Monday, November 25, 2013

Getting to Torres del Paine: hitchhiking on a yacht, long bus rides, and friendly faces

The Goal: Meet my friends in Torres del Paine

These past several months whenever people would ask me what my plans were next, I replied, “No se. No tengo un plan.” (I have no plans) I really enjoy the traveling life without a plan, doing what I want where I want when the mood strikes. However, there was one plan for this trip that I had been looking forward to for half a year: meeting up with my friend Serena and her fiancé Eric to celebrate my 30th birthday in Torres del Paine.

Torres del Paine is Chile’s most renowned national park and is to Chile what Yosemite is to the United States. The park is centered around some spectacular walls of granite, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful place on Earth. It was recently named the "8th wonder of the world" by voters on VirtualTourist; also, my well-traveled friend Caleb recommended it as “the standard to which I compare all natural beauty”(check out his blog, he and his girlfriend are doing good things on their trip to SE Asia). Becaues of this, it attracts a zoo of backpack-laden tourists from all over the world to hike on its famous trekking circuit. It, along with the Andes in winter and the Atacama Desert, was one of very few “I must go here” goals for this trip.

The Torres. Pretty rad.

Serena and I met in 2005 when we were roommates during our three-month internships at NASA Goddard as part of the NASA Academy program. We bonded over things like arguing about which temperature to keep our room at (we worked out a compromise where I gave her all of my blankets and in exchange was allowed to keep the room at a cool-ish level), being the weirdos who biked to work, taking obscene numbers of photos with rockets, and sweeping the end-of-program awards ceremony. Unlike most summer program friendships where you stay in touch for a while but eventually drift back away into your own lives, many of us from that summer are still in touch eight years later. This is in part thanks to the Girls Heart Rockets running team that grew out of the program, first as an informal group named after an inside joke, but it quickly morphed into a seriously ass-kicking competitive relay team.

When I used “I’m going to be traveling in South America” as my excuse this year for not signing up for any Girls Heart Rockets races (glad to have a really legitimate excuse for a change versus my normal excuse that until we form a sister team “Cows in Space”, I’m too slow for Rockets), Serena responded, “Sweet, can I come?”

Serena, chowing down on a bell pepper after reaching Baso Torres.

Unlike all of my other friends and sibling who had said the same and even made promises to join me for parts of this trip for years only to weasel out in the end, within 24 hours Serena had committed, and within a few weeks we had made definite plans that the two of them would join me in Patagonia over my birthday.

So I had intentionally kept my trek on Isla Navarino “short” (if seven days can be called short) even though I would have liked more time to explore the island, because I wanted to leave plenty of buffer time to make sure that I could make it to Torres del Paine in time to meet up with them. Or at least I thought it was plenty of buffer time: I planned my Navarino trek to end on a Thursday, and the trek in Torres del Paine wasn't starting until the following Tuesday. Given that it took me 2 days to get to Ushuaia from Bariloche, I figured twice the time to make it half the distance should be plenty. Right? Right??

Leaving Puerto Williams: appropriately difficult for an island at the end of the world

There were only four options for getting off the island and to Punta Arenas (from which there are a good dozen or so buses a day to Puerto Natales):

  1. A 1.5 hour flight with DAP airlines directly from Puerto Williams to Punta Arenas, leaving twice daily Monday-Saturday (the cheapest commercial option and by far the fastest)
  2. Taking the same zodiac back to Ushuaia that I had taken to the island, then take an all-day bus to Punta Arenas the next day (with the bus, more expensive than flying)
  3. A 36-hour scenic (but expensive) ferry ride that would get me to Punta Arenas Monday night: too late to meet Serena and Eric in Puerto Natales but maybe early enough to rush to meet them in camp after their first day of hiking
  4. Attempting to hitch a ride on a yacht to Ushuaia, then bus to Punta Arenas

Since the flight was the cheapest and by far the fastest certain option, my first order of business once I returned from the trek (see Navarino Part VIII: The Feral Swampbeast Returns to Civilization) was get tickets for the first possible flight to Punta Arenas. I had been told before I left on my trek that getting onto a flight once I returned would be no problem—high season hadn't’t started yet—and that that would be better since the tickets were expensive and if anything happened to delay my return, I wouldn't want to have to forfeit the ticket.

But when I showed up at the DAP office (Puerto Williams is serviced by the famous Antarctic airline DAP via a small airfield outside of town) and waited the 30 minutes for whatever hamsters were running the computers to spin their wheels enough times to permit a search for ticket availability, I was informed that all of the flights were full. “¿Y manaña? ¿O Sabado?” I asked, and was then informed that the flights were full for weeks. I asked if there was any wait list or way to get on and they told me to return at 3 pm to see if there had been any cancellations. I showed up at 3 pm, and the office was closed. I tried again a few hours later and found them open, and they told me to return the following day at 2 pm. I did, and the office was closed. After this happened several more times I started to lose my patience with the folks at the DAP office...but I had yet to experience the full of their incompetence (I can only assume DAP pilots are as much above average as the staff at the office were below it...).

This has nothing to do with the story, but is a memorial plaque in the Puerto Williams museum honoring Captain Robert FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle, who visited Isla Navarino several times in his trips to South America

Meanwhile I went to scope out my other options. I was too late to get the next-day’s zodiac, the one for Saturday was full, and the weather for Sunday was looking iffy enough that they warned it may not go on Sunday.  So the zodiac was out. I wasn't keen on the expensive and slow ferry, despite the scenery (which with bad weather rolling in probably wouldn't be too spectacular anyhow) because it would mean missing the first full day of hiking with my friends.

So I spent a lot of time hanging out at the yacht club in hopes of meeting someone I might be able to catch a ride to Ushuaia with. It was a fun place to hang out regardless, full of fascinating people, and also had the town’s best internet signal (there are, it turned out, three places in Puerto Williams with an internet signal: the town library with terrible slow internet in a cramped space, the town museum with somewhat less slow internet that cut out often but in a really nice spot, and the yacht club which was about on par with the museum but had the distinct advantage of also having a bar). The first night back, this meant arriving with the intent of having a beer and seeing who was there, and leaving at 4am having drunk ALL the beers that the yachties and Chilean navymen kept buying me.

Inside the Club de Yates, coolest bar ever.

I had a great time there meeting and talking to people and especially enjoyed getting to know Ben and Anna (and their dog Osa), a San Franciscan couple my age who had sailed down from San Fran over the course of several years and were also looking to bum rides to Ushuaia in order to hop on a free trip to Antarctica that they had managed to charm their way onto.

