Into The Pampas

It’s 2:00pm, much later than I’d wanted to start.  But I’m not waiting another day.  I made myself a deadline, that I’d set up the blog and apply for summer jobs before I left Punta Arenas.  I’m useless with technology, so it took four days building a basic website.  And applying for jobs on an IPad was infuriating.  There’s countless apps for gimmicky shit I don’t need, but no easy way to upload a resume onto email.  But now I’m done.  I’ve been here six days, and I’m ready to leave.  I backtrack to my original hostel, the one I walked to at midnight.  Then I start.

The first hour is sprawl.  Cars and noise and exhaust, ugly grey buildings.  But there’s a sense of purpose and control, something I only get from moving under my own power.  The buildings thin, and soon there’s grass and trees and farms.  Looking back, the city is pleasant from a distance.  Purple points of land, jutting into the ocean.  Swarms of ships, milling like water bugs.

Dirt roads parallel the highway now, and the traffic gradually lightens.  I crest a gentle hill, and the city vanishes.  A little further, there’s a park.  It’s a land of sturdy little trees, and bluffs overlooking the ocean.  I stop to pee, and sit for a few minutes drinking water.  It would be a great campsite, if I didn’t have hours of daylight and energy still.  It’s only 20 kilometers out, and I want to do at least a marathon.

I start moving, and then a group of Chileans waves me over.  They’re offering beer, and smiles.  Hym.  Beer worked pretty well for me the other day.  Sometimes you have to throw your playbook out the window.  I smile, and join them.

It turns out to be a full-blown Chilean barbecue.  They have a giant basket of pork chops and chicken drumsticks, and keep encouraging me to eat more.  There’s wine too, and a kind of hard alcohol made of a local berry.  I’m tempted, but I can’t get properly drunk.  I’m genuinely sorry I can’t justify camping here.  It would be a blast to get plastered with them.  I’m answering questions about Alaska and America, and getting pushed to eat more and more.

They leave for Punta Arenas, and give me a giant bag of meat and bread.  And a beer.  Hym.  I probably shouldn’t drink more.  I’ve had a beer and a bit of wine, and I only have a liter of water left.  The next river is around 10 kilometers, and I can’t be dehydrated.  I leave the beer, unopened.  It’ll be a gift to the next visitors.  Then it’s down the hill, and out of the park.

The earth broadens, flattens.  It’s turning to pasture, and getting windier.  I’m thirsty almost immediately, and I drink most my water.  I probably had too much alcohol and ate too much salty food.  I want to drink the last of my water, but I need a reserve.  It’s still over an hour to the next river.

It’s a slowish slog, into stiff wind.  Eventually the road bends toward the ocean again, until it’s only a few hundred meters away.  Ahead, there’s a tell-tale fold in the earth.  There’s my river.  The next one is 30 kilometers away.  I’ll need enough water to camp tonight, then go a few hours tomorrow.  I clamber under the bridge, get my filter, fill the bladder.  Time for a drink!

It’s salty.

Really salty, like sea-water.  This is…suboptimal.  Suboptimal?  I guess I’m still an economist, after all these years.  A human would say I’m fucked.  I guess I can walk upstream, scaring the sheep on the side of the river.  It must turn fresh if I go far enough.  Unless it stops running at all, and this is all tide?  There’s a bit of standing water, a meter above the river.  Maybe the tide didn’t go that high, maybe it’s fresh.

Cow-pies surround the puddle.  Lovely.  It’s salt water or shit water.  Oh well, my filter should kill whatever’s in them.  It’ll still be unpleasant to drink.  I dip a finger in, taste it. Nope, just as salty.  Good.  I can not drink it with a clear conscience.

I guess it’s time to walk up the river.  Unless…maybe the building across the bridge has water.  It’s not a grocery store, but it looks open.  It turns out to be a weigh station, and they let me use their sink.  I clean the bladder a few times, purging the taste of salt.  Then I fill three liters, and I’m off.

Looking back, there’s no trace of the hills to the south.  To the front, grasslands reach 3,000 kilometers into southern Brazil.  I’ll veer off after a couple hundred, into the mountains of Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine.  But that’s in the future, after four days of walking.  For now, the flatness is complete.

Someone close to me said I should skip it.  Why not take a bus through the ‘boring’ stretch?  Partly I want to do it properly, to draw an unbroken line of footsteps from the end of the continent.  To earn the mountains, to see them start on the horizon and reach them a day and a half later.  But it’s deeper than that.

I want to see the world, and dry grassland is a giant part of the Earth.  There’s plains in North America, pampas in South America, steppes in Asia, savanna in Africa.  My ancestors lived this view.  They lived and loved and learned, countless generations growing into something we’d call human.  This is part of our heritage, walking through grassland toward the horizon.  I wouldn’t want to die without doing it.

And there’s a beauty in the pampas, something I’d never grasped in pictures.  The sky is a vast canvass, fluid with layers of cloud and sun.  I’ve never realized the size of it, how sweeping it becomes without mountains or forest.  It’s not that I’ve never seen plains before.  But there’s an intimacy now, something that wasn’t there in a car.

I tighten my straps, re-tie my laces.  Then I head onward, into the pampas.

The next post is a reflection on spending Christmas with Covid.  For the next post in the series about Chile, click here.

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