Heading out of Camp de los Perros on the Paine circuit in southern Patagonia, the eight of us left separately based on our individual perceptions of how long it would take us to reach the next camp. My dad (whom I have always called by his first name, Jerry) left well ahead of everyone else in the shuffling gait Parkinson’s Disease was bestowing upon him. I left second. My brother, sister-in-law, uncle and aunts left at other intervals, and my husband, Erik, left last.
It was hard to see; our eyes were still clouded with the milky fields of daisies we waded through two days earlier to reach into the heart of the mountains. Unprepared for them, we’d been stunned by that endless white beach of flowers that held our feet below the granite waves, and it was difficult even now to see past their numbers, summing up for us the shrewd fact of nature that things we haven’t yet touched are existing beyond us in utter beauty. The daisies have existed silently in the valley for generations, but only now have they come to exist in us.
[all photos in this story were originally taken on film; I photographed them with my phone camera to insert some here]
Our feet were reluctant, still wet from two days earlier when we took off our pants and waded across the thigh-deep river in boots and underwear, holding hands. My brother forged the swift and heavy water first, my husband anchored the other end. Eight of us in the water together, in water barely unfrozen. We gripped each other’s hands in faith that no one’s grip would fail. Then it rained and snowed in the next days and our boots never dried; we hiked through orchids and under flying parrots with our socks squishing in fetid little rubber-bottomed ponds.
Our hands were clumsy hoisting our packs, still cold from the iceberg in the lake two days earlier. When after the daisies and the river, we sat in a small rubber raft and let the Chilean pull us in sets of three across the lake, pulling hand over hand on a rope strung across it. We lodged against the iceberg in the middle of the lake. The Chilean pulled on the rope but we couldn’t slide over it until Erik and I put our hands on the ice and pushed us out away from it.
And still on this day, we remained slightly dizzy and wind-blown from four days earlier when we were nearly ripped from the ground. When Jerry and I held each other by the forearms and leaned into the wind at a 30º angle. We walked side by side, gripping our walking sticks in our outside hands and each other with the inside ones. At times we had to stop and hold each other with both hands to keep steady and vertical. We struggled uphill against the wind, me out of shape from several years of sickness, my dad suffering Parkinson’s disease. Little waifs we were. And finally we laughed. We laughed hard; it was ridiculous, this wind. This wind that the night before had flattened our tents like pancakes, filling our mouths with nylon as we lay in mock positions of sleep.
Now this morning, in the wee hours lit by the southern sun, we each set off alone. The next campsite we estimated (by means of doubling the map’s listed hiking time, as that was the method proven reliable) to be an 8- to 10-hour hike away. My brother had been there before and knew there were only a handful of tent sites. Our group alone slept in four tents, and there were plenty of other people doing the circuit at the same time as we were. So we decided to try to get to Camp Paso before they did. The next campsite on from that was another 5 or 6 hours further. We felt we had to be prepared to hike for 16 hours if necessary. (It is forbidden to camp outside the designated areas, a policy with which we agreed.)
Jerry, our leader in all things, led the way. It was he who had introduced each of us who came with him to Chile to backpacking. That year, 1999, marked 25 years of my dad and I backpacking together. He had made a toast to such our first night in Chile. Our wilderness guide, our moral leader, our inspiration, the one individual in whom each of us had unfailing, unflinching and utterly blind faith, Jerry set off first, alone, knowing his disease imposed unnatural limitations on him, knowing that time was his only aid. He set off into the epochal folds of Patagonia, transient and fettered with imminent mortality.
My dad was born 35 years before I was, so he’s always been ahead of me. He’s always been ahead of most people. Even when he was in 3rd grade, he was outwitting the 8th grade kids at arithmetic problems. After graduating from a rural high school in Nebraska and farming a section of his dad’s land by himself for a year, then working for several months in a grocery store in New Orleans, he broke away from the world his family had come from, and charted a path into a life they’d never thought to imagine. He came home and told his dad, who had been educated only through the third-grade, that he wanted to be a chemical engineer. He had started reading science fiction books in New Orleans, and he started to dream bigger dreams … he wanted to design rocket fuel.
So he did—he took several math classes to qualify for the university undergraduate program in chemical engineering, got his B.S., then a Masters, then a Ph.D, and led the project to design fuel for the Saturn V rockets that sent man to the moon.
