February 10, 2019 – On the Cerro Castillo Trail

“Year end reveling… still in pilgrim’s cape must I roam my endless road.” – Basho

It’s noon and I just caught the bus going north out of Villa Cerro Castillo, lucky that it wasn’t full. As I climb aboard a group of hitchhikers run towards it, carrying enormous backpacks. A few fortunate ones get seats and by some very strange twist of fate there is an empty seat beside me in an otherwise crammed bus. I’m headed to the starting point of the 36 mile trail through Cerro Castillo National Park, only about 12 miles from town on the Carretera Austral. The bus stops about 3 miles north of town to pick up a hitchhiker who has waved it down (it’s that easy). The driver piles his huge backpack onto the existing mound at the front of the bus and I stand next to my aisle seat to let the guy know there is a seat next to me. He makes his way back and I feel sorry for him because he’s kind of tall and the seat can really only fit a sardine but he squeezes in. He’s fair complected with short red hair and beard and doesn’t look Chilean but you never know and I ask him in english where he’s headed and he is also on his way to the trailhead. The twist of fate begins here, as we soon become best friends. He’s 34, from Glasgow, Scotland and has that strong brogue that you can’t mistake as anything but Scottish. The driver pulls over where the trail meets the highway and we unload our packs and the bus continues on, leaving us standing on the side of the road at the Las Horquetas trailhead, looking into a long meadowed valley with steep mountains on each side and a clear stream babbling it’s way through it and a series of glacier clad crags at the far end. Andy and I introduce ourselves to one another and instantly decide to hike the trail together and so set forth into a warm summer day along a trail that winds its way through meadow and forest and across streams towards the distant peaks. The first campsite is ten miles away and we talk almost continuously, stopping occasionally for a water break or to take a photo or admire the jaw-dropping reality that encircles us. The way up the valley is fairly easy going and we make the first camp by 4pm and set up tents amongst the few others that are there. At about this time a tall, blonde haired, bearded character enters camp coming from the opposite direction, which is unusual because it is common knowledge that making the ‘loop’ hike (I’ll explain the loop later) in the clockwise direction is very difficult. Anyway, we introduce ourselves to Rayne from Estonia. He, like Andy, is a world traveler and speaks English with a unique Estonian, Russian sounding accent. We break out our food and share a dinner and dessert and Andy and I listen intently as Rayne gives us details about what the trail is like ahead and then he tells us about his travels and Andy talks about his and I mostly listen because the conversation takes me to India, Nepal, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Portugal, Morocco and several other fascinating places. Rayne is a unique gent, about 35, 6′-6″, healthy, sure about where he wants to be, and just a real character. After dinner we walk through the forest to the edge of a large meadow and let the sight of sunset on the high peaks silence us for a while and then make our way back to camp and call it a day.

Day 2 on the Cerro Castillo Trail.

I awaken from a dream filled slumber to the sound of cooking pans rattling about and golden sunlight grazing across the top of my tent. Hikers are preparing breakfast on their tiny camp stoves (we all carry one) and chatting quietly. I make a cup of instant coffee and cook up a pot of muesli with raisins and nuts and eat and break camp and Andy and I give Rayne fare thee well hugs and we are off onto the trail again. I’m touched by the bonds that are created in such a short time. The traveler has a way of knowing when she or he has met a kindred soul, right? The path quickly breaks out of the forest and onto a wide dry riverbed of sand and stone and the morning light surrounds us and warms us (it was a cold night) and we walk in it and on it for about a mile, next to a glacier fed river that gladly refills our water bottles. (Side note: I have a great water filter with me but haven’t used it yet. All my water has come from streams flowing down flanks of volcanoes or from glaciers). We enter a forest and begin a slow ascent up the valley that we’ve been in since day 1, then leave the forest as the valley takes on a ‘V’ bottom and becomes the base of two rock slopes. Near the top, in a saddle between two high peaks, we cross hard packed snow and are then up and over the crest and descend past the snow towards another valley. Time to stop next to a stream that pours out of a glacier that is directly above us and have lunch. It’s noon and skies are deep blue and it’s about 70 degrees out and there is an enormous hanging glacier to our right that is spewing out waterfalls that are plunging down a wide, steep rock face and we can see our trail threading out about five miles ahead of us. We begin a steep descent on a rocky, gravelly, slippery slope that takes about an hour, then onto another wide, rocky, sandy river bottom that is flanked on both sides by steep glacier clad mountains, then up another forested valley which eventually reaches a wide sloped meadow near the crest of the valley. This is La Tetera campground and it is already almost full. The first person that I see is Ullrich, the man that mentioned this trek to me when we met in Coyhaique. We are happy to see each other. He and I are the same age and people our age are kind of rare on the trail in these parts. Besides that minor detail I will come to learn that he is an amazing person! He explains to Andy and I that there is a volunteer group camping here tonight and so we hike about five minutes further up trail and find an isolated spot on the crest of the trail with the most incredible views in the entire camping area. It’s been another rigorous nine mile day and we pitch tents and make dinner and take a five minute walk further up trail to lake Cerro Castillo and try to comprehend the immense beauty that keeps opening like a flower before us. The sound of water roaring from several glaciers in the peaks that tower above almost drowns out the words that we can barely speak to describe the scene. Then it’s off to our tents to rest exhausted bodies, prepare for another day. I step out of my tent in the middle of the night to a sky filled with stars, shimmering like sparks from a fire. I stand and watch the southern cross turn in the heavens for a while, then return to my dreams…

