It was late autumn in Patagonia. Already intimidating mountain weather intensified with the added unpredictability of winter snowstorms, ending the trekking season at the southern tip of South America … for all practical purposes. By the time I shivered myself awake on the final morning of a 250-mile trek that concept had finally taken on real meaning. Outside my tent, blinding white snow enveloped the horizon and coated my beard in ice like so many treacherous rocks. As I searched for landmarks through the rushing clouds, I have to admit that I was a bit concerned — not to the point of rationing food, but concerned in the wet and frozen-toed sense of the word. All of the sudden I wished that I was not alone…
A few weeks earlier I had been sitting in a fire-warmed hacienda sharing maté with a wild-haired trekker named Perro Loco. We were both recuperating between bouts of hiking. I was passing from Argentina into Chile’s Parque Nacional Torres del Paine; he was going the other way. Over the crackle of fire with huge snowflakes falling outside, we shared stories of the wilderness to come.
Perro Loco was…well, loco. He reminded me of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter with frazzled trekking hair spilling out from beneath his knitted, Andean cap. His tattered clothes matched his backpack propped against the sooty stone hearth of the fireplace. Perro Loco was the kind of guy who demanded attention when he spoke. He jokingly brandished a knife (at least I think he was joking), and used it often to make his point while speaking – literally.
“This is where you will find guanacos,” he said, as he carved a circle into my map.
Before leaving the States, I had decided to plan little, expect nothing and allow chance to be my guide in Patagonia. So, being a wilderness photographer, I did more visual research on the region than anything else, largely arranging my trek around a few stunning images that I had seen. I felt particularly drawn to one film sequence in which hundreds of wild, llama-like guanacos teemed across the Patagonian landscape. Perhaps it was their bizarre, friendly faces, or noble towering necks, or how they managed to look warm in the most frigid weather, but I connected with them. To me, the guanacos came to represent Patagonia as much as the wind or the mountains, and I sincerely hoped to photograph them.
By morning, Perro Loco and his knife were nowhere to be found. I headed for Torres del Paine and discovered an unexpectedly diverse place where rugged mountains and harsh elements stood in stark contrast to an almost paradoxical, delicate beauty. Golden alpine meadows gave way to ancient forests. Lush lichen-laced streams led to treeless mountain passes and fractured, glaciated valleys.
Eventually, I came to the spot that Perro Loco had etched into my map (of course, a few weeks removed from our meeting, I thought that his name sounded more like a malt liquor than a reliable source of information). But, there on a nearby hillside grazed a small herd of guanacos.
I inched towards them. The young inched closer to their mothers, seeming to view me more as a curiosity than a threat. The adults cocked their ears back in order to listen, which contorted their already strange faces. Moments later, they were back grazing on the last of the easy meals before winter.
Over the course of the next several hours, the herd slowly accepted me. I ate when they ate, moved when they moved, spit when they spit. Few times before had I felt so honored to be among wild animals and so aware of my own fortune. I was a guanaco. This was the Patagonia I had set out to experience.
Weeks later on the final day of my trek, as I stood concerned and alone in that nasty snowstorm, I realized that my time with the guanacos had been, in many ways, a reward for embracing uncertainty and allowing chance to be my guide. In the raging white wind, my worries gave way to a quiet mind (equally numb with cold). And with that unfeeling lucidity also came an unquestioning trust of my own instinct as I took my first step into the storm.