When I first thought about freedom and our efforts to get ready to leave on our possibly crazy horseback adventure, I had two versions of freedom in mind. But after this morning’s excitement, I now have a third.
One form of freedom for me is getting up in the morning, pulling on a pair of shorts, likely the same ones as I wore yesterday, grabbing a T-shirt, brushing my teeth and being ready for the day. I wear contact lenses and am sometimes tempted to switch to glasses just because it would mean one less thing I had to do before getting on with things.
Alex and I were also feeling pretty free when we drove out of Bolsón headed for the small wild-west town of Ñorquinco to buy our fourth horse. Off we went for the two-hour trip in Roberto’s 1962 Ford Falcon that was built in 1980, hopeful that the brakes would hold.
We travelled through Roberto’s home range on a cloudless morning. Small tracts of Ponderosa-like pines separated fields of golden oats and windrows of khaki-coloured hay that swept up to tall green mountains topped with remnants of last winter’s snow. Roberto sat upright on the Ford’s bench seat, his nose almost touching the vertical windshield. He had one arm resting on the ledge of the open car window, the other sat comfortably on the enormous steering wheel. In profile, his posture conjured up memories with the same impact as a familiar 1960s tune: something catchy, gentle and simple by the Momas and the Papas or the Buffalo Springfield. It could have been my father or Alex’s behind the wheel – out with their family for a country drive. Every 20 minutes or so, Roberto would pull over, pop open the hood and fill the radiator with water he’d collected earlier from a small river that ran under an old bridge. Despite the ‘no-draft’ windows, dust streamed into the Ford as we rumbled slowly along the dirt road. When we drove over a puddle, water gushed up through the hole around the car’s gearshift and splashed my legs.
Judy in Ñorquinco. A real beauty.
Judy, our fourth and final horse, turned out to be a beauty. A soft dun, the same pale colour as the cornstalks we collect for Thanksgiving, she had a black mane and tail and four black stockings. Smart, kind and a seasoned traveller, she was well worth the drive out to see her.
Separating the tire from the rim on puncture #3.
We definitely felt free rambling along that open country road, but it wasn’t the real freedom of the excursion. The real McCoy was having five punctured tires on the return trip, and being more interested in how each was dealt with than concerned with our tardiness. We arrived home at 9pm after learning an Argentinian technique for removing a car tire from its rim. (There is no Canadian technique, or there isn’t any longer, since in Canada you’d be hard-pressed to find a car tire with a tube inside.) After tire irons, crowbars and other prying tools failed to do the trick, Roberto’s friend Pablo, who just happened to live beside the location of our third puncture, placed two boards on the Ford Falcon’s tire (now removed from the car). He then drove his car up the ramp formed by the boards, which he’d strategically placed so that the weight of his vehicle pulled the tire away from the rim.
Not being stressed by our late return was a form of freedom we seldom experience in our regular lives. Normally, one responsibility backs up on to another and another, which means that a delay, such as five punctures, upsets everything, much as a late train has a cascading effect on travel.
But it was this morning’s event that ultimately pushed us toward the sort of freedom this trip is supposed to be about. It also taught us that while we proclaim to do little preparation for our adventures, we were aware that Roberto, our guide, hadn’t prepared enough. Moreover, we had failed to act on that knowledge when we had the opportunity to do so.
All seemed to be going as we’d hoped at 5am this morning as we prepared to depart. We were smug in having avoided a last-minute delay after learning the day before that our horses required blood tests to prove they were free of hoof and mouth disease. Had Sebastian not hooked us up with Marciano, a local vet, we would have been barred from travelling our roughly laid-out route.
On the morning of our freedom event, Alex met with Roberto and Sabastian, our horse-trader. Despite his continuous stream of jeers and jokes at our expense, he had become a close ally, a great teacher, extraordinarily helpful and a fine friend, proving that our trust had been well placed. They caught the horses and brought them around to be saddled using the tack we’d purchased in a great little shop that caters to gauchos. Guachito would be our packhorse for the day, carrying what looked like an enormous load of bedding, food, clothing, camera equipment, writing materials, books, a tent, and Alex’s mound of solar panels and batteries meant to provide power regardless of where we ended up. It seemed to take us forever to haul our gear out of our little apartment.
Gauchito with the pilcharo.
Gauchito seconds before the explosion.
