Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Dreaming Northward

I find my way out of Coyhaique at last, striking north on the Carretera Austral for Puyhuapi. Juan Pablo, who offered to drive and save me valuable time on the bus, said the trip would be fast and concentrated, like a dream. It was.

We get a late start out of town, about 2:30 in the afternoon, with the sun high overhead. North of Aysén we pass the tiny settlement of Manihuales, and shortly thereafter the pavement ends and the landscape begins to change. The forest stretches in all directions: damp, dense, and green. I am overwhelmed by its frantic and reckless tangles. As always in Patagonia, the snowy peaks of the Andes surround us and enclose our world with an impressive border. They seem to become sharper and markedly more severe as we head north. The moon already chases behind us, and Jaco Sanchez sings "Tengo que pensar..." on the radio while we climb hairpin turns to cross the pass. I am lost in my thoughts, deep into the dream, and fixated on the enormous green ferns and spindly lenga trees hugging the road.

It is dusk when we arrive at Fijordo Queulat, but there is just enough light to make out the glassy water of the ocean meandering inland to meet the peaks. The carretera hugs the fijord and deals us endless potholes and sharp turns, until night finally closes in and the lights of Puyhuapi illuminate the distant shore. Puyhuapi, a tiny scattering of cabañas and German bed and breakfasts, is silent and tranquil in the darkness. The stillness of the mountains and the water, and the palpable sense of isolation create a distinct feeling of peace.

In the morning, a rare sunny day in this perpetually rainy climate illuminates the landscape anew. Everyone in Puyhuapi seems desperate to talk to us, as if they´ve been awaiting visitors in solitude all winter. They probably have. We converse with the German owner of a hand-woven rug business and shuffle around the edge of the fijord. We then head back south to the looming Ventisquero Colgante, a massive hanging glacier suspended between two peaks and reflected in a luminescent blue lagoon.

Late afternoon, and we fly back down the carretera and over the pass, stopping to pick up two hitchhikers who happen to know Juan Pablo. Patagonia is enormous and yet surprisingly small...there are so few people it is not uncommon to find an acquaintance in the middle of the wilderness 400 miles away. Our companions bring renewed energy to the cab of the truck as they recount their journey and plans to walk through the night if no car had stopped. I ponder that possibility.

Eventually we all lapse into silence, watching the moon rise and the peaks turn a warm pink. The moon is full, and this time we are chasing it, until the peaks become dark shapes and the lights of Coyhaique appear in the valley below. Night has definitively fallen by the time we hit our first traffic light. Awake from the dream, I struggle to hold onto some tangible evidence that it was real. Even the photographs seem to lie. Asi es la Patagonia.

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