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Running on Empty in Patagonia

Whenever I feel beset by Manhattan's vulgar, gossipy anxieties, memories of my visits to Patagonia serve better than a double scotch or a long winter's nap. Memories of emptiness, oddly enough: 311,000 square miles, many sheep, few people. Darwin, too, caught this puzzling agoraphilia; after his 1834 visit he wrote that Patagonia's plains "can be described only by negative characters; without habitations, without water, without trees, without mountains, they support merely a few dwarf plants. Why then, and the case is not peculiar to myself, have these arid wastes taken so firm a hold on my memory?"

For me it was the fit of the desolate land with its oddball inhabitants. Patagonia's settlers—animal as well as human—are humorous, crazy, tough as steel. In their company I felt drab, emotionally lazy (the best trips make you feel a step behind), particularly with Guy, a Swiss immigrant who believes that any illness can be mastered by 15 minutes of violent gymnastics and a freezing shower.

I spent several days riding on Guy's 180,000-acre estancia near Piedra del Aguila with four friends, including his son, Pascal, a rodeo rider who opens bottles with his teeth. Late one afternoon we startled a troop of guanacos, cousins to the llama, who rolled their liquid eyes and bolted, stiff necks floating above flying feet as on a merry-go-round. We gave chase, hooves drumming on the basalt, following their waning, witchy shrieks across the gray mesas until we realized we were pursuing only silence.

Walking our lathered mounts back to the corral, we saw a dun horse half-scavenged by condors. "What happened?" I asked. "It died," Pascal said. After he'd shot a pichi, a small armadillo, for lunch he dressed out the meat, putting the tiny ruby heart aside on a mint leaf. When we rode away three minutes later, the heart was still beating.

Getting anywhere in Patagonia requires a long drive, because no place is near any other place, or because every place is no place. When we needed to go to Mount Fitz Roy a shaggy-haired man named Jorge gave us a "lift" in his rusty VW van, as it was only four hours away. Jorge typifies Patagonia's mongrel culture: he speaks Spanish, looks Scottish, and is Italian. As evening fell so did gusts of snow, then sheets of sleet like billowing sails. Visibility was zero, and it was clear we'd have to pull over till morning. Jorge, instead, chugged four shots of brandy, clamped his hands on the wheel, and accelerated into the wall of white. Catching my expression he gestured broadly: "Qué podrÌamos atropellar?"—"What could we hit?"

One day we drove to Cabo Vírgenes, at the continent's southeastern tip. A low sky, a trance of a dusty road, endless coirón and matto grass plastered down by the wind as if by a vast hairbrush—and then a rhea jiggled into view. This South American version of the ostrich is a gangly, goofy-necked creature untouched by evolutionary pressures requiring creative thinking. It fled from us—straight down the road, pattering in front of our downshifted truck for miles, clacking and honking, never imagining a turn. What can you do with a bird like that?

At the cape overlooking the Strait of Magellan the wind blew whitecaps backward from the shore. Tenders of the nearby lighthouse invited us for a cup of bitter maté tea, taking pity not on us but on themselves. With only penguins for company—small, wary penguins that reject overtures of friendship—they'd invented elaborate William Tell- style pistol competitions to keep sane and were heartbroken to see us go. Roberto, one of the keepers, walked us to the truck, everyone pacing backward against the flying sand. "The wind here alters the nervous system," he shouted, pointing at his forehead. "It makes you an idiot."

Over the centuries, the wind has driven more than 100 ships aground on Tierra del Fuego across the strait. At the island's Cabo San Pablo, my friend Pablo (no relation) and I came across the Desdemona, a cargo ship that sprang a leak in 1985 and was rammed onto the beach so it would not founder. We shinnied up a hawser dangling from the gangway and prowled with a 12-year-old's delighted sense of trespass. A rusting interior, unmade beds. Rainwater dripping. The careful charts spoke to the futility of expectation; the cargo of cement, which swelled into a terrible ballast once water filled the hold, to the irony of expectation. A still-unopened safe teased us: no one could remember the combination. I twirled its wheel…twirled…nothing.

A few days later I wandered into Harberton, the estancia built in 1886 by Thomas Bridges, an Anglican missionary who was Tierra del Fuego's first white settler. Bridges learned the language of the now-vanished Yamana Indians and compiled a dictionary that suggests a way of life as mysterious as the landscape. Seif maamasaala, for instance, was "a state of frenzied anger and determination to shed blood." And depression was likened to a crab that has shed its shell and waits for new armor.

I found Bridges's granddaughter, Clarita Bridges Goodall, sitting in the garden—a perfectly English white-haired woman in a green cardigan and plimsolls. The garden overlooks an inlet of the Beagle Channel and feels like the last cultivated place at the world's end. "He was a crazy man," Mrs. Goodall said approvingly of her ancestor, "always rowing out in this tiny boat to rescue shipwrecked mariners. His wife's hair turned white at twenty from worry." I mentioned that the Yamana didn't seem too keen on being converted: at anAnglican mass in 1869, the Fuegians stoned and clubbed eight worshipers to death. "Yes, yes," she said. "It must have been terrific!"

"Ah, well," she went on, "they made a hero of my grandfather in all the history books." She laughed, happening on a familiar Patagonian truth: "They had to—there was no one else to write about."

Tad Friend writes regularly for GQ, Outside, and Vogue.

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