With the Wind at His Heels
A gusty adventure in the wilds of Patagonia, both on bike and very suddenly off.
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In my two-wheeled dream, the cracked pavement of Prospect Park, Brooklyn— my customary biking circuit in the real world—has been refurbished with rolling thickets of fluorescent waist-deep grasses. The rats of my adopted hometown have been cleared from my path by sleek birds of prey, and distant high-rises have made their retreat into nature, reemerging as jagged, ice-capped columns of granite. I’m on my bike. I’m bent into a professional-looking crouch, raised slightly above the seat. My left knee no longer makes the ratcheting noise that I’ve come to expect. In fact there’s no noise at all—no ambulance sirens, no traffic, no people. There’s just me, hurtling through the grass and gliding across a rocky ledge and snaking my way down a sheer, dusty cliff without applying the brakes. Damn, I’m good. I make a quick turn to avoid a slumbering turtle (no despoiler of wildlife am I) and hit the roots of an ancient oak and sail across the landscape, air beneath both wheels. I’m not afraid. There’s no need to be, because I land gracefully and continue along at extraordinary speed, unfazed by all obstacles—animals, boulders, waterfalls, the sudden appearance of crevasses. A landslide requires a little quick pedaling but can’t throw me off balance. Brooklyn hasn’t looked this good since the Dodgers moved out west.
A few days later, as if by some process of bicycling wish-fulfillment, I found myself in the dreamscape at the bottom of the world—southern Patagonia. I was on my bike. My knee had resumed making its noise, which comforted me. I was ready for the mystical union of man and machine. And I would have it, before long. But first—this being reality and all—I had to wait just a wee bit.
You see, Patagonia was telling me that I didn’t really know how to ride a bicycle. It was telling me this through its messenger, the wind. The wind had tossed me on a gravel road that cut a path between the Twin Lakes in glacier-strewn Torres del Paine National Park, Chile. My bicycle was riding by itself, like a mountless horse, rolling merrily in the wind toward the icy water of one of the lakes. My bicycle did not need me.
Being twins, the Twin Lakes shared a number of attributes. Each had eerie, frosted blue water. Each was tucked into the narrow floor of a steep, rocky ravine. And though the lakes were modest, each was currently swept with the kind of waves that one tends to associate with larger bodies of water, such as the Pacific Ocean. I watched a gale form at the southern end of the southern Twin and watched it pick up a great spray and drift toward me like a glittering shower curtain. The tundra, tufted with spiky red grasses, was looking as challenging as a good tundra should. I delivered a speech to myself—Experience the wind, I said, make the wind your friend—and I stood. Then the wind approached, bearing its load of lake water and silt, and the wind said to me, Down, boy. And down I went.
I came to Patagonia as a sort of recreational descendent of the fantasy-smitten adventurers who have struggled toward the geographical nether regions for the last 500 years or so. They had come here in wooden ships with a proclivity for getting dashed on boulders and icebergs in a maze of fjords; I came with a marvelously light and responsive new mountain bike, a Schwinn Homegrown Factory XTR, whose components—crafted with materials more typically found on lunar satellites—had yet to be speckled with mud. I thought I knew how to ride a bike. I still nursed triumphant 30-year-old memories of prying the training wheels from a bright red Schwinn that was outfitted with flamboyant U-shaped handlebars and a vinyl banana seat. I remembered pumping the pedals with anguish until I overcame the bike’s wobble and stole a line toward the brick horizon of the next block, unmindful of stop signs or oncoming traffic, an exercise in self-propelled escapism.
A dozen years ago I ignored my poverty and laid down a credit card to procure my first mountain bike, a lugubrious specimen that had the advantage of being able to withstand earthquakes and explosives. Together we were chased by dogs through the tobacco fields of western Kentucky, hid in the dust among rows of Iowa corn, and meandered along overgrown logging trails through the northern Rockies. Technique was unimportant to me. What I liked was the solitary exertion. I liked long uphill climbs and slightly reckless free falls, and I wasn’t averse to occasionally sailing over the front of my bike for a good cause. I rode in lightning storms and in a blizzard or two and through the daunting fusillades of big-game hunting season. As a cyclist, my main attributes—my only attributes—were a good attitude and a suspiciously religious penchant for suffering. Now, through the grace of the bicycle gods, I had been granted the opportunity to ride through one of the remotest, wildest places left on the planet. But first I needed to catch my bike.
