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The Cusp of Dreadfulness: Fifteen Seasons in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia

The Cusp of Dreadfulness: Fifteen Seasons in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia

by Margaret Winslow


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It was December 1974 when Margaret Winslow arrived in Punta Arenas, the only city on the Strait of Magellan, prepared to begin her doctoral thesis project. With both excitement and dread, she looked forward to working on familiar rocks in a dynamic region and exploring Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia. But first, she had to cross the trackless southern Andes on foot.

In the sequel to her award-winning travel-adventure memoir, Over My Head, Dr. Winslow recounts her ongoing field experiences from the 1970s through the 1990s during intense political paroxysms in Chile and Argentina. Her unforgettable adventures include being arrested and interrogated by the Argentine Navy, a close brush with death on a flight over the Strait of Magellan, and the rescue of an injured child at an isolated farm. Her fascinating narrative includes the frightening details of an assault by a fisherman that hurled the previously intrepid traveler into a state of intense agoraphobia that she had to overcome if she was to survive, return to the wilderness, and work mostly alone.

The Cusp of Dreadfulness continues a geologist's recounting of her struggles through the wilderness of southern South America during a time of brutal transformation.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781491787403
Publisher: iUniverse, Incorporated
Publication date: 02/05/2016
Pages: 222
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.51(d)

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The Cusp of Dreadfulness

Fifteen Seasons in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia

By Margaret Winslow


Copyright © 2016 Margaret Winslow
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4917-8740-3


Chile after the Coup

December 1974

The snowy peaks of the highest Andes glinted off the left wing in the late afternoon sun as the Braniff Airlines flight continued its five-stop milk run down the west coast of South America. Dark-blue waves of the Pacific Ocean dominated the horizon to the right. With my pencil jerking seismically, I traced the bouncy progress of the plane on the chili-shaped map of Chile, eager to return to earth.

Most alarming to a person who spoke only a few dozen phrases of Spanish, I would have to stop overnight in Santiago, Chile, arriving alone for the first time in a foreign country that had recently suffered a military coup and subsequent purges rivaling the brutality of Franco's Spain. This was only the second time I had traveled to South America. Six months earlier, I had accompanied a team of geologists traveling down the Atlantic coast via Buenos Aires to Ushuaia, Argentina, where we embarked on a research vessel to map the rocks at the very tip of the continent. My ultimate destination this time was Punta Arenas, the only city on the Strait of Magellan. Unlike the sea voyages of my previous baptism, henceforth my adventures would be on land with feet on nice, dry terra-oh-so-firma. At least I hoped so.

In the late afternoon, the plane circled the scrubby volcanic hills that bulged up between flat, irrigated valleys to land at Santiago's Pudahuel Airport. Inside the terminal, youthful soldiers with submachine guns flanked the immigration and customs areas. I forced my overdressed, overheated body to shuffle forward and saw an additional barrier to negotiate: the Policía Internacional, not connected with Interpol, but rather the Chilean secret police. They scrutinized my papers, endlessly scouring their lists containing names of people to arrest, hoping to find a near match. "Is this you?" they asked, pointing at "Mary Wilson" and then at "Mavis Wallace." With waist-length hippie braids, stout mountaineering boots, and a battered backpack, I just had to be a communist guerrilla. Disappointed that the typed names hadn't transformed into a match, even after endless squinting and tilting of the page toward the dim light, they dumped the contents of my backpack and trunk onto the floor. Like most young Americans, I thought that a big smile and a US passport would dissolve all problems. Taking the men's disappointed glares as permission to leave, I hastily stuffed my camping equipment and scientific gear into the trunk and backpack and dragged them outside. Welcome to Chile under Pinochet.

I loaded my gear into the back of a taxi and settled back for a long drive into the city center. The route passed small, dusty farmhouses flanked by irrigated rows of green cornstalks and peach trees, resembling the central valley of California. The tiny hotel I would be staying at was on a quiet street shaded by a steep volcanic hill. I gladly escaped into a cramped room, ready for a cool shower and a long nap, but the electricity had failed, and the heat was stifling. I abandoned all thoughts of rest and instead stripped to a T-shirt and jeans and set forth to explore the city.

