Wind! Wind! Wind! Bright and fierce, it sweeps from the Patagonian Andes down across high, barren steppes, frets the deep whale-roads of the sea, buffets floating cliffs of ice, whips the snowfields of the Antarctic, and howls across the cold belly of the world.
And on its bright, blustery way, it sings and roars through the streets and steeples of Punta Arenas, Chile, gateway to the end of the world.
Punta Arenas lies under the world’s curve on the cold, windswept Strait of Magellan. Two hundred miles to the southeast lies Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America. From Cape Horn it is 600 miles to an arm of the Antarctic continent.
Punta Arenas (population 68,000) is the southernmost city in the world, a thousand miles further south than Melbourne Australia. Its two LDS branches are the southernmost congregations of the Church. Southward of Punta Arenas there are only a few small, isolated towns and a handful of cattle and petroleum operations. And then only sea, ice, and Antarctica.
Seen from Tierra del Fuego, or the rough, icy waters of the Strait, Punta Arenas looks vulnerable and alone, an outpost of human warmth on the brink of a vast, cold, loneliness. Seagulls voice their desolate cries above it, and behind it a low mountain of snow glows with a sad splendor.
The Strait runs north and south here, and so every morning the sun burns out of the sea with golden fire, turning the Strait to beaten silver shadowed by tiny silver gulls and golden boats. In the central plaza the bronze statue of Hernando Magellan, discoverer of the Strait, wears a halo of light, and behind him the wind-clean streets run up into the sky, lit by strings of fiery windows reflecting the sunrise. The clouds overhead are luminous, and cobblestone streets shine like burnished pewter.
This is not a soft place to live. It is not a place for dreamy siestas or sunbathing. There is a cold, wide-awake edge to the air. It is a land of bright (but not always warm) sunshine, swift clouds, clear outlines, and glittering contrasts. The air is so clean and crisp that everything seems closer than it really is.
Winter in Punta Arenas is a siege. The days are short and cold, and winds pile the drifts deep around the houses. Although the temperatures rise in the spring and summer, so do the winds, often reaching a 60-mile-per-hour pitch that seems to sweep through clothing and flesh like an icy X-ray, exposing shivering bones to the plunging windchill. Only a visitor would ever go out in Punta Arenas without a coat, even in the middle of the summer, because warmth is fleeting and deceptive, and the wind can make relatively warm temperatures feel like the icy teeth of winter.
A vertical person is a curiosity in Punta Arenas. Everybody goes about the wind-tunnel streets leaning into the blast to avoid being blown over. The wind is sometimes so strong that a tired walker can literally rest against it as if it were a wall. On one of Punta Arenas’s principal streets there is a famous statue of a sheepherder. Even the metal shepherd is leaning forward against the eternal, inescapable wind.
Wind and cold aren’t the only items on the Punta Arenas weather menu, either. The place is a meteorological smorgasbord. On a typical spring day you might enjoy sun, snow, rain, sleet, wind, and (very rarely) calm, all while you are finishing your soda pop at a corner store.
Although the wind is cold in spring and summer, the sun radiates through windows like a heater, warming pane-gazers to a toasty comfort. The people, too, are windows through which the cold sun shines warm. Cut off from the rest of Chile by miles of roadless islands, mountains, and fjords, east and west by endless seas, and southward by the end of the world, they have learned to enjoy each other’s company. Hospitality is an art. Good conversation is relished like a good meal. (And speaking of good meals, the frigid waters of the Strait are one of the few places in the world where huge, delicious king crabs spider along the bottom of the sea on long, yummy legs.)
Rather than despising their hard winters, the young people accept them as a sort of extended Christmas, gathering for cheerful skating-fests on the many skating ponds, skiing and sledding on slopes overlooking the glittering Strait, and engaging in epic snowball wars with about the same scope and tactical brilliance (but not as many casualties) as the Civil War.
The very warmest place in Punta Arenas on a winter day is the beautiful new LDS chapel. Among the Latter-day Saints there is a love and closeness that explains the terms hermano and hermana (brother and sister) better than a volume of sermons. They are not only of one heart and one mind, but almost one age in their thirst for gospel knowledge and for the Spirit. Adults routinely show up for Mutual. Teenagers feel comfortable attending Relief Society. If a child wanders into a seminary or institute class, it is nothing unusual. Instead of complaining about too many meetings, members are more likely to ask wistfully, “Isn’t anything happening at the chapel on Thursday?” Their chapel is their social center, almost their second home. The nearest Saints are hours away in Argentina. The nearest Chilean members are days away by bus (few of the members can afford to fly). Therefore, they must rely on one another and the Lord because there is no one else to rely on. When someone joins the Church there is a strong feeling of entering a family. The whole branch comes to the baptism.
