Whoever said getting there is half the fun has never flown coach. And they certainly said it before 9-11. As I wait for my cameo role in what’s become the matinee of security theater put on for all air travelers these days, I have one last chance to run over my gear list and make sure I have everything I’ll need to make life comfortable for the next three weeks way down yonder in Patagonia. Actually, I have time to mentally double check the list because the guy in front of me is using a record six bins to put his stuff through the scanner. He’s like a four year-old playing with a train set, clothes akimbo, scurrying along the track in his socked feet. I almost expect him to make a “Whoo-whoo” whistle noise as he pushes them into the x-ray tunnel.
On the plus side, I don’t get a junkscan or bad touch from any of the staff. Except from one of the janitorial crew. Wait, that was middle school. If TSA workers keep saying there’s nothing wrong with these bodyscans, they should wear ID badges with one of themselves on it. “I’ll show you I don’t have explosives up my anus if you show me you don’t” seems like a fairer policy.
Given that we were embarking on a mountaineering adventure (and the shocking lack of Chilean themed airport bars beyond Chili’s), Rock Bottom Brewery seemed like a good place to meet Brian. I’m not sure what we said over that first beer, we may have just giggled like giddy school kids. At least we weren’t one of the business travelers next to us on their way to a metal fabrication convention somewhere in Akron.
The only downside was that I was apparently Patient Zero for some kind of respiratory infection. Runny nose, and a chest full of phlegm that made it sound like I was growing a wet cheese-based bagpipe in my chest. And apparently I bought a rare kind of cough drop that actually induces coughing fits. To top it all off, I had the middle seat on our leg to Atlanta. I did pity the two souls on either side of me. If I’ve accidentally set off a plague of 12 Monkeys proportions by the time I get back, please accept my apologies and I promise I’ll let Bruce Willis kill me if I see him.
From Atlanta, we boarded a night flight to Santiago. We followed down Florida’s dangle, over Cuba, the Panama Canal, and into South America proper. I’d already seen the King’s Speech, but thought briefly that watching it in German while hopped up on Nyquil and red wine might give it a new twist. Instead I tried to doze off in search of my own subconscious cinema. Which, unfortunately, meant I missed crossing the equator and missed the chance to get my virginity back and see if the water went straight down the drain and then reversed direction.
Even though a permanent brown haze of exhaust covered it, we were excited to finally land in Santiago. It helped alleviate the slightly surreal cracked-out feeling one gets on overnight international flights. We then began running a gauntlet that included collecting our luggage (it all showed up), getting an entry visa ($150!), going through immigration (Mmm, new passport stamp), then customs before being released into the airport to check in for our local flight to Balmaceda on LAN, Chile’s national airline. The Santiago airport seemed fresh out of the wrapper. All white walls and gently arcing beams with sunlight streaming through ample skylights.
We learned we had to get our boarding passes from an automated kiosk before checking in. In our post night flight daze, we realized it was all in Spanish. Brian tried to recall his teenage years growing up in Buenos Aries. I tried to recall what I heard Maria on Sesame Street saying. All of which came in handy later on, because Brian could order drinks and pick up chicks and I could count to ten and say “open” and “close”.
With luggage loaded and tickets for our last flight in hand, we headed to our gate. It was too early for a bar to be open, so we decided to seek out a coffee. Awesome! We were excited for our first real interaction with some Chilean people. Then, we discovered the only coffee place open was a Starbuck’s. And the kid behind the counter spoke flawless English. And none of the bureau de exchange were open, so we paid with a credit card. Okay, not the cultural exchange we were looking for, but, damn, it was a good coffee.
Then it was just a three hour jaunt down the mighty spine of the Andes, which were clouded in, to the Balmaceda. Coming in to the airport, I finally had my first look at Patagonia. High rolling green and yellow hills with Argentina stretching out to my left. When we touched down the jolt knocked my adrenal glands over and spilled a shiver of anticipation throughout me. We were finally here.
It was a really tiny airport, so as soon as we collected our gear and walked through a small doorway we were immediately greeted by our host, two guides, and one other guest who’d signed up for the mountaineering course.
There was Jon Hauf . Owner of the 2000+ acre Patagonia Frontiers Wilderness Ranch that gave us exclusive access to the Soler Valley and the glaciers it held. He was tall and slim with gray hair and precise, yet polite, clipped demeanor. He looked like who you’d expect to be cast as an Air Force captain in a made for TV movie.
“Nice to finally meet you Jon!”
The other student was Tom Ragsdale. A 64-year old retired Marine from Nashville with a drawl almost as big and thick as his midsection. In the same made-for-TV movie, he’d be cast as the crazy general who says stuff like “Then may God have mercy on our souls.”
One of our guides was Christian. A German-Chilean in his early 40s with a reassuring suitably scruffy and weather-beaten appearance and laid back demeanor you want in someone who is going to take you up a moving mountain of ice.
“Christian? How are you?”
And there was our other guide, Alexandra. A smoking hot buff Belgian-Chilean elf with long curly hair, apple cheeks and a nationwide rep as a badass climber.
We threw our gear into the back of two pick-ups and covered them with a blue tarp in case of rain. Brian, Christian and I took off in one. I noticed the “town” of Balmaceda appeared to be nothing more than a sedentary herd of abandoned looking shacks all slightly seeming to lean away from the prevailing and almost continuous wind. Within minutes of leaving the airport, we were on dirt roads. We weren’t in the middle of nowhere yet, but I had a feeling this was a shortcut.
All of a sudden I heard Rush’s “Working Man” coming through the truck’s speakers. “I never thought the first music I’d hear in Patagonia would be Rush.” I said to Brian.
“You like Rush?!” asked Christian. His half-lidded eyes opening fully.
“Yeah. I have most of their stuff. Got to see them in concert a few times.”
“Oh man. That ees awesome.” replied Christian in an accent Brain and I would come to imitate in the weeks ahead. He fumbled with his iPod, taking his eyes off the narrow rutted road for far too long for my taste. We soon had most of the Rush back catalog setting the soundtrack for our trip. It was the perfect icebreaker and the three of us took an immediate liking to each other.
We rolled along, raising dust through a variety of terrains. Yellowed hills that peeled back to reveal rock every now and then. Low marshy swamps. Long blue lakes alongside hulking gray cliffs. Brian peppered Christian with climbing questions from the shotgun position, while I just sat in the back seat looking at the terrain come at me and smiling behind my sunglasses.
After about half an hour, Christian peeled away from following Jon’s truck and took us down an even more rutted and desolate side road. “There’s sometheeeng I need to get.” He mumbled under his breath as we arrived at the market of a small village.
He emerged after a few minutes with a six pack of Royal beer. “Nice.” I thought. “We’ll have beer tonight at the lodge. But Christian cracked open three beers and dispersed them among us.
“Welcome to Patagonia.” He said and we clanked the blue lukewarm cans together and drank deep.
I think this trip is going to be alright.
In our next episode: Hump Day