January 28, 2008
Capacity for Solitude
Ah, research is the best excuse ever to go out and lift rocks and find the world. Because of it, I had stumbled onto a Patagonian estancia. Doors shut to tourism in off-season. It should have been clear. We were five hours from anywhere in any direction.
I stood at a cabin door. Two wire-haired hounds wagged and howled at my presence, not convinced I was the bad guy. The Andes were great sugarcoated humps. The white stuff came down quick now, filling the mud puddles and frosting the air.
At the other estancias I had been sent away.
A man in a black Basque beret and knotted kerchief eased open the door. He took a hard look at the truck (mud-splattered, two-wheel drive, not four), swallowed a smile and asked if I wanted to come in for maté. I did.
It was hard not to fall in love. It helped that my partner was already next to me.
Don Manuel is your quintessential gaucho. Next to him, the Marlboro man looks like the costumed underwear model he actually is. Don Manuel’s face is lined as an oak trunk, but the deep creases and scars don’t add up. He smokes. He rides all day in the sun. He probably has never used face cream. He does the work of a thirty-year old. I did the math upon learning when he did his obligatory military service and came up with the age of 57.
He had been running ranches for almost forty years, a span of time in which the world changed completely. Oil had happened, for one. Roads. Electricity. People didn’t stay on the ranch anymore. According to Don Manuel, they went to work for the municipality. Ranchers’ kids wanted mobile phone service and satellite TV. Save for tourism, ranches were ghost yards.
I asked, “Is it hard to find young gauchos?”
He took a long pull on the metal straw. “There already are none.”
“The countryside is solitary. But I have no problem being here alone for three months,” he said. At sun up, he rides out to the herd. Boring? Maybe it’s cowboy paradise: 10,000 hectares without a fence. “At 4pm I come in to cook, feed the dogs and chickens, but that’s it. All my days go by the same.”
Some summers a French photographer would visit who also spent time in Mongolia. His deference hinted at a great love, either for her or the way she framed his world. We poured over the beautiful albums she left. He knew the photographs by heart.
When we finished we got ready to leave. But the truck lights had been left on. And the battery was dead.
So we spent the night in a bunkhouse, bare and cold as a meat locker. I slept soundly. The next morning we drove away in blinding sun, clumps of snow sinking into the mud, bristly, stubborn grasses stood up.
I scanned the horizon. Somewhere, Don Manuel was already out there.