Monday, February 21, 2011
Stretched at the Corners
The pillrattled wheeze came quick to my wife’s lungs. We’d traveled all the way to Patagonia to see the base of Torres del Paine and a cold wasn’t going to stop her. The hike was almost eleven miles and the first half included two inclines steep enough to unravel the sturdiest of breath. We were part of a small group. There were two other hikers and a guide. One of the hikers was a blond lady named Giulia. She was a journalist with a British accent. She talked of stories appearing in the Wall Street Journal and childhood riding lessons and her father’s collection of handmade shotguns. I liked her less for her lack of suffering, even if it was simply hidden by compensatory confessions. Such is my flawed character. The other hiker was a middle-aged man named Jason. He was an engineer from California. He feared the sun, hiding beneath long layers of clothing and a lazy hat. “El sol es muy mal for the skin,” he explained in his gringo attempt at Spanish. The guide was a girl named Lisi. She had dark hair and light eyes and a tiny diamond nose-ring that glinted like the loneliest of stars.
There was such beauty in that cragged place. In the wind-shorn expanses, brush like dark animals was lashed to the brown beneath. The clouds were low disks. Looking out, it was easy to believe the world was stretched at the corners, a little different from what I’d always believed. There were guanacos and condors and the blur of foxes out there. The puma was a whisper and a dusty print. Snowcapped mountains heaved their dark might against the sky. Glacier-fed streams rushed clean and their white water went smoking over the rocks.
But the first brown climb was dust. That’s when I heard the wheeze.
“Is it me or are they hauling ass?” said my wife.
I looked ahead to the sturdy gaits of Giulia and Lisi. Jason was near behind.
“They’re going pretty fast,” I said.
“Don’t worry about them. Go your own pace.”
That labored breath scared me. It sounded of small airways and asthma attacks. The worst form of powerlessness is the inability to help someone you love. I told her we could turn back but she shook her head. I stayed behind her and we pushed forward. There were many stops on that first incline. My pack harvested sweat from my back. Her breath never seemed to come. The day was hotter than anticipated.
The relief of a gradual climb eventually found us. We rounded a turn and little yellow flowers nodded in a tremulous frenzy. We filled our water bottles in a running stream and drank in the cold and then we were moving again. The pace was unrelenting. At the wind pass the air hissed and snapped and bit at our skin. Like all things tremendous it came to surprise us from nowhere, without origin or end. And then there was a lenga forest where the air was thick and damp and the light trembled where it met us. I wanted to go slow. Not to rest, but to take it in. Still we hurried. I didn’t understand.
The last push was the steepest and my wife could not breathe. She kept trying but it would not come and I was weak with the listening. It sounded like things breaking, the snap of tiny bones and the squelch of wet trodden leaves.
“Just stay here and catch your breath,” I said.
Her voice cracked with frustration. I thought she might cry but she did not.
She looked up ahead to where our group was waiting. Giulia’s impatient gaze tumbled down to meet us.
“Why are they in such a hurry?”
“Screw those people. Give me your pack. I’ll carry it and we’ll go as slow as we need to.”
She didn’t want to give me her pack but it really wasn’t a question and I strapped it to my front. I must have looked like some strange turtle as we lumbered up, climbing over the jumbled disorientation of rocks. At this point, another slightly larger group passed us. They were from our hotel, but I never caught their names. The guide was a young man who smiled his way up and down the side of the mountain. There was an oafish guy I took to be an investment banker and his young wife. She was a pretty girl but her eyes were small and dark and hard as dead winter flies. An older couple was in their group. The wife had toned arms and a lifted face. The man was an untiring goat. A Japanese couple brought up the rear, stopping for pictures and smiles. I liked their nonchalance.
And then we were there. Jagged gray fingers of rock pierced the sky. Glacial water melted and vined dark rivulets down the cliff. There was a small pond where it pooled a spectacular blue. It was hard to imagine anything more inviting. I wondered if that was an innate or trained response. I rested on the rocks and took in the sight. Some things are so beautiful that you can only stare and be glad to be alive in that moment taking it all in. I wished that we could all feel like that always. We ate our lunch of sandwiches and pea soup and drank coffee spiked with a nip of Bailey’s. Our faces were green leaves in the sun. People came climbing up over the rocks and they smiled at what they found and took photos.
And then a friend of Giulia’s came up over the pass. It was a strange coincidence. She knew him from London. I looked at his designer sunglasses and his flowery shirt with the top three buttons undone and knew he was the bastard son of a titan. I was annoyed with myself for being judgmental in what was an otherwise beautiful moment, but I stand by my assumption.
After we rested some we began the climb back down. It was faster and the groups had combined and people were happy. My wife was breathing easier. For that I was thankful. But then people began to push, to go faster and to make a contest of it. I didn’t understand the compulsion. My natural inclination when pushed like that by someone else is to get mad, to want to drive until they break and to know that I was the one who broke them. So we hurried down the mountain until I felt the first stabbing clutch of cramps in my legs. I hadn’t paid attention to my water. I was dehydrated and my bottle was empty and so was my wife’s. The group went snaking off into the distance. I could only stop and stretch the needles from my quadriceps. Every few steps the muscle rolled and clutched at bone and there was pain. To know that I was the one who broke was an inexcusable flaw. And so I hobbled until we found them again and eventually there was water and the groups split as most raced forward and my wife and I were slow in the going, but we were together and we eventually made it.
At the bottom, the faster group waited. There was a cooler and they were drinking beer and stretched out on the grass. The sun was weak and the air felt good. They were happy and a little drunk and obviously pleased with themselves. I nodded to them and sat down. None of them was sick or dehydrated or hobbled, and how could it ever be otherwise?