Breakwater News : News from the end of the road
(Note: Our Breakwater News columnist has returned to his winter home in Chile, and shares his homecoming.)
Our neighbors, Rosita and Victor Hugo, rose at four in the morning to drive to Chaiten to meet us. On the return trip Rosita was obviously tired and I offered to drive. Driving in Patagonia for me has always been an exercise in caution. People here drive as cavalierly over these terrible dirt roads as we do over our own relatively tame and paved highways, and with the increase of traffic over the years there have been accidents caused by drivers who have no business being on the road in the first place. Once you are out here, for better or worse, everyone is responsible for his own actions. And beer is easier to find than gas. I try to keep this in mind.
As I drive up the familiar road along Lago Yelcho, the longest lake in Chile, I am captivated, as always, by the glaciers that define the skyline high in the Andes around us. Even in the decade I have been making my annual pilgrimage here, I have been acutely aware of the deterioration of the glaciers and receding of the snowfields that until recently were year-round entities supplying water to the myriad drainages we cross. Now, not only is there noticeably less water, the usually brilliant white crests are dingy as city snow. Great areas of exposed rock look raw and somehow brittle. The volcanic ash has tinted the snow gray making it melt all that much faster. I cannot help a momentary feeling of sadness for this already fragile environment.
Above Yelcho we finally came to the Futaleufu River - the source of all life here. Futaleufu is the native Mapuche Indian word for Great River. Rio Grande. Over the years it has become as familiar to me as any place I know and as much a part of my own life as the North Atlantic waters near my birthplace.
As we crossed the river on the lower bridge, I automatically slowed and we all looked at the water. The swirling eddies below - normally clear and blue - were now turbid with a chalky white tint from the ash. I saw a trout come up and felt a tinge of relief.
When we came to Futaleufu I moved purposely through the town as I knew that if we were to stop there would be many greetings to exchange, and now I had a need to see our home. Seven months after the volcanic eruption the road out to the Northwest Sector along the Rio Espolon was silted in with ash and as we passed through the talc like drifts it roiled up around the truck in clouds that defied gravity. The ash hung in the air long after we had passed, blinding anyone who followed. The Espolon itself was a gritty white with no resemblance to its usual crystal clarity. This river valley with its estancias of original settlers still here generations later had been directly under the plume of the eruption 40 miles away.
As we passed through the gate and up onto our property, I could see how the rains of winter had carried the ash down and it was now in pockets where it had settled in any depression or low spot against the trees and shrubs. We crossed the little bridge over the arroyo that bisects the land and drains from the waterfalls above the house. I looked up and saw a trickle where there ordinarily would be a steady torrent and the creek bed was dry.
I really had no idea what to expect as I opened the door but we were thrilled to see the inside of the house just as we had left it. The wood floors gleamed. The furniture and counter tops and walls were dust free and the windows clean. I was amazed.
"Rosita, you have been busy."
She just smiled. "Come over for lunch. The family is waiting."
Rosita had been here alone when the first quakes came. Within an hour, Rosita could not see the ground outside the windows, everything was gray. Then the power went out. After dark, things cleared enough for Rosita to drive down through the first drifts of ash in my diesel truck, which I had left for her to pick up her husband Hugo. They all made it back in time to be totally closed in by the eruptions that continued over the next five days.
When at last things started to settle down, they emerged into five inches of ash everywhere. Before they could clear anything off they got a foot of snow. The weight of the soggy ash was like concrete that crushed most everything that was not structural. Most of the invernideros, the winter greenhouses where produce is grown, collapsed. Sheds and barns were flattened. The town, which was evacuated, had to be cleaned inch by inch. They shoveled the ash into plastic bags that were piled in the streets until the military trucks hauled them away.
Now, seven months later, there is still an undercurrent of shellshock among our friends in town. When there is a minor eruption (even now, every three days or so) they don dust masks and look nervously to the west. If the wind is right, the valley becomes hazy and the mountains obscured. The town is clean and gardens are purposely pampered. But there is a feeling that it could happen again at any time.