A MAN APPROACHED on a horse. His mount, a rusty red beauty, sported the short-trimmed mane and neatly squared-off tail of a well-kept horse. Colorful handwoven saddlebags tied behind a sheepskin-covered saddle held groceries from town. The man wore goatskin chaps, a woolen poncho, and the jaunty black beret typical of the region. Crinkles around his eyes spoke of years of squinting into the sun. This man and his horse belonged to this place in a way I could only dream of.
He paused on the banks of the rain-swollen river to stare at us, a group of college students up to our knees in mud and dwarfed by huge backpacks. Wet and hungry, we had been stacked up on the wrong side of the river for days, our next food supply a few kilometers away on the other side of the torrent. He looked perplexed. We had tents. We had expensive rain jackets. We obviously had money, but we had no horses.
“¿Porqué no tienes caballos?” he asked as he rode into the river. The strong current piled up around his horse’s belly. The man gently lifted his feet from the stirrups and placed them on the horse’s rump so as not to wet his boots, as his horse strode confidently through the rushing water.
That moment, I knew. I wanted to travel this country like the people who lived here. I longed to know this place as only one on horseback can. Having ridden horses only a few times in my life, I knew practically nothing about them. This was irrelevant. There was a thirteen-year-old girl inside of me who desperately wanted a horse.
I HAD COME to Patagonia as a mountaineering instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), an international nonprofit that teaches wilderness and leadership skills to young people. For months my colleagues and I had been traversing the mountain ranges of the Aysén Region of Chile with a group of college students, teaching them to read a map, live in a tent, dry their clothes, and be responsible for themselves and each other. Mostly we were letting nature do the teaching. Wilderness, the great equalizer, didn’t care if you were rich or poor: if you lost your coat you were going to freeze.
While we often hiked on the same trails the locals traveled on horseback, I lived each day in my own little gringo community, insulated from the lifestyle of Patagonia.
That year, I stayed in Patagonia long enough to watch early spring pass into late summer. On our last morning, the friends I had lived and worked with for the last several months gathered on a windy ridge high above the NOLS base camp. We stood in intermittent rain and sun, while just to the west heavy rain fell from dark clouds. Broad bands of color arched across the sky as a double rainbow stretched from horizon to horizon. One of the senior instructors, Scott, told us the legend of the calafate:
“Koonek, the old sorceress of the tribe, was too weak to
continue migrating with her people. So they built her
a sturdy hut, and Koonek remained there alone. That
fall the birds moved away. Somehow, the old woman
survived the long winter. When the birds returned,
Koonek blamed them for leaving her in such solitude,
but the birds could not have stayed as there was no food
for them in winter.”
The sun shone brighter and the rainbow intensified. Our little band huddled together against the chill as Scott continued the story.
“From now on, you will be able to remain here, and you
will have shelter and food,’ Koonek told the birds. When
the hut was opened, the old woman had changed into a
beautiful, thorny bush with bright yellow flowers. In the
fall the same bush bore sweet, purple fruit, and the birds
never needed to leave again. Today it is remembered that
he who eats the calafate will always return.”
After hearing the story, we solemnly passed around a handful of calafate berries that had been ripening all summer. I placed a dark, juicy berry into my mouth and let the sweetness of the whole summer sink into my soul.
THAT YEAR I returned to my home in Alaska, but I had vowed to come back, and I did. For three more seasons I hiked, kayaked, and climbed mountains in Patagonia, bringing groups of young people with me. But something was missing. I was still traveling like a foreigner. Worse yet, I still lived like one. My gringa impatience and the futile desire to bend the world to my will followed me everywhere. Sergio and Veronica, the caretakers of the NOLS campo, were my closest contacts with the Patagonia ranching life that so intrigued me. My Spanish was still so poor I understood little of what they said, but I sensed they knew the things I needed to learn, lessons that would run far beyond saddling horses and shearing sheep.
Back home in Palmer, Alaska, a town famous for its giant mountains and giant cabbages, I began taking horseback riding lessons. My classmates were thirteen-year-old girls. I was thirty-eight. Twenty-five years earlier, I had been one of those horse-crazy girls, bugging my parents endlessly about getting a horse. I grew up in suburban Denver and a horse was the furthest thing from what my parents needed or wanted in their lives. To my bitter disappointment they had the common sense to say no. Fortunately, I wasn’t thirteen anymore, and I was far from suburban Denver.
