The Winds Of Patagonia

Linda Zespy

Copyright 2002 by Linda Zespy

  2002 Travel Nonfiction Winner

Photo of Linda carving her greeting at Refugio Pingo.
Photo of Linda carving her greeting at Refugio Pingo.

I've paged through dozens of Patagonia outdoor gear catalogs, admiring the overpriced clothes and wondering what Patagonia was really like.

Patagonia, a huge swath of land straddling Chile and Argentina, is full of nature preserves and scenic areas. It attracts thousands of hikers per year from all over the world. Today my buddy Dave and I begin our 8-day camping trip there. We've chosen Torres del Paine national park. Within fifteen minutes of setting out on the path, a good omen: we meet an older man with striking blood-red cheeks leaving the park. "Hola!" he yells from far away.

"Hello," we reply, and he switches into accented English. He stands inches from my face, leaning in and peering at me as his words rush out.

"I'm from Holland. This park is beautiful, so beautiful. It is my birthday today. Such a beautiful place to be. Guess how old I am."

I lift the tip of his crocheted rainbow cap and take stock of his full head of gray hair, the fan of laugh lines around his eyes, and his shocking bright cheeks. "65," I say.

"Seventy one!" he replies, spitting on me in his excitement. "I have travelled around the world eight times and this is number nine. I have been everywhere. I want to keep on going. Some people say I am crazy."

At this, he belly-laughs, throwing his head back. He gives us tips on the best places to camp and then hustles down the path, kicking up a cloud of dust from his heels.

This area is known for its stunning glaciers, snow-capped mountains, and crystalline lakes, but also for constant, strong winds. Park rangers in Torres del Paine have developed a system of "refugios" - shelters where cold and hungry hikers can eat a hot dinner and buy some supplies. You can sleep in bunk beds at some of the shelters. Dave and I decided on a combination of the two experiences - we're camping the whole time in our tent but always within walking distance of a refugio. We'll probably sign up for a few of the hot dinners along the way.

After a five-hour hike, we arrive at the first refugio and pitch our tent on a hill nearby. This is one of the nicest refugios in the park. It looks like a miniature ski lodge with a wood-burning stove, a tempting multi-course dinner, and even boxes of red wine you can purchase.

Some Chileno backpackers sit in the sunny windows playing flamenco, blues and rock songs on a guitar I assume they carried up the path.

We resist the temptation to buy dinner but we can't resist the wine.

Day 2:

In a museum here, I saw a huge illustrated map of South America created in 1698 by France's royal geographer of the time. About Chile, he wrote:

"The inhabitants of Chile are large, well-proportioned, strong, and cruel. The name Chile means cold in their language. The name originates from the fact that it has the Andes to the East from whence blows a wind that is so cold that it can cause sudden death to travellers. Large numbers of the Spanish troops who had to cross the mountains died on the journey, and some years later, their bodies were found, perfectly preserved, as if they had been petrified. Some riders were even found on their horses with their reins in their hands."

Who knows whether his story is true. (A nearby notation remarked that his story about how Chile got its name is incorrect - he somehow had heard the English word "chilly" and attributed it to a Chilean language.)

Today, I understand how the tale could be possible. We do a four-hour steep climb to the Torres, or towers, for which this park is named. They're actually mountains, but look nothing like any mountain I've ever seen before. The constant, screeching winds have sand-blasted them into three smooth granite pillars. Photographers love coming here because the shiny pillars change color in different light.

But the last hour of the climb, all vegetation has disappeared. I've been scrambling up huge, loose, barren rocks on all fours in cold winds strong enough to knock a man down, so once we arrive, I'm not that thrilled with the pillars. I'm sure I'm biased by my bruises and shivers - my hands shake so from the cold that I'm having trouble getting my peanut butter sandwich aimed into my mouth. We eat quickly, take a few snapshots, and then we scramble back down the rocks trying not to incite a rock slide.

