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Puerto Williams

This is it – this is as far south as civilization gets until that big, white, cold continent.  Puerto Williams is situated on the northern shore of Isla Navarino, across the Beagle Channel from Ushuaia, Argentina.  Home to 2,200 inhabitants, it’s bigger than McMurdo Station in Antarctica, with more stray dogs and less to do.  I left Punta Arenas at 10 this morning on a 20-seater twin otter airplane.  The interior decoration of the plane looked like it had been dragged, cruelly, from the set of a 1970s tv sitcom.  Brown shag carpeting and all.  At first, I was excited to have the frontmost window seat.  I could see directly into the cockpit, and read all the labels on the dials, switches, levers and buttons.  They were all in English.  I looked at the pilot (the co-pilot was hidden behind the fake-wood-paneled wall in front of me.  Of him, all I could see was an arm in a brown leather flight jacket, and heard an occasional muttered word).  He was definitely Chilean.  Could he read English?  I sincerely hoped so.  The pilot flipped a switch, pulled a lever, and suddenly the propellers were spinning, shaking the plane from side to side.  We rolled slowly toward the runway, the pilot and co-pilot still twisting dials and testing the engines and wingflaps.  The engines revved several times, and a green light blinked on the panel: “SUP-PNEUMATIC OVER”.  Over?  What does that mean?  Too much of something?  I wondered if lights on the dashboard of a plane are things to worry about like lights on a car’s instrument panel.  Suddenly, I decided that I didn’t like being able to see the pilot.  I was watching every move he made, every fine adjustment, waiting for my cue to start panicking.  I wished he’d slide the door shut between the cockpit and the passenger area, though considering that I had been allowed to pass through security with a Swiss Army Knife AND a full bottle of water, the flimsy wood-paneled door might not be enough.  Who knew what intentions and weapons my fellow passengers might have been harboring?  Lift off was fast and smooth and totally unnerving.  Once airborne, however, the altimeter spun steadily, the lights on the panel stopped blinking, and I was able to relax and watch the plane’s tiny shadow progress on the clouds beneath us.  For the first half hour, the view was of clouds and golden, sun-drenched water.  For our viewing pleasure during the second half hour, Aerovias DAP was pleased to present: the Darwin Range.  We watched from 9,000 feet: high enough to get a sense of scale, but low enough to be overwhelmed.  These were mountains, snowy and rocky, and glaciers, long blue and gray and white snakes, curving and cascading from the peaks.  Below the peaks, green and red peat bogs bordered gray blue winding rivers.  Incredible.

After such a show, Puerto Williams was only going to be anticlimactic.  My arrival coincided with the afternoon siesta.  I got a ride from the airport with a father and son in a blue flatbed truck who were picking up packages and supplies from the plane to deliver in town.  They dropped me off in the centro commercial, a muddy square smaller than a city block, boxed in by a series of diminutive shops and restaurants, all closed.  A ten minute walking tour let me drop my backpack at my hostel and showed me all the town had to offer.  The town’s most interesting attraction is the prow of the ship Yelcho, amputated from the rest of its body and planted in a small plot of grass in front of the naval barracks.  This is the prow of the Chilean naval vessel that rescued Shackleton’s men from Elephant Island in 1916.  I sat in the grass next to the monument and ate a cream pastry I’d bought at the (only) bakery.  I tried to imagine the gray steel ship breaking through the ice-clogged water, appearing like a beacon of hope to the men who’d been stranded for months, but the sun and the sound of the navy men doing calisthenics in the gymnasium behind me were distracting.  It’s hard to appreciate history when it’s 1) decapitated and 2) surrounded by a white picket fence.

The shops began to open again at 2:30, and I made the rounds, hunting for gas cannisters for my stove.  Two hours and six stores later, I now possess the only four cannisters that exist on the island.  They’re all half empty, but they’re all I have.  I am also now officially recognized on the street as “that crazy gringa who’s going to hike the Dientes Circuit – ALONE (¡dios mios!)”.  After I registered my hiking intentions with the local carabiñeros (police), I was stopped twice by uniformed officers, asking if I wasn’t afraid to be hiking by myself, and didn’t I want an official escort?  Word spreads fast in a small island town, and today, the crazy gringa and her search for “¿gas para camping? is the most interesting thing happening.  I extended my plane ticket yesterday to allow myself an extra two days in town after I finish the circuit (7-8 days), thinking that I’d want time to explore the urban Isla Navarino in addition to its wilds.  Little did I know.  Ah well – the mountains await.

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