To be continued….

February 9, 2019 – Heart

I forgot to mention the word Heart in my last post. I’ll start with the hearts of those three little French girls, riding bikes with their parents from Peru to the southern most tip of South America, hearts beating preciously in their chests, and extend that thought to every child on this planet. Every one is precious, and please let’s do everything we can to protect those little hearts. You parents know what I mean, you practice this every day. Find a way to love all children, every day. No action that hurts a single child is justifiable. Speak up for them, defend them. You will love yourself for this.

Next, the hearts of all of the ‘young’ people on the road here in Chile. You would be amazed! Huge backpacks and big time joy to go with it. Freedom like I’ve never seen it, hitch hiking on the side of the road for hours and if that doesn’t work, flagging a bus. The driver steps out, opens the cargo hold and loads the backpacks in and off down the road they go, to the next camping spot or Hostal. It’s a summertime exodus of huge proportions. Girls traveling in groups or alone without fear. Here’s to those free hearts, and to helping all people that age find their bliss.

Last, the people of Chile, for somehow making this all work out, for having at least ten national parks nearly end to end that you can visit as you can, for setting huge pieces of land aside to make this a reality. That takes real heart, friends; to avoid logging it, mining it, drilling it, stripping it, making it possible for everyone to benefit. And they have figured out that their children are happier, they are happier, and oh, the economy is healthier. Here’s to the heart of the People of Chile.

“Speak the truth in Love relentlessly.” –Gandhi

February 9, 2019 – Dust in the Wind

Saturday morning, Villa Cerro Castillo. Park service is warning hikers to delay entry into the park for a day because of high winds so I’m hanging out at my new favorite cafe, converted from two busses in a really cool way. It’s sunny here but super windy, and there is dust in this wind, kind of reminds me of crossing highway 50 in Nevada in a windstorm that could sandblast the paint off your car. Had to change a flat tire in it once, a thing you never forget. That wind was blowing when I got here yesterday, intimidating at first but after waking in the middle of the night covered in dust I’m used to it. It blows up under the tents rain fly and in through the screens, like wind blowing up a skirt. Welcome to Patagonia. Weather is supposed to get much better for five days starting tomorrow so I’ll begin the hike then. Right now I’m looking at rain in the high peaks where I’m headed so I’m happy to be here at this cafe. I’ll shake the dust out of my tent later today. The view of the peaks (Cerro Castillo, named such because they look like a big dark castle) from my tent is astounding, I’m super blessed. I went down to the Hostal cabin this morning and mentioned the dust to the gauchos. Once we got the word translated we all sang the song ‘Dust in the Wind’ together. They love that song. They were headed outside to rig up horses for a trail ride that they outfit for tourists. I showed them my bears tooth necklace and described life with bears, they were fascinated. They speak pretty good English, I think because they work with tourists.

I watch backpackers from the cafe window, getting off a bus and looking around in the gusting wind and wondering, like I did yesterday, “what and where in the name of middle of nowhere hells backyard planet did I just land on?” But you get used to it and the raw beauty of the place once you get over the shock of wondering if there is even a bus out of here.

May the Wind always be at your back, and the sunshine on your path, friends.