My dancing all night after my trek got me two things: (1) very sick, and (2) an invitation to an asado at the yacht club the following day. The asado was being thrown at the club on Friday to welcome the sailors who were arriving for a friendship regatta being hosted by the Chilean Navy in order to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of Puerto Williams. Free wine, free food, and fun company? I do not say no to such things. At the asado, my host and I put out the word that I was looking for a ride, but there were no bites. Still, I got to meet some real characters including the famous Charlie Porter, a glaciologist (officially a research associate at the University of Maine) living out of his two boats and house in Puerto Williams, but in one of his previous lives was a pioneering (and still legendary) big-wall rock climber in Yosemite and Patagonia.

On Saturday the folks at DAP had suggested that I show up at 11:30 at the airport to ask the captain if he could squeeze another passenger on what I assumed was an afternoon flight (since I asked at DAP if I needed to bring all my luggage with me and they said no). Apparently this is pretty standard there and my chances were actually decent—if they weren’t hauling a lot of stuff, they might have weight left over for me. So I slowly dragged my sick, wheezing self the 40 minute hike to the airport from town. I made it almost all the way there at shortly after 11 when, first, a plane took off (this worried me). Shortly thereafter a car full of carabineros who were dropping a friend off for a flight drove by (this unworried me somewhat) and picked me up. We arrived just as a vehicle full of the folks I recognized from my many trips to the DAP office was departing, and they told us that the flight had already left. It turns out that the staff at the Puerto Williams DAP office have no idea when their own planes leave.

Bridge on the way to the airport.

My carabinero friend was furious in the totally calm, joking Chilean way (tip from Charlie Porter: “The key in Chile is you never, ever lose your cool. Chileans communicate in jokes when they get pissed off.”), since he had also been told to show up at 11:30, and he was a ticket-carrying passenger. We spent an uncomfortable hour back in the DAP office trying to wrangle our way onto the evening flight, although at that point I never wanted to set foot in the DAP office again, having written them all off as utterly useless.

We were promised that if we returned to the airfield at 7:30 pm, the carabinero would have a ride and I might be able to squeeze on as well. To me this meant that there might be a flight leaving sometime that evening but they definitely wouldn't have room for either of us when we showed up, but I kept my mouth shut and agreed when the carabinero told me to meet him at the police station at 6 pm to drive over nice and early (since he, too, did not trust the info from DAP).

Tired, sick, feeling quite miserable, frustrated, and hungry, I returned to Patty’s, stopping on the way at the waterfront to watch the regatta which was now fully underway and to catch my sick, wheezy breath. I cooked myself some soup and chatted with the latest arrivals. I told Patty my plans to leave at 6 pm and try to catch the afternoon flight and teared up when we said our “maybe goodbyes”.

It was the first time I had come close to crying in over a month. Walking back to the yacht club heavy-hearted it struck me how deeply the place had grabbed onto my heart. My wild soul had found a place wild enough to want to stay.

Colorful boats (with the Yaghan scenic ferry in the back right) in Puerto Williams

How I hitchhiked on a yacht to cross the Beagle Channel

I wandered back across town to the yacht club, feeling suddenly lonely and craving the company of friends. After chatting briefly with Ben and Anna I curled up on the upper inside deck of the club to catch up on emails, rest, work on getting a blog post up, try to map out my transport options, and update Serena on my transportation situation.

Suddenly Anna appeared with the news that they had found someone to catch a ride with, leaving the next morning to Ushuaia, and that if I asked there might be room for me as well but I’d need to commit right then because they were heading over to the port station to get their passports stamped out (since Puerto Williams is in Chile, and Ushuaia in Argentina). I waffled since if I could get onto the flight it would be a lot faster, but I decided to walk with them anyhow since I was going that way in order to meet the carabinero for our attempted flight-catching.

Sailboats participating in the Puerto Williams 60th Anniversary friendship regatta

On the way over, the yacht’s captain Marcel informed Ben and Anna that he wanted to leave that evening instead because bad weather was rolling in. When he said that, I jumped, thinking if I could get to Ushuaia that night I could catch the early morning bus on Sunday, get to Punta Arenas Sunday night, and be in Natales in plenty of time. So I put on my gutsy mooch pants and asked Marcel directly if there might be room for me, too. He gave a sort of noncommittal response, so once we got to the station I asked, directly again, feeling really awkward about being pushy but sufficiently driven by desperation. He said yes, sure, why not, and I promised to supply wine to seal the deal.

And that’s how it happened that my fourth experience hitchhiking in my life was on a yacht.

Iorana, Captain Marcel's yacht

I felt guilty about standing up the carabinero, but figured he would make it to the airport without me as Ben, Anna, and I handed over our passports and Captain Marcel checked us out of the country. I suggested Patty’s place as a place for dinner before we took off. Marcel laughed since he was friends with Patty and was already planning on having dinner there. Ben and Anna had to pack for Antarctica (how often do you get to say that?), so Marcel and I walked to Patty’s together.

We chatted on the way and Captain Marcel told me stories about how he’d landed in this part of the world. How he’d worked chartering trips (and still does) around Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn. How he was now old enough to collect his Belgian pension and that it provided plenty to live on while he worked as a gaucho at Yendegaia. How he loved living without a phone and internet. How he had been married once for seven years and that was quite enough. How “I’m happy, I have no problems, I don’t want someone else’s problems.” And I could only nod my head and agree on that count.

Patty had a treat in store for us: a mountain of fresh king crab, the last of the season. I supplied the wine, an “expensive” (for Chile, where excellent wine is about as cheap as water) $12 USD bottle of Casillero del Diabalo 2012 Reserva Carmenere. Casillero del Diabalo is my favorite wine back home, and since discovering Carmenere in Chile it has become my favorite wine, and sweet shit this was good. Patty and Marcel and the others kept loading me up with so much crab that I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to walk. It was absurdly tasty on its own, and Patty makes a magic Mapuche merkén (like chipotle) spicy sauce (as well as a really good garlic mayonnaise, but her magic spicy sauce is my favorite) that made it mind-blowing. It was a meal that in a restaurant in Ushuaia—or anywhere else for that matter—probably would have run over $100. And that was just a regular dinner with friends at Patty’s place. (I miss her!)

There were several of these trays served up.

King Crab dinner at Patty's

Me, Captain Marcel, and Patty

It was around 10 pm when we wandered back to the boat, me with all my stuff, and loaded down with a belly-full of what must have been several pounds of crab. We grabbed Ben and Anna, hopped on the boat, untied from the Club de Yates, and were off. Marcel’s yacht, Iorana, was very comfortable, with a large aft cabin where he stores his wine and dried meats (and where we dropped our packs), a kitchen and dining table that converts to a large bed, a side couch, and a fore berth where Marcel slept. He set the autopilot and got up every few minutes to check on things while we sat and chatted. I was exhausted and although I  tried to stay awake and chat as long as I could, I soon fell asleep at the table for an hour, after which I was given permission to curl up in a corner and was out cold until we docked in Ushuaia at 4 am.