In riding class I learned to brush coats until they shone, cinch a saddle, and pick rocks out of a horse’s hooves. I walked in circles in a ring. My first horse, Yukon, was a big, brown gelding. He was old and gentle, and probably everyone’s first horse. Yukon stopped hopefully at the gate every time we went by.
“Keep him moving. Give him direction,” my teacher urged me.
With practice and persistence, I prompted Yukon into the laziest of canters. I was hooked. Moving in unison with another living thing delighted me.
In the barn one Saturday, confused by the array of leather and metal tack before me, I looked to my classmates for help. “What bridle do I put on Yukon?” I asked. A cute girl stepped forward, grasping a bridle and holding back a tiny giggle. Later, she caught her reflection in a window, and I overheard her say, “I can’t stand my hair.”
Looking at her lovely, long blonde hair, I wanted say, “Don’t worry, you won’t always feel like that.” I had been that girl, awkward in my own body, completely assured that everything about me was wrong.
In high school, a misguided guidance counselor suggested I consider working in a bank. The possibility of spending my life indoors in a tiny box counting money horrified me. At the same time, I almost laughed out loud. Let’s see, I thought, I am terrible at math, I can’t sit still, I hate being indoors, and I abhor dressing up.
It took me years to understand. The guidance counselor hadn’t even remotely known who I was, and mountain guide was not on her list of prospective careers for young women. Someday there would be a place for me. At nineteen, I found that place—Alaska.
A couple of months after my first riding lesson, I graduated to a sweet dun mare named Carmel. By then I had earned the right to rent a horse by the month, and my world opened up. I basked in the aroma of freshly hayed fields mixed with the sweet, acidic scent of overripe cranberries. Carmel and I trotted along dirt farming roads, kicking up mounds of fallen birch leaves. We explored trails through valley cottonwoods, hillside birch, and hilltop spruce, occasionally coming across huge glacial erratic rocks standing in the woods like messengers from another era. Mostly we searched out hay fields where we could gallop.
The Matanuska Valley still held a rich rural flavor. Palmer’s main street reminded me of the small town in Montana where my grandparents lived when I was a child, a place where kids could ride their bikes to town for an ice cream soda.
That fall as Carmel and I galloped through recently hayed fields, the “termination dust” of the first snowfall on the mountains reminded me that the seasons were changing. But that wasn’t all. Scattered across the valley, the original colony homes, along with the wooden barns and pastures that once dominated the landscape, were rapidly being replaced by suburban houses and shopping malls. It reminded me of the Denver suburb I had fled. Change was everywhere. It was happening in Patagonia, as well.
I envy people who are great self-promoters. I am not one of them.
A calafate seed was growing inside me. The idea was simple: Return to Coyhaique, buy a horse, and head south. The reality was a bit more complicated. Secretly, I doubted my ability, as well as my sanity. Why is it that I insist on doing things that other people never even think about?
I often get asked, “Did your family do things outdoors?” What people want to know is, “How did a girl from suburban America end up living in Alaska and climbing mountains for a living?”
“Yes, we did.”
I’d recount weekend trips to local ski areas and summer car-camping vacations in the West. What I had neglected to say was that we didn’t pursue outdoor activities in a way that takes over your life, makes you want to live in a tent a hundred-and-eighty days a year, or makes you crave wilderness to the point that anywhere within a hundred miles of a road feels cramped.
MY FIRST DAY at summer camp, was I eight? Was I ten? I don’t know, but I recall that the prospect of spending a week in the woods sounded like heaven. I was ushered to my cabin by some nameless, faceless young camp counselor. A red squirrel was chattering away in the tree just outside the door. I stepped outside. It was gathering pinecones and bombarding me with them from the treetops. As it scampered off to the next tree and the next, I followed. Before my parents were out of the parking lot, a lost camper alert had been sounded. A girl was missing.
“I wasn’t lost,” proclaimed the skinny blond girl firmly seated on her bunk in front of her counselor and the camp director.
“You need to stay in here until we all go out together,” the camp director explained. “If you need to go to the bathroom in the night, you must wake up your counselor to go with you. Do you understand?”
