Giants of Patagonia

 

Giants of Patagonia

 

March 11, 1944

I, Doctor Víctor Fuales, dedicate this journal to the Miraflores History Museum out of an obligation to a colleague and for the preservation of Peruvian history. This manuscript contains the writing of the city’s most distinguished figure, Professor Jorge Gualberto. Born January 14, 1899 in Miraflores, Lima, Gualberto was famous for his studies of geologies and his philanthropic contributions to numerous colleges and research institutes.

On June 2, 1941, Gualberto departed for Patagonia, the region covering Argentina and Chile, located in South America. Fragments of his last journal, with some entries written days before his predicted death, were retrieved by an Argentinian gaucho and remain in the museum. Several search expeditions were carried out, yet Gualberto’s body was never discovered. This diary is conserved as a reminder and a warning to the people of Miraflores that such expeditions are not for the weak of heart. For even a man of science and experience was consumed and defeated by the wild of the south, Patagonia.

 

July 8, 1942

According to Charles Darwin’s description, basaltic lava represents the basaltic exposures along the middle and upper course of the Río Santa Cruz and the Meseta La Siberia. Darwin placed these outcrops as contemporaneous of the higher sections of the Tertiary formation. Contrarily, I have observed the basalts to be of a Pliocene-Quaternary age and include the units presently called Meseta de las Vizcachas Basalt and La Siberia Formation. Clearly, the geological results of Darwin’s voyages prove a contrast between his verbal facility in describing landscapes and evoking mood, and his inability to translate his images into visual representations.

I currently stand at 50° 8′ 0″ S, 68° 21′ 0″ W in the Río Negro valley. I am prevailed by outcrops on a foothill as I write and digest a small portion of rye. The winds vacuum through the valley from the eastern slopes, whirring through thorns and dead grass but not touching the glinting marble river. The force of wind seems an attempt to strip my bones and push me away from my destination, bearing towards the river’s origin in Santa Cruz, at the shores of Lago Argentino.

I have been in Argentina for thirty-five days and there are 285 kilometres before the river reaches the Atlantic Coast at the southern tip of South America, the delta of my quest. Darwin condemned this region as uninteresting and now that I have finally mapped his footsteps, I would agree; the land is scant of fauna, only the lone beetle or waterfowl wrestles through the thorns. There is a curse of sterility on this land and it is urging me further to Rio Gallegos, Santa Cruz. If I maintain my pace, I predict I will reach Tierra del Fuego before the last journey to Ushuaia in twenty days.

July 10, 1942.

I have reached vast plains and without surrounding objects to measure against, I feel as though I were one of Magellan’s giants, the Tehuelches. It was the Portuguese explorer who first encountered the supposed giants of Patagonia, accounted to have been twice a man’s height. The people were named Patagão, a possible etymology for the Land of the Bigfeet.

Other eminent explorers such as Sir Francis Drake and Commodore John Byron also declared seeing giants in these regions. In this modern age, many scientific explorers and my counterparts dismiss the idea as myth or exaggeration. I for one, wish to believe in the romantic idea of an untouched civilization in this wilderness; a creature not mutated by the evolution of its northern counterparts.

I cannot help but compare the environment to my home of Miraflores, a summer city of cosmopolitan flowers and lively people. If my records of dates are correct, the city would currently be holding the national mambo championship in Plaza de Acho. Ilse, my wife, whom I miss terribly, would be wearing her Azul bolero, a garment she wore every year. I haven’t had a glass of vino since I arrived to Buenos Aires. My tongue salivates for the sweet saturation. I wonder if they are thinking of me at this moment. Víctor Fuales is likely drinking, laughing, and annoying senior Miraflorans shouting, “How indecent,” at the young women flamboyantly leading with their hips.

Alas, this dramatic environment is the mood I truly seek, a landscape of solitude and the greatest abundance of geological wonders on the continent. And once I conquer the Isla Grande, as no other explorer has done before, I can picture a retirement of a weather-caulked home with a shingled roof and blazing log fires, a wolfhound, and walls of literature, accounts, and scientific records.

July 11, 1942.

 

I can see the Lagos basin in the distance, randomly laid against the plateau like a broken shard of a mirror. There is no sign of life ahead. The vegetation of the steppe suggests I am bearing towards Fitz Roy. At least my muscles won’t ache so badly for this stretch. For long periods of walking I like to empty my mind.