My dad told me once that the one most important thing he learned from his own dad was not to be afraid to try something new and different. And one day before I was ever conceived, he donned a crude backpack with a friend and trekked into the Sierras. There, he was born again, into the doctrine of Nature.
I was four years old when he took my hand and led me into the wilderness.
Twenty-five years later, I set off not too long after my dad to follow him into nature's eternal arms of beauty. I’ve decided the beauty of southern Patagonia could only lie where it does, at the edge of the earth. On the farthest reaches of geography, down at the very tip of a continent’s land, where human culture falls farther and farther away from its epicenter and the geologic world regains its dominance. Where the laws of nature dare rare bravery, perhaps thinking they are alone down there, performing only in a mirror. Here the naked faces of rock rise up thousands of feet in wide spikes while the snow lays down in fantastic depth, sticking precisely along the top of the knife-edged peaks, and building up in the valleys into icecaps convoluted into a white and blue landscape that is beyond the capabilities of human imagination.
Jerry could tell you about the basis behind everything we saw. He knew the physics that creates the fundamental particles, he knew the chemistry that binds the particles, and the geology that shapes the bound particles, he knew the meteorology, the biology that formed the flora and fauna. He knew all these things from the staggering number of words he’d read in his insatiable desire for knowledge. And the thing he loved best was discovering this knowledge existing without him, indifferent to him, finding the truths he theorized and imagined. Here at the edge of the earth, yes! Magnitude and majesty exist, they are the manifestations of the absolute, the immutable. Anywhere in the wilderness, he found this to be true, he found this rapture.
6:00 a.m., I set off on my own from Camp de Los Perros. Following about an hour behind Jerry, I knew only that we were to climb a mountain pass that day, a low saddle between the vertical peaks, and that the next camp lay on the other side. I had no compass, no map with me, no real bearing, no sense of direction beyond the clouded sun. Foolish, perhaps, of a 25-year backpacking veteran. But I was sure all I need do was follow the path, something already forged and charted by pilgrims more stout. Something already designated as passable. Something worthy of faith—it exists to lead, therefore I follow.
Very shortly the solid path I started out on gave way to a huge bog. At first I looked away to the sides for an edge that I could walk around it on. But I saw an orange ribbon tied to a tree in the distance, right in the middle of the bog. I picked my way slowly over to the tree, trying to step on small tufts of grass that had a little solidity to them. I hoped here the path would surface and skirt the bog. There was nothing, however, but bog as far as the eye could see, and off in the distance I could just spy another orange ribbon.
I tried again on this stretch to stay on tufts of grass, hopping from one to the next as best I could under a full pack. I tried using my walking stick as leverage, but more often than not, it would remain stuck in the mud behind me after I landed and my stubborn grip on it nearly pulled me over backwards on several occasions. However, in a leap where I held it forward for landing-leverage, it saved me from an otherwise certain face-plant in the bog. After I got done laughing at the near disaster, I kissed it. “Marvelous,” I said, for I’d never been saved by anything but Jerry’s hand, which could engulf mine even when I was an adult.
Standing near the next ribbon, I scanned around for another spot of orange. I could see none. So I continued on in a straight trajectory from the ribbons I’d passed. Soon enough, another orange ribbon tied to a large shrub caught my eye up ahead. By now, the feet I had started out with only damp, were now squishing in my boots. It was pointless to hop around at great peril to try to keep my feet on higher ground. So I began slogging straight on through. Even so, travel was still slow, and the morning wore on.
Then the bog deepened. I had to start hopping around again, not to stay on more solid ground, but just to avoid stepping in very deep water holes. And the orange ribbons seemed to spread farther and farther apart. So that I would spend some time between each one with a pounding heart that I had lost the orange road, that I’d missed a ribbon. There was no trail to backtrack on and my routes were often circuitous trying to avoid the deep holes. Following a straight line became subverted to staying vertical, as I was constantly unbalanced and flailing, battling the suction of the bog. I tried to keep chuckling amid my cursing, but it was a little unsettling mucking through this bog all alone, scanning desperately ahead for the orange—the orange on which I relied, utterly, to lead me on. I began regretting not leaving with my dad, wishing I could follow his footfall cairns, rather than some paltry ribbons.
