Flying Patagonian Thunder Lizards
Our holiday season was nuts.
Not front-page news, as I hear from many that they often use “nuts” (or some variation) and “holiday season” together.
For me – for us as a family of three – this one was different…
As written about a couple of months ago, our son Cai took off for an academic year’s worth of wilderness leadership training and adventure with NOLS back in mid-October of 2019.
He and his fellow adventurers arrived in Chile at about the same time the Chilean people arrived at the conclusion that their government wasn’t doing a very good job of governing. Indeed, large groups of disgruntled Chilean citizens popped the clutch and got down to the business of rioting and general mayhem in a concerted effort to have their concerns paid attention to…
I found out about this state of unrest whilst on a work gig in Atlanta teaching a training class called – rather ironically – “Fulfillment”.
A Chilean expat, a participant in my class, gently clued me into what was going on way down South with these words: “You said your son is in Chile. Is he far away from the rioting?”
Always a sucker for a good opening line, this one won props for originality and potent attention-grabbing!
Yes, Cai was safe and sound at NOLS Patagonia’s base camp, a dozen miles outside of Coyhaique, a mere 6,000 miles and change from our Upstate New York home.
Within a few short days he would be entirely off-the-grid with his group and their guides, out on the waters of a Patagonian archipelago for five and a half weeks of sea kayaking…
Danielle and I were still finding our footing as empty nesters when Cai returned to base camp following his 40-ish days of paddling. It was the night before Thanksgiving here in the US.
A few hours after settling in at base camp, he reached out to us on WhatsApp and, after a bit of back and forth, we figured on a time to speak that evening.
I hadn’t heard him so excited and full of stories in a long while, and it was just wicked-good fun hanging with him on a video-call, catching occasional crumbs of bigger stories yet to come.
With a whole mess of preparations for Thanksgiving – and an oven that had gone belly-up only hours before Cai had contacted us – we made plans to connect the following night over Thanksgiving dinner…
We interrupt this story for an important message: In Yiddish, “Mann tracht, un Gott lacht.” In English, “Man plans, and God laughs.”
At some point after we hung up that Wednesday evening, Cai donned his headphones and, dancing away as his music played, planted his right foot in such a way that his grippy, slightly too-big shoe bit into whatever surface he was on – and his ankle-bone, still, as the song goes, connected to his foot-bone and leg-bone – just kept a-rolling…
Rolling right into a series of events that – well, that changed some plans and provided wee bits of amusement for those in the heavenly realm…
And thus it was, Dear Reader, that, a mere two weeks later, Cai – accompanied by a pair of crutches, a heavily padded immobilization boot and a rather swollen, fascinatingly discolored right ankle, foot, shin and calf – flew through the night to arrive at JFK International on the morning of Tuesday, December 10, 2019.
What followed was a three-and-a-half-week whirlwind of storytelling, emotional big-wave surfing, laughter, swearing, appointments, health insurance snafus, wrestling with schedules, readjusting, rejiggering expectations, a few very tasty meals with people all three of us adore, a whole lot of time becoming way too intimate with the New York Thruway…
And a miracle or two.
Based on what we saw and had been told of Cai’s injury, Danielle and I figured we were trading in our empty nest bona fides for what would likely end up being the next nine or ten months, so we began to settle in and make different plans.
With our world in full-on Holiday Season spin, Cai was unable to get an appointment with a physical therapist until the morning of New Year’s Eve.
I had a relatively open morning, so I drove to the PT’s office, grabbed an old issue of “Outside” magazine – which just happened to feature an article on the National Parks of Patagonia – and hunkered down in their breezy waiting room whilst Cai met with the Therapist.
Me: “What’d she have to say..?”
Cai: “She said I’m good to go back.”
Me: “Huh..? Did you tell her what you’re going to be doing when you go back..?”
Me: “You told her you’d be mountaineering. Uneven terrain. No level ground. Carrying a 60- to 80-pound pack..?”
Cai: “I told her everything…”
Me: “Mountaineering? 60- to 80-pound pack? Uneven terrain? Glaciers? No level ground for weeks…”
Cai: “Dad. I told her everything. She said I’m good to return to the field.”
Remember that important message about plans..? This would be a good time to go back up the page and have another look. (While either version will do just fine, I do find the Yiddish has a kind of phlegmy, feel-good essence that just brings the meaning home in a more satisfyingly sensual sort of way…)
Four days later – after much fancy Interweb footwork and telephone hoop-jumping – to say nothing of Cai’s efforts to reorganize and repack – we loaded up the Prius and got on the road for a marathon down-and-back to JFK.
Like I said, our holiday season was nuts…
Here’s part of what I value and appreciate so much about this stream of unexpected events – and about Cai in particular: When I spoke to him the evening of his first day back at base camp, he said to me, “Don’t take this personally, Dad, but when I got into Coyhaique yesterday morning, I felt more at home than I did when I was home.”
I said, “I don’t take that personally at all. You didn’t want to be home. You’re with your peeps and you’re where you really, really want to be…”
I don’t know if he could sense the joyful, poignant pools spilling over from my eyes…
It doesn’t matter.
What matters is that he’s where he most wants to be – on uneven terrain, making his way across snowfields and, if the weather holds, up a knife-edge ridge high on a Chilean mountain, taking in breath-taking views, forging bonds, discovering more of himself and this world than he could ever imagine existed and, for all I know, spotting the occasional flock of Flying Patagonian Thunder Lizards…
So, yes, “Mann tracht, un Gott lacht.”
Messy, honest wisdom that…
And somehow, from generation to generation – with divine laughter as background music – we find our footing and our grace…
We find our terrain, our people… and our way.