Running the Rio Colorado

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Five feet into a fifteen foot vertical climb, I looked down past my quivering feet and contemplated why exactly I was trying to climb over the top of this nearly vertical ridge.  Clouding my thoughts, the late winter sun had long since vanished over the desert canyon wall leaving me wondering just exactly how long I had before darkness set in.  Amidst this stressful calculus, I remembered how just two hours before, I had been sitting on a cafe patio, enjoying a coke with two newly befriended Argentines.  Starting to lose my drive, the challenge laid out for me by the director I had passed on the trail rang out in my head, “You’re definitely not making it out of here before dark, there’s no question about that.”

In need of fresh air, one recent Saturday morning I jumped on a bus headed for Cafayate, Argentina, journeying four hours through a beautiful desert canyon to a mountain oasis of 10,000 people.  From the moment I woke up, things went my way.  Fighting through a pre-dawn fog on my long walk to the bus station, a car pulled alongside me, and a man in his 60s offered a ride to the terminal.  Abandoning the number one rule parents lay out for their children, I hopped in the car.  Carlos was on his way to church from his pasta factory, and decided to give me a ride.

ONE of my most prolific traits is that I put up a barrier that prevents most people from entering my world.  While its pretty strong when I’m in a comfortable setting, its thickness doubles when I travel.  As a result, I have a hard time letting down my guard enough to meet locals and enjoy a culture.  After having dinner with a fellow traveler, who had befriended folklore musicians and tango dancers, I knew this had to change.  That Saturday, apparently, was the day to open up, and also the day to make me learn Spanish.

Stepping off the bus into the deserted streets of Cafayate, I started trudging towards the town plaza in search of a place to stay.  Alejandro and Claudio spotted my indecision, and sent me in the right direction.  I heeded their advice, dropped my stuff at a hippy hostel, and I was back having a drink with them in 30 minutes.  Tranquilo was the word of the day, describing perfectly the pace of life of this small town of unpaved roads, unlocked bikes, and unassuming residents.  Tranquilo also described Claudio’s approach to life, who I came to understand, didn’t do anything quickly.  Learning I was from the U.S., Claudio, with long dark hair and few teeth, reminisced about an old girlfriend, Cassandra, who now lives in Oregon.  Alejandro, who looked like a linemen, told me he thinks the local army officers that patrol the streets look like smurfs in their blue uniforms.  After finishing Alejandro’s sandwich and Claudio’s coke, I excused myself to figure out how to hike to the Colorado River.

Thirty minutes later, I had changed into running clothes and was walking down the gravel roads in search of a canyon.  Lonely Planet had made the canyon sound, tranquilo, only mentioning a swimming hole, so I limited my supplies to running shoes, a phone, and a jug of water, figuring it’d be like a long run.

After an hour of walking, I reached the entrance to the canyon at about 4:20.  Instead of a remote outpost, the canyon climbed up from a small indigenous settlement guarded by one of its residents.  Asking where I was headed, the man looked at his watch, and shook his head.  He was not amused when I suggested I could run up the canyon.  Dispensing with subsequent conversation, he ordered me on: Go!

Well aware of the receding sun, I scampered over the riverbed’s boulders as fast as I could, trying to hold on to my jug of water as I crossed the stream again and again.  By 5:00, I still had not glimpsed the destination waterfall, and I was starting to worry about the sun.  Two men came down the trail towards me, and I fortuitously stopped to ask them how long it was to the waterfall.

The director, I call him that because he said he was in town to work on a movie, and I thought he looked like the director, spoke fluent English and described the hike to me. I had to hike up and over a ridge and then descend to a viewing point of a small waterfall.  From there I had to hike behind me around the ridge to the higher cascade.  I didn’t understand it either, but I decided to go ahead anyway.  Also fearing the setting sun, the director cut three patches of glow-in-the-dark tape from a long roll he carried.  He told me to mark my path with the tape so I wouldn’t get lost. And that’s when he put down the challenge to which I course had to respond.

After departing the film stars, I came upon a ridge with a vague trail leading up over it.  Taking it for the one described, I started climbing the vertical face.   This was the cliff, where five feet into it, I reached a point where I needed both hands and could no longer carry my water bottle.  At that point, I set down Dan’s rule number four of outdoor adventures.  If I had to climb a wall up which I could not carry a water bottle, I probably shouldn’t climb the wall at all.  I retraced my steps, found another way around the ridge, and continued up the canyon.