When he was alive to trust in, I seldom bothered to seek the path itself, only a lighthouse that would point the way, because no matter what type of territory I sought to pass through, Jerry provided the light. In the wilderness, the lighthouse was always that green Kelty backpack, its external frame a huge square on my dad’s back, the belt worn and retrofitted with homemade foam pads at the hip bones, its pockets bulging, its top flap barely summiting the bulk of tent and sleeping pad.
I know that pack as well as I know my own. All told, before my dad passed I had spent 29 years rummaging through its pockets for spare batteries and first aid kits, for moleskin and fishing lures and folds of tinfoil, salt and sugar, and other random items I might mention half in jest which could be found lying in the bottom of a pocket, like it was a magician’s top hat.
I wondered how well I would fare with only the supplies on my own back if I got lost there in Patagonia, or if I got sucked down into the earth and had to live underground among the dwarves and gnomes. I wondered how I could fashion a sleeping platform if I had to spend the night in the bog.
But eventually the bog gave way to more solid ground through a forest. However there was still little evidence of a path on the ground; we were yet bound to the orange road. By the time my family and I, from our staggered starting positions, had all reached the snowfields at the edge of the tree line, we had all, except for my brother and his wife far ahead, caught up to each other, and we struck out through the snow as one group. Now we could look up the barren, white mountainside and the pass above us.
Erik told me then that during his solo hiking that morning, sometime after he’d emerged from the bog, he thought he had lost the orange road for awhile. He felt a rising panic and he backtracked until he found it again.
I didn’t mention how I had thought numerous times that I’d lost it, that in picking my way around the water holes in the bog I’d maybe missed a marker, or strayed too far in the wrong direction through the forest. But I never backtracked. Often I couldn’t see any orange anywhere ahead or behind for long stretches, but I kept on going in what I thought was a logical direction, I walked straight through the fear that I was lost alone in a strange land. I walked in a constant prayer to the Chilean hired to make the orange road. C’mon man, show me a ribbon.
While Erik came to trust my dad in all things very soon after meeting him, as everyone who knew Jerry did, he had only known him six years at this point. The trust, though there, was not yet indelibly ingrained in him, not etched into every fiber of his being like it was in the rest of us who had known Jerry our entire lives. That’s why he turned back and I didn’t. Our respective actions have nothing to do with the facts of whether or not we were doing the right thing or whether we were actually on the right path. While I scorn blind faith in religion, I was walking with the faith that some guy I’ve never met remembered to tie on another day-glow ribbon in the distance along my trajectory. I kept going because I knew Jerry was ahead of me. I knew he’d find his way, and because I’m his daughter and he has always led me, I knew I’d find my way. Faith in the ribbons was merely an upshot of faith in my dad, of the assumption, the assurance, that we are tethered by an invisible and hardy rope.
That’s how I caught up to him that time in the Sangre de Cristos when he moved on to the next lake over the ridge with his fishing pole and I didn’t know it. He left no tracks through the penstemons that sprang back to cover his steps. But I found him. And that’s how I climbed up the convoluted rock features in the canyons in Utah with no thought to how to get down—Jerry first, pulling me up by my arms or making bridges with his walking stick, then scrambling down ahead of me and reaching up from his tall body to cradle my feet as I slid down the rock face on my belly to a ledge where we could repeat our process. It’s how he knew to wait up for me when I had a blister—he could feel the slack in the tether, and he’d be waiting to kneel in the dirt and lift my foot to his thigh where he could doctor it with moleskin. It’s how I came by the fascinations of science—because he'd found them first; it was inevitable I’d be pulled along by the same wonder.