Jet lag, although it refers to time disorientation from traveling east or west, also seems to have a seasonal component. It's the disorientation that occurs, even without a time change, when traveling from the Northern to the Southern Hemisphere or vice versa. I had left New York's slushy streets on a bleak December day. Fifteen hours later, I stood in a Santiago street in ninety-degree heat. To make matters worse — and to avoid checking baggage that could be lost — I had arrived dressed like Heidi, sweating through several layers of long underwear and woolens. Why pack summer clothes for an overnight stay in Santiago, I had reasoned, when all my work would take place in Tierra del Fuego, where summer consisted of fierce winds, horizontal rain, and temperatures in the forties?

Downtown Santiago under Pinochet seemed crushed and hopeless in its first summer after the coup. People trudged past with their eyes averted and faces blank. Not even the Chilean paper currency that swirled in the dust devils attracted any notice. I chased after the bills as one-, five-, and even ten-escudo notes settled into the gutters along with the grimy residue of newspapers. I was delighted with all this free money until I noticed some dirty-faced children in tattered clothes picking pieces of fruit peelings out of the gutter. They completely ignored the money. Taken aback, I quickly calculated that one hundred of those grimy escudos added up to an American penny. Since one escudo equaled one US dollar in 1960, according to my old guidebook, 10,000 percent inflation had occurred in fifteen years! I dropped my newfound stash and hurried away, wiping my hands on my jeans.

In the main shopping district, dull gray and brown buildings stood shuttered up to the second floor. The few architectural treasures, such as La Moneda (the treasury building), needed to be scrubbed and patched, as numerous pockmarks from machine-gun fire still marred the walls. An ice-cold shock rushed up my spine at the thought of machine guns spraying real bullets on this very street.

A faint background moan of distant sirens suddenly increased to an ear-shattering howl, seeming to reverberate from all directions at once. Around the next corner, I was swept up by a close-packed crowd that had gathered, quickly and silently, in just the last few minutes. With nerves on full alert, my ears picked up only the shuffling of shabby shoes and terse whispers. The shuffling increased in pace, people pushing and shoving each other as they sought escape down side streets, but army trucks had already parked across the next intersection. I checked my watch. Isn't curfew three hours away? I did not want to be trapped in the middle of a panicky mob, especially if the soldiers decided to shoot into the crowd. I reversed direction, trying to avoid an encounter with yet another army barricade, but was forced to turn back. Many people were running now toward a shopping arcade. I debated a second before following them, fearing a dead end. Fortunately, it opened to the next street, which was not yet blocked.

I left the city center as fast as I could stride without appearing to flee, but I soon had to slow my pace, not from fatigue, but because I was lost. The street names on the map I carried blurred into hieroglyphics. Panic had rendered me "ageographic," a term I think I invented on the spot. I had never volunteered to work in a war zone, especially one in which civilians were placed under siege. I marched purposefully until a familiar street appeared. I dove through the hotel's front doors just as the doorman, startled to see me outside, was locking up.

More than content to remain locked inside my tiny hotel room for a long, hot night — the electricity was still out — I called the desk manager and attempted to order dinner. After each item I carefully pronounced from the multipage menu, he barked back, "No hay." ("There is none.") After a few more attempts with the same result, no hay, I asked, "Well, what do you have?"

"Qualquier lo que quiere, señorita." ("Whatever you want, miss.") I suspected that the manager didn't want to admit to any shortages. Sighing, I played along, proceeding down the list to the chorus of no hay until I finally landed on the last item, a cheese omelet. The manager responded with a cheery "Cómo no?" ("Why not?")

The next morning, the lack of electricity drove me outside into the early-morning light. Two tree-covered volcanic peaks pierced right through the middle of the city, one starting at the end of the street. Paths spiraling upward through fog-shrouded eucalyptus trees created oases of relative quiet and clean air. From the top of Santa Lucia, the bare rock and snowfields of the Andes forty miles to the east were barely visible through the thick brown smog. Hundreds of feet above street level and its harried people, I began to appreciate some of Santiago's modest charms. I reluctantly descended to street level, where the nasty brown smog obscured the buildings and crude-oil–burning buses spewed blue- black plumes everywhere.

