This is an excerpt from my book ‘Coming of Age in the Andes: An Adventure into the Mountains of South America’. Amazon link available at the end of the post!
There are few places in the world that inspire the traveler’s imagination like Patagonia. Journeying to this land the adventurer will encounter mostly windy, barren expanses, but also some of the most staggering mountain scenery on display anywhere. It’s drawn outlaws like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and been the basis of books by scientists and explorers like Charles Darwin and Yvonne Chanard. The region is thought to have been named after the Tehuelche people’s moccasins, which made their feet appear overly large. In Spanish, pata means foot. The name may also have derived from the word patagón, used by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 to describe the native people he believed to be giants.
After 6 weeks of doing a series of 3-5 day treks around El Bolson it was time for something different. Something a little more ‘out there’. The baby beef was so juicy and soft, but I was getting even softer. It was time hit the road on my own. I was apprehensive, but the draw of some solo adventure was too great to resist.
The plan was to walk and hitch-hike to the southernmost tip of Argentina, a stretch all the way down to Calafate, 800km of some of the most desolate terrain on the planet. It looked like an amazing journey. A long distance bus would’ve been nice and easy. But too easy. Too predictable. This was part of my self-imposed initiation into rugged, shoestring travel. Each day presented itself as a fresh, exciting, unscripted adventure.
Mind you, I was also pretty terrified. I’d never done anything as wild as this and was a complete amateur. What if there weren’t enough rides? And what about predators, scorpions and snakes at night? The Patagonian puma prevailed here, although they apparently mostly kept to themselves in the mountains. Camping in random places along the side of the road if I didn’t make it to small villages and towns also seemed quite intimidating. But so friggin’ far-out at the same time. Tent, sleeping bag, stove, fuel, food for a few days which I’d replenish along the way. Ready to roll on south. How far would I get I wondered? Would I chicken out before the first week was over? I was curious to find out.
It was nearing the end of March. Autumn had set in and it was cold in the evenings. Chilly winds blew insistently, throwing up dust clouds that blurred everything in sight. On my first night I was offered a bench in a container, a temporary home to a team of roadwork’s servicemen who were toiling away with piles of asphalt and heavy-duty rollers. After hiking for nearly seven hours, the sun dipping, I was eager to find a place to crash. The wind had picked up to a gale-force. Pitching a tent would be absolute hell. I got talking to one of the men smashing up the tarmac with a sledgehammer, his overalls stained with grease and dirt. Hazy bands of mauve and terracotta blended together on the featureless horizon.
Mentioning I was hitchhiking to Calafate and was probably going to set up camp somewhere, he frowned with dismay and marched me to the container, completely out-of-place with no other buildings for miles. I was given a meal and sat down with a bunch of the workers – some still teenagers – grumpily soaking up vegetable soap with stale bread. I got a few estranged looks, but otherwise not too much attention. Blackened jackets hung on hooks above piles of grey blankets. A poster of Mary holding a baby Jesus competed with a voluptuous bikini-clad supermodel leaning seductively over a Harley Davidson. It felt like I was on the Nebuchadnezzar docked deep in the Real World, slurping oatmeal porridge with the crew while waiting for something world-altering to happen.
Apart from the girl, the container was a bleak space, but I was happy to be sheltered from the tormenting winds raging outside. The next town was Tecka, 60 miles south. Tomorrow I’d need to catch at least one ride if I had any hope of making it there. The road warriors said the winds would most likely subside by sunrise, so an early start was the call.
Despite feeling like I might wake up in Oz, I had a good six hours sleep and got cracking soon after a cup of murky coffee and some biscuits. Vicuna cantered in formation through arid plains and dust strewn hills. The sky expanded on and on for forever. Follow the yellow brick road.
”Where you headed?”
”Well jump in! We can take you about 40 miles or so.”
I got chatting to an excited group of tourists, on a multi-day tour through Patagonia and on the way to see the famous Cueva de los Manos (Cave of Hands), an astonishing montage of stenciled hand-prints and animals dating back to between 11 000 and 7300 B.C, a secluded gallery painted by some of the earliest hunter-gatherers in South America. Humans made it across the Bering Strait into the Americas around 15 000 years ago, so these proto Patagonian cave-dwellers certainly made good progress along the Pacific coastline to get to what we now call Argentina, just a 20 000 km hop from Alaska to the southern edge of the Andes.
I was dropped off a good 10 kilometers from the nearest town, in a way wishing I could’ve gone with to see the cave. I pushed on as the sun peeled back and eventually came to a remote campsite. The first thing I did was spark a fire, absolutely starving, having sustained myself on just some snack bars and fruit over the course of twelve hours. The spot was deserted. It felt like I was the first traveler to have passed through in months, maybe years.
As I sat gulping down a vegetable stew, the owner of the campground, a haggard looking old man with disheveled white hair and dusty spectacles surreptitiously approached. In heavily accented Spanish he asked with a tone of explicit concern.
‘’Where are you traveling boy?’’
‘’To Calafate. I’m hitch-hiking there.’’
‘’What?! It’s dangerous! There are wild animals here and the winds are extremely strong. Besides, not many vehicles move through these parts.’’
‘’Really? Well, I’ve just been going for a few days. Do you know if there are buses at all?’’
‘’Buses?!’’ He exclaimed incredulously. ‘’Mmmm, there won’t be one for at least a week.’’Gee old guy, thanks a lot. Way to instill confidence.
