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Previously in Atlantic Abroad

  • Globetrotting with the Doozer (Jeffrey Tayler, Greece, May 29, 1997).

  • The Car as Social Barometer (Gregg Easterbrook, Belgium, May 14, 1997).

  • Of Bird Songs and Buddhas (Matthew Gurewitsch, China, April 30, 1997).

  • The Discreet Charm of the (Chilean) Bourgeoisie (William Langewiesche, Chile, April 16, 1997).

  • Beware the Eighth of March (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, April 2, 1997).

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    a l o n e   o n  t h e
    b r i n k

    June 11, 1997

    Hermits in the wilderness of coastal Patagonia are not necessarily anti-social types. Most, I think, are ordinary people who entered the forest simply to make a home and who, without thinking of the long-term consequences, allowed themselves to become isolated by the difficulty of the terrain. Slowly they forget their old friends. Discovering at some point that years have passed without human company, they realize to their surprise that they do not need that company and that they have become hermits by default. That is certainly the case with one old man here who has lived alone for forty years. I have a friend who asked him once how he coped with such solitude.

    "Every morning I meditate," the hermit answered.

    "What do you mean?" my friend asked.

    "I go to sit on a certain rock," the hermit said. "And I wait. When the birds are no longer afraid to come near I know I'm ready to meditate."

    "But once you're ready what do you do?"

    "First I think about the simple chores for the day -- cut wood, dig potatoes, patch the roof, sharpen the ax. There's not much to do when you live alone, but I like my day to be clear. Afterward I can think about the big problems facing mankind."

    "Metaphysical? Spiritual?"

    The hermit laughed. "No, no. The really big ones, such as environmental destruction and nuclear war."

    The hermit had a radio and visitors enough to supply him with batteries. The radio kept him in touch with outside developments. He had once had a wife, but she had died young. He kept some livestock, but he was a vegetarian because the animals had become his companions and he could not bring himself to eat them. He was a hermit only by circumstance.

    By contrast there is a younger hermit here who chose his solitude. Years ago he taught geography at a university in Santiago. He came to the wilderness for a summer holiday with his wife and children and discovered a certain valley across the mountains from a dying port called Aisen. I have been to that valley, too; it is a cold and shadowed gorge, where glacial streams braid the rock faces and trickle through a scrubby forest. In its eerie desolation it must have touched something deep inside the professor -- a loneliness that even his wife did not know. After that first summer he brought the family back to valley for the next one, and the ones afterward, and each time he moved the camp higher, to the place where the dirt road becomes a track, and higher still to the place where the track ends, then up a trail and over the pass to the other side, where few people had been. When finally his family rebelled and refused to spend another summer there, the professor continued to come -- alone. He built a small cabin and began to come in the spring and fall, and even in the winter. Finally he simply stayed. And he became a jealous lover: these days if you walk far enough up the valley he will appear at the edge of the forest -- a bearded, long-haired figure who makes it clear with angry gestures that you have intruded on his affair.

    The third story I've heard is this: some years ago a fishing guide from the provincial capital Coihaique chartered a small airplane to fly 300 miles to Villa O'Higgins, an isolated settlement that still today cannot be reached by road. The fishing guide was scouting for new streams. He left O'Higgins on horseback, and three days later, while wandering up a trackless valley, he came upon a cabin in a clearing. It was inhabited by a man of about seventy who said he had been living alone for twelve years with goats and chickens and a single cow. The man looked weak and admitted that he was feeling sick. The fishing guide offered to let him ride the packhorse back to Villa O'Higgins and then to fly with him back to Coihaique and the hospital. The man quietly agreed and without packing a bag rode away from the cabin leaving the door open.

    In Coihaique he was equally calm, accepting the bustle of the streets and the modern conveniences without surprise or comment. He spent a week in the hospital and then was transferred to a convalescent center, where he fit right in with the other old-timers, obediently applying himself to the arts-and-crafts projects, and politely conversing with the pensioners. He stayed there for a month. Then one day, leaving his few new possessions beside the bed, he simply disappeared. The fishing guide scoured the town for any sign of him, without success. The efficient Chilean police were alerted, and they too drew a blank. But about a year later the fishing guide went again to Villa O'Higgins and took a horse up the same trackless valley -- and there in the cabin stood the old man as if he had never left. Without a peso to his name, across hundreds of nearly impassable miles, he had found his way home. The fishing guide knew better than to ask for an explanation, and the hermit did not give him one.

    William Langewiesche is a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly. His most recent book, Sahara Unveiled (1996), was featured in Atlantic Unbound's Books & Authors ("The Desert Extreme," August, 1996). He last wrote for Atlantic Abroad on Santiago.

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    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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