“What the fuck, man!” We were talking with the American Airline representatives at Miami International about getting seated together when a man with a Chilean accent aggressively got in our faces. My brother Red and I looked quizzically at him and then one another. He suddenly shoved Red’s shoulder.
“Hey,” I sternly said, stepping forward. “Back off.”
“I’ve been waiting forever,” he huffed, refusing to make eye contact with me. He kept his glare locked on Red, who stepped back, declining to engage. I looked behind us, assessing whether we had accidentally cut a line.
“Were you all waiting?” I asked apologetically. Everyone appeared to be just as confused. “Nooo,” one young man in trekking gear said as others shook their heads. I couldn’t understand how the Chilean man had been waiting so long when there apparently was no line. His blotched face suggested he had been drinking so I returned my attention to the help desk.
When he began shouting again, Red and I stepped to the side and the airline representative calmly asked what the problem was.
“I’ve been waiting! And they just cut!”
“How can I help you?”
“I’ve been waiting,” he repeated, exasperated.
“Waiting for what?
“Sir, we haven’t started to board yet.”
“Oh.” His hot air balloon popped, realizing that there was no boarding line (or even a line to the service desk for that matter). He turned around and joined a woman with a similarly wild look in her eye.
We declined the representative’s offer to call security. Given my luck, it crossed my mind to make sure that we weren’t seated near each other, but then I figured that the odds were low.
I kept my eye on the couple as we waited for boarding. My brother and I were the last to hand over our tickets. As we walked onto the jetway, the young man in trekking gear struck up a conversation, saying how odd the interaction had been.
Then we heard the Chilean couples’ loud voices, out of breath, directly behind us. Their temperament had done a 180, and they were laughing with linked arms. I nonetheless stood between them and my brother, wondering why they waited until the very last second to board given their impatience not 20 minutes ago.
Red swiped some mini Champaign bottles from an unattended first class serving platter and extended one to the man as a peace offering. Which fortunately proved effective because it turned out they were seated across the aisle from us, with the young man on their other side. They began joking with him, and then my brother, who played along. The tension subsided as they continued throwing back mini bottles of wine throughout the flight. Their grating voices led to looks of discomfort and irritableness on the faces around them. The young man to their right eventually asked to be reseated.
It was already clear from this colorful beginning that our 10-day adventure throughout Chile would be a far cry from the monochrome experience of the Camino.
Fortunately, my brother and I enjoy the journey as much as the destination—both figuratively and literally—because it is a two-day endeavor from the States to the start of the “W trek” in Torres del Paine, Patagonia (so named because the route is the shape of a “W,” with three different lookouts). We had an afternoon layover in Santiago so we took the bus into the city center and explored the main square, which is undergoing reconstruction. Throngs of locals wandered about, eating ice cream and Chile’s famous hot dogs (I never did have a chance to compare them to the Chicago dog, but they looked similar, piled high with every condiment and veggie known to man). We checked out the government buildings and the church, also in the process of transforming, as well as Pablo Neruda’s home, before racing back to the airport to catch our flight to Punta Arenas.
We landed in the middle of the night, grabbed a hostel for a few hours of rest before we had to catch an early bus to Puerto Natales. Red decided not to unpack his sleeping bag (generally advisable even at hostels, as a precaution against bed bugs), which was impressively air-tight.
“Yeah, I tetrised the fuck out of my pack,” Red explained, not wanting to have to repack his sleeping bag in the morning. I then learned a hilariously fun fact about my brother—that he is a world champion at tetris, having ranked in the top ten of marathon tetris players three years ago! This skill would prove useful in the days to come.
The next morning, we took the three-hour bus ride to Puerto Natales, grabbed some mouthwatering salmon for lunch at a hole-in-the-wall shack, and hopped on another two-hour bus into the park.
Misty lakes began to emerge along the narrow road, with snow-capped mountains hovering just above, warped by distance into misleading stout boulders. Red pointed out a cowboy upon a galloping horse, gliding along thin streams that contained the cattle in strangely shaped clusters.
Other figurines played amidst the fog, the southern hemisphere altering their familiarity: birds that looked swan-like and ostrich-like; elks that seemed to belong more in the Jurassic era; and trees that were indecisively deciduous this Spring season. Around a bend we turned, where flapping pink flamingos and several soaring condors greeted us.
Red and I somehow found ourselves engaged in a conversation about feral children (??). Leave it to nature to spark such odd imagination.
