Facing Failure

This post is part of a series about a long trip in South America. For the first post in the series, click here.

In the morning I walk into Villa Tehuelches.  I stop at the last grocery store for 140 kilometers.  Well, sort of a grocery store.  It’s mostly gas-station food.  I scan the shelves, looking for something high calorie without sugar.  There’s pasta and such, but I already have cous-cous, and that cooks a lot faster.  I want something like—


There, on the shelf.  Four thousand calories a liter.  Less than olive oil, but still a lot, and much better tasting.  There’s sardines too.  Hmm.  Meat and dairy works for some people.  The Masaai eat milk and meat and chase cows around all day.  The Mongols rode hundreds of miles on horse blood and powdered milk.  Sardines and cream is worth a try.  I start drinking straight from the carton.

It’s warm.

Not ideal.  Well, it’s not making the Chileans sick. 

It takes a few minutes, sipping my way through a liter.  I wash it down with my pound of sardines, straight from the can with my fingers.  Sweet.  I’ve eaten enough to go until night.  If I can hold it down, of course.  I could get sustained energy, or sustained vomiting. 

I laugh for a moment at the absurdity of this.  I’ve had a ridiculous meal, in a village of 100 people, in a windy sea of grass on the other side of the world.  Then I start walking out of the subtle valley of the village and back into the full on plains.  My strides are swift and purposeful for the first half-hour.  But slowly, an uneasiness brews upward from my stomach.  Soon, it’s built into a hot greasiness invading my throat.  There’s an iron taste in my mouth, like my saliva is salty blood.  Swallowing only helps for a moment, and then my mouth refills with the same vileness.  I try breathing like a gasping fish, mouth open, tasting each breath.  The air is crisp and chill, and it’s helping a little.  I mean, I haven’t puked yet.

No.  I can’t even think that way. 

Not just because puking will suck.  I’ll lose the calories I ate, have to cook a meal later, not go as far.  I slow down and gasp more deeply.  Maybe stopping will help.  I need to brush my teeth anyway.  I’ve been doing that strategically, saving it for when I want a break.  And I need to put on sunscreen.  The ozone layer is weaker here, almost an extension of the full-blown hole over Antarctica.  Last week I blistered my face from one sunny day without protection.

The toothpaste eases the greasiness.  After brushing, I just sit for a few minutes.  When I think I’ve beaten the worst of it, I start again.  The naseau fades over the next hour.  My pace builds until I’m cruising.  I switch to running and manage four kilometers without a walking break.  Nice!  Maybe I can train myself to run with a heavy pack.  Maybe I can work up to mostly running with some walking, not the other way around.  Then I could do more than 60 kilometers a day—

My left shin spikes with pain.


Shin splints. 

It’s a classic running injury, something that happens when you build mileage too quickly.  Like suddenly spending 12 hours a day on your feet, to take a random example.  I stop running immediately.  After a few minutes of walking, the pain fades.  Good.  I stopped in time.  Still, I’ll take a couple days off from running.

I hold a fast walk most of the day.  In late afternoon, dark clouds start to thicken on the horizon.  In another situation they would look beautiful.  Here, in this shelter-less vastness of wind and sky, they make me nervous.  By evening the air is a sensual mass of moisture.  It feels alive, in a way dryness never does.  I’d appreciate the sensation if it didn’t mean imminent rain.  The wetness starts in a few minutes, low volume but stinging with wind.  Soon it’s full-on raining.  At the next bus shelter, I change into proper gear.

My shin hurts when I start again.  It’s not as sharp as before, but it doesn’t let up, either.  The pain builds gradually, merging with the sting of wind and rain and the slimy wetness between my toes.  I start looking for somewhere to camp, even though I’ve only gone 53 kilometers.  There’s just an hour of daylight, and it will take time to set up in the rain.  I stop behind a sad mound of dirt.  It will block traffic noise, and that’s all I’m hoping for now. 

It’s a shitty race to set up my bivy sack and get inside.  I can’t win: the zipper has to be open at times, so some rain will penetrate no matter what.  I get the shelter up in fast, jerky motions.  Finally, I close the zipper and lie down.  I’m done.  The rain can’t get me anymore.  My shin still hurts though, when I flex my toes towards my face.  Eventually the pain eases into a mist of thoughts.

After a long time, my mind sharpens again.  It doesn’t feel like I’ve slept.  There was no moment where I lost consciousness, no dreaming unless it was the subtle dreams that fade seamlessly into waking.  But there’s a brightness behind my eyelids, something I shouldn’t see through closed eyes and a tent, under a cloudy night sky. I open my eyes in fluttery bursts, giving them gentle doses of light to adjust to the day.  There’s a gold warmth to the color around me, even through the tent wall.  It must be sunny out.  I crawl from my shelter, into the wet grass.  The sky is a blue canvas, with a bold sun and only a few streaks of cloud.

I pack up and start walking into the wind.  I can see the strong, swift snakes of air rippling through the grass before they touch my face.  My shin doesn’t hurt.  There’s just an awareness that I have a shin, that I feel it with each step.  Pre-injury stage.  I’ve gained a radar over the years of asking so much from my body.  I can usually tell when the pain will stop, and when I’ll have to stop for it.

