06 May 2015 Hiking the “O” in Torres del Paine, Chile
Being brave is not the opposite of being cowardly. Being cowardly is letting your fears paralyze you. Being courageous doesn’t mean you aren’t afraid; it simply means you take those fears in stride and keep moving forward.
We learn from an early age that soldiers and firefighters are brave. We watch Marvel superheroes fight vice with special powers we can never attain, and with values we should aspire to have.
But can being brave mean something a bit more mundane?
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Chilean Patagonia is the finest place I’ve seen to seek the answer to such metaphysical questions. Here, the vast, glacier carved plains of the last ice age roll into haphazard scree fields to create a brilliant, violent present. Gossamer cotton candy clouds are ripped to shreds by craggy granite peaks. The wind is a force that assures no moment is ever the same.
In Lago Grey’s ridiculously turquoise waters, wounded azure battleships float to their demise. Thousands of winters in the making, these icebergs melt a relatively quick and public death. I wonder, are they afraid?
Perhaps they know they are doomed, yet carry on stoically despite the consequences.
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Sometimes it takes a monotonous (and slightly masochistic) form of valor to reach the spectacular dying giants and living landscapes of Patagonia. They aren’t easily attained. By day three of the trek, my ankles are aching, my knees are sore, and my shoulders are burning from the weight of my pack. There are seven more days on the trail. I miss good food, beds, and hot showers. The Torres del Paine “O” circuit isn’t what I expected. The doubt starts to creep in like unwanted vines of darkness. Will I fail at this too?
We city dwellers are used to constant stimulation that numbs us from ourselves. But with so much space and no distractions, my rambling mind becomes unchained. A cornucopia of images and moments appear from who I once was. Am I hiking towards the next campsite, or away from the WHY?
I enter a state of strange panic. I cannot organize my thoughts. The uncomfortable nostalgic glow of regret, pain, mistakes, and heartbreak makes me sweat even more. Despair on a physical and metaphysical level. No escape!
I wonder, what comprises a person? A conglomerate of experiences, a heaping bowl of emotional pasta, and the physical space of ones’ body, I suppose. Is the mind separate from the body? And what of the soul? Is the soul synonymous with the mind?
Many before me have asked the same questions and expounded far more eloquently than I can on their version of the answers. I am no philosopher.
Just in the midst of my doubt, my confusion, a solo hiker passes in the opposite direction. He chirps, “It’s all in your head, compadre!”. How could he know what I was thinking? Could that be a coincidence? As he winds out of sight, I begin to think he was just a figment of my imagination.
I can only laugh.
What else is there to do but to keep walking? I focus on my breathing, and on every muscle in my body. I inhale deeply and exhale purposefully, as if the pure Magellanic oxygen could somehow disperse the pain in my body as well as my past. I relax. I start to control my thoughts along with my breathing. I sift through memories and realize my actions and errors are why I am here, now. I smile. I forgive myself. I drink the purest water on Earth from generous, tumbling rivers. I take strength from the barreling wind. I marvel at seemingly tenuous mountain wildflowers that fool you with their resilience. They shift in the gusts and tie-dye the forest with their audacity.
I arrive at my temporary home for the evening by late afternoon, set up my tent, and eat vigorously. The buzzing endorphins and the mental exercises of the day make me feel whole and healed. I am ready for the next day’s challenges.
Can it be heroic to just be yourself?
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