I ran until the machine toppled with a sigh into a patch of prickly flora, then lay in wait for one of the brief moments of utter stillness that marked the passing of a gale. I mounted. I shifted into a low gear and started pedaling with all the vigor of a wishful thinker. Giddyap, I cried. A nasty crosswind was careening toward me from the lake. I veered slightly into the wind to give myself a favorable angle of encounter. I tried to stay loose. I tried to remain cheerful as the gust urged me back to the ground, where I belonged.
Before coming to Patagonia, I had read warnings about the persistent winds of the region. My guide, Raúl, a laconic Peruvian who had stayed behind in his tent, shaking his head as I set off for my ride, had offered to explain the Patagonian wind to me the previous night. We were at our campsite, on the edge of gorgeous glacial Lake Pehoe, sheltered beneath a crooked beech tree on which five luminous green parrots clattered. Raúl drew a diagram of Patagonia in the dirt with his shoe, demonstrating how the continent tapered to a point at its bottom, where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans were separated by barely 300 miles of land and by the spiny tail of the Andes. “Here you have Pacific wind currents,” he said, drawing a figure eight. “And here are Atlantic wind currents.” Another figure eight. Raúl’s leg traced a series of crescents to illustrate the mayhem that occurred when the currents met. Then he added the effect of the Antarctic landmass pushing the winds back up from whence they came. His diagram was Pollock wrought in dirt. It was Raúl’s seventh year guiding in Patagonia but his first professional trip in Torres del Paine, where the main cause of injuries, he told me, was not falls or drownings, but cars being blown off the road.
Even so, it was beautiful country, worthy of effort in its pursuit. I climbed a long grade against a strong headwind. The slopes were dotted with bramble and blooming cactus. The blackened, ice-capped spires of Mount Almirante Nieto lay obscured behind fast-moving clouds. My cyclometer often failed to register bicycle movement of any kind, but deep down I knew I was moving. When I finally reached the top of the pass, the wind kindly changed direction; I glided downhill giddily, occasionally bucked off balance by a gust at my back, which jolted me like a cattle prod. It was a thrilling ride.
Raúl was drinking a beer when I got back to camp. He told me he’d heard reports of 95-mile-an-hour winds. “Is normal for Patagonia,” he said, adding that the road to the nearest town had been closed by high winds, and that a truck had toppled over just outside the park, and that he’d been told two hikers had been blown off a cliff. I removed my helmet and began to pick sand from my hair. I told Raúl I found the wind interesting. He made no reply but entered into a lengthy colloquy in Spanish with Hector, the gnomelike campground caretaker who could often be found feeding entrails to jabbering crowlike caracara birds. Hector laughed madly and addressed me in Spanish. I asked Raúl for a translation. Raúl cleared his throat. “He says that bicycling in Patagonia is crazy gringo idea.”
Maybe it was.
A friend from Montana writes to me: “My 80-year-old father seems to think that he must go to Patagonia.” Patagonia has occupied an outsize and undiminished position in the New World romance of conquest and adventure throughout the second half of the millennium. European traders seeking an elusive east-west sea passage steered into the turbulent waters between Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego and christened the torturous channel the Strait of Magellan. Sixteenth-century fortune-hunters with fervent imaginations and time on their hands set out for the region in search of a mythical Andean city of gold.
The area was rumored to be occupied by fabulous beasts worthy of a Dungeons & Dragons handbook, and by Indians so towering and ferocious that their rapid obliteration would be required. The name “Patagonia,” a supposed corruption of the Spanish for “big foot,” is thought to be Magellan’s reference to the shoe size of the Tehuelche Indians he encountered after reaching shore in 1520; Jonathan Swift is said to have modeled the giant Brobdingnagians of Gulliver’s Travels on descriptions of Patagonian natives. The marvels of Patagonia—its expanse of rock and ice, its otherworldly wildlife—are associated with primordial states of being, and while 19th-century settlers were mostly interested in colonizing the vast range with sheep in order to supply a booming market with wool, the main commodity that foreign travelers are seeking nowadays is certifiable wilderness. Rarely, however, do they get to survey the landscape on two wheels.
