I wake up in darkness, the kind that spills thick and wet as ink across your skin. Rain taps at the taught nylon of the tent and I fumble for the shadow that is my boots. I tumble out of my tent in a rush for the bathroom, headlamp forgotten. Ducking my head against the drizzle, dodging trees of jet black against a graphite sky. Sable shadows stalk my steps and I trip on something hidden in the night, unseen but still existing. The world is swathed in blacks and greys and for one moment in the depths of the forest, on an overcast night, there is no color.
Our time in Patagonia has been defined by color and by one color in particular; blue. There is every shade and brightness and hue you can imagine in the sky, the water, the ice. Even the air is awash in it, an indigo kiss that makes the sunlight blush blue. This one, dark, wet moment is the only memory that is not defined by it’s blues. It contains only the cold, a sensation which has been a constant companion of the deep, dark, secret blues and the electric glowing blues and the soft powdery blues of Patagonia.
We’ve been hiking for four days on the W trek and in that time we’ve covered 52 miles under a bright and windy sky, with 8 more to go. We walked along the waterway leading to the Grey Glacier which is not grey at all but a vibrant turquoise, filling the water with the same, thick, color so it looks like paint spilled from an artist’s palette. Another day we walk past lakes in similar, vibrant, other-worldly hues of blue. We walk across a meadow, exposed to the fullness of the sky as we leave deep, squelching footprints in muddy grasses. We hike into the heart of the mountains where even the rocks have cool undertones, the barest hint of blue from the chill that hangs in the air. Beautiful landscapes spill out in front of us with every step, granite spires and stunning vistas of the Andean plains that are so unrelenting in their beauty that it is exhausting. I cannot process so much awe and it leaves me feeling shell shocked and aching. In the evenings I develop the habit of pulling off my socks to stare at the ruin of my feet, enjoying the small respite from beauty they provide in their glorious, bruised and blistered ugliness. Even the bruises are blue at the edges, as if they’ve absorbed some of the countryside.
Color is a little piece of light, that is birthed by the universe but finished in our minds, a trick of imagination. In the huge, dancing ocean of electromagnetic waves the universe is pulsing with, we are able to translate a tiny range of them into something we can understand. Something we can see. Light. When all the waves, from big and red to small and blue, are together, they’re white. Or rather, they’re invisible, in that way a ray of sunshine in a darkened room is invisible, existing only as an illumination of a dusty corner. Like a jigsaw puzzle that disappears when you put the final piece in. Something has to break the waves up, scatter them, reflect them, absorb them, to make them vulnerable to our eyes to allow them to emerge as colors.
Maybe the first time I really noticed the blue was paddling on an Andean lake in Bariloche, Argentina. We slipped across water so clear it belied the depths of the lake. The crisp mountain air sweet and thick with the scent of cypress trees. We floated in the middle of the blue, drifting towards a blue mountain and a bluer sky. I don’t think I knew yet that it was special. Perhaps because it was broken up by the fringe of green trees and dusky shoreline. Maybe it was on the slopes of Villarrica Volcano in Pucon, Chile just a few days later where the sky was so big and bright and close enough to freeze the air. A place where letting go of the earth for just one second meant you might fall forward into the sky, lost forever in the blue of it.
I’m sitting on a sheet of pure cold; water frozen somewhere between snow and ice. I tap my nose with one finger, just to see if it has frozen off my face, and I can almost hear the clink of ice cubes ringing through the air. Why isn’t it warm? Isn’t the f***ing thing full of lava? LAVA! It has to be about a gajillion degrees in there. This is the most active volcano in South America, evidenced by the chug of thick white puffs of smoke above it. I watch them float down the slope and disappear in the breeze while I gnaw on a frozen block of raisins. I think I’ve never really known cold. I don’t know how this happened. I mean, it gets below freezing all the time in Wyoming during the winter. It snows, sometimes it snows several feet, there’s ice, freezing wind, all kinds of winter crap. Just last winter my brother got frostbite which I think is both a testament to the weather and bad decision making but still, it’s cold. And I go outside in that, I snowboard and hike and cross country ski. I can layer with the best of them and yet somehow I find myself utterly unprepared for this bone deep, unfathomable cold.
I feel sorry for my nose and cheeks especially as they are almost bare to the elements. A woman from Brazil is watching me, she hands me a scarf and I wrap it around my face thanking her repeatedly. It’s purple and handmade and is redolent with a fresh, flowery perfume. I breathe it in and try to pretend it’s spring. The special boots and crampons and ice axe I was so excited for this morning are rapidly losing their appeal, joy is being slowly sucked out alongside the heat, with every breath. I can feel blisters forming on the arches of my feet from the rented boots.
“What’s this chairlift?” I ask as we look down on the ice covered chairs, swaying on their cables.
“Oh, this is the one that opens in December.”
“The one that takes you 1/3 of the way up?”
“Yeah!” Our guide’s eyes crinkle at the corners and I assume he’s smiling at me behind his bright yellow scarf. I wonder if my scarf is concealing my scowl. I feel a little tricked by this news. You see, we just took a little chair lift, under the impression it was going to take us a good way up the volcano. Apparently it only went about 1/18 of the way up the volcano. Now at the location I thought we were at over an hour ago, my legs are already tired from marching up the steep slope. We have to stomp every step into the unusually hard freeze of the slope, not even our vicious looking crampons want to bite into it.
