Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)

Part I. EXPLORATION

Chapter 4. RIVER SANTA CRUZ

The Terribly Uninteresting Land

Already is the change of weather perceptible. Every one has put on cloth cloathes & preparing for still greater extremes our beards are all sprouting. My face at present looks of about the same tint as a half washed chimney sweeper. With my pistols in my belt & geological hammer in hand, shall I not look like a grand barbarian?

—FROM A LETTER TO SUSAN DARWIN, JULY 1832

FEW TRAVELERS ARRIVE IN RIO GALLEGOS intentionally. The last mainland stop before the Strait of Magellan to the south, and the capital of Argentina’s far-southern Santa Cruz province, Rio Gallegos huddles around one main street, named after the minister of war who carried out a ruthless extermination campaign against the Indians. (His name and title, General Julio Roca, makes him the intimidating-sounding “General Rock.”) It receives a steady flow of visitors who stop there only to leave again, usually a few hours later. In my small residential hotel, instead of the standard introductory “Where are you from?” exchange, waylaid guests greeted one another with: “And where are you going tomorrow?”

Normally, the answer referenced one of three places: Glacier National Park to the east, Tierra del Fuego to the south, or Buenos Aires to the north. From the look of the woman in the Avis rental car agency, the road along the River Santa Cruz was a novel choice. She stared at me like I’d just told her I wanted to drive from Tulsa to Omaha for the scenery.

“Why?” she asked. “There’s nothing there!”

This is why. A few months after leaving Port San Julian—months filled, as usual, with more coastal surveying—Darwin and a crew of sailors from the Beagle journeyed up the fast-flowing river cutting through a roughly 150-mile swath of Patagonia. The river wasn’t then and isn’t now an obvious destination. The previous Englishman to try exploring the river had made it only 30 miles before running out of food. “Even the existence of this large river was hardly known,” Darwin wrote, and it’s still absent in guidebooks—or at least, in the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide I carried with me. As I read the footnotes in my edition of the Beagle diary, I found that Darwin and his shipmates had gone further up the river than any previous European explorers, and had nearly discovered its source, a huge and now touristy lake in the glacier-lined mountains near the Argentine border with Chile. Since then, while the lake had boomed, adding an airport and a major highway that connected it back to Rio Gallegos to the southeast, the area along the river had been sectioned off into expansive, open sheep ranches. Based on my map, the finest I had been able to find at the nearby gas station, the road running along the river’s edge seemed in places to be entirely theoretical and was marked mostly as unimproved dirt.

Before he actually arrived there, Darwin thought this great open spaces thing was, well, great. His preconceptions of Patagonia as a wild, unknown land fired his imagination, and his letters home scarcely concealed his excitement. “I long to put my foot where man has never trod before,” he wrote to his sister Catherine, “and am most impatient to leave civilized ports.” In a similar note to his sister Susan, he wrote that FitzRoy had proposed a “glorious scheme” to journey up a previously unexplored river. “I cannot imagine anything more interesting,” he concluded.

In August 1832, Darwin’s correspondence halted abruptly as the Beagle explored the Atlantic coastline south of Buenos Aires for the first time. Two months later, Darwin the correspondent reemerged from the wild with new knowledge and a slightly different take. “I had hoped for the credit of dame Nature, no such country as [Patagonia] existed,” he wrote in a terse note to a professor friend. “In sad reality we coasted along 240 miles of sand hillocks; I never knew before, what a horrid ugly object a sand hillock is.”

Darwin had stabbed right at the heart of the Patagonia conundrum: When romantic dreams lead you out to wild open spaces, you soon realize that they’re wide open spaces. Often vast and desolate. The scenery gets monotonous in a hurry. And by April 1834, as they approached the mouth of the River Santa Cruz, Darwin’s initial excitement had been tamped down by a year-and-a-half’s worth of walks on the “terribly uninteresting” Patagonian plains. Halfway up the river, he wrote in his journal, “The great similarity in productions is a very striking feature in all Patagonia. The level plains of arid shingle support the same stunted & dwarf plants; in the valleys the same thorn-bearing bushes grow, & everywhere we see the same birds & insects. . . . The curse of sterility is on the land.”

