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Sunday, February 22, 2015

I can't go home

I can't go home. I stood astride friday staring up at the colossal granite spires that comprise the towers, the Torres del Paine, and the words suddenly filled my head. I can't go home. Where did that comes from, what inner recess of my weird psyche generated that brief but profound statement? The words arose and then repeated, like a scratched 45 from years ago. I can't go home. I can't go home. I can't go home.

Of course I can and of course I will go home. For now. But the words echoed for hours, and days. They still they do. The rhythm of the long road, the wild ride, resonate.

I check the news occasionally, the headlines at least, and that world seems so foreign and far away. On any given day, my most pressing issues are whether I will find a campsite before dark that provides protection from the wind and from curious eyes? Will I have enough water to carry me to the next source? Am I eating enough to fuel tomorrow's ride? Those are my banner headlines. Everything else belongs in a world where I don't live.

I am not unmoved by the pressing issues that face us as a species. If anything, I find myself overwhelmed and impotent to effect meaningful change on the scale required to make a difference. In the late 60s, Martin Seligman developed his theory of "learned helplessness" which stemmed from his interest in depression. He and his colleagues found that after administering electrical shocks to dogs at random intervals, the dogs eventually reached a state of such helplessness that they no longer attempted to avoid the shocks, even in situations where they could. I wonder if our headline news stories, which are designed to shock, appall, and horrify, don't have the same effect?

I sit here at the hostel in Punta Arenas resting a knee that took too much abuse riding steep hills against fierce winds so that I could have that moment in front of the towers, bowed by their enormity, humbled by their rugged perfection. I had been off the bike for about a week after finishing the carretera austral. I was itching to get back on the road, bonded with my bike, moving through space-time.

We took the back way to the park, an unpaved and consequently less traveled road. For the first few hours, we rode past small lakes and rolling hills and never saw a car.
As we hit the steeper hills, the winds started to kick up as they often do here in the afternoons, quickly turning fierce. I could see the mountains in the distance, my destination, closer but still quite far. The steepness of the hills and the relentless winds forced me off my bike on more than a few occasions. The wind became so strong that I simply could not pedal and at times so strong I could not walk.

A small tour bus was parked at a lookout point as i crested one hill and the driver called me over. I could see Torres in the distance behind a beautiful turquoise lake that laid below us. I was hoping, having seen the impossibility of my plight, they might offer me a ride to the park. But I could see the bus was full and there was no room, not even for a lone and weary not - so - little girl and her not - so - big bike. They were merely curious about me, wanting to know where I was from and where I was going. When I told them, they burst into cheers and applause. I went on my way buoyed by their enthusiasm, but daunted by the task that laid ahead of me.

I would have gladly stopped on the way and set up my tent. Friday and I have nothing to prove, no daily goal we need to achieve. We ride for the sheer joy of it. But the wind was so strong that trying to set up a tent at the few potential campsites I saw would have been impossible. I was starting to feel some pain in my left knee on the down stroke, so I walked the hills rather than pushing my knee past its limit.

Around 7 pm, having left Puerto Natales at 7am, I was climbing yet another steep hill when I looked down on a lovely green valley on my right, quite a bit down, and spied what must have been the park. I kept pushing against the wind wondering how I get down there. Eventually a car was coming in my direction and I flagged it down. The window rolled down and I blurted out "entrada?" Where is the entrance? A kind faced Japanese man looked out at me and told me I'd gone too far. "Get back on the bike and go all the way down. It's down there'.

I arrived at the administrative building and asked where I could camp. The only near campground (I had come through the back entrance to the park) was only a kilometer away, and i could go ask, but it was full and there was no other place for me to camp that night.

I rode to the campground and was informed that it was, indeed, full. I put on my most helpless look which, at that point, was not affected, and explained in a mix of Spanish and English that "estoy sola, I am a woman alone, on my pequeña bicicleta,  my little bicycle. Es trades, it's late, and I have nowhere to go".  The nice young man turned, went into his office, got on the phone, and got permission for me to camp for one night.  It was a great victory.
After setting up my tent, I walked down the road in time to catch a spectacular view of the towers as the setting sun bathed them in a bronze glow.

The next day I biked and hiked for a few hours to a campsite further in the park, not as far as I wanted to go but as far off the road on a hiking path that I could go with friday. I set friday down to take a 6-hour hike (3 each way) to a glacier-fed lake with a view of the Torres in the background.
On the way back to the campsite, my knee finally gave out. I was in intense pain for the rest of the night, sleeping on the bench of a sheltered picnic table rather than setting up my tent. I woke cold and hobbled the two hours to the main entrance, where I waited for a bus to take me back to Puerto Natales. Bad fortune sometimes clusters and, as I waited for the bus, I was struck with some kind of stomach/intestinal pathogen that had me heaving into a plastic bag half the way back.

And, yet, i want to keep going. Forever. For several days I played out scenarios of extending my trip, moving them around in my head like a bored tongue explores teeth. In the end, I must come home. My sweet little house in the canyon deserves my care and attention and the hummingbirds will be arriving in just a few weeks. And yet there remains an aversion to retuning home that I did not anticipate, a desire to remain wild.


  1. What a great way to end your journey Alyson. Torres del Paine is one of nature's most noble accomplishments. We camped and hiked for 5 days back in the 90s, an experience I will never forget. Oh, and the wind; I commiserate.

    Yours was a journey well-taken. Thanks so much for sharing the joy and the pain.

    See you back in Bisbee.


  2. Amazing story. Enjoy the hummingbirds when you get home and thanks for sharing your story so well.