What I hadn't factored into my flash decision to take the boat was that I’d have to check in to Argentina before I’d be allowed to go anywhere, and the offices wouldn't be open until 9 am—well after the morning bus I had wanted to take had left (and as it turned out I wouldn't have been able to get on that bus even if the timing had worked out). Well, at least I’d get to sleep.

Marcel turned the boat radios off, determined to sleep as long as possible, and we all fell asleep to the sound of the thumping bass of a Saturday night party raging onshore. He woke us up at 10 am to go check in. We had breakfast (I supplied bread, butter, juice, and oranges, Ben and Anna supplied what fruit they had left from their boat, and Marcel spoiled us all with homemade rhubarb jam. We all waked over to the police station where they took their sweet-ass time (over an hour) checking us in. Then we said our goodbyes and scattered: Marcel to deal with customs, Ben and Anna to find their friend to help prep the boat for the trip to Antarctica, and me to try to book a bus ticket to Punta Arenas.

Anna on arrival in Ushuaia

Escaping Ushuaia

Ushuaia has no bus terminal, which made things difficult. Buses in Chile and Argentina generally cannot be booked online as a foreigner. The booking offices were all closed since it was a Sunday. At the info center I was told that word I hate so much, “imposible”, when I asked where or how I could secure myself a seat on a bus for the morning.

In fact, the info I was supplied at the info center was wrong. I had spent many hours in the previous days mapping out my transport options and knew that there was a Chilean bus company that at least in theory ran a bus Monday mornings from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas. When I asked at the info center about this bus, they said “no existe” and handed me a printout of the “complete” list of bus connections, which did not include the company that had the Monday bus. It later occurred to me that all of the companies on their list were Argentinian, which further confirmed my finding that Argentinians generally refuse to acknowledge that Chileans can do anything right (contrary to my experience, where Chilean outfits generally do the same thing for cheaper and in a more friendly way). They also told me that it was not possible to pay on board a bus in Argentina, and that because tomorrow was a holiday nothing would be open, so there was no possible way for me to leave Ushuaia until Tuesday. I didn't believe them.

Ushuaia is, however, a very beautiful town.

I was tired and grumpy and sick of information offices feeding me blatantly wrong information and being the absolute opposite of helpful. I started asking around town in shops and tourist agencies instead about where I could get a bus until finally one person pointed me down the street with the words, “5 blocks that way, be there at 6 am”. Sure enough, 5 blocks away, I found the office of a little tour agency with a little piece of paper taped in the window that showed the Monday bus I had seen on the internet leaving at 7 am.

I found a hostel that would let me pay $60 Argentine pesos (~$10 USD, depending on who you exchange money with) for a day of internet, use of their kitchen, and shower, and settled in, crossing my fingers that I could show up and get on that bus the next morning. Meanwhile, I randomly connected with an acquaintance from Bariloche who was in Ushuaia celebrating her very successful exams to be a tourism guide in Bariloche, and we caught up over dinner. I hope she makes it into the business soon, because, I had decided, competent providers of tourist information are desperately needed in this part of the world!

Marcel had generously offered to let me spend another night on the boat, so after dinner I wandered back to the boat, crawled into my sleeping bag (Marcel was off partying with boat friends), and woke up early the next morning (Marcel was out cold, so I left him a note to thank him and say goodbye) to see about the bus.

View of the boat mooring in Ushuaia at sunrise

I showed up at the tour office at 6 am, walking up the streets while the discos were still raging. There wasn't a soul to be seen outside except a stand of groggy police officers up early to keep drunk kids from getting into too much trouble. The tour office was dark, so I left a “I need a bus ticket!” note at the door and then tried to sneak into the hostel two blocks away for the shower that I hadn't used the previous day. I was caught by thoroughly disgruntled employee who I only confused with explanations, but in the end I think he was too tired to deal with me and gave up and let me shower. I was quick, and back at the tour office by 6:30, at which point the discos had dumped their load and the streets were full of kids who looked way too young to be drinking legally and girls in platform shoes and mini-dresses in the frigid cold while I was bundled up in a down jacket. The office was still dark, but I was relieved to see  a small crowd gathered outside.

I chatted with a man who turned out to be a Penguinologist from Oxford until the bus showed up and, much to my relief, they let me in without a ticket. Not only that, but they let me pay in Chilean pesos and gave me a very generous exchange rate that meant I paid about 60% of what I thought I was going to have to pay ($30000 CHP, which equals ~$60 USD). Score! I settled into my seat with Professor Penguin and breathed an enormous sigh of relief. Professor Penguin had celebrated his birthday the night before and a friend had baked him a cake, which he shared with me for breakfast. I felt like the luckiest person alive.

A final Ushuaia photo

After that it was 11 hours of tedium (= rest, sweet rest) interrupted only by a long hour and a half wait at the border crossing where, for some reason, they never bothered to stamp us out of Argentina. Then another stop at the ferry crossing across the Strait of Magellan between Rio Grande and Rio Gallegos where, because of huge swells they took us out of the bus and put us inside  (I didn't have time to grab my camera, so no photos or videos, sadly). This was fortunate because unlike all of the other long bus rides I had been on, this bus didn't feed us meals or snacks and I was getting hangry (= hungry + cranky, thanks Tom & Ellen for the brilliant word). Professor Penguin and I got hot dogs.

Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales: the final leg

We arrived in Punta Arenas at 6 pm, and 10 minutes before our arrival I was informed at all of the buses continuing to Natales for the next 24 hours were full. By this point this neither surprised nor phased me, I just asked about other bus companies and the bus steward actually called ahead for me and made me a reservation with another company. Because—I know this may come as a shock to my Argentinian readers (giving you guys shit, but you know I love you)—Chileans are helpful! And nice!

We pulled into Punta Arenas, I hugged Professor Penguin goodbye (he was transferring between two Antarctic trips to visit his penguin colonies), and the bus steward gave me directions to the other bus company. On my way I was tempted to stop and get dinner—food other than hot dogs and cake and cookies—but thought I’d check in first just to be safe. I showed up and was immediately whisked onto an earlier bus. Food can wait. I was finally on the final leg to meet my friends!

Surprise friend addition to the birthday tour: Anneke, my Australian friend I had met in Bariloche.
No one got swagger like Anneke.

I arrived in Natales three hours later (after a total of 14 hours sitting on buses) at around 9:30 pm. I set off from the bus station confidently, with a carefully-drawn map that I had made up with the help of the Internets in Ushuaia the day before in hand—only to end up standing in the rain, confused, turning in circles, trying to figure out where I was, hopelessly lost, because Natales had built a new bus terminal that was well off the edge of my nice little map. But less than a minute later someone came to my aid and the chatty, frighteningly made-up but good-hearted woman walked me most of the way to the hostel while telling me her entire life’s story.