July 12, 1942

 

Yesterday evening I spotted a farmhouse on the plains west of Provincia del Chubut, a name that derives from the Tehuelche word chupat, meaning transparent, which would most likely be their description of the Chubut River. My first human contact in weeks, the family offered me two nights shelter where finally I was able to meet a real gaucho, a dream of my adventurous childhood. The gaucho has a face like the mountains of Tierra, hewn through unforgiving eons of natural formation. He sits at the wooden table, two dogs resting at his feet, and discusses with seriousness the terrain ahead of me. The walls are covered in hide and I can hear the furious wind searching for a crack to enter.  The evening is spent discussing my journey, farming, and local myths. Two young children with hard, long and dirty faces gawk at me. The relentlessness of their stare unsettled me, as though they were documenting every decision I had ever made.

After our dinner, I decided to sing the children a song using my small travel guitar, a gift from Víctor, with hopes to change their disapproving expressions. My friends in Miraflores often admired my voice and it had been some time since I had last entertained a friend with music. I played to the children a song I once sang to my first sweetheart, Bésame Mucho.

 

The gaucho and his family sat in silence as I held their attentions, bésame mucho como si fuera esta noche la última vez, bésame, bésame mucho que tengo miedo perderte perderte después. The family clapped and laughed and I felt the happiest I had been in a long time.

The gaucho’s wife was originally descended from the Andes and only spoke Quechua. Her family had travelled to Patagonia from the Provincia del Puno, the poorer regions outlying the bifurcations between Bolivia and Southern Peru. She repeated the word chinqaska with a calm sad smile, which the gaucho later told me meant lost. She gave me slabs of bread, dried meat, textiles of alpaca and sheep wool, and wood soaked in kerosene for the colder southern weather. Her generosity enlightened me to a forgotten facet of humanity, inspiring a desire to return and repay this family who gave more to me than they could share.

 

July 14, 1942

 

The gaucho woke me early and took me on horseback 10 miles from the edge of the Provincia del Chubut. When I departed he looked into my eyes and once more warned me not to continue. I confidently assured him of my travelling experience, but the force of his words set a quiver inside in my stomach. I watched him ride over the curve of the earth until he dropped from my vision.

 

July 15, 1942

I feel balanced again after my interaction with the gaucho and his family. I am focusing on a bird and think of Thoreau’s wisdom, “A man’s interest in a single bluebird is worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town.”

July 16, 1942

I heard the river before I saw it, roaring at the base of a gorge where from a distance I saw the Andean Cordillera Mountains growing in the horizon. I was able to follow a roughly hewn path down to the river; a track I guessed was worn by the weight of horse and donkey over the course of centuries. The river, flowing from Lago Argentino has begun to develop into a milky white colour as the water drops in temperature from mingling with union glaciers. The surrounding granite rock is smooth and curved from the force of water in the falling gorge. I enjoy the rushing sounds as it consumes my thoughts and fears of the approaching mountains. I set myself a small fire with the gaucho’s wood and peruse the writing of Victorio Angelelli, the founder of the Argentinian Geological Association. I have carried with me several of his works on metallogenesis and mineral resources exploration. While I would love to spend more time in Chubut researching the rich plethora of mineral resources, my determination must move me onwards to the end of my journey.

July 17, 1942

 

It will be two days before I reach the northern end of El Calafate for the most difficult part of my trip, the hike across the Torres Del Paine into Chile. I have trekked many extreme regions in my youth and am fitted to survive harsh terrains, though like any new experience there lurks a fear of the unknown and the conditions of these mountains are foreign to me. Research could not prepare for the stirring reality of Patagonia. It is not a uniform land, and within days I might find myself amongst rich emerald vegetation to extreme desert zones, and to bushy and gramineous plateaus.

As I travel closer to Chile, I find the terrain hardening as the Southern Volcanic Belt approaches. Dark colours spot the bunchgrass, creating a leopard skin effect. Grava patagonica is quite common in the lava fields. The effect only intensifies the desolate windswept appearance of this landscape, hardened with sedimentary and volcanic rocks. Geology truly is a fascinating art. My soul warms when I feel these rocks, which date back to the Mesozoic Era, with my bare hands. What mammals, reptiles, or natural events have these landforms witnessed? Will they still remain fixed in the next Era, long after my death?

July 17, 1942

 

There are dark clouds approaching, urging me onwards from my study and imaginings.

July 19, 1942

 

The rain has set me back. I am in El Calafate and the sun is setting over the mountains, though the pains of hunger, cold, and solitude, are stoning me. In my shelter I can see the jagged granite ridges of the highlands and a shadow in the distance, the spires capped with shale, snow, and glaciers of Torres del Paine. Those bone white cliffs have plagued my memory for years and finally, in my miserable disposition, I can see them with my naked eyes.

