Bones are everywhere in Patagonia. They dry on the brown steppes and jut up from the desert’s gray floor. They protrude like blue spikes through the surface of lakes and bleach white on the ocean’s shore. And, right now, mine are shaking.
I’m just barely managing to hold on to the side of a mountainous cliff in Argentina’s La Leona Petrified Forest. Being from Wisconsin, I don’t believe anything technically called a “forest” should be as windswept, thirsty and barren as a lunar landscape; nonetheless, it is. And I’m hanging on to this hard-rock surface for dear life.
Our small group of eight is taking a tour of this place of beating sun, high winds and tree-rocks with a local guide who is part Argentinean and part mountain goat. The forest was here at a time when South America was tipped farther north; thus this area was once leafy and green and home to dinosaurs. Their petrified bones and the bones of the once-breathing trees here are 65 to 90 million years old.
Our guide strides up the rocky contours with the ease of one born to it, leading us over narrow footpaths that sheer off on either side into steep canyons and slots. Climbing up and climbing down, switchback after switchback, I think I’ve put on a strong and brave front so far. My backpack is heavy; determined to capture this once-in-a-lifetime trip, I’m hauling two cameras and several weighty lenses, as well as the usual fleeces and rain gear. It’s been an hour and a half of dizzying height after dizzying height, and even though I’ve been afraid of heights for as far back as I can remember, I’ve hidden my terror. On the final, straight-edged climb up, however, I lose all footing and resort to grabbing on with all fours. I am now the one who’s petrified. Once I find the nerve to release my hand from the prickly bush I’ve taken hold of, our van driver hoists me up the rest of the way.
For three days prior to our visit to La Leona, our small van had shuddered and shook over the washboard highways of the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve of Peninsula Valdés, almost as if we were traversing the rib cage of some sleeping giant. Small dust devils followed our vehicle down the gravel roads.
On the peninsula, there is no freshwater. Showers are taken in saltwater, and electricity is turned on only at night. We sleep in a remote, lighthouse inn. On a beach at Punta Norte, my footsteps make the sound of tinkling, shattering glass as I step on the bright shells. Magellanic penguins are everywhere, and I photograph them standing under the hot sun, bleating from their shallow burrows in the ground or hurrying down to the waves.
I eat my sandwich lunch in front of the Atlantic Ocean. Along with the bread and meat, I swallow dust. We take a walk to look for orcas that will sometimes beach themselves intentionally to hunt baby sea lions. We do not see them; instead we find elephant seals lying along a sandbar. A gray fox wanders nearby. I didn’t know beaches could sound that way; that they could clink and bay, bark and bleat.
Riding on steppes and hiking on glaciers
On my last evening on Peninsula Valdés, I go horseback riding on the steppes of Patagonia. My horse is big and fawn-colored, like the dust. During a slow sunset, we ride the narrow trail that sweeps down to the ocean on one side and stretches out to the horizon on scrub plain to the other. A few sheep and an occasional brown hare share the expanse with us. I look down and see tiny bones of other animals in the dust. A skull here; a perfect, complete hare skeleton there. Life is harsh, elemental and beautiful on these steppes, and I think I am falling in love with the bones of Argentina. On the ride back to our lighthouse home, we listen to tango music on the van’s CD player. Argentina—heat, death, passion.
After our stay on Peninsula Valdés, we make the three-hour drive to Trelew, followed by a two-hour flight to El Calafate and the now infamous La Leona Petrified Forest walk. If that walk was testing my mettle, the walk on Viedma Glacier near El Chaltén and Bahia Túnel took the measure of my soul.
A boat transports us to the rocky front of the glacier, and after scrambling up the huge boulders, we sit down to put on our crampons. Stepping from rock to ice is stepping back in time. There are billions of years under my feet, when Pangea was new. We walk among the glacier’s caverns, peaks, hollows, crevasses and formations for two-and-a-half hours. We take a moment to sit down on this unfathomable landscape to drink a toast of Bailey’s Irish Cream, chilled by the glacier’s ice. It is the closest thing I’ve ever had to a holy drink.
On our way out of El Chaltén back to El Calafate, I see Cerro Torre coming out of the clouds for the first time. Cerro Torre juts out of the young Andes Mountains, like a splinter from the spine of the continent, picked clean and worn shiny by the Patagonian winds.
A floating cemetery and a very rare deer
In Punta Bandera, there is a blue cemetery. An iceberg cemetery. On the teal blue of Lago Argentino, the cerulean of hundreds of icebergs floats, backed by the ultramarine of the mountains. Through my camera lens, I see these bones of ice close-up, poking through the skin surface of the lake.
In Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site, we can see the French Glacier. It looks gray, like slippery skin newly shed from the vertebrae of the mountains. Standing in an alpine meadow, I can hear the avalanches on the other side of the mountain and see the Andean condors soaring overhead.
My last night in Chile, I take an early evening walk with our guide out to a peninsula, located a short distance from the lodge, which promises a direct view to Grey Glacier. I decide to take this last walk unencumbered, without my heavy backpack and camera. The sun will be setting soon anyway, I think. At the start of the path leading down to the water, which winds through a small forest, we spot a huemul, a Chilean deer. There are only about 20 in the park and less than 2,500 left in the world. I begin to rethink my decision to leave my camera behind. The only thing to do now is drink in the moment and try to burn the image into my memory.
The peninsula is made of stones blown there by the winds. Just as we come down the path out of the woods and onto the peninsula, the setting sun illuminates the three needles of Torres del Peine. It is the first time during our stay in Patagonia that we can clearly see all three. From our vantage point, Grey Glacier slides out below them, and icebergs float all around us. It is a perfect moment.
A perfect moment, that is, except I don’t have my camera. But maybe that’s what was meant to happen. I was meant to see this last evening as a writer, not as a photographer. It’s something I’ve felt in my bones for a while now.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,