A glimpse into a gloriously imperfect little adventure-plus-love tale once lived by a woman in the Patagonian wilderness.
Initially, I resisted the love story angle for a publication like Travel Play Live. Would I be failing my own Bechdel Test? Would I be disrespecting TPL’s values? No, I thought. Celebrating the strength, capability and active spirit of women does not equate to ignoring or denying their capacity to feel. In fact, far from it.
Acknowledging that aspect of my vivid little chapter in Torres del Paine is a necessary thread in the story – a realistic portrayal of the spectrum of experiences that the adventure immersed me in. The more I thought about it, the more determined I became to leave the love story within the adventure story, and recognise the true context for it. Forget the classic portrayal of the woman where her relationship status determines whether there is a happy ending for her. That’s just not the way it is.
Torres del Paine is a national park in the south of Chile, just above where the continent tapers off into a curled gesture towards Antarctica. One hike in this remote dreamland is a track roughly 150 kilometres long known as the O Trek. I arrived with my friend Fabio for eight days of pure, unadulterated rambling.
Don’t be fooled by its proximity to Antarctica. The O Trek is not all ice and rocks. It is an endlessly dynamic environment, undulating between thick lush forest, craggy rock-strewn expanses, grassy wet fields bearing wild lettuces, wide open glacial flows and criss-crossing rivers punctuated by waterfalls.
Everybody on the O Trek hikes in the same direction. I quickly sank into the delight of having constant access to fresh people from dozens of countries; at their best, relaxed, with time for you and stories to tell. Dominique, a 56-year-old Canadian woman doing the track on her own had a knack for bringing people together. A Chilean couple made flatbreads from scratch. A German lady stripped off pre-shower, and chatted to me as I brushed my teeth. Turning around to an eyeful of nipples, I tried not to show surprise, and secretly admired her freedom.
On the track, I went to bed soon after dark; got up at first light. My blood pumped steadily all day and my physical cobwebs fell away. I was listening to my body, napping on need, and being social throughout the day. I felt strong and vital. Functioning in a state that I began to think of as ‘peak human’.
There is a certain piquant quality that your awareness takes on when you’re operating at peak human. Your senses step up. The vague scent of an unidentified herb being crushed underfoot. The precise, divine taste of Calafate sours at the bar in the Paine Grande refugio (yes, there’s a bar. It’s warm and has stunning lake views in the middle of nowhere).
The mind gradually sheds its usual areas of thought and begins to explore new territory. Why don’t I live like this all the time? Do we need to live like we do, as a society? Aren’t we developed enough that we don’t need to starve ourselves of anything – most of all, those things that satisfy our primal instincts; e.g. living in packs, using our senses and being active during the day? I suppose, yes. I could definitely adapt my usual lifestyle to be closer to peak human.
The track plays meandering games with hikers, like a kid does with a teddy bear. It led us through fields of horses. It unveiled curiosities: mini red pea pods here, Calafate berries there. It had a mouse chew a hole in my tent (which won’t happen if you don’t leave food inside). It fed me beautiful wine from new friends. It gave me blisters. It had me watching ice break off a glacier, with cracking, thunderous sounds of an avalanche to follow.
One day, it put me in front of a rough golden beard with a man in it. That man was Ben.
First impressions were easy for me to ignore. He was resourceful, but in ways that I respected only grudgingly, like when he fashioned a stick into the perfect pipe for his bag of loose tobacco. Generally, I associate smoking with people who had always wanted to be cool and couldn’t let go, despite the tinge of tragedy attached as it grows from a blasé expression of recklessness into a dowdy lifestyle habit.
Here though, it gradually became clear that his raw, honest ways were too much for my prejudices to stand up against. He spoke about his smoking as a weakness and considered why he does it. He was decisive with his time. Walked the track quickly but without rushing. Each night, he’d be the first of the group to turn in – less affected by the pull of social gravity than myself, someone who regularly stays up late even when I know it is bad for me. He was kind to strangers.
I gradually learnt his stories. The dog he wants when he’s back in England. A previous pregnancy scare. Grappling with respecting his family’s wishes for how he lives his life, without disrespecting his own. I told him some of my stories. We made tongue-in-cheek apocalypse plans. I found him featuring in idyllic daydreams. I startled myself with shivers from his eye contact.
Meanwhile, life on the track was full and varied. It felt much longer than eight days’ worth of experiences, as my mind constantly processed new inputs. My legs grew stronger. I slept deeply to keep up with the exertion. And the views – oh, the views.
The grand finale was a 3 am wake-up, for a climb to see the sunrise over the rock towers for which the park is named. We sat down to a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs, jam and toast, coffee, and juice. Fabio and I hiked with two long-haired brothers that we encountered near the start. I glimpsed their faces with my head torch and we spoke extensively while climbing, before parting ways just before sunrise.
At the top, Fabio and I hid behind a rock wall with friends, sheltering from bitter wind and snow as we waited for the view to appear. Sunrise did not deliver us beams of glory, but instead, a fog-shrouded vista that was even more beautiful. I was satisfied.
On the way down, I saw one of the long-haired brothers and gave him a familiar smile. His expression was polite confusion – it dawned on me that he never saw my face. His reaction made me giddy with laughter. Connections are fleeting.
After finishing the track, Ben and I travelled together for a few sweet days. Spanish-speaking strangers went about their business as we floated past in our bubble of new love. Society glorifies the perfect love story, but my reality is grittier, and more gratifying for it. My subconscious makes a million tiny adjustments to my view of Ben over time. We drink too much on the last night and I cry myself to sleep next to him, overwhelmed by the situation. I wake feeling mortified and exposed by my display. I try to shake it off but it’s still there when I give him a brief self-conscious hug before boarding the bus to Santiago. The bus doesn’t leave when it’s meant to. He doesn’t move from the bench seat. Incredulous at the bittersweet reality of my day, I stare out of the window at his outline – all beard, sunglasses and broad lean shoulders – until my bus eventually pulls away.
At first, our contact is constant. I post him a jar of honey from my beehive. We toy with the idea of international flights. But, the constraints are obvious. I sternly moderate my expectations – this is not an Enrique song, it’s reality. We are both settled in our respective cities. If this was ever to go anywhere, it would take a big leap of faith by somebody on the strength of very little time together. Our conversations are great, but they are just conversations.
A month after coming home, I went on a date with a new colleague. He knew I was still speaking to Ben most days and asked about it, respectfully, as we ate dinner. “You’re just latching onto something,” he suggested, as if his default view was that I would be clinging onto a tenuous possibility of love to give my life stability or meaning. I wasn’t affronted by that presumption. His point of view could be informed by any number of things but it came across as a clumsy, outdated female stereotype.
I inwardly doubted he’d have the same reaction to a man in that position. I gently redirected the way he saw it. I was under no delusions. The situation wasn’t a compromise for me. I had no interest in artificially keeping it alive, nor by drawing ultimatums, and I wouldn’t want Ben to either.
Letting contact unfold naturally with him, without any certainty, is something I see as a luxurious result of being secure. Meanwhile, I will keep living my life.
Lately, Ben tells me about looking into remote jobs. Who knows whether he would come here if he landed one. If, by some masterstroke, it does work out between us then what a sweet and unlikely story we’ll have. Chances are, it won’t, and I will look upon my time in Torres del Paine as a kickass adventure that deepened my experience of the world and the incredible people in it, including Ben.
This is my own happy ending.
Story by: Liz Windsor