There is a corollary to Murphy’s Law for hikers which states that you’ll experience the best weather of a trip on your day out. For proof I just had to open my eyes. And then immediately shut them at the bright burning orange orb that had finally decided to materialize for the first time since I set foot on this continent. So after all that time in snow and ice and more gray ashen surroundings than Cognac McCarthy packed into The Road, we had to walk through this screensaver on our way out…
Maybe it was the bright heat of the lazy sun and the steady soothing thump of the waves against the hull that made us stare silent and dreamily at the peaks receding behind the curve of cliffs behind us.
Though speech would have been difficult given the steady whining of the small engine protesting against the weight us and our gear. We were all a little reflective on leaving the glacier. Something was ending, but only so that something new may begin.
After tying to the listing pier in Puerto Bertrand, a single fuzzy mutt rose slowly, stretched with a wolf-like yawn and then muttered a halfhearted ‘el woof’ under its breath. This seemed a cue to the town’s chickens to get to work because a second later a mother brought her brood of frenetic chicks out from around the corner of a house to scratch at the dirt road. The dog, with a subtle grin, seemed to propel himself towards us with the gyrations of his tail. After a formal sniffing of our packs and accepting a few ear scratches from us, he seemed satisfied his duty was done and wandered back to his post near the front steps. The ditzy chicks scattered away like nervous aunts.
We headed north on Highway 7, retracing our path towards the airport in Coyhaique to drop Colonel Tom off. Or hopefully to just slow down slightly and push him out. Given that there’s only one real highway throughout the country, it would be tough to get lost.
And given that it was the only road, it was kept up rather well despite the wild meteorological mood swings this part of the world endures. It was still what the States would euphemistically call a “rustic road”. Being so, there soon began a thumping noise underneath the truck that wasn’t part of a Geddy Lee bassline from the continuous Rush soundtrack Christian was playing.
A quick examination of the undercarriage revealed the exhaust manifold was coming loose and would have to be dealt with immediately. That meant stopping in the village of Cerro Castillo and asking around to see if any of the 400 residents could fix it. We drove down the seemingly backstreets of town, trying to locate buildings and see if the residents were home. We ended up talking to neighbors who pointed to other places to try, who then pointed us somewhere else.
Eventually we found a steel shed smelling of petroleum products and metal shavings. The walls of the slightly leaning building were covered in hoses and various parts I’m assuming were for cars. It looked like a steampunk Transformer had exploded inside. The mechanic (I’m assuming he was one because of his tattered dark-blue jumpsuit and fingers stained with grease. But that may have just been from running them through his slicked back hair.) listened to Christian explain our situation in Spanish, nodding slightly every so often, the cigarette in his mouth bobbing up and down as if his head was cantilevered on the end of it. There was one last deeper nod that we took as affirmation and then we all climbed out of the truck and headed to a nearby restaurant to wait.
The menu at the café consisted of mostly sandwiches with various combinations of carnes, huevos and queso. I was a little hungry, so I ordered one. It was not prepared for the Patagonian interpretation of ‘sandwich’. Out of the kitchen emerged a Frisbee-sized Ritz cracker piled with hunks of beef and a few veggie looking objects floating through a thick smear of white cheese. Then cover it with another Ritz Frisbee. Picking it up was not an option. I ended up eating the insides and leaving a good portion of the top loaf alone. It was so bready I had to order a second Dolbek to wash it down.
By the time we drained our second round, it was time to go and collect our repaired vehicle. We were on our way again.
At the airport we said our good-byes to the Colonel and bit our tongues until they bled. I’m surprised I haven’t heard of him getting high on pain pills and anti-psychotic medication and sailing a boat ablaze with cheap rum into a Buddhist orphanage. Then suing them. Ahhhh, just as well. Or more likely, just a matter of time. He was truly the anchor of our team. As in a dense heavy object that drags you down.
Brian and I collected our rental truck and followed Christian into Coyhaique where we checked into the Maria Esther hotel/hostel he recommended. Brian’s Spanish was pretty good and I think the woman who ran the place took a liking to him. Every once in awhile she’d say something and look at me and I’d just nod, sending my eyebrows up my forehead in what I hoped was the universal expression for “Ahhh, yes. Of course.”
After an actual shower (our first since we arrived in the country) with caliente aqua that was actually caliente. we wandered into the downtown area. Coyhaique has about 50,000 residents and most of them seemed to be coming in or out of two huge grocery stores right next to each other on the edge of town. It was near five on a Saturday so everything was just beginning to shut down and people were hustling through the streets with bunches of plastic bags bursting with goods.