The satisfaction of my success was enough to keep me alive but that night when I closed my eyes I didn’t see the peaks. I saw my home, my wife reading by the log fire, Miraflores flowers in the spring, and locals dancing waltzes, corridos, blues, and huaraches. I thought of the waves in Miraflores, crashing twice in the summer and Víctor and I watch surfers dot the coastline from our balconies. We sip vino and eat fish with salad. The vino is cold as the glacial ice in extreme south, icy like the large moraines. But then I open my eyes and find myself trapped in the grips of a wild and jealous mistress. That night I wept until sleep found me.

 

July 23, 1942

 

The weather has broken and I am now approximately 700 feet from the bottom of Torres Del Paine. Here I leave behind the areas of sub polar and coniferous Andean forests, Patagonian steppes, lakes, and valleys. Leaving the landscapes of El Calafate, I now enter the journey of mountains and glaciers. I have kept a sample of the calafate Berberis buxifolia, a little bush with yellow flowers and dark blue berries. The berries are edible and I spread some on a slice of bread, savoring the textures on my tongue.

I curve my neck to the skies and can truly appreciate the beauty of the Torres giants. The winds become drier and I cannot afford to expose much skin now. As I sit on the edge of a slope, gazing at the deep blue of distant lakes, I feel the sense of being watched. I instinctively look to the clouds and notice a condor above, it swoops lower and I can see the grey of its back and the red of its eyes. I wait for it to disappear into the horizon but it circles me, occasionally gliding higher until it is a mere speck amidst a milky sky.

July 27, 1942

The condor is following me. I am sure of it. It keeps a reasonable height above but I can sense it’s the same one. It has an unusual flight pattern. I estimate that I am now standing 900 metres above sea level; I can see a vast distance of the landscape from my position. Unfamiliar fauna grows in these areas. I cannot detect it from my references.

July 28, 1942

I am sitting on a slight peak and allow my thoughts to wander with the winds. I think of my first sweetheart and when I sang Consuelo Velázquez’s love melody to her on her sixteenth birthday. We sat in a garden of flowers and I performed her favorite tune, Bésame for her on a warm summer night, Quiero tenerte muy cerca mirarme en tus ojos y estar junto a ti, piensa que tal vez mañana estaré muy lejos muy lejos de aquí, I often wonder whether I should have pursued a career in music, and perhaps I should once I return home. I can retire from my geological studies to finally live my romantic dreams.

July 29, 1942

 

I have begun to find markings on the rock walls. They appear to be man made and written in an unintelligible language, though occasionally I see markings that may be Latin or even fragmented Spanish. The markings are deep and would appear to be made by a person of significant strength. In my research I have found no record of explorers travelling through this region of the mountains.

July 30, 1942

I set up camp in a rocky crevice to rest my stiff and aching muscles. I played the guitar earlier but became terribly frustrated after a string broke and threw it over a steep gorge. The irrationality of that behavior frightened me and so I have decided to pause and recollect myself. I should work on my studies, which I have not done in some days.

July 31, 1942

Last night I dreamt of the Telhuelche giants, they had heavy brows and were over six inches high. They were travelling the same path as I am and now I feel encouraged to follow the northeastern path of the mountains, for the giants always knew to follow the path of the wind and Aves species. I feel more confident in my bearings again.

 

August 3, 1942

 

The condor is still hovering, though I feel more eyes on my back. Having been acquainted to travelling without a living presence, my nerves are pricking. My food supply is dwindling and I cannot find a way through to cross into Chile. It seems as though the climb keeps getting larger and higher. Last night I lost my compass, or at least I believe that is when it disappeared. I have searched every possible crevice but I must keep moving. In fact, I am afraid of staying stationary for too long. I continue to find markings. Could they be the markings of the Telhuelche giants?

August 7, 1942

 

Since losing my compass I have become more vulnerable in the labyrinth of Torres. The size and steepness of the mountain was not expected and I feel to be shrinking in all senses. My predictions have been incorrect and my will is faltering, the northeastern path has led me astray. A part of me is beset with regret and I think of the gaucho’s wife and her echoes of chinqaska.

August 8, 1942

 

I have been seeing markings on the rocks for days now. Some might even be freshly hewn. Could they be a message for me?

August 9, 1942

 

It is snowing and my feet no longer have feeling. My food supply is gone and I still cannot find a cave to shelter in. The condor has found me again. It circles and shadows my steps and I shout out to it but the wind strangles my calls.

August 12, 1942

The Telhuelche giants want to help me. I am the descendant of the benevolent Magellan and they will save me from death. These giant people think I am from the clouds above and so I know I will live happily with this new race of people, free from the societal complexities of Miraflores and European culture. I will educate these beings and they will guide me through my surroundings. They have discovered me and I no longer feel fear. Together we will travel the seas to a new land and I will be their leader. Tell my wife I love her for I suppose I will not see her again.

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