One Man, Over Land, No Man’s Land

The Fitz Roy Mountain Range, near El Chalten, Argentina (See all the pics…)

Somewhere after the second kilometer and third mangled desert hare I began to wonder if my minimally researched, impromptu hike into Chile was a good idea. I was in the No Man’s Land between the Argentine and Chilean border checkpoints, however this wasn’t the first No Man’s Land that I’ve had to trek across. In truth, it’s not even close to being the most intense either. Hands down, that prize goes to the five mile wasteland between the Kashgar and Kyrgyzstan checkpoints, traveled only by truckers and thoughtfully sandwiched on each side by border urchins waiting to con you in a myriad of deceptive ways. And I was in a tuxedo at the time.

All of your past experiences provide vistas of perspective in the present moment. This is nothing new, in fact, in retrospect, it’s a habitual intention of mine. I admit it, I find it hard to say ‘no’ to absurd, embarrassing or sometimes even apparently dangerous ideas – just as a means to stuff this experiential envelope. Besides traveling for six months in a tuxedo, which included hitchhiking through Islamabad during the 2007 siege of the Red Mosque, this compulsive behavior has been leveraged by my caring friends in diverse and creative ways; in 2009, a pack of 20 girls and guys dressed in drag for the Pasadena Doo Dah Parade, the goal being to create an awareness for the human trafficking and sex slave business on behalf of Amnesty International. We had a loosely arranged skit (with our ‘male’ captors selling the ‘females’ to the audience to raise funds) and our group was sandwiched in between a high school marching band and a dance troupe, both of whom had obviously put great effort into practicing. The entire experience was so distinctly uncomfortable; an unpracticed routine, the wide eyed expectation of onlookers (including innumerable children), being ‘sold’ to the audience (one of whom invited me to a back room of a cafe– luckily, I was able to escape, ripping my fishnets in the process) and all while my body was clad in a gold bikini, my head was adorned in a blonde wig and my mind was in a particularly non-lucid state. I was also rather overweight at the time and had a ragged beard. The shear and intense bizarreness of this surreality is now the high-mark for my tolerance of social discomfort. Now, when anything gets ‘weird’, it has to get pretty damn ‘weird’ to usurp the title from that day at the Doo Dah Parade.

OK, so why was I not continuing on my planned path north through Argentina to Bariloche? In two words: Marie Fredriksson. Marie Fredriksson was the lead singer from the Swedish pop duo Roxette, and sang such 80’s hits as “Listen to Your Heart” and “It Must Have Been Love”. As soon as we left El Calafate, the driver of the plushly appointed bus exclaimed “We need some music!” and for the next 3 hours Roxette’s music videos played back to back on the multiple TVs. It was a combination of the cushioned seats, abundantly provided alfajores and the nostalgic ballads that made me think ‘so far, my trip has been a little too easy’. However, before resorting to any radical and sudden change of plan I decided that I would go to El Chalten and hike some of the famous trails that weaved around the surrounding Fitz Roy mountain range. After all, I was already on the bus headed there.

As we approached El Chalten, it was hard not to feel the cliched-since-2005 sense of “Holy crap, that’s so ‘Lord of the Rings’!” Dark and jagged, the unrelenting peaks humbled the little village below, and with Fitz Roy’s summit hidden in clouds, it was understandable why the indigenous people had feared it. Besides a few side streets that had the typical and comical mishmash of architecturally diverse houses, the town was basically centered along one street. It turns out that much of the tourist infrastructure, still being built, was slapped together in 1985 in a bid to beat Chile to the claim of the land. I was happy that while still obviously expanding from the tourist influx, El Chalten still had a strong underlying vibe of its frontier village roots. Many of the fences looks like they’d been around for quite a few winters and when I found my hostel, the Albergue Patagonia, I was happy to see that it looked like it was a converted farm house. The wind was so strong that at times all the lodgers, who congregated in the common area, would look towards the roof with just a hint of concern that it would fly off at any minute. More than a couple of times throughout my stay I feared that the windows were about to shatter inwards, hailing me with thousands of shards; such are the winds of El Chalten.

