hurt my ears, especially when they’re unnecessary excuses… just tell me ‘no’! I wonder what the world would be like if vultures couldn’t tell if something was dead.

I left the gas station, and at a crossroads a Peruvian picked me up and dropped me a few kilometers down the road at the entrance to an airport. I was finally out of Punta Arenas, that self-styled End of the World, the last city before Antarctica, although some might argue that Ushuaia is a city, too.

Alas there I was waiting for a few hours more, a strange thing in Chile. So many empty cars drove by. If you take away anything from these readings, I would hope one of the things would be your resolve to pick up hitchhikers. We want you to pick us up, even if for just a few miles.

I began to realize that I was becoming quite impatient. The hitchhiker’s worst enemy is impatience. But it sank its teeth; so I ranted at the passing cars, privately: Goddam it, you bastards would pick me up to rescue me from the freezing rain, or perhaps from the side of a boiling desert road, or if I had a broken something, or if it were some kind of emergency, right? The hitcher you rescue could be just as weird or unnerving as if you’d picked him up from a normal spot—so what’s the damn difference if it’s his personality that frightens you? Why do humans wait to their extreme limit to react? Why do I have to be suffering for some of you to decide that I warrant that extra space in your car? Humans are fucking up the planet, but we’re not going to truly react until it may be close to too late, despite the fact that we have the capacity to change it all right fucking now. Perhaps the selfishness in not picking up a hitcher when you don’t have that excuse of family or crowding or female or law is metaphor for the same selfishness that is fucking up the earth. And the fact of our present circumstance—of you passing me in your car—gives me only a sliver of truth, but a truth that says that the only difference between you and I is that I’d pick you up were I the driver and you the hitcher. And OH! I’d love to know what some of you are thinking—that perhaps you’d present a different kind of conversation—but I’ll never know because you are not ever going to stop for me. And I hate sunglasses!

When changing out of my rancid shirt had brought me no new luck, and when I’d changed back, I was still alone and bitter and biting. But finally, a car pulled up, its tires screeching and the chemical toilet outhouse strapped in the bed wobbling around.

The man had a reduced chin—probably from tobacco in one form or another. But he smiled, and when finally he removed those damn glasses I could see that he was a happy person. His laugh was watery and splattered the dash. His eyebrows perked when I’d answer his questions and he’d look off into space with an open mouth. “That’s wonderful,” he kept saying.

We came to the crossroads. I went right and he went left, a handshake goodbye. 16 kilometers away would bring me to the ferry to cross 20 minutes to the Tierra del Fuego. A quick ride with a large Chilean man who had an Australian accent brought me there. For walkers the ferry was free. Onboard the cars and trucks were parked closely together. The sky was still overcast, and I didn’t bother climbing onto the deck. I didn’t ask anyone for rides.

We arrived at the opposite shore and I debarked first to thumb at the cars, which didn’t stop—not one of them. I wrote obscenities in my notebook.

In my stupor I climbed the road to where the pampa nothingness continued on the island. Wavy hills for as far as the eye can see. Guanaco, relatives to the llama, hopped the fences and jackrabbits dashed across the pavement. I waited there for a time, and then the next ferry load of cars arrived. No one stopped.

The last car was a black SUV and sped by without a second’s hesitation. But then, about 300 feet down, it put on the breaks and backed up. I threw my gear to my shoulder and ran up to the window. They were headed to Rio Grande, and invited me along.

I met the jolly parents and their adolescent daughter sitting beside me and eyeing me like that. The girl had sandwiches, and handed me one. It was a large thing of hot, melted cheese and a portion of steak. I bit into it. And like that, I felt somewhat lifted from my rut. My lull was dulling. It was the first warm food I’d eaten since Cochrane, and that meal had been the first since Puerto Montt. Amazing what a little warmth on your nose can do. Food or a kiss, I suppose.

The pavement gave way to dirt roads a few kilometers onward, and they continued for 3 hours. The pampa never let up, either. We came to the border and the man said I should come with them, and leave my pack. The Chilean official asked me who I was traveling with when it was my turn, and I told him. He called back my ride and sternly said “Why didn’t you tell me you were taking this American?” There was no trouble, but the official upset me with his attitude toward my benefactors. Why is every border agent such a fucker?

