I felt the surge of relief that the sight of land must give a sailor on the brink of scurvy. Our ultimate destination was the Fin del Mundo sheep ranch — literally, the end of the earth, the southernmost tip of the continental Americas.
There was only one gas station between Punta Arenas, more than 30 miles back, where the Pacific Ocean meets the Straits of Magellan, and the Fin Del Mundo on the Atlantic. And we had found it: the last gas station on earth.
“Eh, I think it’s closed,” said my older daughter, Gracie.
A horse with a loose tether around its neck idled in front of the gasoline pump. A man in a gaucho-style black beret informed us there was one other gas station in the area, about 30 or so kilometers further east.
As we left the second-to-last gas station on earth, I recalled the many animal skulls we had seen in Patagonia and visualized ours joining them.
Whenever I travel, I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Questions of Travel,” in which she poses: “should we have stayed at home and thought of here?” On our family adventure trip to Patagonia, however, the question became: “Should we have stayed at home and had our heads examined?”
We are not alone in this adventure. Places our parents wouldn’t dream of bringing children are now crawling with diminutive humans. If I ever make it to Everest’s base camp, I fully expect the first person I meet to be a hipster parent pushing a stroller with an apple-sauce pouch clipped to one handle and an oxygen tank to the other. Travel is a big part of the modern competitive past-times known as “parenting” and “Instagramming.”
Why can’t we just stay home and show them “here” in a book?
My cousin Kathryn Russell, who has also trekked to unlikely family destinations, put it best: “We do these things to prove we can.”
Our adventure began as soon as we left Texas that spring break 2016, early in our stopover in Miami. When we reached the airport to set off for foreign lands, Gracie and I shared a stomach bug that lasted the entire journey, creating a trail of illness 3,000 miles long that crossed the mighty Andes.
There may be no better place on earth to recover from illness than Bariloche. The area was settled by Swiss — and, famously, German — emigrants after World War II. You can see why the Swiss would feel at home there, with all the A-shaped snow caps gathered around glittering lakes.
On this 2016 visit, the first few days in our lakeside Airbnb were blissful, apart from the niggling sense that Lake Ray Roberts was about 4,000 miles closer to our house and considerably warmer. Gracie and Lydia, my younger daughter, also loved the chocolate factory tour. OK, they hated the chocolate factory tour but loved the gift shop at the end.
All the guidebooks and all the websites said “the drive of the seven Lakes” was not to be missed, so we did not. My daughters were much more into the “splash of the one lake.” “We’re driving around to see a bunch of lakes?” said Gracie. “Why?”
Children have a way of bursting bubbles, particularly when those bubbles cost oodles of dollars and days of Internet research to inflate in the first place. “These are some of the most beautiful lakes in the world,” I sputtered. Sensing that I was losing my audience, I stepped on the accelerator. We ended up doing the “race-car drive of the four-and-a-half lakes.”
A couple of days later, we touched down in El Calafate, a town an hour’s flight south of Bariloche that’s been completely colonized by Americans and Europeans in high-end fleeces, hiking boots and mountain-bike paraphernalia, ready to rock-climb or pedal their way out of trouble if one of the distant mountains suddenly showed up. These are the adventurers who like their adventures fully catered and scheduled to the last minute.
The Fleece People regarded us in our jean shorts and Walmart sneakers as if we’d swum past their Antarctic ice-breaking vessel in bikinis. The only people who don’t wear Patagonia in Patagonia, it turns out, are the Patagonians.
The Patagonians, that is, and the Belgian family at our hotel. Our meeting mostly consisted of a giddy exchange of itineraries. Among other things, they were going to take a 24-hour bus ride to the highest road on earth.
And we thought we were crazy.
From El Calafate, we drove south, rumbling over the last 200 miles of continental South America towards the Fin Del Mundo. The straw-yellow plains were so desolate that I sometimes wondered if I’d ever see another living thing, never mind a gas station.
When we did pass wooded areas, the trees were doubled over from years of wind abuse, like ancient mages with scoliosis. Many were petrified and leafless. “Looks kinda like Texas,” my wife, Sara, said.
We were about halfway between Calafate and the tip of South America when we hit the Chilean border. There, we had to cross about five miles of disputed territory on an unpaved road. We were half-a-mile along the road when Lydia, then 4 years of age piped up: “I poohed in my pants.”