At 5:20, the setting sun, rising wind, and depleted water finally clued me into the situation.  I decided that at 5:30, waterfall or no, I had to turn around.  Abandoning the rule I had set earlier on the hike, I had to throw my water bottle ahead of me at one point, so I could get scramble down a rock face.  At 5:28, I reached a small ridge in the middle of canyon.  Resigned to climbing it for my last view, I got to the top and a waterfall stared me down!  Elated I ran up to a viewing point, waited for two or three seconds, and turned around to begin what I believed would be my hike down.

Instead, I had found the path to the other waterfall which is set under a ridge and only accessible from the upstream direction.  The director’s directions couldn’t have been better.  But now it was 5:45, the hike to this point had taken me over 2 hours and the sun would set soon after 7.  Taking pictures as fast as I could, I hiked back up the ridge and down the canyon, agape at the surrounding views.  The director called it National Geographic in real life.

As I reached the mountain settlement, a herd of goats shrieked to me in greeting.   Despite the director’s promise, I made it out of the park with just a few minutes of daylight to spare and began the long walk back to my hostel, covered in scratches from unforgiving cacti, darkness settling in around me.

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SHIPPING DESTINATION ARRIVED TO PLANT

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“No, you can’t take your bike on the bus.”  I wish I had heard such an utterance only once or maybe just twice in the last three months, but the frequency with which this crushing blow settled on my ears, constantly left me reeling.

In 2012, as I planned my bike ride through South America, the one limiting factor I didn’t even consider was the inability to bring my bike on long distance buses.  In the US, my limited experience with bus travel stems from the many revenue hungry companies that ply the northeastern seaboard with cavernous cargo compartments and agreeable drivers.  But that limited experience proved misleading for South America.

Now that, according to the Chilean Post Office, my bike is at the “SHIPPING DESTINATION ARRIVED TO PLANT” at the Santiago airport on its way to my brother in Tacoma, I can look back and evaluate my decision to bring the bike with me on the trip.

Biking Across a Continent

Thousands of bikers every year cycle across the United States.  Usually it takes between two and three months, and bikers tackle the route in the warm summer season.  Such a trip sounds predictable and enjoyable.  Instead, what I envisioned for South America would be like trying to bike to every single major tourist attraction in the United States, from the Californian coast to the Maine wilderness via Miami and Montana.  Such a trip would take months or even years, and would lose its focus along the way.  Alas, that is what happened to me in South America.

Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, I envisioned busing along the East Coast of Argentina, through Patagonia, and up to the Argentine Lakes District.  From there, I hoped to combine busing and biking, making my way north across Argentina and into the Altiplano of Chile and Bolivia.  However, I discovered a number of things along the way, which in the end, resulted in parting with my bike.

The moment I decided to mail my bike home, I was having one of the best bike adventures of my trip.  Leaving Cordoba, Argentina, I had set out on a four day tour of the mountains and Jesuit estancias surrounding Argentina’s second biggest city.  The ride could not have gone better.  After the first day finished smoothly, with blue skies an intermittent traffic accompanying me, I set off on the second day unencumbered by doubt.

Lost on my way out of the small town, two local mountain bikers stopped to give me directions.  I rode along with one for ten minutes before he rode ahead to catch up with his friends.  After an hour of cycling, I caught up to his son who was clearly struggling in the early morning hours.  After ten miles, we reached a junction where Dad threw his sun under the bus: “Too much beer last night!”

After the delightful introduction to my day, I began climbing 1000 vertical feet to a panoramic view of an enormous lake resting beneath 6000 feet mountains.   For the next hour I coasted along the lakeshore, alternating between agonizing ascents and rambling declines.  After two hours of riding, I left the lake, and followed a level, country road, with barely any traffic to interrupt the pastoral ideal.

And even in this wonderful setting, where the trips, both the macro and micro, were playing out as planned, I realized I didn’t want to bike around South America.  Here I was, ten miles and an hour from a small town in rural Argentina.  Sure, the hostel was nice, and the nearby hiking was fun, but I was thousands of miles from Machu Picchu and months away from Ecuador.  With all of the amazing sites ahead of me, why was I biking through this average scenery?

And that’s when I decided I no longer wanted to bike around South America.  For the most part, I simply wanted to see more interesting things faster.  But the annoyances of trying to carry a bike with me didn’t help either.  An American cyclist I met, who biked 8,000 kilometers in South America, said it best: “I love biking, but when you’re NOT on the bike and trying to get it around with you it’s a major PITA.”  To list just a few of those pains:

  • Every bus company charged me to take the bike along with me.  I’ve been on 30 buses in South America, and I’ve carried my bike on 10 of those.
  • For every bus ride, I had to completely dissemble my bike and pack it in a box.
  • For every hostel, I had to find somewhere to store my bike.
  • When packing my bike, I had to track down a bike shop to give me a bike box.
  • Every time I arrived in a new city, I had to reassemble my bike in the bus station while guarding everything I owned.