Inaccurate as natural history-minded Argentines like Pablo Walker found this, the woman in the car rental agency didn’t seem to disagree. She tried to talk me into a nice plane ride to El Calafate, the lovely tourist destination on the lake where foreigners could speak English and be understood, and see big glaciers, too. I explained to her that I was trying to follow Darwin’s path up the Santa Cruz and that to do so I would need to visit Port Santa Cruz, the town at the river mouth, and then drive from there along the river until I got to Lake Argentina, just past where the Beagle crew turned back. She tried again.

“Wouldn’t you prefer to go to Piedrabuena?” she asked. “It’s a bigger town. It’s very nice. And the national park, Monte Leon, is precious.”

I persisted.

“At least,” she said, “let me call and make sure that road still exists.”

Half an hour later, I was in the car, a silver Chevrolet Corsa notable as one of the American cars that you cannot purchase in America, most likely because Americans in big trucks would accidentally drive right over them without noticing. I turned the ignition and puttered out of the rental car lot while the woman waved after me and called “Good luck!”

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Ten miles into the drive, I turned to counting dead armadillos for amusement. I started telling myself jokes—dead armadillo jokes. (“Why did the armadillo cross the road? It didn’t—it got hit by a truck before it got there.”) The horizon—stretched across a dry, flat, endless expanse —flickered, like a mirage. The road ahead met the sky to create another mirage effect, so the roofs of approaching cars came into view several seconds before their lower halves did. Rheas picked along the fences at the highway’s edge, and grazing guanacos darkened the horizon. Sheep and birds gathered around trickles of mud, reveling in the moisture.

My arrival at Port Santa Cruz six hours later did little to dispel my feelings of adventuring off into the middle of nowhere. The town had a population of about 4,000 on the southern edge of a fairly wide delta. It looked like an unfinished housing tract—manicured grass and fountains enhanced the median strip of the main street, but the houses emptied into dirt lots strewn with trash. The buildings on the outskirts of town were often half-completed, exposed brick and mortar with wood-shingle roofs. I drove straight to the edge of the estuary. The ebb tide exposed a huge stretch of black sand with rivulets of water draining back into the river.

A rough paved road ran parallel to the water’s edge and into the town’s municipal tourist office. When it comes to places to stop first in small Patagonian towns, travelers are a bit starved for choice. I tended to end up in tourist information offices, just as a way to confirm that, yes, there was actually a town here, and yes, it was the same town I had been trying to get to. Which the covey of friendly, helpful women in Port Santa Cruz were eager to do. I asked about Darwin, and they agreed, excitedly, that he had been on the river. Definitely. They offered to show me around the one-room history museum next door, and I agreed, then felt forced to feign enthusiasm for stuffed shorebirds and displays detailing notable sheep-shearing exhibitions of years past. I checked my watch. Since it was getting late, and I thought the river mouth would make for a good place to begin the next day, I asked about staying for the night.

Yes, they assured me, they had hotels. They asked if I would like them to call the hotels for me. I said sure. One woman picked up the phone and called four different places, all of which were full or closed. She slumped back in her chair, causing the hinges to squeak. “That’s every hotel in the city,” she said. “All full.”

She fidgeted with some papers on her desk and then said I’d probably be able to find something in the only other nearby town, the oddly named Cmte. Luis Piedrabuena, on the north bank of the river. I thanked her and went back out to the car, hopped in, and started driving again. The highway, shining with reflected late afternoon light, crossed over the river on a long, high bridge, then a short series of side roads curled back to Piedrabuena, just upstream from the delta.