Gauchito allowed Roberto to place the pilchero, a wooden A-frame that we would tie our gear to, on his back. He fussed a bit when Roberto hauled hard on the pair of cinches that would keep our load topside up, and whipped his ears back and forth as Roberto swung the large heavy saddlebag of food up and over to hang from the frame. Next, he asked Gauchito to take a step or two forward. The saddlebag of food was not yet secured by ropes, and was essentially dangling from the pilchero. The load rattled a bit as Gauchito took his tentative first step. And then all hell broke loose. Wanting to free himself from this alien load, Gauchito began kicking hard, an act that caused the second of the two cinches to slip back until, for all intents and purposes, it was acting much like the strap used to cause broncos to buck at a rodeo. For the next minute or so, Gauchito bucked and leapt and squealed. He would have unseated all but the best bronco riders, so you can imagine what his star performance did to our saddlebags and their contents. The dozen eggs didn’t stand a chance. First one side of saddlebag and then the other tore loose. They flew through the air landing hard on the grassy turf. Trying to control the situation, Roberto roared out commands that only scared poor Gauchito more. It wasn’t until the poor guy had rid himself of his devilish load that he calmed down, and we were able to take stock of the carnage.
It wasn’t good. Our brand new saddlebags had been ripped apart and split open. We looked at one another not sure what to make of the event. Personally, I kicked myself for not having a dry run with the packhorse. We’d suggested it to Roberto who hadn’t thought it necessary or maybe didn’t understand my suggestion given the shortcomings of my Spanish. At any rate, we clearly needed a new plan.
Roberto looked a bit downcast and Alex was intent on cheering him up. “So Roberto, what do you think we should do?” inquired Alex, hoping to convey the idea that Roberto was still in control. His first suggestion was that we delay our start by a day. We were going to have to purchase a new set of saddlebags, and the store wouldn’t open until 9:30. By the time we packed up again, we’d be forced to ride in the heat of day. Second, he decided to use Judy as our packhorse. She was familiar with the routine and could be relied on. Then I asked Roberto if the load was too heavy. “Do we need to shed some of our stuff?” I asked.
Understand that Roberto’s gear consisted of a small saddlebag that straddled his horse behind his saddle, and the clothes on his back. He was decked out in the garb of a gaucho. Roberto wore a collared shirt covered by a rugged wool V-neck stripped vest. He had wide-legged bombacha pantaloons that tucked into his three-quarter-high solid black boots. The kerchief around his neck would protect him from the wind, and the wide-brimmed black felt hat that sat square on his head would shade him from the intense sun. Draped over his horse was a thick wool poncho that would ward off the cold and rain. That was it.
We didn’t really need Roberto to confirm what we already knew: We had way too much stuff. In fact, the night before I’d joked to Alex that I thought there couldn’t be anything left to buy in Bolsón because we’d purchased it all. We had enough food to feed the Argentinian Gendarmaria, and double the amount of clothes we really needed. Alex’s solar panels and batteries filled his personal set of saddlebags and they were heavy. His camera case was the size of a small suitcase. We had a large tent, three thermarests, one with a chair frame for me. I had a large bag of writing and painting materials that I hoped to use to create collages that depicted our adventure. I’d completed only one in three weeks. There were my new binoculars, a stash of books. Alex had a small computer and I had a mini iPad. We had transferred a bottle of scotch into a plastic container (maybe this wasn’t excessive). We had a stove and a water pump. I brought along a tube of mascara and a bottle of fancy skin cream. There was fishing gear (also maybe not excessive) and a whole cacophony of stuff, stuff, stuff and more stuff. Way more stuff than we could ask poor Judy to carry and way more stuff than it made us happy to have along.
Roberto took the horses back to his place for the night, and we agreed to test the pack out on Judy later that afternoon. Then Alex and I took stock. What had we been thinking? It was pretty clear that Gauchito had done what commonsense had failed to do. But it still took us time to get our minds around the situation. I suggested the problem was that we’d planned for two of us on four horses. By hiring Roberto, we had one less packhorse, but no less gear. Maybe we could leave some things behind and they could be transported down to us in Cholila, where, after attending Argentina’s largest asado or barbecue, we would be parting company with Roberto in about 10 days time.
But we knew that wasn’t it. All of this stuff, all of our grand schemes to film the adventure and write about it and paint it and collage it, these things weren’t bringing us any freedom; they were just an extension of our busy lives. We simply had to shed our gear. Get down to basics. Make our things fit into the smaller saddlebags that would replace the enormous ripped ones that had been stretched to the limit before Gauchito told us what he thought of our stuff.