Waiting on father to finish breakfast I went outside to survey the morning light. A hike was the plan for the day, to the top of the Cerro Paine, to the three spires crowning their summit. The Torres del Paine rising 3,050 meters over the sea. Early still, the chill in the air did battle with the warmth from my coffee. Coffee I was in no hurry to consume. My thoughts drifting elsewhere. Likely fixed on the resplendent rainbow then glistening into view.
Like the rainbow - a smorgasbord of sensation born from water and light - I found my mind multiplied that day by the trail up the mountain and my desire to go there. At the moment I was sipping java while searching out the perfect angle for a photograph, which I found before dad returned from his meal. We watched the colorful arc for a moment saying nothing nor needing to. Of rainbows I feel this axiom can be freely asserted: never trust someone who can look on them with disdain.
We geared up, joined the hiking party, then departed. A distance of nine kilometers separated our camp from the mirador, during that length an elevation gain of some 751 meters. The weather, an ever shifting spirit in Patagonia, appeared calm, agreeable; though the guide warned that could change in an instant, like a flash of inspiration. By all accounts not a murderous trail it couldn’t be called a picnic either. I wondered how my father, whose body had not kept up with his mind’s sense of self, would endure. Starting off in the scrubby foothills I felt no need yet to chaperone. Laconically held back, taking a few more pictures, trying vainly to come to terms with the fact I’d made it. That I was actually in Patagonia.
Patagonia had been a dream of mine for some time. I was mesmerized by its vastness, its unflinching indifference to all life. Here was a land Man may claim to tame, but only to each other. The mountains know better. The glaciers. Yes, the inhospitableness of the place allured me. The bareness of existence those tough enough to try found as reward. There is of course a certain wonder to this Earth. An awe-inspiring response whenever genuinely considered. No where are such feelings more dominant than in lands humanity does not own. In Patagonia the Earth holds deed; no other. In Patagonia Gaia sees fit to wash away the veneer of human temporality, to uncover her true face. A face composed of eons so colossal few are the men who can look upon them with comprehension or sanity intact.
My father is such a man. A member of that group of explorers who first discovered the deep time of our globe. And it was the geologist in him that was getting excited as we began our trek into the Ascencio Valley. As the upward lift of the mountain, as millennia of glacial erosion, began contorting the land into a hall of rocks. By that time he’d, as he so often does, made acquaintances with some of the group. Explaining this or that geological principle as examples in the surrounding terrain arose. I’d taken my jacket off by then, the mid-morning sun overhead and exertion of the trail warming me such that the icy winds whipping through the valley were more blessing than nuisance. During this time father and I stopped briefly, allowed one of his new friends to take a picture of us that’s still one of my favorites. A narrow footpath, we skirted the valley’s western edge for an hour or so until it leveled out, about half way up the mountain.
While hiking that valley my thoughts turned to mountains, as invariably happens whilst among them. What is more perfect than a mountain? When it comes to geography I mean, or more generally if you prefer. What aspect of nature more readily symbolizes the dominance of our home over us, its inhabitants. The weather if you like but storms are transitory things, and via this impermanence remind one more of the time ahead than the stability of ground underfoot. Here on Earth a storm would be hard pressed to wipe out a generation, yet every mountain standing has allowed generations to attempt its summit. Well what of the sea then? That inky lower space of mystery where most men fear to tread. As far as the biologists are correct our ancestral home, it now signifies the ‘other’ far better than the stars overhead which we, to some extent, know so much more of. And since the prime avatar of ‘otherness’, the sea, can’t truly be said to symbolize our home. It’s true that more people live by the sea than mountains but that’s not so strange considering our psychic make-up; most people live with other people. Perhaps we consistently seek communion with the ‘other’ to distract us from the ‘abode of self’, the home we carry within. Socrates said know thyself and you can do this on a mountain. You have to. The mountain compels you. From Moses to Zarathustra to Musashi in his cave, the mountain has long been home to those trying to overcome themselves or others. There is a trueness in the crisp air that Kant would, a priori, understand. In the sloping grounds and rolling rocks a Newton could calculate all the math most would ever need. In the random encounter with a creature of the highlands who doesn’t fear Man it wouldn’t take a Muir to comprehend the significance, to see the great pulsing circle entombed in all life. Then there is the solitude of the higher places, the distilled essence of loneness you can only find thousands of feet above the sea. And it is this loneness we all carry inside, with us, wherever we go. The mountain knows this. The mountain sees us for what we are.
