In Patagonia, In Patagonia

Speaker's Corner: Tim Patterson packs his fleece and long underwear, and enters the Twilight Zone where corporate branding meets the multilayered reality of place.

05.09.08 | 10:00 AM ET

Patagonia label in PatagoniaPhoto by Tim Patterson

Buying clothes pains me. I would sooner trek naked through a leech-infested jungle than shop for shoes. But somehow, over the years, I’ve amassed an extensive wardrobe of Patagonia brand clothing.

The fleece from an ex-girlfriend. The windbreaker I found secondhand. The ski pants I “borrowed” from my college roommate. The thermal underwear from Santa. The socks I treated myself to after three days of biking through the Chic Choc mountains in the rain.

Even my daypack is a Patagonia One Bag, with sealed zippers and a pocket that fits my laptop like a men’s R3 glove.

All well and good. Patagonia makes fine gear that blends form, function, corporate ethics and mountaineering chic.

But I wasn’t bound for the Rockies or the Alps. I was headed to the Andes. Patagonia—for six months. And here I was, looking as if I had just stepped out of a Patagonia catalog.

Como se dicetacky gringo”?

The Patagonia brand doesn’t distort Patagonia the place so much as it appropriates its image as a marketing tool, distilling stark mountains and outlaws and barren windy plains into a vague perfume of mystic coolness that makes yippies (yuppy-hippies like me) reach for our MasterCards.

Google “Patagonia” and the first result links not to a site about the place, but to the company site, where you can purchase jackets, shirts and footwear. 

In the brave new world of a California-based search and technology information company, a California brand takes precedence over a place that is half the size of California. 

As my red-eye to Buenos Aires taxied down the runway at JFK, I popped a sleeping pill and balled up my Patagonia fleece into a makeshift pillow. Just before passing out, a thought crossed my mind.

Was my trip nothing more than a logical extension of my brand identity? Did I buy my air ticket to the end of the Earth in the same way I might click on a text-link ad specifically targeted to my interests?

Was I following in the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, or was I in Patagonia to make a fashion statement on a continental scale?

The Twilight Zone where branded icon meets the multilayered reality of place often reeks of bad taste and irony.

A Che Guevara T-shirt bought in a moment of stoned rebellion on Khao San Road in Bangkok is an inarticulate fashion statement, a harmless backpacker icon. 

Wear the same shirt to a coffee shop in Little Havana, however, or to the marble lobby of the Radisson La Paz, and the icon comes up hard against the bloody realities of Latin American leftist movements.

Put another way, the fur boutiques of Moscow are a long way from the mink farms.

What meaning did Patagonia’s mountain logo on my chest and underwear hold? How would that meaning hold up high in the real mountains of Patagonia? 

One week after touching down in Buenos Aires, as the bus to El Chalten rattled over barren Patagonian plains, I woke from a nap and saw a mountain range on the horizon. I glanced down at the logo on my fleece, then up to the mountains once more.

The images were identical—and at this distance—almost the same size. In that groggy moment, the view of the mountains felt like a vindication of my journey. 

A cozy feeling of accomplishment spread through my chest, as if I were trying on a new goose-down jacket, and I curled against the window and went back to sleep until the bus reached El Chalten.

The sheer granite spire of Mt. Fitzroy towers over a ramshackle tourist village that consists of one luxury mountain lodge, about two dozen mom-and-pop guesthouses, and countless tattered tents and rusty trailers, where locals sleep packed tight like sardines in high season.

Back in the 1970s, Patagonia’s founder Yves Chouinard chose Mt. Fitzroy to represent his brand. El Chalten, I discovered, was founded in 1985. Fifteen years after the Patagonia brand.

Even I was older than this place.

Making camp behind a makeshift windbreak by the river north of town, I racked my brain trying to remember a time I had set foot in a town younger than myself, but couldn’t think of a single one.

That night a cold crept down from the mountains. I put on my Patagonia Capilene long underwear, windbreaker, ski pants, socks and fleece, burrowed deep in my Sierra sleeping bag and slept fitfully as the incessant wind rattled my rain-fly.

In the next few days, while I researched a guidebook assignment, I came to a sad conclusion: Only 22 years old, El Chalten was already working for the man.

It was the same scene as the Thai islands, only with Andean peaks instead of Andaman sands. This dusty frontier town lived tourism, breathed tourism, would be abandoned if it were not for tourism.