I understood, all right. This wasn’t heaven. This was jail, and I was going to hate it here!
That experience may have been my first inkling that I was somehow different, as well as my first blatant understanding that I had darn well better pretend that I wasn’t. I tried to get along, do my arts and crafts, and never chase squirrels again.
It didn’t work.
BACK IN PALMER, I was well into making plans to return to Patagonia when I met an acquaintance in the grocery store.
“What are you doing this fall?” he asked.
Could I say it out loud? “I am going to buy a horse and ride across Patagonia by myself.” That sounded both pretentious and crazy.
“Uh, going back to Patagonia?” I mumbled.
“Oh, to work for NOLS,” he said, not overly interested.
I said nothing. By not denying his assumption, he would at least think I was off to do something productive, like work for a living.
I envy people who are great self-promoters. I am not one of them. National Geographic wouldn’t be sponsoring this expedition. Besides, I didn’t want the world watching my escapades on TV.
Over tea, I told my friend, Cathy, what I had in mind.
“Aren’t you afraid?” she asked.
Was I afraid of driving myself crazy? Maybe. Afraid of boring myself to death? Possibly. However, I knew what she meant: Aren’t you afraid of the men? My answer to that was, absolutely not.
“The people of Patagonia are respectful, even shy, especially with foreigners,” I explained. “Women hitchhike into town to get groceries.” I didn’t go into the rest of the story, which was that I felt safer and more looked-after in southern Chile than I did in my own hometown.
That fall I did it. I left Alaska for Patagonia, taking with me a horse first-aid kit far more comprehensive than the one I brought for myself, a pair of new saddlebags, some horse-shoeing tools I didn’t know how to use, and way too much excess baggage in worries and uncertainties.
RETURNING TO PATAGONIA was exactly how I pictured it. Veronica saw me as I stepped off the bus at the campo gate.
“Hola,” she hollered from the porch. “Pasé a la casa,” she said, inviting me into her cozy blue house and giving me a beso on my cheek.
I had missed the Chilean tradition of greeting and parting with a kiss. Her hair was shorter now—the unruly ringlets of a slightly younger woman had been replaced by loose dark curls.
“Sienta sé,” she said, pointing to a comfortable, worn sofa. Sergio’s father, an even older man than I remembered, sat silently behind the woodstove.
Veronica filled a gourd with yerba maté and added hot water from the kettle on the woodstove. She took the first, often bitter, taste of yerba herself, and spit it into the sink. Next she passed the maté my way. As I sipped the stimulating herb at the center of social life in Patagonia, time rewound.
That illusion was shattered when Veronica’s son, Humberto, wandered into the house. No longer a small, round child wedged into the saddle in front of his dad, he looked all grown-up in his navy and gray school uniform. When the gourd was empty, I turned the bombilla, the silver straw used to strain and sip the tea, in Veronica’s direction and handed it back to her.
“How old is Humberto these days?” I asked in my rusty Spanish.
He was now seven, and in the first grade. Veronica told me that she hitchhiked with him to school in Coyhaique every morning, hitched home alone, and then back in to get him at three.
She must have seen the look of disbelief on my face. This was a hardship I could barely imagine.
“We are fortunate,” she said. “We live close enough to town that I can bring Humberto to school each day. It is much harder for many families. Often when the children reach school age, the woman has to move to town, while her husband stays and runs the campo.”
I knew that many families either maintained two separate houses or sent their children to live with relatives, or even to boarding schools. Despite the hardship, every child goes to school.
Still, I couldn’t help but think about what a simple thing like a school bus could do for my friend. In Alaska I live at the end of a dirt road, slightly farther from town than Veronica, who lives along the main highway. A bus arrives daily at the corner, picking up the two school-age children who live on my road.
As the servidor, Veronica refilled the gourd and passed it to Sergio’s father, who participated in the maté, but said nothing. Even years ago, I hadn’t understood a word he said. Was it because my Spanish was so poor or had he been suffering, even then, from the dementia that had now left him mute?
Out the window I saw Sergio coming from the upper campo. He tied his favorite dun mare, Reflauta, to the fence post and joined in the maté session. Sergio had the kind of round, boyish face that never seemed to age. His easy manner of greeting me made me feel like I had never left. He had already asked around about a horse for me.