Our party—myself, guide Raúl, photographer Craig Cameron Olsen, and assistants Eddie and Victor, two Patagonia natives who tended to our group’s comforts—set out by van on the first morning of our excursion from Puerto Natales, a fishing village of 18,000 inhabitants on the shore of a Pacific inlet called Last Hope Sound.
The houses of Puerto Natales were sided and topped with protective panels of corrugated metal painted in bright colors. The road north passed through arid plains hemmed in by mile after mile of sagging fences and punctuated by the occasional appearance of a shepherd’s shanty. The landscape reminded me of Wyoming—a vacant and dusty pale green, spotted with the twisted, charred remnants of trees that had been burned to clear pasture.
We pulled onto a narrow road that cut across a ranch and unloaded the bicycles. Skies were fair and winds were calm. “Is not normal for Patagonia,” Raúl assured me. “Can change any minute.” We rode along the south shore of Lake Sarmiento de Gamboa, whose turquoise surface reflected the looming mountains on the opposite shore. Buff-necked ibis with long curved beaks picked for insects along the beach. Sheep with thick matted coats scurried in front of us. The ride was easy going. The deserted landscape, which looked as though it hadn’t been disturbed since the last ice age, was glorious. I was very far from Brooklyn. We stopped for a moment by the sun- and wind-bleached skeleton of a horse. Most of it had been picked clean by predators—condors, foxes, hawks—but a few patches of flesh and hair clung to the ribs. “In winter is a lot of them dying here,” said Raúl. It was late spring now. Sheep were being rounded up for shearing, and wildflowers were out in abundance, and creeks flowed heavy with snowmelt. We rode into an emerald-green pasture where the light was scattered by the leaves of lichen-strewn beech trees, and we were surrounded by a dozen motionless horses. The only sound was of a woodpecker going at a dead log. Raúl broke the silence. “You like horse meat? We bring some horse jerky with us. Soon, you try some.”
The next morning we entered the park on a rarely used horse path. It was a fine piece of singletrack terrain, replete with fallen logs, countless stream crossings, and extensive sections of washed-out trail. I caught a stump and flopped into a dome-shaped thornbush when no one was looking. Raúl took a graceful dive over his handlebars. We climbed out of a claustrophobic valley to a point that overlooked a broad floodplain, 3,000 feet below, pocked with outcrops of red rock. The route down, a treacherous lane of fine black schist, was unfamiliar with the concept of the switchback. I clenched my brakes and took a 1,500-foot skid, trying not to look to my left, where the mountain vanished. Toward the bottom of the hill we came across a pair of Chilean police on horseback. They stared at us incredulously. Raúl negotiated and led us on. He said he was told we were the first people ever to have come down that path on bikes. Raúl admitted that there was some possibility that park regulations prohibited the ride we had just taken. We felt a little bit like outlaw pioneers and thus reached camp in a celebratory mood. Raúl dug through some boxes and produced a grizzled square of something that resembled shoe leather. It was the horse jerky I had been promised.
Over the course of the 10 days we spent together, the five of us took on the attributes of a strange little family. Victor, the driver, had an affection for the van that was peculiarly touching. He slept in the van. While the rest of us would pass our downtime in the kitchen tent, Victor would lean against the van in a protective posture, smoking a brand of Chilean cigarette called Life, looking a little like a small-time gangster in his outfit of a monkey suit and dark sunglasses. Victor had once worked in a slaughterhouse butchering rabbits and took a keen interest in the hares that scampered through the high grasses.
Eddie, who was 22 and baby-faced, had a scar on his forehead and a look of perpetual confusion on his brow. After two days of riding, he declined to get on a bicycle anymore, patting his ass and shrugging by way of explanation. It didn’t take long before I began to suspect that Raúl also didn’t much like riding a bike. “You wish to ride now, in this wind?” he would ask, repeatedly. His own preferences were plain. As a result, much of my riding was a blissfully solo experience. Or nearly solo. Bound by a strong sense of the tour guide’s duty to protect his helpless client, Raúl would command the others into the van and the group would trail behind me at a crawl.