When I opened the driver’s door, the wind wrenched it wide with such force that I had to use my full body weight to shut it again. The same thing happened with Lydia’s door, except it released a vortex of crackers, wipes and crayoned-up kids’ menus — all whipped off into the pristine Patagonian scrub. I carried Lydia over to the roadside shrubs, in the vain hope of shelter, and wiggled her into clean clothes.
At the Torres del Paine national park in Chile, the girls didn’t care much for the herd of wild horses or the working gauchos. They hardly noticed the Cuernos, the twin peaks named after a bulls’ horns. They were OK with the blue mint-colored volcanic lake where we paddled.
They were even underwhelmed to meet John Garner, for whom a pass in the park was named (“They misspelled it as Gardner,” he sighed, in phlegmatic northern English fashion.) Mr. Garner was back in the park to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his blazing a hiking trail that tens of thousands of Patagonia-clad Westerners now follow every year.
But the only thing Gracie and Lydia had to say to Mr. Garner was: “Are you in our room?”
That’s because, it turned out, that the thing Gracie and Lydia loved about Torres del Paine was sharing a room in the youth hostel. They were particularly fond of the couple in the bunk beds next to ours. The snoring boyfriend species was infinitely more fascinating to my daughters than the wild rabbits and Patagonian foxes.
“They’re in our room!” they yelled and pointed proudly, every time we saw the couple.
I sometimes doubted my daughters’ appetite for adventure, but not during the ride around the ranch near Torres del Paine. Scarves wrapped around their faces to keep off the searing wind, they rode full-grown horses with the stoic determination of trail cowboys. The giant ostrich-like nandu birds did not scare them and neither did the sheep carcass that a puma had hung from a tree — “saving it for later,” according to our guides.
From Torres del Paine, we drove South to Punta Arenas, the largest town on the Straits of Magellan. It was here that Ernest Shackleton set forth on his polar mission. There was a replica of Shackleton’s tiny launch, in which he and two other adventurers traversed the polar seas in search of rescue, next to the replica of Ferdinand Magellan’s Nao Vittoria.
Later that day, we set sail from Punta Arenas ourselves. Our craft was a giant covered speedboat jammed with Fleece People, bound for the penguin island of Magdalena. This, my research told me, could not go wrong. Who doesn’t love a penguin island?
We were dressed for polar conditions — ski jackets, woolens and fleeces. The temperature on the boat was closer to Southlake mid-August than the South Pole. The Straits of Magellan were so rough that nobody was allowed on deck.
When we got to Isla Magdelena, all I could think about was batteries. My camera died and my iPhone’s charge was down to its last sliver of red.
“GET IN FRONT OF THAT PENGUIN!” I yelled at my girls. “SMILE!”
By the time Lydia produced the neutral squint that constitutes her photo smile, the penguin had waddled back into its little den.
Finally, Gracie positioned herself near one of the more exposed penguins. My Facebook friends were going to break their thumbs liking this one. Her hands shot up to her face. The high winds had blasted some sand into the corner of her eye. She was inconsolable. All we wanted to do was get back on the boat.
If you’re going to Punta Arenas, don’t arrive on a Tuesday, as we did. That’s the only day the ferry to Tierra Del Fuego doesn’t run.
Instead of boating to the mythical island, we drove along the other side of the Straits toward the tip of the mainland. The last 30 miles were a disconcerting rattle along a pebble-covered road, sometimes blocked by guanacos and sheep.
At the end of the road was the Estancia Monte Dinero — or Fin Del Mundo — the sheep ranch with the coziest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. A pair of boleadoras, the steel balls used by gauchos to lasso livestock by the legs, hung in the reception area near the old billiards table. The library was stuffed with old issues of National Geographic and hardback Churchill editions. The chef, Maria, came out to greet us and ask what we wanted for dinner.
The Cabo Virgenes penguin reserve is only a 20-minute drive from Estancia Monte Dinero. We arrived at the park gates just before 7 p.m. The warden had left the gates open, with a sign saying he had gone to town for provisions. This meant we had the whole beach to ourselves. For the first time since we landed in El Calafate, the wind subsided completely.