What seemed mere seconds after my mattress smacked me in the face, my eyes cracked open like egg shells to see gray light staring back at me from the corrugated plastic sunlights. The wind shook their edges in a continuous tittering laugh. After last night’s game of what I’m sure Christian is calling “Try to Get the Irishman Drunk”, I fell asleep in my clothes. I don’t remember crawling under the covers either. I must have been tucked in by whoever scooped out my brain and replaced it with the rough stones that were now bouncing on the trampoline of my cerebellum.
There was a knock low on my door. Fortunately, the room was small enough that I could reach out from bed and open it. There was Brian laying at my doorstep, stretched out across the narrow hallway, his feet still stuck in the covers on his bed.
“Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh.” He moaned.
It was a dialect I was currently fluent in. “Rrrrrrrrrmm.” I agreed.
We set into town at a slow amble, our bloodshot eyes, hiding behind the protection of glacier glasses, scanned the streets for a proper looking greasy spoon. This being Sunday, the only buildings that were open seemed to be the churches. At last we came to a place called Restaurant Historico Ricer. It seemed a bit touristy, but we weren’t going to argue cultural exchanges at this juncture. Coffee. Omelet. Meat. Cheese. Toast. Coffee. Bueno. That’s all we needed to understand.
Brian and I were setting off tomorrow to hike Cerro Castillo National Park for a few days, so we had a laundry list of errands to tend to before then. First up, was, well, laundry. The hiking clothes we’d been wearing continuously for the past weeks were on the verge of becoming sentient and rising up against us. We hoped the woman who ran the hostel might offer a laundry service, but through some mishap in language she sent us to the local laundaria. Which was, of course, closed on Sunday.
Instead we turned our small rooms into a ghetto laundry, washing everything out in the tub and stringing our climbing ropes across the bathrooms to hang them on. All those knots were learned were coming in quite handy. The amount of dirt that came out of our clothes, especially the thick wool socks, was epic. I could have started an organic farm in the tub had I wanted.
Our rooms had some really janky looking space heaters that we rolled into the bathroom to act as dryers. They basically were propane tanks with an exposed metal screen that glowed demon red after you lit the ignition flame. A rudimentary faux wood metal border was flimsily bent around the contraption to give it a sense of décor. They were made in China and the instructions were in Spanish translated from Chinese. What could possibly go wrong? We closed the doors to keep the heat–and any possible shrapnel from the explosion—inside.
At some point in last night’s steak-filled-laser-laden-pisco-sour sea, Alex and Christian had invited us over to their place to show us some maps of the mountains we’d be hiking through and help us plan a route. Supposedly there were trails and “areas designated to camp in” but no services or facilities.
First though, we had to find our way to Alex and Christian’s house which was located just south of town past a saint’s roadside shrine and then a wooden fence, not the first one after the curve, but the next one that went up into the hill, just past a farm. We tried to decipher her hand-drawn map on a sweaty crumpled napkin while watching out for cattle and sheep on the road.
We found what appeared to be the road matching the appropriate squiggle on the napkin and turned up a boulder-strewn path that treated our vertebrae like Rubik’s Cubes. The gnawing sheep seemed to shake their heads as we bounced past. We hoped an axle didn’t snap. And we hoped that isolated house up the way was theirs and not a Chilean meth lab with some bald kid playing a banjo made out of human skin sitting out front.
Nope. It was the right place.
Their house was more like a cabin, a hut even, wrought of irregular stones and rough-hewn lumber and bare-branching beams who’s imperfections complemented each other perfectly to come together as a solid structure stilted into the side of the hill. It was really quite lovely. A small kitchen opened up to a living area with a fireplace, while a wooden staircase took you up to the second level bedroom. The cozy interior had a wood-burning stove and was accessorized with climbing exercise gear and photos of high altitude exploits. The fridge was speckled with postcards from far-flung friends and unfinished prose from a dirty Spanish magnetic poetry set. The fuzzy form of Kuma yawned hello from the patio where he was enjoying the view.