I arrived at 10 pm where I was greeted by the hostel owner, who was expecting me thanks to my Bariloche pal Anneke who managed to make it down to join us for the trek and who had arrived the day prior. I was so very relieved to see Anneke, a familiar face, a friend to go play with. Anneke even fed me. I slept like a rock that night. The next morning at 8 am, Serena and Eric were there with their rental car, and off we went to our trek in Torres.

On the road with Eric

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Navarino VIII: The Feral Swampbeast returns to civilization

Part VIII in the story of my 7-day solo trek on Isla Navarino, continued from Part VII: Blizzards and Beavers. To start at the beginning or to see the full list of Navarino episodes, click here.

My morning view

Although it was cold when I woke up on my final day of my hike, the sun was shining. Having slept a fairly solid 9 hours I was ready for my only early start. I had woken up with “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” stuck in my head for no particular reason that I could think of, and so began my day singing out loud in my best gospel voice, alone in the mountains, like a true crazy hermit. After a final breakfast of runny oatmeal while my sleeping bag and tent dried a bit in the sun, still singing, I was ready to go and was on the trail by 8 am.  And this time there was a trail, at least way markers that were more often visible than not for the first few hours.

She's alive!!
Despite the trail, and despite the singing (or maybe because of it?) I was moving slowly. My cold had moved to my lungs and I was wheezing and short of breath, and with my sinuses completely plugged, breathing was hard (and you can imagine how good the singing actually sounded). I would get out of breath walking downhill, when usually I can charge up hills with a pack without too much problem. But I had all day, and although the distance I had to cover was comparable to some very long days I had had, the good weather, spectacular  views, and presence of a trail made me hopeful that I could made good time for a change even at a slow, steady pace.

The hike was beautiful, and the snow lent everything a certain additional air of solitude and romance, but I was very cold and my feet were soaked all day, which they had also been most of the previous days, but the cold made it especially hard. And, of course, I couldn't escape the beavers and once again landed in beaver terrain. Beaverland turned into bog again and my path continued through miles of swamp. I could smell my own feet with each step, which by now smelled distinct from and significantly worse than the bog water in which they had been incubating all week.

Footprints in the snow at the end of the world.
I crested the small pass that marked the longitudinal backbone of the island and suddenly I could see the ocean again, the Beagle Channel. I had returned to vistas where I could no longer say “no humans as far as I can see”. With mixed feelings, I was returning to civilization: looking forward to warming up and drying out my feet and resting off my cold, but very reluctant to leave the delightful solitude I had so much enjoyed. I felt like some feral thing, emerging stinking and filthy from the bogs and peaks and blizzards of the wild south and skulking warily into the habitat of other humans.

And civilization met me that early afternoon with dusty dirt roads and swarms of black bugs that got up my nose and in my eyes and down my shirt and everywhere. And I emerged from the road in the woods into the wood-smoky air of Puerto Williams, simultaneously relieved and reluctant.

My first stop when I returned to Puerto Williams was the info center to ask where I could book a plane ticket, since I needed to meet my friends for my birthday trek in Torres del Paine in a few days. She looked at me and suggested instead that I take the long ferry to Punta Arenas, commenting, “I can see from your face that you have had…an experience. It seems you need time to rest.” I later saw what she meant. I was windburnt, had dark circles under my eyes, bleeding scratches on my face, and matted hair decorated with sticks. And then there was the stench coming from my feet.

View of the Beagle Channel from a crest in the trail

I stopped by the DAP office to ask about the plane anyhow, the ferry would get me to my friends too late. All flights were full for a week, contrary to what I had been told before I left that I should just book when I returned from my hike. But they said to come back in a few hours and check for cancellations. I thought that was a fine idea, maybe I’d have better luck after a shower.

Next I stopped by the Carabineros to register my safe return. The officer on duty seemed surprised when he checked the records and saw when I had left and heard where I had been and asked me about it, saying he had never been out there, or even past the Cerro Banderas. I showed him some photos (my camera having successfully mostly dried out) and told him a bit about the trip. He commented about all of the others who had turned back that week because of the weather and wondered how I got on. “It was cold, wet, and snowy,” I said, “but beautiful. Incredible.” As I was there, two more guys—one a seasoned Pacific Crest Trail distance hiker—showed up. They had also given up on their trek due to the weather and lack of trail.

I walked out feeling like a warrior queen, trailing broken hearts and taking swigs from a flask full of tears milked from her conquered enemies. Although to be fair I had also not finished the Dientes circuit. But give up, tuck tail, and return to town? The thought had honestly never crossed my mind. With the exception of the fall in the swamp, at no point did I feel scared or in over my head. I had only wished I had more time to go back and finish the circuit after my wander to the south. I wondered what it would have taken for me to have actually returned early. A legion of pumas chasing me down off the pass, I decided. Or running out of food. I need to learn how to hunt and clean an animal, I decided, thinking of the beaver. Or a wet sleeping bag that I couldn’t dry out.

Church in Puerto Williams

Finally I returned “home” to Patty’s. I stripped off my gaitors and boots and socks at the door, walked in, and was met by a giant hug from Patty. It was like coming home to mom. “The best time of my life,” was all I could say. Despite the cold, the wet, and the rain, it really had been. Mira!” She responded with a grin. She saw that I had fallen deeply, madly in love with the island that she, too, loved.

I started to unpack and was about to take a shower when I met my roommate for the evening who appeared in the door and asked if I wanted a beer. Beer. Ohhellzyess I wanted a beer. A cold, glorious, delicious beer (Austral Yagán—a very good dark beer). So I sat, sipping and delighting in the beer, looking like a wild creature and smelling worse, chatting for an hour with Fernando about life, careers, and adventures.

And then I finally showered, clumps of hair coming out as I tried to shampoo my matted head. I put on clean clothes, brushed what was left of my hair, and even put on mascara. And just like that I went from feral swampbeast to domesticated human, but a domesticated human who had been reunited with her strong and independent heart and fiercely wild soul.

I cleaned my stuff, re-packed, and then had dinner with an older Canadian couple who had cycled all the way from Bolivia to Punto Arenas, including the entire length of Argentina’s legendary Ruta 40. The food and shower and beer having made me feel like a new person, I decided to go out to the Club de Yates for a beer—just one beer, to check in with people, I told myself.

Panorama of the Club de Yates

I ended up staying for much longer than one beer, chatting and laughing and dancing until 4 am with the other wild souls who had also been drawn by the gravity of the romance of adventure of the end of the world to land at that bar (and the entirety of the Chilean navy posted in Puerto Williams…as the only woman at the bar, I was popular that night).

Poor Fernando, who also showed up, was obligated to escort me home (I bullied him into staying later and later for round after round of beer, because I’m a terrible person and a despotic drunk, and also had no idea how late it was). The skies were stunning, with the light just coming up and turning the clouds an eerie pastel.