When my dad beckoned me to Patagonia, I thought it sounded fun and pretty, so I donned a pack and came. I didn’t take the time to learn any details about what we’d be doing. I just knew I’d be following Jerry. [for sense of scale of this landscape, look for me in foreground]
When we emerged from the trees and hit the snow fields, the orange road disappeared; there was nothing to tie anything to. Nothing but white, and an occasional rock outcropping. But it was easy enough to see that we just had to go up. Although I had known we would be crossing a pass, no one had mentioned anything about snow, and I was rather taken aback to look up and see how this awaited us. I didn’t show anyone my surprise at the path of snow. I just kept walking, and even though I climbed up through the snow on the steps of those in front of me, Jerry being immediately in front of me, I still often sunk in through the soft snow up over my knees. It was hard going. Jerry would sink in deep from time to time and his whole body would fall forward onto the snow; he’d just catch himself with his hands. I knew he was getting very tired. I was, too. I imagined myself in some adventure novel, suddenly faced with this white pass, desperate to get medicine for the kids, food for me and Papa. I pressed on unblinkingly, counting through my breaths—in, 2, 3, out, 2 ,3, in, 2, 3 … I thought of how often we walk paths for reasons unknown. The hard paths, especially, the ones that pop up unexpectedly like sudden fields of snow, and force us to follow them along their tragic lines, we are left wondering about their terminus.
As we crested the pass, a cold wind tried to blow us back down, and we staggered over the saddle between the high peaks. Then we looked down upon the reason for the orange road: Ventisquero Grey, an “enormous fractured mass of ice choking the valley.” This, the Patagonia Icecap, is the largest ice-field outside the polar regions.
At first, I couldn’t even figure out what I was seeing. Along the sides of an enormous valley, glaciers ran like rivers down rows of mountain peaks, all feeding into the crumpled white of the valley. The glaciers spilling down the mountains were obvious for what they were, but I’d never seen such an ice-field lying below me. I ran through a list of explanations in my head that seemed probable for this unexpected sight, and settled on the icecap. But I was astounded. I stood there, speechless, beside my husband and my dad. When one of us finally spoke, it was me who said, “That’s crazy!”
At that moment, it was just the three of us together there, the rest of the family had moved on ahead of us. But really, it was only the two of us, me and my dad. We had followed the same path for years through stretches of wilderness. He’d taken my hand when I was 4, and led me here to this immensity. He’d led me to this bitterly cold and windy lookout. I followed him down the orange road, battled the same bog he battled, saw the same things he saw, crossed the same twiggy bridges as he, and sank into the same snow that he did. Now we stood next to each other, side by side to share our awe. We posed for a picture that Erik took, the two of us looking out at the world together, at a cradle of vastness, an improbable but inevitable manifestation of enormous amounts of time and matter. We stood at the crown of creation.
When I was 13, in the middle of Alaska, Jerry pitched a tent in an interminable field of rain-soaked willows. He and I and my brother had been hiking through the waist-high bushes all day, their wet leaves brushing continually against us. I crawled inside the tent and handed out my water-logged socks. My dad built a little spit with willow branches over the fire to hang them on, and said he would attend to drying them. A little while later I heard a muffled “oops” and then a string of giggles and snickers coming from my otherwise placid family members. In the morning, my brother told me that one of my socks had fallen off into the fire and burned to ashes. My dad looked at me with sympathy but told me I had to tough it out.
We walked for days through the willows, some tall, some dwarfed. We scared off a bear who had been chewing bones as we lumbered through the thickets. At the end of the willows, there was a great, soupy bog. We raced each other through it, ridiculously sloshing through the mud, our packs swaying side-to-side on our backs. That’s what I remember of willows.
What I know about willows is that they are a large class of small tree with flexible twigs. The twigs are often woven together to make baskets and other items of utility. Certain types of them, I know, grow in vast tracts of abundance in Alaska. And, metaphorically, they are considered an emblem of sorrow, a symbol of mourning.
When I was 21, I went back to Alaska by myself. I camped in the willows with my cousin beneath the heights of Denali, and then I lived across the road from them in a tent city, working the canneries. I thought often of the summer when I was 13. I thought also about general principles for my life, having a lot of time to myself to think then. I’d like to say that I came back with a new clarity, like my dad had done after his summer in New Orleans. But it would be a little while yet.
I’ve already mentioned to you that as far as I can tell, and as far as anyone who knew my dad could tell, he knew practically everything. He had some weak spots in the area of computers, and I had to teach him how to use the internet. But as far as the general workings of the universe, I could ask him anything and he could come up with the answer. Maybe occasionally it would take him a day or two to do some research or calculations, but the answer always came.
