“Where did you go to, if I may ask?’ said Thorin to Gandalf as they rode along.
To look ahead,’ said he.
And what brought you back in the nick of time?’
Looking behind,’ said he.”
– J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
One always knew but never really knows, said Ti.
The world beneath my sore flat feet expanded into the horizon like a great book with endless pages and chapters. Each page filled with dramatic twists and turns and plots that were absurdly unexpected, unusually painful, and only laughable when all the tears and sweat are drained completely. My virgin trekking, staggered by dramatic nature of rocks, rivers, lakes, and the Andes, sets me out to uncover beyond the world that was in front of me but also the world I thought was left behind. Stuck between the interminable mountains, I stood short at the end of the world, breathless, clueless, and regretful. And all I could do was to keep walking ahead and forward… because, seriously, where else the fuck could I go?
Some called this place: “Disneyland for Hikers.” Geographically, I was located in Torres del Paine National Park, famous Patagonia in Chile. Emotionally, I was upset that I wasn’t home binge-watching Netflix, chilling and receiving EI, a life I had imagined better than struggling in the wilderness.
If numbers tell stories, these were the numbers I’ve collected along the way:
1 female 5’2, less than 100 lb.
1 pair of hiking boots.
A 35 lb. backpack.
A 74 km trail.
5 days 4 nights of endless mountain routes.
12 months of inflamed eyes by unknown infection caught in the wilderness where there was 0 doctors/ 0 phone line/0 internet.
21-degree heat in the day/ below 0-degree cold at night.
8-10 hours of hiking a day.
2-3 hours line up for the shower every night.
18:00 – 22:00 marks the only time when hot water was available.
1 unit of a two-people tent that even a short Asian female couldn’t sit straight up in.
10 liters of tears swallowed.
1 unexpected journey as the only way life has to offer for anyone, especially the Hobbit woman.
It was not that big of a deal, except the woman set herself up for the torture. Before I could understand the consequences of my decisions, I’ve spent two nights in a tiny, humid living room inhaling the stench of dog sweat in Miami, shared a hostel room with four juveniles in Santiago, said farewell to my 20s and turned 30 in Valparaiso, then went back to Santiago, and transferred two flights to Puerto Montt, plus a 12 hours overlay as a one-night sleepover in Punta Arenas airport and screamed “Shut Up!” twice at five Chileano grandmas at 4 am, unable to escape from their thundered Spanish chatter beside my cold metal bench bed. Time intertwined with cities after cities, restless travel spun out of my control. All that, and I still hadn’t arrived at Torres del Paine yet.
From Punta Arenas, there was still a 3-hour bus ride to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres del Paine, where we spent a full day renting equipment, stocking up food, and packing for the trek. As soon as my eyes were shut, we were up again at 5:30 am, riding three hours in the winding mountain road with my best friend – motion sickness – until finally, but not finally, we got to the shore where we waited for the catamaran to cross Lake Pehoe in order to get to our actual starting point of the trek.
A Trekking Amateur’s First Round:
We started the trek two hours behind schedule because there were more trekkers than there were catamarans. By the time we arrived at Paine Grande, it was already two o’clock in the afternoon. Having suffered five hours of motion sickness, I only had another eleven km walk to finish before I could lay down horizontally – forever – at Refugio Grey, where the pre-booked campsite is for the night. Little did I know that walking with a 35 lb. BullShitPack would be the ultimate nightmare before sleep. Thirty minutes into the trek, I had lost all excitement and could only ask one question: Am I there yet?
As someone who’s blessed with wild animal luck, I had the pleasure of being chased by a bear when hiking in all by myself back in Canada. Having survived that thrill, I was extremely determined to not encounter any puma on this trail, not by myself anyway. Since my supposed trekking partner, Ger, had gone ahead and left me behind, I kept my pace as steady as the BullShitPack would let me, stalking a girl my age and a senior old man who were also trekking to the same destination. The stalking persisted for more than 4 hours of eternity until some housing vaguely appeared in our sight at the far end of the grey forest.