On the walk back to Patty’s Fernando and I shared the stories of our lives: our dreams, our passions, the lessons we had learned from our adventures that had brought us to that night.  When we tucked into our bunks in otherwise empty hostel, the conversation had turned to our love lives, and he said, “You are an interesting person, I think you will find someone very soon.” 

I laughed and replied that the challenge isn’t finding someone. It’s finding someone who enriches your life instead of tying you town and eating your soul. 

There was a long silence followed by a quiet yes, and we fell asleep.

Or rather we both laid there staring at the ceiling for a while absorbed in our own silent conversations, mine between my heart, which the minute I made that comment ached to find that someone, my head, who countered that it seemed relationships are having another person tie you down and eat your soul, and my soul who wrapped its wings around my head and my heart and said quietly “Sssh, it’s okay now, we’re okay now.” And, reassured and agreeing that, indeed, everything was okay, very much more than okay, (and my soul, being fierce and wild, was not about to be eaten without a good fight) the three of them snuggled into the squishy sack of exhausted flesh that was my body and I fell asleep with a smile.


Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Navarino VII: Blizzards and Beavers

Part VII in the story of my 7-day solo trek on Isla Navarino, continued from Part VI: Bushwhacking North. To start at the beginning or to see the full list of Navarino episodes, click here.

The blanket of dry powder snow that I
woke up to on Morning 6 in the tent
An all-day blizzard
on Isla Navarino

It was so cold on my sixth night that it actually snowed inside my tent when condensation from my breath hit the tent wall, froze, and fell back down. So I woke at 6 am to a thin layer of snow on my sleeping bag and pack and ice encrusting the inside walls of the tent. The blizzard outside was still raging but I had a fairly full bladder so I decided to brave it.

In the time it took for me to open the tent door, use my poles to lean my ass as far out of the tent as I could, pee, and retreat back into the tent, there was a small snowdrift inside the tent that I then did my best to shovel back outside with my cooking pot. If you've been following this story, you've probably noticed that my reaction to morning adversity is to crawl back into my sleeping bag and sleep a few more hours, and that’s exactly what I did.

Around 8 am I woke again and it was somewhat warmer, so I poked my head out to see if it was safe to leave. It was still snowing hard and the tent was now buried in six-inch drifts (of dry powder! If I had had my splitboard with me, that might have made me happy). My retreat back into my tent and sleeping bag was like The Oatmeal’s Nope Godzilla scene (if you don't know what I'm talking about, click here and thank me later):

My response to waking up in a blizzard.

I may never have left my tent that day if, at around 9 am, I hadn't suddenly had to poop. Like two days earlier, it was preceded by that “DO NOT IGNORE” gurgle and although I pleaded with my bowels, “Can’t it wait? Have you seen the snow outside? Can we at least get things packed up first?” the answer was an insistent, “NO, must poop now!” So out I went. Sorry if this is too much poop talk and grossing you out (maybe put your breakfast away?) but the pile I left was so large that I was concerned. Was I not actually digesting anything? I needed all of the calories I could get. What was it I was eating? At first I blamed the garbonzo beans, but the timing was off… Time to head back to civilization. I had a cold, now diarrhea, and my feet hadn’t been warm or dry since the first day and were starting to turn a disturbing shade of yellow.

Stepping in holes like this probably hadn't helped my foot situation. Although I almost felt sorry for the poor cold microbes living in these stanky ponds...

It took a while to pack that morning. It isn't easy to maneuver inside a one-man tent and since the blizzard was still raging I needed to pack from the inside. Also, I wasn't terribly motivated to get up and go in the middle of the storm, but it wasn't showing any signs of letting up. So I cooked up a quick breakfast (very runny oatmeal since my supplies were low and one of Anneke’s Power Cookies), got my bag packed, threw it outside into a snowdrift, put on my rock-hard frozen-solid boots, packed up the tent, keeping it as dry as I could (the advantage of really cold snow is that it is fairly dry, so although I couldn't avoid including some snow when I rolled it up, at least it wasn't sopping wet from rain), and was off.

I decided to head back down the hill that I had struggled up the evening before in an attempt to find the alternate trail to and from Lago Windhond. The alternative was to head up into the mountains and back over the Dientes, which in the storm and after the past several days of snow in the mountains did not seem like a good idea. I thought the alternate route, which stayed at a lower altitude, would be easier and safer. So off I went, wading through shin- to knee-deep drifts of some of the driest powder snow I had ever been in (it was delightful, it really was, despite the cold I was enjoying myself…I love snow!). Downhill on the “trail” (a winter storm had blown down a lot of trees, including many that had once marked the way) was not much easier or faster than my long struggle up the evening prior, and I was once again reminded of Darwin’s description of his hike up Mount Tarn, or more specifically this time, of his description of the descent:

“The strong wind was piercingly cold, and the atmosphere rather hazy, so that we did not stay long on the top of the mountain. Our descent was not quite so laborious as our ascent, for the weight of the body forced a passage, and all the slips and falls were in the right direction.”

View from the ridgeline where I had camped looking out at where I had come from the day prior: Lago Windhond and Bahia Windhond beyond.

I arrived back at the bottom of the hill with only a few falls and was hoping for smooth sailing…if only I could find the trail.

Because beavers. I fucking hate beavers. After getting down the hill I spent all day shin-deep in muck and mud in a blizzard while trying to pick my way through the beaver-flooded terrain and fallen logs that were everywhere. Trail markers, when I happened to see any, were few and far between (I maybe saw 10 in an entire 6 hours of hiking after getting down the hill), the beavers having run off with them, apparently viewing the painted red stripes as “fell this tree” signs. Somewhere in that miserable valley there must be a beaver who decorated the interior of her fetid dam home with chunks of red-painted marker signs.

To my Caltech and MIT friends: your mascot is Satan dressed in fur.

Logpocalypse courtesy of the introduced North American Beaver

I was stuck in a wet maze of the logpocalypse. Between wheezy breaths, I cursed the beavers out loud while I walked (after 7 days without communicating with anyone, long one-way tirades directed at the beavers seemed like the thing to do). The problem wasn't a lack of track, the problem was figuring out whether that track was made by humans (probably the men whose tracks I had seen leading up to the refugio) and therefore indicative of a path passable by humans, or whether the track was made by beavers and would dead-end in the forest or lead straight to some filthy little beaver lair in the muck. Beaver tracks and human trails were indistinguishable in width and appearance except, when the mud was clear, the occasional bootprint. When the mud was not clear, occasionally I would see the shimmer of a parallel set of lines which could have been made by boot tread…or just accidentally by sticks. So for hours I honed my tracking skills and played the “human or beaver” game, picking my way through that final cesspit of beaverdom.

At one point I had stopped to wheeze for a bit when I had once again lost the trail to a dead-end of beaver track when a movement caught my eye. I turned toward the nearest beaver pond and saw a splash. MOTHERFUCKER, I thought. Sure enough, one of the filthy little beasts poked its furry little brown head out of the water and looked right at me. I stared at it, scowling. It floated to the top of the water so that its whole body was visible. I stared. It stared back.