I was assigned a comfortable bunk bed which reminded me of the five years I’d spent sleeping in one at English boarding school, aged 8 onwards. I would always joke with my fellow travelers that since they were on top bunk, they better not wet the bed. They’d laugh, not knowing that I was serious; many a boy on the bottom bunk fell victim to the nocturnal incontinence of the boy on top, which always resulted in a cruel public shaming at breakfast. I was also given a little basket in the kitchen which I filled with all sorts of delights for breakfast that I’d bought from the local supermercado (which wasn’t really that super, but fine for basics; eggs, cheese, dried sausage and bread). I also finally visited an artesian confectioner where I purchased some little jars of jam and dulce de leche.

The next morning, fueled by the joy of sugary spreads, I began a hike up to Lago Torre, which offered stunning views of the surrounding mountains and a glacier. It was about 5 hours round trip and while the glacier was no Perito Moreno (I feel I might be saying that for some time, when faced with the world’s lesser glaciers) it was a scenic and simple hike. I’ve been listening to a fantastic audiobook, the unabridged version of Sam Harris’ ‘End of Faith’. It’s truly mind-blowing and contains ideas that I will no doubt explore in the coming weeks. Every now and then I’d pass a hiker coming the other way on the well worn trail and usually my chipper ‘hola’s were greeted in kind. On the way back, I stumbled upon John, an English backpacker who’d been at my last hostel in El Calafate and who was camping his way across the world. He looked quite wet.

“Hey John, how as last night?” I asked, not mentioning my cozy hostel out of sensitivity. “Were you warm enough?”

“Oh, yeah, not bad mate.” The Brits are so charmingly, stiff upper lipped sometimes. For a moment I imagined the flapping opening of his drenched tent, with socks and a hiking map floating on top of a puddle where his sleeping bag had last been seen. “A bit wet of course, but it could be worse.”

“Alright, well stay dry, old bean!” We continued our separate ways and I felt like an idiot for calling him ‘old bean’.

Every now and then, other hikers would pass by, sometimes even in groups, with not an utterance or even an acknowledgment of mutual presence! Honestly, what is wrong with some people? I know when we were young that we were all told by our parents “Don’t talk to strangers!” but like picking your nose in public and crying to get attention, that is a trait that should be left behind as you mature. Unfortunately many people seem to carry this instruction into their adult lives, existing their time away in invisible little bubbles and interacting as minimally as possible with the big, scary world outside. I always smile to myself, but secretly I want to grab them and force them to say ‘hello’ back. Can you imagine their faces, when their disengaged stares explode into primal focus upon meeting my crazed eyes: “Say hello dammit! Say hello to people!” I would shout, sealing this moment into their memory forever with a maniacal laugh. Would it be socially inappropriate? Absolutely. Would it get them to say ‘hello’ to people in the future? Maybe. Or more likely it would turn them even deeper inward and make future walks in the woods a source of great fear. I propose that the rules of responsible trekking should be carried into the world; don’t put yourself or others in danger, don’t leave a mess behind and be friendly goddamit. I kind of expect this behavior in the city – but in the middle of the mountains. Come on people.

The next day I awoke and made myself a delicious breakfast of eggs, bread with rich spreads and a double cappuccino. As is customary about an hour later I went for a relaxing poo and after a short while emerged simultaneously with the fellow from the stall next to me.

“Aah. Nothing like a morning poo.” I joyfully remarked. I used to be rather embarrassed to move my bowels in public toilets. But I distinctly remember one of my friends asserting that I should behave quite the opposite: “I take special pride in producing a loud and vicious attack on the senses, and then, after emerging, I smile proudly at anyone who looks my way.” And so, since then, even the restroom hasn’t been off limits to my social exploits.

“You are completely right. Fantastic!” He agreed, smiling broadly. And so I met Egil Aslak Aursand Hagerup – a young Norwegian man brimming with infectious positivity. He had just arrived in El Chalten and happened to be on the bed above me: “I don’t usually wet the bed.” He grinned.

The day was rainy but Egil suited up and hit the trails, while I decided to stay in the snug confines of the hostel to write. After a few hours indoors, having penned the first outline of my emerging manifesto, I decided to explore the outside, even in the poor weather. I got about 20 minutes from the hostel facing an onslaught of horizontal, piercingly cold rain when I realized that I wasn’t just cold, but I was extremely wet under my jacket.. Apparently the cheap shell I brought had lost it’s waterproofing so I lamely headed back to the hostel and made myself some hot chocolate.