If I were to confess wholeheartedly, the “W” trek in its true nature is not as difficult as I had experienced. If I wasn’t an amateur (or not the size of a hobbit) and had the skill to pack right (meaning pack light), Torres del Paine National Park is potentially one of the most enjoyable treks in South America. With accessible trails leading through the grandiose landscape, brilliant views of crystal blue glaciers, dazzling turquoise lake, and panoramic sweeps of mountains in shades of deep blue, golden green and rosy violet, all just a breath away. . . (if you still have any breath left getting there). The park also offers well-organized campsites, refugios (shared bunk rooms that are superbly luxurious compared to camping in the one-size-too-small tent) and designated cooking areas to purposely protect the scenic nature from human pollution and accidental fire.
Like children fancy wonderlands, every hiker on the planet dreams to visit Torres del Paine at least once in his or her lifetime, especially the ones who took National Geographic’s recommendations seriously. The downside of trekking in Disneyland is that all the adventurous dreamers had arrived at the park in January 2016 with me. Even in the wilderness, the great astonishment of Torres del Paine is not “WOW”, but “line up line up line up line up and line up” for exciting activities such as taking a shower, using a toilet, brushing teeth, cooking, washing, cleaning, and . . . Oh, did I mention the shower already?
As the evening grew cold and the rain came drizzling, I’d finally dragged myself to the campsite and threw the BullShitPack off of my shoulders in a victory mood. The first thing I noticed was a rare sight of male line-up standing long and five times longer than the female ones. All the guys were waiting for the shower. I was exhilarated because I didn’t expect there to be shower facilities. Yet my exhilaration lasted as little as the hot water supply. There were only two showers each in the male and female washrooms for at least 40-50 people at the campsite. And a sign in Spanish that said “Hot Water Available From 18:00 to 22:00”.
It was no less than a war zone with the hostility of stench instead of gunfire and the drag of mud instead of blood. The smell of sweat, filth, and mud mixed with hot steams filled every breathable space in the little washroom. I held on tight to my change of clothes and shower essentials. And was I glad that I had brought them in a large size Ziploc bag! There was no space to put anything down anywhere. Twirls of hair, dirt, mud, and God-knows-what-else were the collateral damage that covered the sink, the floor, the walls, and my shoes. It was a gruesome scene for a germaphobe. . . Yes, I was the germaphobe, alone in the crowd of people who all could care less about the natural byproducts of trekking. I stood in line with the facial expression of a brat who’s spoiled by Canadian glamping (glamorous camping) in the luxurious B.C.
The only thing I could still hope for was a hot shower. It was twenty past eight when I joined the lineup. There were six women between me and the hot water. How long could six women take? Precisely one and half hour. When God answered my prayer and left me 10 minutes for the last hot water available, I was truly the most faithful non-religious person ever!
The real satisfaction in life is merely a hot shower and a warm dinner. By the time I retreated from the war zone, Ger had found us a not so wet spot under the eaves right outside the designated cooking area, since all indoor dining area was packed with hungry souls who were ready to eat the tables after dinner. The night was already dark. There was no sight of stars or moon, just the dripping rain that brought down the temperature as it slipped through the already cold air. We wrapped ourselves in everything waterproof and sat by the long wooden rectangular table surrounded by only guys as I was the only girl.
Dinner was an easy solution. We ate whatever was the heaviest in our packs: Cans! I had plotted eleven kilometers for this glorious moment. Even with can food, Ger still magically cooked a delicious dinner that was the greatest comfort of the day. We took tremendous pleasure in the vengeance on eating two cans of tuna and black beans, happy that they would not continue to travel with us tomorrow. (Yes. Cans! Stupid trekking amateurs who knew how to calculate food servings but not the weight. A lesson hard-learned in the wild: sometimes a single mishap can follow you 74 km if not more!)
Then came the moment when the woman was proud to be overly well-prepared for such an icy and rainy night; I packed Chilean pisco in a plastic bottle and successfully dragged it into the wild. Content enough, we sipped pisco for warmth, laughed about our imbecile packing skill and had no clue how we were going to finish the rest of the trail, except that we will.
It was a cold, cold night. Rain cuddled our thin, short tent all night with little rest. Embraced by wet soil and chill air, I felt a twinge, a yearning that had not yet fully dissipated. An ingrained yearning for all the structured order, tidy cleanliness, and suited comfort that I had left behind. I fell into a deep sleep mourning for the loss of my comfort zone and the absence of my two dear cats. In my dream, they were all gone before I learned how to let go.
The second day: how does one go on fearlessly?