In the end, I’m happy my bike is on its way to Washington.  But I’m also happy I brought it with me.  Having a bike allowed me to complete some of the best parts of my trip.  Cycling through the infamous Seven Lakes in Argentina was one of the most beautiful trips I have ever done.  Biking in the Argentine highlands near Mendoza, with America’s largest peak staring out of me, is something I’ll never forget.

I’m excited to do another bike tour.  Whenever I do make it back the US, I plan to bike from Seattle to the Yukon.  But now I know to focus my path, and enjoy the ride for the ride’s sake.  That way, I’ll never have to take the bike on another bus, and risk hearing those awful words again.

El Gran Gatsby

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. Fitzgerald’s famous last line reverberated around my head after it rolled off Nick Carraway’s typewriter in his affluent sanitarium apartment. I stood up and left the theatre in a daze, contemplating the two hour glitzy rendition of The Great Gatsby that had been shoved at me through 3D glasses.

As I walked along the lonely streets of Cordoba into the Argentine night, the city itself seemed to be digesting the movie along with me. Buses stopped for passengers, taxis prowled for a richer set. No voices rose above the noise, just as Baz Luhrmann’s New York brought his epic to a close. I walked contemplatively back to my hostel, probably feeling the exact ambivalence Fitzgerald hoped he would generate. In realizing Fitzgerald’s purpose, Baz succeeded in bringing the novel to the screen.

The new version of The Great Gatsby has drawn derisive views from critics upset by Luhrmann’s, wait for it, brusqueness. The movie is obviously excessive, but the manner in which the movie delights in its use of CGI and 3D makes watching it a great pleasure.
Dana Stevens at Slate said watching Gatsby “makes for a grandiose, colorful, pleasure-drenched night at the movies.” And for the first twenty minutes, the movie is nothing but a pure joy-inducing cinematic experience like none I’ve ever experienced. As a fan of the book and of Luhrmann, I was hesitatingly optimistic that he would do justice to Fitzgerald’s work. As the book’s memorable beginning opened before me, I couldn’t have been happier.

Luhrman slowly opens the curtain to unveil his 1920s New York. Each of Fitzgerald’s iconic characters is given a Broadway entrance, i.e. enough time to get to know the audience. From Tobey Maguire’s first narrated line to Tom Buchanan’s racist platitude, Luhrman’s cast joyously brings the reader’s literary projections to life. He successfully builds a crescendo to the greatest introduction of all, when Gatsby explodes into the movie, literally stepping on to his magnificent veranda as fireworks light up the sound behind him. Everything is as it should be. To the critics too serious to enjoy the moment, I ask, “Are you not entertained?”

During the accompanying party, the jazz age glitz is at its finest with hybrid classical/contemporary dancing, Jay-Z lyrics, and limitless confetti dropping into the pool. From the moment the curtain drops, the viewer is on a sensory high like a mountain climber catching his first sight of Everest. With the camera zooming across the bay and darting along upstate country roads following Gatsby’s perilous driving, the beginning is an extended delight. Luhrmann, aware that his outsized effects are inserting themselves into the viewer’s consciousness, comes close to addressing it directly.
As Gatsby and Carraway anxiously await Daisy’s arrival for tea, the superfluous flowers in Nick’s living room light up our 3D glasses. Putting aside his nervousness for one second, Gatsby, but really Luhrmann, asks, “Are the flowers too much?”

And that heightened sense of alertness satisfactorily continues until we, like Nick Carraway, are ripped from our chemical high in a New York hotel room. When Tom Buchanan hits his low-class mistress after an alcoholic orgy, the modern effects drop away like a band silenced by a punch at a bar. Luhrmann lets us go from the CGI neverworld, and the movie becomes a standard character drama, where the effects are secondary to Fitzgerald’s prose and Luhrmann’s cast, who demonstrate why they were chosen to enliven such memorable roles.

DiCaprio is phenomenal as Gatsby, successfully playing the role of a high rolling party goer, just as Gatsby the character does. But he’s at his finest trying to woo Daisy, showing his unfettered emotional depth. Watching the courtship play out on screen, though, makes you wonder just what power Zelda had over Scott. Despite DiCaprio’s excellent performance, could a long lost love be that powerful? Perhaps the great American love story is more believable in prose than in pictures.

