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Evan hangs out

Evan Belknap hanging out in Cochamó Valley, Chile

Evan Belknap

Evan holds a crack in a granite face.

Camp meal

An evening meal at camp

Red, green, or South America?

—Evan Belknap

Chapter One:

That moment of your adventure beginning: you, finally, there standing alone outside of the Santiago airport, imagining the Andes hidden behind the veils of smog from the city and the mountains further on, spitting waterfalls, the virgin mountain lakes, and the women of your dreams, all of them, tanning in the sun. You imagine taking long, slow breathes of that air and the sickly sweet smell of fermenting fruit. You stand there and imagine ancient villages, and old women with bare feet cooking beans and chicken over a woodstove. You imagine musky secret passageways, lined with vines and mossy stones that lead to long lost cities of gold.

But then you think… or was that Guatemala?

You stand there and try not to let your romance be replaced by the familiar shock of reality, fear, and loneliness that is creeping in. Real noises start to amplify: the harassment of taxi drivers, Chileans picketing the very airline you just escaped, the smell of dog. The seasons have changed from frost to sweat with the flip a switch, and you find yourself uncomfortable in your long sleeves. Sleep deprivation makes you weary—the omnipresence of your own voice in your head, asking what’s next, and how do you get there? The two huge backpacks of climbing and camping gear, your computer, clothes, camera—the bills in your wallet—all weigh far too much, and fall too heavy on your shoulders and chest. They are going to hurt you. They are going to stake you in place. How will you ever get to Cochamó—that untouched Yosemite in the Lake Region of Chile—with all that weight? With your first twenty steps through the crowd to the bus, back already injured, you think about how far away those granite walls and hidden mountain pools really are.

And then, staring out the window, you think: what if this is a big mistake? You tell yourself to breathe. You close your eyes and think, I am as blank as my story, and that is the perfect beginning…

Chapter Two:

You’ve been in Chile for almost three weeks now, and you have a job in a hostel/ English teaching school in Puerto Varas. The tempo of your new place starts to take over. You wake up at one in the afternoon, even when you don’t stay out all night. You feel lazy and useless, whereas everyone else is simply tranquilo. It is a matter of confidence like everything else, you realize. But own your uselessness. Have a coffee. Have a beer. Have a kiss. Stop feeling sorry for yourself; it’s unattractive. Cochamó is just on the other side of the lake, over those volcanoes and a bit to the right. You spend most of your time staring out towards it—so close you pretend you see it sometimes—but now you’re working, and everyone is so happy for you, and now you will have to maneuver your grand quest around your receptionist job.

But your bosses are nuts, and—hopping quickly out of bed—you do not want this laziness in your life. You can’t fake it. You want frosty mornings. You want to emerge from a tent, uncomfortable, yet driven. You want strong, bitter coffee to sting you awake. You want to go the mountains and begin a journey that will hurt you. You want it to whittle you down to your very core. You want to fight to survive, and with your survival, a new world to be created—one that thrums with a grand intensity, a vibrant beauty that will finally resemble the reality you crave. And at the end of the day, you want to sheepishly share a beer and a meal with your good friends before you crawl, physically and emotionally shredded, back into your sleeping bag.

At work, staring out towards the mountains, folding laundry in the backyard of the hostel, poorly answering the phone in Spanish, you think about your fellow Americans—United States-ians that is—and the profound sense of shame and self-consciousness you all have; at first, you looked down upon it and wished to renounce it in yourself. You wanted to be more like this new world around you—people singing loudly with horrible voices, dancing wildly with lost feet, casually flirtatious and unfaithful. But day after day, you feel the pull of Cochamó out there somewhere, and you realize just how much you love your American heroes—the heartbroken cowboy, the outlaw, the romantic loser. They all have something in common, you think, and perhaps it is this American shame—the self-knowledge of being an ill-fitted cog in an otherwise well-working system.

After three days at your job, you quit and get on a bus. You rent a horse for fifty dollars and strap your climbing and camping gear, plus a few weeks worth of food, onto its haunches for the eight-mile hike upward. You pat the horse’s nose in sympathy, but then run, laughing, toward your ultimate goal. You are so close, and you tackle those miles of worn-in ruts, river crossings, and mud pools in less than two hours. You emerge from the woods into a grassy meadow and you are in, without a doubt, the most incredible valley you have ever seen in your life, surrounded by ten granite walls equal in height to El Capitan, fifty-foot waterslides, a river you can drink out of, and an inn owner who actually likes climbing and climbers, a lot.

As you stand there in awe, you hear a voice calling your name. And it turns out that two climbing friends from college are there as well and dinner is ready. You are immediately incorporated into an amazing group of climber people, and you set off tomorrow. There is so much to do and so little time.

Chapter Three:

You are in your sleeping bag in a dip on top of a boulder the size of a mansion. This boulder is in an amphitheater of 1,800- to 3,000-foot-tall granite walls. It is dark and quiet and beautiful, and you have never seen so many stars. You can even see a different galaxy out there, a little white cloud that never moves. You hear water running in the creek and the faraway voices of your new friends talking near the fire by the bivy cave under the boulder in which you’ve all been sleeping for the last four days.

You are very, very far away and happily exhausted from the 1,900 feet of rock you climbed that day. Your only wish is that you could tell someone about the condors you saw, how they swooped back and forth only thirty feet away, curious, as you climbed upward. How they must have been ten-or-more feet long from wing to wing, their bald heads and manes of white feathers—probably wondering what these strange creatures were doing way up there in the sky with them.

You want to tell someone about the new route you are working on with your friends—1,800 feet up a wall that has only been climbed once before—perfect rock, hard climbing—and the days you’ve spent hanging on a rope, scrubbing moss out of cracks and hand-drilling bolts. And you want someone to approve of the ridiculous adventure you had the day before, your new route of vertical bushwhacking. You want someone else to understand how you felt, masochistically thrashing upward, slinging your rope to tiny shrubs for 700 feet—so hot and dirty. You want them to feel the huge black and orange biting flies smashing under their fingers, getting used to hitting themselves a hundred times a day. You want to tell people how good split pea soup with bacon made over the campfire tastes after a day like that. Or taking a bath with water from a glacier pool.

You are thinking about your last few weeks in Cochamó. You think about the few lonely nights you spent in hotels in the middle of nowhere, going from town to town, learning how to live and speak, trying to keep your own faith in yourself and your quest alive. You are amazed how you can manifest anything you want.

And then you realize that the rains are going to come to Cochamó soon and you have at least six more months to fill.

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