“You filthy little piece of shit!” I yelled. Then wheezed for a bit.

The beaver didn't move.

I looked around me for a rock to throw. There were no rocks, only logs and sticks left by no doubt that very same little hellbeast. I looked around for a pointy stick and found a few, but remembered how poor I always was at javelin in high school track and field. Still… Patty at the hostel had mentioned that, in an effort to eradicate the beavers from the island, the government pays out $10 USD per dead beaver. I didn't think $10 was worth schlepping back a dead beaver to town, but maybe I could kill it and cut off its tail. I picked up a stick with a sharp, pointy end.

My nemesis

“Come here, I dare you, you fat brown turd.” I said.

The beaver swam closer. Still out of range.

“Your mother has big ugly yellow buck teeth, doesn't she?”

Beaver swam a little closer.

“You’re an invasive species. Know what that means? It means you don’t belong here.”

Closer. I suck at insults.

I stepped toward the pond, crawled up on a log, stick in one hand, and as I was stepping down to the other side, slipped and fell face-first into the mud. Fortunately not onto the pointy stick. I laid there, chest in the mud, backpack pinning me down, wheezing. I looked up and there the beaver was, just out of spitting distance, no doubt laughing at me. I didn't have the energy or the breath to laugh, but had to smile at the absurdity of it all. Me, hand bloodied on my spear during the fall, faceplanted in mud, beaver swimming smugly in its little engineered swimming pool as the snow fell lightly. In the standoff of me vs. beaver, the beaver had won. My species had inhabited this island at least ten thousand years longer than its species had, and yet here it was, the homes it and its forbearers had built essentially restricting human habitat to where the beavers were not. Having grown up in a part of the world where beavers have been largely displaced by humans from their native habitats, there was a certain poetic irony in that thought, and I granted the beaver his last laugh as I limped away.

I stopped to make camp at 7 pm having not really stopped all day except to try to figure out where I was and where I was going, pulling cookies and pieces of a sort of gross butter and mystery-paté sandwich as I walked. I was hungry, soaked, tired, but the lake that I stopped at was gorgeous and surrounded by high mountains, it was snowing lightly, and it was hard to not feel like I had landed inside a beautiful End of the World snowglobe.

Inside my end-of-the-world snowglobe

I unpacked and set up my wet tent. It had been so cold when I had packed it in the morning that the ice had remained as a thin sheet on the inside walls of the tent and had slowly melted throughout the day, soaking the tent from the inside as I walked. My sleeping bag was slightly damp which meant it was going to be cold. I wiped the inside of the tent down as best I could and try to let the bag dry (unlikely in the below-freezing weather) while I cooked dinner.

Dinner was spaghetti (again! But spaghetti makes great trail dinners and I can’t say I was sick of it…although being starved at the end of a long day means I was just grateful for something—anything—to eat) with pesto seasoning and a few scoops of the weird-tasting mystery paté, and, again, packaged instant pumpkin soup mixed into the pasta water. Although by this point I had gotten the hang of the soup-water proportions and the soup finally tasted pretty good. I threw a scoop of butter into the spaghetti for good measure. Then another into the soup. Calories.

I prepped lunch and breakfast for my final day in the morning, pre-packed my bag for a fast exit when I woke up wanting to get an early start, and slipped myself a melatonin in hopes of getting myself to sleep despite the damp and cold. I had a long day ahead of me with more beavers to come and did not trust the weather to get any better, so I was going to need the energy. It was full daylight when I closed my eyes at 9 pm.

View from near camp on Night 6
The story continues for my final day of the trek in Navarino Part VIII: The Feral Swampbeast Returns to Civilization

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Navarino VI: Bushwhacking North

Part VI in the story of my 7-day solo trek on Isla Navarino, continued from Navarino Part V: Bahia Windhond or the day I stood naked at the end of the world. To start at the beginning or to see the full list of Navarino episodes, click here.

Some of the remnants of the snow patches around the tent after breakfast.
I woke up after sleeping for eleven hours feeling decidedly under the weather. I had a headache, sore throat, full sinuses, and felt absolutely exhausted. But I got up and opened the tent door to find patches of snow around the tent from the storm overnight.  I made myself a sad breakfast of runny oatmeal (next time: pack more oatmeal) mixed with trail mix and honey, packed my pack, and headed back along the shore of Lago Windhond toward the refugio.

Lago Windhond

I walked slowly along the lake, stopping often to empty my sinuses and observe and note the changes in the rocks along the shoreline, but still made it back to the refugio in three hours and change. It was cold, but I made a sort of lunch with crumbly packaged wheat pita bread (having exhausted my supply of the much tastier and more robust fresh Chilean flatbread), butter, and a mystery pate smear. The treat, however, was the garbonzo mash, and I ate half of what was left. The flavor, garlic, and salt was just what I was craving.

I was back on the trail by shortly after 3 pm after having left my name with the others in charcoal on a wall inside.


I turned on my MP3 player for the first time on the trip—which had miraculously also survived the swim in the Death Swamp three days prior—for an energy boost. This time I followed the trail (which was mostly intact and visible at the refugio) instead of going through the bog I had come in on. It felt good to be on a trail, knowing I’d finally make good time again. Even if “trail” meant largely sparsely-spaced sticks in a different peat bog with the occasional boot print from the guys who had come through several days prior to reassure me that I was on the right track. For a good hour, I was moving fast.

But beavers. Beavers, goddamned beavers, who once again were the bane of my existence having absconded with critical waymarkers in a confusing beaver-y area. After trying in vain to re-find the trail after crossing the beaver zone, I gave up and started to reluctantly climb the ridge the map said the trail climbed—the ridge I had avoided on my way down to the refugio three days earlier. The beavers and winter storms had turned the previously forested ridge into a labyrinth of fallen trees.

Domain of the Beavers

Here’s the thing about a labyrinth of fallen trees: it’s a jungle gym. And climbing a hill over logs, attempting to crawl under logs, balancing on slanted logs to climb over other fallen logs, shimmying up logs too slippery or narrow to confidently walk on—all with a pack—once again progress slowed to a literal crawl. What would have taken maybe 20 minutes with a good trail took over two hours of ducking under, crawling over, and falling into trees. 

It reminded me of a passage from Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, which I had been reading on my borrowed Kindle, about a side trip he made to climb Mount Tarn (on the coast south of Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego), just 200 km to the NE of where I was on Isla Navarino:

“We went in boat to the foot of the mountain (but unluckily not the best part), and then began our ascent. The Forest commences at the line of high-water mark, and during the first two hours I gave over all hopes of reaching the summit. So thick was the wood, that it was necessary to have constant recourse to the compass; for every landmark, though in a mountainous country, was completely shut out…So gloomy, cold, and wet was every part, that not even the fungi, mosses, or ferns could flourish…it was scarcely possible to crawl along, they were so completely barricaded by great mouldering trunks, which had fallen down in every direction. When passing over these natural bridges, one’s course was often arrested by sinking knee deep into the rotten wood; at other times, when attempting to lean against a firm tree, one was startled by finding a mass of decayed matter ready to fall at the slightest touch.”

