Isla Negra – Journey’s End

“I have seen from my window the fiesta of sunset in the distant mountain tops.” – Pablo Neruda

“On the last long road, when I fall and fail to rise, I’ll bed with flowers.” – Sora

The town of Isla Negra lies on the coast of Chile about 60 miles west of Santiago. It is where Pablo Neruda built his seaside home and wrote some of his great poetry. I have come here for the final five days of my journey hoping to spend enough time to divine out just what vein he tapped to create such uniquely rich poetry. His home lies on a rocky part of the ocean and is fairly humble considering his fame and has been made into a museum. The Chilean people revere their great poets and children are taught about their lives and poetry from an early age. The two great ones for them are Gabriela Mistral (I visited her hometown in January) and Pablo Neruda. Both are Nobel Prize winners, Gabriela being the first Latin American author to win the award (in 1945). It is acknowledged in Chile that both were deeply inspired by the land that surrounded them and I feel fortunate to be here to search this place for the inspiration that Pablo spoke so highly of.

I find a cabin in the woods about a ten minute walk from Pablo’s home and make a deal with the owner for a five day stay and make friends with the dogs and roosters that love to bark and crow all night. This staying in one place for five days is hard for me because I’ve been a wandering vagabond for the past two months but I know I need it, I need time to follow the mental trail of bread crumbs that I left behind to find my way home.

I stand next to Neruda’s writing desk in his study and look out at the dancing, churning waves and think I have it figured out, as much as is possible. He let the Sea tell the story. He let the mountains and rivers and forests and stars and sun and earth and the pulsing, throbbing heart of humanity tell it. He just wrote it down. Like Gabriela Mistral, he was able to put the experiences and feelings of the people of Chile and around the world on paper in a way that made it through the labyrinth of thoughts that we spend the day tending and into hearts and souls. Both poets were humanitarians. Gabriela was dedicated to children’s and women’s rights around the world. Neruda was a poet of the people. At the end of the spanish civil war he arranged to have a ship (the SS Winnipeg) bring 2,000 Spanish refugees from France to Chile. I remind myself as I walk through his home that he is a hero.

I spend the rest of my time in Isla Negra walking and sitting on the beach, looking out to sea with nothing in particular on my mind, feeling kind of lost, kind of shipwrecked. Every so often I try to reel in my odyssey as one big fish and I never succeed in bringing it to the shores of my mind, it gets away from me every time. I’m glad that I don’t catch it, I really do want it to swim free for as long as it can. An occasional glimpse of its shining, colorful beauty, like a rainbow, is enough for me now.

Two thousand miles by bus and two hundred fifty miles on foot. One pair of shoes and three pairs of socks. Two tents. Countless mountains, streams and dreams. Two full moons and billions of stars being led in a silent, cosmic, circular dance around the pole by the Southern Cross. Too many dogs to count trying to follow me out of town, yipping and howling as I blew a sad tune on my harmonica. Dust in the wind. That persistent, honest, sometimes hard blowing Patagonian wind that loved to sneak up under my rain cover and into my tent just to see me wake up shivering in the dark of night and then listen to it howl and whinny and moan as I lay awake after putting on my down jacket and zipping up my sleeping bag as far as it would go. Friends sharing stories of the road and the trail, the highs and lows and in-betweens, loves found and lost and sometimes found again, passion, compassion, walking into pain and away from pain, and the heart, always the big heart. Time on the road will open your heart like a flower opens to the morning sun and the beautiful people that I met along the way nurtured that opening in each other. Hundreds of women, on the road and free, carrying backpacks and living fearlessly. Sisters, moms, daughters so naturally in their power it made me weep for joy…

And now I sit at the airport in Santiago waiting for my flight home. I’m excited, I miss my loved ones. The people that I met on the road are safe in my heart. Sadness and gratitude combine in me and calm me. Most important of all, you were there, on the road and in my heart.

– Dedicated to my Nephew Juan. You are never alone, you are always in my heart.

Leaving Bariloche, and a Journey to the Sea

“A Pilgrim is a wanderer with a purpose.”