Sometimes the members feel sad that they can’t have a closer association with the rest of the Church, but since that is impossible, they have decided to do what they can about making Punta Arenas a Mormon city. The young people are especially active in this project. Being converts, they well know the wonderful difference the gospel makes in lives.
“I have been thrilled to see the amazing changes that have taken place in my family since we accepted the gospel,” says Mia Maid class president Lucy Ruiz. “My parents aren’t the same people as when we were of the world. They have changed a great deal and so have I. Now there is a greater union. There has been a wonderful change in the love we show one another.”
Luis Roberto Palmer, a convert of a week, says, “The gospel has given me a different way of thinking, and now I see everything differently. There is more light inside me. I have changed inside. My feelings are different. My actions are different. It is the same for everyone in my home.”
Sergio Muñoz, an investigator, says, “I like it here. Everyone is happy, as if it were all one family. I am very happy to be here. Here there is true brotherhood. It’s incredible.”
Another incredible thing in Punta Arenas is found at the central plaza. On the same monument as Hernando Magellan is a bronze Patagonian Indian with a very shiny toe. The toe has been polished by the touch of passersby because it is reputed to be a very lucky toe. It has even received a few kisses because a legend maintains that any visitor who busses the magical digit will someday return to Punta Arenas. Few people take the good luck offer seriously, but it seems to be almost a matter of civic pride to give the toe a pat from time to time. One day in the springtime when the plaza was alive with flowers and budding trees, the patters were young Latter-day Saints. They were waiting for a bus to take them to one of the many tourist attractions around Punta Arenas. Their goal was Fuerte Bulnes (Fort Bulnes), the first Chilean fort on the Strait of Magellan.
When the bus arrived, they went singing on their way. On their left was the alternately cloud-gray and silver Strait. On their right the brambly hills gave way to dark tarns and forested slopes. As they went, the hills moved closer to the sea, until they rose almost straight up to formidable cliffs. And atop one of the cliffs, far above the Strait, was the fort.
Fuerte Bulnes looks like something out of the Old West, with its palisades of sharpened logs encircling guard towers, cannons, barracks, and a guardhouse. The young visitors examined swords and muskets, sent imaginary cannonballs seaward against desperate enemies, and climbed down a rocky trail to admire the sea, which for a moment was as blue and placid as an alpine lake.
In the fort museum they relived Magellan’s discovery of the Strait, almost exactly 457 years before. They were intrigued by the real-life drama of other early explorers and settlers, including the tragic story of nearby Puerto Hambre (Port Hunger) where a whole settlement perished from starvation.
On their way back to Punta Arenas, the group stopped for a leisurely stroll by the shore and a visit to an Indian fishing village. They searched for sea shells on the pebbly beach among the remains of king crabs and old boats. They also watched with interest as an Indian boatwright patiently tamed raw timbers into the ribs of a fishing boat.
Another day the young people decided to take a walk up to the skiing slopes. It was a four or five mile hike—not much of a challenge in most places on a relatively warm spring day, but Punta Arenas is not most places. Here it meant struggling up and down hills against a wind so stiff that every step was the slow-motion shuffle of a man in a diving suit. With each step the trailing foot was pulled out of quicksand, pushed forward through molasses, and put down again only halfway to its goal. Wind-whipped eyes wept freely, and conversation was impossible above the wolf-howl roar of the wind. As the city sank below them, the young men and women admired the streams and the starkly beautiful landscape, alternately lashed with rain, dusted with snow, and blinded by sunlight. But mostly they just struggled to finish one more step before the wind took it away from them.
Why did they go to the trouble? First of all, they were young, and it was something to do. But most important was the view from the top—dark hills cascading down to the bright city, the dazzling band of sea, distance-pale Tierra del Fuego, and shafts of sunlight searching for the South Pole.
Going back was a pleasure. The wind was at their back, carrying their happy songs down to the city. After a while a passing oxcart gave a lift to one of them. A pickup truck took aboard several others, carrying them down to the warm city by the cold sea. About that time, a thin rain caught a slice of sunshine and hung a rainbow right over the roofs of Punta Arenas, over the chapel and the people and the warmth of hearts and homes. And over the bronze Patagonian Indian whose shiny toe was pointing faithfully toward the end of the earth.