January 31, 2005

route finding

Above Lago Azul

My other recent trip was an exploratory excursion into the box canyon of Azul Lake, looking for an ideal place to take hikers that wanted to earn birds’ eye-views through sweat. I was set to take two friends from the states, Stephen and Tara, along with fellow guides Cathy and Fernando. As fate would have it a terrible stomach flu claimed Stephen, and Tara as nurse nightingale, so the group was whittled down to three.

But we still had the gear (read: elaborate gourmet food and camp accessories) for five, or perhaps for eight. We hiked the perimeter of the lake on an old trail almost never used. The spiky brush of rosehips and hazelnut bushes and other plants had reclaimed the trail. We had to breaststroke our way through the underbrush, if one had worn shorts it would have been occasion to cry with all the needles and spines grazing our legs. As it was, the conversation was reduced to “ooh” and “ow.”

The next segment of the hike was up, straight up, at a merciless angle. But here there was an established trail, a good one, since livestock climbed these valleys in winter to forage for food. These were the so-called “wild cows” we stumbled upon, or, “spy cows” who gazed at us through thick forest brush and bolted like frightened sparrows at the sound of a snapping branch. All the while we lamented the absence of Stephen and Tara, who would have provided good humor and extra cliff bars.

The valley we climbed into was not the flat, high altitude basin I had imagined, but instead, a long steep walled forested canyon that ended in a wall of formidable peaks: the Argentine border.

The next day, while it spit snow and hail, and the clouds banked low on the peaks, we had a look around the upper reaches on the only accessible mountain, which had burned in years past and now had short grass instead of forest. From up there we could see Lake Azul and the waves of mountain ridges behind it. The wall of Argentina still stood before us like a fortress, but now it seemed we had earned half its height. The trouble was getting down. We went route-finding, which is to say, wandered toward the back of the mountain, slipping all the while in the coarse, wet grass, before descending into thick brush that threatened to swallow us whole, or, mercifully, claim an ankle. Wading though the plants my boots absorbed water until it felt like I had sponges under my rotting feet.

To sum it up, Fernando, a local 20 yr. old, who ached for a military career and herded sheep and cattle all his life, said, “I never want to walk this way again.”

I wasn’t so sure. We heard of another local who has ranched and shepherded and knows the valley well. He says there is a better trail which leads up to the border, and he’ll take us there. I have gone to the pharmacy, undergoing the initial embarrassment of asking for a cream to cure the mushrooms on my feet (literal translation). They’re starting to heal up nicely. And once again, though half the time these trips result in uncertainty and mild torture, I find that I ‘m tempted.

These places will never lack adventure, they will always have places to explore, secrets to find. The cows know. I have a feeling, the way they eyed me suspiciously. And they want their secret kept.

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