The movie played out on screen just as I delightedly remembered, with unnecessary details stripped away but the book’s memorable lines honored. Slowly, I grew more ambivalent about the movie. As in the book, the treachery, disgust, and sadness surrounding our leading men and women, leave us perplexed and chastened. Given the weighty emotional drama, Luhrmann rightly turns to Fitzgerald’s prose in the later scenes, letting him explain it on his own.
When Gatsby and Daisy left for Long Island, I wanted to tell them to stay, don’t let the movie end just yet. And don’t let that tragic ending arrive, just yet. But as Fitzgerald so eloquently satirizes, we can’t let ourselves be dragged into the past.

Fitzgerald’s words hit home to me, halfway through my South American adventure. When I look back at the early days of the trip, I’m already distorting my memories and overstating the pleasures of things gone by. Gatsby’s desperate attempts to relive the past, however, make me realize that ahead of me lies the fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

The Patagonian “Wild West” Circuit

As the cowboy stood up from the table and took a last swig of coffee, he folded his newspaper and casually walked down the steps of the saloon to the side of his stead.  Annoyed at the slow pace of his partner, he hopped on the beast and road down the street, trying to raise the ire of his fellow traveler.  Dressed head to toe in riding gear and packed for weeks of riding, he looked ready to battle the rough, windswept countryside for months to come.  Eventually, his partner finished his own coffee, and joined the cowboy as they rode off into the desert.

I sat watching this scene, not in Doc Brown’s DeLorean transported to the 19th century American West, but in the similarly sparse Patagonian town of El Calafate, Argentina.  Though the travelers in question wore body suits of leather for their modified dirt bikes; with a few changes they could have been taken for Wyatt Earp or John Wayne.  And just like the wagon trains of yore, travelers today follow the “Patagonian Circuit” like a family of homesteaders setting out for Oregon.  Constantly as I traveled through the greatest hits of Patagonia, I found myself loathing my fellow circuiters, but in awe of these cut-off outposts.

Briefly, the Patagonian circuit involves traveling through the following towns in Argentina and Chile: Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, Pureto Natales, El Calafate, and El Chalten.  Travelers start at both ends, but most invariably travel to all of them in order.  As a result, the towns are largely miniature tourist rest stops, catering to the travelers who come to visit the nearby natural attractions like Torres del Paine National Park or Mount Fitzroy.  The towns feel less like authentic communities and more like a stopover on the pony express.

El Calafate, for instance, has a population of around 20,000.  To get to the town, you have to take a bus for 10 hours, and almost the entire route is through the bleak Patagonian steppe.  Traveling from Puerto Natales, the bus navigates small two lane roads and is only interrupted by the occasion sheep or cow and scattered shrubs.  Every few hundred kilometers, a small “estancia” or ranch appears, but the landscape largely retains its natural look.  Finally after traveling all day, the town comes into view like an oasis in the desert.  It sits beside an enormous lake, but lacks any native vegetation because of the dry landscape.  Houses on the outskirts have dirt or stones for yards, while the mainstreet sits flanked by barren hills rising into the distance.  All of the town’s commercial options exist for tourists, with restaurants, bars, and even a casino dominating mainstreet.

While the towns look like glorified rest stops, the weary travelers trudging along their streets similarly fit the landscape.  Since the transportation options are infrequent and lengthy, most of the backpackers have just arrived on a long-distance bus, most likely after completing an epic trip.  Like a cowboy arriving in Silverado, these backpackers look ready for a drink and a distraction.  Even the waitresses and hotel workers in the towns appear wearied by their distance from society – moving a step slower than their urban counterparts and embodying the isolation of the town.

El Chalten’s lack of internet proves the point.  Since the less than 1000 residents live hundreds of kilometers from the nearest settlement, no company has taken the time to install a fiberoptic cable.  Instead, hostels have to buy satellite internet at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars per year.  While Doc Hollywood would have scoffed at the idea that such an inconvenience counts as a “disconnect,” in today’s ever connected world where hostels and buses are booked online, the slowness really impacted logistics.

After a month of traveling on the circuit, I was more than ready to end my time in Argentine Patagonia.  Whereas the Pacific’s moisture gets dumped on the Chilean side, the lack of vegetation and wildlife in Argentina proved disconcerting.  Finally, I arrived in El Bolson where I was transported from the 19th century west to San Francisco in the 1970s.  Walking through the local crafts market with goods like dream-catchers and incense burners for sale, I didn’t see any cowboys looking to cause trouble.  And as I made my way to the campsite, only Argentines flooded the streets – enjoying their Easter holiday.  Like a 49er headed for California, I loved the experience of traveling through Patagonia, but I was ready to move on to a warmer, wetter climate with the trappings of normal life, not just tourist kiosks.

