I walk with my boots tied loosely, laces sloppy within the confines of my gaiters. No blisters, just loose friction between the socks and the lining of the mid-weight Scarpa mountain boot. I follow Tina and Sarah across a small, bog filled depression and try to be nonchalant about the muck. Despite their use of a log, I stride off it early and one leg sinks calf deep, above the gaiter, into thick, blackish mud. I walk it out, but my boot stays put. My socked foot hangs uselessly, unprotected, from a bent leg. The sock having stretched off my toes, gives an impression of a limp, useless appendage.
Banter around the kitchen, the threat of water from the sky, and the scattered assemblages of backpacks and tents had this day starting like any other. Ten Columbia Business School students, one co-instructor, and I are navigating our way through the remote-ish northwest corner of the Avellano Region in Chilean Patagonia. They are mostly new to backcountry travel and camping, Mafe and I are not.
It was still new, not like it would be in the end. Our second morning didn’t portend any obvious challenges. Yesterday we had followed an old road. It wasn’t on our maps, but back when we were in town, with access to the technology, Google Earth had shown its swath. Here though we had maps, not cell service, not Google Earth or Gaia. The latter two would have been much more familiar to these students.
We identified a small area on the map as our destination. A small bend in the river, upstream of a confluence, in an otherwise nondescript, “flat” area on a map with 50 meter contour intervals and thumb print sized square kilometers. We would meet in that vicinity to search for camp. NBD. Pretty sure we would keep walking up the road and hand rail the river if need be. Patagonia had other ideas.
We walk up the road and the road turns to corduroy. Not the soft velvet of the pants of my youth, but of the perpendicular logs that solidify the road surface through bog and steeps. On the steeps, the corduroy made waterfalls as the wetness of the bogs and marshes spilled out from above. We slowly wet from the bottom up and the top down as we attempt to prance around the endless muck with a dribbling sky above.
Dancing around the endless muck is useless. We are three days in, with four to go. There is no way we are getting out of here with dry feet. One, it is Patagonia, two, shit will happen, and three, it is just so much faster to not worry about this outsized luxury. Luxury is privilege. Privilege is walking wherever you want when you want. In the backcountry that saves time and time is safety. Wet feet are a privilege, a freedom that it only takes an astute mind or a wet day to recognize.
The road veers left, down toward the river. Sarah is the designated leader of the day and after a quick consultation the group decides to strike off into the fireswamp. Draping green moss and lichen coat and drip from the branches of old, crotchety beech trees. Their brethren, forebears, and limbs lay scattered and broken, rotting and turning to soil on the damp, sunless, floor. Above us, if unseen through the thick overstory, lie the valley’s delineators: steep glacier carved walls replete with waterfalls and hanging glaciers. We navigate with their imposing, over the shoulder presence. They seem to say, “go this way, do not climb my hills, walk this way.” Even with their guidance, our route is circuitous and slow as we avoid creeks, bogs, blowdowns, and thick brush. There is nothing simple about the off trail navigation in this remote Patagonian valley.
There is freedom in wet feet I proclaim as we pick our way through the bush. I don’t let on that my boot/gaiter combination is pretty darn waterproof and I can stand in a stream for a minute without the feeling of dampness encroaching onto my feet. I step in all the puddles and muck I can, and slowly as the boots and feet of others become wet, they too understand the simplicity and freedom. “Just go where you want,” Tina says; “when something has happened already, there is no point in worrying about it.” Out ahead Sarah navigates across a boggy area, using a log to avoid the muck. I unceremoniously leap off the log toward dry-ish ground, miss, land in the muck, sticking the landing and walking out of it, while simultaneously walking out of my boot…
I laugh, and despite my trekking poles providing good enough balance, fall forward and land on some dry-ish ground. Behind me Josh and Hansong balance on the log and try to excavate my boot, grabbing the legless gaiter and pulling up against the suction of strong mud. Hansong moves to dry ground and Josh balances with his pack on and digs around.
The boot, freed, is tossed to where I lay on the ground, pack on, laughing and trying to keep my sock from landing in the sticks and mud. I slide the muddied gaiter and boot over my foot and push it back in while explaining my philosophy on loose boots.
Whoops and ca-caws unite the two hiking groups somewhere prior to the days destination, but not before all members got on board the Freedom in Wet Feet train. The map it turns out doesn’t denote bogs very well and we find ourselves making camp in the small clearings of a beech forest. We tuck our tents onto small durable surfaces of compacted leaves and detritus and rig up cooking tarps to protect us from the drizzle that increased throughout the day. We shove chocolate and sugary treats into each other’s hands and share tales of the days adventures.
From here on out, the travel will be easier, not because the terrain changes, but because we have wet feet; we can walk the quick and dirty routes versus the slow and clean.
*Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. . . once your feet are wet, you got nothing to lose, except maybe a boot, when walking through the water.
Featured Image: The campsite we united at after a day of wet feet and boggy travel.