The town looked about the same as Port Santa Cruz. Same brick-and-metal housing, same manicured median strips. This time, the medians had pine trees and bathing nymph marble garden statues. As the sun started to set, I walked down to the poplar-lined river’s edge. Two things noted by Darwin—the speed of the current and the color of the water—appeared to be accurate still. The color was a milky, minty green, sediment-rich and turbid. In the river’s middle, it flowed around the same thicket-covered sandy islands that had caused the Beagle crew a headache.

“We tracked but a short distance,” Darwin wrote on the second day of the trip, “for there are in this part many islands, which are covered with thorny bushes, & the channels between them are shallow, these two causes hindered us much.” I peered into the fading evening light and thought, “Check.”

Another major nuisance for the Beagle crew manif e s ted itself to me in the alta peligro (high danger) sign on the riverbank warning against swimming. The river’s swift current meant the Beagle sailors were not able to row their whaleboats up the river and had to pull them instead, the entire crew taking turns in the yoke. Dragging against the river they managed only about ten miles a day, according to Darwin, who made sure to emphasize that “every one” (his italics) took a turn pulling. The excruciatingly slow pace ensured plenty of time for studying the repetitive scenery.

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I spent that night in a completely deserted hotel, a low, cement building in which, after I received my room key, I never again saw the receptionist. I woke up when it was light out and found a hotel employee smoking a cigarette and reviewing account books in the lobby. He nodded a curt goodbye as I carried my pack out to the car.

I had to backtrack a bit to the southern edge of the river to get to the turnoff for Provincial Route 9, the road that started about fifteen miles inland and extended west all the way to Lake Argentina and the tourist town, El Calafate. I had been making armadillo jokes and feeling end-of-the-earthish on the main paved highway out of Rio Gallegos, but now, as I turned onto the washboard dirt route, I felt like I was leaving the world entirely behind. The sky turned dark. Only a narrow band of blue at the horizon slit the heavy gray above. The clouds had the effect of dimming the lights across the plains, turning green bushes black, so it looked as if a fire had consumed the entire area. Guanacos, sheep, and rheas milled about alongside the road, clearly not used to cars. I had to honk them off the road in places, and many of the rheas would run along the road just in front of me before peeling away at the last minute. I had enough time to pull out my camera and, without needing to worry about oncoming traffic, take pictures of the birds running away from me on the road. Driving behind another, and trying to maintain an even distance behind it, I clocked it on the Corsa’s speedometer at nearly twenty miles per hour.

The guanacos, similarly unafraid, stood on the horizon in massive herds, ears perked at the noise of the approaching car, and ran off the road in groups, pulling their skinny legs together in unison and extending their long necks forward like giraffes.

“The Guanaco is in his proper district,” Darwin noted near the beginning of the Santa Cruz trip. “The country swarms with them; there were many herds of 50 to 100, & I saw one, with, I should think, 500.” This was a boon for the crew, since Darwin could shoot the animals and provide them with fresh meat, instead of the preserved “salt meat” they had brought with them. On the third day of the expedition, someone found a guanaco dead in the water, and the crew decided that even relatively recently expired guanaco beat their usual rations. The waterlogged carcass was “soon cut up & in the evening eat.”

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The river sliced through the narrowest part of a wide valley in the plains, and the road ran along the edge of the southern bluffs, the Santa Cruz visible as a thin ribbon of silver a half-mile off on the passenger side of the car. After about sixty-five miles of remarkably similar terrain, marked every ten or twenty miles by a sign for a new sheep ranch, a glorified horse trail dropped abruptly off the highway and down the cliff to a ranch called the Estancia Rincón Grande— r ough ly, the “Big Curve Ranch.” I decided to follow the side road and drove down to the farmhouse with tales of legendary Patagonian hospitality dancing in my head.