– Peace Pilgrim

I stay in Bariloche for an extra day to look for a new pair of shoes. The ones I arrived in Chile wearing are frayed and torn and smell pretty bad. This reminds me of the two Brazilian rock climbers who stayed in the room next to me in Cochamo, gateway to a world renowned rock climbing area on the northern edge of Patagonia. They kept their trekking shoes on the deck outside of their room. I noticed that the shoes were as ragged as they could get. In fact they were headed to Puerto Varas, about a two hour bus ride, to buy new rock climbing shoes. To them their trekking shoes were fine. They were constantly monitoring their cell phones – two fellow climbers were missing on Mount Fitz Roy, several hundred miles to the south. The search effort was stalled by bad weather. Another climber had just died on the same mountain and they were very worried. I gave them the hands together prayer gesture and still pray for their friends. I haven’t found an update yet. I don’t find new shoes and am still wearing my originals, no problem, I’ll just keep on walking, sorry about the smell! The next morning I’m back on Ruta 40 headed north around lake Nahuel Huapi, then west on a remote mountain highway over the Andes and back into Chile. The bus first stops at the Argentine border and all passengers walk to the emigration office and get passports stamped or ID’s checked, then back onto the bus and ride a few miles further up the road to the Chilean immigration checkpoint. It’s a sunny summer morning and so it’s a great opportunity to stretch legs anyway. Chile is very strict about controlling any food or illegal drugs coming into the country. All luggage, including carryons, is unloaded from the bus and put onto platforms and several dogs are brought out and spend about a half hour sniffing both passengers and luggage while we stand to the side and watch. The dogs race back and forth and single out a few backpacks and the uniformed agents call the owners over to their backpacks and have them empty the contents and here is where I find out what’s in those huge things. A mountain of clothes, pots, pans, laptops, cameras, blow driers, stoves, phone chargers, backup batteries, climbing ropes and gear and helmets, sleeping bags and pads, tents, cups, plates, rolls of toilet paper, towels and just about anything else that you could imagine. And all just stuffed in there willy-nilly. I’m obviously fascinated by the backpack thing. Fully loaded there will usually be pots and pans and a metal cup dangling from the pack, clanging and banging together as the owner walks along. It’s actually very cool the way it advertises the personality of the owner.

The search is rewarded when a customs agent pulls a plastic bag with two apples in it from the pile. She has a look of glee on her face, the owner is fined and back onto the bus we climb. One small pink handbag that was sniffed out was not claimed by it’s owner and the driver brings it onto the bus and asks who it belongs to and a woman in her eighties claims it and steps back off of the bus to face customs officials and about fifteen minutes later we are off down the road into Chile. I never did get to find out what contraband she was carrying.

The ride over the Andes is stunning, that’s all I can say. Pristine lakes and rivers and peaks and forests and a quiet highway, I would love to make this drive in a car and be able to really see the land. Maybe someday. Then the long descent into the central valley and the landscape changes to farmland and then I’m stepping off the bus in Osorno, a fairly big city. I hail a taxi and ride across town to another bus station and catch a bus to Bahia Mansa, the town on the coast where I plan to stay for a few days. I’ve heard about a series of bays that lie in territory that belongs to the Huilliche people, original inhabitants of the area, and I want to check it out. I get off the bus at Bahia Mansa but there’s not much there so I walk south along the narrow road above the ocean to the next bay and drop down to the shore and there waiting for me like a long lost friend is Hosteria Miller. I had also heard about this Hostal and was hoping that I would somehow find my way to it and here it was. Legend has it that a couple from Europe purchased it in the sixties before the road existed and guests were flown in by helicopter and it was a real cool place to be. It sits just above the beach and is a big, quaint wooden house. I walk up the driveway and climb the stone steps to the front door and ring the bell and a woman in her twenties answers and she speaks english which is great but no longer necessary for me. She is from France and is a volunteer at the Hostal and sets me up with a small second floor room with a view of the ocean that is so enchanting and dreamy that I can hardly leave it to go exploring.