We had some mate and poured over their collection of maps, plotting out possible routes with the best views that likely wouldn’t necessitate any additional gear or emergency helicopter airlifts. Down here below the Earth’s middle, February was the start of Patagonia’s winter, so some of the higher altitude passes would likely be filling with snow already. Christian also showed us a copy of a mountaineering magazine that published his first ascent of a peak last year. I remembered him saying that there are so many mountains in the country that most aren’t named.
With still much to do, we bid them adios and headed back into Coihayque. It’s pronounced coy-a-key or coya-keeeeeeee if you wanted to use a Jerry Lewis accent, which we often did. We got a good look at it, surrounded by snowcapped peaks and nestled into the valley at the confluence of the Simpson and Coihayque rivers. Founded by settlers in 1929 the city–officially a commune–was largely ignored by the central government for decades. A main road didn’t open up until the 1980s.
Despite this, there now existed two American-sized supermarkets located, for some reason, right next to each other a few blocks from the town center. After our weeks in the mountains, I think we actually stopped and stared for a moment at the selection and bright assault of colored packaging spanning out in front of us. I love wandering foreign supermarkets marveling at the names and packaging design and this felt a bit like being those kids getting their first peek at Willy Wonka’s factory.
We had plenty of freeze-dried astronaut food in case of emergencies, but since we had the option, we grabbed some dried salami, hard local cheese, peanut butter and tortillas, instant coffee and cocoa. At least we assume it was coffee and cocoa, there was such a huge selection, even Brian’s Spanish was stumped at some of the marketing lingo. In the end, after a long slog on the trail, we’d likely be thrilled to eat whatever it was that magically turned up in the tins.
Since the opportunity was there, was decided to bring along a small bottle of whiskey to fortify us through the cold evenings. Hey, if Shackleton saw fit to do it, we should as well. The choices were staggering and virtually all completely unheard of even to a maltophile like me. Most were a mish-mash of popular booze brands and pop culture references, blended together with a dose of Scottish stereotypes so that you ended up with such irresistible offerings as Fraser McDonald’s, James King, High Commissioner, Long John, Scotch Guard (Doesn’t stain?) and Old Beaver Whi$key (Yes, with the dollar sign). We settled on a bottle of Bruce Douglas. He became our team name, mascot, and battle cry for the adventures ahead.
We stopped at the Ricer again for dinner on the way back, carbo-loading on a fairly decent pizza and cold beer. A small boy, a couple years old at most, was tottering around the restaurant like a mini-maitre d’. He stopped at our table and smiled up at us.
“Hola. Como esta?” I singsonged to him, glad there was someone who likely knew only a little more Spanish than me. His round face broke into a big grin and he worked his unsteady legs back to his parents to share his amazement. He returned a short time later to hand me a small metal racecar. When I said thanks, he patted me on the knee and walked away. Hahaha. It has to be the red hair. Kids are fascinated by it. And this part of the world has a shortage of gingers.
Back at the hostel, our laundry was nearly dry and nothing was aflame, so we sat in the doorways of our rooms and began sorting and dividing gear and food to bring for the trip and what could be left at Alex and Christian’s.
An American named Paul, who was traveling through South America with his wife for three months, overheard U.S. accents and came to talk with us, happy to converse in his native tongue. I remember being jealous. Where do you find women like that? We never did meet her, so it could have just been a made up story. Maybe he had accidentally murdered her over a land dispute deal in Oregon and was on the lam from the law. Unable to accept the fact he’d killed her, he often pretended she was still alive, talking to him in those quiet moments on the road. Eh, who’s to say? I’ll take him at his word.
With another long week ahead, we turned in early. I lay in my tiny bed listening to music on my iPhone until I fell asleep. I’d forgotten how much I missed familiar songs. It was the first time I felt a distance from home on this trip. Each song like a familiar friend catching me up. It was good to hear their voices again.
I awoke to wind-whipped rain pelting the roof. We must be hiking today I thought.
In our next episode: Losing the trail in Sierra Castillo…