How I caught a 20 lbs Salmon

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On Friday afternoon, I stepped off a bus into the ugly outskirts of Puerto Varas, Chile, berated by rain and discouraged by cold.  As I dragged my 45 pound pack to the town’s information office, however, the weather turned from Chilean normativity to an encouraging clam of blue skies and rising temperatures.  I took this fortuitous change as a sign from God to abort my plan to stay at one of the town’s hostels that night.  Instead, I found a minibus headed straight for Petrohue – gateway to Vincente Perez Rosales National Park.  And that has made all the difference:  by the time I left Petrohue two days later, I had caught a 20 pound salmon, met seven Chilean friends, two American adventure women, and a dog named Flor.

Despite the one obvious omen, the signs started to change for the worse rather abruptly.  When I arrived at the Petrohue’s boat and bus station, at the junction of Lago Todos Santos and the Petrohue River, the rain accelerated its deliverance to tierra firma.  An old man with few teeth and little hair, told me the park’s campground was closed, and that my only option was to camp across the river at the private run campground.  Not believing him, I first asked the park rangers who confirmed his instructions.

After paying the boatman, I arrived at the campground, where Walter, Gabriel, and Melanie were seated inside the campgrounds lone’ shelter trying to stave off boredom.  At this point, the weather continued to work against me, with the rain increasing its tempo.  As I laid my tent on the ground and began setting up the rainfly, the heavens opened to unleash hail on my half-covered tent.  Finally, with all of my gear thrown inside and in the midst of changing out of my wet jeans, thunder rippled through the air.  I couldn’t wait to get out from underneath the tree that was protecting my tent.  My nerves also started to perk up – when I camped in El Bolson, Argentina, the incredibly strong winds snapped one of my tent poles in half – making me worry about a subsequent break.

In a sea change, however, the next five hours proved transformative.  After meeting my fellow tenants, I learned how Melanie and Nicki, two American girls, were traveling through Chile to showcase two kayaks provided by an American company looking to expand its market share.  They had settled in Petrohue for a few days to film descents down the river’s rapids.  Walter and his large extended family owned the campsite and the dozen houses that sat flanking it, and Walter worked as a fishing guide.  Gabriel, a goofy native of Santiago, had spent the summer working as a guide in the nearby national park.  During the afternoon and evening, the five of us successfully started a campfire, crossed the river to fetch ingredients for pisco sours, and returned to cook homemade salmon.  The day before I arrived, the Chileans and the Americans had spent the day fishing, and Walter brought home a 30 pound salmon.   It was delicious even on the second day, only needing some salt and olive oil to bring out the taste.

After finally getting to bed at around 2 am, I got up the next morning to say good bye Melanie and Nicki.  They were leaving this part of Chile for Patagonia to film shots of running the kayaks through caves.  After their departure, Walter informed me his mom was making us pancakes, but he gave no timeframe for when they would be ready.  And since he only speaks Spanish, all I could understand was, “despues”, later.  In the meantime, I decided to hike up the trail behind the campsite.  The entire reason I came to this national park was to hike the path that passes near the Orsono Volcano.  But for the first two days, the weather was too awful to even try.

As I walked out the back of the campsite, Walter’s nephew’s dog, Flor decided to inquire as to what I was trying to do.  After telling Flor my plans, she decided to tag along.  We fought through branches and pig manure to ascend the mountain, but we eventually reached a rock wall too steep to surmount.  As I sat looking at the obstacle, Flor ran up behind me.  Looking down at her small legs, I concluded she couldn’t make it up the wet, rocky face, so I moved to turn around.  At that point, she scampered up the trail without inhibition.  Despite her encouragement, I decided to return, hopefully to pancakes. Image

Arriving back at a damp, windy campsite, I turned on my stove to some tea and continue reading the salmon farming chapter in The Ethics of What We Eat.  Just as the authors were detailing the horrors of salmon fishing and how it had led salmon to infiltrate Chile’s natural riverways, Walter asked if I wanted to go fishing with him and some of his friends.  Of course I agreed, and he said we would leave in a half hour. This being Chile, I figured we would leave in an hour or later.  But in less than 30 minutes, he yelled for me to hop in his boat, so I threw down my book, grabbed my rain jacket, and ran to the dock.

