Just Around the River Bend

It is my firm belief that most of life’s problems are capable of being solved by simple and persistent exposure to nature. Drug abuse, relationship trouble, taxes and sometimes polio, are all cured by a hike in the forest, an afternoon sailing trip or a walk along the beach.

As a wee lad in the old country, my favorite activity was to intentionally get lost in the woods surrounding our house. I would tramp off, in no particular direction, dog and pocket knife in tow, eventually discovering that I could no longer see the house and had no idea where I was. Since this was my goal, it was easy to resign myself to the idea of surviving in the wild forever. I picked thimble-berries until my knuckles were stained red and collected fallen limbs for what would surely be the most impressive tree house known to man. Inevitably, while searching for supplies, I would stumble across the yard and decide that I may as well go home for some string cheese and TV, only to repeat the entire process the next day.

In the grown-up world, hiking is the society-approved version of my childhood practice. I like hiking for many of the same reasons that I enjoyed the woods when I was younger, but it lacks something. Those early trips did not follow any trail or specific destination. They were, by design, exploratory adventures. In recent years, I have noted the irony in driving to an established trail or national park. For hours, you stare at the monotony of asphalt, going too fast to realize the environment around you. Then, upon arriving at the trail, you stare at the dirt path in front of you, trying to make good time, looking out for roots and snakes; again oblivious to what surrounds you. Even if you do look around, there is a disconnect. It is as if nature is an exhibit, only seen from the confines of the trail. A practice encouraged by signs which remind you to “Stay on the trail”.

Furthermore, I cannot help but think of the hundreds of thousands of people who have hiked the same trail, seen the same tree from an identical vantage point, sat on the same logs, peed on the same anthill, etc. So when I see and do these things, their value feels depleted. I have seen studies that talk of a collective human consciousness, expressed by the phenomenon where people from completely different parts of the world come up with the same ideas at approximately the same time. This partly explains my problem with trails. Because so many people have experienced the trail before me, I have somehow also seen it, and what I want to be a unique experience feels muted and familiar. Lastly, trails encourage you to focus on origins and destinations. Mile markers, directions and sign posts, all informing you of where you are going, not where you are. Without the trail, you are forced to consider every step, resulting in a hike which is far more rewarding and exhausting. It’s why I enjoyed those early walks so much and why normal hiking basically sucks. With this in mind, I set out to re-enact my childhood adventures. Tossing a cheese sandwich, book, camera, water and jacket into a bag, I set off to the south, away from the lake and towards the mountains, with no destination in mind and a burning desire not to die.

There is a gravel road which begins at my apartment and quickly leads away from the main lakeside thoroughfare. At its start, the loose rocks and dirt lead to rockier and dirtier suburban arteries; but after half a mile, there is nothing but open steppe, sprinkled with dying trees. I began to feel a glimmer of happy discovery before I came across a sign. It was navy blue. Oversized bolts bled rust at the corners and the white painted message was peeling as a result of weather, or age, or both. It was turned at a 45 degree angle to the road and read, “ZONA MILITAR: Disfrute el paisaje sin dañar el entorno. No arroje residuos.” My reaction was fueled by several pieces of critical information, which I will share with you now.

  1. I am not fluent in Spanish
  2. I understood the following words: zona, militar, el, paisaje, sin, dañar, el, no and residuos.
  3. These words meant: zone, military, the, country-something, without, hurt, the, no and waste.
  4. Bariloche is home to two things, a major military base and a major atomic research center where they build, test, and research components for nuclear reactors.
  5. I have been told by multiple natives that Argentine has the most unique vocabulary of any Spanish speaking country, such that it would be an easy stretch for them to say ‘waste’ and mean ‘toxic materials’. This fact was especially poignant in combination with fact #6.
  6. Just to the right of the sign was an imposing rock face infused with a very, very unnatural green color. If it was a Crayola crayon, it would be called ‘Radioactive Sewage Green’.
  7. I had forgotten my Spanish/English dictionary.

So I stood for awhile and considered my options. I might get toxic poisoning and become a ninja turtle, which had its pros and cons, or I might get shot and arrested for entering a military base. Ultimately, I decided to keep going for one reason. Tourists are everywhere here and for the most part, extremely dumb. If there was any real danger, there would surely be more than a sign.

Ten minutes later I saw a military transport vehicle. It was at the first side road I had seen since the housing developments near my apartment. Turning onto the road I heard a low, rumbling noise and saw the big smoky cough of a massive, camouflaged troop transport truck. Hastily, I decided I wasn’t concerned with that road anymore and retreated, never to see the truck again.

I pressed on, walking the original dirt path and nervously awaiting the crack of a sniper rifle, but instead I heard the gentle gurgling of water. Plowing through a thicket of bushes to the side of the road, I discovered a delicate stream. Twenty feet up the stream was a waterfall, perhaps 15 feet high, emptying into a tranquil pool framed by a grassy bank. It was the sort of place you would expect to find fairies, hobbits or at least some teenagers dropping acid, but it was deserted. The exploration began.

I followed the stream, clambering over rocks, ducking branches heavy with late summer flower blossoms and stopping approximately every 5 feet to pick tiny, thorny seeds off my pants, shoes, socks, shirt and hands. The water began winding more erratically and from it sprung a massive web of trails extending into a large open field. The tire tracks and man-made jumps quickly told me that it was some sort of motorcycle track; a suspicion confirmed by a red pointed sign that read “Enduro”. With delight, I chose trails at random, keeping my ears tuned to the possibility of a 500 pound machine bearing down on me from around a blind corner.


The stream was gone, but I was more than content with the haphazard, exploratory nature of the enduro track; quickly forgetting about the worries associated with wandering through the Argentinean equivalent of Area 51.












Just as I began to grow comfortable again, heavy industrial noises filled the spaces in between gusts of wind. Not knowing what to expect, I left the trail and crept through the bushes towards the sound. I reached the crest of a hill and saw a massive earth mover, several large trucks and a handful of men working on some sort of pipeline, or possibly a particle accelerator. Beyond the work site was the mother of my earlier stream, a wide, rushing glacial river.

While I watched, trying to assess the danger rating of wandering through the construction zone, I saw the one thing that could assure me it was safe; elderly white people. Their sweater vests, fanny packs and TEVA sandals were like a giant green light for safe passage, blinking on as they walked from the river toward their rental car, parked just outside the circle of trucks and machinery.

Confidently, I emerged from the bushes to the surprised look of several construction workers and began walking the river bank as if it was the most natural thing in the world. Half a mile down the river, two tributaries met, creating a small island dense with soft reeds. Jumping across the large river rocks I reached the island and laid down in the reeds, eating my sandwich and immediately falling asleep as a gentle mist started to fall.

I awoke from my nap wet and happy to continue the experience. As the light began to fade, I stumbled across a familiar road that I knew led back to the apartment. It was time to go home. The day ending just as it had when I was younger and smarter.

When I got home, I did some research into the message displayed on the sign to get the most accurate Argentinian translation possible. “Military Zone: Enjoy the scenery without harming the environment or littering, you dumb ass.”


~ by Hutch on March 24, 2011.

2 Responses to “Just Around the River Bend”

  1. Another wonderful post! It’s been a while.

    You are looking more and more like Grizzly Adams everyday!

    I have to say, however, that I take exception to your comment about “elderly white people in TEVAs” being a sure sign of safety. I beg to differ!

  2. Great writing !!! I know you get this amazing talent from your mother !!! Do not go hiking in unknown/questionable areas – you do not have your chocolate lab to get you safely back…

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