There’s No Place Like Home — Almost
Yesterday, I rode Judy down to Cholila from the lakeside farm of Ivan Hueche, the young guide we hired to take us (successfully this year) up to the Tigre Glacier. It was a destination that locked gates and, as we learned last week, a circuitous and challenging route prevented us from reaching last year. It was an amazing 7 days of spectacular mountain views, revelations about the canniness of our equine friends, new appreciation for the campesino life that continues to rule in this stretch of the Andes Mountains, clear blue skies and starry starry nights — and, of course, dust, lots of dust.
For the three-hour ride into Cholila, I had the other two horses in tow since Alex had picked up a bit of an intestinal bug and was running a low fever. We’d been a bit concerned that it was Hanta Virus, but a quick trip to the doctor satisfied us that it was nothing more than an Argentian form of Montezuma’s and pretty mild at that — says Nikki! (Yes, a quick trip to a doctor without an appointment is possible here. And after a brief examination and handing Alex half a dozen pills to bring the fever down and two packages of salt to rehydrate him, the doctor charged us nothing.)
Ivan and his young girlfriend Jessica accompanied me for the first 30 minutes of my journey, proving that not everyone in Patagonia can ride a horse. Seems that while Jessica can swing a mean axe, her skills do not extend to a horse. (Though if the romance continues she likely will pick up the skill.) When they turned back, I was on my own. The three horses made a long shadow as the sun neared the spectacular mountains we’d enjoyed for the last few days. The humidity level hovered at Saskatchewan levels so the sky was beyond blue. Nary a blade of grass moved in the windless evening. I couldn’t have been happier.
Twenty minutes further down the road, which was little more than a dirt track, a red Volkswagon appeared up ahead. The car pulled over and as I came alongside, out jumped Aldo. A neighbour of Ivan’s, he’d joined us at Ivan’s for breakfast the day we’d set off for the Tigre, and waved farewell as we rode away that morning. Aldo was excited to hear about how our trip had gone and vowed that if we did it again, he would accompany us. He climbed back into his car and I followed the narrow road down to valley bottom, riding past only one other house. It was as simple as Ivan’s, and sheep, cows and a few horses nibbled bits of dry broken grass around the pole barn. One horse was saddled up and tied to a tree ready for who knows what; the dogs barked my passing, but no one came out. Half a dozen horses lounged on the road ahead until my approach caused their ears to perk up. They separated to let my train of horses pass through. An indignant cow jumped into the ditch to give us space as he snorted his displeasure.
Eventually, I arrived at the narrow single lane bridge that crossed the Rio Blanco. Old wooden boards spanned the bridge. They were punched through in places by bucket-sized holes. Over top of these decrepit planks were two lines of thick boards lying in a perpendicular direction. They were set wide enough apart to accommodate the wheels of a car and were ample for an automobile’s tires and, therefore a horse’s hoof. Judy wasn’t keen on the hollow sound when she stepped on the bridge, but walked on with Canela and Moro following. I had to trust they would not step in one of the bucket-sized holes. We made it across safely and I breathed a sigh of relief. The bridge had actually been worrying me. I reached the paved road, but there was a small dusty path in the wide ditch made by the dozens of horses that pass along this route on a given day, so I was able to keep clear of the odd vehicle that passed by. In Cholila, you are more likely to see someone ride by on a horse than a bicycle.
As I arrived in the small town at about 7:30pm, the sun was still above the mountain tops. It wouldn’t be dark until after 9pm, but the air was beginning to cool after a sizzling hot day. When I passed a field where a farmer was cutting a rich crop of dark green alfalfa, I smelled hay and was reminded of days spent tossing haybales as a kid. I’d looked forward to this little excursion on my own and wasn’t really ready to enter the civilization, such as it was, in this sleepy town. As the horses and I walked up a paved street lined with modest houses set behind low wood or wire fences with green lawns and an occasional rose bush, I noticed a thin rake of a man standing on the narrow grassy area that separated the concrete sidewalk from the street. A long thin pony tail emerged from a wide-brimed felt hat. At his feet was a large toolbox. He seemed to be looking my way. “Juan,” I said when I realized it was the vet who had treated Canela, and had Alex, Beto and me over for a lamb asado at his small house in the campo outside Cholila. “How was the Tigre?” he asked. It seemed everyone knew about our journey. “It was fantastic,” I said, explaining how amazing it was and how much we’d enjoyed getting to know our guide Ivan. “Ivan’s dogs caught two jabali (wild pigs),” I told him. “We kept the first one (which Ivan gutted, skinned and then slung over his horse’s haunches), but let the second larger one go. It was a mother who was obviously nursing babies.” Juan took a quick look at Canela’s now mostly healed wound and announced her in perfect health before we said our goodbyes.
I decided to ride up the wide main street. Some, likely Peronista, goverrnment in Chubut Province, where Cholila is located, had decided these little towns should have great boulevards as main streets. In Cholila, a stretch of grass the width of most streets in a Canadian town, separated double-laned streets running in either direction. Well tended gardens dotted the grassy strip between tall, arching lampposts that ran the full length of the boulevard. Whereas, these grand boulevards often seemed more fitting to Paris than a small Patagonian puebla, in Cholila’s case, the grandeur was balanced since the street led right out of town and into a spectacle of snow-capped, jagged peaked mountains that gleamed under the setting sun at my back.
I tied up the horses outside the small grocery store and picked up a few supplies for dinner. Dry crisps for poor Alex, a nice Pinot Noir, some yoghurt and a grapefruit for me — all things I’d craved after a week of eating goat every night since Ivan had packed an entire goat along for our dining pleasure. Goat is very good and Ivan certainly knew how to cook it — barbequed, in soup and in stew — but after six days I was ready for something different. I would have picked up some vegetables, but in this carne-mad country where people go their entire lives without eating anything green, the limp zucchinis and carrots didn’t entice me much.
Back in the saddle, I continued down the main thoroughfare when I heard someone call out. I looked over my left shoulder, and across the wide street, I saw Don Aviles waving madly. We had run into him a number of times in our wanderings and his smile for us was always as wide as his healthy girth. I waved back calling out my greetings and continued on my way. The pavement gave way to a dirt road recently upgraded and the horses picked up the pace. They knew there was good pasture and access to water in Lago Mosquito at Camping Ricardo’s where we’d stayed previously and where Alex was hopefully recuperating. As the sun dropped, a 1970s panel truck rumbled past and I recognized it as Cholila’s old ambulance, now a regular truck for some campesino.
Cholila and the Rio Blanco and the Andes Mountains that it cozies up to will never become home for me like Belfountain and Caledon and the Credit River and the Niagara Escarpment are home, but I relished the sense of belonging that I was coming to feel. A wave from a friend, an inquiry about a wounded horse, a familiar truck.