Will I be able to fulfill this ambitious agenda? I ask myself when the 6 a.m. alarm whines. After a fall a couple of evenings ago, I feel more like a decrepit gringa with delusions of grandeur than one of the intrepid women of the wilderness.
I ache from head to toe before today’s leg of our Patagonian journey even gets underway. But whatever the day brings, I’m sure it will be worth the sacrifice and effort. This I remind myself of as I totter to the shower.
“…Her passion burned brighter than her fears.” –Mark Anthony
By 8 o’clock, we’ve rushed through the breakfast buffet and checked out of the hotel in Puerto Chacabuco. We won’t come back here, as by tonight, we’ll be 5+ hours away, on the south shore of Lake General Carrera. Our objective for today is the calendar-picture Marble Caverns, but it’s going to be a long trip…
At the van, we meet our companions for the next day and a half. Middle-aged Don Daniel, the driver. Two younger guides, Tamara and Ingrid. And Gabriel and Verónica from Las Condes, Santiago, a couple about our age, the only other tourists. It’s a small, friendly group.
Tamara, a native of the Region of Aysén and a nature tourism expert, is an old friend by now. Newbie Ingrid accompanies us to learn since it’s her first summer in the tourism business, but I’m fascinated to discover that she’s an English teacher who’s taught in Patagonia for the past ten years. She’s taking a break from the school on the remote island of Puerto Aguirre. I love her beautiful gray fox-fur ponytail, but wonder if it’s color highlights or a stress reaction to the kind of isolation my character Cristina experiences in Legacy of the Linnebrink Light.
“She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.” –Proverbs 31:25
Just out of Puerto Chacabuco and past the traffic circle, we come to the Viviana Intersection, a portion of the road which a strong-minded Señora Viviana refused to cede to the government for decades. After she died, her family finally sold the land under the condition that the area be named after her!
I’m researching story settings here, but I’ll have to enlarge the scope to include those TOUGH dames, the women of the wilderness of Aysén. I guess they had to be battleaxes to settle and survive here. I chuckle, thinking how my character, Doña Lucía, in Swan Island Secrets, wears knotted ropes of pearls like a 1950’s debutante. The “real” Señora Eugenia strung necklaces of seeds and pods! (More on her stranger-than-fiction saga another day.)
Plenty of construction again halts us frequently, but I ask about the inexplicable crowds of people trudging along amid the mud and cones. Ingrid explains that “the faithful” are making a pilgrimage to the Virgin of the Veil at the double cascade we noticed a couple of days ago. And it clicks—on the December 8th holiday, of course, Chile celebrates Immaculate Conception.
Don Daniel pauses so we can snap a few photos of the falls. I’m confused now as to which is the Bridal Veil and which is the Virgin’s Veil, or whether the two just rush along together most of the time.
Tamara reminds us of the saying she shared earlier, “Women who bathe here become virgins again.” I’m pretty sure not even many Patagonian women dare to take a dip in these icy waters. But isn’t there story fodder here for Swan Island Secrets? Religion and superstition mesh into my themes of beauty and purity. The water of life that refreshes and renews.
We pass a ridge of towering cliffs, just before the famous English Cake rock formation, where the sunlight doesn’t reach for 6 months out of the year. I shiver. Doesn’t sound very inviting to me. Then we cross the bridge and leave “Switzerland” behind.
Wind, Water and Light
Now we’re back on the steppes. The everlasting wind rustles the timothy grass in the ditches, ripples the fields of colorful lupins. Twirls the white wings of the windmills and shaves the scrub brush on the hills.
On the road between the regional capital of Coyhaique and the airport hamlet of Balmaceda, Tamara points out the Great Wall of Aysén. Huh? I straighten up in my seat, and sure enough. A sheer stone wall rears up along yet another high ridge just off the road.
Apparently it’s not manmade, though, but chiseled by wind, water, and time into the biggest rock-climbing attraction in the area. The locals use it for rappelling and—gasp—tightrope walking. The best purpose I can see is as a God-given windbreak.
Just past the Coyhaique by-pass, we swing by a concrete monument to the ubiquitous herbal drink of Patagonia, mate, served in a gourd-shaped cup and sipped through a metal straw. Tamara recounts a local myth involving the moon and mate, but I get distracted. Or maybe deafened by the van’s rattling along the rutted road.
My mind wanders to the real-life story of Edith Willies Nantz, an early 20th-century “feminist” who abandoned her career as PA to a wealthy globetrotting woman to pioneer in bringing the Gospel to Patagonia. This sophisticated lady worried about the moths ruining her china doll collection! Yet she blazed trails along with the best women of the wilderness.
Tamara ends with the fable’s moral: “Mate herbs wake up the sleepers.” I snort. Not much chance of falling asleep on this road.
The saucer-shaped clouds up ahead may indicate rain in the forecast. Or not. Weather changes from moment to moment around here. Tamara shares additional tidbits from her wealth of wilderness lore, and I try to sharpen my ears.
Flowers for the Lady
Good thing some of it’s a repeat. She mentions the various types of native flora: the Guaitecas cypress, the white-flowering myrtle or arrayán (AKA palo colorado, “colored stick”), the lillo, the luma, the dozens of species of ferns from giants to dwarves. And of course the Patagonian blueberries, maqui, michay, and the calafate which promises a return trip to the region. I’m on the lookout for this last one, remember.
No, Tamara responds, copihues, Chile’s bell-shaped national flowers, don’t usually grow round here, since they’re vines of the Andean foothills. But we’ll find rainforest chilco in profusion—a Magellanic fuchsia with red or magenta blooms. I know these plants—many of them appear in my books.
I crane forward in my seat when she shows a photo of a plant I’ve never seen or heard of before. A cross between an artichoke and an aloe vera, it absorbs and retains a lot of water. Apparently, the ever-innovative Japanese are exploiting this one to manufacture diapers. Another example of the wonders awaiting discovery in this wilderness.
Though I could use, if not diapers, thicker cushions or even bubble wrap for this washboard of a road. With every jerk and jolt, I feel my battered bones, my blueberry bruises.
But I chide myself, Are you going to enjoy paradise today or grumble and groan like an old bat? Not far from Balmaceda, we turn off south toward Cerro Castillo and Lake General Carrera. We’re headed where few men, let alone women, have traveled before.
I stretch, change seats, and make up my mind to forge ahead, like one of the great women of the wilderness of Patagonia. Little do I suspect the adventure that looms ahead.