Jessie and I spent three beautiful but cold winter days in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, in Chile. Since we didn’t own equipment suitable to camping in sub-zero weather, we stayed in a cabin with a dozen strangers. During the day we hiked. Regardless of the direction we walked the snow capped peaks and glaciers were amazing. A photographer’s paradise. I had recently gotten my first digital camera, and relished the fact that I no longer needed to carry countless rolls of film. Not having to pay to develop the pictures was a major bonus. At night, we lounged in the warmth of the cabin, huddling around the wood stove, eating food (cheese and crackers, since they were light, and Jessie hadn’t wanted to carry too much), and drinking wine (the tourists from Paris were very willing to share.
Despite having a fantastic time, I desperately longed to see The Towers from which the park got it’s name. It’s the reason we initially planned to visit, but a round trip hike from where we were staying, considering the distance, wasn’t feasible. With shards of disappointment, needling my thoughts, we returned Puerto Natales, but as we checked into our hostel, my eyes scanned the notice board. In the center, letters scrawled in a childish handwriting, a local tourist agency advertised a group trek to The Towers in the morning. Excitement instantly banished regret. We were leaving the following night, but we’d be back in plenty of time to catch the boat.
We went to bed early, but the burst of adrenaline kicking around in my stomach made sleep impossible. Lying on my side, I stared out at the sky, counting stars. I kept losing track of where I was, at which point I’d circle back and begin again, until sleep finally recused me. Before dawn, clouds drifted in from the mountains, and banished the stars. I awoke to rain relentlessly drumming against the window, beating the glass in a constant stream. I raged against the weather gods, angry they had chosen to ruin the day. The absolute last thing I wanted to do was step out into the cold and surrender myself to the elements. Trudging through muddy fields as rain soaked my clothes wouldn’t be fun. How would I keep my new camera dry? How could I take pictures if clouds intended to obstruct my view?
“This sucks,” I said, the moment I felt Jessie stir beside me.
“What?” She rubbed the grogginess from her eyes.
“It’s raining,” I pulled the covers over my head attempting to hide in the cocoon of body-warm sheets, but I had already paid for the excursion and, despite the impending misery, I didn’t want to miss The Towers.
In anticipation of the chill that would most definitely settle deep within my body, I took a scalding shower. If only heat were like a currency that I could bank and save for a time when I might need it most, perhaps I wouldn’t have dreaded getting dressed. While waiting for a bus to pick us up we had breakfast, ordering fried eggs, toast, papaya juice, and coffee — the need for caffeine almost as great as my desire for something hot.
I had hoped that a full belly would improve my mood. It didn’t. When the bus finally arrived, Jessie and I sat upfront. Knowing I was prone to motion sickness, Jessie let me sit by the window. Refusing to look toward the glass, I opened a book of short stories by Jorge Borges. If I ignored the rain, pretended it wasn’t there, and forced my attention on Borges instead, perhaps it would go away. But the rain insisted on making itself known. Large drops splashed and shattered angrily against the window, luring my eyes away from the pages.
“It won’t be so bad,” Jessie, always the optimist, tried to convince me. “At least you’re getting to go. Right?”
“I guess,” I closed my eyes and rested my head on Jessie’s shoulder. Soon the rocking of the bus put me to sleep.
In what felt like seconds later, she woke me with an excited shriek, “Wake up! Wake up!” Then as I started to rub the sleepiness from my eyes, she pointed, “Look!”
Stunned, I stared out the window, at the vast mountainous landscape completely covered in a dusty white blanket of freshly fallen snow. A childish thrill surged through me. The corners of my lips curled up into a smile. I couldn’t remember the last time I was that excited to see snow. Exhilaration instantly replaced dread. The bus parked and I couldn’t wait to get out, to run through the snow, to make snow angles in field untouched by footprints. I didn’t have snow clothes, just a winter jacket and hiking books, but I didn’t care. Being wet from playing in the snow was not the same as getting wet from the rain.
Following our guide, a young Chilean man, we began hiking uphill. The men in our group raced ahead, but Jessie and I hung back with a few other woman. The moment seemed too perfect not take our time. I examined everything closely, the way the snow settled on tree branches and coated large rocks. I took out my camera, wanting to savor the moment, attempt to capture an individual snowflake, but as soon as my shutter clicked, a snowball exploded on my shoulder, knocking me off balance. The snow cushioned my fall and I managed to protect my camera by curling my arm around it. Looking up, I saw the men — five in all, including the tour guide — clumped together like a small army. Their arms were laden with snowballs, and before I could recover my footing, they threw another round. Jessie dodged behind a boulder and the other three women scattered, taking shelter behind trees. I scurried to join Jessie, shoving my camera back into my bag. Snowballs flew down on us, striking the boulder, and fragmenting upon impact. Keeping out the line of fire, we built an arsenal of our own.
The men couldn’t see us. So our initial response — to run and hide — prompted them to laugh. Thinking they had somehow won, they started to high-five each other, but we were just getting started. Jessie was left-handed, and I was right-handed so we could each take a side, and keeping our bodies half protected, we launched or own offensive. My first snowball, landed squarely in the guide’s chest. His arm, extended for a high-five, froze mid-air. I nailed him a second time in the shin and he dove for cover behind a pine tree. Jessie, struck one guy in the gut. The battle had begun. The men had the advantage of a slightly higher altitude, but years of playing softball had given both Jessie and I strong arms and a deadly accuracy.
The other woman joined in and for over a half hour snowballs whizzed across the landscape. We were adults, transformed into children by the snow now falling heavily around us. I’m convinced the game would have lasted all day, but for the guide’s sudden reminder, that we still had a ways to hike if we wanted to reach our destination. Calling a truce, he held up his hand, waving a blue bandanna in lieu of a white flag. We were all wet — melted snow having seeped through our clothes — and sweaty, and I couldn’t have been happier.
The Towers — all three of them reaching up from the snowy Earth to impale the dark gray clouds flooding the sky — were magnificent. A river, laden with chunks of ice, flowed in the foreground, and I couldn’t take enough pictures so that I’d never forget the awesomeness of the moment. But as the years passed, it’s the snowball fight, not the Towers, I return to most. The freedom, the thrill, the childlike lack of concern for anything beyond the immediacy of the moment, that call me back time and time again.
About the contributor: Elizabeth Jaeger teaches writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her work has been published in Watchung Review, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, The New Ink Review, Ovunque Siamo, Placeholder Magazine, Parentheses Journal, Brush Talks, Waypoints, Foliate Oak Literary Magazine, Peacock Journal, Boston Accent Lit, Damfino, Inside the Bell Jar, Blue Planet Journal, Italian Americana, Yellow Chair Review, Drowing Gull, Icarus Down Review, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Atticus Review, and Literary Explorer. She has published book reviews in TLR Online and has participated in an episode of No, YOU Tell It! When she isn’t writing she enjoys hiking, geocaching, and reading with her young son.