This evened out platform halfway up the valley was forested by gnarly trees. The group halted for lunch and I asked dad how he was doing. The hike so far had taken its toll but he smiled anyway, clearly enjoying himself. While eating our guide told us a story of horse thieves who were the first known inhabitants of the valley. Crazy enough to risk what we’d just climbed across without a proper trail, during foul weather or night as well, they’d made a natural corral of the flatness we’d thankfully reached. A few well placed riflemen sufficient guard against any lawman attempting to follow. No denying it was an easily defensible position the guide fell silent then, concentrating on her sandwich. After giving her a couple bites I asked, what happened to the outlaws?
> They got bored. There was no way to sell the horses so they gave up.
About a half hour after lunch we came to a large wooden bridge spanning a turbulent, rocky stream. On the other side of the bridge stood a tall cabin under repair. Workmen and hikers milling about.
You’ll never meet nicer people than those hiking the backcountry. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but it seems to me a certain ethos is required to leave civilization behind and rough it in the wild; an ethos more appreciative of the social contract than those who never leave a cities limits seem to understand. Most travel in the wild to reconnect with an earlier way of life, to challenge the elements on their terms; to test their mettle versus the world extant. All in all an admirable ambition. Those with experience in this endeavor learn quick enough sometimes that’s impossible. Sometimes you need help, and the best help is often the first on the scene. Outside of emergency scenarios a kind word, friendly smile, or shared story is welcome respite after a few days without seeing another face. Perhaps I see in people bold enough to spend their nights in a dark forest protected simply by ripstop nylon not only kindred souls, but old souls; artifacts of our ancestral psyche. It’s easy to see behind the eyes of the trail-forgers and back-packers of our planet’s less frequented paths a primal glee, almost animalistic in composition if spiritual in nature, that seems to scream - Yes! This is where I belong! (It didn’t escape the author, having these thoughts as he bounded over the bridge, that he was among those so possessed. To this he simply smiled) And there they were, a couple from Canada who’d been on the trail for three weeks; another from where-I-remember-not except that it must have been Europe, who were taking an extended holiday down the Andes. While not fresh in the hygienic sense of the word, these four, together, presented an image more immaculate, less filthy, than any room our modern technologists have yet devised for constructing their intricate baubles. And to find such grace in the thick of one of the prettiest mountain ranges in the world! If I had needed it (not at the moment) a second wind was surely blowing my way.
The group stopped again for a short while. Conversing with the back-packers or each other. We then continued our trek, fortified by the break and the easy undulations that part of the trail provided. A wooded path, it was also the last flatish stretch before attaining the scree slopes, which marked the final, sharp ascent up the mountain. Autumn at the time the trees were flaring in crimson or vibrant oranges, hugging the earth like outsized bonsai. Branches and boughs planed along a severe horizontal axis one could easily imagine carved by the wind. I’d put my jacket back on and father was using his hiking poles with greater care. We walked side by side for a time, occasionally trading obvious observations. I remember thinking, here it is, the sweet spot. On any journey there is a moment, after you’ve gotten over exhaustion, crossed the mid-way point, though before you reach your goal, where it all coalesces. Gels. Becomes a totality of experience, expectation and will and this is the perfect moment of any trip. Hiking through those woods nestled in the Cerro Paine I had a perfect moment with my father, though I’m not sure I ever told him that till just now.