I learn that I am in the town of Maicolpue. I would call it a village, just a few small homes on a hillside with a grocery store and a couple restaurants next to a plaza on the beach, all sitting on a small bay. Maicolpue and the surrounding region is owned by the Huilliche people but because of my language limitations I never was able to learn the dynamics of that relationship. I spend three days hiking to adjoining bays and taking in the ambiance of Hostal Miller. The lower floor consists of a dining room, living room, small reception desk and kitchen. There are views of the ocean throughout and the wood interior makes me feel like I’m on a wooden ship looking out at the sea. The other guests have traveled here from Bariloche in Argentina, about three hours away by car. Evenings are spent on the deck facing the ocean watching dolphins and sunsets and there are a lot of oohs and ahhs. I spend some time there with other guests but as mentioned the ambience and view from my little upstairs room is so irresistible I’m on the bed watching the earth turn the sun over the edge of the ocean, exclamations of wonder filtering up to me from below. I have never seen the sun set over the ocean as purely and perfectly as it did on my last evening at Hosteria Miller.

I’m having a good time with staff and guests during my three days at Millers. They find it fascinating that my last name is Miller (an uncommon name in Chile) so I immediately have celebrity status. The shared second floor bathroom faucet breaks on my second day there (I didn’t do it!) and they have to turn off the water and with no plumber available will have to send guests away. I know how to fix that thing so I volunteer and take it apart and tell Nicole, the manager that I need a pair of needle nose pliers. She is also French, speaks fluent Spanish and some English but has no idea what I’m talking about. So I look up a translation into Spanish: ‘pinzas de punta de aguja’ and the entire house is laughing hysterically about that! She’s going to go ask neighbors for them and I’m heading out to hike so I show her how to replace the washer and put the faucet back together and I return in a couple hours and she has repaired it and it works great and she is happy and proud and we high five and the Miller name is even more polished in the eyes of Hosteria staff!

Leaving is tough but I’m headed home in a week and have to move on. It rained the night before and the morning is bright and the beach and road that runs along it and the forest that falls to it are glittering in the sunshine as I walk the road to where the bus stops. I wait an hour for the bus, listening to the waves talk to the shore, collecting my thoughts from the eddies and bays of my mind, putting this place away where I can get to the memory easily, on another day.

Bariloche, Argentina

San Carlos de Bariloche – February 23-25, 2019

I had two reasons for wanting to be in Bariloche. It was a convenient end point for a trip on Ruta 40 in Argentina, and I planned on taking ferries and a through-the-Andes walk back into Chile from there. After talking to a local guide this second reason turned out to be not so practical. As much as I wanted to take this route back into Chile I realized that I would have to save it for another time. The guide suggested a bus route that would take me further north on Ruta 40, then west through the Andes into Chile and on to Osorno, where I planned to catch a minibus to the coast. This meant that I would have to give up the last trek of my journey but fate is fate and I didn’t feel up to pushing this one. It involved a twenty mile walk through the Andes and two back country border crossings.

  • Bariloche is a small city and a popular tourist destination. It sits on the south shore of lake Nahuel Huapi and there are views of mountain peaks from everywhere in town. On my first full day I take a bus to a hike known as ‘Circuito Chico’ and walk a ten mile loop On a narrow paved road through meadows and forests and beside lakes and beneath immense mountains. I hadn’t planned this hike as such, I actually got off of the bus in the wrong place but ended up being very glad I did. I was going to walk a mile or two but after realizing just how scenic it was and becoming totally embraced by the sunny, warm summer morning I decided to go for it. I know that you must be wondering, and so do I; how I keep ending up in these places? It’s important to me to pause my story here and talk about this just a little. My inspiration comes from friends and family, living or not, who for various reasons cannot or could not just step out their door and go trekking into the places they wanted to. As a hospice volunteer I spoke with many who expressed regret for not pursuing dreams and heading out their door into the wild blue yonder. They were brave enough to speak their truth but with no choices left to make. Every step I take is done with the inspiration given to me by those I have known along the way. I remember that whenever I’m tired and lonely and my knees or hips or back aches and I want to turn around and go home. So inspiration is my motivation and it’s a powerful thing. I just keep reminding myself to keep my emotional load as light as possible, just like my backpack. I’ve torn chunks of my travel guidebook out and left them behind after leaving a place. I don’t carry books to read, I’ve been busy reading my own mind. Anything that is going to weigh me down that is not essential to my journey is given away. I’m learning this to be important when it comes to emotional baggage. It’s easier to float without a bunch of stones in my backpack and beauty is easier to recognize when it appears before me. One of my biggest inspirations is a poem by Gianna Altano, whom I never met. She had cystic fibrosis and passed away a day after her 23rd birthday. I somehow came across this piece of her poem while walking on a beach in Santa Cruz:
  • Hear the waves crashing in. See the beauty that surrounds you. Look where we live. Enjoy every moment, and try to understand what a miracle this all is.