Day 3:

When I wake up, I unzip the tent and take stock: it's cold. The wind is roaring. My thighs are whimpering. Dave has nicknamed my largest blister "The Metrodome" because it balloons out sideways like a sixth toe. My head is throbbing. We had lounged in the tent last night, clinking our tin cups together in merry toasts by the light of our head lamps. I remember shaking the last drops from the wine box sometime before sunrise. Now, the little drummer boy has set up residence behind my eye sockets. Ahead is a six-hour hike.

The first hour is a spaghetti-thin trail carved into the side of a black mountain of sand. The trail doesn't cut across the sand in a straight, horizontal line - that would be too easy. Instead, it's a wavy line with steep uphills and downhills. To our left is a 200-foot drop.

It's like hiking an uphill Sahara. Going up, the sand gives way. Going down, we half-walk and half-slide, hoping we don't slide off the path and down the dropoff.

After an hour of clenching every muscle in my tender legs, I am already beat. It's time for emergency measures.

I take out my headphones and put in the mix tape I labeled, "Peppy."

Soon, the sand mountain is behind us. Dave notices a small wooden sign pointing to a side trail. We take it and don't see another human being for hours.

The new trail is barely trampled. We're hiking through an endless grassy meadow of white, yellow, and red wildflowers, rimmed by snow-capped mountains and a neon green glacier lake. The headphones shield my ears from the winds, I'm shimmying and wiggling to the music as I hike, and, as we summit each hill, the wildflowers keep getting more beautiful. It's like being Maria Von Trapp in the beginning of The Sound of Music, but with a different sound track: "Hot Pants," I sing with James Brown. "They're SMOKIN." (Dave can't hear me - he has headphones on, too.) Every song seems written for this occasion. Crosby, Stills and Nash make me laugh as we sing together, "I almost cut my hair...."

In this wind-whipped paradise, I can't remember ever wanting to be or do anything else than walk, my big pack molded onto my spine, watching the shimmering lakes and the dancing grasses. There can't possibly be a better life out there than this.

Ahead appears a Chileno riding one horse and holding the reins of three others who follow him on the trail. All the refugios are supplied by horseback (and the expensive prices reflect it.) His red t-shirt matches the wildflowers around us they call "firebrush." He wears headphones, too.

"Que musica escuchando?" he asks me in Chilean Spanish.

Chilenos are almost impossible to understand for two reasons.

First, they speak Spanish like Marlon Brando speaks English - guttural and full of spit. They also seem to be on strike against the letter S. They replace it with a breathy H sound, or sometimes a J sound, or sometimes they just drop the whole syllable altogether.

Second, their speech is mostly slang. One person compared Chileno Spanish to American hip hop slang - even native Spanish speakers don't know what the hell they're saying. When I asked about learning Spanish here, several Chilenos discouraged me: "You don't want to learn Spanish here," they said. "we don't really speak Spanish - we speak Chileno."

Luckily, this cowboy used an easy phrase and I figured it out pretty quickly.

"Van Morrison," I reply, and he wrinkles his brow. He stops the horse, reaches for my headphones, and we briefly trade. It was sort of Spanish flamenco meets country western.

"Chilean, music from here, this area," he says, and I can't think of the Spanish words fast enough to ask a further explanation. So we switch back and continue on our way.

As I write this, at a table in tonight's refugio, our new friend, Steve from Britain, is explaining to Dave the rules to a popular British card game that he insists is called "Shit-faced." I'm writing and rubbing my belly full of hot food.

We treated ourselves to the refugio dinner tonight and ate salmon steaks, mashed potatoes, and fish soup with Steve, some Croatians currently living in London, a pair from Spain, and a German lesbian couple. I love listening to the cadences of the many languages around me, but I am somewhat lonely for Americans. Twice now, I've heard them disparaged by the other travelers here - comments like, "oh, you know, like an American - always having to have it their own way," and "oh, yeah, those Americans, never traveling, then always it has to be English, they never want to learn another language."

To whoever will listen, I explain that Americans usually only get two weeks of vacation each year, compared to the easy leave-of-absence rules and six or more weeks of vacation that is standard in most European countries. Also, we can't just jump in the car and be in another country in a few hours - we're so geographically large that you can fly all afternoon and still be in English-speaking territory.