Some time later I emerged from a nap, ready for some dinner and a smiling, freshly showered Egil greeted me with a small espresso cup full of whiskey.

“Try it. It is surprisingly good. It has a warm after taste of rich pete.” He waited until I began to sip, “Imagine you are a ship’s Captain, looking towards the land!” As it turns out, Egil was a fellow writer, in fact he’d been a journalist, turned political and social satirist and had the joy of words.

We decided that after the harsh day’s trekking (perhaps I had slightly over-exaggerated my attempt), we deserved a good dinner – and what better idea than parrilla, a platter of grilled meats. The rain had subsided so we ambled down the street to the restaurant and then ordered a Guilmes beer while we waited for a table; Guilmes is the Argentine version of Pabst Blue Ribbon, i.e. it’s really not very good.

As the dinner was served, featuring a thick grilled cheese slice and a giant mound of meat cuts, including the best morcilla (blood sausage) that I’d ever sampled, we left the typical traveler banter behind and energetically projected our discussion down the path of ideas, metaphors and life experiences. It was truly shocking how many things we had in common. He told my about his strategic and iterative life experiences, I told him my thoughts on vector shifts and serendipity. We talked about our favorite TED talks and how memes spread through society (in fact, an article he’d written had created a national review of Norwegian mechanic’s estimate procedures!) so I told him to pick up a copy of Seth Godin’s ‘Ideavirus’. I explained the simple teachings of Buddha and how that helped them spread. We talked about large life goals and the crucial next step of crafting a real path to achieving them over time.

“Michelangelo didn’t get stressed over a block of marble.” I said. “He’d just chip away over time. In his own words: ‘I don’t create the sculpture, I just remove the excess material.’” OK, I wasn’t sure if those were his exact words, but it got the point across.

Finally I outlined the parallel that all of my projects seemingly had with my current state, and as it evolved, so did they. Most centric to my personal progress is the continued development of Mindshare.LA. When Adam Mefford and I founded the event in 2006, it was a vessel for meeting people and having fun. It’s next iteration in 2008 was to become more reputable, both as an experience and as a brand, while continuing to attract fantastically intelligent and diverse attendees. Now looking forward, I explored my next iteration with Egil:

“I feel so surrounded by amazing people and inspiring ideas – occasionally to the point where I feel like I could drown in possibilities.” I continued, “Of course this is not something I want to escape from, rather, I simply want to learn how to negotiate it. Besides the logistical growth that my absence sparks, it’s time for Mindshare’s next iteration – and I can see how that looks, by observing my own.” The morcilla darkly glistened at the end of my fork, which I now held like an orchestra conductor’s wand. “I don’t need many more new people in my circle, of course there’s always room for more, but that is no longer my main objective. Now I need to be strategic, to leverage and be creative with the wonderful people that I’ve met in order to achieve mutualistic gain.”

“So how would Mindshare parallel this new objective?” Egil asked, obviously hoping I had an answer, or at least a satisfactory first step towards an answer.

“The community that we’ve created needs to evolve beyond a monthly get together of back-pats and ‘see you next month for another night of enlightened debauchery”s and begin to more deeply engage itself. If we can figure out a way to do this, then it could break it’s banks as just a monthly event and start to become more deeply effective.”

“I want to start a Norwegian Mindshare!” Egil exclaimed.

“I’d love to help you to.” I smiled.

The breadth of people you meet while traveling is obviously a striking cross section of the world’s privileged and progressive citizens. It’s also often, but certainly not always, a good filter for connecting a similar psychographic. Ultimately every traveler is searching for something. I suspect for many it’s an escape from the dull routine of their lives home. These young souls will likely return to a job that they don’t really like until they save enough money for their next dose of escape. Many others however are searching for answers, by exploring the world outside they hope to discover the world within. Such a goal is certainly made less nebulous when you begin to try to define where you’ve come from, and then project where you want to be, chipping away excess material until the unique sculpture of your existence reveals itself.

My last day in El Chalten was clear and bright. My bus out of town didn’t leave until 11pm so it was the perfect day to hike to the high lakes that lapped against the steep inclines of the sobering Fitz Roy mountain. Egil and I had met a cute girl from Buenos Aires that morning so convinced her to join us on the 8 hour round trip journey.

