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Leaving the city to suddenly find great expanses of open land is like coming out of a dark theater on a sunny afternoon. “This was here all along?” you think. You didn’t even know you were claustrophobic before, but now you don’t know how you fit inside that place. The shift is even more dramatic when leaving the city in the evening on an overnight bus and awakening in the morning to emptiness extending to the horizon, as I did leaving Buenos Aires for the city of Bariloche.

Argentina has the same population as California with a land area six and a half times its size. A full third of this population lives in greater Buenos Aires, leaving a lot of open space everywhere else. My destination, Patagonia, is especially empty. Here there are no farm towns because there no farms. The semi-arid climate supports enough vegetation to feed some sheep and a bit of cattle. A few population centers have developed to serve the wool trade and some energy production, but the population is sparse.

Patagonia favors the tough. From mankind’s origins in Africa, he migrated in every direction. Some people went north to Siberia, then some of those crossed the Bering Strait to Alaska, then some of those kept going south into the Americas. Patagonia was the farthest they could go, the home to the most restless. When Magellan and other Europeans searched for the ends of the new world, the steppe of Patagonia was what they found. After Argentina quite effectively eliminated any trace of indigenous people in the late nineteenth century, the land was opened for shepherds of hardy European stock. When Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled the US, it was to a log cabin in Patagonia. Today it hosts serious trekkers and world-class climbers pushing their limits. The people are tough enough to endure its remoteness, the jagged mountains are tough enough to bear its glaciers, and the scrubby vegetation is tough enough to survive its climate.

Today, of course, anyone with a plane ticket or a tolerance for bus travel can enjoy this land. After a stay in the northern Patagonian lakes district, I began a two day bus trip south on Ruta Nacional 40, followed by another day or two of travel before I reached the continent’s end at Tierra del Fuego. Extending over 3000 miles from the Bolivian border to the southern border with Chile, Ruta 40 has some sort of a mythical status in the Argentinian psyche. Even so, its southern portion has no regularly scheduled bus service, probably either because there’s no place to go or because it’s only partially paved. Fortunately, a travel service now runs an occasional two-day backpacker shuttle between two Patagonian cities popular with travelers. Besides needing to get someplace, I booked my ticket because I happen to enjoy overland travel, and don’t mind watching a lot of nothing.

Looking out the window of the bus, the landscape changes are slow but oddly mesmerizing. The northern lakes district looks almost surreal to my North American eyes. Its calm blue lakes seem to tame the mountains rising sharply out of them, saying “this is a playground, come on over and have a romp around.” Puffy white clouds in a perfect blue sky and the twisted branches of small Seussian trees complete the effect. In the dry steppe, the scrub is dots of greenish yellow and dots of purplish gray. Together they are an enormous Monet canvas draped over low rises in every direction. The milky green lakes in parts of southern Patagonia, which look almost artificial in this dusty desert, are fed by Andean glaciers. One of these has the height of a 20-story building, an area larger than Buenos Aires, and can advance up to two meters per day. As the steppe rises to the west, it meets the southern spine of the Andes, which is descending from its highest peaks in the north to beneath the sea at the continent’s end. Here wind and glaciers have shaped the mountains into sharp, rocky towers.

Any illusion of stillness in this picture is quickly broken upon stepping outside. The wind is strong and relentless. There are no gusts, just a steady, stiff breeze, almost enough to lean against. It’s no wonder hardly anything grows taller than knee-high. Riding the bus feels like sailing as the wind pushes it sideways and it shifts lightly across the gravel road. For all its great distances, Patagonia is a just a small peninsula reaching into the great southern oceans.

When I return to urban Argentina, it will not be on that long dusty road, but by plane. One Patagonian pilot, after years of flying with the Argentine postal service, incorporated its memorable landscapes in a story called The Little Prince. I haven’t found any elephant-eating boa constrictor here on the ground, but I will be sure to keep an eye out the window of the plane.

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