But, like a true rebel, Doug gave it all up, sick of “selling people countless things they don’t need”, as he put it. Instead, in the early 1990s, he and his second wife, Kristine, who’d run the clothing company Patagonia for 20 years, sold up, moved to Chile and began buying up wild land there, with the aim of protecting it from development. Then, in January 2018, they did something no one saw coming: they gave it back.
Last year, the Tompkins Foundation donated one million acres of wild land to the Chilean people, the largest private land donation in history, on the condition that it would be matched by a further nine million from the Chilean government and used to create five new national parks and expand three existing ones in the region. This new land now links together a total of 17 national parks in the region, 28 million acres in all, from Puerto Montt, in the north, to Cape Horn, on the southern tip of the continent — one of the largest swathes of contiguous protected wilderness on the planet.
Tragically, Doug didn’t live to see his dream come to fruition; he died in 2015, after falling into freezing water on a kayaking trip on Patagonia’s General Carrera Lake. Instead, it was Kristine who ensured his audacious plan came to pass. “The Route of Parks strings together some of the wildest places left on earth,” she would tell me later in the journey. This is more than a road trip. This is a pilgrimage through one the planet’s last wild frontiers.
The first major stop on the Route is Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park, named in honour both of its founder and the big cats that roam these forests. I see it first in glimpses from the water, 100 miles and three ferries south of Puerto Montt: steep mountain slopes squeeze the ocean on both sides. Black summits dusted in white snow poke through the mist.
This was the first parcel of land the Tompkins purchased, back in 1991, and it’s among the more accessible areas. I hiked to rushing waterfalls, climbed rocky viewpoints along the coast and walked on the slopes of the Chaitén volcano, whose summit crater has been steaming since it erupted in 2008, sending a plume of ash 10 miles into the atmosphere. The highlight, though, was the alerces. These enormous trees, southern relatives of the giant sequoia, are among the longest-living organisms on earth. The tiny hamlet of Caleta Gonzalo is the gateway to the park — seven hobbit-sized cabanas, a restaurant, campground and visitor centre on the water’s edge. Nearby, I found a grove of hundr of 3,000-year-old trees, draped in moss, soaring hundr of feet to the sky. A thousand years before the first stones of London were laid, these trees had their roots in the ground. They predate the Roman Empire, Buddha and Jesus Christ. I hiked deep into the forest and found an old giant. Touching its bark was like reaching back in time.