– Gianna Altano

And so I walk on through the miracle, knowing that it could change at anytime. Getting off the bus at the wrong stop. Sometimes I’m not sure where the bus is going when I get on. Just lucky right now, I guess…

It’s a long ten miles and I stop often to rest or fill my water bottle from an ice cold stream. I’m tempted to stick out my thumb and hitchhike a few times but am hooked on the charm of the constantly changing landscape and finally make it to the bus stop at the end of the loop and am lucky to get a seat on the bus. By the time I arrive in Bariloche the bus is packed. You would be amazed at how many people you can get on a bus in Chile! I stumble off (at the correct stop this time) and head to my room and call it a day.

February 20, 2019 – Cochrane, Chile Chico and into Argentina.

“You should always keep something beautiful in your mind.” – Pascal.

I’m staying at Residencial Cero a Cero in Cochrane again. I slept here on my way to Patagonia National Park and promised myself not to return after an icy cold shower on my way out last Sunday but the Hostals in town are full so here I am. A small room with a shared bathroom cost about $20 so I’m not going to complain. This is an option that I’ve used often when not camping. All the towns and small cities that I’ve traveled through have these homes (and also backyard camping options for $8) that have converted or added a few bedrooms and bathroom. It’s a really affordable way to travel and I’ve been immersed into home life each time in an intimate way. The ones that I’ve chosen have been run by women and if there is a man in the house he does the cleaning and serves breakfast, which is usually included. This morning Roberto is serving breakfast. He’s about 70 and was very stern during my last stay but he’s whistling this morning and that’s my crack in the door so when he stops I start and he immediately recognizes a damm good fellow whistler and the ice is broken and the next thing you know I’m singing to him (and a couple from Switzerland who are also having breakfast) and whaddya know, he’s smiling! I have done this often on my journey, this breaking out in song, Chileans seem to enjoy it. They listen to a lot of sixties and seventies rock and roll in english so they recognize most of the songs that I know. I’ll be walking down the road on a sunny summer morning and pass a group of hitchhikers and loudly and passionately bust out a few lines from the Eagles ‘Ventura Highway’ and it is smiles all around and they finish the song with me. Weird is good, I do not hold back, what’s the worst that could happen? Deported from Chile for singing in public? The breakfast is great, Roberto and I are buddies and the shower is hot this time! Woohoo!

I have an early morning bus to Chile Chico so I’m laying over in Cochrane for a second night. There is a cold west wind blowing here and fortunately it’s a sunny day. This (and a slight time constraint) is why I’m turning back north here. The Antarctic generated wind is constant and chilly south of here. I hope to save that gorgeous geography for another day. I head to a cozy cafe on a corner across the street from the plaza to have a rare, real cup of coffee and do some writing. I’m sitting and enjoying a nice caffeine buzz when in the door walks Ullrich. He looks like a wizard and has the presence and wisdom to back it up. As mentioned in a previous post we are about the same age and are both greatful to connect. Most travelers on the Austral are less than half our age. We talk about our travels and he tells me that he’s given up his possessions (he’s originally from Germany) and traveled the world, walked over a thousand miles and is headed to the southernmost point in South America then back north up the east coast of Argentina to Buenos Aires. We talk about wisdom and ego and fear and love and joy and trust and relationship and trade contact info and part ways for the fourth time. What a strange, synchronous sequence of occurrences, crossing paths like we have!

I spend the afternoon walking along the Cochrane river and thinking about my journey. I’m headed back north and it’s hard to say goodbye to this wild and mysterious place, Patagonia. A quiet night at Hostal Cero a Cero and I’m out the door headed to the bus station at 7 am, too early for breakfast and singing to Roberto. Once again I leave with sadtitude, roosters crowing, the wind at my back and a warm orange glow on the eastern horizon, this big old world turning slowly into another day.

