Monday, January 25, 2010

No Village For Old Men

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that Patagonia, no matter which part of it you’re in, is a harsh environment to live in. You have to be strong willed to survive here, and as you occasionally see from the abandoned houses, not everyone makes it. El Chaltén is one of those towns that sits in a landscape best described by poets better than me, yet it is also one of the harshest environments I’ve ever seen.

They tell me that this consistent wind and rain is normal for this time of year: the high of summer. To be fair, the wind dies down in a couple of months which makes the hiking safer, but this is the height of tourism season. So the majority of people who come here looking for great hiking realize that they have to do the majority of it in miserable conditions.

We were spoiled yesterday when we arrived on a clear, albeit windy day. We could actually see all of the peaks, including Fitz Roy, that iconic rock face pockmarked with snow. The hotel staff told us it was the first day without rain in a month, and when I pulled back the curtains this morning, preparing for a hike with my dad, I saw that the rain was back.

My parents seem somewhat put off here. I stayed back to do some writing while they checked out the town last night. In an hour from when they left to the return, they went from excited to be here to doubting the decision to come. First there is the age gap. The majority of people here are in their 20’s and 30’s, and in good condition for hiking. My parents are obviously older and not in tip top shape. My mom didn’t even have good trekking shoes, and ironically fell in the street when not paying attention to a groove.

Next is the harsh climate. The wind was so fierce that they almost fell over. But considering that it is supposedly windier in Ushuaia, where we’re headed next, I’m wondering what they will do. They aren’t frail, but once you reach a certain age a fall will take more of a toll than you would think.

Arriving in town yesterday I thought it could be on the cusp of a boom in growth, but I can see now why it still only has 600 full time residents since it’s foundation in 1987. Frankly put, you need balls of steel to live here. It’s beautiful in every sense of the natural world, but this is definitely a frontier town with a sense of vulnerability. The nearest “city” would be El Calafate, and though newly paved roads make the more than 200 kilometer trip easy, you better have a high pain threshold if you fall down the slippery mountain trails.

I don’t feel out of place here, and it’s not just because I’m in the age demographic. I’ve been in the wet dirt road towns all over Ecuador and hiked on trails that didn’t actually exist. A false step to the left meant paralysis and a bad move to the right meant death. But now that I seem like such a tough guy, I will say that I couldn’t live here. This weather is just too much, and I give credit to those who can put up with it. Tomorrow we head back to El Calafate to drop off the rental car and fly to Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego. The end of the world. I can’t wait to see the forecast.

No comments: