For the past several days, I have been hiking my way through Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chilean Patagonia. My timing is not ideal—in April the ground is saturated with rainwater and ominous gray clouds hide what is normally an unobstructed view of the tip of the southern hemisphere—yet I have nonetheless fallen in love with Patagonia’s many fjords, glaciers, overarching craggy peaks, and colorful fishing ports. While hiking, I feel as if I am actually walking through clouds and am having to push aside thick layers of fog like a child in a field of tall, dewy hay grass.
While hiking through the Valle Francés (French Valley) of Torres del Paine one day in late April, the omnipresent gray haze of the landscape suddenly dissipated. As my friend and I stood in an exposed clearing next to the rushing Río Francés, rays of autumnal sun pierced through the clouds and painted the valley in colorful light. Finally we were able to discern the jagged, deep blue contours of Los Cuernos and the three vertical peaks of Los Torres looming above us. To the West, the sunlight transformed the opaque white mass of the Glaciar del Francés into glowing shards of aquamarine ice, and to the South the turquoise waters of Lago Nordenskjöld met the lake’s dark piney shores. In juxtaposition to the various hues of the mountains and lake for which the park earned its name (“paine” is the indigenous Mapuche word for “blue”), the deep reds, yellows, and burnt oranges of Fall foliage climbed up the sides of the hills and lit up the valley. It was an overwhelming type of beauty.
Almost as quickly as it had arrived, the light soon vanished and the gray haze crept back into the valley. All that remained of the sun was the nostalgic scent of sunshine heating rainy earth. When we reached the top of the valley and surveyed the southern tip of the world in all its hazy beauty I felt as if I inherently knew this unique landscape: I could picture my first Fall of this same year in Brunswick, Maine, where I attend college, and I could imagine that I was hiking through the coniferous forests of the Pacific Northwest, where I grew up. The smell of the rain—of mossy, piney dampness—always reminds me of home.
While most people travel to discover the world’s many distinct nuances, I have recently come to realize that I will travel thousands of miles to search for similarities. I was raised on a tiny, insular piece of land in the northwestern corner of Washington state that is covered in dense pine tree forests and the remnants of the island’s earlier strawberry farms. My island home is rarely included on any map, yet it has always served as my own mental grounding point, my center. In spite of my inherent desire to return to my roots, over the past several years I have become more of a nomad than a settler. I have lived in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and now Chile, where I am studying for the semester, and I have learned that I always feel most fulfilled when I can begin to forget the differences between my newly acquired “homes”. I love Latin America for its language and philosophy on how to live life, but even more than that, I love realizing that I am comfortable among these disparities. Traveling for me is more than visiting a location to observe a foreign culture from a safe distance; it is the chance to dive in and see whether you sink or swim. It is a forgiven chance to mispronounce my Spanish ‘rr’s, to question, to learn, to share, and, ultimately, to find pieces of myself in unexpected places.
I do not know whether I travel in search of the place that fits me better than any other—the future place in which I will most belong—or whether I travel in search of the settings that mirror aspects of places that have made me most comfortable in past. I still do not know whether I am searching for my home or my multiple homes—pieces of a past self or a future self.
Yet as I sit here at a comfortable café in the sleepy fishing town of Puerto Natales, a bumpy two-hour bus ride south of Torres del Paine, all I feel is home. I do not feel a longing to be in a past or future home; rather, I feel like I have found where I can belong in the present. The old handmade, whitewashed table on which my teacup and notebook balance tenuously; the dark groves of pine trees blanketing the hills in the near distance; the earthy smell of the rain that has been absorbed into the wooden furniture, the land, the people. I am home. Or more accurately, I have made a home here because I am here.
Puerto Natales, astro.noa.gr