Nacho of the High Seas
“When you get to the top of a wall, there’s nothing up there…the end result is absolutely useless. But every time I travel I learn something new, and hopefully I get to be a better person.”
– Yvon Chouinard, 180° South
We slept very little on account of the wind, tossing Nacho about like Shackleton’s rowboat. I drank my coffee, finished my oatmeal, and then emerged from the sliding door into the eerie, gray morning. Something was different. Alarmingly different. The sand dunes that had surrounded Nacho the previous evening were all gone. Smooth, wet ground was all that remained. The windshield and front grill were coated with sand, and a tide pool stood like a partial moat around Nacho.
While we slept, the waves had crept inward and engulfed our camp site. They were frightening waves, breaking in sets twelve at a time, white caps stripping off into the air like the licking flames of a fire by the terrorizing wind. These waves had crossed the sandy wasteland that had separated us from the ocean while we slept. While I danced with lollipops and wagons in my dream world, Nacho braved the high seas, just like Shackleton’s rowboat, in the real world. Pacific Ocean: a misnomer if there ever was one.
I paced back and forth, circling Nacho in disbelief. While I did, a couple of jacketed figures made their way up the otherwise abandoned, remote beach, fighting the oppressive wind. Inspecting the wheels and undercarriage it was impossible to tell how high the water had come. Spitting rain and ocean spray had coated everything in a fine, salty mist. The figures approached so I put up a confident façade, as if we hadn’t nearly been swept away into southern Chile’s penguin and shark infested waters in our hippie bus.
Retired German tourists. Pretty far from civilization, I thought. The whole situation had a Tim Burton air about it.
“Looks like it’s going to be a balmy day,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. The man tightened the hood of his rain jacket around his face against the wind. The woman opened her mouth to speak, and as she did I recoiled in fear. Her thin face was gray and sunken, and when she spoke, her lips parted to reveal teeth smeared with thick trails of blood.
Sweet baby Jesus H. Christ!
She said something, but the little attention I was able to spare was not enough to make heads or tails of it. It was a heinously botched flossing job, complete with swollen gums and squirting blood. I hadn’t seen anything so grotesque since the last time I tried flossing.
In the adventure documentary 180° South, a young man follows in the footsteps of Yvon Chouinard on a southbound journey into Chile’s Patagonia region. The culmination of the voyage puts the traveler in Chile’s Parque Nacional Pumalín, a large swath of land put into conservation by North Face founder Doug Tompkins and his wife Kris. In the film, Chouinard accompanies the young adventurer in an attempt to ascend Cerro Corcovado – a peak which has only been summited once, by Tompkins.
Were the sky not so heavily cloaked by thick gray clouds, Corcovado would have been visible from Chiloe, the small island off the Pacific coast of southern Chile where we were camped. The park that Doug Tompkins helped create is visible from the island, only a few miles to the East. We later realized that our camp site on the windy beach, where we were nearly swept away by the tide, and where we were exposed to the gruesome floss bloodbath, was a filming location in 180° South.
Parque Nacional Pumalín, while an important conservation project, caused some navigational issues for us in our attempt to reach the island of Chiloe. When Tompkins started buying land – around two million acres in all – he raised the suspicions of the Chilean people. Upon consolidating all of his purchases into one account, it became evident that he’d acquired a tract of land stretching from sea to border; a strip that split the country in two. And by placing it into conservation, no roads would be built to connect one side to the other, effectively cutting southern Chile off from the North. In order to reach southern Chile, one would have to cross into Argentina, adding 500 miles to the trip, or else take a pretty expensive ride on a ship.
A week earlier we had made it as far South as the small Welsh town of Trevelin, in Argentina, approximately level with the bottom of Chiloe. Our plan was to cross the Andes and take the ship to the island, which would allow us to circumvent the national park. The day before we intended to sail, we were informed that the ship was down for maintenance for at least a week. Unable to drive through Pumalín, we would have to retrace our steps 500 miles through Argentina and part of Chile to reach it from the North.
The last time we were in Chile, we crossed the driest place on Earth – the Atacama desert. The first thing that we noticed upon crossing into southern Chile was the ample orographic precipitation. As soon as we crossed the border it began to rain, and it would not stop for 20 days.
The rain became the soundtrack to our drive through the Andes. The repetitive whooshing of our windshield wipers announced our arrival in Puerto Montt after the one-day 500 mile jaunt, placing us near the northern end of Chiloe. The bulbous drops battered the roof of the corrugated parking shelter where we camped for four days in the city, and the downpour continued while we explored the fish market and the water front. It rained on the drive to the ferry port, and it rained on us while we camped at the penguin colony on the northern end of the island. In the end we were sure of two things; I can’t remember what the first thing was, but the second is that it rains a lot in Chile.
The day before arriving at our windy beach outpost, we had attempted to reach the Pacific Ocean via a route that we had scoped out on our map. The map’s key described it as a secondary dirt road for the first half, turning into “huella” for the second half, indicated by a thin dashed line. The route looked tortuous, and seemed to guarantee adventure. Huella? Something less good than a secondary dirt road? “Let’s do it!” I told Sheena.
Two hours later, after leaving Sheena and Nacho near a mud bog and walking through the forest to a deep water crossing, I learned that huella is Spanish for “hiking trail”. Trial and error, I’m finding, is a highly effective method of burning new Spanish vocabulary into my brain. Thus, the night before sleeping in the shallows of the Pacific Ocean, we slept near a crystal clear stream surrounded by green grass and big trees at the end of a secondary road, just where the huella to the ocean begins.
We eventually left the barren and windy beach, making our way through colorful villages and striking landscapes on our northward trajectory. An official at the ferry port informed us that the southbound ship was still down for maintenance. With Parque Pumalín in our way, we were left with no other choice than to drive the 500 miles through Argentina, back to where we had started.
This whole thing will eventually come to an end, and perhaps it will be utterly useless. But after all is said and done we may learn something new, and maybe even emerge better people.
“The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.”
– Jeff Johnson, 180° South