I hunch my shoulders in a sulk but the view from here is spectacular where the sun’s rays are not warm but cool somehow. You cannot look past the sky. It’s huge and clear above us, so grand it threatens to swallow the volcano and us with it. You can see mountains all along the horizon and Villarrica Lake flanked by the small towns Pucon and Villarrica below us. One of the guides tells me about the other volcanoes you can see from here. He leans towards me and points them out so I can look down the neon orange jacket of his arm. Mountains that smoke, making the only clouds that break up a vast cerulean sky.
We climb a little higher, the breeze stiffens and shifts for a moment, making every breath burn with the noxious volcano gases. The ice gets harder the higher we climb, the crampons cannot sink their teeth into it and the wind is picking up.
“It’s not safe,” the guides turn everyone around, we will not see any lava today. I’m not sorry to be leaving the volcano only sorry I won’t be able to see the lava, the molten rock that will remain impossible to believe in in this brutal cold. Walking down the mountain I feel like Spider-Man, each footstep sticking to the steep, slippery mountain side like velcro. My crampons keeping me close to the earth and away from the blue emptiness of the sky.
Our sky, our protective atmosphere is just tiny molecules of oxygen and nitrogen, so small they can only affect the smallest of the waves, blue. The blue waves aren’t big enough to wash over the molecules of gas and when they bang into them, they scatter in every direction, making them visible. These scattered blue waves paint the sky and even distant mountains in shades of indigo and violet. This is the same way a butterfly is blue, scattering light on it’s wing. When the sun is low in the sky, at sunset or sunrise, more atmosphere intervenes, forming boulders which even the huge, hurricane size waves of red, orange and yellow must break around. When they break, when they scatter, we can see them. Sometimes water in the atmosphere will deflect the light, bending it and separating it into its individual waves, making a rainbow.
The sky is so vast and a butterfly’s wing so delicate, they take on light physically, forcing it to scatter. Other substances selectively absorb waves and reflect. The light hits the material and some of the waves join it, absorbed when they are resonating at the same frequency as the material. They get sucked in, transforming the orbit of the electrons and changing the substance on a physical level. This is why things like jeans or paintings or photographs exposed to light fade in time. Only the rejects, the waves that are reflected, are the ones that come back to us, they’re the ones we get to see. This kind of blue is rare in nature, we don’t really have true blue flowers or animals or minerals; just the stone lapis lazuli. But the blues of Patagonia are not the rejected waves of a substance. They are too big to be contained in a stone. The blues that compose this part of the world are free and wild, scattering across the expanse of the sky and dancing in the exhilarated, vibrating waves of the water.
You see, water is special. It’s the only substance that gets really, really excited about light. Some of the blue color in big water is a result of a little scattering of blue light waves in the manner of the sky, but water’s intrinsic blue color comes from the absorption of a very small slice of the red photon wave, which makes it vibrate on a nuclear level. Water is the only natural substance to create a hue by highly excited vibrations. Frozen, compacted water is one of the best way to reveal this special color and there is no better source of this than a glacier.
My crampons crunch into the ice of the glacier and it glows, electric, beneath my feet. The light has been trapped alive in the ice, darting and reflecting blue endlessly, searching for escape in deeps that go on forever. An infinite prison. The ice enfolds us in huge meringue crests and troughs, blue peeking out from the depths. It feels alien, created by some wild and ancient magic whose world has long since vanished. The ice cracks and the boom is almost tangible, thundering forward and rolling over my skin in a delicious shiver. It is awesome. I crunch around joyfully, kicking at the white scrim of snow to reveal the blue ice below.
“Why is the ice blue? Why is it shaped like this? Why are there pools of water here? Is it shrinking?” I fire off questions at the guide which he answers in a soft, patient voice. The girl in front of me turns around and frowns at me from under a pink hat with teddy bear ears. Her long dark hair whips itself into tangles in the breeze. “Isn’t this great?!” She turns around and continues walking.
It’s not like walking on glass or plastic or stone but more like if someone scooped out a chunk of outer space and solidified it. The folds and peaks and canyons formed as it resisted that other worldly hand. It’s an experience with almost raw beauty, special and totally unique. Exhilarating. I find myself falling in love with every step, every crest. We crunch around in a little line and I peer into miniature caverns filled with water and stretching into the ice below our feet. Tunnels made by rivulets of water, widening even as I watch. Tiny waterfalls splash into blue that gets darker and darker, twisting and turning out of sight. I point them out to the girl in the pink hat, I’m pretty sure her sigh was one of joy. Another boom rolls over me and I savor it.
A ferry carries us away from the glacier over water of that signature opaque turquoise, icebergs floating in the cotton candy milkshake of it. The water is thick with the pulverized rock Perito Moreno grinds up and then divulges millennia later when it cracks and calves. I love this surreal shade of blue, like stepping into a photograph that has undergone a psychedelic photo shop. The cracking is not quite as loud here, not quite as chilling. We watch the glacier silently under clear skies, a sapphire wind whips around us, stealing our warmth.
All over the world, ancient cultures didn’t have a word for blue. From Iceland to China to the ancient Greeks, there was red and gold and black but no word for blue. The seas from Homer’s Odyssey were “wine dark”. Maybe there wasn’t a word for blue in ancient languages because blue was all that there was. I think I understand now, blue is all that there is in Patagonia.1