For me the closest analogy of a perfect moment is the nebulae, those stellar nurseries what forge creation solid and elemental. Over eons that’d put Gaia to shame they ceaselessly birth the babies of the cosmos who are parents to us all. Perfect moments have a similar affect. They not only collect and refine the detritus of previous experience, they transform that flotsam into precious kernels of perception the aware have often utilized in achieving their goals. A personal example will perhaps make this clear; hiking those Patagonian woods I perceived this perfect moment, and fair enough, but so too every other such moment I could recall with my dad. In no particular order I recalled our hiking trip to Mt. Whitney’s summit, or the first time he took me to Guadalupe National Park in west Texas which is still my favorite place in the 48 states. I remembered our first route up the Going-to-the-Sun highway in Glacier National Park and how I lost all fear of vertigo then and there. The first few summers at the cabin on Dale Hollow returned to me, how the forest or the lake smelled, then too that evening at 1401 Harley Dr. where I asked my father, a small child cuddling in his bed, what it was like to be someone else, if you are always just yourself or was yourself really yours anyway … field trips with Maggie, the only dog I’ve ever loved, father in his red fedora while I hopped from rock to rock or remained silent and sullen because nothing is more evil than a child … those other evenings when pops would let me stay up an hour past bedtime because Star Trek: The Next Generation was on and we watched it together and to this day I still can’t differentiate between my father and Picard … vaguely, so vaguely, I recalled that brief look we shared at his daughter’s, my sister’s, wedding, when she married a man who by all accounts loves her more than life, and we silently acknowledged that fact, we let her go … and finally, though nothing is ever as final as all that, I remembered then the nights I’d spent at 1401 out in those magical seven acres, staring at the stars, and even though dad was either asleep or far away, I knew the only reason I had the chance to spend my impressionable youth at the altar of the cosmos was due my father, who gave up a lucrative career in the petrochemical business because he loved his wife, because he wanted to raise his children honest and pure … and I thought, you did dad, you did … though I couldn’t find the words to tell him, not then, my head still full of Patagonia and the trail ahead, and even though I could reach out and touch him at that moment I couldn’t explain to him any of what I’ve just written … all those things none of us ever say, all those unwritten books, the great library of our species’ hidden thoughts, our silent ones, the mute, and all you ever have to do is just open up, just speak … maybe nothing’s perfect. Even a perfect moment ends in solipsism. If my own life is any indication. Or maybe it’s simpler than that too and I have a lot more to learn. Perhaps. With certainty I’ll assert what little I ‘have’ learned comes mostly from you, Francis Walter Stapor Jr., and for that you have my eternal gratitude and genuine admiration.
Such reveries can not last, naturally, and mine were impeded by the rocks before us. Van sized boulders to pebbles you could lose in your pocket, the switch-backed final ascent to the mirador was covered in scree. After a brief hiatus to take it all in, snap a few photos, visually reconnoiter the path above, my first reaction was to bound toward the nearest boot-worthy boulder, climb it, then leap out into the air. I grew up rock-hopping you understand. Childish energy put to use on all those field trips I’d join father on. While sister and mom have dance, classical or modern, jazz or ballet, I have (apart from beer halls and honky tonks, but that’s another tale) not. What energies I have on that score long ago finding a proper outlet on mountain sides and riverbeds, hurling myself from one craggy ledge to another in fits of happy abandon. While I can sympathize with the sentiments of those who would find this sort of recreation fool-hardy at best, if not patently ridiculous at worst, I’ve never found it so myself. Somewhat of a natural at it, if you will. It could be the satyr in me, that minion of Bacchus. Or the genetic legacy of athletes in the old family tree. Maybe I’m just a fool. In any event I started rock hopping. The rest of the group grumbling up the trail. It was almost like I was the only one happy to be there, the work of the thin air and tall ground sapping any appreciation they could muster from that single space in time. Father and I got separated at this point, the distance between what we both were at the moment too difficult to overcome for the other. There was a lot of elevation yet to gain and I didn’t mind, not that I wanted to be first to the outlook, just that it was there and so was I. I was finally on the mountain. What else could matter? My last memory of father during this stretch he was taking a breather at the corner of a severe switch-back, leaning on his hiking poles, staring into the rocks.
