Bittersweet (Agridulce)

It seemed impossible when we set out on January 23, that we would make it no further south than Esquel, a town only 163 kilometers away if you travelled by Ruta 40. But with the days becoming shorter as Patagonia slipped into autumn, we decided to turn north and finish our adventure at Beto’s home, which is close to where our circuitous journey began. On March 5, on a brilliantly sunny day that promised to have us shedding our sweaters for the first time in a week or so, we exited Esquel. After an hour spent threading our way between parked cars, and putting up with barking dogs intent on our not invading their homes, we passed through this chaotic town making quite a sight with our five horses, two of them carrying packs. We made our way to Ruta 40. Unfortunately, we would have to follow the highway for a time before we would exit onto a smaller road en route to our first night’s stop at La Cancha.
We travelled north with the bittersweet emotions of sadness that we were starting the last leg of a trip we’d anticipated for year or more, and excitement that we were heading “home” to El Bolson. We would be returning to friends we’d developed over the past three years, hot showers and a warm bed. Despite the morning’s promising sunshine, however, we soon donned our jackets as clouds pushed the blue skies further and further away from us and a cold south wind caught us between our shoulder blades. By the time we turned off Ruta 40 on to a secondary highway, it was almost 5pm. We were chilled, and spattering rain made us feel more bitter than sweet. Adding to our growing blues, Beto announced that we were another three hours away from our planned stop for the night. Once again he’d miscalculated the distance. By 8pm it would be almost dark, so we would have to look for someplace else to spend the night. 

Unfortunately, our route had taken us into rolling desert. We’d crossed a few almost dry streams or arroyos along Ruta 40, but for as far as we could see in the distance there was no evidence of water or of any sort of habitation. This was tough land where a single cow would need dozens of hectares of the sparsely vegetated sandy soil to survive. Hard as we tried to see sentinel Alamo trees or weeping willows, both of which mark oases, none were evident. We soldiered on trying to keep our spirits up. This was not how we imagined our return trip. We’d actually elected to follow this desert route rather than travel through the spectacular Los Alerces National Park with its series of large mountain lakes, in what was feeling like an increasingly elusive search for warmer, drier weather.

