Chile-ing out

This post comes on the heels of the heat wave that we’ve been suffering through (and my dreams of glaciers and mountains), here in the American Middle-West, which in itself comes in the wake of the flood. It also comes in envy of some of the fantastic photos that Steffi has posted over the past months in this post and others.

But the real inspiration came from the laboratory. We’ve recently had several new people join the lab, something which I usually find rejuvenating. We also have a student scheduled to graduate in two days time, and she has already arranged a big party at my house. To pour salt on the wounds, she complains to me that some of her friends are scared of me and might not want to come! I was tempted to tell her—oh never mind–back to the point.

Where was I? Oh yes, so I was recently asked what my policy is about vacations. I think that newer recruits are often surprised to hear that I am all in favor, and not just for a long weekend.

One cannot do bench science by remote control, but for hard working determined researchers, there’s nothing like a real vacation to spur some creativity as well as keep the motivation high. I know this, because I myself took a 6-week break in the course of my Ph.D. for a trip to Patagonia in S. Chile and to the beautiful Lake District north of there.

We started out flying from Santiago to Puerto Natales, several thousand miles south of the capital.

a youthful me, in 1996 in Puerto Natales

By the way, this photo is of course in mid-summer. This was a very colorful town, with locals happily wearing shorts and t-shirts when the weather topped 6 or 7 deg celcius. Brrr.

Puerto Natales from the hotel

We did not stay there long, as our goal was to get to the magical Torres del Paine National Park: our plan was to hike the famous circuit route, generally a 7-day hike + 2-3 additional days to climb to the base camp of the “towers.”

The famous circuit route around the park- carry in and carry out

While the skies poured rain on us the first days on route to the base camp (before beginning the circuit), we did get clear views of the towers:

Blood, sweat and tears to get to this photo, Torres del Paine, 1996

A strange and barren windswept landscape greeted us on the circuit.

Feeling freedom and clean air

This one felt big enough to make me his supper:

El condor pasa. Indeed.

There were times when I wondered if we were going in the right direction, if this wasn’t a prelude to the famous Alaskan “Bridge to Nowhere”.

Bridge to Nowhere? Where have I heard that before?

Perhaps this had to be the most amazing site. After getting stuck in our tents in a snowstorm and being unable to climb to the highest pass on our route, we finally made it the next day (at the time, I was thinking–I’m too old for this!). To arrive at the high point and look down on this–the Grey Glacier. Spectacular!

The masked marvel--me reaching the pass and shocked to see the frozen river a thousand meters below me.

Having finally descended to the glacier level, we were astonished to see that it’s height above the water was 80-100 meters.

Grey Glacier--the blue color at the bottom is from the condensed/packed ice

While I could go on and on with many more photos from this park, and later climbing the Villarica volcano (and peering into its depths!), I will leave that for the next heat wave, if I sense any interest…

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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18 Responses to Chile-ing out

  1. Looks amazing – and cold! Like here in the middle of winter and a snow storm and trying to keep warm with a DIY hole (or two) in the house!

    viv in nz

  2. cromercrox says:

    Great stuff Steve!

  3. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Wow, what an amazing trip! Great photos too!

    The condor photo made me laugh. I went camping this weekend up near Whistler, and when I went to my tent to get my sweater I heard a couple of my friends speculating as to what the bird circling overhead was.

    “It’s definitely not an eagle”, said one of them.

    “Yeah”, concurred the other. “Y’know, I think it’s a condor”.

    I laughed loudly, then came out to have a look, thinking that maybe it was a turkey vulture or something like that.

    It was a raven.

  4. Frank says:

    Wow! Brilliant excuse for putting up some old holiday snaps! Looks like a magical experience.

  5. Great pictures. We have several scientific friends who work at an Instituto in Valdivia.. Is that anywhere nearby? I think someone told me it was in the Chilean Lake District. Anyway, none of us have been there to visit.

    I always used to say I was never going to S America until I could speak at least passable Spanish, though I think someone over at NN said that in certain bits of Chile the second language was – Jawohl! – Deutsch. I did Spanish night classes for several years, and got to the point where I could manage basic communication. But I gave up when I met The Boss, as I figured trying to improve my Spanish and German simultaneously would be just too confusing.

    It does look impressively remote in the pictures. I have a sneaking suspicion that Steve might be more confident than the average person in these wilderness situations, since the Israeli army presumably taught him how to trap small animals for food, or to wrestle a mountain lion with his bare hands…

    • cromercrox says:

      I believe there are parts of Patagonia where the inhabitants speak Welsh.