Locals were busy making money and paving streets as fast as possible. Intrepid travelers were flowing through the valley like plastic bottles in a river, posing for ice-climbing photos on the Torre glacier and bending into the wind on their way to the internet café —everyone happy, effusive, sunburned and grinning wide.

I was happy, too. I was in Patagonia after all, on assignment as a travel writer, livin’ the dream.

Scribbling in my Moleskine notebooks—the only brand Bruce Chatwin used—I fancied myself a writer, someone people should listen to, someone with important things to say.

So what to say? I looked to my literary role model for ideas.

The story Chatwin told in his classic travelogue “In Patagonia” was both the tale of an outer journey to the extremes of the Earth and an inner journey to confront the dark and ruthless heart of British colonialism.

Trekking across a glacier one day with a mountain guide from Cleveland at my side, I wondered if my outer adventure was also an inner journey to some dark heart, if I was traveling to confront ... what exactly?

Two hundred sixty nine dollar jackets and pinpoint online marketing? The commercialization of media? The horror of consumerism run amok in the global marketplace?  The fatal link between adventure tourism, air travel and climate change? The creepy side of the tourism industry, where communities submit to branding to survive?

These were ugly thoughts, and the mountains were so beautiful.

After the glacier trek, I went to my tent. There were hours of daylight left. 

I packed my Patagonia One Bag with fleece jacket, ham sandwich and Charles Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle” and bushwhacked up to treeline for some peace and solitude.

It was so quiet, apart from the wind. Clouds boiled up from the ice-field and swirled like schools of herring around the peak of Mt. Fitzroy. One minute you could see the mountain, the next moment it was gone.

I sat very still and focused on my breath. 

In / Out / In / Out / In / Out.

I was glad for my fleece. It kept me warm.

Tim Patterson is editor of Matador Trips and contributing editor at Brave New Traveler.

25 Comments for In Patagonia, In Patagonia

Ian 05.09.08 | 12:11 PM ET

Great piece Tim.  Sometimes do-gooders can overthink things a little too much.  Sometimes it’s good to just be in the now.

Brenda 05.09.08 | 3:02 PM ET

Oh, Tim, how I love Patagonia (the brand) and Patagonia (the place).  I wonder whether commercialism, as you subtly suggest, really matters when you are really there just to experience the world around you.  The material stuff suddenly feels so unimportant, right?

Ross 05.09.08 | 3:12 PM ET

I agree completely with Ian’s comment, above.

...and I love your comparison of wearing a Che shirt in a Havana cafe. Very true..

Quinn 05.09.08 | 5:50 PM ET

Yaaaaaaaah Tim. You just got me all excited to get my Patagucci wetsuit when I get back to the States! (For real).
It’s funny, because sometimes I feel like traveling is just a new kind of colonialism—but instead of appropriating materially, we’re appropriating experientially. Like, hey I’m gonna go to your country and soak up the best experiences you have to offer…and chau. Which is cool, I guess, as long as those experiences are inexhaustible and available to everyone (and traveller’s are honest enough to ditch the “I’m experiencing a culture” homily).
But, it does feel extra weird when everyone doing the experiencing is not from the place where it’s going down. So yeah…I’m digging the uncrowded waves in Peru right now; but it’s sort of awkward knowing the only reason they are uncrowded is that the local surfer kids can’t afford wetsuits for the winter.

Hal 05.09.08 | 7:03 PM ET

I second Ross’s comment, great point about how a cultural icon can mean two completely different things in different contexts. Really enjoyed the article, Tim!

And Quinn, you better get ready. There was just a NYTimes piece about Peru becoming the next “it” surf spot.

Lola 05.09.08 | 7:40 PM ET

Great article Tim! Congrats.

Steven Jay Weinberg 05.09.08 | 10:03 PM ET

I think I must’ve camped two tents over from you, and the rapid, thoughtless growth of the town of El Chalten—primarily with thoughts to suck dollars from tourist wallets—made me think that once the roads and sidewalks and clap-trap buildings are up, this town will be everything one hopes it wouldn’t be.

Chatwin’s Patagonia is gone, and your Patagonia is fleeting, and Patagonia Corp has the great advantage of selling manufactured images that sell product.

As long as they don’t etch Chouinard’s physignomy on the face of Mt. Fitzroy, though, there’s always that scramble up the hill between high seasons. I guess that is the terrible doubt: is there always that? Well, there’s breath for as long as there is breath.

Christine Gilbert 05.09.08 | 10:53 PM ET

Hey Tim:

Como se dice “Great Piece”?