As kids, Red and I were inseparable. So, too, were our imaginations. In the backyard we’d turn into explorers who navigated treacherous terrain amidst the bushes (of which there were three); perched in the towering apple tree, the perfect lookout; and found all the various ways to climb a mountainous limestone pile in our front yard, over and over again. I hold this vivid imagination responsible for my brother’s and my tendency to “yes and” life.
This four-day “W” trek, which went virtually unplanned, would be no exception. We did everything by the seat of our pants: Red booked his flight to join me just a week before our departure; we decided at the ranger station which direction to follow the “W”; our map was worthless; and we brought essentially no gear, crossing our fingers that all the tents wouldn’t be reserved at the camping sites. We “yes anded” the challenges that flowed from this approach to travel, using a dose of creativity to get through certain moments.
Suddenly, the enormous mountains were upon us, marking the terrain like solemn gates. They rose high above the sea—the juxtaposition making little sense to me. This would be the first time I trekked among both vertically stretched mountains and horizontally expansive waters. I felt my excitement growing from the unfamiliar.
We followed the braided river streams along the foot of the Andes to the ranger station. After registering our names, grabbing an utterly unhelpful map, and attending a brief orientation that emphasized hefty fines and jail times for building fires, we hopped on a catamaran. The small boat, packed with fellow trekkers, carried us along choppy, turquoise waters that reflected several rainbows straddling the shores from above.
It was less than a kilometer to the first Refugio—the rather upscale huts staggered along the “W.” Although they provide beds (which book up months in advance), we would be renting camping gear. After an hour of confusion about whether there were even any tents available, Red and I managed to snag one before racing inside to warm up over a bottle of Chilean wine and a few pisco sours.
We laughed at the 48-hour journey that had brought us to the start of this trek: three planes, three taxis, two buses, a metro, and a fucking catamaran.
Day One: Lago Grey
Red and I awoke to an element I hadn’t experienced since the mountains of New Zealand: 60-90 km winds, which would be keeping us company for the entirety of our trek. Based upon this warning yesterday, we made our decision to hike the “W” left to right, which was supposed to put the gusts at our backs for much of the journey. We struggled to exit the tent, which whipped this way and that, tripping the both of us. A few cups of coffee in the Refugio and then we slung on our packs, hitting the muddy trail.
We walked along the turquoise lake a short distance until veering left into a valley hugged by rolling hills. The sun was dimly shining from above as we walked through deep shadows cast by burnt, crusty trees. It felt eerily like we were passing through the elephant graveyard from the Lion King.
Contrasting dandelions with their bright yellow manes shot up defiantly from the scorched earth, reminding me fondly of my grandfather who passed a few years ago. When the dandelions in his yard would turn, my siblings and I used to carefully blow their white fluff into the air to spread our wishes all over…his carefully manicured lawn. After scolding us a few times over the years, he gave up, letting our imagination win with a smiling sigh.
We spent the next few hours climbing the first leg of the “W” toward Lago Grey, where a glacier awaited. Over the hills and through the woods we ascended, my muscles growing unusually tight with each step. Although he appreciated the varying terrain, Red made a comment about how long it had been since he had experienced or seen anything that truly stunned him.
Summiting a small peak, we stood overlooking Lago Grey with glaringly bright blue chunks of ice floating near the edge far below us. Further ahead, the expansive glacier peaked through the fog to meet us.
Speechless, we followed the rim of the lake. As we got closer, the glacier became a monstrosity. We hopped over a “do not enter” post and scrambled along jagged rock until we were perched high on our lookout above the glacier, its front lip jutting 30-40 meters above the glassy water. We had both seen glaciers previously in Chamonix, France, but the aquamarine color that the Patagonian ice had captured was in a league of its own.
We sat in silence as Red peeled an orange in a perfect orb.
Three guys from Spain spotted us, jumping the fence to join. We exchanged our feelings of reverence for this magical spot and then stood in as photographer for one another.
Red and I had some decent mileage to cover before dark so we bid farewell, returning down the first leg of the W.
When we reached the peak where we had spotted the first chunks of ice far below, Red voiced his goal of jumping into every arctic body of water he comes across in his travels (the origin of this objective being in Alaska with our other brother Wes—vignettes from their adventure to come). He could see I wasn’t a fan and reasoned with me by explaining that he had an emergency blanket on hand. I didn’t say anything, hoping he’d change his mind.
