Careterra Austral

It’s been a couple of days since the rain, and it’s been three weeks since my shin flared up and forced me to stop walking North.  There’s no injury anymore, or none that I can feel.  And the rest of my body is strong too, refreshed by weeks of steak and wine and day-hikes without a pack.

I’m ready to start again.  But I won’t go back to where I stopped walking and accepted a ride.  Time is short, and I want to do the Carretera Austral in Chile before winter.  I’ll return to the part I skipped if there’s time.

It takes all morning to say goodbyes and pack up, to cook a huge meal and catch up on my writing.  Finally, I walk out of Chalten at 2:00pm.  In a few minutes, the town vanishes behind the flank of a hill.

I’m starting again.  The thought brings an energy quite apart from any strength in my body.  It’s the energy of knowing I’ll walk somewhere I’ve never been; the rush of knowing I’ll sleep somewhere I’ve never slept and see mountains I’ve never looked at.  My future is waiting, just beyond the horizon. 

My stride stays strong and light, and my pack feels easy, even though I’m not used to wearing one. 

The path is a gravel road, winding between wooded hills topped by glaciers.  The air is cool and living, flowing from whatever direction the mountains are most open.  When I look back, Fitz Roy is tall and strong in the distance.  The mountain frowns a goodbye the rest of the day, losing none of its dignity as it shrinks into the past with every hour.

In the evening I run into a wall of cows.  They look utterly stupid, but I’m sure that even one of them could kill me, if it wanted.  I know that’s not a rational fear.  It comes from a childhood in Alaska where moose were always a danger.  And yet…the cows are stronger and faster than me.  If one of them decided to chase me and kick me to death, it could.  And there’s more than one, there’s about 30.

I grab a big stick and feel a surge of confidence.  The cows could still kill me, of course, but they would get wacked, and that will make them unlikely to try.  Honestly, I don’t think my comfort comes from somewhere that rational.  It’s more the primal confidence of holding a weapon.  Whatever it is, it works.  The cows step aside slightly to give me space.  I weave between them, and try not to show my nerves.

I stop as the day starts to ebb, in a semi-circle of gravel off of the main dirt road.  It’s not a great camping spot.  My shelter is low, and there’s a chance cows will step on me in the night.  It would be an absurd way to die in Patagonia—but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.  I look around a bit, but off  of the road, the vegetation is absurdly dense, and the ground is swampy.  Fuck it.  I’ll take the chance.  I prop up some sticks around my shelter so the cows will have something taller to avoid running into.  Then I throw my fate to the dice and sleep.

In the morning I eat the last of the pasta I’d cooked in Chalten, and stored in my pot heavy and wet.  I’ll have to live on bread and mayonnaise for a bit, but at least my pack will be lighter.  Two hours later I reach Lago del Desierto.  It’s a 12-kilometer lake with a gorgeous trail around the perimeter.  Halfway through, the path crests above tree-line to give views in both directions.  My camera died yesterday, so I use my Ipad to take a pixilated version of the landscape.  Then I continue to the north end of the lake.  Fitzroy thrusts into the sky, still strong 50 kilometers away.

On the lakeshore there’s an exit check-point to leave Argentina.  It’s just a few wooden buildings, almost huts.  I enter one to have my passport stamped, and then I’m on my way.  I meander through damp, leafy woods on a trail made wide and muddy from horse traffic, with occasional manure to dodge.  After five kilometers, the trail reaches a gravel road in a beautiful, dry pine forest.  In another kilometer a sign welcomes me into Chile.  I smile as I pass it.  I’m a stateless wanderer now.  I’ll stay stateless for the next 15 kilometers, in Chile but not registered in their system.  It’s cool that there’s still places in the world you can travel this way, legally, just by walking across the border.

The road winds downhill, through a gradually thinning forest.  As the landscape opens, clusters of berries appear on the side of the road.  I get a wild, almost lustful urge to stuff myself.  I’ve been living on bread and meat and mayonnaise for too fucking long.  I can taste the antioxidant bombs in my mind, sharp and tart and delicious.  And the density!  I could gather handfuls in seconds if I wanted.  But I don’t know if they’re safe, and I know berries aren’t something to fuck around with.  A few could kill me if they’re poison.  I’ll ask about them as soon as possible, but for now, I restrain myself and move on.

Eventually I reach the Chilean border guards.  There’s a bin to put fruit and vegetables so they won’t contaminate the pure produce of Chile.  I wince as I throw away the garlic and onions I haven’t managed to finish.  I hate wasting food, especially now.  Then I enter the spare wooden building to be processed.  There’s no line: I’m one of a few travelers they’ll see all day.  A man hand-writes my passport information and accepts my declaration that I’ll be in Chile for about six more weeks.

The next day, I cross a lake on a ferry.  It’s sixty kilometers of blue-green-grey water surrounded by mountains.  And it’s one of the shorter crossings of the fifth largest lake in Patagonia.  The journey lasts three hours.  Three hours of wind and spray and cold, clear sun. 

Finally, the lake narrows.  My energy builds as the ferry slows down and then lands with a rough scrape.  I leap off and trot onto a dirt road.  This is it.  The beginning of the Careterra Austral.  The Southern Highway.  It winds over 1200 kilometers, from the gravel under my feet to the temperate Lakes region in Puerto Montt.  This was always going to be the heart of my journey, walking this dirt road.  I politely decline the shuttle ride to the town of Villa O Higgens, 7 kilometers away.  I want to walk the whole thing.

I zip off with a cutting stride.  I have energy to run, even with my pack mostly loaded.  But I resist the urge: I can’t afford another three weeks out of commission if my injury comes back.  Soon the lake narrows into a glacial river that glistens in the setting sun.  I turn back and see the classic Patagonia mix of polar and desert, of silty glacier water and arid brown hills.

It’s twilight when I reach Villa O Higgens.  I stay in a cozy hostel made of wood, and heated with a woodstove.  The next day I wander around town with some other travelers.  In daylight, Villa O Higgens is a living museum of frontier life.  Every building is made of rustic wooden boards and heated with woodstoves.  There’s a town square and an adorable little library, and a school.  Simple shops and grocery stores line the few other streets.

I find a clothes shop that might sell wool jackets.  There’s nothing promising; mostly kid stuff.  I touch something wool and show it to the cashier, hoping my Spanish is good enough:

Do you have something of this material, for someone my size?”

“Sorry.  Only for women.”

“If I find something for women, can I buy it?”

She chuckles.   

“Yes.”

There’s a wool sweater with a huge chest and narrow shoulders, and a svelte, tight waist.  It would be perfect for an hourglass woman with big boobs.  On me, there’s a giant loose loop in the front and a snug tightness in my shoulders.  I don’t care.  It fits enough to keep me warm.  No more nights shivering in the rain. 

Back in the hostel, someone jokes that we’re in the set for a cowboy movie.  Seconds later, two men on horses and a bunch of cows walk down the dirt road outside the window.  We all dissolve into laughter.  That night I stay up until 4:00am in a wooden hot tub, talking to new friends.  It’s a warm feeling, finding strong connections on the road, even if I’ll have to leave soon. 

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