My Patagonia

The three minute warning. In the dark days of the early 80′s, it was a key part of every schoolboy’s lexicon. When Mother Russia pressed the button, that was all the time you’d have until the mushroom clouds blossomed above the craters where every English city used to be. What would you do in those three minutes? Where would you go? It was unacceptable not to have a snappy answer. Boil an egg. Jump off the school roof. Punch a teacher. Try to feel up that girl in the next classroom.

We were force-fed “Z for Zachariah” and Greenham Common. In 1985, the BBC finally aired “The War Game”, a film depicting the aftermath of the seemingly inevitable nuclear strike. It had been embargoed for twenty years, judged “too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting”. I don’t think I was allowed to watch it at home, but it didn’t matter; our slightly-to-the-left-of-Trotsky English teacher showed it to us in the classroom anyway. We all knew what was going to happen. Morrissey had said as much. The end of the world, and you weren’t sure whether it would be better to survive or be drunk and under the first bomb.

Do you know what you get when you Google “3 minute warning” now?

A professional wrestling tag team. And a Welsh ska band.

The wall came down, Gorbachev and Reagan had their love-in, and then Yeltsin sold off the war machine to his buddies from the bottom of a vodka bottle, just to be sure. All that worrying, it seems so quaint. I wonder what schoolboys worry about these days. If music is a reflection of the times, and The Smiths was our nuclear conflagration, then they don’t appear to have much on their minds, judging by Miley Cyrus and Kayne West. Maybe I’m just getting old. But damn, if our world was going to end in flames, then at least we had a decent soundtrack.

These are the thoughts that wander through my mind as I lie, watching the stars, from the floor of the Todai-gawa valley. The fire is dying, and the two-mouthful hip-flask of Lagavulin sits empty at my side. The mountains brood in the darkness on either side, and even though the night is cloudless, there is the occasional flash of light from the south as some distant electrical storm discharges itself. Yuka paces backwards and forwards. “I’m trying to feel my fear,” she says. I boil some water and pour it into a flask for her hot water bottle, and shortly we lie down to sleep with the sound of the river echoing around.

The morning chill reminds us that it is not yet May, and that the valley, so low against the mountains, is still at over three thousand feet. As Yuka pokes her nose out of the sleeping bag, I dash around picking up sticks for a fire. There’s plenty of wood here, trees and branches scraped from the mountainsides by landslide, lightning and flood. Blanched white by the sun it lies scattered, as if the riverbed were a mess of thighbones and ribs. I light the pyre, and it roars to life fueled by the chill wind which the river carries down from the peaks, and with it the smell of snow. We’d found a small restaurant in Chino the night before where they cure their own bacon, and we bought a slab the size of a forearm; now carved into thick slices and impaled on sticks, it spits and sends puffs of blue smoke into the milky pre-dawn air.

Todai-gawa valley is utterly deserted. Long ago, before they built the Minami-Alps Rindo, this was one of the main entrances to the Southern Alps. The broken down huts which lie along it are testament both to its history, and the fact that few travel this way any more, the Goretex-clad hoards preferring the buses which take you right to Kitazawa-toge and its well appointed lodges. And that’s why I like it here. It’s not a beautiful valley in any classic sense. Chocked with boulders and tree trunks, a pancake flat floor a hundred or so meters across, it winds up from Todai to the bottom of Kitazawa, an unstoppable highway of destruction. Quiet and solitary, there is no path, just a feeling and the occasional faded twist of red cloth tied to a tree or rock by some long-passed traveller. It’s also a deceptive climb; only an odd tightness in the quadriceps the following day betrays the 3000 foot rise in altitude along its course, a fact I don’t mention to Yuka. Still conscious that we smell deliciously of bacon, I double check the bear bell and capsicum spray, and we set out.

The lightshow starts around 6a.m. as the sun pulls level with the far peaks of Kai-koma and Nokko-giri, sending shards of gold through the sky. Within minutes the mountains are a tinged a pale blue, and then the sun peeps over the ridge and light spills into the the western side of the valley. It’s my third time to see this, and it never disappoints. Yuka squeezes my arm and tells me she can understand why I love this nondescript valley so much.

Light snowfall this year has deprived the river of its usual life. Where I’d waded across raging currents last year, today there is dry gravel, and it looks like the hank of rope in my pack will go unused. The intricate web of cris-crossing streams has been replaced by a single, wide thread of water, which crashes through the boulders and through the thick, grey silt. The sides of the valley continue to crumble, and at one point pebbles rain down and hit the water like sniper’s bullets, probably sent upon us by a deer or tanuki raccoon-dog scrambling on the upper slopes. I show Yuka how to pull her pack over her head for protection, and we hurry on.

Mount Kai-koma glistens in the distance as the sun glints off the last of the winter snows. It’s one of the things that draws me here, the long walk in to the foot of the mountain. Six or so miles along the valley floor with the mountain almost continually in sight, beckoning. With the conveniences of road and rail, it’s hard to find that elsewhere in Japan, as if having to walk many hours just to get to the foot of the mountain were something abhorrent. How much better to stand on that peak which has filled your eyes for so many hours, growing larger with each passing step. Today, though, we take our time, investigating the many waterfalls which spill from the mountains on either side, sometimes gazing up at the sheer walls and spying the distant line of the Minami-Alps Rindo which has been carved into the rock high above.

By late morning, we reach our destination, the fork where the Todai-gawa river meets its other major tributary and the path leads off and up Yacho-zaka towards Kitazawa. A large sign, new since I was last here, announces that the Roku-gome course is closed to climbers. It doesn’t suprise me. I tried it last year, and it was pure death. Blocks of snow came crashing down from above, and there was not so much a route as a place where it felt that the human body might squeeze between the boulders, the raging river and the trees felled across the way. But here, at the mountain’s foot, it’s peaceful and we lie in the sun listening to the sound of the water and the call of the deer, before making our way slowly back down again.

For Bruce Chatwin it was Patagonia, that place he felt would be safe in the years after the coming nuclear war. And if the end comes, you’ll find me in the Todai valley, far above the world, watching the stars pass overhead as the fire dies to ash and the river crashes on regardless.

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