“It may be difficult to find a good horse,” he told me. “You must know someone. A horse that is advertised could be lame or wild.”
Only a few hours into my trip, my enthusiasm could not be squelched.
“I will find something,” I assured both of us.
Days blurred together. I hitched the twelve kilometers into town daily. In the last decade, cars had replaced horses, and Coyhaique, the capital of the region, had become a bustling community. I looked longingly at the few horses still tied in the empty lot at the edge of town, but I figured their owners, people from the campos buying supplies in town, did not want to sell the horses they were using.
Although the streets were full of noisy automobile traffic, Coyhaique was still the kind of place where a walk down Calle Prat, the main street, could result in running into a half dozen people I knew. I spent my days visiting tack stores, veterinary offices, and talking to anyone I could think of who had anything to do with horses. At the end of each day, my feet hurt from pounding the cement sidewalks, and I was no closer to finding a horse.
Back at the campo, Veronica and I made empanadas, and I talked incessantly to Sergio about horses. None of Veronica’s other friends came into her house and talked endlessly to her husband. Socially, women talked with women about women’s issues. Men talked to men about horses. But it was well understood that gringos were different. Here, I was unusual, but I was accepted.
A lead on a horse took me to the nearby village of Balmaceda, where I tromped all day in the cold, dry wind and dust. I had been told his place was a cement house that could not be seen from the road, and that there was a wooden gate with a big rock nearby. None of the houses were visible from the road. Every one, of course, had a wooden gate, and there were many large rocks.
Almost a week into my journey, I had yet to find one horse for sale. The next day, I took the bus back to Balmaceda and went looking a second time for Señor Muñoz. Trudging from house to unoccupied house in the Patagonian wind, I saw myself as I must have looked from the outside—a tall, skinny gringa snooping around empty houses, her face hidden by a whirlwind of blonde hair.
Then I noticed a small, wooden signpost near a bridge I had crossed multiple times. It read: Puente Muñoz. A cement house set far back on the property was barely visible behind a cluster of alamo trees doubled over by the wind. The gray cement blockhouse was empty like all the others. I looked around and hollered in the direction of the barn. No one answered. The last bus to Coyhaique was at four-thirty. I was about to leave when a battered, blue pickup truck pulled in.
I strode up to the truck, and before the man could open the door, I blurted out, “Señor Flores me invita a ver el caballo de Señor Muñoz.”
For the past two days, I had been practicing my introduction: Señor Flores has sent me to look at the horse of Señor Muñoz.
“Allá esta,” he said, punctuating his words with the uniquely Patagonian mannerism of pointing with his lips.
The man began unloading boxes from the truck as if a crazed-looking gringa showed up every day looking for a horse. I snuck around behind the house. Sure enough, a small, dark horse stood saddled near the corral. His long, dreadlocked mane spoke of a horse that no one cared for, but I loved the way it blew in the wind. He was older than I had imagined. His feet looked terrible, and he had a sore on his hind leg.
I stepped into the stirrups, which fit perfectly, and settled myself into the soft sheepskin saddle. When I asked him to go, he took off with the good Chilean horse walk of an animal accustomed to working hard. A sweet and willing horse, he had obviously learned a long time ago that it was best to do what people wanted without complaint. Overjoyed to be in the saddle at last, I took a quick trip around the dilapidated barn, but I knew he was not the horse for me. I couldn’t imagine making this poor old guy march across Patagonia. Once I was on the bus, I took heart. At last I had ridden a horse that was for sale.
Back at the campo, Sergio had put an advertisement for me on Radio Santa Maria looking for a horse. The radio station aired messages three times a day, connecting a quarter-million square kilometers of rural Patagonia, letting people without telephones know who was coming to visit, who was ill in Coyhaique, and who had what to sell or trade. Sergio’s ad produced a lead. A man named Carmen Vásquez was selling a horse.
After hours of searching, I found Vásquez’ small backyard apartment. He talked loud and fast with the heavy accent of the pobladores—people who have lived on remote campos all their lives, talking mainly with each other, drop their s’s (making muchas gracias, mucha gracia), and slur their words (making una mes, ume). When I didn’t understand him, he talked louder. I tried to tell him I was a foreigner, not deaf, but I mispronounced the word for deaf, sordo, and told him I wasn’t zurdo. I doubt he knew why I told him I wasn’t left handed, which ironically, I am. At times like this I desperately wished I had studied harder. My high school Spanish and a few years of kayak guiding in Mexico weren’t going to get me far in rural Patagonia.
