“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” So Charles Dickens began his novel of the French Revolution, and at this moment, I honestly can’t decide either… whether this trip to northern Patagonia will turn out the best or worst time of my life.
So maybe it’s not the best time in the world to come. Since booking this trip, we’ve stumbled headlong into a major building project back home. And it’s December—I sing in a Christmas concert the day after we return. There’s not only paperwork and doctors’ appointments and holiday activities, but our entire nation writhes in distress and destruction.
Yet for better or worse, we’ve invested ourselves in this experience, and it’ll become what we make it. My choice, right?
“Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you take it.” –Charles Swindoll
Day 3 Continued
We’re traveling south on a road called Camino El Peludo, “Hairy Way”—because it wears a furry coat of frost in the winter, according to Tamara, one of our guides. The road’s hairy, all right—paved, but barely—as it threads up Andean slopes and through Cerro Castillo National Park, Chile’s newest as of 2016 or ’17. Cerro Castillo (“Castle Hill”) is supposed to be a cyclist’s heaven.
I hope the bicyclers appreciate this crackled pavement, because I feel pretty wretched myself. I try to focus on the wilderness scenery and Tamara’s wonderful nature anecdotes. Above the van’s rattle, she talks about an elusive red fox.
Bright green bags drape over some of the hillside trees… Possibly to protect new plantings? I’m about to ask when I lurch forward at her mention of huemules in the area. I’ve researched these Andean mountain deer for my Swan Island Secrets, so of course I’m instantly riveted.
Chocolate-furred huemules are excellent swimmers. In fact, they love the water, which factors into the plot of the series, and the velvet nap on their antlers helps them float. Since they change their antlers in the spring, I wonder if their swimming ability diminishes during that season without their natural flotation devices?
Though the huemul is cousin to the tiny pudú (of Pursuit of the Pudú “fame” on my list), it’s not nearly as timid. Even so, our chances of encountering one are slim. But if we see their favorite food, the anemone, Tamara suggests we should keep a lookout. The anemones of Aysén are cup-like white-and-yellow alpine flowers of the strawberry family.
A Mighty Castle
We reach the top of the ridge known as Devil’s Door. Despite the lead-gray skies, the 24 downhill curves frame spectacular mountain views of Castle Hill. Is the best or worst of the trip behind us?
The closer we get to the village of Cerro Castillo, the more we can see of Castle Hill. Not really a hill, but a soaring mountain crowned with crenellated parapets, its spikes interwoven with drifting shrouds of cloud. I think of the hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God”—but in Spanish: “Castillo fuerte…” It’s breathtaking, even partially hidden.
At our restroom stop in Cerro Castillo, the driver checks out a problem with the van’s brakes (not surprising!), while the girl guides, Tamara and Ingrid, set up a picnic in the park. In the meantime, we laugh over a photo shoot with the life-size carved gaucho (Patagonian cowboy) who shares his mate (herbal tea).
And a near-miracle happens—the clouds over Castle Hill shift and float away. We snatch the moment for pictures of the snow-capped peak.
It’s early for lunch, but we still have a drive ahead before reaching our destination. So we dig into the picada—wooden slabs of salami, cheese, olives, and nuts. Homemade cookies, a tank-like thermos of hot chocolate. After we’ve put away everything we can possibly eat at 11 a.m., chauffeur Don Daniel informs us that he’s had to call for another van. And it has to come all the way from Coyhaique over the pass.
“You carry the passport to your own happiness.” –Diane von Furstenberg
We’re stumped, stunned. We have an agenda in mind for today. As picturesque as Cerro Castillo is, it’s far from the highlight we planned. Will we make it? Again I question whether this will turn out the best or worst of trips.
But Tamara doesn’t seem overly dismayed. We will detour to the nearby Red Hands Archeological Monument and enjoy a nature hike, which is her forte. Instead of feeling cynical, I am relieved for the break from the road and the chance of some exercise.
The six of us—two guides and two couples—walk through banks of dense temperate forest to a lookout point and then a slanting stone cliff “stenciled” with dozens of terracotta-red hand imprints, some from children. It’s definitely an iron oxide paint, not blood, Tamara reassures me. It feels like centuries-old family artwork. Finger-painting on the cave walls, like the petroglyphs I’ve seen in northern Chile.