Popcorn and peanut vendors were on every street corner. Dogs too. They seemed to be strays but they looked well fed and were rather polite. We weren’t growled at or begged on once. We made up a route through the main pedestrian mall lined with small stores and into the town square. This was a big hangout with teens. Sitting sullen with measured disinterest in clusters and texting on benches or clattering skateboards on any uneven bit of concrete. Young boys snickering after girls, not quite sure why they were laughing nervously, just that it seemed like they should. Some things are universal.
About 8pm, Christian and Alex came by to pick us up for dinner. It was odd seeing them in their non-wilderness civvies. Christian had even trimmed his beard back. We piled into their SUV, the back of which was dominated by the fuzzy form of their baby: Kuma. A giant roly-poly akita. I think they brought him along as their car security system. It also meant they had to fold down the back seats, so we rode in the back with the loveable beast.
After a short drive we mostly spent trying to keep Kuma from crushing us, we stopped at Lito’s. With its unadorned door and unassuming sign, we would have walked by had we been on our own.
It was a small place that, as soon as you walked in the front door, put you in the middle of the dining room. It looked a bit like a ‘70s western style basement bar. Dark, heavy patterned carpet, thick wooden tables and a bar with an eave of wood slats towards the back. We followed the waitress, weaving through tables into a long narrow side dining room that may have recently served as a backroom storage area.
But we weren’t here for ambiance. This being Patagonia, beef was what’s for dinner. We all ordered steaks. But we started with ceviche and, my god, is that an actual salad?! The steaks arrived embraced by a slice of bacon and smothered in a mushroom gravy. They were done fairly raw, so your spuds turned a light pink from the juices after a few minutes.
Afterwards they took us to one of their favorite discos. We found space at the end of the crowded bar on the main floor. Across from us, on the other side, were a group of older men who looked like what Crocodile Dundee might look like if he went out to a disco. They just seemed a bit out of phase. Alex called them the Forever Youngs. They were the original local landowners (and now very rich men) on the prowl for trophy wives. As I said earlier, some things are universal.
I wanted a cocktail and went for something called a John Collins. It tasted more like a Joan Collins. So super sweet and vinegary it should come with an insulin chaser. After that I stuck to the beer. And there were a variety to choose from: Dolbek, Baltica, Cristal, and the very tasty Austral. Yes, this would do finely.
Several of Christian and Alex’s friends from NOLS were there. NOLS is a world-renown school that teaches outdoor leadership and technical skills. They have have an impressive reputation. We oohed and aahed over their tales of spending six months at a time out in the field: two months kayaking, two months camping, two months mountaineering.
“Okay, let’s go.” said Alex. Brian’s watch read about midnight. A good night out for our first day back in civilization. But instead of leaving, she led us up the stairs to the disco on the top floor. It was a small curling staircase, but it may has well have been a wormhole, because we walked out at the top in a whole other dimension. Bass pressed against you like a drunken sorority girl, huge fans of green lasers exploded from several areas of the smoky dance cavern like Terminators had invaded a Pink Floyd concert. Death Star sized disco balls hovered over the rhythmically writhing masses briefly crusting them in diamonds from the starlight of strobes.
Brian and I just stood there.
“It won’t really get going for a couple more hours yet!” shouted Alex.
So we stayed for several more hours downing rounds of Heinikens and piscolas (pisco and cola) and plain old pisco and letting the music pummel any worries or problems into fine dust that got trampled under the feet of the dancers. Even though we had spent the past two weeks with our guides, in this new setting, it seemed like we were old friends who hadn’t seen each other in years. We shared new stories and old jokes, arms around each other, glad to be back to a place we’d never been.
We left sometime before sunrise, hugging the patient and fuzzy Kuma in the back all the way to the hostel. Brian and I shushed each other like teenagers sneaking in after curfew, trying not to trip on the slippery foyer mats or hit shins on the steep narrow steps up to the second floor in the dark. We fought the urge to break out in song. For some reason the keyhole on my door kept changing locations, avoiding my best attempts to insert the key. I heard Brian fall into his room just across the hall as I finally got my door open. The bed, happy to see my lead-lidded eyes and crooked smile, rose up to meet me.
In our next episode…Wasting away again in Coyhaiqueaville