The hill was muddy so even when I had ground (versus fallen trees) to walk on it was difficult. More than once I slipped and fell, each time grateful that the branches and sticks were just enough out of the way that one didn’t end up through my eye. After my fifth slip with branches alarmingly close to my face I became so certain that this climb was going to lose me an eyeball that I amused myself for the next hour of the following slog by trying to figure out how I would deal with the inevitable loss of an eye.

Would there be much blood? There are blood vessels in the eyelid, but to the eye? Could I just get by with sticking some gauze in my eyeball-less socket and call it a night? Maybe I could save the eyeball (assuming I could find it in the mess of logs and bushes and mud) and maybe it could even be rewired or something? But what if it was one of those blood-gushing injuries? Then I’d have to light a fire, get a stick glowing hot, and cauterize my own eye socket. That did not sound fun, but I mentally prepared myself for the possibility. At least it hadn’t rained since morning and there was relatively dry firewood around, so I probably could take care of business without having to move too far from where I fell. And once I cauterized my eye socket and made it back to civilization then I’d have to wear an eye patch because glass eyes look weird. And if I had to wear an eye patch then I should probably just go all out and dress like a pirate because people would be less weirded out by someone with an eye patch if they just imagined I was a pirate than they would be a normal person with an eye patch or a glass eye. Or definitely less weirded out than by a person with a puckered stick-cauterized vacant eye socket. And isn’t that a sad statement on our treatment of people with disabilities? And on my train of thought went.

It looked like this for hours.

Incredibly, I made it two hours later to the top of the ridge with both eyes intact, the only injury a puncture wound in my right hand. Better than having to cauterize my blood-gushing eye socket with a red-hot stick for sure. Sure enough, at the top of the ridge I found the trail again, although it looked like I wouldn’t have been much better off if I had found it at the bottom of the hill judging by the trees blown down in the “trail” at the less storm-affected ridge top.

By that time it was almost 7 pm so I started looking for a place to camp, especially since snow was starting to fall. No sooner had I found a spot and put up my tent than a full-on blizzard started, coating my tent in a two-inch blanket of snow as I tried in vain to start a fire for half an hour in order to melt snow for water. I shook the snow off the tent-turned-igloo, scooped it away from the zippers with my once-again-wet feet, and let my trusty camp cooker do the snow-melting job. I was trying to save gas with the fire, but oh well, I still had plenty of gas to last the final two nights, I hoped.

My campsite, just minutes after setting up the tent.

So I melted myself some snow and the resulting water was half sticks and leaves but tasted wonderful (and was clear vs. the weird red of the water the previous two days), and I even managed to cook myself a feast of multi-colored pasta with butter, my second package of tuna, some more mystery seasoning, and pumpkin soup again with the leftover water. All cooked by setting the stove outside in the snow and hiding in my tent, periodically thumping snow off the tent, reaching an arm out to check on the progress of the cooking, and retreating again for a few more minutes. The cooling of the gas can from the loss of gas while cooking caused the can to freeze solidly to the ground, and I was unable to pry it off of the ground, so left it in the snow overnight to deal with in the hopefully warmer morning.

Meanwhile, snuggled up in my sleeping bag, I planned a route for the morning. I decided to cut down to the valley I had just come from since with all this snow I didn’t think continuing on this trail up into the mountains was wise. I plugged my phone in to my spare battery bank to charge since it was getting low on juice and I might need the map and GPS on it. I was in the habit of keeping all of my electronics in my sleeping bag in order to keep the batteries warm and preserve their charge. Great idea in theory, but of course I promptly rolled over on the whole charging setup, broke the tip off the charger, and that was the end of that. No matter, I had managed to get the battery up to 70% first and had already plotted my GPS waypoints, so as long as I didn’t screw around with the phone too much in the coming days I figured I’d be okay. Still…dumb.

Then I settled in for my coldest night yet.

Snow sure is pretty though.

Continued in Part VII: Blizzards and Beavers

Monday, November 18, 2013

Navarino Part V: Bahia Windhond, or the day I stood naked at the end of the world

Part V in the story of my 7-day solo trek on Isla Navarino, continued from Part IV: Refugio Charles and Lago Windhond. To start at the beginning or to see the full list of Navarino episodes, click here.

I am the queen of late starts. Despite waking at around 7 am I didn’t leave camp until around 10. I first spent around two hours trying to mend the giant holes I had burned in my socks at the fire at the previous camp—an attempt that later proved futile, at least in part because of my terrible sewing skills. I didn’t bother with breakfast and just ate some cookies and one of the sandwiches I had packed instead. I put on my damp socks and boots and took off with a little fanny pack with food and a poncho, leaving my tent up in case of bad weather, and thinking I’d be back from the bay—which was right there—by lunch. Ha!


First, less than two minutes in to the trek my bowels made the sort of gurgle that means “DO NOT IGNORE ME” and I barely had time to drop my pants before I suddenly became a full two pounds lighter.

Not long after that, I was stopped again, this time by a large river that was not on the cheesy whole-island map that I now had to rely on (this part of the island falling well off the edge of my halfway decent topo maps). It was, I realized, on my GPS map which if I had seen before should have warned me (my excuse: my phone screen is nearly impossible to read in the glare of the light of day, and with all the rain over the past few days I didn’t often want to take it out of my pocket). None of the creeks that had been very difficult to impossible to cross that I had been hopping and wading through and skirting before had been on the GPS map, so the fact that this map showed up should have clued me into the fact that this would be a large obstacle. Indeed, this was no creek. It was a legitimate river. I walked along its banks for over a mile, trying to see if there was any chance of a shallow spot I could wade across or a series of logs or something, but there was nothing, no way to cross without swimming, which I might have considered if not for my cold (I had woken up with a sore throat, headache, and full sinuses), it being very cold, and not wanting to dunk my camera for a second time in 30 hours.

My campsite. Camera was still a little soggy (hence the fog)... didn't want to get it any wetter.

The river did not go straight to the bay, which as the crow flies was less than 4 km away. It went instead another 12 km to the east, increasing the distance I needed to walk by at least 3x (or 16 more km out and back). I mentally came to terms with the reality of my not making it back by lunch, needing to camp another night in my little hilltop room with a view, and it being now extremely unlikely that I’d be able to make it back to the Dientes circuit in time to make a quick go at it.