It’s warm enough to move with rolled up sleeves, and a single layer of long-underwear on my legs.  Even this brings a hotness to my armpits and my back, where the pack traps body-warmth like a one-sided parka.  If they ever make a pack that doesn’t do this, I’ll pay the sky for it.  For now, I roll my leggings up a bit.  Water is scarce, so it’s worth micro-managing my clothes to stop sweating.

The plains steepen into subtle hills.  I don’t see the hugeness of the horizon, not as much as earlier.  Still, the landscape is pleasant enough.  But there’s a stubborn ache in my shin now, with occasional spikes.  I try tuning out of my body, into the world beyond.  The sun is a mass I can sense even through my long underwear.  It’s one thing to read about a weaker ozone layer.  It’s another to feel the sun like the weight of a blanket.  Maybe it’s time for more sunscreen, maybe—


It’s a different level of pain, a shooting spike.  Well, I was going to stop for more sunscreen.  I sit down and take off my pack.  I smear cold, greasy cream on my hands and face.  Then I stretch my legs, and rub the tendons in my ankles.  It feels good, but I’m not sure if it will be enough.  Shin splints can turn into stress fractures if you push through them.  If it hurts much worse I’ll stop and hitch-hike into the city.  This isn’t worth getting a real injury.  I stand up a few minutes later.  I start walking, cautiously and then more confident.  The pain has receded to a dull ache.  Maybe it will go away.  I’ve gone 10 kilometers since this morning, and it’s—


The pain stops me mid-stride.  I stand for a moment and let out a breath I hadn’t chosen to draw.  It takes another moment to notice the tension in my muscles, and few moments longer to release it.  “Reality is what doesn’t go away when you refuse to acknowledge it.”  It’s odd, that a Steven Pinker quote about social science would come in this land of wind and sun.  Well—it’s true.  I could limp 80 kilometers to the city and do real damage.  Or I could hitch in and fix myself up and continue.  I could even come back to where I am. 

That would still be failing.  I wanted to walk from the end of the continent.  Well—failing at the trip won’t make me a failure.  Only not trying would have done that.  And failure is good, in its own way.  It means I’m pushing my limits.  If I never fail, I’ll never know what I could have done.

It’s still hard.  I stand by the road, facing the traffic.  I don’t stick out my thumb.  I know it makes sense, but I need to savor this moment.  I’ve stood at the end of the world.  I’ve done an 80 kilometer day that started in mountains and ended with those mountains barely visible behind me.  I’ve walked here from the end of the continent.  Every kilometer.  Every.  Fucking.  Step.  270 kilometers.  270,000 steps, if one step is a meter.

I hold the view.  Live, rippling grass; smooth, subtle hills.  Clear sky, with hints of grey and white and a strong, heavy sun.

I close my eyes. I stick out my thumb.  My breath comes in sharp.  My limbs quiver a moment.  Reality is what doesn’t go away when you refuse to acknowledge it.  I open my eyes with a sad, calm acceptance.  A car slows down.  I could still change my mind.  The driver stops with a questioning smile. This is my last chance to walk north from the end of the continent.   No.  I’ve been through this.  I’ll risk a stress fracture if I push.  And I don’t have the food and water to wait here for days and heal.

I manage a smile.  I should be cheerful company for this kind stranger.  I put my bag in his truck and climb in, and let some Spanish banter spill from my mouth.  The door closes with me inside.  A sad wildness stirs in me, an urge to get out before the car starts moving.  And some weak part of me is glad for the excuse to end my suffering.

Cars are miracles.  Inside the hood there’s a controlled fire.  It burns pressurized gas in the right amounts at the right times, to move some contraptions and turn wheels.  Somehow the whole thing doesn’t explode.  Instead, it accelerates to my running speed in half a second.  Then my sprinting pace without a pack, and then faster than anyone has ever run. 

We crest a mild hill two kilometers later, and mountains explode into view.  They’re tall, sharp, wild.  And close.  Maybe 40 kilometers off.  It would have been a view unlike any I’d ever had.  I would have earned it, in a way I’d never done.  This is what I wanted to walk into, after three days of struggling through the pampas.  Three days of wind and rain and rare water spiced with sand and mud and cow shit. 

No.  Three days of enjoying my own company.  Three days of loving my body for its best effort, not hating it for its failings.  Three days of fierce, wild sky.  Three days of walking all day through dry, windy grassland, like our ancestors did 100,000 generations ago. 

It would have been profound, earning the mountain view.  But it wasn’t a waste, without it.  My life is what it is.  The heartbreak and the triumph.  This walk was both. 

We reach Puerto Natales in less than an hour.  An hour, to do 80 kilometers.  It would have taken me the rest of today, and most of tomorrow.  I hope I never lose the awareness I’ve gained, the wonder at what technology does. 

It hurts to admit it, but I know I made the right choice.  Here, I can heal and then hitch back to where I started.  I remember the place.  Kilometer 161.  For now, I’ll eat something better than olive oil.

For the next post in this series, click here 🙂