We only drove across the river, where some of the friends picked us up in an F150.  Driving downstream for four miles, we reached another outpost of the national park, a set of waterfalls.  We parked in the woods, and found an illegal path that heads into the national park via some local trails.  After walking for 20 minutes, we made it back to the river beneath the rapids.  Salmon jumping out of the water greeted us as the fishermen attached lures to their rods.

For the first 30 minutes, I was content to take in the views watching the experts rake in fish.  One of the guys from nearby Puerto Montt, caught two salmon much to the chagrin of his friends.  Walter’s brother took pity on me and shoved a rod in my hands to keep me busy.  After 10 or 20 abysmal casts, nearly taking out some of the other fishermen, I finally remembered how Grandpa Baumhover had taught me to fish.  I had similar luck, though, and didn’t haul in any fish.

As the day was winding down, and the pescadors were getting restless, Walter finally hooked a salmon.  Again looking out for me, the brother shoved Walter’s pole into my hands, ensuring I would bring dinner home for everyone.  A bit nervous, I took over the pole as the salmon ran with the line down the river.  Walter and his brother were constantly shouting instructions at me, very little of which I understood.  Eventually, I got the hang of reeling, lifting the pole, and keeping my finger on the line so the salmon couldn’t run too far.  Despite two long runs, I got the salmon to shore where the brother clubbed it to death with Walter taking as many photos as possible.

Walter’s brother took the fish off the line and cleaned it immediately along the river, but not before Walter got some pictures of me holding the fish up for size.  We fished for another half hour before the light ran out, and we had to head back.  Back out our campsite, the fishermen all came with us, making for a party of 8 hungry men.  The fire was slow to get started, so we had to wait for it to warm up and smoke the fish. Image

Throughout the day, I was the butt of many jokes.  Chileans speak Spanish very distinctly and the rural inhabitants speak with extensive use of slang and modified pronunciations to the point where I could understand almost nothing.  So, while my Spanish is hardly fluent, I can understand quite a lot, except when I’m in rural Chile.  Periodically, the Chileans would attempt to talk to me or invite me into the conversation, but the barrier proved too stark.  Besides, I was too exhausted from sleeping in a tent and the late night before to converse intelligently.

Finally, around 11:30, the fishermen left to drive back to Puerto Montt.  In the end, I couldn’t help thinking about what an ordinary experience it would have been in back in the U.S.  Simply, I spent an afternoon fishing and drinking beers with a bunch of guys.  We got lucky, caught a salmon, and grilled it for dinner.  Because it was in the rural backwoods of Chile, it one of the favorite moments of my trip.

Finally, on Monday morning I decided to leave the little campground that provided me so much enjoyment.  I think company can overstay its welcome, so I decided to leave before I became a nuisance.  And on this particular morning, the volcano decided to show its top, beckoning me to climb its foothills.Image

I tracked down one of Walter’s relatives to give me a ride back across the river to begin climbing the trail up to the volcano.  Sad to say goodbye to the campsite, I knew the two days would leave a lasting memory.  Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back.

Torres del Paine

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On the cold, moonless night of March 17, 2013, I lay shivering in my tent, grasping at the last straws of sleep, just as my iPhone’s marimba melody pierced the Patagonian silence.  As I slowly awoke in Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile, I was already dreading my planned predawn hike to the park’s namesake towers.  Having arrived at the campsite at 8:30 the night before after a tough hike, I wasn’t prepared for the early return to the trail. But as I opened the tent flap and saw a parade of white headlights ascending into the distance, I found my motivation to get out of bed.

Torres del Paine is one of the world’s greatest parks, and is centered around three granite towers that lurch 6500 feet straight out of the ground.  Most hikers opt for the “W” circuit, which takes them along two river valleys that provide views of both sides of the towers before meandering along a mountain lake to an active glacier.  One of the circuit’s best features is that hikers can reach the towers at sunrise, in time to see the sun cast its first rays on the giant chalkboards.  Despite the promise of such an awe-inspiring sight, the marimba failed to preface the breathlessness to come.

Putting aside my reticence, I woke up my camping partner, Olivia, and we rustled out of our sleeping bags to join the conga line up the mountain.   For 45 minutes, we crept up a steep hill, tacking large boulders and small streams before reaching the rock field that holds back the tower’s accompanying glacial lake.  Though we departed in complete darkness, we hurried along as we saw the sun starting to rise over our left shoulders.  Not wanting to miss the requisite photograph, I would rush ahead, but then turn around and shine my headlamp me so Olivia could see the path.  Tired and cranky, we reached the viewpoint with plenty of time to spare.  From 7:00 until 7:30, we watched the sun slowly break into the sky, but it failed to light up the towers, thwarted by a low lying cloud. 

