Getting In The Way In Patagonia

Inside the van, battle raged:

“No way man,” I said.

Dean Leslie looked at me hard. “Come on. We need this.”

“No. I’m not asking that.”

“Trust me, it’ll be worth it.”

“This is ridiculous.”

“This is an important shot. You’ll be glad.”

“They’re already doing us a favor. We have to ask them to stop and do us another?”

“I’m sorry man, but this is part of filming.”

“[Heavy sigh]”

“We need this.”

“[Heavy sigh]”

“Please.”

“Okay.”

We were driving from Argentina to Chile. Dean–the director of the film we were there to make–and I were arguing in English while Jared Paisley, the cameraman, watched quietly. We were coming from the town of Esquel, where we had unexpectedly made a lot of friends, and three of our new friends–Treca, Jorge, and Cecilia–had gone so far as to volunteer to drive us across the border to our next destination. For the last three days, the people of Esquel had taken us in, included us in their group runs, shown us their mountains, made a barbecue for us, and generally treated us like family. When we left for Chile they insisted on taking us across the border to save us the hassle of doing it via bus, even though the drive was more than two hours each way. We accepted gratefully.

In my eyes, that’s quite enough to ask of anyone. My primary goals on the van ride were to chat with everyone, smile a lot, and look at the scenery. But Dean’s main goal was to make a film, and I kept forgetting that my real main goal was to do whatever Dean wanted. And in this case, since Dean didn’t speak Spanish, my tasks were expanded to include explaining what he wanted to any non-English-speaking people in the vicinity. In this case, Dean asked me to ask them (in Spanish) if we could let Dean and Jared out to get some aerial shots of the van driving. This involved stopping the van, letting the guys out, waiting for them to set the drone up, and then driving back and forth along the road for a while. This seemed an absurd favor to ask of anyone and I hated asking them to go even farther out of their ways for us. But the movie was the whole point of being there. So I had no choice.

I turned to Treca and spoke in Spanish. “Hey Treca. Can I we to film with the drone over the van?”

(By the way, my Spanish is still… um… developing.)

Treca looked at me with a blank expression. I tried again, “Can they use the drone to film the van?”

“Oh! While we drive?” He said something in rapid Spanish to Jorge, who looked at me with an exasperated expression.

“Right now?” asked Jorge, and I melted, feeling awful to have to ask this of him, embarrassed that he was responding exactly as I feared he would. I didn’t say anything. But his face quickly relaxed. “Of course we can.”

So we stopped and let Dean and Jared out. For the next 15 minutes I sat in the van while Jorge drove us back and forth while the drone hovered above. And despite my embarrassment I couldn’t help but recognize that this actually was a really great place to get a shot. We were entering the mountains from the Argentinian steppe, where the treeless desert buckles dramatically into enormous glacier-carved mountains, sometimes with the glaciers still attached. On the Chilean side the mountains drop just as steeply into the ocean, and the pass where we were headed was the only low spot through the mountains for over 100 miles in any direction. I hated to admit it, but Dean knew what he was doing.

This was one of my lessons in what it takes to make a good film. Cameras naturally attract attention, and in order to use them well you need to insert yourself actively into the world around you. This involves a level of confidence and even bravado that I don’t naturally possess. This is why people like Rickey Gates are good on film: Rickey doesn’t give a shit about what people think of him and he wants to talk to everyone, and the results of this combination are usually hilarious. But I am different. When faced with a camera I’m like a middle-school production of Shakespeare–I’m self-conscious and don’t have any idea what I’m doing or saying. That’s why I’m a writer. See right here? This article where I’m “speaking” in strong declarative sentences with a forceful persona? I’m great at being cool and funny when I can think really hard about it in a room alone. But in front of a camera, in a foreign country, with the hopes and marketing dreams of Salomon weighing me down? No way man. I’m a mess.

But we were there nevertheless, with cameras in tow. And fortunately, I wasn’t the only subject of the film. The landscape had equal billing and it delivered with the kind of dramatic flair that I could only dream of. It turns out that all those ads and pictures you’ve seen of Patagonia aren’t lying; that place is unbelievable. It ticks all the boxes: the mountains are enormous, the rivers are huge, the wind is a bitch and the locals live in small farm towns carved out of a precarious wilderness. This is all going to be in the film, as well as the active development that is almost certainly a direct result of people like us going there. There is a very interesting dynamic between the different people who live and travel in Patagonia, and their subsequent dynamics with the landscape, which is a powerful force on the lives of the people who spend time there. Simply being there brings up a lot of thoughts and questions, not all of them comfortable. I was highly conscious of the visibility that our film would bring to that place, and I still can’t tell where we’ll land on the spectrum between good and bad. But that was the whole point: we wanted to struggle because struggle makes for a good story. But was there any real catharsis? That’s a harder question to answer.

Only this. The farthest south we went was a town called Cochrane. It is in Chile, but on the east side of the mountains, which means it’s in a rain shadow and much drier than areas even 50 miles west. Cochrane is cradled by several great rivers that come from the Northern Patagonia Ice Sheet and flow across the Patagonian steppe into the south Atlantic Ocean. These rivers have been the focus of several highly-visible environmental battles over the last two decades as energy companies have attempted to dam them for their hydropower. The locals (and many non-locals, most notably the Americans Doug and Kris Tompkins) fought fiercely and managed to secure several landmark victories, to the extent that the phrase “Sin Represas” now resonates powerfully in the conservation world. Cochrane is also adjacent to the Patagonia National Park, which was created largely through land donations from the Tompkins’s. In short, the area thrums with a strong environmental current, or at least I thought it did from the reading I had done. But I didn’t know if that was true or if it was simply the rhetoric of American media and advertising.