Really enjoyed it, give me more.  :)

Tim Patterson 05.10.08 | 1:45 AM ET

Thanks for the big ups, everyone, much appreciated.

ginoong pilipinas 2007 05.11.08 | 7:20 AM ET

Yep, like this article!
Im going to do the Patagoina adventure race 2010, thats the plan anyway!

David Miller 05.12.08 | 2:48 AM ET


I gave this piece a second read tonight and some lines really shine:

“In the brave new world of a California-based search and technology information company, a California brand takes precedence over a place that is half the size of California. “

great perspective man.

Tim Patterson 05.12.08 | 2:58 AM ET

Thanks David - and a headsup to everyone who appreciates good travel writing - David is one of the best writers I know.

Check out his piece Searching For Patagonia (linked to my name, below).

Claire Walter 05.12.08 | 1:56 PM ET

I El Chalten is in the path of volcanic ash from Chaiten across the border in Chile, you might having a different experience from the one you expected. Or perhaps you have moved on and wrote this afterwards.

Claire @

Tim Patterson 05.12.08 | 5:02 PM ET

I have moved on Claire - that was quite an eruption I hear - would have been interesting to see firsthand, though I’m afraid it will wreck havoc on fruit harvests in Patagonia.

Alexis Wolff 05.12.08 | 8:22 PM ET

Can’t believe no one’s commented yet about the picture. I’ll be the first: it’s a great one!

Tim Patterson 05.12.08 | 8:26 PM ET

Thanks Alexis - it took a long time for those mountains to come out from behind the clouds.

John M. Edwards 05.15.08 | 6:09 AM ET

Hi Tim:

Nice job! When I was at college at Tulane in New Orleans I befriended a blonde guy with an English accent who danced around one night at the nightclubs with a live python around his neck.

His name was Bruce. I didn’t know then he was a writer.

But “In Patagonia” remains one of my favorite books, though of course, “Utz,” a thin volume about a Meissen porcelain collector in Prague is Chatwin’s best.

But we all will wait patiently until 2010 when Chatwin’s magnum opus is released (his molesskin diaries inked by Mont Blanc pens).

As a time traveler to your fair land, I can’t wait!

John M. Edwards

Tim Patterson 05.15.08 | 11:18 PM ET

Just wanted to thank everyone for the discussion, and highlight the comments by Quinn and Steven - 2 friends from South America. 

Quinn - enjoy your wetsuit and the waves in Peru - how about another surfing guide for Matador?  I bet you know the breaks much better than the New York Times.

Steven -

There will always be breath.


Ireq 05.16.08 | 5:04 PM ET

It really seems like you adjusted the graphics on the tent to the natural landscape, great!

Tim Patterson 05.17.08 | 12:39 AM ET

It’s actually a day-bag - the Patagonia One Bag, which, incidentally, is a pretty sweet piece of gear.

Christie 06.03.08 | 2:06 PM ET

Hi, Nice piece Tim!

While tourism is sometimes dirty and depressing, and often requires everything everywhere to be the same instead of different, it’s sure a lot cleaner than mining or soya plantations.

People in Patagonia are a little bitter that a company took its name - ‘it’s a place not a brand’ is commonly heard here. But at least it’s a ‘eco-friendly’ brand.

By the way, Patagonia is nearly twice the size of California, not half its size.

paul 06.22.08 | 7:49 PM ET

nicely written. very clever. admittedly ive only read it once but i’m struggling to recall something it taught me about patagonia other than it has mountains and tourists.

perhaps i just have an incredibly poor memory.

Katie Krueger 07.24.08 | 10:46 AM ET

I love this piece!  I always find the one thing Westerners (especially those from the US) can’t leave behind is their branding.  As travelers, we become walking advertisements for a brand - probably successfully selling to other travelers we meet.

Still, I bet those native to Patagonia survive quite well without the performance gear.

Good ending - a lot can be solved by slowing down and taking a deep breath.

mini games 10.06.08 | 6:07 AM ET

While tourism is sometimes dirty and depressing, and often requires everything everywhere to be the same instead of different, it’s sure a lot cleaner than mining or soya plantations.

People in Patagonia are a little bitter that a company took its name - ‘it’s a place not a brand’ is commonly heard here. But at least it’s a ‘eco-friendly’ brand.

sluggages 10.28.08 | 11:06 PM ET

Oh, Tim, I am proud of you. The experience in your travel is so amazing that I can not help dreaming of having a visit to Patagonia if I get the chance. To travel around the world is a commom ideal of many people. But not everyone can realize it.

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