The Gringo Trail, Part IV of IV: Patagonia
The rain is measured in feet, not inches, in Puerto Montt, a gritty Chilean port city on the Gulf of Ancud. I stepped out of the bus station into a driving wind-and-rain storm, the rain twisting sideways as it pressed against the gulf’s swirling whitecaps.
The clouds were flung low over the city, and from a bluff overlooking the gulf, the orange glow from street lights hung below the cloud layers. Wooden structures had been bruised from salt, wind and rain. Tin rooftops had been ripped off structures and blown into dark alleys, where puddles grew deep and grass busted through cracks in the sidewalks.
In early September, at this southern latitude and on the northern edge of Patagonia, austral winter was in full effect. During the day, there were only shades of gray – dull and duller – before night settled in and nothing became sweeter than a warm pub, a slab of salmon and a cold beer. But when the clouds did lift, there was nowhere else worth being than Patagonia.
If it had been sunny, I would’ve seen distant mountains that shielded the Patagonia Ice Field, the third-largest glacial field in the world after Antarctica and Greenland. I would’ve also seen the start of the Chilean fjords, a passage of virgin forest and waterfalls that ends in Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park.
I’ll always remember the citizens of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia for their big smiles, but I’ll never forget the unseemly amount of foreigners who travel the Gringo Trail from Quito to La Paz. Geographically, the contrast between ocean, mountain and jungle defining those three countries certainly was unique. Patagonia, though, is painted by a different brush. But on that first day in Puerto Montt, it wasn’t sunny. It was cold, damp and gray.
Two weeks before arriving in Puerto Montt, I dropped off my wife, Izzy, at El Alto airport outside La Paz. Izzy, a kindergarten teacher, needed to return to Lake Tahoe to prepare for the upcoming school year. For the first time in two months, I headed south alone.
After climbing Sajama, the highest peak in Bolivia, I entered Chile on an air-conditioned bus and skirted the northern reaches of the Atacama Desert. Having grown up in Arizona, deserts don’t do much for me, so I took a series of overnight buses from Arica on Chile’s arid northern coast and aimed for Santiago in the center of the country. Not that I had much choice.
About 3,000 miles in length, Chile is the longest country in the world but also one of its narrowest, never measuring more than 100 miles wide. If I wanted to reach the bottom of the country before my flight to Reno in the middle of September, I had to get moving.
However, I first had to meet Brian Reichle, a friend from Tahoe who flew to Santiago with my snowboarding gear. Then we connected with Chris Chandler, another Tahoe resident who was living in Concepcion with his girlfriend, and headed toward La Parva and Valle Nevado ski resorts.
The snowboarding was adequate and the transportation was, to say the least, pitiful and frustrating. Chris, though, looked at the bright side.
“There is no such thing as a bad day of skiing in August.”
And this is true, but the magnetic force of Patagonia was pulling me south. It’s truly at the end of the line, the world’s southernmost inhabited land mass.
When I was riding open bowls in the Andes, I thought of Patagonia. When I was in the lake district of Chile and Argentina, immersed in snowcapped Andean peaks and the European flavor of Bariloche, I thought of Patagonia.
Not even the famous quote of, “If there were no wind and if the rain and snow storms didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be Patagonia,” dampened my spirits. So I felt damn lucky when, two days after standing in the rain of Puerto Montt, the clouds parted and God’s strokes of brilliance beamed onto a grand stage.
A type of beauty emerged that can’t be captured with a camera lens or described with words. It only can be experienced in person, and there was nobody else I’d rather share that moment with than my dad.
After snowboarding with Brian and Chris, I picked up my dad at the Santiago airport, and we traveled south together. At times, he proved to a be a frustrating companion, his controlling nature untenable for the pace of South America, but he recognized a special place when he saw one.
Standing on the deck of a cargo boat, the Chilean fjords were one of those places.
The day after arriving in Puerto Montt, my father and I boarded a ship for Puerto Natales, where glaciers and granite peaks give way to a flat, brown expanse stretching to the Atlantic Ocean. It was a three-night journey, and it included one particularly eventful crossing of the Anna Pink Bay, a notorious stretch of open ocean chop that battered our ship, treating it like an inner tube in Class V rapids.
Fifteen-foot swells crashed over the railings and temporarily flooded the lowest level of our vessel, which was about the size of a football field and was carrying construction vehicles, passenger cars and a trailer full of horses. Someone went to check on the horses in the morning to see if they were injured, but they survived unscathed. The passengers, though, weren’t as fortunate.
Throughout the night, as a I locked my legs around a bedpost to keep from falling onto the floor, I heard a cacophony of vomiting in the hallways. There were lots of pale faces the next morning at breakfast. Some people had taken a motion-sickness pill the night before but puked anyway.
As we ate bowls of cereal and fresh fruit, ship workers pulled double duty as they scraped vomit off the ship’s toilets, doors and walls. But the morning after the Anna Pink Bay also was the first of three consecutive days of clear skies and tranquil waters.
A succession of unnamed peaks sprouted on the horizon. The land around us got much tighter, with the only traces of humans being white lighthouses on each side of narrow channels, the narrowest of which being only 180 feet wide. (Our boat was about 70 feet wide.)
Three days later, I was standing on a bluff overlooking downtown Punta Arenas, and in the distance was Tierra del Fuego, a series of islands that mark the last pieces of land until Antarctica, but I could pretty much see the end of the South American mainland.
Five days later, I was back at my desk at the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
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