“I’m not really an adventurous type.” Miranda warned.

“It’s not so steep.” Egil said, knowing full well that it was the most arduous circuit around town.

“Yeah, we’re both pretty slow.” I added, knowing that we both occasionally liked to sprint until our lungs burned.

We milled around town for breakfast, Miranda ordered the most decadently delicious slice of pie that I’ve ever witnessed; a thick layer of chocolate formed a shell over the top of an even thicker filling of dulce de leche, all of which the crumbling crust struggled to contain. Eventually we put some snacks in out backpacks, filled out water bottles and headed up the trail. The hike was exhilarating, and took us across vast valleys, past crystal clear lakes and through verdant forests.

“You see that?” Egil asked, pointing to the tufts of lichen that hung from on the bark of many of the trees. “We call it Forest Beard! It only grows when the air is exceptionally clean.” The air was indeed crisp and refreshing and cooled us as we climbed higher. We took breaks to share snacks and take pictures, and eventually, after crossing rushing streams on creaky bridges and walking through countless old river beds, we reached the base of the final ascent – known to be the most challenging part. Miranda was a little nervous that she wouldn’t make it, but we told her it wasn’t too bad (having no idea) we’d just need some more cookie-power.

“My brother was in the Army.” Egil grinned, getting ready to bestow some Norwegian wisdom: “They told him that when he thought he’d given all he could, he still had 80% of his potential power left!” If true, that was a truly exhausting fact.

Soon after the first quarter, Miranda said she’d catch up, as Egil and I pushed on. We weren’t worried about her, it wasn’t too cold or windy and there were other hikers around. I was too breathless to talk much but muttered something about being amazed that someone had arranged large rocks into an impressive staircase at a particularly steep switchback. At that point, Egil, who was significantly more fit than me began telling me about his trip through Peru. He told me about the exactitude of the Inca structures:

“They didn’t have wheels, they didn’t have iron tools – but they brought giant boulders from many kilometers away and ground them into perfect geometric shapes by hand. Can you imagine the patience?” The facts were amazing anyway, but the energy of his delivery further emphasized it. He continued to describe the sun temples which cast perfect shadows and then finally, the sad plight of the Inca at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors. After that the conversation went south to Bolivia where he’d negotiated the salt flats and avoided piranha in the rivers of the Amazon basin. After a while, we realized that we’d lost sight of Miranda some time ago. We were about 10 minutes from the top and had been moving quite fast.

“I think the mountain has claimed her” I joked, not overly concerned.

“Lets wait for a while..” He said, more compassionately. After a few minutes we saw a little brunette head appear from behind a rocky outcrop below.

“Miranda!” We shouted in unison, while waving our hands.

“Hey guys! How much further?” She shouted back. From this distance it looked like she was smiling, but in reality it was almost certainly a grimace of pain and exhaustion.

“We’re like 10 meters from the top!” I exaggerated. “So close, it looks awesome!”

When we finally reached the top it truly was stunning. Two dark blue lakes had formed in deep crevices that the jagged, snowcapped peaks had created. The grandeur of the Fitz Roy mountain, the tip of who’s peak always remained clouded as if hiding a mythical castle or beast’s dwelling, loomed high above. The valley that we’d trekked through for the last five hours spread out below like an earthy tapestry. Had that really taken five hours? Wait five hours?

“Holy crap, what time is it?” I asked. It was 7pm.

“Yeah, I’m worried that we’re going to have to head back in darkness!” Miranda said.

“Oh damn. Guys,. I have to jet, or I’m going to miss my bus! I haven’t even packed yet!”

“OK, lets start heading back…” Miranda said – even though I know Egil, being an experienced and prepared mountain hiker, was in no rush.

“I’d rather say goodbye now than lose you on the trail, I think I’m going to have to run!” We said our goodbyes amid large boulders, in front of a grand mountain. A memorable goodbye indeed!

I shoved some remaining cookies in my mouth, put on my iPod’s pumping ‘GymFest’ playlist, tightened my shoes and braced myself for the challenge. I weaved past the lake towards the top of the steep trail. It was impossible to run, but I skipped, hopped, slid and slalomed down. I took extra care on the slippery, and now impressively dangerous, steep stairs but finally reached the bottom intact. I jogged across bridges, through old river beds, around lakes and through forests.