But around 8:00, the sun won out and cast its bright, orange rays, directly on the pillars, lighting them like a stove’s coasters turned on high.  For fifteen minutes, we took in this surreal sight, too enamored to address our tired and hungry bodies.  Eventually, the sun reached a height where the coasters lost their glow, and only the granite peaks remained.  Acknowledging our hunger and the long day ahead, we began our lukewarm descent, along with 50 other early risers, back to the campsite to make breakfast and pack up our gear. 

In planning my trip to South America, hiking through Torres del Paine always stood out as one of the highlights of the entire trip.  Trekkers come from across the globe to hike the park’s storied trails.  After some minor hiccups in Buenos Aires and Uruguay during the early parts of my trip, I badly needed to get out into the wild.  Having hiked for a couple days in Ushuaia, I felt like I had only had a taste of what Torres del Paine would offer.  And traveling by bus and staying at hostels on the way to the park, I ran into countless people who had hiked the W and raved about its beauty.  So by the time I was taking in the sunrise, I felt like I had been waiting for far too long. 

We arrived in the park at about 6:00 pm on Sunday, after getting a late shuttle out of the gateway town of Puerto Natales.  I had met my hiking partner, Olivia, when I stayed in Puerto Madryn on the east coast of Argentina.  After realizing we were traveling in the same direction, we fell in step traveling from Ushuaia to the park together.  Olivia is from Switzerland, and was planning on traveling around South America for four months before starting a master’s program.

Since we arrived at the park so late, we only had two hours to get from the entrance to the Torres Camping Ground, the only free site on the first leg of the trek.  Olivia and I successfully made it into the camp at around 8:30 just after sunset, having survived a grueling 4.5 miles with a combined 60 pounds in gear.  We quickly made camp, and grilled our chorizo – by far the best meal we had during our trip. Exhausted, we passed out around 11:00, fearing the 6 am wakeup call.

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After our sunrise rendezvous, we got back to camp, cooked and departed by 10 am.  Our Sunday trek made for a really long day, over 13 miles of hiking back down the same river valley, around a mountain, and back up another streambed to another free campsite.  The first few hours of the hike proved uneventful, calmly making progress while enjoying the green, snake-like lake that unwound before us.  Along the way, we ran into various characters who joined us for a few miles at a time.  Tom, a boatman from Port Townsend, Washington, provided the most enjoyable distraction of the trip.  Tom looked like Ishmael from top to bottom, wearing a grandpa’s fishing hat, fishing pants, and a t-shirt showing one sail boat eating another one.  After spending a month on a research ship around Antarctica, Tom had come to Torres del Paine to hike what he called a capital F before flying back to Washington.  Tom had an optimistic quip for just about every lull in the hike, more than making himself welcome in our company.  “That sure is a lot of grass, but I wouldn’t want to mow it.”

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Since this was St. Patrick’s Day, numerous hikers donned their brightest green attire.  As we took a water break, a young woman, with a bright green fleece and Irish red hair marched on past us.  Also noticing her, an elderly Irish gentleman with a wonderful St. Patrick’s beard, called out to her, “Now that must be an Irish lass, if ever I saw one.  Happy St. Paddy’s day!”  The girl, confused by the interaction, simply said,

“Oh right, Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I forgot that was today.”  And she said it all without slowing down.  As she made her way down the trail and out of site, the Irishman’s wife called out to her, “Of course you knew, that’s why you wore green!”

After two more hours, we came to one of the fancy refugios that are sprinkled throughout the park.  There are a couple of different financial options for trekking the park’s famous trails, catering to hikers of different budgets.  Backpackers can do it on the cheap, staying at free campsites and bringing all of their own food.  One percenters can bring almost nothing with them  and stay at these miniature hotels that serve meals.  A bed in the refugio can cost as much as $100 per person per night, but after walking several miles on a mosquito infested trail in 90 degree heat, it almost makes the price worth it.

Reaching one such refugio, Olivia refused to hike the final 3 miles to the campsite.  Not wanting to pay for the refugio, I sat down and agreed to wait awhile.  I paid $4 for a can of Fanta – one of the best Fantas I’ve ever had – and waited for Olivia to regain her strength.  After resting for an hour, with nothing but mountains and a big blue sky to occupy us, we donned our packs and struggled through the last hour to the campsite, arriving at around 6:00.  Dinner on day 2 lacked the first day’s panache, just pasta and tomato sauce without any spices.  Still, the carbs felt good in our tired bodies.  After a final chat with Tom, we went to bed, beating the sun. 