      • Steve Caplan says:

        Yes, you are correct. There are Welsh communities found in the more northern parts of Patagonia, mostly in Argentina. In fact that brings to mind a little story about my FIRST trip to Patagonia, which was actually a year-long travel stint after my biology degree.

        We were traveling in Patagonia, and there was a superb site called Pueto Tombo where massive numbers of penguins colonize and breed every year. The only way to get there was basically to take a tour on a bus–which was quite an expenditure for 5$/day hitchhikers.

        It was well worth it, even taking into account that we later spent 2 weeks on the Galapagos Islands, because the sheer number of penguins was so incredible.

        On the way back, the bus stopped at a Welsh tea-house. Ahhh, we thought, a real tourist trap. It was fancy, with the china plates and all your British nic-nacs and fancy napkins etc. There were no menus, and we were herded into this place and the food and drink just came flowing out and out.

        I whispered to my companion, “Don’t touch anything- we don’t want to have to pay a ton of money for this.” I figured that if we didn’t touch a single thing, then no one at the table could expect us poor student-types to contribute to what would undoubtedly be a huge expense. Probably a week’s worth of meals for us!

        As we were preparing to leave, someone at the table asked us, “What you’re not hungry?” With some embarrassment, I mumbled that we were on a rather severe budget. “Oh, but it’s all included in the tour, didn’t you know?”

        You can imagine how we stuffed our faces (and pockets) miserably as we got onto the bus…

    • Steve Caplan says:


      Yes, there was a huge German immigration both before and post WW2.

      As for my survival skills–funny you bring that up. I think my real “take-home message” from the army was a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and interestingly, I am done writing “Welcome Home, Sir,” my second novel, which actually deals with an academic with this type of disorder and how his military service has prepared him for academia (rather than wilderness survival)!

      Now comes the hard part–trying to get it published…

      • Austin says:

        I often wonder whether my two grandfathers suffered some kind of PTSD, having been front-line soldiers in a World War apiece. I imagine they likely did.

        PTSD features in the medical course semester that I run, as we do a case discussion on tension pneumothorax following a stabbing, with the unfortunate patient also being treated later for PTSD. The Prof of Clinical Psychology used to do a very interesting lecture on PTSD and cognitive behavioural therapy, which was his speciality.

        If you’ve not read it, the eponymous first novel in Pat Barker’s Regeneration WW1 trilogy is very good, and is set in a war hospital for officers with ‘shell shock’ (i.e. PTSD). I wrote a bit about this in an old post here.

        • Steve Caplan says:

          Very interesting blogs! I’ll definitely have to read “Regeneration.” Just finished reading leading Israeli author David Grossman’s book “To the ends of the land” on a similar theme. The translation to English is quite good.

          Just realized I forgot to reply about Valdivia! It’s a beautiful town in the Lake District (I will have to do another post for this area), with great views of the volcanoes in the area. What’s really remarkable is that my partner and I, walking around the town, came across part of the university and in particular saw the “Instituto del Immunologica,” and couldn’t resist musing about perhaps one day coming to work there in the tranquil atmosphere. Know I need to know–is it really tranquil and fantastic? Or was this just a dream?

          • They seem happy there, from the little I’ve heard. The ones I know are former expatriates, so they have mostly ‘gone home’ to Chile, sometimes after a lot of years abroad.

  6. KristiV says:

    Ahhh! Looking at those beautiful photos makes me feel a bit cooler. Unfortunately, we’ve got at least another month of these craptastically broiling temperatures to look forward to, here in Texas. Ugh, no escape, classes start this week.

    Embarrassingly, I’ve never been to Central or South America. If I have a chance to travel there someday, I’ll likely go to Brazil, as a friend’s parents live in Porto Alegre. I’d also love to stay on the main island of the archipelago Fernando de Noronha for a week, just watching birds, tidepooling, and swimming in the ocean.

  7. I’m very glad to hear you’re not draconian about holidays. Many of your American colleagues are not so enlightened…

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Yes, I know that there are PIs who have their lab meetings on Sat. mornings or Fri. eve to ensure that their personnel have to be there.
      Personally, I find this an affront to science– how can you expect careful expts. to work when people are compelled to do them rather than doing them out of excitement and curiosity?

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