You can’t get the feel for a place without talking to the people, but we didn’t know anyone in Cochrane and didn’t know where to start. Having missed sleep while filming running sequences over the past few days, we were tired and unmotivated. We sat in a coffee shop and drank lattés while a light rain fell outside. I looked at a map of the area on the wall, marked with the boundaries of the new national park, and then picked up a book with the title “SIN REPRESAS” stamped across the cover. Inside I read of the fight to prevent the Hidroaysén project from putting in five dams on the Baker and Pascua rivers, and of the efforts to the build the national park and revert it from sheep farms back to a semblance of true wilderness. Since I’m a hippie, this struck a powerful chord in me. I pointed this out to Dean and Jared.

The proprietor of the shop was Gabriel, a short, dark-skinned man with a wrinkled, smiling face. He saw me indicating a picture and asked me in Spanish if we had been to the national park yet.

“No we did not,” I responded. “Is nice?”

“You must go,” he said. “It is incredible.” He paused, then continued. “You are Americans?” he asked.

“I am America,” I replied, then indicated Dean and Jared. “They are from South African. Where from you are?”

He smiled proudly. “I am from here!” then he grinned and looked a little sheepish. “Okay, I grew up in Santiago, but I have lived here for 45 years.”

“Forty-five years!” I exclaimed.

“Yes,” he said proudly. “How old do you think I am?”

“Ummm…” I didn’t know what to say, so I went with a terrible joke. “25?”

He looked stern. “No. Truly.”

“Okay. Sorry.” I looked at him hard. “60?”

“I am 74 years old,” he said proudly.

“Seventy-four years old,” I repeated. “You don’t look so young! Old. You don’t look old. Oh damn…” But he was laughing. So I changed the subject. “Do you like the Sin Represas?”

His eyes narrowed in confusion. I tried again, “Sin Represas. Is it good?”

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “My son was a representative for the fight. He went to Rome to speak for us.” He continued speaking, growing ever more emotional, but I lost the thread of his words and couldn’t follow him. But I could tell, and looking at Dean and Jared I knew they could tell too, that this guy was telling us about what the area’s conservation meant to him. Even though we couldn’t understand him well, he was clearly offering an emotional connection to the people of the area. I couldn’t believe our luck. When he stopped speaking I nodded meaningfully as if I had understood. Then I asked him a question.

“We are making a film,” I explained. “Would you mind if we interviewed you?”

He agreed, and since the shop was quiet he let us do it right in the main room. He appeared to be embarrassed to receive so much attention and repeatedly told us that we would do better to wait for his son. But we didn’t have time, and besides, we wanted his perspective. I asked him questions and listened closely to words I didn’t understand while he explained all about the landscape and the people in it. He told us a lot of things we only learned later, after having the interview translated. But we still formed a connection with him. Beyond words, beyond particulars. There was a current of human energy that linked us.

We soon left, and that was the last time we’ll ever see him. He was one guy, and we only understood him partially. We were three foreigners spending too little time in a huge place. The trip was a patchwork; it was assembling a puzzle from too-few pieces. But there a picture worth seeing even partially, even self-consciously, even intrusively. And he offered to help us see it. So we tried.

[Editor’s Note: Salomon Running has now released its film, Into Patagonia, about which this article is written.]

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you ever have mixed feelings about traveling to places you can’t fully understand? And how about trying to tell stories of those places through photos, writing, and sharing your experiences with people who are not there? Are you okay with accepting that you’re not always going to capture the full story?
  • What helps you better understand the new places you visit? Extra time spent in a place? Meeting people? Learning about the place’s natural and cultural history?

There are 7 comments

  1. Cody L Custis

    “This article where I’m “speaking” in strong declarative sentences with a forceful persona?”

    That is an interrogative sentence. It should be exclamatory!

  2. Mtncelt

    This sounds like an amazing experience. I have watched the video and enjoyed it, but was left wondering why the sin represas segment did not make it into the final cut.

    1. Dakota

      Thank you! It definitely wasn’t some kind of sub-text about the importance of environmental issues. Cutting huge chunks of worthwhile film is just a part of making a film (or writing a story) and if we had included the conservation plot point we would have needed to expand upon it a lot more to make everything make sense. Ultimately, since we flew down there in airplanes and basically acted in a very first-world manner, we decided that an attempt to position ourselves as cutting-edge environmentalists would probably ring a little hollow. Instead, our film is about the experience of travelling, and my journal (and hopefully future stories) is full of environmental stuff. Good on you for calling me out on that. I wish we could have included that part.

      1. Mtncelt

        Dakota,

        thanks for such an honest response…I appreciate your taking the time to respond. I get your concerns and understand the challenges of storytelling…and you guys still told a great story. Also, as someone who spends a fair bit of time travelling the world I get the complexity our desire to travel and explore with our environmental concerns. Thanks again, your movies and stories do serve to get this aging weekend warrior of the couch.

      2. Adam

        Your constant awareness of the fundamental tension between conservation and our lives as rich, shoe-destroying, oil-guzzling athletic ecotourists is refreshing and rare. You’re a smart young man, and your content is the best thing on this website.

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