The estancias of Patagonia, for those who haven’t read the classic Patagonian travel literature, are welcoming, enchanting places where hospitable ranchers sit around waiting for surprise guests in need of lunch, tea, and possibly a good night’s sleep, to stumble in. Take, for example, this sheep rancher’s quote from Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, the travel standard by which all Patagonian travel is measured: “‘Look here, come in and let me cook you some dinner. Fancy finding this place on your own.’”

I pulled up behind a corrugated metal farmhouse and stopped at an outside garage where a man stood fiddling under the hood of an idling blue pickup truck. A row of neatly planted poplar trees, gold and orange in the fall, lined the house, which was done up in traditional farmhouse colors, white with green trim. I parked and the man stopped fiddling.

As quickly as I could, I explained what I was doing and asked if I could wander across the ranch’s private property to go see the river. “Oh,” he said. “You want to talk to the boss. Come on.”

The ranch hand introduced himself as Carlos, and I followed him as he entered the house through a heavy swinging door. In a room to the left, I saw a flash of silver as a man sliced through a piece of meat. It was about lunchtime, and I half-expected an invitation.

Carlos did not stop, and led me down a narrow, poorly lit corridor to the rear of the house. He instructed me to wait and opened a door at the hallway’s end. “There ’s a boy here to see the river,” I heard him say. For some reason, the diminutive-sounding phrase he had used to describe me, muchacho, stuck in my head. I didn’t hear the jefe’s response, but Carlos waved me in.

The office was small, dirty, and dark. The boss, an elderly man with tanned, weather-beaten skin and a silver beard, sat behind a desk in one corner. A young man I presumed to be his assistant sat behind a desk in the other corner. The boss was doing something that neither Darwin nor Chatwin mentioned in their romantic raptures about the freewheeling ranch lifestyle: paperwork. He looked up. He shuffled the papers in his hand.

“Yes?” he said.

His tone was neither friendly nor welcoming. It did not indicate any promise of lunch with the family.

“I’d like to see the river,” I said. These words came out a bit more demanding than I intended—in translation, I’d lost much of my ability to qualify my statements. The boss looked surprised.

“What?”

I tried again. “The Beagle, with Charles Darwin and Robert FitzRoy, came this way. I’d like to see where they went.”

“Oh,” he said. He displayed zero curiosity about this exciting historical event that had taken place on his property. “Fine. Go ahead.”

I lingered for a few seconds to see if a lunch invitation was forthcoming, but the boss sat back down and resumed his paperwork.

“Thanks,” I said.

Carlos led me back out of the house. I got in the car and drove down toward the water, and parked at a wide spot in the road where it seemed like I’d be able to hike a short distance to the river bank. A few minutes later, while I stood contemplating the dry, chalky plains around me, Carlos drove up, waved, honked, and sped past on his way to tend the sheep. Even after the truck had disappeared over a hill, I watched the plume of dust rising in the air that marked its journey across the ranch. I set off walking, lost sight of the river for a few minutes, then stumbled over a small rise and down a gravel bank. Up close, the river looked about the same as it did in Piedrabuena. Still green, still moving fast. At ten miles a day, Darwin would have seen essentially the same scenery every day for two weeks. On the fourth day of the trip, he wrote, “The country remains the same, & terribly uninteresting.”

Two weeks later, he wrote again, “The country & its productions remained equally uninteresting.”

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A few hours later, back on the main route, the setting sun dropped below the Corsa’s small visor. Light streamed through the windshield and made it hard to pick out the worn path through the road. Rocks bounced and rattled off the bottom of the car, sounding metallic pings, like a squirrel firing pine cones at an aluminum roof. I slowed down to cross a metal-pipe bridge and saw an unmarked, car-width dirt path heading off to the right, in the direction of the water, which had disappeared behind a small ridge.

I had a few hours remaining before it got dark. I pulled off to see where the less-traveled road would take me, and it dropped directly down to the river (green, fast, etcetera) and emerged at a huge, flooded 90-degree bend in the water, part of a series of switchbacks that extended to the horizon, where the river swept behind a mountain and disappeared.