I checked out of my hotel early to go to the airport before the day heated up. The next leg of the journey was a flight to Punta Arenas. There I would meet up with two Peace Corps volunteers whom my advisor and one of his postdocs had met. I looked forward with both excitement and dread to our upcoming expedition: to cross the Andes on foot from the Pacific side to the Atlantic through a trackless region of glaciers and fjords.


On the Strait Where You Live

Even though the flight to Punta Arenas would remain in Chile the entire time, checking in at Santiago's regional airport was as complicated as my arrival. Once again, I underwent the same hassle with the Policía Internacional over my camping equipment and hammer. Only when safely belted in my seat and far above the earth was I able to relax. I pulled out several maps and traced the plane's route. On its way south, the LAN Chile turboprop flew over a narrowing strip of farmland between the snowcapped Andes to the east and the Pacific coast to the west. About halfway into the flight, the Andes crept closer to the sea until it obliterated the flat land altogether. Chile's shape, long and narrow like a chili pepper, stretches about 2,600 miles from north to south. It retains about the same width throughout its length — averaging only one hundred miles wide from the seacoast to the crest of the Andes — until just north of the Strait of Magellan, where the country's span from west to east widens to just under three hundred miles.

When Chileans speak of "southern" Chile, they mean the cool summer colonies of the Lake District, Pablo Neruda's favorite place, that extend only as far south as Puerto Montt, in about the middle of the country. Magallanes, Chile's largest, but least populous, province, however, continues another thousand miles farther south, to its abrupt truncation at Cape Horn.

Magallanes Province includes Chilean Tierra del Fuego, a narrow sliver of southern Patagonia, both shores of the Strait of Magellan, and the southern tip of the Andes. Although Magallanes occupies 17.5 percent of Chile's total area (132,033 sq. mi.), excluding its claims to Antarctica, in 1974 it contained less than 1 percent of Chile's population, or about eighty thousand people, and sixty-five thousand of them clustered around just one small city, Punta Arenas, my destination.

Before leaving New York, I had studied every book, map, and photograph I could locate about southern South America. I spent many hours sneezing from the dust in the musty stacks of Low Library at Columbia University, carefully tracing nineteenth-century maps on onionskin paper. During my first journey to South America the previous May, I had joined a geologic research team mapping the uninhabited tundra-strewn islands near the tip of the continent. My firsthand impressions of Chile, therefore — like a foreigner who had visited only the Aleutian Islands of the United States — rested on its least typical landscape. Most place names at the end of the continent, I noticed, recorded where European explorers and their ships had passed by, such as the Strait of Magellan, Beagle Channel, Monte Darwin, and Monte Sarmiento. More provocative to me, however, were the ominous or ironic names that seemed to cluster in my future thesis area: Porvenir (Future) was a hopeful name for a town across the channel from Punta Arenas, a town that, according to The South American Handbook, had failed. In tragic Puerto del Hambre (usually translated as "Port Famine"), the first Spanish colonists starved to death. Bahía Inutil (Useless Bay) appeared to offer a sea passage to the Atlantic but instead formed a shallow cul-de-sac where sailing ships were pinned by high winds with no place to anchor and no room to turn around. The most haunting of all, Última Esperanza (Last Hope or Last Wait) was a narrow, two-hundred-mile-long fjord that promised a sheltered inland passage northward but instead terminated at a narrow, icechoked dead end. In the coming weeks it appeared that I would be working in places that far-more-experienced explorers had discovered, marked on their maps, and hastily left behind.

Five hours later, the plane circled over the gently rolling grasslands of southern Patagonia. To the west, the dwarfed remnant of the Andes peeked out of thick, low clouds. Even in summer, many of the jagged summits were capped with snowfields. The plane banked steeply as it circled over the airfield, fighting a fierce west wind. Despite the roller-coaster turns, I was thrilled to pick out the storied strait's zigzag shape. At last, the plane tilted low over the whitecaps and bounced onto a long runway of loose gravel.

