Planet Hiker
2005-03-08 The Magic Rainbow, Park National Puyehue, Chile


This was another delicious breakfast with home made blackberry jam, honey, biscuits just out of the oven and raspberry pie baked earlier that morning. All this served on the back porch, over viewing the lake Puyehue. I was planning to go trekking the day before but decided to fatten myself up just a bit more and stayed for one more night. Now, having eaten a basket full of biscuits, all of the jam and honey, along with 3 cups of tea with so much sugar that a thick sediment of it wouldn't dissolve regardless of the amount of agitation, I said my goodbyes and headed out, looking to hitch a ride.

I didn't have to wait long before a red pickup pulled over. Since Entere Lagos is the last Chilean village before the border with Argentina, no regular public transportation goes any further east. Thus, it's common for people to hitch rides in that direction. The driver of the pickup didn't even bother to hear out the end of my sentence - he knew where I was going. So I jumped over into the cargo compartment and we were off to Park National Puyehue.

It was a chilly ride, even though I tuck myself into the windproof jacket, but the scenery was astounding. A wall of greenery comprised of tall pines, unknown to me bushes with small read berries and an assortment of flowers and grasses, raced just beyond the edges of the road, smearing into a band of running colors, as if from a wild stroke of a paintbrush. The fog, dissolving under the gaze of the waking morning, was loosing its grip and letting the sparkling mist shine through its curtain. Even the steep granite cliffs that stood on either side of the road like giant guardians of this wonderland, seem to stretch higher still into the clouds, preparing to face the ancient ritual of welcoming another day.

The mix od colors slowly focused into distinct shapes, hinting to me that I have arrived. I hopped out and offered the driver to pay for gas. He promptly refused but asked if I have any cigarettes. Since I don't smoke, I pulled out the smallest bill out of my wallet, which was about $10, and told him that this is for cigarettes. Ten dollars in Chile is enough to buy several cartons of cigarettes, but the driver pretended that it's just enough and raced away, happy to have run into such a naive tourist. But I wasn't bitter about overpaying for the ride. For the moment, the money held little significance to me and I even enjoyed the lack of this significance.

Having to pay $13 for the "park entrance", however, was quite aggravating. Apparently, the access land to the park was privately owned and just to cross it I had to fork out the cash. I knew that I am being milked but, the only other choice was not to go trekking... There was no point of arguing about the price either. The farmer knew I wasn't going to turn back and held his position strong. Thus, after a long silence and an uncomfortable stare, I handed over the $13.

Loose gravel over a steep incline welcomed me into the park. Having been trekking for some time now, I have learned what not to carry with me. Four years ago, when I went for a 5 day trek in the Sierra Nevadas, my pack weighed a staggering 55 pounds, plus I had to strap a plastic bag with fruits to the outside of it due to the lack of space. This time, having prepared for a 6 day trek, the pack weighed about 35 pounds and was just over half full. With such a light load it was easy to make the climb, even when there was no sure footing.

Loosing myself in thoughts, I did not notice the passing of the hours. Thirst and hunger would interrupt me every once in a while, but I have been practicing to ignore them. Knowing that the mountain guides in Peru cover great distances without every consuming a drop of water, I would remind myself that hunger and thirst are simply subjects of conditioning and would continue walking without changing my pace. At some point, the forest suddenly changed into a desert of volcanic gravel and curvy dunes, shaped by the wind and melting glaciers. Since there was very little soil, vegetation could only be found just a foot or two away from the permanent water streams. Those narrow strips were the only zones of survival, as anywhere else the precipitation would simply pass through the sand, too quickly for the plants to take a sip.

At around 8:30pm I arrived at the campsite, realizing that the "6 to 8 day trek", as indicated by the Lonely Planet guide book, will take at most 4 days. Walking for over 10 hours was a long haul for me but the extra few kilometers did held a reward - pools of hot water from the geysers were waiting for me by the riverside. By the time I set up camp and prepared dinner, the sun was long gone and the Milky Way revealed its scarf of unaccountably many glistering diamonds sprinkled over the desert sky. Being equally interested in observing the heavens as well as in bathing in the hot springs, I picked a shallow pool where I could lay on my back and watch the meteorites finish their journeys of millions of years with a glorious metamorphosis into surges of energy.

