Before leaving Puerto Natales I made an early morning photo trip to an old pier just north of my hotel. I wore five layers of clothing and still froze in the pre-dawn dark. The few locals who walked by gave strange looks to the gringo jumping up and down next to a tripod.
On our first morning the captain gathered us together for a safety briefing. He started by warning a group of French backpackers that their excessive drinking the night before would not be tolerated, prompting a round of half-suppressed laughter and casting a sheen of high school hijinks over the trip. At the end of his speech the captain broke out our nationalities: 38 Chileans, 17 British, 14 Australians, 12 French, 7 Americans, 6 Germans, 4 Brazilians, 4 Dutch, 4 Kiwis, 1 Swiss, 1 South Korean, and 1 South African.
After the safety briefing I went out on deck for photos in the early light. Sea lions and dolphins swam alongside the ferry as we passed through a narrow channel.
Paul winced. “I’m thinking about writing a letter to the Chilean government,” he said. “They’ve completely ruined that park.” Paul had been there a month ago and was appalled by the crowds, the development, and the lax enforcement of park rules. “I camped at the refugio right below Torres del Paine. I made the mistake of walking into the forest next to the campsite and, man, there was just toilet paper everywhere. It was disgusting.”
Paul saved even higher levels of disgust for his fellow hikers. He said that he’d spent a few nights camping in a trail-less wilderness area near Ushuaia, where he’d run into a Canadian and four Israelis who were dangerously underprepared. “The Canadian had on regular cross-training shoes, and none of them had a topographical map,” Paul said in exasperation. “If I’d found them in Sawtooth I would have escorted them out of my park.”
Paul’s next target was the company that made his hiking boots. The boots had apparently worn out after only seven months of tough use, and Paul said he planned to write a stern letter to the manufacturer. He named the brand, one apparently well known to serious hikers, and asked if I’d ever heard of it. I admitted that I hadn’t, and I could see from the change in Paul’s face that I’d just revealed myself as yet another disappointment.
Throughout the day we passed large groups of humpback whales, too far away to see much more than a waterspout rising from a dark shape. As we moved north and the temperature rose, being outside was no longer an endurance test and I spent more time on deck. In the afternoon an unusually intense full-arch rainbow appeared on our port side, so close that it looked like it started and ended on the ferry itself.
“Doesn’t everyone in France love the United States?” I joked. Faustine furrowed her brow. Sarcasm rarely seemed to be working for me on this trip.
In less-than-fluent English Faustine tried to describe how she felt about the emptiness of the Patagonian landscape. “I am on a bus, and the people, they closed the window because of the sun. They are in Patagonia and they close the window? ‘Oh it is just nothing,’ they tell me. ‘Only the desert, always the same, nothing to see.’ But for me it is different. If you look there is so much to see, even when there is nothing.” I told her I knew what she meant.
The most noticeable passenger on the ferry was Angie, a six-foot tall redheaded American with a loud, penetrating voice, a strong Southern accent, and an extremely extraverted personality. She pronounced Spanish words as if she was intentionally trying to parody a clueless American: “I sure did love that RAY-foo-JEE-oh, y’all!”
Paul shuddered whenever he saw Angie. “My strategy is to never make eye contact,” he said.
Paul’s strategy failed when Angie and her friend sat next to us at lunch. “So where y’all from?” Angie asked. Paul recoiled as if he’d been punched in the gut. He stayed silent and kept his eyes on his plate. I picked up the small talk slack, trying not to smile and hoping I could find a way to force Paul to interact with Angie.
Angie said she’d grown up in Georgia and lived in Atlanta before moving to North Carolina. “Did you like Atlanta?” I asked.
“Well I had a bad experience there,” Angie said. “I got mugged at gunpoint.” She’d been so traumatized she decided to relocate. “I didn’t want to live in fear, you see. The mugger was …” – her voice dropped to a confidential whisper – “… African American. And after that whenever I saw a young black man I got scared.” That was too much for Paul. He abandoned his half-finished food and fled the table.
Thanks to the unusually calm water we made great time and docked at Puerto Montt the night before our scheduled arrival. Most of us slept on the boat and left early the next morning, but Paul had been so traumatized by the past few days that he disembarked as soon as the first gangplank hit the dock.