Pandemic Lessons from Patagonia

By : Nancy Davis Kho

In the early days of March 2020, I was sitting in the airport in Santiago, Chile, enervated but exhilarated by an ambitious hiking trip my husband and I had just completed in Patagonia’s Torres Del Paine National Park. Like any industrious travel writer, I sat at the airplane gate, thinking of angles I might use to pitch travel editors a story based on our experience.

I could write about the fact that, physically speaking, I’d bitten off a solid 18% more than I could chew with our decision to tackle the W Circuit. At ages 57 and 53 respectively, my husband and I are both physically fit and had hiked extra miles to prepare. But there’s “physically fit” and there’s “hiking 7 miles uphill in fierce Patagonian winds to the dock where you will be taken home by a ferry, only to find that the fierce Patagonian winds kept the ferry in port and now you have to double-time it backward 7 miles under those same punishing conditions.” My story could be about how sometimes travel makes you push your endurance in ways you would never even try on your home turf and discover strength you didn’t know you possessed.

Or I could write about our ever-expanding “trekking family.” Three years ago, when we hiked the Overland Track in Tasmania, we hit it off with John and Ria, a lovely couple from Brisbane. By the end of that trip, we were already debating the next destination in which we converge, and Patagonia was the easy winner. One of my favorite moments of the Chilean hike, in fact, came during a short rest stop when I overheard Ria saying, “I won’t do this to you again. I promise. I’m really sorry,” in her lovely Aussie accent. I swiveled around to see who she was talking to: it was her feet. She was talking to her feet.

So my husband and I and John and Ria now plan treks together, but after Chile we added AJ and Erin and Adam and Kelly and Justin and a few others to the conversation of where to go next. They were solid hiking companions who kept their senses of humor regardless of distance or altitude, bought rounds pisco sours at the Patagonian refugios where we stopped for the night, anointed each other with nicknames like “The Guy with the Best Worst Spanish.” My story could be about how adventure travel solidifies bonds in abbreviated time frames because it creates conditions where strangers help one another (reaching back with a steady hand as someone crosses a rushing stream, sharing a snack, matching a slower gait so no one walks alone) and quickly become friends.

Or what about a story about how embarrassed I felt to realize how little I knew about Chile, despite my best intentions to study up? Chile was in the news last October when its citizens, led by the country’s youth, took to the streets to demand more pay equality, better health care, pension reform, and above all, a new constitution in which the people would have a voice. I paid attention, briefly, to those news reports, before they faded from coverage. I ordered a book called The Chile Reader and had every intention to absorb it, fast.

But then, you know, Christmas came, and work was busy, and, well, I got distracted. The Chile Reader had a fine sheen of dust on it when we left to visit the country in question at the end of February. So when we arrived in Santiago to find the whole city covered in protest graffiti and police in battle gear; when our Patagonian guide Roberto Carlos told us about the geological and geopolitical development of the country during our pre-dinner hiking briefings; especially on the long day spent in Valparaiso with our knowledgeable guide who had grown up there during the Pinochet era, I felt deeper motivation to learn more about a place I’d seen with my own eyes. The story angle could be how travel makes concrete the shared worries, challenges, and joys of people everywhere, gives you some skin in the global game.

As I sat in the airport gate that evening in early March, waiting for our redeye back to San Francisco, the woman in the seat next to me coughed. We had been completely off the grid with no news while in Torres Del Paine, but two nights in Santiago with the iPad meant we had caught up with the increasingly worrisome news of the spread of COVID, enough so that I swiveled my back to the woman for the remainder of our time at the gate.

I got up and washed my hands a few times, too, and lamented that I had only had a bit of hand sanitizer left in my backpack; we’d used most of it along the trail. It didn’t occur to me to wish I had sanitizing wipes to clean off the tray table or armrests. We landed in San Francisco without incident. Things just felt normal, with a soupçon of peculiar.

Four days later, our eldest daughter came home for spring break from her college in Pennsylvania. Two days after that, her school moved online for the remainder of the year, her graduation postponed indefinitely, her belongings still stranded back east. A day later, we made her younger sister come home, too, worried (presciently, it turned out) that her university would make the same call without warning. We had been home from Chile for exactly one week when Stay-At-Home orders were issued for the entire Bay Area. Toilet paper is non-existent on store shelves. Parks are closed. Just yesterday the CDC began recommending we all wear masks.

We are fortunate, in so many ways. The four of us remain healthy, have a roof over our heads, food in the pantry, and for now anyway, enough toilet paper.

We are also sick with worry about our elderly moms across the country in states where COVID rates are spiking. Sad about the way our daughters’ college experiences have been upended. Concerned about neighbors. Anxious about jobs. Filled with uncertainty about how this ends.

When it all threatens to take me down, one of my coping mechanisms is to look at my Chile trip photographs on my phone. Because there are almost no new pictures taken since, I understand logically that these photos are only a few weeks old. But it was also a different era. I am humbled by the good fortune that allowed us to take, and return from, that trip when we did. I feel shame rising that I was hiking for pure pleasure while China, Italy, and Spain were already starting to feel the worst effects of COVID-19, while there was still time, now long since passed, that the US could have taken steps to stave off the worst.

Then I realize that the stories I would want to tell about Chile are exactly what I hope we can say about ourselves once the COVID-19 pandemic is over. How adversity helped us discover hidden strengths, how we gladly gave and received help from strangers-turned-friends, how any artificial sense of distance fell away and taught us to care more deeply about what happens to people in faraway places.

Maybe this isn’t a travel story at all. But even if the spot is smaller right now than it has ever been in our lives, we’re all travelers standing in our assigned spot on the globe.

So how could it be anything else?

Nancy Davis Kho is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, The Rumpus, and The Toast. She covers “the years between being hip and breaking one” at MidlifeMixtape.com and on the Midlife Mixtape Podcast, available on all major podcast platforms. Nancy’s book THE THANK-YOU PROJECT: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time was published by Running Press in December 2019. More at www.DavisKho.com.

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