Our rare appearance at international tour destinations like this has at least as much to do with the business realities and geographic challenges of our country as it does with a simple lack of interest. Whether we're really more demanding than other travelers, I don't know.

Tomorrow, Steve and I are taking a rest day while Dave does another punishing, vertical hike to a nearby lookout point. I'll do laundry in the rushing waters, write, shoot some black and whites, and maybe do a shorter hike.

Day 4:

OK, I didn't really do any of that stuff. Julio, the chef, adopted me and so here I sit in the kitchen, practicing my Spanish while he finds little treats to slip my way - a freshly fried pastry he just lifted from a bubbling pot of oil, a banana, an orange. What a lovely day.

Day 5:

Dave and I are getting accustomed to the incredibly long days in southern Chile. Sunset doesn't even begin until 10 p.m. here. So we sleep late, hike until early evening, and then set up camp in a wide valley where the wind is king. We crawl into the tent almost immediately and stay there the whole night.

Day 6:

Dave looks like a crane when he hikes - his long, sinewy legs pick through the terrain seemingly disconnected from the bulbous pack on his back. I look more like a lumbering turtle.

We're pretty quiet when we hike except an occasional whoop. Except we don't say, "whoop" since it's a yell to warn the follower about upcoming fresh horse droppings in the path. It's everywhere. I guess that's the price we pay for the well-supplied refugios.

After a few hours, the path closes around us so we're walled in by lush, but sharp, green bushes. We're so dirty that, in a strange way, I'm enjoying the scraping. At least it's revealing clean, new skin.

"We don't need no stinking soap," I tell Dave. "People would pay big money in a spa for this kind of exfoliation." We decide that we could market the trail as "the Russo-German Total Body Exfoliating Scrub."

The trail widens and rises to an overlook point where we can see the glacier-filled lake. Tonight, we'll camp on the black sand beach just 100 feet away from huge chunks of ice.

Day 7:

We pack up our beach-side camp after a short morning hike and board a ferry that will take us across the lake to a refugio on the other side. A large tour group of young Americans boards the ferry with us.

Remember how I said I was missing Americans?

I'm not now. Or, as one of the tour group members might say, "Ohmigod, like I'm TOTALLY not missing Americans right now. Did I mention that I've TOTALLY walked, like, all day? Hey what're you wearing tomorrow? Where's the dude carrying my backpack?"

The good news is, no one mistakes Dave and me as being part of this group. It's probably because we stink so much. We are positively odiferous. Our fingernails are black and our hair has changed color from the dust. We blend in like hogs at a poodle party.

The enormous glaciers soon distract everyone on the ferry from our aroma. I'm shocked at how close the boat can get to them and at the rich, Drano-blue color of the towering ice. I never thought I'd find snow and ice so captivating.

When the ferry arrives at the other side of the lake, we see the hotel where the American group will stay. It's $170 U.S. dollars per night.

The dining room has linen tablecloths and a fully stocked bar where yummy desserts are lined up like soldiers on a silver platter. I press my face to the window, admiring the redundant silverware on the tables. We set off on the path to our refugio.

The trail is flat but the winds are stronger than ever. I've heard the term "whirling dervish" before, and I've never been sure what it means, but I think it may have originated in southern Chile. You'll hear a gust coming, whistling and moaning its way closer, and then it will slam into you like a wave in the ocean.

The markings on the map for this refugio were unclear, and we didn't meet anyone along the trail who had been there so we could ask about the site.

In fact, we didn't meet anyone on the trail at all. At the trailhead, we'd seen a park ranger who had laughed when we told him where we were going. He'd tried to convince us to pay him to sleep on his floor, but we thought it sounded fishy so we hiked on.

Besides, the trail was one of the most beautiful yet - golden grasses bending in the winds, gnarled old trees dressed in green and ushering us along the path. Now, the light is fading.

