It was the end. We had climbed to end of the “W” and beyond. Hiking through forests, that again recalled the Lord of the Rings but the lush forested parts, Campamento Paso was the climax. We made our way up past the cliff face of the Gray Glacier where tourists like to kayak during calm winds. Then pushing on, had conquered the laddered canyons and streams to the base of John Gardener Pass.
It was the apex, the accomplishment, the last push to the finish and we had pushed. The winds that were running sustained speeds of 65 MPH the previous day, were only slightly abated today as we weaved in and out of the tree line and down the face of the cliffs. And the sun, which had provided the warmest week in 30 years two weeks prior, was nowhere to be found. Temperatures barely broke 50 degrees and for the first time all week we could see breathe with each step.
After stopping for a picture on high ground, we headed to the campground for lunch before beginning the trek back to Refugio Gray, Paine Grande and the catamaran out to civilization. This camp was rougher than the rest as it was beyond the main W trekking circuit. Hikers here were emerging from the backside of Torres del Paine and it’s 4-5 days of hiking beyond the reach of any support or services. They were tougher, dirtier and smellier than anyone we’d encountered during the week. They would soon be able to enjoy the comforts of the campground showers after a 4hour trek south. But until then these weary explorers only had the park ranger to comfort them. As we arrived he came out to meet us. And again, as like the 5 days before, he greeted Roberto like he was the mayor and I was his friend.. (His name was Roberto as well.)
Roberto lead me to a little table under the shelter where a couple of guys were trying to flirt with a couple of girls. I guess when you all smell the same, the only play you’ve got is to tease about a willingness to share your last Hersey’s chocolate bar. I really wanted to listen in, but at the same time didn’t want anyone to see my lodge-made bag lunch, revealing my status. We were only there on an “up and back,” but they were on the final steps of a true expedition. (There’s a pecking order, even among the stinky)
I sat quietly in a corner, trying to avoid the drizzle and the damp, trying to understand the concept of going back. The damp seemed to go clear to my bones…and with each moment deeper still. It was the end. It was done. It was everything I’d hoped for, but…I suddenly felt…sad, cold…and alone. I was tired, the feeling was unexpected and given the moment, I even remember being worried that it would last. But it didn’t.
He seemed to appear out of nowhere, Roberto the Ranger with 2 steaming cups of glorious Nescafe instant coffee- with plenty of coffee-mate and lots of sugar. I don’t know as though I’ve had anything taste quite as good. He smiled, was gracious, and was so excited to serve us. I can’t really describe how happy this made me.
Leaving us cradling our cups of gold, my buddy Roberto, seeing the astonished look on my face, grinned, winked and said, “I’ve built long time.” Huh? He explained that, for a number of years he had been stopping at this camp with trekkers both on the “W” and The Circuit. But while the ranger does have a tin shack, he really has pretty meager supplies. So with every stop, Roberto would take time to visit, share the news of the trail and would skim from his supply stash and leave a gift. And since it was only the 2 of us that day, despite how little he had, he repaid that kindness.
The feeling of loneliness was gone, and as we gathered our things to begin our steps down the trail, I tried to process the complexity of the simple moment. To be thought of, cared for, to have reached the end of my journey and found a kind soul waiting…I was moved.
It was extraordinary, but as I thought about it, common. In fact it’s been the story of my life. People, without much, who have gone on ahead, through trial and struggle, and because of a relationship, have been generous, kind, encouraging, and challenging. The dairy farmer I worked for, Robert Guptil, who forgave my failures and told me I could do anything. The piano teacher, Lana Jones, who never let me slide on my lack of discipline, but told me I had beauty inside of me. My family who loved me, friends who believed in me and professional partners who gave me a chance. My life and professional success, while driven by effort and perseverance, has been held together and made sweeter by the generosity of relationship. It makes me want to give back all the more.
So as I slung up my pack for one of the very last times, I handed Roberto all the snacks and bars I could find. He smiled at me as I said, “Give this to the Ranger, it’s for the next guy’s coffee.”