On a seamlessly dark night at “The End Of The World”, inside the first house ever built in this desolate place, Ethan and I had the worst fight of our marriage. Concern about a gas heater sparked it, travel fatigue fueled it, and the fact that we had no electricity, telephone or other way to call for help was the equivalent of gasoline on an open fire.
Estancia Harberton is a 50,000-acre ranch built in 1886 at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, the southern most spot in South America. The island got its name from early sailors who spotted the fires of natives blazing on shore and is home to Cape Horn, where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans come together in a rollicking collision that has led to many a sailor’s death. In later years, some marketing genius dubbed this desolate area “El Fin Del Mundo” (the end of the world) even though the world’s real end lies in Antarctica, another 700 miles south.
Thomas Bridges, a missionary from Harberton, England, established this bleak and beautiful outpost after the Argentine government gifted him the unforgiving land. Charles Darwin, in his “Voyage Of The Beagle” journal, described the area as one of “savage magnificence”, where “death, instead of life, seemed the predominant spirit.”
Hoping to experience its lonely, seductive mystery, we had driven 90 kilometers (half of it on a rough dirt road) to Harberton from Ushuaia, Tierra Del Fuego’s biggest town and jumping off point for arctic cruisers, explorers, and researchers. Sandra, a long-haired Argentine who manages Harberton’s tourist traffic, showed us to our room (one of just two available for rent) in “The Old Shepherd’s House,” a small dwelling of corrugated green tin located about a quarter mile from the main house. The only furnishings were four twin beds and an ancient chest of drawers painted bright blue.
“Wait until tonight,” Sandra said as she gave us the keys, “the silence is amazing.” She added that a real shepherd had lived here until a few years ago, when one exceedingly bad winter killed all of Harberton’s sheep and he moved on to selling overpriced North Face and Columbia gear in town. It was the shepherd’s old heater that would leave a burn mark on our marriage.
That night—mid summer in South America–it snowed in the black, bare hills above the Estancia. I had cranked up our wall heater and soon we were all sweating in our sleep. Because the ranch’s generator had been turned off at midnight, it was inky black when I got up at 1:00A.M. to turn the heat down.
Chaos theory stipulates that something as miniscule as the flap of a butterfly wing can create a hurricane a world—or a twin bed—away. In this case, the simple flick of a wrist–meant to decrease heat–accidentally turned it off. This would have been only a minor storm, as we had lot of blankets, but I had recently seen the movie “Biutiful”, in which a faulty heater turns a few dozen people into waterlogged ghosts. I woke Ethan.
“I turned the heater off by accident and I don’t know how to turn it back on,” I said.
“It’s too hot in here anyway,” he replied and went back to sleep. For several minutes, I turned knobs, trying to get the pilot light to fire, pondering the odds of this heater leaking deadly fumes. I wondered whether folks in Tierra Del Fuego were required to odorize their gas just like folks in the U.S. I woke Ethan again.
“I’m worried the heater might leak gas,” I said, “and that we won’t be able to smell it.” Ethan, usually a handy man to have around, stomped out of bed, and fiddled with the heater.
“I have no idea how to turn it on,” he said as he stomped back. “So I turned off the gas valve. Now it can’t leak.” And he went back to sleep.
I lay in my little bed, feeling helpless and more than a little angry that Ethan did not share my paranoia. “What if,” I muttered to myself, “the gas lines at the end of the fin del fucking mundo were not turned off the same way as in America?” “Why,” my internal rant spiraled, “here in some Englishman’s version of Little House On The Prairie, was Daddy not concerned that we could all end up like Payne Stewart on his ghost plane?” I woke Ethan for a third time.
“Are you sure the gas is off?” I asked.
“I’m as sure as I can be, Suzanne,” he answered, his tone and use of my full name transmitting the depth of his irritation. “What do you want me to do, run around in the middle of the night searching for someone to turn our heater on?”