“So, is it alright if I do it?” he asked, smiling. He already knew that I wasn’t about to restrain him. I also, however, wasn’t going to let him turn into arctic ice cube without me around. I looked nervously over the cliff he was proposing we slide down. I took a deep breath to quiet the fear of heights that was rattling my rib cage, bit my lip, and after him I jumped.
I am terrible, terrible! at going downhill. As Red skated effortlessly down the mountain, I went down on my butt, grabbing at thin roots and small rocks, which became immediately dislodged the moment I clasped my fists around them. Down, down I slid, picking up speed.
40 meters later, I reached the glacier waters with only a split palm and thumping heart. We spotted a path on the other side, leading back up to the trail. We had clearly taken the more exciting route. I appreciated my brother for pushing my comfort boundaries.
Seeing the ice tower above us, Red opted to not torture me further with threats of jumping in. Thank god…
The sun was setting quickly behind the mountains and so, after a few more photos, we collected ourselves and made our way back up to the trail.
Clouds had gathered a thick moisture in the air by the time we arrived at Refugio Grey. After discovering that there were beds available, Red and I opted to splurge that night on the bunks rather than set up camp. We ate a terrible and terribly-overpriced meal as we hit it off with fellow trekkers and some of the local guides. While Red finished up dinner, Willi and Lucas, two guides from Big Foot Adventure, led me to the lake to show off the original Refugio Grey, which now serves as housing for the guides. We sat downstairs in the timeless cabin as they asked me to paint a picture of what San Francisco is like.
When I returned to meet up with Red, we talked about whether DC has a soul—the type we both felt in San Francisco and more palpably so, in Chicago. The brainstorming began, which would continue throughout the rest of our trip, about how to feed DC’s soul. We started with the building blocks. Communal space would be key, and so I asked Red whether DC has an equivalent of Dolores Park in San Francisco.
Malcolm X Park, he said, attracts a diverse array of people from the surrounding area who gather in drum circles on warmer weather weekends. From there, we bounced ideas around about how to build up community in the area such that it would attract people from the park’s broader reaches. Red, an entrepreneur who started a distillery, played with the business angle, and I put thought into community participation in the park, including ways in which to attract artists to the area, organize activities, and set up a playground. And then we blended our ideas—through the simultaneous development of small businesses and regional identity. The more diverse—age, race, gender, ability, class, etc.—the higher the odds of bonding cross sections of DC-ers and sustainably building soul from the ground up. We then discussed how to spread this microcosm across the city.
“The Plan” crystalized, integrating Red’s business sense and my criminal justice background. Linking those two foundations is the authority of art. Much of the combustion power needed to launch this movement resides in the element of surprise so I’ll stop here for now.
Day 2: Italiano
Red and I slept in late, warm in our sleeping bags—which we call the cloud since it indeed feels like you are sleeping in a cloud. Having both almost froze to death due to shitty sleeping bags in the past, we both chose to invest in new ones before we left DC.
Red had a vivid dream where, in the midst of a post apocalyptic world, he lived as a king because the Rhubarb Moonshine he distilled was high in demand.
We stood outside Refugio Grey, reorganizing our packs as the raindrops began to fall. Willi wandered about, frazzled by his ADD and disorganized group of (likely hung-over) trekkers. He treated me as if I were the calm in the storm, kissing me on the cheek upon first seeing me and then again upon Red’s and my departure a few minutes later.
As Red and I hiked through the elephant graveyard again, I noticed this time how the spread of dandelions was accented by a lone violet wildflower here and there. Trekkers know the impatient feeling of having to retrace your steps, but we also forget how the scenery is completely different depending on the direction in which you are heading. Hiking down the first leg, our view was of the turquoise waters we had crossed in the catamaran, sitting in stark contrast to the black forest.
As we turned the corner to begin ascending up the W’s middle, we stopped to fill our water bottles in a stream.
“I smell so bad,” Red announced.
I smelled myself. “I’m ok.”
“It’s just my arm pits. The rest of me smells like flowers and honey.”
It was only a few hours to the next ranger station. Red and I had received conflicting information as to whether they rented out tents…
Upon arrival, we discovered that indeed, tents were not available for rent. The ranger at the post stared at us like the idiots we were.
Red and I then looked at one another. Time to build a shelter.