Somehow, we managed to make plans for him to pick me up at seven-thirty the next morning, a time I thought no one in Chile would be awake.
At seven-thirty a.m., he honked at the campo gate. He wanted to borrow a saddle from Sergio. His plan was that I would buy the horse and ride it back. There were a couple problems with that idea. One, I might not buy his horse and I didn’t want to be stuck hitching with a saddle. The second problem, which I didn’t have the Spanish to explain, was that the NOLS director had informed me that I needed to have any new horse checked out by a veterinarian before I brought it onto the campo. We left with a saddle.
Barely outside of the campo gate, the conversation turned to my marital status.
“¿Estas casada?” he asked.
This line of interrogation caused every joint in my body to tighten. The fact that the sturdy woman sitting beside me was his wife made me only slightly more comfortable.
“Entre gauchos no hay fronteras,” a common Patagonian saying, means, “Between cowboys there are no borders.” But, for me there would be.
I answered in single syllables. At other times I would have faked incomprehension of the question, but that day, I needed to understand Spanish. He wanted to set me up with one of his friends.
“My boyfriend wouldn’t like that,” I lied through my teeth.
Whatever I thought of Senor Vasquez, I liked his horse immediately. The deep red colorado walked right up to me. His pasture was nothing but a damp, fenced-off peninsula in a lake. His feet didn’t look bad compared to the other hooves I had seen. He was skinny, but it was early spring, and I figured good feed would fatten him up a bit.
Señor Vásquez saddled him and asked for the whip. I hadn’t brought one and had no intention of buying a horse that I’d have to whip. He stepped up on the stirrups and set himself down hard in the saddle. The colorado bucked and lunged as Señor Vásquez pranced around on him. Then it was my turn. Apprehensive about riding a horse I had just seen buck, I slid my toes into the stirrups.
“Lento, lento,” his wife hollered from inside the rough lean-to where she was tending a fire.
Was it for lack of confidence in me or in the horse that she wanted me to go slowly?
“¿Esta manso?” I asked.
Just a few days earlier I had learned the important difference between the word manso, which means tame, and mañoso, which denotes ill tempered.
“Si, si, muy manso,” she assured me from behind the wall of sticks.
The skinny colorado actually seemed to enjoy moving. We trotted around some downed trees, and then I nudged him into a gentle, willing canter. I felt like he was asking me to buy him and get him out of there. Sitting beside the fire, in a shelter that kept off the worst of the elements, we passed the maté. The bus to Coyhaique would pass in a half hour. If I was not on it, I would be hitchhiking with a saddle. Trying to pretend that I wasn’t in a hurry, I sipped my maté and chatted.
“I will return with a veterinarian this afternoon,” I said. Having no idea how I would accomplish that, I headed for the bus.
By some miracle, I returned that same day in a car with a veterinarian. The vet picked up the horse’s feet and muttered, “hongos.” My sweet horse had a foot fungus from standing in the wet pasture. He picked a small white grub from the horse’s coat and held it out for me to examine.
“Parásitos,” he said.
My horse had parasites. These little bichos were the reason NOLS required a vet check before bringing any new animals to the campo. Worst of all, the vet explained, the reason the horse was skinny was that he couldn’t eat properly because of his teeth. The colorado’s fate was sealed when the vet, who had made me stumble though complicated questions in Spanish all day, said in
perfect English, without breaking his pleasant conversation with Señor Vásquez, “Do not buy this horse.”
In his car, he told me, again in Spanish, “I have another possibility. A friend of mine is selling a mare.”
I wasn’t excited about traveling with a mare. I suspected that free-ranging stallions would be common where I was going. I had seen the power and violence of horse sex only once. It wasn’t anything I wanted to deal with on the trail.
Then the vet said, “She might be pregnant.”
That wasn’t appealing either. I didn’t even know how long a horse’s gestation period was, let alone what I would do with a baby horse.
“We might as well go look,” I said.
