We have, in fact, finished the project of walking the Andes.
One of the realizations I had at the end, sitting on the cliff edge overlooking the South Sea, when that cathartic release never quite came, was that this whole long ordeal epitomized the idea of the journey being the means as well as the end. To me, the lighthouse at San PÃo was surprisingly more a marker of a point in time when a way of life would thereafter change, rather than a goal being met. My goal was met every day that I learned as much as I could about everything around me. It was met when I realized that by walking as I was through the Andes I was gaining an otherwise unattainable understanding of my planet and my place on it. San PÃo for me was slightly mournful, knowing that this way of learning was over for the time being, but also a celebration of all that I did take in, all that I have absorbed and not even realized yet. This journey has had a life, a very complete life of its own, as well as given us a lifetime’s worth of experience.
Several concepts have begun to sink in a bit, however unreal the termination of the walk still seems. The most obvious is the sense of space I have now, a visceral sense of the Earth in relation to my physical self. I think for most people, the size of a planet is an abstract idea. You can learn the numbers, how big your state or province is, how big your country is, how many times this certain country can fit into this other country, how many hours it takes to drive across Wisconsin or to fly from London to Bangalore, but it all does very little for true understanding of size until you can put it into the perspective of your own ability to cover any of those distances and know what they feel like.
I fidgeted with my fingers in the small airport, looking out the large glass windows to the south. The other thirty-some people waiting for the one flight of the day, the one coming from Punta Arenas, were all locals. The Puerto Natales airport had only recently opened, having been converted from the old military airstrip within the past year. The guidebooks and guide services have not yet included it in their schedules and tours, and so the people on the flights are mostly locals, whose families were finding the novelty of it almost overwhelming. They all pressed their faces against the windows, waiting for the speck to appear in the sky. Once it did, families ran outside to watch without glass barrier the growing of the spot in the sky into it’s giant winged form and make its subsequent abrupt landing on the petite runway. The moment the plane taxied the short distance to the backside of the one-room airport, the families piled back through the front doors and assembled en masse around the gate, the single gate. I enjoyed the place I held in all of this, feeling local in the sense of welcoming loved ones to my home, and feeling too seasoned a traveller to share the same sense of fascination with the airport process, thus putting me in a delectable position in which to people-watch. Outside, passengers, stiffly and excitedly, climbed down onto the tarmac and hurried through the doors to be scooped up by their respective blob of relatives. My parents were toward the back of the lot. I had never been in this role before; I had always been the one waited for. But here they were, having come from afar to be a physical presence in this journey of ours, to hike with us for the stint that took us through Torres del Paine and experience some of the most majestic scenes that Patagonia has to offer. For the next several days we walked, the four of us, through twisted woods, next to lakes dotted with icebergs, under towering granite spires, and with some wonderful other travellers, who were just as awed by it all as we were. I continue to be amazed as to how I can have parents who are so supportive, and so invested in my life, as well as so appreciative of the natural world and open to new experiences exploring it. Thanks, guys.
Another realization that has recently come-about in full, having now travelled back north through and over some of the land we walked, is that all of the places I have gone through on this trip are still there. That may sound obvious, I know, but when passing in a completely linear voyage through space for so long, in my head these sites exist only in the context of my narrative. It is hard for me to conceive of them as having their own stories, sequences, that we crossed through for only a moment, during which, that instant in their reality became petrified in mine. In fact, they are still there, happening, changing, going through seasons and celebrations and tragedies, very much dynamic and alive, very much without my presence. How much and what kind of an impact have I had by being in any of these places? Do I want that impact to be more or less than it actually was?
My last stand-out realization has been the acknowledgement of a consistent theme on the trip—the sense of being able to identify with so many different people, yet never being fully a part of any community; the sense of feeling completely comfortable in almost any circumstance, but not fully belonging anywhere. Throughout the trip, if I felt frustrated or alone, regardless of how wonderfully I was being welcomed or treated, I could look forward to, at some point, encountering like-minded people, other travellers, other hikers, and take some comfort in knowing that somewhere out there were a group of people, a community, that I could really feel a part of. However, since the trek has ended and we have re-entered a more “advanced” slice of society, replete with young travellers, I have felt oddly more connected to the campesinos I have crossed paths with than to anyone else. Although, in the campo during the hike, to these workers of the land and of the animals, I was never one of them. I was often, no matter how dirty, how broke, how out of food, a “modern,” urban, rich Gringa, walking through the land they are part of and have known their whole lives. As kind as they were to me, and as human as they saw me, I was not one of them. It’s true that in terms of my livelihood, I am not like them, but what I have known and experienced of South America over the past two years is their world. We share a knowledge of the land, living in direct contact with it, relying on it, resenting it at times, appreciating the pure beauty in its subtleties. Thus, it is a strange thing to feel a kinship to someone who has no idea that the kinship is there. I was hitching north through Tierra del Fuego the other day to reclaim a box we had shipped ahead some weeks ago, riding with several professional men from the closest city, Rio Gallegos, in a brand new car. As we crested a hill, we quickly slowed to a crawl as we came upon a monstrous conglomerate of sheep ambling along the road, spilling over its sides, accompanied by several sheep-dogs and two men on horseback. The sea of sheep gradually parted row by row for the car to pass through, and the men on horseback gave us a glance and small nod as they rode on, minds on the task of keeping the heard consolidated. To me it seemed that they barely registered the sight of us—a car full or Gringos, breaking up their heard, a slight nuisance that understood nothing of their world. My reaction (to my projection of theirs) was a sense of being profoundly misunderstood. I wanted to call out to them and tell them what I knew, what I had just done, that I understood them more than they thought, that I spent countless days pushing through the harsh grasses on the same pampa that their sheep graze on, spent countless nights in small puestos, sharing fires and mate and conversation with other herders. I didn’t tell them all that of course, but I realized that part of me was scared to give up my place and identity as a wanderer, passing through and absorbing the lifestyles and customs of others, and with each encounter feeling more and more a part of something I wasn’t, fully. But then in so many other ways I was, and those men that afternoon with their sheep would never know that.