After finding a flat space by a creek, we began our makeshift shelter by collecting long sticks, branches with dead leaves, and large stones. We also came across a metal sheet. Red, with his engineering background and excellence in tetris, configured the support beams, and then we built around it—securing the base of the beams with the rocks and weaving sticks through one another and across a rain jacket for the roof. Red dug a drainage ditch for the rains, which were most certainly coming, and coming soon. His emergency blanket served as our ground tarp.
Curious trekkers stood by, rather confused. That evening we gathered together over food (Red and I counted our remaining salami slices, having barely enough food to get us through to the next Refugio) and learned about that night’s neighbors. We bonded in particular with a Welsh kayak guide and an engineer from London. Also joining in the conversation were two girls from Vancouver who were taking time off from college and a spastic student from Holland who kept repeating how excited he was to return to his girlfriend and go out for pancakes.
They were all impressed with our shelter and thanked us for giving them a story to tell others on the trail as well as friends and family upon their return. The ranger then came around and remarked that he had never seen anything like it. Red and I—having built plenty of forts together as kids—laughed, thinking the attention funny.
The kayak guide offered us tea to warm our bones—I am going to miss these moments of pure generosity. There is nothing like sharing with others in the wilderness when your own supplies are limited.
There was just barely enough room to fit Red and I in the shelter, not only horizontally, but also vertically. The roof sloped downward, away from the tree supporting its left wall. Being smaller, I squeezed into the narrower side, wedging myself between a heavy stick and the ground. Red then slithered in like a worm, head first, to fill out our sardine can. Most importantly, it was dry, and it was warm. The rains had begun, but nothing seeped through. The drainage ditches were operating to our advantage, redirecting the water away from us.
But then, drops of water that were sliding down the trunk of the tree began to fall, one by one, steadily onto Red’s forehead. There was nothing we could do about it. It was virtually impossible to exit our shelter. The more I thought about that, as the weight of the stick crushing my torso began to feel heavier and heavier, the more my breath quickened. Confused by the sensation of claustrophobia, which I had never experienced before, I tried to put myself in the headspace of mind over matter.
Eventually it became too intense, but I couldn’t figure out a solution.
“Red,” I said with a confused tone. “I’m claustrophobic?”
“Really? Want to switch?” my brother, who was now deep into his Chinese water torture experience, offered. It was a pointless question on my part. There was no way for Red to fit in my nook so I thanked him, but declined the offer and returned to focusing on my breathing.
Eventually my fatigue won the battle, and I dozed off.
Day 3: Cuernos
I awoke the next morning at sunrise, ecstatic to exit my suffocation chambers. Open air had never felt so freeing. I thought of the prisoners I represented in Malawi without that luxury, packed in their cells like sardines, having to rotate for sleep.
Mirador Francis was on the menu for today. Red and I began our three-hour ascent. Although we left our packs at camp, my legs felt like led so it was slow going up through the ravine.
We were out of food. The rainy mist carried us slowly along until we reached the lookout, over the Francis Valley and up the backside of the three turrets (“Torres”)—Torres del Paine’s namesake.
We scaled a massive boulder for a better view, and Red surprised me with a handful of nuts he had been keeping for us. I’ve never been so in love with calories! After throwing them back, we hopped over the “peligroso” barricade. Red was convinced there was an aqua lake above us so we continued upward, playing “hot lava” as we hopped over the streams that had washed away our path.
The streams soon turned into snow. Onward we climbed. A serene silence waited patiently as my brother and I debated whether there was indeed a lake on this side. It’d be another several hours until we could get to the base of the peaks to be sure—time we didn’t have on our hands. Perhaps on the other side, I convinced Red.
Going back downhill was a relief, and my legs loosened from their stoney grip. We grabbed our packs at the campsite and continued down the other side of the W’s middle point, walking along bright, crystal cold waters…which should clue you into guessing what happened next.
I broke out the emergency blanket as Red jumped into the arctic waters. When he exited onto the pebble beach, an elderly couple passed us, looking at Red like he was crazy and then at me as if to say, you can’t control this absurdity? I shrugged. Oh to be young, they said.
When we reached Refugio Cuernos, we set up camp and warmed ourselves inside a hut over several forms of chocolate. Red and I couldn’t stand the smell of ourselves and decided a shower was in order.
I exited the shower shack, walking down the wooden ramp, slick from the rain, and slipped forward, landing hard onto my right knee into a knighting position. I am proud to say this was the first time on my RTW trip that I (fully) fell over! I am not known for walking with much grace…
Later, relaxing outside on the wood deck, I became engaged with a Refugio employee and musician named Lalo in a conversation about capitalism.
