Coming to terms with getting lost and the unexpected outcomes of discovery
I can still remember leaving the trail. It was a worn, dusty path that we had followed from a small lake tucked back in the evergreen forest of the Southern Andes. Ahead of me, an austere landscape of volcanic upheaval, a sea of basalt stacked against a steep shoulder of Volcano Casablanca. The skies were as clear as my 26-year-old mind, and although we couldn’t see the top of the volcano, its geographic position was predictable if not downright obvious. If this is the volcano, all paths lead to the crater, or so went the logic in my head.
The Chilean Andes stretch across 5000 kilometers but finding a place to place your feet and march can be a daunting task. Once you’ve lived there for a while it becomes less a game of chance and more a privilege and pleasure. In 2006, two childhood friends flew to Chile and joined me in Chile’s Puyehue National Park. It was my first year living in South America, and the backpacking trip was a rite of passage. Endless beauty, infinite possibility.
At park headquarters, we signed in with our real names and made up passport numbers, either because we left our passports in Santiago or we were too lazy to get them out. I do not remember. The CONAF ranger told me about a group of Israeli hikers who still hadn’t come back and showed us a table map of the park’s area etched into a wooden panel with little more detail than a yellow line for a trail, a blue line for a river and a red line for park boundaries. He then handed me a paper map that competed with the station’s map for obsoleteness. Still, hiking this volcano is nothing complicated. The mountain rises just 2800 meters above sea level, and there’s a one-lift ski resort on the southwestern side. Really, there’s nothing to it.
I never doubted my decision to leave the trail. Shortcuts are central to my mentality. There is the way the people do things, and then there is the way that I do them, and these are supposed to be quicker, more effective and adventurous. This surety must have convinced my friends. I don’t remember any debate or discussion. It felt as easy as choosing a six pack of beer before heading into the woods, a trivial decision. “Hey guys, why don’t we go up here instead.”
We crossed a torturous mountainside of loose volcanic gravel, slowly inching our way up. And after a couple of hours, found us high in a valley, surrounded by snowfields and patches of fog. It was late afternoon, and the fog swabs were building themselves into a blanket. Standing at what felt like the pass between north and south of the volcano’s shoulder, Jeffrey and I shared a bag of strawberry jam and bread. The sugar brought warm blood into cold hands and feet but didn’t change the evening’s outlook: lost in the clouds.
In the same moment we spotted some footprints in the snow that led us south and inspired confidence in the direction. Soon we were talking about the Israelis and how we would find them, likely camping in the forest oblivious to their original plan. How were we any different?
I still wondered about the crater, if we were close and whether we’d reach our objective. We could no longer tell which slope rose higher. We were surrounded by clouded possibilities: in at least three directions there could be craters. We were swallowed by the volcano and recognized we were lost.
The anonymous footprints led us down the other side and after some time disappeared below the clouds where we saw a lake, at least a day’s walk away. We decided that this lake would be our best option for finding people or a road, perhaps a bus. At least an exit. The new objective put energy into our pace. The upper snowfields were just right for running and sliding. In a hurry to move, I twisted my knee in a patch of deep snow. My friends took on the weight from the pack, and I managed to limp down the mountain clutching a strong piece of bamboo.
We camped in a bamboo forest halfway down the mountain. Troy’s mood was less than hopeful, and the food we had for two more nights of camping dwindled as the fire faded into a drizzle.
“When we’re starving and have no idea how to get out of here, you guys will be to blame,” said Troy with an accusing voice.
Three is a magic number for these situations. A third person counteracts any unwanted thoughts, Jeff and I were adamant that life would go on, and Troy, ever the doomsayer, was not going to ruin our walk through the Lakes Region, even if we did not know where we were going. Is not the unknown the best part of exploration?
That night, it rained and a corner of the tent was inundated with water. The next day we picked up camp and made it to the shores of Lake Rupanco and a village called Las Gaviotas. Ten years later, I’m recounting this story while staring at the same Rupanco. I came back to the lake last week with my wife and daughter, brought here by a series of events that have shaped my life since getting lost for a short time in the Andes.
Everything about the lake is intimate to me: its long shape, the colors and the steep mountains, the rocky peak jutting high into the atmosphere on neighboring volcano Puntiagudo. Even the sky, quickly changing course and shade from celeste to gray, reminds me of not just an ill-fated adventure, but an entire country and its wilderness. I recognize everything around me but know almost none of it.
If I concentrate I can walk into memory’s caverns, reach into dark holes and pull out the candles that light my mind with imagery and give it warmth through words. I can lean back and stand again on a snowy pass eating strawberry jam from a bag or sit around a campfire with old friends wondering how many days it might take to get home. I don’t know why I left the trail that day. Part inexperience, part selfishness, part stupidity. I’m sorry to my friends for it. However, every time I stand at that trail and stare up the side of that volcano, I make the same choice, because every time I do, I go back to Lake Rupanco.