Feb 18, 2013

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Visiting Patagonia for the First Time


Visiting Patagonia

I have always been fascinated by frontiers. I’ve spent hours spinning the globe, rubbing my calloused fingertips across the desolate stretches of the earth: Alaska, the Kalahari, Tibet, Siberia, the Sahara, the Australian Outback. Something about these vast, wild expanses of earth captivates me. Yet one place has always intrigued me more than any other place on the planet: Patagonia. The name itself has a transcendent quality that has always mesmerized me. The territory itself so savage, the terrestrial equivalent of a pack of feral wolves. It conjures up images of blinding blizzards, howling winds, and jagged teeth of Andean peaks. For me, visiting Patagonia is the freest feeling in the world.

I peer through the film of water glazed over the window of our shuttle. Scattered guanacos graze the barren plains along the highway. Route 40 follows the Andes for thousands of desolate kilometers, from the salt flats near the Bolivian border all the way to Ushuaia—mankind’s southernmost settlement. We have been driving for three hours and haven’t seen the slightest sign of civilization since we left El Calafate. Just a vast expanse of shrubs, the faded grey asphalt of the earth’s loneliest highway, and the rugged spine of the Andes in the distance.

I catch a whiff of the yerba mate steaming from the gourd that rests in my palm. I take a sip, careful not to move the bombilla and risk tampering the brew. The bitter taste reminds me of the Peruvian altiplano when we drank coca leaf tea with the indigenous people to relieve soroche. Driving to Perito Moreno GlacierBut mate doesn’t leave your mouth numb. And here, few, if any, indigenous people remain. The southern stretches of the Andes were too harsh, too desolate, and too inhospitable to support a thriving indigenous population. No roads connected these parts to the Inca Empire, and if it wasn’t for route 40, Patagonia would remain in complete isolation.

We pass by a lake with a crown-shaped iceberg rising from its crystal blue surface. A cold wind scrapes across the lake and stings the side of the iceberg, causing the resident penguins to huddle together for warmth. The gust sweeps beneath the van, and we sway towards the side of the road. The driver clutches the steering wheel with two hands, and redirects the shuttle.

I wipe the window back and forth with the side of my palm. The clouds have cleared. Mt. Fitzroy rises towards the sky in the distance, its 1,500 foot sheer granite face reigning above the rest of the cordillera. Though small in comparison to the Seven Sisters, Fitzroy is respected as one of the world’s most magnificent mountains. The persistent, treacherous weather and vertical walls make it a daunting ascent for even the most experienced alpine enthusiasts. While thousands of climbers have conquered Mount Everest, only a handful of climbers have successfully summited Patagonia’s most prominent peak.

I feel refreshed visiting Patagonia for the first time. I’m thousands of miles from that nagging Grinch they call society. Thousands of miles from the phonies, their mindless chattering and stifling rules and regulations. Thousands of miles from the mind-wrenching word of engines and perpetual Arrival in El Chalten with Fitz Roy Rangeclamoring of construction. Thousands of miles from the grotesque buildings that rise hideously into the repugnant smog. Finally, I can breathe.

I feel a strange nostalgia. I think back to all the times I spent plucking the melody of the Motorcycle Diaries on my Ronroco in my apartment back home, staring at a poster of this extraordinary geographic convulsion. I think back to the time spent at Whole Earth, staring at this mountain on the back of Patagonia t-shirts. I think back to all the times I dreamed of escaping to this very place. At last, I’m here.