‘Well, I’ll see how I go…I have plenty of time.’’
‘’That’s good! You’re gonna need it! Everything happens slowly here…it’s why I moved away from Buenos Aires. No clocks or watches. Just the sun.’’
‘’How long have you been here?’’
‘’About eight years now. Feels like most of my life strangely enough.’’
‘’Wow, that’s a long time. So you run this campsite…and what else do you do?’’
‘’I have a lot of time to myself here. Not many tourists come through…as you can see…but in the busy months I open up my house to guests as well. I grow vegetables, use solar panels and keep some animals. The rest of the time I read novels and poetry…Borges, Marquez, Lorca…you know…all the greats.’’
‘’It must be a little lonely, but I’m sure the greats keep you company.’’
Here’s a guy who probably doesn’t have much family – or had been estranged from them long ago – living frugally off the land and operating a simple hospitality business in the middle of remote Patagonia. He also told me he built the house himself, adding on five rooms for guests in peak season. A beat up blue Chevrolet was parked outside and there was a swinging bench facing west. I’d studied languages ,history, geography, biology, science and maths at school, one subject after the other, but what good would they do me I were faced with a similar situation I wondered. If the cities of the world all crumbled in apocalypse, this dude would be just fine. At least for a while.
I watched the man disappear into the shadowy twilight back to his rustic refugio, hobbling every other step from a small limp.
That night I dreamed that I apprehended a wild horse and galloped all the way through Patagonia. Not a shabby idea I thought when I woke up. In my reverie my steed got lost a few times but managed to redirect by following the trails of glowing-green fireflies in the middle of the night. No, there were just vegetables in the stew in case you’re wondering.
Well, I didn’t have a horse and there weren’t any fireflies in these barren plains. But the dream gave me confidence to back my ability and keep going. One day at a time. Pointless freaking out about what might or might not happen. And yet it was that uncertainty that kept me alert and aware, vulnerable to the unexpected, unforeseeable, miraculous moment.
This trip down into the heart of Patagonia was all about simply following the road and seeing where it led to. Sure there were some places that piqued my interest, of which I’d read about in my Lonely Planet, but the experience was centered less on planning and more on encountering each day as it unfolded, traveling independently with everything I needed on my back (well, apart from steaks and wine) as I journeyed closer and closer to the fabled peaks of southern Patagonia, those epic looking granite spires you see on postcards of the region.
If you’ve traveled in a similar fashion then you probably know how it feels to wake up with zero obligations…the lure of the undiscovered enticing you every step you take. If you haven’t, but want to, portion off some time – even a couple of weeks – and go! If you haven’t and aren’t exactly chomping at the bit to do so, consider it a thought experiment. A philosophical rendering of such shoestring travel is undoubtedly relevant to us all, for it touches on the innermost explorations of the soul. We’re all travelers in this world, moving from one state to the next, morphing physically, mentally and emotionally according not only to the forces of nature, but the ways in which we tend to our own natures. Inevitably our bodies and minds age, as do the soles of our shoes as we travel. This we cannot change. But we can choose where to walk, how to walk and find reasons why to walk.
With just the sound of your boots grinding on a grainy road and the occasional eagle singing high in the sky, you’re left with a lot of time to think. The intractable dilemmas of existence, encapsulated perhaps best in the questions; ‘Where did we come from? Why are we here?’ And ‘ Where are we going?’ sunk into mind.
The first question seemed less significant and impossible to come up with an irrefutable answer. A starting point perhaps – if we take the major two camps on the subject – is that creationism and evolution are by no means mutually exclusive. Some form of middle ground seems only reasonable because if stretched out, both positions lead to infinite regresses. Of course, so does a merging of the two. If we suppose a supreme being set into the motion processes of species evolution, well, we’re still stuck with the perennial perplexity of where that supreme being came from. Evolutionists who pull ‘God’ out of the equation are faced with a parallel predicament.
Sleeping regularly under the stars after long days of walking, gazing at them for clues, I couldn’t help but get the feeling that our physical and metaphysical natures as human beings are embodied by the innumerable luminaries above us. Like the great astrophysicist Carl Sagan once remarked, in his permanently mesmerized facial expression, ”We’re just star stuff”.
The second and third questions held greater attraction, mainly because they seemed – and still do – more practical. Why we’re here – as in on this planet at this exact point in history – is something that I think we all constantly wrestle with and must make sense of in our own unique ways. Since the dawn of our species – some 190,000 years ago – we’ve been developing justifications for our existence and prescribing what we ought to be doing with our fleeting, fragile lives. Granted, most of these interpretations have been religious in content, devoted to collective ideals defined by supernatural beliefs compelling the steps of our journey along predetermined tracks toward absolute ends.
Notwithstanding the widespread continuation of established (as well as the proliferation of newer) religious traditions in the 21st century, the gradual disentanglement of ethics from religion via the ‘triumph of reason’ – wrought progressively through the Reformation, Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution – has resulted in a vast array of standpoints concerning why we’re here. Pioneers of western rationalism like Descartes, Kant, Locke and Hume – to a large extent revivors of Greek epistemology – handed down to the modern world intellectual tools with which to critique the opinions of others and formulate one’s own without obligation to a set-in-stone version of ‘the way to be’. You’re the author of your reasons for being. Nobody else.
I touch on the last question at the end our journey in South America so you’ll have to wait a while if that’s OK. I reckon that’s enough to chew on for now anyway.