On day three, we resolved to hike up the second river valley, see the towers, and take the boat out of the park that night.  Instead of a W, we’d complete a cursive U.  The dedicated hiker in me felt a little morose at not completing the obligatory W, but having acquired a cold during my second day in the park, my runny nose and sore throat encouraged me to get out.

The first 9 miles of the day were a relief.  The only gear we had to take with us was water and food before returning to grab our packs.  For the first hour, we navigated dense forests, hearing a roaring stream beside us and assorted avalanches above.  Eventually, we emerged from the trees, allowing us to climb atop a giant boulder that afforded a 360 degree view of the river valley, surrounded by peaks reaching up to 8000 feet.  Having viewed the towers from a closer vantage point at sunrise, we were unimpressed.  The views down to the mountain lake, though, were more than I expected, providing an excellent backdrop for our ham and cheese lunch. IMG_0606

Back we went, descending the river valley at a rapid pace, pausing only to take pictures of waterfalls in the accompanying stream.  Once we made it to our camp, we gathered our gear, and at 3:00, we began the long march to meet our 6:30 boat.  The last three hours provided just the trail we craved, a narrow route that undulated softly over easy hills along another azure lake.  At one rocky overlook, we paused for a snack, with the wind subsiding enough for the lake to become still – providing impressionist reflections of the towering mountains in the distance.  In the short 20 minutes we sat there, every single hiker that came along the trail interrupted our peaceful lunch to take a picture.

Back on the trail, we entered the section of the park that suffered a horrendous fire in 2011.  A hiker lost control of his stove resulting in the carnage of one-eighth of the entire park.  This unfortunate site was yet another reason why we decided to end the hike prematurely.  Walking through burnt trees and open fields, we climbed the last hill.  The final refugio came into view, more than a mile below where we stood.  Despite my tired legs, I nearly ran the rest of the way there, eager to get out of the wind and from beneath my pack.  We rushed the refugio’s small store, buying the most overpriced but delicious mango juice I’ve ever had.  After a short rest, we pressed on to one of the park’s catamarans, beginning the 3 hour boat/bus ride back to Puerto Natalales. 

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Torres del Paine will no doubt be one of the highlights of my South America trip, simply because of the three days I spent in the woods.  But overall, I came away from the hike slightly disappointed.  After having read and listened to so many superlative accounts of the hike, I think I had unrealistic expectations for what I would see. To me, the park’s offered nature was beautiful, but certainly in line with other hikes I’ve completed in the United States and Europe.  One Austrian guy I met along the trail said of the towers, “I wasn’t impressed.  We have taller ones in Europe.”  Part of me agreed with him.  Part of the problem, though, was that many of the superlative hikers I listened to as I approached the park were not outdoor enthusiasts and hadn’t hiked very much in their respective countries.  As a result, one of the reasons so many are enamored with the park is that it’s the only real hiking they’ve ever done.

Additionally, I was also disappointed by the park’s amusement park feel.  There are essentially four ways of trekking through the park – all along the same path – and all four are extremely organized and crowded.  So hiking through the park at times feels simply like waiting in line for a ride.  This is one of the same complaints I have about Shenandoah National Park back in Virginia, so it’s hardly a new feeling.  As I continue my hiking career both in the U.S. and here in Argentina, I’ll constantly be looking for trails that allow a real nature lover to get off the beaten path.    

Where’s My Bike?

Despite my best efforts to make this a biking trip around South America, it has yet to turn out that way.  Originally, I conceived of this trip as mix between biking and busing around South America.  For the first month, I hoped to move mostly by bus while bringing my bike along with me – allowing me to bike around the cities where I landed.  The buses here, however, don’t have room to carry bikes with them.  They either charge a lot of money to ship the bike, or require it to be shipped ahead or behind you.  And they usually require you to take the bike apart and put it in a box.

Due to these intervening factors, my bike has gone on ahead without me.  The Surly is waiting in the Lakes district of Argentina in a town called Bariloche.  I am scheduled to stay for a week in Bariloche in mid-April, so it’s a good place to get back on my pedals.  For now, a hostel (Hostel 41 Below) has graciously agreed to hold on to the bike until I arrive.  So for the next month, I’ll be traveling with only my pack, and feeling a little lost without my bike.  This will mark the longest stretch of not riding a bicycle since my bike was stolen in D.C. four years ago.