Bell-bottoms, Books and Bruce

Patagonia Ancient Map
In The End of the World Museum in Ushuaia was this elaborate map of "Patagonum" (drawn in 1711), fascinating in the antiquity of its details

What draws us to travel somewhere?

Family. Recommendations from friends. Childhood fantasies. The lure of adventure. Movies. The desire to escape.

Where we travel and why is topical, especially among jubilados. Many have drawn up bucket lists, which Jonathan Franzen in an article in Condé Nast Traveler poured cold water on, suggesting they’re making us “strategic” and “competitive vacationers.” It made me think of Patagonia. “Have you been?” we jubilados ask each other.

Bell-bottoms were in fashion when Magellan and I began imagining a trip to Patagonia—and books provided letters of introduction.

The first book was The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux. The yellowed sticker peeling off the back cover of our copy reads “Banana Republic. Travel & Safari Clothing Co. Item 8587. Color 84. Size 00. CKDT $6.95.” I’d forgotten the origins of Banana Republic, how in the 70s it was a travel store in San Francisco. Why did this misnamed book—about a journey by train starting in Boston and continuing down through South America with precious little about Patagonia—imprint a strong feeling? Paul makes you feel the juxtaposition in Patagonia between abundance and emptiness:

The Patagonian paradox was this: to be here, it helped to be a miniaturist, or else interested in enormous empty spaces. There was no intermediate zone of study. Either the enormity of the desert space, or the sight of a tiny flower. You had to choose between the tiny or the vast.

Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia came next. As a child, Bruce was riveted by the adventures of his grandmother’s cousin, Charles Milward, who had sailed Cape Horn 40 times and obtained samples of what he believed was brontosaurus skin from a cave in Patagonia. Charles sent Bruce’s grandmother a piece of this skin—actually that of a Mylodon (giant sloth)—as a wedding present. It fascinated the young Bruce, as keen on dinosaurs and monsters as kids today. When the Mylodon skin was tossed out in a move, Bruce became obsessed with what he called “lost beast fervour”—and its source, Patagonia. Instead of using the $3,500 given to him by the Sunday Times to write a story on the Guggenheim family, he took off for Patagonia on November 2, 1974. In Patagonia is a labyrinth of almost 100 little chapters intermingling fiction, non-fiction, history and mythology held together by Bruce’s search for his “Golden Fleece.” The book—an immediate and influential success—introduced a new genre of writing described by Susannah Clapp as “reportage and history and storytelling… that made travel writing more capacious and more incisive…in the vanguard of a renaissance of travel literature.” Like this excerpt:

Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins. It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness… I felt received by the land, where my perception of the world and my place in it fell into sync. I recognize that sense of belonging instantly.

A third book by a writer named Shakespeare convinced us to go to Patagonia. Not William but Nicholas, another gifted Englishman who travelled to Patagonia (coincidentally) during the same year as Bruce and 25 years later released the highly acclaimed Bruce Chatwin. Bruce’s letters to his wife Elizabeth (which Nicholas includes in this biography) describe the area’s physical landscape with more gusto than in In Patagonia, such as when he describes the view from his window:

a line of lombardy poplars tilted about 20 °from the wind and beyond the rolling grey pampas (the grass is bleached yellow but it has black roots, like a dyed blonde) with clouds rushing across it and a howling wind.

On no previous journey am I conscious of having done more. Patagonia is as I expected but more so, inspiring violent outbursts of love and hate. Physically it is magnificent, a series of graded steps or barrancas which are the cliff lines of prehistoric seas and unusually full of fossilised oyster shells 10” diam. In the east you suddenly confront the great wall of the cordillera with bright turquoise lakes (some are milky white and others a pale jade green) with unbelievable colours to the rocks (in the pre-cordillera). Sometimes it seems that the Almighty has been playing at making Neapolitan ice-cream.

For people we know or met there at the far latitudes of the earth, a hopscotch of reasons landed them in Patagonia. Hiking. Photography. Returning to his home country with his family. A honeymoon. Ecotourism. The architecture of striking new hotels. The jumping-on point for jumping in to scuba dive in Antarctica’s waters. A place to celebrate her health after eleven cancer operations. Okay, maybe a few “competitive vacationers.” What we all seemed to share was a longing to land on that last, far-flung space, as Bruce writes:

Since its discovery by Magellan in 1520, Patagonia was known as a country of black fog and whirlwinds at the end of the habited world. The word ‘Patagonia,’ like Mandalay or Timbuctoo, lodged itself in the Western imagination as a metaphor for The Ultimate, the point beyond which one could not go.


Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. London: Cape, 1977. Iconic. Published when Bruce was 37 years old, In Patagonia was named Book of the Year by The New York Times Book Review and won the Hawthornden Prize and E. M. Forster Award.

Clapp, Susannah. “The Life and Early Death of Bruce Chatwin,” The New Yorker: December 23, 1996, p 90-101.

Franzen, Jonathan. “Postcard from East Africa,” Condé Nast Traveler. New York: September 2015, p 124-131. Before I was a jubilado, Myra and I travelled to hear him interviewed at the New Yorker Writers’ Festival, where his responses to David Remnick’s questions crackled the air with brilliance.

Shakespeare, Nicholas. Bruce Chatwin. London: The Harvill Press, 1999. “The definitive biography of one of the most charismatic and elusive literary figures of our time.”

Theroux. The Old Patagonian Express. Suffolk, England: Richard Clay (The Chaucer Press) Ltd., 1979. His latest book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, has just been released.

7 Responses

  1. Vivid colour; barren; extreme, brilliant skies, windy, cold, beautiful…

    makes me think about Saskatchewan…

    Beautifully described in words and photographs..

    Thank you.

  2. Love that photo of the road beginning and ending in a grey mirage…………… would be nice to be on a bike !

    1. When the wind’s not blowing, Patagonia would be a motorcyclist’s dream trip.
      On that particular road, what we thought was a mirage, appeared as a sail in the distance. It turned out to be a sailboat on a 4-wheel carriage, coming at us down the highway driven by the wind. It happened quickly, and I was too shocked to take a picture.

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