Trekking to the southern tip of the continent: Cabo Froward, Dec 17-21, 2015

IMG_1256I'm not exactly sure where the closest person is. We passed Juan eight hours ago at the second river crossing, he was waiting for the second bajamar (low tide) of the day, when the sky would be darkening, around 11pm. Yesterday we passed Rodolfo, who has thick shoulders and high boots, who has Arabic script printed vertically over the tendons on his neck, and who caught a yellow bird with his fingers and put it in his pocket as he was talking to us. He collects names of those venturing beyond the lighthouse, where he alone lives, and will call the Chilean Armada (Navy) if we're not back in six days. His route information involves a sweeping gesture of the coastal map on the wall- it's all hard, this is a trek that tests, take nothing for granted. There is a solitary motor sound that passed, and now a slender siloughette of a distant fishing boat that my eyes keep catching and losing in the gloam. That's all for today- several thin fins of dolphins passing by in a way that feels routine- each thing passing by each other thing- each thing holding tight to itself for long enough that it lets the other be the one to change- the mountains cresting and caving, trees emerging but mostly collapsing, and tides, tides, tides. The clouds collecting at will, greying and filling so as to be one, or more than one. We each hold each other in our places, we are passing by.

We napped in the tent this afternoon, and I awoke quickly when the motor sound appeared close. My mind, already diffused to the scale of this place, and sleepful, wondered if it came to search for us, to deliver a message, and here we were huddled down in the woods below the trees where no message by air or sea would reach. But it too passed by and suddenly we were neither hidden nor evident, just asleep at the edge of the tip of the world.

This is what it's like. We follow the Straight of Magallanes- mostly along rocky beaches, and try to find the hardest sand or rock. At times there is a trail that cuts off a point, marked usually with flagging tape of any color, shreds of plastic bags, teared pieces of a yellow fisherman's suit, or a glass bottle hung on a tree branch. The trail was once part of a project to create a continuous path down all of Chile but it is now in dangerous disrepair and none of the human-made features can be trusted. Yesterday I stepped on a bad plank and toppled backwards and head-first down a rocky precipice for a couple of meters as the log of wood chased me down. There are enormous trees uprooted that bid for your whole body to cross over, vertical rock and mud sections, everything is unsteady. It seems there is no amount of human labor that would preserve these trails from the savagery of winters here. But, it elicits a gratitude that there is a human path, which is noteworthy for us who live in planet places and mental spaces seemingly too full of already human paths.

There are two important rivers to cross on this trek, and their crossing must be timed to coincide with low tide. We crossed both today. The water is icy- we are in the region of Chilean Antarctica. The first reached my upper thighs and the second my waist- we cross right where the river opens out into the ocean at a wide, shallower point. I went in my swimming trunks the first time and then went naked, going into myself for those minutes. Across the estrecho, enormous snow-capped mountains rise out of the sea- the Darwin range. Our first day was unknown here- perfectly clear, and it took several hours to determine if one particular peak, completely snow-covered to it's base, was in fact a land form and not a cloud. The mountains rise high behind us too- their black rock and light snow in contrast like a statement of sanity and meaning against the indistinct horizon beyond. The tide is going out now and a spit of land has opened up, returning the far side of the river to the state in which we found it six hours ago. I see smoke rising across the way, perhaps Juan has made it, or perhaps my senses fool me- it is just grey trees and early twilight.

I was afraid that the end of the continent would not seem like such a place and now I am afraid that it does. Keaton and I take turns walking in front and gathering our minds into the space of our bodies when the other is floating. This is a place that could easily be called creepy, but I stop him from saying so. It is a place of death- rocky points marked with weathered crosses for shipwrecked sailors, a sense of abandonment and unfinishedness in the human objects that appear. Death, or mere survival, but not of living. The captain of Darwin's Beagle decided to kill himself gazing upon this vista, and he is buried up the straight. As a student of history, I have asked who were these people, who left their homes and knownness to sail the seas? In the presence of these toothed peaks and slanting light, I rather wonder- what is this land that makes its visitors forget who they are? And when I remember, that sense arrives here like a late recollected thought that has become irrelevant.

This trek got in our brains- camping at the third river we laughed in strange ways we had never heard before and said words one after another that became sentences by coincidence rather than by intent. This cruel eeriness is the natural world, too, and it is inevitable for us who wish to encounter wilds on their terms and not our own. I often experience such places as sublime or relaxing, or miserable in a petty, impermanent way, but unusually so subsuming of my spirit, so covetous of my level-headedness and my yet-unhurting body.

We reached the austral cross after a steep, muddy climb, after five hours of humbly picking through coastal rocks covered in seaweed and barnacles. The cross is high up, only the final crest gives way to a vista of the confluence of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Snow-capped peaks rim bright blue extents where the wind makes designs as it whips hard around the horn. Walking beyond the white metal cross you can see a mighty concrete cross collapsed from the gusts. These oceans are such separate places in my imagination- I come from a country whose existence is explained in their distance. What was evidenced at the tip was not two things coming together, but merely one thing broken apart in my mind.

On the return, the wind was at our backs, and seemed too to know where we ought to go. In many ways, this land seems to know much more than we do, as we scratch our way through. Heading north, though, we trace our own story back, and the subtle footprints and plastic shreds of others' waymaking hold less significance.

The return revealed gems which perhaps by their nature demanded a precedent of lonesomeness- the sun breaking out for our two waist-deep naked river crossings, faithfully following the dispersed remnants of a trail over high cliffs and dropping back to the rocky shore and a thick Patagonian rainbow. After walking for nine hours, we boiled water for mashed potatoes and sat down to eat in a cove, leaning against a hunk of driftwood as two fishermen in a colorful boat found their evening catch on the far side. Dolphins came to dance in front of us, leaping in high, shocking arcs out of the water. Like much of what I find here, it seemed to be without explanation, but if I had a silky white belly and could jump in and out of the sea in evening joy, I certainly would. The moon was a gleaming gibbous, and at half past ten we could still see a hundred miles down distant mountain islands.

They are building a road here. Each year, they make it a little further. We get dropped off as far south as the open road goes, then trek past several kilometers in the making, lean felled trees actually crashing down in front of us. So many roads I have travelled began this way, and the dark bruises of a more human journey are unknown to me. This is a place where green is very much like purple, where we look into each other in the morning and, with kindness and some despair, say please let's take care of each other today. I don't want it to be different.