Near the end of his Santa Cruz expedition, Darwin wrote: “The river here was very tortuous . . . which sadly interfered with our progress.” After following a relatively straight river for the entire day, this was clearly the first part where it had been anything approaching tortuous. Looking at a map later, it was actually the only part that was winding.

The thought slowly sunk in: Darwin walked here. Leaving the car next to a small patch of scrubby bushes, I decided to walk as well. A freezing wind gusted out of the northwest, and except for the ululations of the guanacos, it was very, very quiet. Bleached bones lay strewn across the ground: leg bones, jawbones, the ribcage of an ostrich, piles of femurs and tibias, even a bloodstained pair of guanaco molars.

The plain was absolutely deserted and likely unchanged in the last 180 years—if not the last 1,800 years. With little effort I pictured a group of bored, frustrated Englishmen hiking along the river’s edge, hauling boats. Darwin walked out in front, sometimes up along the cliff, scouting and looking for guanacos to shoot. His boots would have scraped the tough yellow grass and sunk into the chalky soil, leaving strong prints in the ground. Rheas and guanacos would have watched warily from the hilltops, wheeled, and scattered as he approached. Dust would have swirled and settled on his jacket, his gun, and his hair. The rest of the crew would have trudged behind him, wishing they were back in the King’s Head or Goat & Feathers or whichever old English pub they favored, cracking dry jokes about sporting pursuits and women.

I followed my imaginary Englishmen out along a 40-foot-tall bluff, toward a sharp hairpin turn in the river. The point revealed little except another bend, the kind of view that convinced FitzRoy that nothing lay ahead but more hard work. On a satellite map, or even from the top of the nearby mountains, he would have seen a thin strip of blue winding through the hills until dead-ending in a massive lake just a few miles from where he stood. But deprived of those navigational tools, and frustrated with the slow pace, he sounded the retreat. On May 4, 1834, Darwin and the captain walked westward as far as they could, turned their backs to the mountains as the sun set, and floated down the river the next morning. They never knew how close they had come to the river’s source, and two days later, everyone was back aboard the Beagle.

Now I stood at about the same point, watched the s u nset, and thought about how rare it was to find a place preserved mostly the way Darwin saw it—a place that, perhaps because of its winds and lack of rain, had been bypassed by South America’s evolution. While Rio de Janeiro had been built up and Port Desire had rusted away, the Rio Santa Cruz pressed on, unvisited, desolate, its banks lined with bones. Humans have never really figured out how to permanently settle in this land, making it one of the few areas on earth that still changes on a geologic scale. “The plains of Patagonia are boundless, for they are scarcely passable, and hence unknown,” Darwin wrote. “They bear the stamp of having lasted, as they are now, for ages, and there appears no limit to their duration through future time.” I had reached the ultimate destination for a modern traveler: the stereotypical unspoiled, rugged, nineteenth-century version of the South American outdoors. The kind of place that, if there’s any romance at all in your adventuring soul, makes you sit up in your cubicle and take notice.

One, that is, that Darwin hadn’t remotely enjoyed.

The more I read and traveled, the more it became apparent that Darwin hadn’t necessarily derived pleasure from exploring unexplored wilderness—though the idea, like the idea of Patagonia, lent extra excitement to the places he did enjoy (like the relatively well-mapped Brazilian rainforest). The myth of Patagonia was all well and good while Darwin wasn’t actually there, but when he was, when he really dug into that myth and lit out for the great open spaces, he found it dull. Instead Darwin reveled in novelty—the distance from home and the gulf of difference between the stately Shrewsbury countryside and the exotic South Atlantic. The real thrills—and the real education—came in interacting with people and places he couldn’t find in England, which is why the businesslike trip up the River Santa Cruz, with its repetitive scenery, wasn’t as much fun. And for me, as for any modern traveler, capturing that spirit of novelty and discovery requires an understanding not only of the destination, but also of home.