The night before this hike I’d had my first chance to stare into the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. For those with the time or patience star-gazing is perhaps the most truly human activity one can pursue. Certainly one of the first. I wasn’t there, but I can’t help thinking that the first protohuman to conceive of death did so at night, looking into a cloudless sky dotted with the ghostpricks of those ageless balls of burning hydrogen. Before computers or central heating and air humanity’s life was defined by the rhythms of the cosmos, the stellar expanse acting as our first teacher in matters of soul and getting there. I’ve never been more at home than alone in the wild under a starry sky. Call me a dreamer, I won’t deny it. Say I’ve my head in the clouds? Bah! Push the clouds away! Give me the open air, an open sky. Nor, truth be told, am I alone. While not a common tendency many have shared it, and their names litter your history books. Not saying I belong accompanying, I did consider them that night looking at the star fields I, in my 30-odd years of finitude, had never seen before. I thought of Socrates, the tall-tale of him standing guard through most inclement weather with naught but a threadbare robe as defense, his mind thinking happily away in fairer climes. Or Nietzsche on his mountain, single-handedly undoing two millennia of papal drivel. Then too Cortez who if a bastard, and surely a bastard, must have possessed a courage unknown since Achilles. I thought of Franklin sunbathing in the nude, Sappho and her poets, Diogenes as Zen as any master from Japan. My mind wandered to a Paris I’ll never know, watching Mr. Miller do his thing while I, silently and unobserved, ordered another glass of bordeaux. From heroes then and inexplicably I considered the marauding Mongol hordes who conquered Eurasia in a fashion that still makes Russians blush, or the harmonious ways which, if not free of blood, the natives of America employed in their society. I thought of the peregrine falcon for good measure. Then mountain lions, polar bears, the great white which is the only creature I fear. A prayer for Tigger, my childhood cat, came to my lips and I sent it off into the wild Patagonian winds. Bitterly I thought of the promise of a United States which lasted a generation, at best. I then walked with Whitman down to the war, caring as much for a single blade of grass as any mutilated or made dead. I thought of places I’ve never been and likely will never see, though not for long. I thought, as I often do at such moments of fragility, of the few times I’ve felt mutual reciprocity in love with a woman I adore, and as I often do, lingered on that thought for a time. Then I recalled that night on a train from Rome to Paris when I, for the first time in my young life, actually knew what it was I was here to do; that I was a writer and always had been, and then, and painfully, the memory of the girl’s response beside me. My thoughts took me then to the humanism inherent in privation, hunger, lack or want and I communed with the world’s thirsty, the starving, the dead. I thought then that for each star within vision there corresponded a thought I could give it, or it I. I thought of my consciousness as a great enveloping field of thought pulsing outward and inward toward all the things I know and all those others I’ve yet to understand. I was then compelled to curse time and my own mortality, the ending which while far away is more certain than anything that lie between. Without it though, without that full-stop, what sense would any of this make, and I understood that - I understand that - but it doesn’t help … I asked the cosmos if understanding changes anything, really, in the end, and the great spread of reality told me no, not really, in the end. It then told me not to cry, if I still cried, for without me we aren’t complete, whole, you or anything else, so take comfort where you can, in the proof of you which in a way very true sense, in a very final sense, is the only proof of us. The cosmos was busy so it let me be, to meditate on its wisdom in solitude. And I did. I thought of the Earth, all we know of home. I then thought of light, which more than any other quality of existence most resembles our own. Carefully then I unspooled the light cone of my wisdom and watched the Earth shiver and crack, pushing its continental masses back toward a common cause, a singular point. Much like the physicists and their Big