I avoided muddy puddles (most of the time) and scared the hell out of a few meandering hikers. I could imagine it from their perspective: a 220lb, red faced and thoroughly sweaty man, hurtling down the peaceful trail towards them. No time to explain people, I have a bus to catch! (Although please note, I still managed to puff ‘hola’s to all of them!). At times I’d even imagined I was being chased by forest beasts to spur myself on. I only allowed myself a few breaks to catch my breath and to take pictures of the afternoon sun-lit Fitz Roy range was at its clearest yet.

I was impressed! I made it down the village in 2 hours and 15 minutes. I got to my hostel around 9:15pm, and then learned that my bus wasn’t until 11:30 anyway! Hardly a close call but it had still been fun. I had a beer, peeled the socks off my feet and had the best shower of my life. I ate a leisurely dinner and headed to the bus, perfectly on time.

As the packed bus pulled away in the darkness I pulled out a 1/2 full bottle of Malbec and struck up a conversation with Johanes, a humorous German who as traveling for 6 months across Asia and South America. We were the last two people to have purchased tickets and so were stuck next to the toilets. The smell was terrible and people knocked his shoulders as they pushed by. We laughed, except he laughed slightly less; while I was getting off in the morning in Los Antiguos, a small town on the Argentina-Chile border, he was continuing to Bariloche, a further 20 hours away. The bus rattled so hard that we played a guessing game of which sleeping tourist would be the next one hit with a backpack that had dislodged from the overhead compartment. We wondered how long it’d be until the inactive TV finally shook free from its screws and created a serious litigious circumstance. Eventually the wine took hold, I said goodnight to Johanes and slept for almost the entire rest of the journey.

The next morning, I said goodbye to Johanes, who was looking far less fresh, and continued on to Los Antiguos. A few other travelers who were taking a similar path decided to head straight into Chile and invited me to join them. Instead, I decided to stay for a night and get myself a bit organized before hopping over the border. I had a good sleep at a charming hostel near the border checkpoint, changed money and had to write some serious email responses to the teams back home. I might be absent but I am still number one at putting out petty fires of miscommunication and keeping people focused.

So it took a 3 mile trek with my bags across No Man’s Land, a surprisingly friendly but somewhat confusing border experience linguistically, and a lucky hitchhike for a further 4 miles into town to get to the Chilean border town of Chile Chico, or ‘Little Chile’, cute name, right? There’s not a single other tourist, just a quiet town with colorful houses on the bright blue Lago Buenos Aires. Absolutely no one speaks English – it’s hilarious to try to negotiate things with mangled verbs and generic nouns – but what better way to learn other than full immersion? Right now I’m sitting in the living room of tiny hospedaje (budget inns, usually run by a family or a kind old lady) on a side street that I found after walking around for an hour and knocking on doors. I got my own room with fresh sheets for USD$17 a night. It’s 10:44pm and the family, consisting of 50 year old parents and a young girl of 14 are eating a hearty soup dinner in the kitchen with homemade bread. There’s a loud Spanish soap opera blaring on the TV. Our interaction is polite but minimal and as I write this I can’t help but feel like a quiet voyeur of their lives. There’s an unbelievable view of the lake, but the only place that can see it is a corridor upstairs. My design sense wonders why this seems to be the prevailing technique for most of the houses here. I guess people would rather be adjacent to the activity that the street? I spent the day writing in an empty restaurant and walking around the tiny town. I found some fantastically fresh sopa de mariscos, a mix of delicious seafood suspended in a rich broth. Tomorrow I am catching a boat at 7am to the other side of the vast lake to start the next part of the unprescribed adventure.

So far, Argentina travel had been a little TOO easy so in an effort to create some more unpredictable circumstances (i.e. something other than bus –> attraction –> bus –> attraction) I’m about to head off the grid for the next week as I head up the Carretera Austral – a lovely but desolate mountain road that winds between lakes and farmlands. Since I haven’t been able to secure a motorcycle yet, I plan to hitchhike my way north for the next few hundred miles – from there, well, I’ll see when I get there.

So in the coming days, as I stick my thumb out on dusty farm roads, it’s only fitting that I should hum a certain inspiring song I heard recently:

Listen to Your Heart!

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