Most of the ridable terrain in Torres del Paine park is on rolling dirt roads that circle the forbidding Paine massif at the park’s center. I felt a little awkward being followed along these roads by my attentive steel chaperone. I would wave the van on ahead of me and, when it disappeared from sight, enjoy the momentary solitude. Despite the local feeling that the 615,000-acre park is being overrun by tourists, all of 62,000 visitors are anticipated for 1999. I always sensed that I had full run of the park and that I was far more likely to encounter mating guanacos—long-faced animals that look like a cross between llamas and camels—than randy backpackers. The birdlife of the region was particularly exotic: flightless birds called rheas, with swooping ostrichlike necks and bulbous midsections, which scampered zigzag through the grasses in a state of seeming panic; condors with ten-foot wingspans; swarms of upland geese whose markings made them resemble airborne bowling pins; and a profusion of flamingos, eagles, larks, plovers, hawks, finches, and woodpeckers.
“Tomorrow,” Raúl would promise, “if no wind, maybe I ride bike.”
A few of the most spectacular sights of Torres del Paine require that bikes be left behind. One morning we drove to Grey Lake, an unruly spill of water emerging from the massive Grey Glacier, which sits at the southernmost extreme of the continental ice cap. We strode along a windswept mile of black beach that marked the boundary of the lake. Icebergs had detached from the glacier, about ten miles distant, and drifted to a halt at the foot of the lake. The lake was littered with what looked like a riot of haphazardly tumbled dice, emitting a watery blue haze. Sculpted by the wind, the icebergs were scooped, bowed, arched, and carved to precarious pinnacles. It was a humbling display of the inhospitality of the Patagonian landscape. Poet Frank O’Hara once wrote, “The world is an iceberg, so much is invisible,” and I knew that the lure of Patagonia was the lure of the unspoiled and unseen lower depths.
A few days later, Raúl, Craig, and I hiked from an estancia inside the park to the park’s most celebrated viewpoint, at the base of the “Blue Towers” for which the park had been named. The trail climbed along the side of a gorge carved 14,000 years ago by retreating glaciers and continued through the enchanted dimness of an old-growth forest teeming with football-size mushrooms. We scampered over boulders and crossed a ridge to find ourselves facing three dramatic teeth of pink granite, each thrusting upward more than 2,000 feet. The bottom of the spires was a wall of ice. Two condors drifted overhead. We sat there for a few hours among three dozen other hikers, watching the light cross the rock faces. The towers looked like the kind of formations that are particularly unwelcoming to human intrusion. I met an elderly Scottish couple, who had made the strenuous hike by dint of sheer determination. They told me they had waited half their lives to see these cliffs.
On our last day in the park, we took refuge from a nasty pelting rain in an abandoned hut on Lake Azul, in the northeast corner of the park. The hut’s tin roof was bolted to the ground with cables. After a few hours, though, the skies shifted with stunning abruptness, and venturing outside I came upon an overgrown trail that wound around the north shore of the lake. I roused Craig and Raúl for a final go on their bikes.
Within a few minutes, I realized that I had discovered the trail I had dreamed about in Brooklyn. It cut through seething green meadows, was diverted for one stretch to a thin strip of ashy black beach, and then traversed a series of lumpy forested hills. Lake Azul was the shimmering blue of imagined lakes. The Torres del Paine emerged from clouds in the distance and shadowed us like a wall.
At times the trail was barely eight inches wide, which lent the riding a certain pinball-machine ferocity. The terrain was constantly surprising. Dead stumps would suddenly appear. We jumped them. We glanced off boulders and skidded around cacti and waded through fragrant bogs. Mostly the winds stayed away from us. There were grueling climbs and twisting downhills that made my arms feel like stone. The trail seemed to go on and on, like a dream. We turned around at a silty brown sinkhole called Onion Pond and arrived at camp like a family that had finally, against all odds, enjoyed a family outing. I was covered with mud, but I wasn’t yet ready to ask Victor to hose me down