Epilogue to Patagonia

Patagonia, end of the trip, but not the end of the trail. December 16, 2013

Prologue: “What’s a guy halfway through his 68th year doing hiking and camping with a bunch of young people in an area where in the summer time (which it is there right now) the wind can howl during heavy rain and sleet storms?” (posted on my blog December 3, 2013.)

Epilogue: Answer: having a great time.

Following an overnight flight to Buenos Aires, a beef-stuffing (see “Beef and Tango in Buenos Aires” posted October 1, 2013), a wake-up call at 4:30, an early morning flight (delayed several hours) to El Calafate, Argentina, and a two hour shuttle ride to El Chalten, we hit the trail. Literally.

Our van driver finally located the small hotel where our guide was waiting for us. After quick introductions, pulling the nonessentials from our backpacks, stowing them under the stairs at the hotel, and lacing up our boots, we walked out of the hotel and up into the mountains. Our first walk would be 8 kilometers (5 miles) and take us nearly three and a half hours as we adjusted from theoretical visions of trekking to the real thing.

Over the next ten days we were often on the trail by 5:00 in the morning to take sunrise shots. We tented in barebones campsites for half the time and enjoyed Patagonia lodges the other half.

We averaged 6 to 7 hours of trekking a day nearly every day, sometimes hiking for two hours just to get to the beginning of the trail where the posted sign read “Trail is very steep. Good physical condition required.” Can that be referring to me?

We saw the magnificent FitzRoy peak from several sides, trekked across a small part of the vast Perito Moreno glacier, followed the trail to the foot of the famous “W” of the Torres del Paine towers, took a boat to the end of Gray Lake to view the Gray Glacier, looked across Pehoe Lake to the Los Cuenos range, drank water from the streams, ate surprisingly well, and lived life fully.

We trekked, saw magnificent peaks, hiked glaciers, drank water from streams, ate surprisingly well, and lived life fully.

We learned the geography and geology of the area and the names of plants. We saw ñandu (a smaller version of the ostrich), fox (in camp!), guanacos (a relative of the llama), and sighted Andean condors riding on the thermal drafts. We hiked on sunny days and at times when it rained, snowed, and the wind hit gusts of 70 miles per hour (often all three simultaneously). We got to know each other better. We worked hard and slept well.

This is an area I’ve always wanted to experience. Photos or even great filming can never make the imprint of being there long enough to feel the impact of the mountains, ignore the blisters, lean into the wind, breathe the air and look closely at all things large and small.

Ignore the blisters, lean into the wind, breathe the air and look closely at all things large and small.

And, I’m getting to the age where I wonder sometimes how many more opportunities do I still have to experience mountains in this way. I’m no stranger to physical calamity and I’ve always been able to get back in the game, but when does luck run out?

I’m certainly not planning on dropping over any time soon, and one of my best moments on the trek was when our 34 year-old guide told me that when he gets to be my age he hopes he will be able to do what I was doing that day. Still, there is that thought that there are more days behind than ahead.

Yet, I meet so many people who listen to my story of a trip I’ve enjoyed and then tell me “someday.” Someday they will see Paris. Go up the Amazon. Do something, someday. Someday when work isn’t so hectic. Someday when things are more settled. Someday when the bills are paid. Someday.

I’m no fan of advertising slogans, but Nike got it right: “Just do it.” Work will always be hectic. Life itself doesn’t make room for everything to be settled. Bills will always be with us. But the opportunities to get out, experience something new, test ourselves mentally or physically, and gather memories which never fade . . . those opportunities are fleeting and worth some risk.

The opportunities to get out, experience the new, test ourselves and gather memories are fleeting and worth some risk.

Risk is a relative term. I’ve admired risk-takers but seriously questioned the judgment of those who seem to just plunge forward without a goal. Risks, diminutive or substantial, reward those who take them, even when they fail. Well-taken risk gives us a better measure of the extent of our reach, our confidence in our mental ability, and a deeper understanding of our own character. That’s a rather fancy-pants way to say it, but the core remains true.

We age, simply put, and must reassess. There’s a wonderful passage in John Huston’s adaptation of B. Traven’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” where Howard, the old prospector, says, “I’m getting along in years. Oh, I can still hold up my end when it comes to a hard day’s work, but I ain’t the man I was once, and next year, next month, next week, by thunder, I won’t be the man I am today.”

In my youth I thought nothing of just letting go . . . I knew my strength from my exuberance, not from reflection.

In my youth I thought nothing of just letting it go, leaping down a mountainside from boulder to boulder, seeing my third and fourth moves in my mind as I was still pivoting on my first move. I knew my strength from my exuberance, not from reflection.

This trek in Patagonia gave me so much—new land unknown to me, stunning views, cemented friendships, and the opportunity to reflect and take a new measure of myself. In a way, some risk taking is more rewarding for the older traveler—we have so much more to measure it against.

And so I continue to grab as many opportunities as I can. The present is now. Someday never comes.

Postscript: As I was posting this I received word that an old friend who had considered taking this trek with me suddenly passed way. I thought about this for several days, and I feel I have to acknowledge him with this postscript. Vincent Frey knew adversity, but for the years I knew him, he made real plans to accomplish real things. “Someday” did not delay him. He lived to his fullest extent. We miss him very much.
Vincent Frey

3 Comments on “Epilogue to Patagonia

  1. Gary, your story makes me feel as if I was with you on this journey. I love traveling with you and sometimes due to work, I have to travel vicariously through your stories.
    Also, Thanks for adding your postscript about Vincent. He was a wonderful person.

    • Thank you. Vincent was a wonderful person, and as I said, he made real plans and did real things.

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