I woke up in the Patagonia National Park looking out over the kitchen counter through the back window of the campervan. I saw gray clouds roll over the high peaks spreading across the morning sky. After dozens of mountains in eight countries, the Andes still appear as a canvas of romantic art, a place we urban dwellers come to soak our senses in the harshness of awe. To get here, we drove two days along rutted roads past Lake Chelenko and down the famous Baker River. We were hundreds of kilometers from a gas station, never mind a city.
These mountains have undergone a massive transformation over the last fifteen years, a radical departure from its 100-year history of livestock and sheep ranching. The days of unabated rustling left it fenced-in and depleted. In the eyes of the world’s most successful wilderness conservationists, Kristin and Douglas Tompkins, it was a dusty scene of mismanaged forests and disappearing animals. So in 2004, they bought it to give nature another chance. And in 2020, here I am with my family, waking up in the middle of all this sublime beauty.
We—the nature travelers—are the people riding a wave of conservation tourism that is rippling across the region and the world thanks to the Tompkins Foundation, which turned the massive park over to the Chilean government in 2017. By then, two decades of “building” a national park allowed nature to recover its wildness. By removing the livestock and the fences that control them, plants spread and forests grew; birds came back, and pumas and other big game like the huemul—a local deer and symbol of Chilean biodiversity—thrived. The foundation firmly pressed the reset button, and it went beyond tearing down fences. The park gave employment to the hunters who once protected the herds as wildlife experts who monitor the puma and huemul populations. The transformation included everybody.
Perhaps the Patagonia National Park is the metaphor my wife and I are looking for: we too were once depleted and fatigued by life in the big city, exhausted by traffic, pollution, and the smells of the metropolis. We were tired of the lights and the streets and all the signs made by humans, directing other humans to and from, up and down like fleshy pistons in a never-ending cycle of production. The city is difficult, and sometimes it is cruel. But if you’re one of the lucky ones, you defy the concrete jungle and develop a connection to the natural world (even if only on the weekends). Sadly, for the majority, this connection is on a screen.
Ignacia says living in a campervan has made her feel wild. Our experiment with the nomadic life pushed her closer to nature than anything ever before. When you live in a van, you spend most of your day outside. You eat and cook outside, you play outside, go the bathroom outside. Even if you are already drawn to outdoor activities like hiking and climbing, vanlife makes it even easier to do these things. You are outside before you even talk about going outside. The rain, wind, heat, and cold are all part of your day.
Before setting off, Ignacia told me that every month, when she gets her menses—Latin for moons—she would need to be in a place with a shower and a bathroom. And for the first eight months, we did that, stopping in campgrounds in each country to assure a quiet, and hopefully clean spot to manage menstruation. Many women travelers must deal with this and can suffer painful episodes while camping. Each period requires a level of planning to make sure the most intense days coincide with access to running water and a modicum of privacy.
Then after two months in the Patagonia, she had her epiphany. Somewhere along the Carretera Austral, in the southern mountains of endless forests and rushing rivers, she asked me to stop. She jumped down from the van and disappeared into the trees. I stayed with the girls, playing, snacking, and sipping on yerba mate. When she returned, I realized her face was glowing. I asked her how it went and if we needed to go to the next town to find a campground. She just smiled and said let’s go.
For the first time in her life, she felt that her body and the earth reached some kind of inexplicable harmony. It was unexpected. A monthly burden became a sacred ritual. In the privacy of the forest at the altar of a million years, she poured the blood of fertility back into the earth. I asked her if she was on drugs, but then I realized I shouldn’t make jokes, this was serious. A woman’s period is a powerful release, one that every man has confronted and should try to understand better. For example, if you notice a certain behavior or conversation topic popping up approximately once every month, then she may be purging unresolved matters, everything from the spiritual to the mundane. A period is not a negative thing, and it’s not like taking out the garbage. The woman’s body is fortunate to have this self-cleansing cycle in order to create balance. It gives her the power of awareness to organize every aspect of her life. A period is the tidying up of issues that have been scattered over time.
She told me that the mere appearance of a menstrual-blood ritual filled her with cosmic, ancestral, and female energy. To spontaneously participate in her own ritual reminded her that women have returned to the earth the blood from their uterus since the dawn of humanity. This spiritual awakening of the she-wolf seemed to me like a 19th century poet’s return to nature.
Perhaps, after three years in Bogotá, this return to nature is what we were searching for in the Rainbow. Living outside is a sort of antidote to life in the city and its many disorders. Instead of crowds, you find solitude. Instead of fear, you leave your windows open. Instead of cleaning your bloody mess in a bathroom, you connect to the wisdom of the natural world. Maybe this sentiment is one that the puma-tracker would understand.