The road to Chile Chico follows the rugged south shore of Lake General Carrera. It is a narrow gravel road that rivals the best roller coaster runs in the States. The views are amazing but a flat tire and it could be lights out. I make it to Chile Chico after four hours of this, feeling just a little carsick. How would you like to ride a roller coaster for four hours?

Chile Chico is about five miles from the Argentine border and another super windy town. I’ll need to stay overnight and catch a bus into Argentina in the morning so I head to the Hostal recommended by the Lonely Planet Guide but it’s full and the owner refers me to one just around the corner. Hospedaje La Casona looks kind of run down but I ring the bell anyway and a woman answers the door and invites me into a dining room where there are six women, probably in their seventies, sitting around a table playing cards. The inside of the house is much nicer than the outside, quaint with a lot of nicnacs everywhere. There is a wood cook stove in the kitchen just next to the dining room and I smell bread baking and it’s warm and cozy. The owner, Rosa Ulloa Cardenas, introduces herself. She speaks only spanish and somehow, as usual I’m able to stumble my way through enough conversation to get a tiny room at the back of the house. It’s drafty and cold with no heater and she is smiling and waving her arms and even though I don’t understand a word I’m sure that she is telling me it’s the finest room in town! Of course I take it. At 4am there’s a rooster crowing right outside my window, revenge of the chickens, eh? Rosa has breakfast waiting for me in the morning. Her cook stove is warm and there is that kitchen wood smoke smell in the air. She is very sweet. She ambles around her kitchen and watches the morning news while I eat breakfast. I rise to put on my backpack and clasp my hands in a gesture of prayer and thanks and bow to her. She smiles and points to her right ankle (I noticed that she had been limping) and I know that she is asking me to keep her in my prayers and I tell her I will, in english but I know she understands. Out into the cold west winds of Patagonia I step, with tears of gratitude in my eyes. I don’t feel the cold, Rosas blessing is glowing warm in my heart. How strange; when I stepped off the bus into this seemingly cold, desolate town i just wanted to move on, but with an open heart even the tiniest moment became magic for me. I stop to take a picture of Rosas humble home, turn the corner and walk down the street to the bus station and head into Argentina.

Patagonia National Park

“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing views. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey

It’s Sunday, February 17, 2019 and I’m standing on the edge of the Carretera Austral, the north-south road that winds its way through Patagonia from Puerto Montt, about 400 miles to the north, to Villa O’ Higgins, 140 miles to the south. I’m at the entrance to Patagonia National Park and I can see the Austral curve and dip and rise through mountains and valleys far into the distance. The van that just dropped me here is a tiny dot heading northward and when it disappears around the last bend there is complete silence surrounding me. It’s a sunny morning with clouds floating slowly by like giant white hot air balloons. It’s a special day for me, my sister Judy’s birthday. She passed away in 1989 at the age of 36. Normally my sisters and I would be texting each other all day but I’m far from any cell reception and will be for a few days, so I’m on my own with my thoughts, prayers and grief today. There is a blessing in this timing though. The silence and beauty that surrounds me lends me an open heart and a chance to feel what I feel in a rare and soulful way.

The land around me is mountainous and looks arid, not many trees at all. There are snow capped peaks around the entire horizon. I’ve read that this part of the park is in the rain shadow of the western range of the Andes. The terrain is grassy and open and starkly stunning with the constant backdrop of jagged, wild high peaks. It was ranch land and heavily over grazed before being purchased by Conservation Patagonia (with major involvement from Kris and Doug Tompkins and Patagonia Inc. I need to make a correction here: Doug and Susie Tompkins, his wife at the time, founded Espirit, not North Face) and they removed all the fences and began the task of restoring the land to its native state. It was just recently turned over to The Chilean government and made a national park and I’m feeling lucky to be here in its early years. I soon learn that the thousands of acres that surround me have been set aside and are being restored as an Eden, a sort of Ark, a place where this part of the natural world might survive intact regardless of what we do to the rest of the planet.

