Fire & Ice
As a warning, our time in Bariloche and San Martin was the stuff of Santana guitar riffs; as consequence, the detail and feeling can get off track but stays in key, and I’ll do my best to always return to the melody. This part of the trip was so dense in experience and scenery, good people and good times, anger and frustration: I’ll never get it all down here and only hope to somewhere before I’m gone. In my memory I hear the Flamenco guitar of Paco de Lucia, I see everything in the yellow halcyon light of a golden age, I taste the Bisteca de Chorizo off the grill and feel the grease between my lips as the Malbec coats my throat and veils my eyes further with drunken happiness: the inexplicable color and breeze of a wild place.
Bariloche Argentina only served as a basecamp for our Patagonian adventures and introduced us to some of the challenges we would be facing throughout Patagonia - namely, finding cash, finding buses, finding wi-fi. I see it now as an opportunity to practice patience; at the time I was ripping my hair out, and when the Rentalcars.com customer service representative informed me via email that our rental car was no longer available - two hours before pick-up - a frustratingly accurate proverb from Murphy crossed my mind: if it can go wrong, it will. But it eventually worked out and we scored a set of wheels. Getting to San Martin de Los Andes alone could fill the page with blue skies, summer sun, glacial lakes, sandy beaches, unsuccessful hitchhikers, and a soundtrack of suffering transmission and rattling car parts brought to you by General Motors in the form of a mid 90s Chevy Classic - our carriage for the next four days. We arrived to San Martin three hours late, spent two hours gathering provisions from five different stores, and finally drove to the outskirts of town, down a dirt road towards a “rendezvous” with our AirBNB host, Valeria.
Normally an address will suffice; unfortunately, where we were going no addresses or roads displayed on the GPS. At the rally point, a Volkswagen flashed its lights and led us down deeply cut paths with rocks large enough to pull out the transmission and any other parts General Motors thought the Chevy Classic required to run. The sun setting and the banks beside the road nearly above us, I felt almost underground in my exceptionally low clearance vehicle. I’m just happy they don’t inspect the undercarriage when you return rental cars. The house appeared in an open field after our final enigmatic turn along with a giant dog followed by a large, lumberjack of a man. The man, named Tomas, with a huge smile, wild beard, bright eyes, and wavy hair was Valeria’s husband and together that had built an incredibly special house. We walked inside; the space - rustic, open, warm, - had a dreamlike light about it under the evening lights of sunset, pink clouds, and rising orange moon; a Russian Rocket Stove, one of the most efficient heating elements in the world, stood proudly, center in the living room. The space was completely made of mud: built by Tomas and designed by Valeria, originally in ice. Valeria is an artist, specializing in the study of lines and their contribution to form. Her body of work is completely unique. Before building their house, Valeria created an exact model, on site, out of fishing line. Tomas would find huge trees to post on the property and Valeria would use them as a base to string together the blueprint of their future house from. Fishing line is inherently difficult to see and visualize a space; so, when the unforgiving Patagonian winter arrived they would spray the blueprint with water and watch the house freeze into shape before their eyes. Check out the web site if you don’t believe me. https://www.valiconte.com/
The morning began with the crackle of a cooking fire within one of the stoves. The metal pipe running to and through the roof of the house past our bed groaned with a change in temperature as the heat rose. We planned a hike to the top of Cerro Colorado for the day, which was a 30 minute drive from the Ice House. I backed into a spot at the trailhead, still wondering when the Chevy Classic was going to get a flat (it never did). I changed into hiking shorts and grabbed my pack full of food, water, and camp chairs. We were told this was a relatively easy hike and definitely no more than five miles. We were not told that it was a continuous climb up a steep, sandy path that detracted from your forward progress with every step. Fortunately, in retrospect, we found good walking sticks at the beginning of the trail, before the climb. Passing through a forest of hardwood deciduous trees, we reached a rock outcropping and a panoramic view of the mountains rising west on the Chilean border, perennial snow on their peaks, projecting impenetrable darkness along their climbing sides. Their cold, blue rock walls made them feel far away, intimidating yet magnetic: like a thing you've never had but watched everyone enjoy. I could feel that fatal romantic draw inside call me from that rocky perch. In another life perhaps I will kill myself in the mountains seeking vainglorious demise in a harness; but in this one, I looked back to my beautiful wife and we set up our backcountry camp chairs gifted to us by my dad and enjoyed the six deli sandwiches I had made and some apples for dessert.
There was a large group with children playing upon the rocks, and soon they continued their walk up the mountain: I realized that the hike, unfortunately, wasn't finished. Before us now laid steeper and sandier climbs. The horse flies also attacked with increased veracity. Volcanic rock began to dominate the landscape and I could feel the temperature rise as the cover diminished and the reflective nature of the rock pushed more heat up from the ground. The wind rushed unobstructed. I thought back to Hurricane Pass in the Grand Tetons - the barren landscape, high winds, and steep peaks. The wind was keeping away the worst part of this hike: the damn horse flies. Breaking my horse fly free solace, I heard screams downhill. I turned back to see Sara wrestled to the ground and swatting unidentifiable flying objects. She slipped on the sandy path, hit her leg on a sharp, igneous red rock, and started to bleed. It was an incredibly difficult climb and only a handful would have followed. I walked down to her and picked her up. We walked, arms around each other's shoulders to the top where a pile of red rocks stood ten feet high.
I looked north across the alpine grass whipping in the wind, enjoying its few months of blissful growth during the long Patagonian summer days, with rocks scattered after an ancient, unseen geological storm; and Volcan Lanin precipitously jutted from the Earth and wore a hat of everlasting glaciers leaning away from the persistent gusts. For the first time I was cold and appreciated my decision to carry a coat. I put the hood up, squatted into Malasana, shot a few pictures, and started to feel that youthful exuberance in the ripping wind with the sun at my back: this refuge jacketed in nostalgia, real and imagined, pulled me like an extreme gravitational force. We walked down carefully and enjoyed the reprieve. We returned to the Ice House and walked down a different trail the following day with Valerie.
Valerie and Tomas spoke of the second trail as one describes a perfect day. After driving in the Chevy Classic for two hours down a pothole and boulder laden dirt road serpentining along cliffs dropping into unknown aquamarine depths and then walking through silent old growth forest sparred from the volcanic violence, we entered no man's land where ash and debris the size Volkswagen Beetles shelled and enfiladed like artillery and machine guns at the Somme. Where ridge met the sky drew a line, and walking past would implicate you in a treacherous fall down the abyss at the edge of Earth. We were somewhere west of Lago Verde skirting the Chilean border, and the aftermath left a blank canvas for nature to start again. The river cut through unsettled rock and my steps occasionally broke through the loose volcanic soil to a foot deep. It was special: to be in the midst of creation, at the foot of destruction. Becoming a cliché, the wind picked up and we all leaned in to keep up our pace. Without any vegetation and no clouds above, the sun beat down and I searched for a solution: microfiber towel! Like a Bedouin in the Afghan desert-hell, I wrapped a microfiber Shemagh around my head to protect from the elements. Another hour in the valley of ashes brought us to vegetation along the river, below the headwaters cascading over the cliff's edge, melting from the snow above. I put my tired, aching feet in the cold water and snacked on a sandwich or two. Once again Volcan Lanin stretched and spread across the horizon inviting a zen moment; however, the horse flies kept me from drifting too far from Earth.