March 23rd, 2008. We walked out of Puerto Natales three days ago along the salty, pebbly coast, saturated with seabirds and blowing grasses. We were supposed to follow a dirt road until it turned into a small track, rounded a more remote corner of land for a few days and then rejoin a dirt road on the opposite side of this wilderness just north of Punta Arenas. We had heard from a couple of new friends, GIS guys who had done the trek several months earlier, in the dryer season, that the middle section did not make for clear way-finding and had its share of prickers and bogs. We were not concerned; we had come on foot from Ecuador, and this route had been done by humans before, both facts giving us confidence in our ability to negotiate the section ahead of us. Our dirt road ended, so we took to the rocks of the coast, not fast walking, but we managed to cover a respectable distance, bringing us to the Subida Elias, the point where we left the coast and climbed onto the higher land that will cross us over to the other sound, Seno Skyring. Once we arrive there, the houses, farms and general access will mean there is no question as to the possibility of continuing. Here, however, the high ground has turned out to be somewhat of a different story from what we expected. We have in our possession two maps that show a marked route over this very ground, while all of my understanding of the world and the laws of nature call into question the accuracy of these documents. Here, where I step from knee-deep, slippery, mud-lined pools into knee-deep, spongy, soaking peat bog and back, there is no way that a route could have existed at any point in time. Climate change? Season? Bad way-finding? We question with every plunging step. These were GIS guys, who gave us satellite images of the area and coordinates to keep us on-track. There was no question that this was the way. How could they have failed to mention it would be like this? The gray rain has infiltrated my every layer, has made soggy my very being. The sponge I am walking upon is doing the same from the bottom up, though with more speed and efficiency. Not only does it serve to soak, but the boggy ground, or turba as it’s called here, has the same effect of raising the gravity ten-fold. The up motion of each step is a project. TtthhhhhhhhuuK!.. .plunge, and repeat, ad infinitum. However, it’s a damn good thing we’re doing this now and not one month from now. It’s miserable enough being soaked and cold, but being soaked and freezing borders on impossible if we’re to maintain any semblance of safety, especially considering the rivers that we have to swim across. I have already been brought to tears several times, most notably when the lake I was wading through had deep muddy rifts cutting through its bottom, making secure footing impossible, and grabbing onto the razor-edged reeds not a very appealing alternative to losing balance. How long will we keep doing this to ourselves? How much longer does this continent have to last? Why do I keep putting myself in situations where I can’t appreciate the beauty I am surrounded by? But then, how else would I be able to be surrounded by this specific, remote, captivating beauty? Ay! —- THAT’s the rub. Two weeks from this cloudy, slurpy day, I will be walking along the Beagle Channel at sunset. I will see a group of cows become startled by our presence and run to the top of a nearby rise between us and the cold, salty water. They will stop to look back at us; I will stop walking and look at them. The cool wind of early evening will blow, the seabirds will cry out, the pink of the sky will make silhouettes of the giant, intrigued animals, and I will acutely feel my place in the world. The hike will then pull. We have miles left to cover before dark if we are to have enough food to finish, if we are to arrive at the end before the next storm, before the rapidly approaching winter, before the rivers get too cold to cross. And I will curse the hike, for taking me out of that moment, for always taking me out of my moments. Always the pull of the walk, of keeping going rather than fully being. But I realize, without the hike, I would not be here, not know this place, not know those sixty big eyes looking out at me, and not have that feeling of knowing how I really fit into this whole picture. Even if I can’t hang onto it, I have seen it. I resent and then I relish, completely. This has been a lifetime.
Through it all, there have been a few rays stronger than all else: the land, though often feeling like an obstacle, never stopped producing awe for the incredible planet we live on, and fostering my passion for wanting to know it more completely; the people we have met along the way have deepened and strengthened my view of the human race, and illuminated the underlying, powerful good that exists in us collectively as a species, as well as individually;.the almost overwhelming love and support of my family, my friends, and so many strangers; especially the partner, friend, support, teacher, companion, and source of strength I have in Gregg; the self that I have undervalued for much of my life reminding me to listen to it, to respect it, and to trust that it can do as much as it decides to; and finally, my belief in wonder, in growth, and my true understanding of the power that a dream can hold.