be outside & heal inside
Oftentimes you travel to find a place that will make your world become more—more than you have ever known; more than you could have imagined existed. These places change the way you see. And sometimes you travel in search of memories that will forever illuminate your life and continue to cast a long shadow upon the mundane everyday life you know all too well. And then, every once in a while, a place finds you. As it was, Patagonia found me.
Raindrops fall heavy on the sidewalk as purple clouds began to glide over the sky, hiding the sunshine. From the plush seats of a chauffeured van, I watch the Chilean country roads turn into town and town into port. The vast open stretches of land and growth eventually give way to houses, the roofs all scabby with rust. White rambler roses crawl up the walls of shanties, a lingering reminder of the English, now long gone. Well-fed dogs wander the streets freely with one another during the day, only to find their way back home each night. We reach the dock in Puerto Montt, where I see the Chilean flag flying proudly and beneath her winds, the Atmosphere, my home for the next seven days. This state-of-the-art vessel has been especially designed to sail the Patagonian fjords. Equipped with helicopters and boats of many kinds (jet, drift, Zodiacs, etc.), the Atmosphere allows guests to explore Patagonia by air, land, and water. Over the next week, we will be sailing from the northern to central area of the Chilean Patagonian coast, somewhere between the 41º and 46º South parallels. And there it was, on that old pier, with my lungs closed hard around the strong ocean air, that I board the Atmosphere. We soon set sail into the wild and isolated darkness, away from Puerto Montt, our last outpost of humanity. I must admit that as I boarded the Atmosphere that first night, I was in a very sad state, as I had been for almost three weeks. I was broken, my pain palpable to all around me. I divulge this, not to bemoan my personal tribulations, but to preface a tale of great physical and spiritual adventure. One that illuminates the power nature possesses to change the lives of those who experience it. The night brings with it the stirring sounds of a squall. And so I sleep.
I awake the following morning feeling more alive than I have in weeks. After a stormy night and an even darker past month, I wake to the light. Over night the tempestuous seas have transformed into rolling blues. Thunderous skies no longer loom overhead. A perfect day.
This morning our eco-guides, Marcela, Ismael, Rodrigo, and Jen will lead us on our first excursion. (Nomads is scrupulous regarding the care and attention paid to each individual passenger; whether fishing or ice climbing, there was always at least one guide for every two guests.) Because of the cold temperatures we are asked to wear these large thermal suits for protection. Great—they remind me of those bright orange suites prison inmates wear. Not that I would know what those look like.
I mistakenly pass by a mirror, and an image of a Pillsbury doughboy stares back at me. Atop the blown-up figure lies a very small head with blond curls. I waddle to the deck and board the Zodiac Hurricane (a rescue boat used by Navy Seals), straddle one of the motorcycle-style seats, and take off. We bounce at alarming heights as the Hurricane speeds like a bullet across the waves. What a ride.
As the skies clear and the sun filters through the eucalyptus leaves, we find ourselves docked on the shore of a utopian ecosystem—an amazing combination of deserted and desolate steppes and an exuberant forest full of unexplored niches, giant ferns, multi-colored flowers, and dense evergreen forests. We pass through a green field where sheep are grazing and on to a narrow jungle path that leads us to two natural hot springs.
After peeling back our fat, albeit warm suits, we gladly climb into the steaming hot spring water. Rodrigo serves us champagne and strawberries on a silver platter while we relax in the fresh water. Jen and Marcela are waiting for each of us with plush terrycloth robes as we climb out of the warm sanctuary. We head back to the mother ship for a three-course gourmet lunch, an event that is soon to become routine.
We spend the rest of the afternoon sea-kayaking from waterfall to waterfall. I am awestruck by the rivulets of cascading water rushing down the foliage-covered cliffs. The brilliant sunset chases us as we kayak back to the Atmosphere.
Tonight the Chilean sky burns with fire as the sun fights to stay up. The air drips with a scent that would drive the fishermen mad. I breathe it in. Each breath of Patagonian air is exhilarating; it sooths my muscles, exhausted from hours rowing, and nourishes my wounded soul.
. . .
The extremely low visibility, a product of the thick layer of gauze that has settled across our Patagonian sky, prohibits the helicopters from taking off. I take this free time to “work.” And by work, I mean enjoy a two-hour massage, relax in the thermal hot tubs on the upper deck, and indulge in an extended siesta. All in the name of research, of course.
Despite the day’s turbulent skies, the sunset is breathtaking. Andres, the owner of the Atmosphere, takes my new friend Alissa Everett and me up in his helicopter so that we can enjoy the setting sun from her most beautiful angles. Andres Ergas, the founder and President of Nomads of the Sea, is an unforgettable and inspiring character. Somewhere between Kerouac and Hemmingway, Ergas is a true adventure-seeker for whom fishing and nature have become passions. When asked to explain why he created Nomads of the Sea, Ergas told me, “[I had] a vision where adventure, cuisine, engineering, flight, fly-fishing, ecotourism, and service go hand in hand with experiencing untouched nature. And now I can share this vision with you and every other adventurer.” As he later said, “It is our love and passion for adventure and travel that make us true Nomads.”
The relaxing day brings a riotous night. Cabin fever has spread throughout the ship. Our medication: to party. For some, it may have been the wine; for others, the intoxicating song of Greta Gaines—an extremely talented Nashville singer/songwriter and fellow passenger who poured her heart out to us through song; for me, it was a tingling of happiness that had began to creep back into my soul. But, for whatever reason, we, both passengers and crew, danced. We danced and sang with each other until the sun came up. It is hard to believe that we only met two days ago. I began to feel an inkling of hope in my heart.
