The End of the World
A SEARCH FOR SOLITUDE IN THE FARTHEST REACHES OF SOUTH AMERICA.
By Andrew McCarthy
Someone once accused the writer Charles Bukowski of disliking people. He replied, “I just feel better when they’re not around.” While it might be easy to dismiss this sentiment as misanthropy, I understand it. Living in New York City with a wife and three kids (whom I adore and love being around) doesn’t afford me much opportunity for solitude. Yet there’s something about silence that speaks to me in a way all the people in the world can’t. I locate myself in the absence.
Which is why I’d always wanted to get to Patagonia, that lonely triangle at the bottom of South America. I’d read Bruce Chatwin’s classic, In Patagonia, and Paul Theroux’s rambling journey by rail, The Old Patagonian Express. I had images in my mind of the vastness. But I couldn’t have fully anticipated my response to the expanse of uninterrupted openness.
After several aborted attempts over the years (which led me to think I might never make it), I finally arrived in that land of absence. My initial reaction was irrational, nervous giddiness – how could I ever get to all of it, absorb every inch? Simultaneously, around the edges of my nervous system I began to feel the oppressive weight of the space bearing down on me. I would never be able to escape it. My pushpull response, my experience of internal paradox, resonated as deeply familiar, yet something I rarely had the space to notice.
One of the peculiar and occasional wonders of travel is arriving for the first time and experiencing a place as home. As I drove into El Calafate, nothing was familiar, yet everything made sense. The town began as a trading outpost in the early twentieth century, then limped along until UNESCO named the 47 nearby glaciers in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares a World Heritage site in 1981, drawing the attention of the adventure set. Then came a paved road, and eventually an airport, which has helped this lonely spot become a bit of a boomtown. It’s now home to somewhere between 6,000 and 20,000 residents, depending on whom you talk to – and every one of them that I met came from somewhere else.
Julia, who ran the smoothie shop, moved down from Rosario because she was “tired from the city.” Veronica, who rented me a car and reminded me to “park against the wind; I don’t want my door coming off,” came from Chubut. Jorge, my host at his modest B&B, came from Buenos Aires, where he worked in a factory for 14 hours a day, and told me, with tears in his eyes, “Here we have sky. The sky.”
Nearly everyone I met displayed an easy familiarity, coupled with a distant quality that I appreciated. They were not unlike people I’ve encountered on remote islands – all had come to escape something, or to find something. Except that here, in the sea’s place, was the land – unimaginable expanses of it.
And as much as I felt a kinship with the people, it was that land that was so intoxicating, thrilling, frightening, and what I had come for. I tromped on Perito Moreno Glacier in a whiteout that left me feeling weightless and dreamy. I rode horses with macho gauchos over the steppe under condors circling in a pale sky. Pink flamingos flew away as I traveled by boat through massive glacier-milk lakes. It rained and snowed; the wind howled; it was dead calm, hot, cool; the clouds hung a few feet off the ground; the sun was blinding. Every day.
And I drove. On my way to El Chaltén, a small settlement several hours north of El Calafate, I pulled over to the side of the road at random. I left the engine running for fear it might not start again and I would be stranded for God knows how long before someone came along. I stepped just a few feet off the tarmac into the scrub and came upon the skeleton of a guanaco, a Patagonian llama. The bones had been picked clean and bleached by the sun. The intact rib cage reached up toward the sky; a femur and hip bones lay a few feet away beside the skull, still filled with teeth – the guanaco must have been young. What had happened here? How long had it been in such a state? Life is precarious. The wind whistled, and I looked out over the yellow-brown vista – if this was just off the road, what else was out here?
But it was as the solitary guest at a 54,000-acre estancia – itself surrounded by hundreds of thousands of acres of national park at the northernmost end of Lago Argentino – reachable only by a four-hour boat ride, that I began to get a hint of the magnitude of aloneness possible. The silence was unremitting. The stillness was terrifying, thrilling, in its completeness.
I had come to the end of the world for solitude, and here I had all I could handle. I hiked and sat. I observed keenly and stared blankly. I breathed deep, over and over. I wondered why tears rolled down my cheeks. I laughed for no reason, like a crazy person. And finally, I spoke aloud to only the wind: “There I am.”
Charles Bukowski would have loved this place.