“Capitalism can’t sustain itself,” he said.
We discussed free versus fair trade. I relayed my involvement in the cross-border trade movement between Mexico and the U.S. He aired his concerns about the similar effects that free trade was having in Chile and then proudly described the local movements that were gathering force. We discussed MERCOSUR and the arguments in favor of and against regional trading systems and their sustainability depending on what governments and industries they are founded upon.
“We must protect the sustainability of our communities and traditions,” he concluded.
At dinner, he played traditional music.
After a few beers with new friends, Red and I turned in for the night, but not before I fell on my face again. We laughed, and continued laughing into the tent, our conversation devolving to the point where we found ourselves gasping for air. My brother and I find ourselves laughing a lot together, although I couldn’t even hope to remember about what exactly. This instance began with the mispronunciation of the word, “narcissus.” Narcissusus. Narcissususus? Really? Yeah, Narcissusususus…? I think so? Our stomachs began to ache as tears rolled down our faces.
Independently from my experience on the Camino, Red has developed a recent fascination with sociopaths. We compared notes from our reading and about our respective experiences until we passed out.
Day 4: Los Torres and Refugio Chileno
Today was the day. Los Torres was why we had opted to explore this corner of Patagonia. We refilled our water bottles from the river and continued trekking at the foot of snowy mountains to our left and turquoise waters to our right.
We checked in about one another’s plumbing, which had been disrupted for different reasons, laughing about the problems and pain until we broke out in song.
“O sole mio!” we shouted at the top of our lungs. It was the start of a song—or so we think—that our dad used to sing to us before bed (originally a campaign song used by the Whigs in the 1840 presidential election, I later found out). Our mom continued the tradition until our littlest sibling one day covered her three-year-old ears, stating in an upset tone, “Mom!! No more singing.” To this day, none of us quite remember the rest of the lyrics. But we continued in unison, “tippecanoe and tyler too!”
We reached Refugio Chileno at 2 p.m. and set up camp before hanging out at a picnic bench as Red power-napped. Then we began our ascent up to Los Torres. It was a gorgeous afternoon. The sun was shining through the trees as we passed handfuls of trekkers, many just beginning the “W” from the other direction.
Red announced that he was in a bad mood, laughing at himself. I love these moments of honesty about my brother because they showcase his unparalleled openness as well as sincerity. It is because of this sincerity, from which his charm and wit flow, that when Red enters a crowded room he immediately draws everyone into his space.
When I asked what was going on in his head, he described how he was ruining the moment by thinking about the next. It was a bigger picture issue he had been confronting lately. He had begun to regularly enter this headspace on Sundays, when he grew bitter about the arrival of Monday—which then mentally creeped into his Saturdays and then Fridays—which then stretched into seasons, ruining Summer, because that meant Fall, and then Winter followed quickly thereafter. To truly live in the moment is an acquired skill for many, myself included. Traveling done right, I have found, can help solidify this headspace.
Having aired his frustration, Red began to feel better. We broke through the tree line, the landscape turning to stone. The boulders grew increasingly larger, guiding us to the turrets. There the three sisters were—all three Torres towering over an aqua lake among icy mountain peaks. We were speechless once again.
People were scattered about. Alone in their solitude. One was perched on an enormous boulder facing the setting sun, meditating. Another stood at the waters edge, looking for something in its depths.
Red and I walked to the shore, the sun quickly settling into the peaks.
Round two. Red handed me the emergency blanket and began peeling off layers. In he dove, gaping strangers distracted from their solitude. He made it look effortless.
As I handed him the blanket, a guy quietly approached and offered to take our picture.
“I saw you before,” he said. “You built that shelter. Mad respect. I’m traveling with two other guys. So there are at least three other people in the world who respect you.”
My brother and I laughed again, thinking how strange it was, making a name for oneself by building a home.
We said a silent goodbye to this moment of inspiration beneath the Torres, and began our descent back to camp.
Red and I entertained ourselves by exchanging stories of our adventure travels. As mentioned, for one month Red and Wes backpacked throughout Alaska—survival style as they lived off the land. Despite having never fished or hunted in their lives, that is what they did. Most of the time it didn’t work out so well, and they found themselves eating plants.
