Walkabout in Tierra del Fuego

In the winter of 1990 I was living on Cape Cod, alone in a house that had once been mine, my wife’s, and my baby daughter’s. It was a family home, full of noise and laughter, but the laughter had tapered off as the stress from unemployment and a declining real estate market slowly came to dominate our days. My wife was pregnant, but she miscarried, and a few weeks later she and my daughter were gone. They had moved out; she filed for divorce. It was not a good start to the year and I knew that I needed some help.

The Australians have a saying for it. It’s called going Walkabout, something you do when you feel the walls coming crashing in on you. I was in desperate need of a good long Walkabout so I locked the house, shoveled the driveway for the last time and took a one-way flight to Tierra del Fuego. I was going Walkabout on the remotest tip of South America.

Strong winds in the Beagle Channel

Strong winds in the Beagle Channel

My flight stopped in Buenos Aries and I slept the night on a hard bench at the airport. The next day I flew the rest of the way south, jammed in the middle seat at the very back of an overcrowded plane between four chain-smoking passengers who puffed frantically as the pilot banked over the high peaks of the Andes and did a death defying drop onto the runway in Ushuaia, the southernmost town in the world. I walked off the plane into the sweetest air I have ever breathed and stared upon some of the most amazing scenery I have ever seen. High jagged mountain peaks and a windswept strip of water that separated parts of Chile from Argentina.

Darwin and Fitzroy sailed those waters, aboard the HMS Beagle. Darwin was on a fact-finding trip for his book The Origin of Species. Fitzroy had ulterior motives. He was looking to bring God to the godless indians who roamed the shores of southern Chile. He took with him back to England a Fuegan Indian by the (given) name of Jemmy Button. Mr Button was accorded all the trappings of civilized British society. He even had an audience with the king. The idea was to use Jemmy Button as a conduit between the civilized rest-of-the-world, and the Indians. Three years later, plan in hand, Fitzroy and Jemmy Button returned. Jemmy was wearing a naval tunic resplendent with a myriad of shiny buttons – his name, after all, came from the buttons on a naval tunic. He had been traded for a single button.

Pelagic sailing in thick ice

Pelagic sailing in thick ice

Fuegan indians roamed the plains and mountains of southern South America for centuries. They were the original godless nation, a tribe that did not worship, a tribe so primitive that they did not have even the basic tenets of a civilized society such as a chief or hierarchical elders. They were also naked, unclothed, despite the cruel climate. Jemmy Button, upon seeing his land for the first time in a long time, stripped naked and bolted. He was never seen again….

Pelagic pushes through tons of calved ice

Pelagic pushes through tons of calved ice

I didn’t strip naked upon my arrival in Tierra del Fuego, but I did strip myself down mentally and emotionally. I peeled away a decade of the traffic and jams of an over cluttered world and the complications of a marriage gone bad. I hiked high mountains and sailed rough waters. We anchored tethered to chunks of ice that had calved off glaciers and swam in frigid waters with a clan of fur seals. It was a cathartic experience.

So, my friends, instead of some New Year resolutions that may or may not last, may I suggest a Walkabout? It does not have to be as extreme as mine. Just unhinge yourself for a while, take a look inside your head and rechart your course.

Penguin on nest. Pelagic in background.

Penguin on nest. Pelagic in background.

Comments are closed.