Cochamó Valley in Chile is as close to Yosemite National Park before it had roads, crowds, and park rangers as it can be to when John Muir explored its wilderness in the 1880s. I first learned about Cochamó from Chris Kalman when he and I crossed paths nearly 10 years ago over writing assignments. Since then, I have, and perhaps you have too, learned how wrapped up he is with the valley, the Cochamó Valley.
When Chris first visited Cochamó he thought he knew how Muir felt first coming to Yosemite. And like Muir, Chris made first ascents, some free soloed, in the untouched valley. Kalman grew into a champion of Cochamó conservation because he admired its beauty, and he knew it could be ruined with a dam, mined for minerals, or trampled by crowds and luxury hotels. Muir knew Yosemite Valley needed to be preserved, and Chris likewise took action for his Valle when he established Friends of Cochamó to help protect this unique place on Earth.
Although you may not be as familiar with his favorite valley in Chile, you may be familiar with him if you consume climbing content these days. Chris has written for Alpinist Magazine and often conducts podcast interviews for the podcast The Cutting Edge, run by the editors of the American Alpine Journal, which Chris is an editor, of course. He’s also authored a guidebook and two fiction works. His first novella was As Above, So Below, which was self-published in 2018, and his second, despite the punny title, has everything to do with loving and protecting places, especially like Cochamó Valley.
Chris’s 2021 work, Dammed If You Don’t — a 2021 Banff Literature Competition Finalist — takes us on the lifetime journey of John Mercer. Mercer visits South America and finds grand potential in the fictional Valley of Lahuenco. He awakens the eco-tourists and backpackers of the world through social media and slide shows to it peril. The valley quickly becomes trodden with campsites with an few visitors carelessly scaring grasslands from tent sites and littering. He discovers a new species of salamander, and valley becomes more valuable and even more popular, since it suddenly has a mascot and a new gimmick for visiting, even as it brings the species to the brink of extinction.
The story explored all of the possible permutations for Lahuenco with Mercer as the central agent of change. Chris presented the reader with the unintended consequences of Mercer’s affection for Lahuenco and the commercial or capitalist opportunities, as carried out by the antagonist Señor Ackerman, and asks not only who wins, but who is actually in control? The populace? Those with money? Those with the land?
Although Mercer’s adventure has similarities to Chris’ experiences with Cochamó, Mercer is a modern likeness to John Muir. Fit, constantly in motion, and fire-like (both a bright light and able to ignite combustibles,) Mercer carried his case for protecting Lahuenco to the world through advocacy and fundraising, instead of the President and Congress, as Muir had done with Yosemite. I won’t ruin the end for you, but tempt you to read it for yourself by stating that Mercer’s solution, though a little trite, was worth me pondering for days after I finished the book.
Kalman makes wonderful observations about how the world works. It’s heavy at times. I don’t agree with the dark shading of values he used to illustrate Señor Ackerman’s reasoning and strategy for exploiting the Lahuenco Valley, but his points were valid, and did — despite his direct statement to the contrary — did make him appear to be a real-world Bond Movie villain. (Tangentially, it mildly inspired me to write a parody where Ackerman hangs Mercer from an overhanging cliff above a pile of sharp scree and forced his girlfriend on a tourist-attraction zip line that when passing would cut the rope. Exit Ackerman cackling before the she reaches the dangling rope.)
Dammed If You Don’t is fundamentally a discussion piece. Chris packed in a very long winding tale into a small package, and hits on the theme of preservation in several ways, with land, and Mercer himself to name two. Chris used a third-person narrator with limited perspective that limits the story from having even more impact; I wish I had gotten to know Mercer better. Though his values and how he dealt and overcame his challenges became apparent, I would prefer if I could have read it through stories and dialogue rather than being told first and shown later. For this reason, John Mercer doesn’t become a character I was emotionally attached. When his climactic moment arrived, I saw it unfold, but without a sense for how he would turn out after the book. But again, it’s definitely worth having a discussion over (shoot me an email if you read it, because I would enjoy debriefing about the book with you.)
Go buy and read Chris’ book and shoot me a message. And I will look forward to visiting the Cochamó Valley with Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz one day. I think Chris’s book will help it stay beautiful until I get there.
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