Travel stories from Patagonia, Argentina.

Photos of my travel stories from Patagonia, Argentina.

 

At the Argentinian border I held my vegetables and bread in the plastic bag at my hip, and simply snuck it across like that—no questions asked. The Argentine side had paved roads, and they lead us into Rio Grande, where I thanked the family and waved goodbye from beside a YPF gas station. Coming into the town, there were plenty of signs and monuments exclaiming “Las Malvinas son Argentinas!” The Malvinas islands are the UK’s Falklands Islands, and it is a sensitive and contested issue. But that seems to be the name of the game down here, with Chile and Argentina also at a stalemate over ownership of some desolate islands further south, and both countries claiming the same great swathe of Antarctica. Meh.

I sat on my pack and considered my location. Tierra del Fuego. It has the last part of freely connected road in the Americas. Only the mountainous shore of Antarctica lay somewhere beyond the horizon. The island had an imaginary line drawn down its center separating Chile from Argentina, and in Chile everyone kept mentioning that the road goes on once across the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia, to another island and the Chilean outpost of Puerto Williams. However, that port is not freely connected to the continent (it’d cost an expensive ferry ride to get there), and nor is it supposed to be that large. No, my endpoint is here; Tierra del Fuego.

Magellan, our Portuguese explorer credited with “finding” the route through to the Pacific, passed through the Beagle Channel south of Ushuaia and upon seeing the smoke columns from indigenous campfires, claimed the island be called Tierra del Humo, “Island of Smoke.” Back in civilized Europe, Emperor Charles V decreed the name to be ridiculous, renaming it “Tierra del Fuego” and saying that smoke cannot exist without fire.

I shouldered my pack to begin asking for rides at the YPF. It must have been around 5pm. It was a large YPF, with a large indoor area with tables and a full roof. I went into the bathroom and discovered something that made my heart sink: showers. Free hot showers. My god, they were beautiful. Other than washing my face now and again, the last time I’d bathed was in the river outside Coahique, and my last hot shower was at Casa Solis in Puerto Montt! I’d been wearing the same shirt since I’d left, and despite rinsing it several times, it was saturated grey-brown. Did I care? Of course not, who did I have to please? But it was time. Never pass up a good thing.

I ran around the corner to buy two bars of soap, one for skin and one for clothing. Back at the YPF I stashed my gear behind the kitchen counter with a smile to the attendant, and went to work. It was indeed work to scrub clean my clothes and self. I spent 40 minutes in that hot shower, falling in and out of trances and watching the brown liquid rise and fall from my shirt as I wrung it.

When I emerged it was like rising from the dead, or like being born again, or like somehow shedding my skin to the floor and walking in anew. A new shirt, the other drying strapped to the top of my pack, new socks, a fresh face, and fresh everything. I felt lifted from my rut, and happily accepted negative replies once I began asking drivers if they were headed south to Ushuaia, some 2 to 3 hours away.

One of the men I’d asked parked his car and came to talk with me. He offered to buy me a meal but I declined, thanking him as I could. He wished me luck and disappeared into the minimarket. One of the gasoline attendants told me not to leave when someone suggested I walk out of town toward where there was a truck stop. “I’ll ask people for you too, don’t worry, you’ll get a ride,” he said. I was surprised by the undue friendliness of the people I was meeting in Argentina.

It wasn’t long before the attendant whistled me over. He’d found someone. This someone was Marcos. He stood a bit shorter than me, had a tanned bald noggin, a whiskery face and straight teeth. I told him I was hitching to Ushuaia and he said alright, come along with me. The man who’d offered food came out and the two knew each other and embraced. The other told Marcos that I was a good guy, humble and self-reliant that I had not accepted an offer of food. So it goes.

We drove off.

“I have to say, Marcos, I’m lucky to have met you, but you’re lucky that I have just taken a shower,” I said.

We laughed and drove on. The pampa continued toward the horizon of ridges. We passed snaking rivers dammed by beavers—those clever critters.