On the exit stair, a cold blast of Patagonia's famous wind greeted us. Passengers below me on the stairs clung to the railing with both hands to keep from being blown off. Fortunately, the stinging air shoved us more or less in the right direction toward the small terminal. Now I was glad I had worn those winter clothes. The temperature was a brisk forty-five to fifty degrees but felt much colder due to the windchill.

Inside, we had to pass through customs, immigration, and Policía Internacional yet again. In the baggage claim area, I noticed a wall map of Chile that included Chile's claim of a wedge of Antarctica to the South Pole. Below a big star at Punta Arenas I translated a line that read, "Welcome to Punta Arenas, the center of Chile." The center? Even Chileans, who considered Magallanes far beyond the edge of the earth, would find this audacious claim ironic.

Outside at last with my steamer trunk and backpack, I waved down the last remaining cab. The driver loaded the trunk, and I said in carefully practiced Spanish, "Take me to Casilla 456." The cabbie shook his head and dropped his hand from the ignition. I fished out the envelope bearing the mailing address of the Peace Corps volunteers who lived in town. The driver objected in rapid-fire Spanish, saying something I couldn't understand. When I waved a five-dollar bill at him, he threw his hands in the air in a gesture of surrender and irritation for the benefit of onlookers at the curb. Nevertheless, he hopped into his seat and muttered all the way into town, sometimes frowning in the rearview mirror to see if I understood, or maybe to check whether I had sprouted feathers.

Determined to avoid his quizzical glance, I gazed out the window and was awestruck to see the strait so near. A low-angle sun glinted off the strait's steely waves. A few miles from the center of town, the road turned into a paved four-lane-wide boulevard with a weedy center median. Almost all the inhabitants of Magallanes, who call themselves Magallanicos, I had read, lived within the neatly laid-out city grid in small sheet-metal houses painted in muted pastels. Amid a tidy cluster of four- and five-story commercial buildings that bordered the central plaza, two towered above the rest: a building for the Empresa Nacional del Petróleo (ENAP), Chile's national oil company, and the Hotel Cabo de Hornos. The cab circled the plaza with its huge statue of Magellan before stopping in front of the post office. Under the glare of army soldiers flanking the huge open doors, the cabbie turned to his witless passenger and spat through gritted teeth, "Casilla! Casilla! Casilla!"


Excerpted from The Cusp of Dreadfulness by Margaret Winslow. Copyright © 2016 Margaret Winslow. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Illustrations, xi,
Preface, xv,
Acknowledgments, xvii,
Prologue, xix,
Part I: Crossing the Andes 1974–76, 1,
Chapter 1 Chile after the Coup, 3,
Chapter 2 On the Strait Where You Live, 7,
Chapter 3 Flying over the Southern Andes, 22,
Chapter 4 Rodeo at Yendegaia, 26,
Chapter 5 Backpacking across the Andes, 32,
Chapter 6 No Free Passes, 40,
Chapter 7 Seno Almirantazgo (Admiralty Sound), 45,
Chapter 8 A Thesis of One's Own, 52,
Chapter 9 The Heart of Tierra del Fuego, 57,
Part II: The West Coast of Tierra del Fuego 1976–80, 67,
Chapter 10 Patagonian Pilot, 69,
Chapter 11 Crossing the Strait of Magellan, 76,
Chapter 12 The West Coast of Tierra del Fuego, 81,
Chapter 13 Timaukel, 86,
Part III: The East Coast of Tierra del Fuego 1981–82, 99,
Chapter 14 Fateful Tides, 101,
Chapter 15 The Gathering Storm, 113,
Part IV: Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia 1986–92, 121,
Chapter 16 Puerto Yartou, 123,
Chapter 17 Migraine in Blue, 137,
Chapter 18 Walking on Water, 148,
Chapter 19 Roots and Branches, 159,
Chapter 20 Last Camp, 166,
Chapter 21 The Cusp of Dreadfulness, 172,
Chapter 22 Watching their Flocks, 180,
Chapter 23 Departures, 190,
Final Note, 193,
About the Author, 195,
Author's Note on Location Names, 197,
Bibliography and Recommended Reading, 199,

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