Tuesday, November 14, 2006
la Patagonia, Part 1
The Patagonian desert is unlike any other place I've ever seen. While you can find many physical similarities to the desert-southwest of the United States, there’s so much more out there that is different, often quite unusual. You’ll encounter exotic animals in the desert, such as the free-roaming ñandues and the curious guanacos. There’s a sense of agelessness in the desert, with constant reminders that these lands are even now being sculpted by wind and waves, a process that has been going on for hundreds of millions of years.
What you notice first and foremost is the absence of other people. You can drive all day on the backcountry tracks and never see another soul. An expedition into the desert on these “roads” is often a journey into the unknown. You never know what you’ll encounter next. A flat tire becomes an adventure, two flats can turn into a disaster. Even as you drive the main north-south highway that parallels the eastern coastline, you’ll get glimpses of vast empty canyons off to the inland side of the road, some which may never have been explored by man. Only a few years ago, the government announced the discovery by a lone gaucho roaming through the desert of a previously unknown petrified forest with the magnificant remains of enormous "trees" frozen by time. The paleontological journals are peppered with stories of discoveries of remains of gigantic creatures - sometimes exposed by the winds, or by a rare torrential rainstorm - in various locations throughout the region.
For all their emptiness, the deserts of la Patagonia are not public lands, but are fully divvied among the absentee owners of the great estancias, most of whom only leave their mansions in Buenos Aires for an occasional trek into the southern regions to inspect their vast herds of sheep. Lately these great estates are being bought up by wealthy norte-americanos hoping to escape for a time the Northern Hemisphere winters for a brief summer’s stay in that empty land.
The few people you do encounter in the desert, whether they too are just passing through or whether they are the owners or workers from the estancias, are very warm and friendly, and eager to share a bowl of maté with you or give you a lift if you’ve broken down.
The one thing no one ever can forget about la Patagonia is the wind. Constantly howling out of the west, thick with dust picked up from the slopes of the Andes, the wind dominates the landscape and controls every part of its geology, geography, and history. It molds the culture and lifestyles of those who endure in that extreme climate.
There is no letup. It blows day and night. On those rare instances when the wind slacks off for an hour or two, everything else suddently falters at the unexpected change in their rhythm. The sheep, long accustomed to bracing against the wind, are suddenly unsteady on their feet and momentarily look up from their grazing. Los desiertos, always looking for an excuse, stop whatever they were supposedly working on and step outside to enjoy the few moments of the tranquility and silence. All too soon, el viento se vuelve, the people reluctantly return to work and the sheep go back to nibbling on the sparse grasses and thorny bushes.
The southern cone of Patagonia extends down into the farthest latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere to the tip of the continent. You could board a ship in Rio Gallegos and set sail to the east in a straight line for nearly 20,000 miles around the globe before hitting land again, only 300 miles to the west on the Chilean coast, near Punta Arenas.
Out over the south Pacific, the cold air currents coming off the vast icefields of Antarctica mix with the warm, moist air rolling southward from the East Asian tropics, forming into massive storms that roar across the Pacific unhindered until they slam into the Chilean coast with a vengeance, dumping all their moisture on the narrow strip of land on Chilean side of the Andes. The Andes hold fast against the storms, stripping out their moisture, but the winds sweep up over the tops of the mountains and howl down across the eastern deserts, meeting little resistance as they push on to the Atlantic coast. It’s not hard to imagine these same winds continuing out to the east across the Atlantic and circumnavigating the southern part of the globe to try again and again to wear down those mountains and scour clean the Patagonian deserts beyond them.
Out in these deserts, small rocks and pebbles are gradually exposed as the wind blows away the sand and dirt. Eons of polishing by the wind-borne sand give these rocks a high luster on their exposed surfaces, making them glisten and sparkle in the sun. The flip side of these pebbles is still rough and drab gray or brown in color. Liberally scattered among the rocks you can find numerous reminders of the ancient incarnations of the land. The winds expose small pebble-sized pieces of petrified wood, and fragments of the quartz crystalline geodes that were ejected from prehistoric volcanoes that have long since eroded away. The winds also lay bare fossils of shells and the fossilized bones of the dinosaurs. Mixed in with these are the bones of more recently deceased critters that gave up their struggle to survive this harshest of climates.
These empty deserts stretch from the Andes in the west to the eastern coast. A single paved highway, Ruta 3, runs north-south, parallel to but only occasionally actually beside the coastline. The few cities and towns along the coast cling to the long straight stretches of highway as if it were a lifeline keeping them from blowing away. Thousands of kilometers of beaches along the coast of Patagonia lay well to the east of Ruta 3 and are not accessible by road. Indeed, it’s possible that some stretches of this coast have never have been combed by man at all.
It is this sense of isolation, of being in an unforgiving alien place, far from the trappings of civilization, that sets the region of Patagonia off from the rest of the world. Everybody who lives there feels it, and everyone copes in their own way. Some are so intimidated by the desert they never venture out into it to experience its vastness, its emptiness, its timelessness; huddling instead in the few small communities along the coast; longing to escape to the crowded cities of the north. A rare few embrace the desolation and isolation and never even think about places like Buenos Aires, Cordoba, or Mendoza.