Bittersweet (Agridulce) con’t

You can see a long way in the desert.

My last post painted a picture that was more bitter than sweet – more agri than dulce. While I found the wind a challenge for the six days it took us to get from Esquel to Beto’s home, and it made me sad that we were heading north, we also travelled through some tremendous landscapes. The desert is harsh and unrelenting, largely foreign to me. At times, the trail before us stretched out seemingly forever without relief, and stark evidence of just how tough life is here stared up at us from the empty eye sockets of the many horse, sheep and cattle skeletons we rode by. Our route also passed through remarkable canyons with hoodoos and great scarps of coloured rocks, and when we arrived at rivers, shaded as they are in Patagonia by graceful weeping willows known locally as sauces, the green softness welcomed us with the allure of a favourite blanket.
The latter half of our final day in the saddle was particularly sweet. And not only because I was savouring the experience knowing it would soon be over. In the mid-afternoon on what was another cool, overcast, blustery day, we began climbing out of the desert into the Andes’s foothills. Rocky sand and uniformly grey or brown dry thorny vegetation gave way to a rich purplish brown soil that looked volcanic. The plants, many of them still thorny, had more colour; they were green rather than grey; a few had small flowers. One particularly beautiful bush was an intense purple. There was no continuous grass as might be found on the range or on the pampa, but the problem was moisture not nutrients. Given the chance, this soil would produce unimaginable bounty. Making our way through this vegetation became a game of a sort. The horses had to step around, bending to make their way between the plants. They were adept at knowing which ones had thorns and had to be avoided, and those they could brush through. It was akin to following stepping stones across a river, though in reverse since the horses had to avoid stepping on the plants. Anticipating whether Judy would go to the right or left of a particular bush and not be slowed down by her deft moves engaged me for an hour or more.
Caught in the canyon.
At one point, we followed a small, mostly dry creek in a shallow canyon that serpentined its way up a valley. The 10-metre-high canyon walls were carved out of dense black sand. I missed Beto and Alex exiting the canyon, and Alex had to come back to find me. He wandered along the top of the vertical canyon walls calling out until I finally heard him and found a spot where Judy was able to climb up a break in the steep cliff wall.
All day, we moved slowly closer to a high ridge of rounded foothills. Alex pointed to a particular hill far in the distance and assured me that Beto’s place lay just beyond. It seemed impossible that we would travel that far and I wondered how he could possibly know that that was Beto’s hill when layer upon layer of rising crests lay before us.
On we travelled ever upwards and always, as Alex promised, toward Beto’s hill. Our last ascent, completed in failing light, took us across a broad slope interrupted with now dry, parallel crevasses formed by years of spring runoff. We would come to the lip of one of these splits in the land and the horses would sit on their haunches and slide down in the loose soil into the crevasses that were twice again as deep as a horse and rider were tall. Sometimes we would have to follow the crevasse for a time before we could find a way out the other side. The horses would then scramble up onto the flat land. Beto had charged ahead as usual and we had trouble keeping track of him since when we were up on the plain, he would often have dropped out of sight into a crevasse. But somehow Alex managed to follow him in what felt like a game of hide and seek. It became easier when Beto finally reached the top of the ridge, the one behind which Alex promised we would find his home. Beto sat up there, a silhouette against a darkening sky with the wind whipping at his poncho and tucking his horse’s tail between its hind legs.
Too soon, we also arrived at the top of the ridge. We stopped beside Beto and an enormous green valley spread out before us. It had the moisture that was lacking in the land we’d just crossed. In the distance, high-peaked mountains backstopped rows of hills. A single distant light marked Beto’s neighbour, the same neighbour where we’d stopped weeks ago and I’d purchased my poncho. With the same poncho currently protecting me from the raw wind, it was hard to imagine how hot it had been that day and how foolish it had seemed to be purchasing such a heavy duty covering. But thankfully I had.
I looked down the steep slope and tucked in at the foot of the hill were a few tall slender Alamo trees, a dry arroyo, a simple wooden barn and a modest house – nothing more than a shack by Canadian standards. “That’s not Beto’s place is it?” I asked Alex. He nodded that indeed it was, deservedly pleased with his navigating skills. Incredulous and having not yet absorbed that this was indeed it – the end of our journey – I watched as Beto charged down the steep slope, clearly anxious to get home. Alex and I stalled at the ridge top partially to buy ourselves more time, but to also take in the wonder of the landscape. Although we had stayed at Beto’s early on in our trip, the view from above gave us new appreciation for his land. Rather than dull our wonder at the Patagonian landscape, our long days travelling at horse-pace had heightened our awe at the immensity and variety of the vistas we’d been lucky enough to enjoy. In the days to come, I wouldn’t just miss being in the saddle; I would long for the open wilderness, the quiet broken only by screeching chomangos (small hawks), lowing cattle, rushing water or winds that rustled the occasional tree.
The last leg.
 With Alex clicking photos from behind, I encouraged Judy to make her way down the hill. Once again, she sat back into the slope and partially slid downhill as we completed the last 250 metres of our seven-week journey. Beto’s other horse had caught wind of us. Whinnying his greeting, he galloped over to say hello as Beto opened the gate that lead to his house, the lasttranquero we would pass through.
We removed the tack and pilcheros from our horses, letting them go in the green pasture. In turn, they all lay down and rolled over to scratch their tired backs before disappearing in the dim light. We celebrated by roasting the lamb we’d purchased that morning in Cushamen – eight long hours ago – frying some potatoes and opening a bottle of red wine. It was a tasty and celebratory meal cooked in Beto’s wood-burning oven in his sparse kitchen. A single light bulb powered by a small generator that burned his last litre of fuel brightened the simple room. We recounted the best of the trip ignoring what we knew to be true: this was it – the end. Trip done.
At midnight, Alex and I climbed into our sleeping bags for the last time. Overnight, a fierce wind pulled at our tent waking us, but hardly disturbing our sleep. We had both slept like babies throughout the journey and this night was no exception. Our dreams, like our memories, were sweet.