Until one day Red spotted a beaver swimming across a lake. He was so focused on getting that animal into his stomach that it was only after he successfully shot the beaver and it began to sink into the icy waters that the question of how he would retrieve the animal crossed his mind. He was left with no choice but to dive for that critter. After a few attempts, he caught a hold of its tail and began to swim up to the surface. It was enormous, and thus a struggle to get it to shore.
Hence began Red’s tradition of jumping into every arctic body of water he comes across.
Wes skinned it, winging the process with the help of his recently-acquired surgery skills in med school. He devoured as much of the beaver as he could, but Red couldn’t get more than two bites down before gagging. All the same, it got him through the next few days of hunger. Its pelt now hangs in our house…
Red and I talked about ways in which to continue exploring the outdoors upon our return to DC, agreeing to explore Shenandoah Park and do more climbing.
We had a decent meal that evening and chatted with fellow trekkers by a fire in the Refugio’s den until we retired to our tents.
Red and I talked about our parents, who are recent empty-nesters, and how much respect we have for them, as parents and also as individuals. This bled into a conversation about the importance of raising kids with spirituality and debating ways in which to tackle that endeavor. The stars shone through the trees and into our tent as we drifted to sleep.
Day 5: return to Puerto Natales
It was the last day on the trail, and so I awoke reminiscing about my previous hikes in New Zealand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Nepal, Greece, and Spain—all of their differences as well as similarities.
After a great deal of logistical confusion, Red and I would exit Patagonia today, making our way eventually back to Santiago after another 48 hours of travel.
The morning sun warmed us from above as we descended down the soft rolling foothills, which sloped slowly away from the mountains.
“This landscape looks like Mongolia’s steppe,” Red observed. A few years ago, Red rode a horse through Mongolia for several weeks. His guide (a man who carried with him only a toothbrush that he tucked into one boot and a cell phone in the other) invited friends over to a hut one evening. They all arrived at the same time on horseback from various directions, as if following a smoke signal. Red recently had been attacked by a Mongolian dog (imagine 150 pounds of mass hurling itself at you) and so he was resting on the floor. In came the guys, and one went straight up to Red and laid his head down in Red’s lap, the intimacy from a straight man startling Red until he realized it was customary. In such a desolate landscape, opportunities for human connection are rare. When they happen, they run deep. Trekking by oneself for some time provides a glimpse of this human experience.
Our discussion of Red’s travels in Mongolia morphed into a discussion about its history, Genghis Khan, and how greatly the nation changed in such a short period of time. Why? We wondered, thinking aloud about the importance of ambition in global empires. We compared Mongolia to the early Roman Empire, which emphasized this trait among its people. In many homes, for instance, people set aside an entire room for their ancestors—housing mementos as reminders of their achievements and the big shoes the next generation was expected to fill.
Red and I lamented about the apathy that has plagued so much of our generation—a quality for which I have little patience. We agreed, however, it is beginning to appear that in many ways the “me generation” is stepping up to become the leaders we’ve been waiting for—our greater sense of efficiency, creativity, and accountability surprising even ourselves.
With regard to the rest of our generation, which is still searching for identity and perhaps purpose: How do we instill ambition in people who have lost faith in the way we govern ourselves? The state of politics in the States is…let’s just say that we can and should do better. We have reached a point in history, I believe, where in many respects the values that matter most to us surpass national politics—social media and international movements having solidified more regional and universal identities. We now identify with values that leap beyond the confines of national borders and the troublesome politics they house. The state of our devolved political affairs in combination with powerful intentional movements has the potential to be either a deadly or magical recipe, depending on how we check and balance ourselves on the international stage.
Red and I reached the final Refugio, which was more like a swanky lodge, where we had a delicious sandwich, flatbread, and actual, drinkable coffee.
Three Italian guys who were just as filthy as us sat down at the table next to ours. We all smiled at each other and our shared experience.
I was outside waiting for Red when one of them came up to me and asked, “You are brother and sister?” I nodded.
“Yeah, we heard about you. Your shelter,” he laughed. “People talked about you guys all along the W.”
“You get along well?” he asked.
“He’s one of my very best friends.”
“I’m close with my sister too. Like twins. We do everything together. Except for this trip,” he looked over to his two friends who were waiting for him. “Have a good journey!”
Red joined me and began looking for his socks. “Klepto! I hate kleptos!” he said to no one in particular—laughing, confused. “Who steals dirty socks?” He then spotted one mate in the middle of the field. I haven’t done the wind justice in this post, but its icy gusts had been whipping at us the entire length of the trek. It had clearly taken his socks hostage. We never found the mate.