Somewhere, a butterfly flapped furiously, and inside our room off The Beagle Channel the storm upgraded to hurricane force. I pointed out to Ethan that if he had not declined the walkie-talkie Sandra had offered us “in case of emergency,” he wouldn’t have to go searching for help. Our ensuing argument woke Griffin and, in what was certainly not my finest hour, I hissed something about not sending a boy to do a man’s job, shoved Ethan out of the way, and stumbled out the door in my pajamas into the cold Patagonian night (Ethan will accuse me of biased journalism if I do not add that I used the f-bomb at least twice).
Now, I am not a shepherd. I am not a missionary or an extreme adventurer. I am an unemployed news anchorwoman. I picked my way down the dirt lane, cold and scared, having been told earlier by Harberton’s seventy-seven-year-old owner that he had found five bullets in the last cow he had butchered for food, fired by inept cattle rustlers who sometimes roam the ranch land. Surely I was going to be shot by someone mistaking me for a cow or cracked over the head with a rolling pin by someone mistaking me for a thief. But I was not turning back—I had a point to prove, even if I could not remember what it was.
“Hola?” I whispered when I finally reached the main complex. “Hola!” A little louder. The dim light coming from a one-hundred-year old ship anchored in the bay bounced dully off a bathtub sitting in a field of daisies and I remembered this was outside the café where we had eaten vegetable soup and shepherd’s pie earlier. But I had no idea where anyone slept in this quaint, ramshackle maze of buildings. Then, I heard a faint giggle. “HOLA!” I shouted, and the giggling stopped.
Out of the darkness materialized two young Argentines who were spending the summer working at Harberton. I was so glad to see them I did not think to ask what they were doing awake and giggling at 1:30A.M. Nacho and Inez wrapped their coats around me while I explained my problem in stumbling Spanish, and then they walked me back to the shepherd’s house.
“This heater has an automatic turn off,” explained Nacho in perfect English, easily lighting the pilot. Just like in the States. “You’d be able to smell the gas if it was leaking.” Just like in the States. “And if you turn this valve,” he added, pointing to the one Ethan had turned off an hour before, “no gas can come.” Just like Ethan had said.
The next morning dawned slate grey, with rain clouds battling back intermittent patches of clear blue. The chill was physically and emotionally fierce as the four of us boarded a large Zodiac and left for Yecapasela Island, home of a colony of Magellanic penguins made up of over three thousand birds about the size of Ado. Both kids had internalized the tension of their parents and seemed intent on cracking what little remained of our composure. Adrian screamed “I’m freezing!” but refused to wear a jacket, knocking hot chocolate all over the boat’s white seats when I tried to shove his little arms through the sleeves. Griffin refused to disembark when we arrived at Yecapasela, announcing that this small, remote gem of an island “smells like poop and penguins are stupid”. I considered a swan dive into the Beagle Channel, preferring the frigid water and jaws of a leopard seal to spending one more second with my warring family.
Luckily, evolution has ensured that moments like this do not usually last too long, otherwise many parents would be in jail or the asylum. Within minutes, Ethan and I were entranced with the love fest taking place around us. The tuxedoed male penguins were busy digging burrows, so close to us that the dirt flying from their mottled webbed feet sometimes hit ours. The females stood by supervising or bringing over mouthfuls of green grass to make home more comfortable. Magellanic penguins, our guide told us, mate for life—coming back to the same burrow year after year and sharing the duties of childrearing, one sitting on the nest alone for up to three weeks while the other hunts for food. I watched one penguin pair engage in what looked liked kissing, and even though I knew they were more likely regurgitating fish guts into each other’s mouths, it was a reminder that any successful union involves sacrifice, commitment, mistakes, and above all, forgiveness.
The drama and anger of heater-gate drained away as we walked among these funny-looking flightless birds and the sun suddenly broke through the clouds, etching Tierra del Fuego’s snow capped mountains against the sky. The penguins brayed like donkeys, picked nits out of their hatchlings’ downy fur, and waddled down to the sea for a swim. But mostly, they purred like contented cats, happy in their one-bedroom burrows at the end of the world.