“They’re clever, yes, but they’re rodents,” Marcos said.

We spoke of beavers and of sports. Marcos drove incredibly fast, cutting across the dirt shoulder whenever he had the opportunity. “I was a rally car driver for ten years,” he’d said in a sort of reassuring way. I hoped my face wasn’t giving anything away.

The pampa gave way to forested hills, the beginning of the end, as it were. We passed through ancient wreckage from forest fires long since extinguished, and curved into the sharp mountains’ pass. “Every time I come through here it’s different,” he said.

“What’s different this time?” I asked.

“The colors in the rain.”

It was drizzling, and continued to drizzle as we arrived, 2 hours later, to Ushuaia. Welcome to the end of the world—but no, this was not the end of the world, it went further.

“Want me to drop you off here or at the crossroads?”

“Crossroads?”

“Lapataia, the Tierra del Fuego National Park… kilometer 0. The road ends there,” he said.

“Oh, alright, let’s go there,” I replied.

We followed the high city road—for to me Ushuaia is very much a city and not just a small town—until the curve to the crossroads. It was a long stretch that found its way around the base of the small mountains on which Ushuaia was built, the pointy peaks dotted with persistent patches of snow, and the wind having carved a distinctly low treeline.

“That there is a free ski hill for those who can’t afford the one we passed before,” Marcos told me. I gaped at the free ski hill, jealous of course.

It was cold, which made me wonder what the winter months must be like. It must have been around 8:30pm when I pulled the rain cover over my pack and opened my umbrella. The crossroads was where the paved road ended and the dirt one began. I thanked Marcos and he drove off into memory.

Finally I get to use my umbrella, I thought. I hadn’t expected another ride that day, but the first car to come by pulled over. A couple of students on a road trip from Buenos Aires. And they drove the same car that the other student couple who had returned me to El Calafate had. I hopped in and down the road we went.

“Where are you from?” they asked, and I told, and I told of my trip, and they said that mine made theirs looks like nothing but I said nonsense, 3,080 kilometers is huge, and theirs is a trip while mine is now a lifestyle and the two are distinct, so be proud of your trip and enjoy every second of it.

“Oh,” I said, “and if they charge us something at the park entrance, I’m just gonna get out.”

“Actually the inside scoop is that they stop charging after 7pm. It’s really expensive for you foreigners though so maybe they still charge you,” the girl said.

“I’ll put on my hood and hide,” I said.

So I hid once we made the park entrance, and we entered freely after the guard had asked where we were from—“Three from Buenos Aires,” the couple had replied.

We followed sharply coiling dirt roads that went up and down and around, for 20 minutes, passed the sign that read “no camping beyond this point,” until the road opened up to a grand lonely bay called Lapataia. I thanked the couple and they drove back up the road to the camping areas.

Here I was—at the end of it all. Bahia Lapataia, kilometer 0. It was late, dark and raining. And I, alone with the End; alone with a grand lonely bay. I read a few informative panels and stared out at the water. The bottom of the world, I thought. And it only took 2 years and 5 months to get here. His is a sad story who had ever turned back before the road, and it would be a sad story to ever turn back after it—for it goes on. There’s always another road, it seems. Another road. Another road or another adventure. More people, more danger and times of doubt, withdraw or angst. But also times of resolution or times of joy; times of appreciation, of compassion or irresistible happiness. Times, times times. Time goes on. And so it goes.

I followed a footpath up a forested hill and then turned off of it to penetrate the primary forest, there to set up camp in the rain and fall instantly to sleep, the long journey from Punta Arenas finally at conclusion.

What I thought was dawn was already noon. I yawned and kept sleeping, but eventually emerged and ate and pooped and packed. The wind blasted through the trees, and one would think a troll was approaching with the way they swayed violently.

Travel drawing of Bahia Lapataia

At the end of Argentina’s Ruta 40, you arrive to Ruta 3, then Tierra del Fuego, then Bahia Lapataia in Ushuaia, Patagonia.

 

After drawing the bay from a high viewpoint, unaware of the people around me, I followed the footpaths past the parking lot where now many cars were stationed, out to another lookout, there to wait for someone with a camera to snap an artistic photo.