—Hombre sin Nombre

February 8, 2019 – Villa Cerro Castillo

I’m writing this from Villa Cerro Castillo, a tiny town in Southern Patagonia. It’s been a long winding ride along the Carretera Austral since my last post. I’ve left the jungle and am in the wild, windy, raw mountainous south. I’m halfway through my journey, time-wise, and appropriately have mostly forgot the day of the week, so much so that the women selling bus tickets at the station shake their heads at me when I try to buy a ticket for a ride ‘yesterday’. I have a new tent and am camped on a hillside with a great view, just above Villa Cerro Castillo. The town is known for the basalt spires that tower above it, glaciers and all. It’s on my way south so I decided to stop and check it out, a bold move when you step off the bus and discover you are on the steep side of nowhere, not sure if or when the next bus passes through. But just when I begin to question my judgement I meet a family from France (camping next to me): Mom, Dad and three daughters aged 4, 6 and 8. They have ridden bicycles here from Lima, Peru, nine months so far. The little ones on tandem bikes with mom and dad, of course. This is an unbelievable thing, friends. These roads can make mountain goats shiver in fear. There is a 4 day back country hike through Cerro Castillo National park that they start tomorrow (look it up, incredible) and this inspired me to do same, so off I go tomorrow. The girls did try to steal my harmonica and I was tempted to give it to them but I’m too attached. I will guard it carefully on the trail. I’ve skipped a few days, hiking to waterfalls and through wild forests.

I’ve nicknamed myself: Hombre sin Nombre – Man with no Name. I’m anonymous here, the only American for miles and miles.

Love peace and happiness, I’ll check in on the other end of the trail!

Cell service must be going through a teeny tiny wire, I’ll send photos soon.

February 4, 2019

Sometimes you have to go north to go south. The bus was full that goes south from Villa Santa Lucia, where the Futeleufu road meets the Carretera Austral, so a few friends that I had camped with up in Futeleufu and I took the bus north to Chaiten. The only option was to overnight in Chaiten and catch an afternoon bus the next day, which was fine with me because that hour and a half bus ride is the most scenic you could imagine. The Austral passes by Corcovado National park, which from the bus looks like Yosemite on steroids. I missed this on the way south, it was obscured in a blanket of mist. I overheard rumors of rumors (an english speaking couple on the bus) about hidden lakes and hanging glaciers and forest and mountain never trodden by humans, and confirmed this with Dante at the information center here in Chaiten today. The park is another gift from Douglas and Kristine Tompkins and other philanthropists and the Chilean government. There are no roads or trails, big rivers to cross, virtually untouched, but calling so compellingly to me, looking in from the outside. I’ll try to get a picture from the bus later today.

I promised in an earlier post to talk about people I’ve met on the road, I’m working on that one.

There’s something mysterious about boats sitting on the shore waiting for high tide…

Have a beautiful day, thanks for reading!

February 3, 2019

10am Sunday morning and I’m sitting at The Mandala cafe in Futeleufu, partaking in a cappuccino before climbing on a bus and heading back down the valley to the Carretera Austral, then south to La Junta. I spent four nights camping here, next to the river, listening to it roar all night. Sometimes I would wake up thinking it was a gale blowing in the trees, then remember where I was. My air mattress sprung a leak and I slept on ground, waking often to toss or turn. This is not the village to find anything related to camping so no pad but I’m getting used to it. I’ll have to find a new pad and tent in Coyhaique, about three or for days down the road. Mother Nature is not kind to the unprepared around here, there are Antarctic influenced weather patterns that rear up in minutes. I spent my first day in Futeleufu walking into a river of wind flowing in through the pass from Argentina, an east wind that I had to lean into to move forward. I was looking for the Chico river but turned around, willing to wait for a better day. This while surrounded by high, jagged peaked, snow capped mountains with waterfalls spouting out of glaciers as if from giant whales. The weather did turn and I had three days of 85 degrees and hiked to the Argentine border and found the Chico river and much more and spent a lot of time sitting in or by the Espolon river just contemplating what the heck this odd life is about. Sometimes if I stop to think about it I feel like I’m living out a pre-prepared script. Weird eh?

So now I’m headed out, another goodbye, kinda sadditude because I don’t know if I’ll ever see this amazing place again.

