On the road—in the buses, in the hostels, on the trails—we all have our Lonely Planets as our guide. Most of us have backpacks that have been repaired multiple times. We carry some of our indulgences whether they’re our music on our ipods, a box of our favorite chocolates, or a paperback book. Some of us pack our memories and our dreams like bundles of laundry, only removing them every week or two until they get tossed back and buried under the heap.
I awoke early this morning, anxious to get a jump on hiking opportunities. When I opened the door, the wind bit into my skin and a light snow fell, so I hurried across the courtyard toward the communal showers desperately hoping there would be hot water today. I was in luck. The warm water felt great, and I grimaced at the thought of going outside again. Today was my last full day in Tierra del Fuego and I wanted to make the most of it. I found a cheap flight that leaves tomorrow and makes a stopover in El Calafate before continuing on to Buenos Aires.
The manager of the hostel, who has grown to like me despite an angry outburst from my compatriot and former roommate, suggested I go to the national park, and she arranged for a shuttle to take me and a few other guests first thing in the morning. There were no other guests in the cab. When I arrived at the park, there were no guests at the park besides the campers who huddled together in their tents. I was alone. Most people did what you should do on a day with forty-mile-an-hour winds and subfreezing temperatures. A few curious rabbits seemed amused by my presence.
There wasn’t enough snow to stick to the ground, but there was enough moisture on the lush, bent grass to soak through my tennis shoes. But my luck had not faded. The snow had kept away the crowds, and less than an hour into my hike, the clouds drifted away and the sun appeared. It was perfect weather, and I was alone to enjoy its beauty. Beautiful channels and lakes scattered over the landscape like footprints. The scenery was dreamy with soft, pressed grass, snow-blanketed mountain tops, dwarflike trees, and countless patches of white orchids. There is no better meditation than to be alone in nature’s glory, and I soaked it in for all it was worth. By the time I reached the lookout point at Lapataia Bay, I was joined by a few dozen Japanese tourists in bright orange jackets who had been bused to this point at the end of Route 3. They were all eventual passengers of the cruise ship docked at the port. The jackets had been an added extra with the purchase of their fare.
I found a secluded spot to eat the lunch I had packed, a ham and cheese sandwich, my specialty according to my cousin Ana. Even the most basic foods taste better in a perfect setting, and I savored each bite with unrestrained delight before moving on my way. Beyond a grove of trees in another secluded area I discovered a familiar family—my Argentinean roommates. They each greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and wide smiles, even the daughter.
“Would you like to hike with us?” asked the mother. “We keep getting lost.”
We had rarely crossed paths in the room. They were asleep when I returned to the room with Kate last night and I was up before them this morning, but out in the wilderness, it was as if we were lifelong friends. I got them back on track and we walked and talked, climbing hills and tracing lakes. Besides introductions, I had hardly used my Spanish since leaving Montevideo and talking to the mother and son gave me a great chance to practice. The daughter, however, either raced far ahead or lingered way behind but wouldn’t join in the conversation. Her reticence concerned me and I strode ahead to catch her. “How are you enjoying the hike?”
She barely acknowledged me and gave me only a fleeting glimpse of her eyes. Then I understood why she had shied away in previous encounters. “I can’t hear,” she said pointing to her ears. Her speech was rough but I understood well enough.
“No problema,” I said. “No hablo bien.”
This time she read my lips and laughed. From then on she was more at ease. After the park, we shared a taxi back to town and the mother invited me to join them on a catamaran in the Beagle Channel. The boat had three levels and we chose a booth on the middle. While we were still moored to the dock, the two teenagers explored the upper and lower levels. My mind filled with expansive empty space. I leaned my head against the window and gazed out at the shore as we finally drifted away.
A dark morning had turned into a perfect day.