Nicola and Judy in the desert.
We plodded along the roadside with our backs buffeted by wind and rain as the overcast skies closed in on us, ever hopeful that we’d find a haven for the night. After travelling for another hour, we came over a rise, anticipating that on the far side we would see a house or some trees or something that would give us a feeling of comfort. But the narrow road stretched into the far distance eventually disappearing over another rolling hill. The desert sand supported nothing but thorny, vicious plants. It wasn’t until we climbed the far rise that we finally saw what promised to be a valley where, we hoped, there might be a river or at least a few trees to protect us for the night and provide a bit of wood for a warming fire.
Just before 8pm, we began dropping into the valley and we arrived at La Cancha, Beto’s planned stop for the night. We’d covered close to 40 kilometres and had been on the road for over eight hours. La Cancha was a water stop for La Trochita, the narrow-gauge steam train that carries tourists between Esquel and El Maiten. Although it was located on land owned by the dreaded, gate-locking Benettons, we were able to gain access through an opening beside the train tracks. Our water supply was the tank that sat on stilts so that the train passed below it and could be filled from above. There were a few poplar trees that would block the wind and plenty of firewood, and we discovered good pasture for the horses. The rain let up as we quickly set up camp, got the fire going and prepared and then gobbled down a spaghetti dinner. We’d eaten nothing since breakfast, and the hardy meal hit the spot.
Golden grass in La Cancha.
The next morning, we awoke to broken clouds. As the sun climbed over the low-slung hills, its oblique rays hit the golden tufted grass that dominated the expanse around us. These beautiful plants glowed in the hard autumn light seemingly illuminated from within. So taken were we by this grass that it was some time before we looked at the distant mountains we’d left behind. They were blanketed in fresh white snow. Any second thoughts we had about choosing this route over the one that passed through the national park disintegrated. Had we travelled that way, it would have been a nasty freezing cold night and a snowy morning. We set off in higher spirits with Beto promising us that we would be at our next stop by mid-afternoon. Though we doubted it would be, we were hopeful that as he moved closer to his territory, his guiding skills would improve.
Sudelia in her adobe home.
As we travelled homeward, the grip of autumn held. The wind changed and rather than a cold gale at our backs, we had a less cold one slamming into our faces. Sunshine came and went. Each day, the wind blew harder until we also had to battle the dust and sand it picked up in the desert. It filled our ears and eyes and got inside our shirts. We spat grit. Fortunately, we had some relief when we spent the night with yet another of Beto’s cousins. This time, we found ourselves cooking up a dinner of butternut squash, onion, garlic and chorizo over Sudelia’s wood-burning cook stove. Seventy-four years old, she lives on her own in a small adobe house set in what appeared to be an arena of pure grey crusted sand. Strong and healthy, she’d given up her enormous vegetable garden when cataracts, since removed, had made it hard to cope. When we asked her if she was averse to our having a small whiskey with dinner, she assured us that when she couldn’t drink wine, whiskey would do. We were sad to leave Sudelia the next morning after sharing mate and leftovers for breakfast in her warm kitchen.
We passed through the government town of Gauljaina, where we took a break from our tent and stayed in a small hosteleria, ate dinner in a restaurant and were delighted by a breakfast of hot milky coffee and a mountain of home-baked goods, some of which we carried in our packs to eat later in the day.
Beto continued to push us northward. He was keen to get home, and given the weather was not conducive to taking a day off, we didn’t resist. We put in back-to-back, eight-hour days. We knew we were pushing the horses hard, but they would soon have the entire winter to recuperate so we journeyed on. Mosquito had actually twisted his hock when he’d jumped the fence at Sudelia. It was swollen and obviously sore, but Alex figured that he’d successfully worked off his hurt knee by keeping moving so Mosquito could too. (Amazingly, after several, eight-hour days, Mosquito’s hock had mostly healed.)
After five hard days, we arrived in the small desert town of Cushamen, best known for producing great tasting goats and fine angora wool. We made the mistake in Cushamen of electing to stay in the town’s only accommodations rather than spend another bath-less night in our tent. Antonio, the brother of our friends in El Bolson, lived in Cushamen. He gave us a corral for the horses for the night and a few bales of leafy green alfalfa hay that our increasingly tired four-footed friends tucked into as if it were it were food from the gods. Antonio invited us to have dinner with he and his wife Mabel before dropping us off in front of a clothing store that had a few rooms for rent. We were shown into a mostly clean but dowdy cell with three single beds, two of them bunk beds. Paint peeled from the walls and we never considered removing our dusty boots as the owner ushered us inside. She made up two beds with – fortunately – crisp clean sheets and then gave the bathroom a bit of wipe before giving us fresh towels and accepting the $24 it cost us to stay the night.
Amazingly, we had hot showers, albeit under a shower head set in the middle of the bathroom ceiling so that the water fell on the toilet and sink too. After an enjoyable meal with Antonio and Mabel, we slept soundly in the little beds and woke the next morning seemingly unharmed. It wasn’t until Alex, who was suffering from a mildly upset stomach, used the bathroom that the true horror of the place hit us. That morning – our last on horseback – he made the unfortunate error of shifting his weight slightly while sitting on the toilet. This action dislodged the pipe that joined the toilet bowl to the water tank that was attached to the ceiling. (The toilet was one of those with a chain to flush.) The metal pipe came crashing down onto the hard tiled floor making me wonder what Alex was up to. Thankful that the contents of the tank hadn’t been released, Alex repaired the damage as best he could before finishing his business and pulling the chain to flush. The unfortunate result of his handy work was that the contents of the rather full toilet gushed out from beneath the bowl spreading over the bathroom floor. Alex had to do a bit of a dance to avoid the mess. Fortunately, the bathroom, which you’ll recall doubled as a shower, had a floor drain into which everything flowed, and Alex managed to escape the disaster unscathed. On re-entering our bedroom, he announced to me that I might not want to use the bathroom. As he explained to me what had just happened, we both doubled over in laughter at the absurdity of this horrible place. How had we come to this? What were we doing here? What possessed the owner of this dump (no pun intended) to have allowed it to become so depressingly awful?
We pulled the bathroom door firmly shut, quickly packed up our things and exited Cushamen’s hellhole, glad to be out in the fresh air and warm sunshine.