February 1, 2019

It’s 9am and I’m standing in the brilliant sunshine on the shore of the Espolon river. I’ve been staring at the tan sandy cliff across the river from me for 45 minutes. The sun has just risen behind me and has lit up the face of the 150 foot cliff like a giant movie screen and the longer I watch and listen the more I see and hear. A falcon swoops to the water line and takes a drink, then flutters twenty feet back up the vertical face and lands next to a shrub and a slight movement and there is another one sitting next to it. The birds color matches the sandy cliff face so well that it is invisible if time is not slowed down enough to make it appear. Then I see a hole about halfway up the face and out flies a swallow, then two more, and they skim the cliffs face in flight in what must be pure joy. Then two sheep appear on the cliffs edge then disappear like white ghosts. I hear at least ten different bird calls. There is something hypnotic about this scene, the sound of the river running, it’s like one of those 3D paintings that jump out at you after staring at it the right way, only this one is real and it fills all my senses.

I’ve been camped on the Espolon river for two days now, just outside of the town of Futeleufu, in a tranquil campground that is owned and run by Arturo and Monica. He calls it Camelot and we laugh when I tell him that’s perfect because my name is Lance! Futeleufu is in a valley that is surrounded by the Andes, about five miles from Argentina. It’s incredibly beautiful here. I travelled sixty miles up a gravel road by bus to get here. Besides being a crossing point into Argentina it has world famous class 5 rapids on the Futeleufu river, just outside of town. They won’t let you near a raft or kayak at the point of access if you can’t show papers proving that you are rated for it. Dang, must be a heck of an adrenaline rush. I may try to catch a ride on a calmer part of the river.

I want to fill in the gap between here and Chaiten (I was out of cell range for a few days). I traveled twenty miles by bus beneath hanging glaciers and giant mountains on the Carretera Austral to the tiny town of Amarillo, the southern entry point to Pumalin National Park. The park is huge and was created with funding from Douglas and Kristine Tompkins, founders of the North Face company. They fell in love with Patagonia and helped create enormous parks and protected areas. Doug died of hypothermia while kayaking with friends on lake General Carrera, south of here, in 2015. It’s a four mile hike into the park to the nearest camping spot. It’s a partly cloudy day with mist on the mountains and birds and frogs are whooping it up and a glacial river, running cold and milky colored is talking to me and the air that the green green forest has just made is as fresh as it gets. I make camp and hike into the back of the valley and return to camp and make a dinner of ramen and chicken soup and loan my little stove to a guy in his twenties who tells me in broken English that he really needs a hot meal, which makes sense because the cold Andean wind has begun to bluster and the rain has started. Then I hit the hay and it rains all night and I find out that my faithful old tent leaks and most everything gets wet but that’s how it goes so I pack up and hike out the next morning. I’m running out of ways to say gorgeous and this place tops the list, if that is possible. The road splits where the Carretera Austral meets the trail out of the park and I take a gravel road that leads up into the mountains to Amarillo hot springs. It’s a three mile walk and I’ve just walked four so I don’t mind when a van pulls over and offers a ride. I find a funky old Hostal at the hot springs, surrounded by jungle, and am greeted by a tall, soft spoken Goucho looking guy who I learn is the owner and lives there alone with his cat. He shows me a room, I take it, he lights a wood stove that sits in the corner and shows me where the stone lined sunken hot tub is and I empty the soaked contents of my backpack in my room and hang them everywhere possible and immerse my tired, sore body into the steaming mineral water, surrounded by jungle, birds singing, chickens clucking, dogs barking, cat meowing and the creaking of floors in the old wooden house that surrounds me. I meet a couple from Tubingen, Germany who are also guests. Marvin speaks good English and he remembers me from the info center in Chaiten. It takes me awhile to remember he and his wife and I tell him that sometimes remembering is like reeling in a fish from the bottom of a deep sea! We have a great time, nice to have someone to speak English with. Night falls. This is the first time ever to hear birds singing all night. The German couple head out at six am next day, I have breakfast with the owner, sun beaming through trees, pack my backpack and thank him for an awesome stay and hit the road. It’s a beautiful misty morning and I meow to his cat as I pass her and a dog sits at the bridge leaving the hot springs and looks at me as if I’m deserting it and down the gravel road I stroll. About a mile out an infant fox, cute as can be, wanders into the road and almost stumbles into me and is gone before I can take a picture. Further on I sit to rest. There is a tiny puddle next to me, about the size of my cell phone and the surface is just as shiny and smooth, and I touch it with a fingertip and realize that this is the real contact that I’m trying to make, a connection between me and this big beautiful place. Then three miles down the road to Amarillo and onto a bus to Futeleufu. Another tough goodbye and on I go.