The bus system getting out of Torres del Paine is confusing as hell. What times they leave, and where they leave from are utterly unclear. Employees in the park offered contradictory information. To make a long story short, Red and I wound up taking a bus twenty minutes to the ranger station only to be told that the next bus to Puerto Natales wasn’t for another four hours.
With nothing around, we hopped on the same bus back to the hotel, where we hung out until catching another bus back to the ranger station that afternoon, catching a second bus to Puerto Natales.
We passed under ribbons of low hanging, slate clouds. Jagged mountains of the same color jutted through to the heavens. A condor soared beside us for a while.
Red talked about relativity—matter, gravity, and their influence on space and time.
“Dark energy is the reason our universe is expanding.” He explained the effects of red light versus blue light discovered in recent relativity research. “Many top theoretical physicists are working on this now. We used to think the universe expanded and contracted, but now we know that we are steadily expanding until all the stars go out. When all life will cease to exist.”
He saw my face. “Perhaps a trillion years from now,” he offered.
Red has always been fascinated by space, which strongly informs his perspective on life. If you’ve ever looked up at the stars or walked out of a space museum and felt small, the intensity of this emotion is magnified for Red, whose day job is in the aerospace and defense industry.
After talking about how his interest in space evolved, Red inquired about the origins of my interest in international criminal justice.
“It started with AP Econ,” I explained. “Which is when I began to piece together our various international systems—from economics to politics to anthropology to legal systems to the environment—and realized the many ways that we can harness the power of these interrelated systems to solve social problems.”
Ostrich-like birds hobbled around awkwardly on the expansive planes.
We talked of destiny, whether people have control over it, and whether it even mattered.
“How do you choose what to value in life?” Red asked. For Red, it’s what makes each person happy. Grand ideas of changing the world are, at the end of the day, pointless—given our expanding universe that is steadily spinning us out into the ether, the sun burning out, the earth cooling until we vanish into nothing.
“Did Genghis Khan, the U.S. presidents, or Hitler really make a lasting impact?” Red asked rhetorically. “Humans have been around for about 200,000 years—out of billions of years…My philosophy is that people should do what makes them happy. If what makes a person happy is helping more people then that person should do that.”
“But I believe,” he continued, “that doing one nice thing for someone is essentially the same as doing that same thing for 50 people—statistically speaking—like how buying 50 lottery tickets doesn’t materially increase your chances of winning.”
To Red, personal happiness, with a strong dose of responsibility towards others and their happiness, is what matters most.
I explained that my own philosophy was flipped, being first rooted in values. From values arises happiness. (In this way, as I mentioned in my Mount Rinjani post from Indonesia, I recognize that part of me remains rooted in the older generation.)
“It is true that for many people, their most fundamental value is happiness,” I said. “For others, it is changing the world to make it a better place for whatever time we have on this earth. If the latter value system drives you, then you’ll find satisfaction in your lifetime. Whatever your values, however, happiness is harnessed from acting on those values.”
By the time we reached Puerto Natales, we had a better understanding of both perspectives. As I was purchasing our bus tickets to Punta Arenas, I put down my boots. When I turned around, they were gone.
As I looked for them, we ran into the Welsh kayak guide, who helped with the search. I eventually spoke with a security guard, who spoke with a woman at one of the tour agencies, who then spoke with another woman. The latter approached me, smiling meekly and saying that she put my boots on a bus.
I looked at her, bewildered. “You took my boots and put them on a bus?” I asked in Spanish. I was sure there was something missing in translation. But she nodded in confirmation.
“Well I happen to need those boots. Where is the bus?”
“It’s far outside of town by now,” she said.
“Can you get them back please?” I asked. These boots were my fourth pair on this RTW trip, but they were the first that didn’t give me any problems. Because I had finished my last trek, it seemed oddly appropriate to lose them. After much confusion and back and forth, she said she would place a call to the driver. My brother and I left to grab groceries and returned half an hour later where she had my boots waiting for me. So odd.
Two hours later, we arrived in Punta Arenas where retired ships and fighter planes were plopped heavily along the shore, showing off the town’s naval history—relics of antiquated struggles to protect identity. But a reminder, all the same, of the ancestors who gave their lives to this struggle, and the big shoes our “me generation” has yet to fill.