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
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 dice “tacky 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.