Chile

The End of the World

Written by Mark McElroy

Today, I’m standing in front of the “towers” — the three wide, flat blades of rough rock that give “Torres del Pines” its name.

At 8,000 feet tall, the towers are roughly the height of an 800-story skyscraper. At their hilt, they burst up through the base of a snow-capped mountain range. Their jagged tips stab the sky. I’m eight miles from them, and the towers still seem bigger than anything has a right to be.

The skies here are huge, but the towers blot them out, unraveling the clouds and eclipsing the sun. The landscape here extends in all directions: empty hills, sprawling plains, crumbling canyons of rock carved by glaciers … but I can’t see any of this. The towers are so commanding, everything else (including me!) seems unimportant by comparison. To ignore them, or even look away from them, would be like ignoring or overlooking a six-ton boulder in your lap.

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Clyde is beside me, struggling to stand his ground against the fierce winds, his salt-and-pepper hair whipping and flailing in every direction. He’s being very patient, waiting for me to finish taking photos.

Meantime, I’m realizing there’s no way to cram this place into the comforting confinement of a single photo. At this scale, the laws of composition break down. And even if, by some stroke of luck, I managed to photograph this for you, by the time you see it, it will be compressed into a tiny window on a tiny screen.

You can appreciate the lines and respond to the colors. You can admire the play of light. But you won’t feel the wind tearing the tears out of the corners of your eyes, or sense the ground trembling underfoot because of the glacial waterfall in the valley below. You can’t be baptized in the place: immersed in it, pushed beneath the surface of it, surrounded by it.

This part of Patagonia is called “The End of the World” for a reason; it’s one of the least-inhabited regions of the earth. When you stand in the valley, the sky feels so big, it crushes you. It crushes the southern birch trees, too — the only trees hearty (or foolish) enough to live here. The weight of that big sky crushes their limbs, stunting them and twisting them into agonized poses. And when the sky wins — and it will — the dead trees will take eighty years to decompose from the inside out, because there’s not enough free moisture in the air for the wood to rot.

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Just getting to the End of the World (or, technically, to one end of it, since several places around here fight over that title) takes effort.

Today, our boat landed in Puerto Arenas, Chile, at 6:00. By 6:20, Clyde and I were on a bus to the surprisingly modern airport. At 6:40, we, along with six other people, were packed into a tiny airplane: eight seats, two propellors, one pilot.

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After forty-five minutes of dodging fat grey clouds the size of boxcars, we landed at a one-room airstrip that was, literally, in the middle of nowhere … and Torres del Pines turned out to be a two-hour bus ride from there.

The area is so inhospitable — too cold and too dry to support crops — very few people live here. You can stand in the valley, look in every direction, and see absolutely no sign of human life. There are herd animals God created by mashing together bits left over from the creation of llamas and camels. There are mountain lions … and condors, scanning the landscape for leftovers from a mountain lion’s meal. There are eagles, posing on fence posts. We’re told there are seven kinds of mice.

We also see little brown foxes, with fur so fluffy they look almost like cats.

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We see a mated pair on the roadside, helping themselves to a serving of roadkill. (Out here, you take what you can get.) They eat the soft parts first: the eyes, the nose, the mouth. The foxes look cute from a distance, but when I zoom in with my trusty Lumix camera, we can see their lips are slathered with bright red blood.

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Eventually, we reach the mountains, which rise up 8,000 feet or so from the sea-level valley floor. The fattest and widest of these is frosted with snow and capped with a massive reservoir of ice (the third largest ice field on the planet, I’m told). The ice oozes down in eight directions, forming glaciers that slough off to feed roaring falls and brittle streams.

Clyde checks his phone and shows me the little network indicator in the upper left of the home screen. Even here, at the End of the World, we have fast, wireless 3G internet connections.

We eat lunch in the shadow of the mountains, at a restaurant suspended in the center of an emerald lake. We get there by crossing a long footbridge. When we start toward the restaurant, it’s sunny. By the middle of the bridge, it’s raining: stinging, icy droplets driven sideways by the wind. By the time we reach the restaurant itself, it’s summer again, all sunshine and blue skies. Locals tell us it can snow, thaw, rain, and hail all in one morning.

Like the rest of the planet, the End of the World has four seasons, but it has them every hour, and in no particular order.

The food doesn’t have a chance. There are huge windows that look out at the whitecapped lake, and, beyond this, a view of the mountains. Today, the mountain gods are fighting about the weather. Sunlight streams through. Clouds boil. Curtains of rain ripple past. The temperature dips and rises, and the winds shriek constantly. Who can concentrate on mediocre lamb shanks when the End of the World is going on?

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* * * * *

The flight back to Puerto Arenas is routine for the pilot, but tense for us. The rare sunlight that made good photos possible has heated up the wilderness, and warm currents below are rising into the icy winds above. The little plane bucks and dips and tilts and shudders. I can’t shake the feeling that the Cessna is held up by a thin wire, and, in my mind, that wire is taut and on the verge of snapping.

And yet — I’m so happy. The vast landscape, the towering mountains, the shifting weather, the altitutde of the plane — they all make me feel small, but they make my heart and my imagination bigger.

Clyde and I have been to the End of the World together. How many couples can say that?

About the author

Mark McElroy

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