Love and the Unknown: A Surprise Proposal in Patagonia

Torres del Paine is an exercise in ditching expectations

I shouldn’t be surprised when he gets down on one knee. Our dating history is a long one, and this trip to Chile has ample opportunities for epic gestures. But after trekking uphill for hours through wind, rain and snow, and emerging at a glacial lake at the foot of massive granite pillars, the proposal is just as unexpected as the rest of the journey.

The place is Torres del Paine, the iconic Patagonian park where the water is so pure that the streams are your faucets, and a towering massif that fits somewhere between a Dr. Seuss illustration and a shot from “Planet Earth” dominates every vista. We’re hiking the “W,” winding our way through terrain that Lady Florence Dixie described as springing “from the bowels of the Earth.” Thousands of people complete the trek each year, and though the path is well-worn, we’re finding our own way.

The route is simple enough. There’s one well-marked trail, no back ways, no shortcuts. That’s where the expectations end. To walk in Torres del Paine is to put yourself at Mother Nature’s mercy and experience everything she can throw at you, sometimes within the span of just a few hours. Our first day we start walking in sunshine with light winds at our backs. By lunchtime we’re hitting 40-mile-per-hour gusts and rain that will continue to pound through the night.

Our plan is to ascend to Mirador Las Torres, one of the most dramatic scenes in the park, that afternoon. The weather laughs at our intentions, as evidenced by the rope stretched across the trail, separating us from the base of the towers just a few more miles ahead.

Back in the city such an obstacle would make me bury my frustration and devise another, better plan. Now I just let go. Let the rain and the wind come down. Why not go back to our “refugio” and play cards, chat with the French trio and the Canadian man snoozing in the bunks of our shared dorm?

Day two greets us with more rain, which turns to snow as we climb again toward Las Torres. The flakes blow sideways. Every once in awhile they pause to tease us with partial views of the wild rocks beckoning ahead. The conditions are worse. But we’re happy, undaunted.

We meet the rope this time as if she’s an old friend. She slightly disapproves of our latest jaunt, but turns a blind eye as we pass her. We’re not alone. Word spreads that park rangers condone the march onward as long we feel strong and sure-footed.

We haven’t looked at a clock in days. The ascent might take us 45 minutes or two hours; we don’t try to know. There’s time to laugh and moments to appreciate the grand and the small: the seemingly endless supply of impossibly clean water, the pair of gray foxes that saunters across our path, the beam of light that burns through the clouds and gives us hope that yes, we might get a view when we reach the top.

The panorama that comes into focus in our final steps is far more epic than the Google Images and travelogues let on. The towers look bigger, ominous and protective at once. The unforgiving wind gives way to quiet and stillness. I’ve said ‘Hola!’ to strangers on the trail more times than I’ve uttered those two syllables in my life. But the emptiness up here is a reminder of our ephemerality. These rocks have been here 12 billion years. Our engagement ritual is one of hundreds they’ve seen between blinks of an eye.

Over the next few days we’ll come to know every angle of Las Torres as we zigzag through the valleys at their feet. We’ll see waterfalls and rainbows, hail and jack rabbits. We’ll slip on wet rocks, trudge through mud and gasp at the charred trees, a reminder of the catastrophic fire that burned 40,000 acres here in 2011. We’ll nurse our sore limbs with pisco sours and the company of the knowing trekkers we bunk with in shelters along the route. We’ll miss our ferry back to the park gates, and laugh when we walk 12 more miles to get there.

None of these moments is expected, but none feels out of place. We’re far from home, keeping our secret to ourselves before we plug back into the world days later in Punta Arenas. Then our friends and family will know what we learned along the W. The two of us we’ll keep moving forward, putting one blistered foot in front of the other and delighting in all the unforeseen steps along the way.

Published: February 12, 2017

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Marguerite McNeal

San Francisco

Writing about education, the environment and technology from San Francisco. Someone once called me a human compass.