But damnit, I was going to make it to that bay! Over the next four hours I marched through forest, peat bog, spiny death bushes, and beaver swamps that in some cases I was only able to get through by tightroping across their dams—in two cases breaking them (sorry beavers, but you did make the route impassable, plus, you are a non-native species…so I didn’t feel too bad).

But this guy was a native species. He can stay.

Most exhausting of all were the chest-deep mounds of beachgrass on the dunes when I finally approached the bay. Where hiking through the peat bogs was like walking for hours on a mattress, the beachgrass involved lifting my leg to my chest, scrambling up, sinking back down, repeat. When I arrived at the beach I was exhausted and my tendons hurt.

More bog.

But I made it.

To the end of the world.

The beach at Bahia Windhond

At least as close to the end of the world I could get without passage on a yacht or a trip to Antarctica, as close to the end of the world as I could get without a whole lot of money I don’t have. The farthest south anyone I know has been who hasn’t been to Antarctica.


I had a glorious ten minutes in the sun when I finally arrived. I ate my sandwich, stripped naked and had just started to wade into the water when I saw the giant dark storm cloud heading straight for me. I thought the better of going for a frigid swim with a storm coming and a four hour walk back to warmth before me. So I waved goodbye to the end of the world, threw my clothes and poncho back on, and hit the chest-deep grass again just as the hail hit.

Where on the hike there I had had many moments where I’d grin and laugh when I’d see some vista and remember where I was and what I was doing, on the way back my brain switched off and I just marched, too tired and cold and wet to enjoy the scenery. I marched back through the mounds of beachgrass, back through the beaver swamps, back through the peat bogs, through forest and plains, through meadows and over hills, poncho on, face set, trying to keep up a good clip to stay reasonably warm in the cold rain.

A sampling of the scenery I marched through.

I marched for hours like that until suddenly, at the top of a ridge forested with tall, slender trees, a gentle wind made the trees sing at the same time that a cloud opened up, sending soft green light dancing around me. I was dazzled.

The moment hit me like a shock, a reminder of where I was, of all that had brought me there, and I was floored with gratitude and happiness. It was like the God I had loved as a young person had appeared in front of me, held out his arms, and said, “See? It was all okay in the end.” I looked around me, bathed in the dancing light and singing trees, filled with the feeling of everything being okay.

In that moment I realized that all of the struggle and torment and tedium and heartache (and good times as well) that had eaten me the past decade and especially the past few years had, as a culmination of forks in the road that my life had taken, brought me there, to this magical grove of trees on an island on the cold, sweaty, southern toe of the Americas. There, to a place and on an adventure of which my self a decade ago would never have dreamed. That it had been okay in the end. More than okay: Incredible. And there I was, standing outrageously happy at the end of the world.


I was moved to do something I hadn’t done in over a decade: I prayed. Dropped to my knees, face to the sky, surrendered myself to the universe, and prayed. I prayed to no deity in particular, having long ago become disillusioned by and walked away from the religion of my childhood, so I was simply talking to the air. But the feeling was the same as when I used to pray in my youth; I felt connected to the universe, felt my soul bursting inside me. It was a prayer of thanks, and a prayer for forgiveness: forgiveness for my lack of understanding and appreciation of all these years, and forgiveness for the anger and bitterness that I had been refusing to give up for so long.

And finally I forgave, in words out loud to the wind, those people against whom I had held the anger that had been eating me alive.

I forgave my German ex-fiancé who, I was finally able to accept, did what he had to do to protect his own happiness and sense of self. In that moment I realized truly that I am happier now than I could have been with the real version of him that I had refused to see and refused to accept. That his leaving was, even though the circumstances were terrible, in the end a gift. That my heart was broken but was returned to me, and that it was in my power to heal it, because my heart is a big heart, a strong heart, and a good heart. In that moment I was finally able to let him, and the rage and disgust and fury that had been rotting me from the inside these past few years, go.

I forgave my beloved sister who, also in making decisions to protect her own happiness, had burned to the ground her own relationship—a relationship that I had held onto as a lighthouse of hope in the wake of my own falling apart as proof that true love was possible. If true love like hers was possible, I felt some hope that I might also find it someday. When her marriage ended I was devastated, because I saw it as proof that I would never find a lasting relationship because real and lasting love does not exist. In that moment in the trees I realized that my happiness does not depend on my finding a soulmate, if such a thing even exists. I realized that I am the happiest I have ever been right now, and I am alone!—and my happiness certainly doesn’t depend on the relationship status of my sister, who I adore and wish every joy in the world.

I forgave the friend who had been my buddy during much of the time I was struggling through the former two hurts who, without word or explanation, threw me off in a way that ripped open the wounds that were just starting to scab over. I realized that although I may never understand why he did it, that I was okay now, that I could be grateful for the happiness he brought me in a very dark time, and that I hoped that whatever he is up to now, that he is happy.


And finally, I forgave myself for my shortcomings and the hell I put other people through during these dark years. I forgave myself for taking so long to get over the other things—for the hell I put my own self through. For being small and bitter and jealous and angry and needy and an imperfect human. I had been furious with people for ruining my life. I needed to see that my life wasn’t ruined, that it was, in fact, better than it otherwise would have been, before I was able to let go and forgive. That was not big of me, but it was human of me, and sometimes we have to forgive ourselves for being humans, not saints. Whatever the path, in the end I had fought through the darkness and clawed my way up from the deep well I had fallen into. I had been brave enough to throw a middle finger to expectations and go on a quest to find where my soul had run off to and to try to heal my heart. I hadn’t done perfect, but I had done good. “It’s okay, Carie,” I thought. “It’s okay now.”

The wind and light wrapped me around me as though the universe was also saying, “It’s okay, Carie, it’s okay now,” and giving me a hug. I stood, feeling if not fully healed at least a whole lot closer. And I felt at peace in my heart for what very well may have been the first time of my 20’s.

The rain started again and the magical huggy wind spirit wasn’t going to take me back to camp, my feet would have to do that, so off I went again. My GPS was acting screwy but I was pretty sure I could find my way back to camp without it. Sure enough, an hour and a half or so later, I laughed out loud when I rounded a corner and almost stepped in my giant, now half-melted turd from the morning (bad pootiquette, I know, but I figured nobody would be around this area until long after the weather had taken care of it, and I didn’t have a trowel on me). I was home!

Home sweet home.

For dinner I cooked a noodle soup and then promptly knocked over the pot and spilled it all over the ground, so I ate dirt-coated noodles picked off the ground and cookies for dinner, enjoying the view for about twenty rain-free minutes before the rain returned. It was a cold night, not only because I had a cold but because it was a cold storm, and I curled up inside my tent bundled up in several layers including a down jacket inside my down sleeping bag and still felt cold. Cold, but content and happy, and whole.

Spoiler video from the trek:

I woke up to patches of snow around my tent, a preview of the weather to come. Continued in Part VI: Bushwhacking North