. . .
The skies are clear and the view is breathtaking. As we board the helicopter from the top deck of the Atmosphere, I can see smoke pouring from the recently erupted Chaitén Volcano, which we are to climb this morning. As the helicopter circles the narrow spire of the volcano, lagoons and glacier-laden mountains sprawl out before us. The awe-inspiring beauty brings tears to the eyes of Angela, my new friend from South America. We land, and she turns to me and says, “Is there anything more beautiful? I have never felt closer to God.” There are no words.
Even the dirt underfoot seems magical as we begin our three-hour-long hike down the volcano and through the forest—a compilation of dead trees (the byproduct of a recent landslide) and newly budding life—to the beach.
Angela, Alissa, and I walk together, share our stories, and enjoy the beginnings of a new friendship. I ask Angela about the three-inch-long scar that stretches across the front of her husband Mike’s throat. The wound is the product of a near-deadly motorcycle crash on his family’s farm when he was 10 years old. Mike’s collision with a newly placed barbed wired fence severed his head almost completely from his body. I know that the next time I talk to Mike, I will feel more alive knowing that he is a walking miracle. The three of us find ourselves sharing our hearts with one another. The weight of the world feels a little lighter.
The beach at the volcano’s base is like a scene from Orwell’s 1984; a barren land that appears otherworldly. The lush forest breaks into a clearing of dead trees set upon a black-sanded beach. The flowing streams intertwine like licorice with veins of dried black lava that flow into the dark pearl lake. The effect is ethereal.
Rodrigo has prepared a gourmet lunch on the beach and is patiently waiting for us under the shade of a pavilion. After a wonderful meal of grilled salmon and extraordinary wines, I find a rock close to the water, close my eyes, and take a nap.
All too soon, the helicopter returns to pick us up, and the pilot flies us over a green lagoon—another serenely beautiful panorama of Patagonia—and follows the river back to the ocean. Once back to our home-sweet Atmosphere, we, once again donning the all too flattering doughboy suites, climb aboard the Zodiac in hopes of spotting a few whales. The hum of the boat’s engine attracts a company of dolphins to our wake. At one point more than 10 dolphins are swimming and playing along next to our boat, enchanting all aboard. Marcela leaned her sturdy frame into mine and with a wink, murmured into my ear, “Dolphins are considered to be a good luck charm; when you see one, good things are to follow.” Those early sailors who would spend months at sea, with no land is sight, believed the sight of dolphins swimming around their ships to be the first sign that land was near.
No longer drowning in a sea of misery, I knew this must be true. Land was very near.
. . .
Because the climate and geographical conditions are so extreme, there is a vast area in Patagonia that remains untouched by man. These largely inaccessible regions boast the world’s largest natural salmon reserve; thus the rivers, lakes, and lagoons are teeming with life. It is in one of these virgin rivers that I learn to fly-fish.
With Rodrigo, a renowned fly-fishing expert as well as a professional guide, as my teacher, it is not too difficult to learn the basic form. He casts the line with such ease and grace that I begin to picture his pole as a natural extension of his 6’2 self. I soon find myself standing alone in the bow of the boat attempting to cast in such a way that the line lands smoothly on the water and the fly appears as natural as possible. It occurs to me that fly-fishing is more than an art form; it is a link between man and nature, a true means of meditation. It is then that I actually find myself falling in love with this unfamiliar sport.
Lunch is a fabulously paradoxical event. We sip champagne while sitting around an elegantly decorated table that has been set in the water. Without any flat surfaces of dry land around, we eat a wonderful meal while our feet, kept dry by our waiters, are dangling in a foot of water.
From inside the helicopter, I watch as the sun melts into the horizon on one side and the moon rises full from the water on the other. I am in awe with the great balance that surrounds me.
Sometime during the night, the Atmosphere anchors in a small bay near the mouth of the Tic Toc River. This morning we hike up an active volcano to see the Yanteles glacier up close. One of the only to exist on the peak of a volcano, this shining glacier melts into the exquisite blue sky above. The colors are so vibrant; it is though we are looking through the eyes of Rembrandt himself. A duo of penguins crosses our path. I look down to the valley and the oceans below, where there are dolphins, no doubt, wishing the sea good morning. The beauty of this scene is one that cannot be described in words; it was made to be experienced with every one of the senses. Once again, the world becomes greater and I am blessed.
We return to the Atmosphere only to climb onto a jet boat. Andres takes us up river to a beautiful white sand beach where Rodrigo and Ismael have set up lunch for us. The exquisite white canopy and tablecloth are reminiscent of a scene from Out Of Africa. While the chef is grilling fish, we enjoy champagne and wine. We eat another fabulous lunch on the ocean. A picture of true luxury.
Today we disembark back at Puerto Montt. The fog has ushered in feelings of nostalgia. The staff, my family for the past week, has lined up along the deck to say goodbye to us one by one. The air is filled with a bittersweet sadness about leaving.
Sometimes, what we have in common with others can loom larger than what separates us. It is in these isolated places—away from the confinement of the ordinary—that a true sense of kinship is easier to develop. As Andres said, “It is in that human diversity [on the Atmosphere] where I get the greatest treasures from each new journey; it allows friendships to last a lifetime. “
If you let her, Patagonia will change you in a way few places can. But for me, shattered and brokenhearted, she did more than I thought “a place” could do; she found me. That day I left the Chilean coast full to bursting, and months later my sails remain strong.