Carretera Austral, Patagonia Chile

We had been talking with Stanley Stewart for some time regarding a story about Chile’s great southern road, the Carretera Austral. It was probably two years between the conception of the story and seeing it in print in Conde Nast Traveller. Great travel pieces (and great travel writers) are worth waiting for as they capture the very essence of what it means to travel in the world’s most extraordinary places. There is no better way of doing this than through the voice of the people one meets, and Stanley is a master at this technique. He meets a couple from New York, who have escaped Wall Street for a life by the shores of General Carrera Lake. He asks them why they moved to this remote part of Chile and the wife responds:

“It is good for people to be humbled by landscape. It puts us in our place. This country feels unknowable. And that is humbling.”

Driving himself on the “world’s greatest road trip” in a four-wheel-drive, Stanley acknowledges the adventurous activities that can be done along the Carretera Austral – trekking, horse-riding, kayaking, fishing, climbing and biking that “masochistic cyclists from all around the globe long to tackle.” He is clearly moved by the size, emptiness and simple beauty of Chile’s wilderness and makes the point that “to drive and look is all the adventure some people need.” This may be true, however we were keen for Stanley to step out of the vehicle for a more intimate encounter with his surroundings, so organised for him to do a boat trip to see the San Rafael glacier – “a remnant of the Ice Age, stretching as far as the eye could see.” For a writer of Stanley’s quality, a glacier is a gift – not only an awesome spectacle but also capable of making extraordinary sounds:

“There was an eerie banshee creaking and a deep, agonised grinding. Then there was a sharp crack, in a register of sound I had never heard before, and I looked to see a section of ice the size of a house break from the wall and fall in strange, slow motion, to crash into the water, and sink beneath the surface before – after a tantalising wait – reappearing again, buoyed by air trapped millions of years ago.”

The theme of being humbled by nature is a leitmotif through Stanley’s article and at times, the grandeur of the wilderness clearly has a spiritual effect on the writer:

“I had the strange illusion that I was the only person in the world at this moment to see this panorama – this particular tumult of clouds, the sudden swathes of sun, the raking light, that magical rainbow – that all of this beauty had been presented to me alone.”

Stanley’s piece is a triumph. While acknowledging that nature is unfathomable, he paradoxically gives clarity to the ethereal beauty of Chile’s Patagonian landscape. Appealing to the reader on a sensual, spiritual and cerebral level, this article is both personal and universal at the same time. At times, it has the ring of Keats or Wordsworth, none more so than with its simple conclusion:

“Stretching out on cushions of heather, I watched condors spread their vast wings and step off high cliffs into air. Beyond, snowy peaks trailed scarves of clouds. I dozed. When I wore again, larks were singing high up in the bluest sky. I wondered for a moment where I was. And then I remembered…I was at the end of the world, this unknown place, the uttermost part of the earth.”