Hitchhiking to Ushuaia, and Lapataia. Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world!

Hitchhiking to Ushuaia, and Lapataia. Tierra del Fuego, the end of the world!

 

Staring out again at the water, I did not actually feel a sense of accomplishment. This was never my goal. Indeed, if ever there was a goal it was to learn Spanish, which had been accomplished long ago in terms of the level I sought. No, this was just another point along the way, the only alleviation being that that pull south was now satisfied. I never cared for challenging myself or searching for success in one form or another. I’m just moving is all. The large amount of time it has taken me to arrive to this point is testament enough that it was never about arriving, but about journeying.

I began to walk back down the dirt road toward town. Flanking me were clusters of trees in their many, each squeaking like rusted hinges; a forest of opening doors and sneaking, of somewhere you shouldn’t be or that should cause you to stir.

2 kilometers on a car pulled over and I climbed in with a happy family from Buenos Aires. My theories about tourists never picking you up must surely be squashed by now—at least when within the tourist locales.

“We saw you drawing,” they told me. Proving I’m human, I thought. I stayed with the family, driving around the park to other locations for a few hours. At the visitor’s center I read about the Yamana people. They had had some of the fires whose smoke Magellan had seen. When he met the Yamana he was only the first of many Europeans to describe the tribe as sub-human, Darwin being another. Whether for their atrophied legs for sitting daily in canoes, or their nakedness in the bitter weather of this extreme, they were subsequently relegated to an underclass and systematically wiped out. Ironically, introducing clothes to them had encouraged lack of hygiene and disease. Another tribe, the “Selk’nam”, whose painted body rituals are so popular here to attract tourists to say things like, “oh, how interesting,” or “what a unique culture,” were actually hunted by settlers. In museums we seem to find appreciation for people our own ancestors destroyed, and yet the struggling cultures that persist in today’s reality are still ignored, suppressed and denied—until the day they disappear and then enter history in some museum and we say, “oh, how interesting,” or “what a unique culture.”

We went to a lake and I skipped rocks in front of crowds of people who tried their hands at it but had little luck despite my suggestions. An ego boost for the day. Upland geese dipped their heads into the water and Ringed Kingfisher birds darted to and fro like drunk rock stars.

Skipping stones in Lapataia Park, Tierra del Fuego.

Skipping stones in Lapataia Park, Tierra del Fuego.

 

Later the family dropped me in Ushuaia at another YPF gas station, where I occupied the internet for a spell before deciding that my stomach had not been satisfied by the tarts they had gifted me, and so I walked to the supermarket to stock up on food and then head back toward the crossroads to the park to find trees to camp under out of this damning Antarctic wind. Behind me the sunlit port glistened, the tall red hulls of ice breaker ships standing out above all. And I went on toward the forest.

On the way I realized that while Chilean dogs seem to love me, Argentinian dogs seem to hate me. They barked fiercely, flashing fangs and hateful eyes. When I came down a tired-looking road, a large black dog sat calmly on the sidewalk. As I passed he trotted over to me, and I reached for my umbrella. As he came to within a few feet he took to a sprint and lurched into the air. I backed up with a start but it was too late—I watched as his shining teeth sank into the sleeve of my arm to tear outward. Adrenaline shot into my body and I grabbed my umbrella and brought it heavily over the dog’s snout. My arm seemed in his grasp until the umbrella made contact and frightened the creature, who growled and yelped at once and then released me and backed up; I kept walking swiftly away.

I hesitated to look at my arm, unsure if it was pain or fear I felt. When finally I examined my sleeve, it had been torn in several places… but my arm was left without a scratch. So it goes. So it went.

Mexico was the last time I had to fend off attacking dogs, but that time it had been two pit-bulls whose malicious intentions I had recognized and pulled down my umbrella before they could have their way—this time, it was dam close.

I slept in forest on a hill. I write now from my tent, at the bottom of the world, listening to Beirut. Soon I will eat a cheese and tomato sandwich, then pack my things and revisit the YPF to post this entry. Then, it’s the road once more. Where to, you ask? It’ll be a long haul …NORTH!

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