My husband and I fall into step with Ingrid on the way back. She’s not the expert here, but obviously a knowledgeable amateur naturalist. She points out the hanging moss called “old man’s beard” and shows us half a dozen species of flowers, including rosehips, chilco (Patagonian fuchsia), and the anemones favored by huemules.
No, we don’t sight deer or foxes of any kind. Maybe we’re too noisy. But I continue peering around the nodding clusters of anemones—also called windflowers. They bow their delicate heads and keep their secrets. Sigh…
We pass a tangled hedge of what looks like silver-plated holiday decorations. Ingrid thinks they’re just dead vines. When I mention my search for calafate berries, she shakes her ponytail. “It’s too early to find them yet,” she says. “They don’t ripen til summer.”
Oh. Disappointment pinches me. Is this the best or worst of times to come here?
We still have an hour to kill, so our group heads across a meadow toward a museum. Crazy, but in the distance its straight-edged walls and golden stone resemble Downton Abbey minus the corner towers. But it’s an old SCHOOL.
I’ve come mostly for the magnificent scenery, but if I’d short-listed any buildings in the region, this would be it. Amazingly—or not—God knew we’d never have visited here if not for the delay. This stop off the beaten track is a gift to me as a writer.
Constructed of rough-quarried stone in the 1950’s, the big barn of a place was designed as a mixed boarding school for the kids of the district. The terrain, the distances, the sparse and scattered population—all precluded the practicality of a school in each locale. I think of the poetess Gabriela Mistral’s early teaching career in a similar situation.
Swan Island Secrets also features a boarding school with students drawn both from the town and the surrounding countryside. Here, outside Cerro Castillo, one heroic teacher/principal/janitor/houseparent supervised the kitchen, dormitory, and classrooms. In my series, the character Coni Belmar, although one of several teachers, has experienced both sides of the desk and has yet to process her ambivalence. Was it the best or worst?
As we explore the different spaces, I imagine living here, studying or working here. This is no elite prep school. The tour guide describes the family atmosphere and the isolation of this home-away-from-home for students. In the early years, even making it back to their parents’ house for mid-winter vacation meant a hazardous undertaking on roads often mired in mud, blocked with snow, or even nonexistent. A long school year in a close environment… The detour offers insights to chew on, at the very least.
On the Road Again
Our new van finally arrives. We start out for Puerto Río Tranquilo, the small port on Lake General Carrera where boats leave for the Marble Caverns tour. I’m excited to be on our way again.
But the leaden skies dull the sights, and the road deteriorates to the roughest gravel I have ever ridden on in my life. Thick woods crowd the view, so there’s little to see. Constant construction halts our progress, but at least provides a rest from the washboard thrashing of my bones. It’s supposed to be a two-hour drive, but seems to grind on forever.
Exhausted, I fall asleep. And wake up in another world.
We have turned some corner and run into Paradise. We’re rumbling along the western shore of an arm of the lake. The sun has emerged in triumph—and what a world of difference it makes.
Lago General Carrera is the largest lake in Chile, and second only to Bolivia’s Titicaca in South America. It rolls out beside me like a carpet of turquoise silk, stretches as endless as an ocean. A jewel set in silver and seafoam, periwinkle and gold. I can’t begin to describe it, so I gaze in silence, my mind a color-splattered canvas.
When we pull into the lake town and creak out of the van, I remark to Verónica, the other woman tourist, “That was the most difficult road I’ve ever been on, but this is most beautiful place I’ve ever seen.”
At the midpoint of our Patagonian Journey, I recognize this as the Mirror Moment of the trip, something like the Mirror Moment of a book.
I see myself gritting my teeth and holding back sobs to get here. Then, I choose to move on and make the best of the worst.
Like detours, delays, and a lot of life lessons, sometimes it takes the worst road to reach the best place. So in the end, best or worst…depends on how you look at it. I decide to live it—and love it.
“I was thinking the exact same thing myself,” Verónica says.
“So let the way wind on up the hill or down; Though rough or smooth, the journey will be joy… I shall grow old, but never lose life’s zest, Because the road’s last turn will be the best.” –Henry van Dyke, Joyful Journey