"When we get there, let's sign up for the hot dinner," I yell to Dave over the wind.

When the trail dead-ends, I blink, disbelieving my eyes. I think what I'm seeing is an abandoned storage shed. Whatever it is, it looks like it went through a devastating fire sometime last century. The gray wood planks don't quite fit together anymore. The window holes look like empty eye sockets. The glass is long gone - they're covered with half-secured strips of ragged, old plastic that flaps loudly in the wind.

Now we're closer and I can make out some words on the building. I see a crooked sign reading "Refugio Pingo." Next to it, a horse skull hangs by one eye socket.

We creak the heavy door open, launching a pound of dust into our noses. When my eyes adjust to the dark, I see the walls and ceiling are coated in thick, smoke-black soot. Off to one side is half of a rusty oil drum, mounted on craggy legs and fitted with a makeshift stove pipe.

"Look," points Dave, and we both spend a few minutes reading the years of graffiti that has been carved into the soot with knives.

We push open the door to a side room. "Hey, this room has glass in the window," I say. The walls answer back - the critters that live there sqeak loudly to let us know we're not invited. Otherwise, the room is empty. Little bits of burnt, decaying newspaper cling to the sticky black walls.

Dave and I look at each other, and then look outside. The sun is setting.

"Well, what do you think of pitching the tent in this room instead of just sleeping on the floor?" I say. On cue, the wall critters squeak like they're having a party and inviting guests.

"I'm sure it will help keep us warm," Dave says hurriedly. I act stoic, as if I'm not picturing athletic rats in little Adidas, using our faces for hurdling races in the middle of the night.

We huddle over the camp stove, eating yet another package of pasta. then fasten the food bag on a broken, rusty hanger swinging from a plank in the ceiling. We climb in and zip the tent fly.

It doesn't take long before the wall critters are drowned out by screaming winds that Dave (before he rolls over and falls asleep) estimates have risen to 40 miles per hour.

I'm wide-eyed. Every time I begin to drop off, the wind raises her voice in shrill, off-key opera. Every time I think she couldn't possibly lean harder on the house, she does. The walls groan and the floor vibrates. The slapping plastic window tarps snap me awake every time I doze.

First it's 2:00 a.m., then 3 a.m., then 4 a.m. By 5:00 a.m., I've decided that, if I do it in an efficient yet gentle manner, I can wake Dave for a few minutes since, in his job as a construction manager, he has special expertise in the questions that are robbing me of my sleep.

"DAVE ARE YOU AWAKE?" I yell over the wind. He sputters and sits up.

"I have a few questions for you and if you answer them, I will let you sleep again," I begin shouting over the high-pitched wind. "Question #1 of 3 total. In your expert opinion, do you know, is it possible in very strong straight-line winds like this for a house to be lifted off its foundation and, in its entirety, blown away?"

He blinks and rubs his eyes. "I don't think so."

"OK. Question #2. Is it possible the roof alone could be ripped off and fly away?"

He sits up, awake now, and thinks for a moment. "This building is solid--it's been here a long time and this region has strong winds all the time. If it was going to happen, it would have happened by now."

This was comforting. "OK, 3rd and final question. Are you having weird dreams?" Ghostly shadow figures had emerged from the floor and walls every time I fell asleep.

"Yeah," he said. "I was dreaming that you and I were in the Outsiders movie in that old church that burned down."

"Ponyboy and Johnny!" I said.

We talked dreams for awhile, then Dave rolled over, and so did I, and sleep visited and stayed for awhile.

Day 8:

I open my eyes to morning light seeping through the cracks in the dusty walls, and it strikes me as pretty. The wall critters must have partied until late, because now they're silent. It's calm out - a brisk breeze blows.

We pack up. I borrow Dave's knife to leave our mark on what I decide, in the red and gold morning light, was my favorite refugio of all:

"Linda Z and Dave G survived a night at the Taj - 1/25/02,"  I carve carefully.  And then we hike out to civilization, hamburgers, and hot showers.

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Another story by Linda--Floating Through Northern Chile

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