After he died, my family and I had to close down his office and so we sorted through files and files of material my dad had collected over the years. In addition to the files he had pertaining to his work in the synthetic and clean fuels industries, he had numerous files on a wide range of topics he simply found interesting. Tucked inside one of these files I found a piece of yellow office-pad paper. The writing, heart-breaking in its familiarity to me, indicates that he wrote these questions quite awhile ago, before the Parkinson’s started affecting his handwriting.
"What if the whole structure of the world, which humans from the dawn of their consciousness have feared might mean nothing at all, actually means something? Looks like maybe it might be our responsibility to figure it out before we irreversibly alter the structure?"
I don’t know if Jerry set out with an articulated purpose of figuring out what the whole structure of the world means, but by the nature of who he was—curious, inquisitive, and devastatingly intelligent—he gathered leads and hypotheses, he managed a vast databank inside his head. What rare glimpses did he catch? I don’t really know.
I don’t believe in heaven or hell where we’re separated into lazy creatures of bliss and labored ones of pain, and neither did Jerry, but if heaven is simply to know God, then I feel Jerry must be there. Not by virtue of blind faith in a long line of subjective translations and interpretations of a body of text such as the Bible. Not by any type of blindness at all. Not by making deals of obedience and suffocating loyalty with a faceless entity, or by closing off large portions of the world in categorical rejection. (Although, he began to dabble in moral rejection; he once made a list of living things whose lack of principles or sanctity he felt qualified them for extermination. The cowbird topped the list, and I don’t yet know why.) Rather, he’s come by God, or Void, or whatever truth there is through opening his eyes, by hypothesizing, testing and knowing the world.
And he has lit the path of knowledge for me, suggesting to me lines of reason to follow, pointing out landmarks that exist through proof. But I’m so terribly far behind. If realities are individual affairs, and are shaped by our own perceptions and beliefs of the world, then Jerry has shaped his own for wherever he is now. And I want to end up in his reality. I want to be where he is. I want to stand side by side again and look out at the immensity.
I’ve got to pick up my pace, start scanning ahead for the next orange ribbon. I have so much reading to do, so much knowledge to acquire and understanding to synthesize in order to plant my feet where he planted his, to create for myself the same beliefs Jerry had. The orange road ahead of me is almost sinister in its length, testing my faith in it, stretching the invisible rope between me and my dad to an unbearable thinness. I fear that he’ll go on without me.
My dad’s death was so poetic, it seems like the only single thing that has ever had meaning on this earth. It’s the one thing that was ordained and orchestrated, that had an intricate blueprint for its architecture. Like if there is a God, his existence was finally proven to Jerry, who accepted nothing without solid proof, through his own death amidst gentle and poetic beauties, a death that in retrospect seems foreshadowed: Within the last ten days of his life, he’d seen his entire family, with all the branches of his siblings; he’d held his newborn grandson; he’d written to me an account of his early life, which I’d been begging him for years to do; and he told me a secret he’d never told me before.
My dad died in the remote wilderness; he died nestled in his very own heart. He was rafting the Alatna River in Alaska with his brother. No one knows why, but for some reason shortly after the trip began, his Parkinson’s medications seem to have stopped working. He began exhibiting the symptoms of very advanced Parkinson’s disease. Simultaneously, he fell into bouts of delusions where he thought that he was not just alone with his brother, but that all of his family was there on the river with him. He kept mentioning the rest of us to his brother, who would kindly correct him that we were not there, and Jerry would reply, “Oh yeah, I know that.” But a short while later would refer to us again. “We have to wait up for Shara and Erik.”
He was in the place he most loved—in the solitary wilderness—and yet simultaneously with the people he most loved. Is such benevolence truly random or coincidental? The night before he died, he was in such a loss of his faculties and his physical abilities that he was crawling around on his hands and knees to gather wood for a fire to warm my uncle Morris who had fallen into the river. He was speaking to my uncle’s coat that was drying on a bush as if it were my uncle.
Morris had to help Jerry put on his pajamas that night, as he lacked the coordination to do this himself. He checked on Jerry later in the night and found him holding his tent fly together with his fingers. “What are you doing?” Morris asked. Jerry responded, “The question is, what are you doing here?” Those were his last, cryptic words.