The next day I took a small detour to see a field of steaming sulfuric geysers and then continued on around the backside of the mountain. Most people don't take this route and park officials make little effort in maintaining the trail. As a result, finding my way around became quite a challenge, especially once the trail dissolved into the sandy feet of the Mount Puyehue. Instead of the path, there were bamboo shoots planted into the sand, at distances of about 200-300 meters apart. Thus, having approached one, I would look around to find the next marker and continue in that direction. Trouble was that the wind had toppled many of them, making it nearly impossible to spot the next marker. Fortunately, the weather was good, providing ample visibility to read the topography. Thus, with the map in hand, I would pick a cow trail that was going in the needed direction and follow it for a few hours. "If a cow could do it, I could do it" - this was my reasoning when I'd find myself on a 70 degree slope, struggling to keep my balance. In situations like those, having a walking stick became crucial. Not only would it help as a third point of contact with the ground, but it would also keep me on the mountain when my boots would loose traction.

One of my favorite cartoon characters in Russia was "Mr. Muinhouser" - eternally optimistic sailor who had the ability to raise himself out of swamps by pulling on his own hair and walking without ever touching the ground by hopping from one palm tree to the next. Pulling on my own hair I have tried and I can assure you it does not work. But I did experience what it's like to walk without touching the ground. Granted that instead of palms I was walking over dwarf trees, never the less, there were places where the only way to continue was to go straight over them, hoping that their roots are clinging strong enough to the sloppy grounds.

One the third day, however, the weather changed for the worse. The rain did not bother me so much, but the low clouds covered the tops of the mountains, which meant that orienting myself based on the topography was no longer possible. This struck me when I was someplace on some mountain, having lost the trail some number of hours ago. The strong wind was hurtling white clouds across the sandy surfaces of the mountain, allowing no more than maximum of 100 meters of visibility. At first I kept climbing higher and higher, hoping that the clouds would clear up for a few minutes while I am in a position to see where to go. But this strategy soon proved to be faulty, as there were many crevasses which I could not see ahead of the time, thus being forced to spend a lot of effort in going around them, often loosing sense of where I was going in the first place. Not to mention that there was no indication that the clouds are to clear up any time soon. It could have been hours or days before I would feel the warmth of the sun again and I had no way of making predictions about it. The other problem was that there was nothing but gravel all around me. I could not set the tent up and wait out the storm - there was no water, nor was there a patch of land horizontal enough to sit on.

With the stinging drizzle piercing my face, I huddled with my backpack, using it as a shield against the wind. I needed to make a decision about where to go. The map wasn't helping much, since I could not read the topography and was left to guess as to where I was, estimating my position based solemnly on the time that passed since the last known position and my walking speed. Thus, I just assumed that I am in a particular quadrant of the map and based on the compass reading, I made a decision to go roughly south-east. For the moment it did not matter if I am correct about the direction. Just having one gave me strength and I marched in that way with my compass in hand.

I had less than 20 steps made when all of a sudden the rain stopped, the clouds cleared away and a bright rainbow appeared straight ahead of me. I did not even have to see the tops of the mountains - just walk straight towards the rainbow. It's too bad that I am not religious, otherwise, this would have been an undeniable sign of higher presence. Never the less, with a smile on my face I boot-skied down gravel slopes, reaching a gorge, and continued through it, never taking my eyes off the rainbow. Miraculously, in about an hour I ran into a trail marker. This was crucial as the forest at the bottom of the mountain was too dense to penetrate unless armed with a chainsaw. With luck on my side, I marched right on, under the fanfare of the blackberry bushes. I love blackberries and seeing them growing all along the trail felt like being a kid in a candy store. This must have been just the right time of season as the branches were simply bowing under the weight of the berries - not unless I could help it of course. But it's not like I ate all of them - there are still left some for a really tall person!