Bang I stopped when the parts were densest; I stopped at Pangea. There, upon the shores of Panthalassa, I comprehended the wisdom of the cosmos like a broken koan. Not only was I a part of the whole, but the whole was part of me. I was not a human being, a male, an American, a Texan (at the time), a writer and an iconoclast. No. I was, and am, a Pangean. We all are. It struck me then, like a serrated dagger to the scrotum, that part of my life work would entail convincing others of this truth. If a simple thought, and clearly, it isn’t well understood. Through the ages we’ve on record others who’ve asserted a similar refrain, now and again, before the herd or mob did them in. And I was forced to wonder what it would take to convince my brothers, my sisters, of this simple truth. For surely we are destroying the only Eden we will ever know through our industry and wars, our discrimination and exploitation of the singularly most wonderful object in the universe, Earth, our home. Until we all fully comprehend that we are not children of different tribes but children of our singular shared globe the species called human is headed for a fall. A defeat. A loss such as no story in your magical books have ever prepared you for; a reckoning unknown to the metaphysicists of yore. The fact is liberals can’t survive, conservatives can’t, christians or muslims or jews will die, capitalists and socialists and communists will burn, buddhists and pagans will wither and fade away, white or black or straight or queer - yes! All that exist now as specific tribes will fall. The only hope is Pangea. In understanding our heritage, that we are all, to a man, woman, or child, Pangeans.
I was the first of our group to reach the mirador. The Torres del Paine cutting sky from land, their three fangs like an upturned jawbone from some ancient species what made the dinosaurs tremble. Turquoise tarn below gleaming with an ethereal opacity. Snowbanks stubbornly clinging to crevasses hiding from the cryptic winds. Cold as it was I took off my jacket, my scarf. Found a large ice-carved stone and settled into its sloping face. Watched mutely as one by one my hiking companions trickled in. Much as possible emptied my mind. Caressed the frigid rock that held me, communing with its ossified essence, and through that sleepy awareness the mountain about. By the time father made the top we’d reached what understanding we could, the Cerro Paine and I, so I broke reverie and went to greet him. A meeting of joy since, exhausted as he undoubtedly was, I’d rarely seen him happier. The geologist in him and the little boy. He took some pictures, then we posed for a couple group shots. Ten or twenty minutes spent just being there. Then it was time to depart. Truly, nothing proves the primacy of the journey opposed the destination like hiking a mountain. Truly.
While not the first to leave the mirador I was certainly the first to return to camp. Obnoxiously tired and fed up with the world, I got some cerveza and settled into a lawn chair. I was told later that they had to send a van to pick up the majority of our party, who weren’t able to make the return hike before nightfall. For my part I went down the mountain like a cheetah, or gazelle running from one. Gravity got me, I guess, or something stronger. I left my dad to fend for himself. Didn’t feel bad about it either. There are circles everywhere, and it does no good to deny them. A son must leave his father, now and again, and at a certain point forever. But I knew somehow that death and dad wouldn’t be doing that last dance on the Cerro Paine and took comfort where I could find it. Sipping my beer, resting my legs, knees and back, musing on the perfection one could find in a leaf or star but never within, I thought again of Pangea. How the world really didn’t care what became of us. How so many of us didn’t either. And I couldn’t suppress the smile that came to my lips. A smile born of knowing with the same certitude you’ll find in a theist, that Patagonia would be there regardless. That, provided we failed, humanity, in securing our future, there would be eyes yet who would glance upon that majestic countryside. That no matter what we frail, selfish little mammals did to it, Patagonia would endure. Or maybe I’m closer to the theist than I’d care to admit. Maybe I just wish it, and so find certainty in myself. Or maybe I’m just rambling now, and should leave you, dear reader, to find a Patagonia of your own …
C. R. Stapor