Pilcheras and Painful Injuries

Alex on the left with Judy in tow.
Roberto on the left on the road to El Maiten.

Paul Theroux once said, “Travelling is only romantic in retrospect.” I, on the other hand, was beginning to wonder if travelling was only romantic in advance. What a week we’ve had.
We made our way out of a still-dark Bolson on January 23 as the young revelers were tumbling out of the late night bars. Eventually, the sun rose in a clear blue sky and the slow steady pace of our horses gave us time to adjust to our unfolding adventure. When we turned off Ruta 40 on to the rough dirt road to El Maiten and Ñorquinco, both horses and riderinhaled the fresh air and relaxed. We were feeling pretty proud of our progress after our false start the day before. We left the road taking an across-country route climbing up toward the green mountains until, at about 1pm, Roberto suggested it was time for lunch and a siesta. We would stop for about three hours to give everyone a rest and avoid the intense heat of mid-day.
Roberto and I relaxed after a trail lunch of cheese, salami, bread, olives and other treats. The day was unfolding just as we´d imagined in our romantic dreams. Alex went off for a wander, but minutes later there was a ruckus with one of the horses. I expected it to be Tostado, our troublesome mount, who fussed about everything and wasn’t used to being tethered. Then I heard Alex mumble: “He kicked me in the arm. He kicked me in the arm.” Roberto and I rushed over to find him hunched over, hanging on to his right elbow. If you´ve never been kicked by a horse wearing heavy metal shoes, try to avoid it; it hurts like hell. We helped Alex as he staggered onto his feet, nearly keeling over as he did so. It turned out he´d been trying to unwrap the rope from Tostado´s leg when in a flash, the brut had let Alex have it. We helped him back to our lunch spot in the shade where he sat down wincing in pain; but, encouragingly, he was able to clench and unclench his right hand. Nothing seemed to be broken. He told me later, he had been on the verge of being sick to his sick to his stomach at this point, the pain was so intense. Alex instructed me on administering some first aid as we were both thinking the same thing: only one day out and our adventure is already over.
With the deep puncture wound cleaned up and bandaged, Alex took a painkiller that knocked him out for an hour or so. Afterwards, he seemed much recovered, and ready to move on. He actually complained when we insisted on giving him a leg up to remount Mosquito. He was in high spirits as we left, an outcome I hoped that was not due to the painkiller to which he has no tolerance and more due to his relief at having been kicked in the arm rather than the head.

Rio Cuesta de Tornero, site
Tostado´s attempted escape.

Later that day, when we’d stopped for the evening to camp in a remote site on a sandy shore of the sparkling Rio Cuesta de Tornero in the lee of high mountains, Tostado had another fit. His lead rope in tow, he charged into the river, his metal shoes scrapping and crashing on the smooth river rocks. In a flat-out gallop, he flew down the path we’d just arrived on. Roberto threw a bridle onto Judy and took off bareback in hot pursuit. It was like cowboys a scene from a John Wayne western. Fortunately all returned unscathed, but it clear that Tostado had to go. He was as hot as a young Argentinean gaucho out on a Friday night.
As I’d suspected, the pilchera or pack carrying our goods was our greatest concern. Neither Alex nor I had any expertise with the equipment and it seemed that despite his claims, Roberto was a bit short on experience too. The load would be fine for a while but when our pack horse began to sweat or climbed a steep incline, it would slip precariously. So far we´d avoided a full-out disaster such as the one we´d had on our failed first day, but we´d had a few close calls. It was only the uncanny practicality of these horses that was saving us. Any Canadian horse would have exploded under the conditions. My Pony Club sensibilities, drilled in as they were at a very young age, were constantly being challenged by what we asked of these animals and what they put up with.  
Day two took us through country that was beyond our wildest expectations. We saw no one as we rode along seldom-used trails and it was as if our problems of the last two days were completely behind us.
Day three was yet another clear sunny day. We rode up out of the Rio Chubut valley and on to the open dessert in the soft morning light. Roberto and I had pulled ahead of a remarkably improved Alex who was ponying Judy. It was her turn to carry the pilchera. Earlier, Roberto had shown Alex how to loop the lead rope through the metal ring of Mosquito’s cinch so that Mosquito, and not Alex´s injured arm, took the pressure since Judy tended to pull when being lead. Once again my Pony Club sensitivities kicked in. Attaching the two horses, even if it was only a loop, didn’t seem like a good idea to me. But Roberto said it was how they did it, and I once again let it go.
As the sun warmed us up, we ambled along at a leisurely pace, chatting. Roberto and I looked back to see how Alex was making out. He was passing by a wooden telephone pole, and we watched as Mosquito stepped down a small bank onto the dirt road. Alex raised his hand and waved indicating that all was well – and so it seemed. Then, in what appeared to be unending slow motion, we watched as the pilchera began sliding, leaning precariously before slipping completely until it hung from Judy’s round belly. As it became entangled in her legs, she pulled back from Alex and Mosquito, kicking to rid herself of what must have seemed some alien creature. In her panic, she began to lose her balance. As the disaster unfolding before me slowed down even more, I could see Judy was pulling on the lead rope that Alex seemed to be holding in his hand. With her neck fully extended, Judy was unable to maintain her balance. Down she smashed onto the hard dirt road. Even from a distance away, I could see that she had her neck painfully outstretched as she kicked at the pilchera that was between her legs. Why, I asked myself, didn’t Alex let go of the lead rope and give her her head? Then I remembered my concern of the morning. Alex wasn’t letting go because he couldn’t. Judy was tied to Mosquito. The loop hadn´t let go. In horror, I realized what was happening. I watched as the force of Judy’s fall, pulled  Mosquito over too with Alex still astride. The slow-motion TV footage I´d once seen of a chuckwagon accident at the Calgary Stampede came to mind. First one horse and then another came down on the racetrack that day, tumbling one over the other as they somersaulted, tangled in harness and chuckwagons and a sea of legs and hoofs. Alex was unable to extract himself because his leg had become entangled in the rope so he went over too, caught up in the wreckage. I watched as Judy and Mosquito struggled against each other, breathing only slightly easier when Alex scrambled away from the bedlam and Mosquito righted himself though it was at the expense of Judy´s neck.
By this point, Roberto had arrived on the scene. Between his reassuring words and Judy’s sensibility, she stopped struggling. She lay there motionless on the hard road with Mosquito yanking on her neck and our mound of cargo attached to her exposed belly. Roberto managed to release the lead rope and turned to the pair of cinches that joined her to the pilchera. He made fast work of freeing her and with some encouragement, Judy was up on her feet. Roberto hadn’t checked her out for broken bones or cuts before asking her to right herself as my Pony Club training dictated, but such was the gaucho way. Judy shook herself seeming to want to assess for herself what damage had been done. Roberto walked her up the road for a few steps and seeing that she wasn’t limping, he began pulling our cargo apart and promptly started loading her up again. It seemed living proof of the need to get right back on a horse after you fall off.
Meanwhile Alex was also assessing the damage. “How is Mosquito?” I asked him. “Okay, I think,” he responded. Then finally, I asked the obvious. “How is your elbow?” He responded, “My elbow’s okay; it’s my knee that is a bit twisted, but it´s fine; it´s fine.”