When my uncle awoke in the morning, my dad was not in his tent. Morris went looking for him, trying to follow his footprints through the sand. After an hour, he found Jerry lying on his side, knees bent, in a thicket of willows on the bank of the river. My uncle insists that Jerry’s face was serene, that his eyes were closed and his lips just slightly parted as if in a smile. He clutched a small willow branch in one hand.
Jerry was not in his pajamas. He was dressed in his “going home” clothes—the clothes he had been keeping clean in a dry sack to wear home from Alaska on the airplane at the end of the trip. It’s wonderfully unexplainable how, when only a few hours earlier he could not stand up to gather wood nor put on his own pajamas or zip his tent, he managed to get up out of the tent, fish out his good clothes from the dry sack, put them all on correctly, including tying the laces on his boots, and walk away from camp. He would have thought, incidentally, that being found in his pajamas would have been very undignified. I know my uncle isn’t lying because he took a picture for documentation (being a lawyer he knew what sorts of questions and investigations might come from a death in the wilderness). My mom was upset I never looked at my dad puffed up with formaldehyde in his casket. Why would I, when the reality is born in the photograph.
No one knows how in his last moments he rallied the strength and coordination to dress and walk away. And no one knows why he did this, why he didn’t stay in his tent. I see two possible explanations.
One is that he was simply delusional. That he literally thought he was going back home. He got up and put on his clean, dry clothes, however he managed this, because he thought he was boarding the plane home. The trip was over, they’d survived its mishaps, it was time to go back to his family, his life, his plans for the next trip. His footprints meandering through the bushes could reflect him wandering through the airport terminal, looking for his gate. Perhaps his final position, knees bent, reflects the position he took as he sat in his airplane seat. He was going home.
But he fell heavily on the ground. He thought perhaps this wasn’t his seat after all. Perhaps he was confused and he grabbed onto the little branch in his meek confusion. Some might think this is the more merciful way to go: oblivious. I find it intolerably sad. My dad had the courage to look death in the face, to reach out his hand to it with full knowledge of its identity. He told me explicitly several years earlier that he had come to terms with his own mortality. Knowing the magnitude of his mental capacities, and that he had confided in me that mental extinguishment was his biggest fear, to think that he fell befuddled, not in possession of his wits, is unbearable.
Here’s what I believe happened to my dad. I think after Morris zipped him in his tent, he fell asleep. He awoke sometime later with two gifts laid at his feet: the lucid knowledge that he had reached the crossroads, and the honor of meeting death on his own terms. He deliberately put on his going-home clothes because they were the best ones that he had, clean and dry. He walked around, perhaps looking for a nice spot, cognizant of his splendid location in the thick of the wilderness. He wanted, as I would certainly have wanted, to be outside, not inside a sleeping bag. To be on the dirt, near the river, with the open sky and all the stars he had told me about burning above him, his face reflected in the center of the pale northern moon. Then he lay down.
There’s something about the little willow branch that he clutched. Something about the size of it, small, that just wrenches my gut. I feel somehow the branch is significant, that its presence in my dad’s hand is not random or meaningless. I think that either he reached out for it in the very last seconds, this living thing, and gripped it to help bear the brunt of the intensity of death, or that he held on to this small item as a final gesture.
A gesture of sorrow, this slight willow, that he didn’t get to do all the other things he’d planned to do—that he didn’t make it back to New Zealand, or to Maine that fall; that he left just months after his grandson was born and he didn’t get to see the apple of his eye grow up.
And a gesture to the living world of understanding, of knowledge of the simple and succinct Fact. He was granted every other grace at his death, why not this, too? The more we know about the universe, the bigger and more complex it seems, and yet the smaller and smaller the ultimate explanation seems, like we are focusing in on a pinpoint. There on the banks of the Alatna, Jerry parted his lips and let out the breath of his soul, he let the air out of his past and out of his hopes as he fell from his earthen niche. He closed his eyes and held the small branch, suddenly clutching the thing he now knew, marking for me the portal.
He tied on one last ribbon.
[Here are a few more photos from Patagonia ... an avalanche we saw happen right across from where our tents were pitched at one of the camps. And we spent a day taking a guided walk on the glacier ... we were roped together with crampons and ice axes. It was amazing. All around us we could hear the sound of water melting and trickling and running in little troughs. The blue of the water and the ice is like nothing I've seen anywhere else. The formations of the snow were magical.]