It’s about a nine miles to the visitors center and campground and I’ve decided to walk it. The day is gorgeous and the views unearthly, so I throw on my pack (more like wrestle it on, I have several days food with me) and start my trek up the gravel road into the park. Soon I’m passing herds of Guanacos (closely related to the llama). They look at me with curiosity as I pass. If only they knew that I’m the curious one! For a while it is so utterly silent that I feel as if my head is wrapped in a heavy layer of gauze, then a few cars roll by and I wave as they pass. Besides that being my usual thing I want them to know that I’m not trying to hitch a ride. Two backpackers appear on the road ahead of me, walking out of the park. We smile and say hi as we pass. The silence continues. I am the man with no name, Hombre sin Nombre. Andean Condors fly overhead. A breeze whispers secrets known only to this vast, wild land in my ear, secrets that you have to be here to understand. I’m overcome with gratitude, because this is the moment that I’ve traveled so far to experience, and on my sisters birthday! You know what I mean, it’s that ‘moment of clarity’ that most of us have only a few times in a lifetime. Fortunately this moment is allowed to hang in time as I walk the long quiet road. After about four miles a truck passes by and pulls over and the driver offers me a ride. I’ve been walking slow, mesmerized by landscape and decide that I better get a move on and accept the offer. I’m at the visitor center in a few minutes getting directions to the campground and then walk the last mile and a half to a meadow that has several tents spread around it and I check the wind direction and put up my tent and lay on the grass and stare up at the blue sky with those big billowy clouds waltzing by and let gratitude wash over me like a river.

I spend three days wandering just a small part of this enormous park. I’ve seen too many guanacos to count, Andean condors, a very friendly Pygmy owl, a freaked out armadillo, dragonflies that happen to live the furthest south of any of their kind, butterflies, bees, hawks and foxes. One fox was hunting a rabbit when I came upon it. It was amongst a herd of guanacos and they were pestering it and I could see it’s look of irritation at them as it tried to catch its breakfast. I barely got a photo, startling the fox, guanacos and rabbit with my laughter. I don’t think the fox caught the rabbit. I watched a full moon rise over the Andes, together with other campers, transfixed by its golden radiance. It seemed as if it was only ten feet from me and I could reach out and touch it…

And then it is time to say goodbye. It’s mid afternoon and I’m looking over my shoulder with Sadtitude (sadness and gratitude, if you are a late-comer) as I walk past the visitors center to the gravel road that leads out of the park. I set my backpack down next to me and stick out my thumb and the first car to drive by pulls over. It’s the couple from Britain that I met on the Cerro Castillo trail, being guided by Diego. We talk all the way back to Cochrane and hug goodbyes and I walk into town, looking for a soft bed and hopefully a warm shower. I break out my harmonica and start to play a tune as I walk and I notice that it makes the dogs howl and the roosters crow. It’s been a good day, indeed.

Villa Cerro Castillo to Cochrane – February 14 to 20.

“You only live twice, or so it seems, one life for yourself, and one for your dreams.” -Leslie Bricusse

After two nights resting in Villa Cerro Castillo I’m ready to head south on the Carretera Austral. You never know how far you’ll get, it depends on what bus pulls up that day and if there’s room in it and where you are in the line of locals and backpackers. There are about ten of us waiting on this sunny morning and it doesn’t look good. Also in the distance on the side of the road are small groups that are hitchhiking and will rush to the bus when it pulls up. Sounds bad but I swear, everyone seems to get where they need to go, at some point. The key is not to stress about it. Most travelers that I’ve spoken with, and also myself, just roll with it. Your home is on your back for goodness sakes. You can have tea for four made in ten minutes anywhere you are. So the first bus that rolls by is full and I walk up the road to a bus that’s been converted to a cafe with Elise, who I met on the Cerro Castillo trail a few days before, and have a coffee. She is about 30, from Tahoe and is traveling solo. She has just come off the trail after being out there for five days. It turns out she spent summers working with children at Camp Harmon in Boulder Creek, a mile from where I spent my summers from day one. It really is such a small world. Most of the women that I’ve seen or met who are traveling solo are my daughters age or younger, many in their twenties, on summer break from university. Those from other countries, mainly Europe and the States, are traveling during their winter and are on the road for varying reasons. Having grown up with four sisters and being blessed with two incredibly strong and free daughters in a country where they wouldn’t think of hitchhiking five feet gives me a deep appreciation for these women who are on the road like this. In my heart I adopt them all as daughters. Most who know me are aware that I like to ask a lot of questions and I will make a point of exploring this in the future: where are the women (and men) between ages 35 – 70 on this road? There are many obvious but not painless answers. I guess I ask because the answer to the question is a seed that may sprout within some of us and help make a better world out there for us all, mothers, daughters, fathers and sons.

