For Bruce Chatwin, inspiration for travel to Patagonia was the bit of flotsam that showed up in his grandmother’s china cabinet, a piece of a brontosaurus rescued from a glacier by a restless family member who had taken to the high seas in a merchant ship and washed up at the end of the world. That small piece of skin, leathery with tuffs of reddish hair, reverberated throughout his childhood. The hairy scrap drew him like a magnet to Lost Hope Sound in Chilean Patagonia in search of the remains of the brontosaurus and the story of the wayward family member who had found it. The adult Bruce learned that the scrap came not from a brontosaurus but from a mylodon or giant sloth.
The magnet that drew me to Patagonia was the tale, probably apocryphal, of Chatwin’s telegram to his boss; in the rendition that entered my imagination it was a telegram and not a note left on a desk. ‘Gone to Patagonia. Back in six months’. Now, I was hardly wet behind the ears when I read this but it seemed to me, harried with a career, child-raising and housework, quintessentially romantic and carefree, with just a touch of a vagabond, devil-may-care attitude. Just to pack a bag, to pull up sticks, to send the boss a note – Back in six months – was too out-of-character for my more sedate disposition so I dutifully soldiered on, cleaned the house, raised the child, made pies for the husband and continued on my career path.
I did cross paths with Bruce and Patagonia, in a manner of speaking, many years later. The child was grown, the husband departed for greener pastures (England) and my career took a turn sideways; I ended up travelling for fifteen winters in Southeast Asia. It was a time before Kindles, Nooks and iPads when stumbling across an English language bookstore in foreign parts was like walking into Aladdin’s cave. There, in a little shop on Khao San Road in Bangkok, with books lining shelves in haphazard and dusty splendor from floor to ceiling and perched perilously on piles that swayed as you tried to swerve around them, I found a copy of ‘In Patagonia’. Of course, I bought it, took it on my travels and eventually brought it home to sit on a shelf on one of my bookcases with Patrick Leigh Fermor, Pico Iyer, Paul Theroux and a motely assortment of other travel writers.
Books and booze on Khao San Road in Bangkok
Eventually I retired from a career that had kept me very busy and which was eminently satisfying.
The phone rang.
“Do you fancy Patagonia?” asked my friend Enerys, Celtic by birth, with Welsh her mother tongue but living in self-chosen exile in Calgary. “I want to visit where the Welsh settled in Patagonia in the 1880s”. Her inspiration for travel to Patagonia hinged on the language and culture of her countrymen.
She didn’t need to tell me for I already knew that those Victorian Joneses, Morgans and Lewises left their green valleys in order to find a place far enough away from the Anglo-Saxons in England where they could preserve the Welsh language and culture.
‘About time’, I thought. ‘The gods of travel move in mysterious ways’. It was time for Patagonia to come calling again. By a strange coincidence, the impetus for this trip came from a friend who was wont to appear at airports with hair the colour of the sun setting along the Ayeyarwady.
Sunset in Myanmar
‘Look for a Belisha, Beacon’ (those flashing yellow lollipops with black and white stripped poles that mark pedestrian crossings in Britain, Lord Hore-Belisha’s legacy in 1934 to a nation traumatized by would-be Toads of Toad Hall charging down British main streets in recently purchased motor vehicles with no speed limit and without thought of life or limb of pedestrians), was her response to my request about where we would connect in Vancouver Airport on our very first trip together to Myanmar and Vietnam.
I gasped when I saw her, flashing amidst the crowds at the airport.
“Why did you pick such a flaming red?” I laughed.
“It was on special and cheap.”
Enerys’ views on colour extend beyond her hair and might be christened ‘Bohemian flamboyance’ so I have no doubt that should a bottle not be on ‘special’ at her local drug store, I will find her easily courtesy of her unique sartorial spendour.
Enerys at Bean North Cafe in the Yukon
But I am sure that this time, when I meet her in Calgary airport in January 2016, ticket for Patagonia clutched in my hand, she will smile sweetly, nod the flaming red head and I will remember Bruce’s brontosaurus.
I no longer have a boss so there’s no need to send a telegram.