Over the years I have often heard Tompkins mentioned in Chile, by all sorts of people, and rarely in a positive way. He has become infamous. When the newsweekly Qué Pasa wants to boost its sales on the streets of Santiago, it runs him on the cover, because he is so widely distrusted. It is a strange fate for a man who thought he would be loved. He had done business in dozens of countries, and believed therefore that he knew his way around. He thought that the world was shrinking. And he seems to find it hard to change his mind now—to accept that the world is larger than he realized, and that the people who bought his products will also reject his views. Tompkins continues to live on a tourist visa as if he might not stay, but he has trapped himself in a forest of his own making.
He calls his land Parque Pumalín, after the pumas that roam its forests. The only way there by ground is on a rough dirt road from Chaitén, thirty-five miles north through uninhabited coastal mountains. I paid a man with a truck to take me. It was a grinding ride on a warm late-summer afternoon, up slow-turning valleys, through tall broadleaf trees. The sunlight was speckled and faintly green. Ferns and saplings sprouted through the rubble on the shoulders of the road in dusty tangles that masked the denser growth of the forest. Now and then a view opened on a conical snow-capped volcano rising to the east: the 9,000-foot Michimahuida, which is the southernmost of Tompkins's mountains, and is cut by a glacier descending in a graceful curve from near its summit.
My driver was a small, fine-featured man, a diesel mechanic with a young family in Chaitén. We stopped for a rest, and drank together from a roadside rivulet. I asked him about Tompkins. He was cautious and said that he did not know him. He was more willing to talk about Tompkins's wife, who has been shielded even by the opposition from serious attack. The driver called her a good woman who cared about the people. He did not know her either. He was repeating what he had heard.
We kept going, and passed two lakes. Eventually we entered Tompkins's land, where nothing changed until suddenly, in the middle of this wilderness, we came upon an incongruous wooden gateway that framed the path to a set of beautifully constructed tent platforms. It was the first of many such projects over the final several miles: picnic areas, viewpoints, carved wooden signs, and an alerce "interpretive" trail, with which Tompkins has tried to make the best of a pre-existing condition—a public right-of-way through this corner of his preserve.
The road descended into a valley, and ended on the shore of a fjord, at a ferry landing called Caleta Gonzalo—a concrete ramp served in the summer by a thirty-car ferry that steams a hundred miles north. Caleta means "cove." Gonzalo is the name of the river that empties into the sea a short walk from the ramp. To accommodate travelers there, Tompkins built the most incongruous of his tourist facilities—an exquisite little complex of campground, café, and light-filled cabins, all beige and bare wood in perfect California-country taste, plumbed with pure mountain water, and powered by means of a water-turbine generator. Tompkins awarded the concession to a local settler, the wife of his boatman, who hired two city girls and a baker to work for the summer season. On the evening I got there, only one cabin was occupied—by a German couple who had arrived by ferry. They liked the baker's whole-grain bread and the fresh vegetables from the organic farm next door, but confided to me that they were disconcerted to find themselves suddenly in a place so unlike South America. We spoke at the café, where a Smith & Hawken clock hung on the wall. In accented English the man murmured, "Ya, it's rather peculiar here, do you think?" I said I wasn't sure.
There was to be an outdoor asado that night, a celebratory meat roast at the end of a three-day holiday that Kris McDivitt had organized for the children of the families who worked for the preserve. I was expected there. I crossed the Gonzalo River on a suspended footbridge and walked through a pasture to the cooking fire. Douglas Tompkins sat alone on the ground with his arms around his knees and his back half turned to the flames—a slight, gray, unshaven man, as spare as a New England farmer, dressed in a homespun sweater, coarse cotton pants, and rubber boots. He had crooked teeth and a gaunt and pensive face. He asked about my trip from Chaitén, and explained that Kris and the children were washing up before the meal, after a hike on one of the nature trails.