A bus pulls up next to the cafe instead of at the stop we had just left and Elise and I quickly chuck our backpacks into the luggage compartment and hop on and are on our way to Puerto Tranquilo. This is about 110 miles down the Austral, only half way to Cochrane (where I’m headed) but it’s forward progress, right? The road is gravel to its end far to the south in Villa O’ Higgins and it’s a bumpy and dusty but scenic ride along river valleys and Elise and I share travel stories and I’m telling her about the bicycling French family and voila, the bus passes them; parents and two daughters on two tandem bikes and the oldest daughter (eight years young) on her own bike, pedaling hard in the dust as we pass. I’m thinking they must be from another planet! Amazing. And they just finished the four day Cerro Castillo hike. Very surreal. Bless them.

Tranquilo is on the northern end of Lake General Carrera, the largest lake in Chile. Its a tiny town where you can catch a boat to marble caves on the lake and also access San Rafael glacier. The lake is famous for the immense and dangerous Antarctic winds that roar in with no warning and it is blustering and threatening when I step off the bus. This stalls all boating activities and thus I find the few small restaurants and such packed with people, with an atmosphere that Ullrich later describes as ‘frontier gold rush town’. Elise speaks fluent spanish and helps interpret traveling instructions for me before we say goodbyes. She is traveling south to meet family near mount Fitz Roy. I find a place to stay and locate a seat in a crowded restaurant and eat an entire pizza (I’m still recovering from the hike and eating like a wolf) and call it a day.

I’m waiting for the bus in Tranquilo. It’s a sunny but windy Saturday morning. Remember that the road in and out of town is washboard gravel for a hundred miles in each direction and you can become stranded here for days waiting for a seat on a bus or a ride out. Doesn’t sound like much fun if you don’t embrace this as part of the journey, it’s not like you are in a busy downtown bus station, you are in Patagonia with no real destination anyway. A small bus pulls up and I manage to get a seat after tossing my backpack to the driver who is standing on top of the bus storing packs and suitcases. He’s wearing the traditional black beret and runs his bus with a military but funny flair. We’re ready to hit the road and he asks for tickets and I don’t have one (ha ha funny me, didn’t know I could get one) and he shakes his head and boots me off and has to climb to the top of the bus and dig out my pack and he’s both grumbling and laughing and one lucky person gets a seat! I’m sitting and waiting for the next bus (I confirm no ticket required) and up walks Andy, heading in the same direction. He’s been hitchhiking for three hours with no ride. He introduces me to Alan from Santiago. He’s about 25 and a medical student on summer break. He speaks good english and we have a great conversation while sitting on the sidewalk waiting for a bus, which eventually shows up and this time I’m on board and enjoy a three hour ride south to Cochrane. It’s late afternoon when I arrive and a cold Patagonian wind is blowing out of the west. Andy and Alan go their separate ways and I stand against a wall deciding whether to camp or find a hostal. Chochrane seems like a ghost town, or maybe it’s just me, or maybe it’s the window covers on steel hinges next to me, squeeking open and closed in the cold wind, sounding like a saxophone playing a short and melancholy tune over and over…

It’s Saturday evening and I learn that there are no busses leaving town on Sunday. I’m at the southern end of my journey and plan to go north about twenty miles to Patagonia National Park and camp for a few days. I find a hostal, get a good nights sleep, pack my pack and walk to the edge of town on a quiet, cold but sunny Sunday morning, escorted by the ever present and curious dogs and a chorus of crowing roosters. The fickle thumb of fate is in my favor and a van with a couple from France pulls over immediately and in a half hour I’m standing in the sunshine on the edge of the Carretera Austral at the entrance to Patagonia National Park, not a soul in sight, surrounded by endless beauty.

