Thursday, September 27, 2007

And A River Runs Through It

The weekend before Dia de Patria (September 18th), Coyhaique bursts with Chilean flags and the smell of empanadas, every store selling chicha by the gallon and every speaker in town pumping cueca. For the first time in my life, I am overwhelmed by a feeling of patriotism for a country that isn´t even mine. My school has elected to take a week-long vacation in order to celebrate, and on Friday every student from kindergarten to eighth grade takes their turn waving a handkerchief and dancing the national dance. I am tempted to hang out in Coyhaique and practice my own cueca moves, but come Saturday morning I am on a bus headed south to find the Rio Baker.

During my time here in Patagonia, I have become aware of the impending plan to construct five major hydroelectric dams on the pristine rivers of this region. The $4 billion project will be carried out by ENDESA, a Spanish mega-corporation, and the electricity generated will be carried directly to the north for use in various industries. They are essentially planning to ransack the region of its awe-inspiring rivers without a single watt of energy staying to benefit the people who live here. One of the intended victims of the said ransacking is the famous Rio Baker, so I decide it is time to get to know her.

The sun is getting low when I hop off the bus in Puerto Bertrand, the sole passenger to disembark in the deserted street. A horse parked nearby looks at me skeptically. The bus roars away and I chew on the silence...the leather of my heavy hiking boots crunching loudly as I walk. A few residents open their front doors to peer out at me. Apparently I´ve arrived before gringo season - all the hospedajes are closed. I manage to find a bed and salmon dinner with Sra. Alicia, who eyes me as if I might just be insane traveling alone in September. But I must have earned her approval; she passes me the maté later that night.

The next morning is dazzling and I break a sweat walking with my awkward bags as soon as I leave town. A sign reads "Inicio Rio Baker," so I scramble down to the water´s edge to commemorate. The river is just leaving Lago Bertrand, so she is calm and tranquil. The bright blue of the glacial water is shocking. It is an auspicious beginning - I can tell we are going to be good friends. I could easily pass a day or a lifetime just sitting here, but I head back to the road and wait until a white pickup comes barreling over the potholes. Thinking of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty and that great big American road, I hitch the first ride of my life.

I ask to be left at the confluence of Rio Baker and Rio Neff, then I hop in back and hold on tight as the truck lurches onward. The dust covers me in a fine layer of filth, but I am oblivious and digging the landscape as it rolls by - dry Ñire trees that look like they might ignite in the hot sun, cows staring passively, and the river following us alongside. Always the river. I lean on my overstuffed pack, bracing with my feet and attempting to film the dirt road as it recedes behind us. "So this is what it feels like to be alive," I think to myself. The truck halts to a stop and I hop off surrounded by dry brush and nothingness in all directions. For the first time, the river is out of sight. I am told that if I walk straight, I´ll find it, and the truck speeds away, continuing south. I slide down the gravel shoulder and suddenly I am in wilderness. I decide this could be the stupidest or most brilliant thing I´ve ever done.

Fortune is on my side. I arrive panting and hot at the top of a steep gravel hill, and find an awesome spectacle below. The Baker is raging, her impossibly turquoise water vibrating against the reddish brown hillside like a psychedelic 3-D poster. The Nef, a distinct milky-green color, joins in below the impressive falls. I am completely alone - the only sound is the raging of the rivers below. I scramble down the hillside until I can feel the mist on my face and the noise seems to radiate from inside my body. This is what it feels like to be alive. I watch her and listen to her all afternoon, and I swear that below the deafening roar, I can hear her whispering stories and words of wisdom. Fellow Massachusetts native Thoreau once said, "Who hears the rippling of rivers will not utterly despair of anything." I wonder what he´d think about this place, so far away from Walden.

I spend the rest of the week alongside the Baker, drinking maté in campo kitchens, crossing her in a leaky rowboat, and hiking high above her delta in the breathtaking village Caleta Tortel. I listen to the growing uneasiness among the people who live by her and have grown to love her. The future for them is uncertain. Most are opposed to the construction of the dams, but some hope it will bring much needed jobs into the region. Almost everyone is unsettled by the lack of available information about the project. The possible effects are disturbingly unclear. And all the while the Baker, that monstrous big river, rages on.

I return to Coyhaique sunburned, windburned, and struggling to define what it is I found down there. The Baker both defies and inspires words. When Siddhartha listened into the river, he heard "om" and discovered enlightenment. When Huck and Jim floated the mighty Miss, they found safety and salvation. Here in Patagonia, ENDESA´s engineers have summed up the Baker in terms of its megawatt potential.

When I sit by the Baker, I glimpse eternity. It seems as though she has been flowing since the beginning of time and will continue to do so forever. But in a land where glaciers are melting, lakes are disappearing, and plates are converging, nothing is certain.

So I am left simply to meditate on change, impermanence, and the mighty rivers that run through the whole big mess. And I know that the Baker will continue on, with barely a complaint, through rocks and mountains and lives and journeys, as long as she can.

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