February 12 & 13, 2019 – Days 3 and 4 on the Cerro Castillo Trail

“I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth.” – Steve McQueen.

I am awakened on day 3 by the warmth of the rising sun caressing my tent. It was a cold night and I’m in no hurry so I lay in my tent and listen to waterfalls roar in the distance and the occasional thunderous crack of a glacier somewhere above me. I hear Andy breaking camp and poke my head outside my tent and he is ready to take off up the trail and we arrange to meet further on or at the next camp. It will be a ten mile day so I eat a healthy breakfast of oatmeal with nuts and apple and have my all important cup of coffee and break camp and hit the trail. It’s a warm, calm, sunny morning, perfect for hiking. I start out across Cerro Castillo creek and the trail ascends rocky open hillside, with Cerro Castillo lake dropping below me, glittering like liquid turquoise in the morning sunlight. I’m climbing to Station Six, the highest point in the trek. We were cautioned about the notoriously high winds at this point and along the steep, rocky descent on the other side, which can exceed 100 miles per hour. There are six rangers roaming the park and when winds pick up they send hikers out of the park on an emergency route down mountain. I delayed my hike for two days and sat in camp in Villa Cerro Castillo looking up at clouds and rain swirl and corkscrew and rage like a wild river over this very ridge, and now I cross it in the perfect stillness of a warm summer morning. Then down and down the long steep rocky slippery mountain side to the valley bottom, looking impossibly far below me. I arrive at campground Porteadores hot and exhausted. I take a bath in the ice cold stream next to the camp and start the last part of the hike up the valley to campground Neozelandes, where Andy should be by now. I’m really beat and almost turn around several times but focus on the beauty of the wild forest that surrounds me and make it to camp in late afternoon and there is Andy resting in his tent and Ullrich has set up next to him and he’s napping and I put up my tent and collapse into a wonderful siesta. Evening finds me just above camp walking in a large, verdant meadow with a glacier above me, pouring icy water into a stream that seems in quite a hurry to visit his sister, the Pacific Ocean. The plants that grow in the meadow are so unique! I tiptoe around its perimeter, careful not to disturb the green residents of this Eden, taking pictures and honestly, just totally tripping out on the miniature jungle that I find myself a part of. Then back to camp. I’ve decided I’m too sore to make the morning hike to lake Duff with Andy and Ullrich. It’s about 2 miles up mountain and I think I have just enough mojo left to make the hike out tomorrow. As it has always gone on this journey, I change that plan after talking to Andy and Ullrich. They have helped me dig deep and understand the wisdom in making the lake hike after coming this far. A quick dinner and I’m in my tent falling into a deep sleep. It’s still light out (sunset is at 9:30, darkness at 10:30) but most in this campground have turned in, understanding the importance of regeneration that a good nights sleep provides. In other words, we are all exhausted! Next morning Andy, Ullrich and I are on the trail to lake Duff, about a two mile climb up valley and across talus through alpine terrain. The lake is a turquoise jewel set in a rock bowl and is fed by two glaciers. It’s a cool, crystal clear morning and three trekkers have just come out of the lake and Andy and Ullrich and I have been joking about their aversion to cold water baths but I can tell Andy is on the fence so I strip down to my shorts and jump right in and what a rush it feels fantastic! So I come out of the lake and the fair skinned Scotsman from Glasgow strips down and jumps in! Whaddya know! We enjoy the Andes-Mountain-High for awhile, I call out my best yodel and we listen to it circle around the bowl back to us and head back to and pack up camp and it’s down the long, long trail to Villa Cerro Castillo. I stop at the stream at campground Porteadores to water up and meet Diego (from Villa Cerro Castillo) and a couple from England that he is guiding through the park. We greet with the traditional Chilean hug, it’s great to see him, and he hands me a crystal that he has dug from the mountain above us, a piece of Cerro Castillo to take home. We say goodbye and then it’s the long walk to Villa Cerro Castillo. Andy and I have a congratulatory beer in town and I find a small cabin next to a herd of horses (no significance but it sounds nice!) on the edge of town and get my trail weary self into a shower but you know, it doesn’t even compare to that jump into the lake, and I dive onto a bed for the first time in five nights and swoon into a deep, wonderful sleep.