Riding around in a car with the vet was a pleasant experience compared to hitching the roads alone. Just outside of town we stopped to open a gate. Well-kept grounds surrounded several tourist cabins.
In the back of the property a corral contained both the yegua and the stallion she had recently mated with. At least if she was pregnant, she was not very pregnant, I thought, as if one can be not very pregnant. She was a tobiano, a black and white paint, a rare coloration here. Well taken care of, she had a short-cropped mane and squared-off tail, and her feet were in fine shape. For a light-colored horse, her coat was impeccable. If I bought her I doubted she would ever be this clean again. A dainty heart had been recently branded on her muscular butt.
The veterinarian lifted each leg, bending her fetlock tight against her upper leg in several positions. Running his hands down her front legs from withers to hooves, he talked with the workers in a rapid-fire Spanish I did not understand, but he seemed satisfied.
The workers threw a saddle on her for me. I stepped into the stirrups and settled onto her back. She fidgeted, dancing a little sidestep motion I was unaccustomed to. I figured she was just interested in getting away from the stallion, so I took her on a tour of the property.
She settled down. Far from eager to walk in mud and dirty her pretty feet, she was a city girl in my opinion, but I figured a few hundred miles would cure her of that. I was interested. She even came with a veterinary certificate and ownership papers, something no one else had offered. If I got accused of having a stolen horse, this girl would be certifiably mine.
Looking far into the future, I hoped these fancy papers would help me get her into Argentina. Patagonia is neither a country nor a state, but a loosely defined region shared by two countries. Nearly 600 kilometers south of Coyhaique, the glaciers on the western edge of the Southern Patagonia Ice Field ooze into the Pacific Ocean. The eastern side of the same ice field calves directly into Lago O’Higgins, a thousand-square-kilometer lake extending into Argentina. At that point, all of Chilean Patagonia is composed of water in either its liquid or frozen form. If I intended to ride the length of Patagonia, I would need to get my horse into Argentina.
Before roads were constructed in Chilean Patagonia, going through Argentina was the only way to travel north to south. “Entre gauchos no hay fronteras,” a common Patagonian saying, means, “Between cowboys there are no borders.” But, for me there would be. In the 1960s the Chilean version of the Department of Agriculture made transporting livestock between Chile and Argentina illegal. But I could worry about all that when and if I got to the southern end.
“I’ve got a horse!” I hollered to Sergio from the doorstep. Five minutes later, my horse—a black and white tobiano mare—stepped from a truck parked in front of his house. I had a brand new responsibility.
The next morning, sipping coffee on the front porch, watching my very own horse graze was like living a dream. A thin, low-lying valley fog flowed over her withers and down around her hooves. She was Pegasus without wings. Her coat, a blended patchwork of white, gray, and black, reminded me of clouds before a heavy rain. Nimbus, como las nubes cuando va a llover. “Nimbus, like the clouds when it is going to rain.” That would be her name. It sounded a bit pretentious, like a long pedigree, but I liked it. With what I knew of her personality, she would love it too. She could be Nimbus for short.
That afternoon, Nimbus and I went for our first real ride. We joined up with Sergio and headed to the upper campo looking for the cows. It was late October, and the first flowering plants of the spring were beginning to bloom. Each new scent brought a long-forgotten name in Spanish bubbling to the surface of my mind. Notro: clusters of bright red flowers and large, brilliant green leaves, the first tree to burst into bloom in the spring. Michay: A prickly bush with leaves like holly, now dressed in small, orange blossoms. Calafate: Yellow flowers hiding sharp thorns would become December’s sweet dark berries, and a legendary invitation to return.
Screeching tero-teros, a southern lapwing as common and raucous in campo land as gulls on the Alaska coast, dive-bombed us, protecting their nests. Once we were in the deep woods, I heard the familiar call of the chucao singing out its name, chucao tapaculu. We found the cows at the uppermost part of the campo. Looking out over the rich, rolling land below, Sergio and I discussed my horse’s color. Was she a tobiano, a true paint, or manchado, a white horse with dark patches? Nimbus’s spots were far too large for her to be considered an overo. The paint-splatter spots of an overo drip off a horse’s haunches like tiny raindrops. Like the Inuit with their multitude of words describing snow, Patagonians make fine distinctions between the things that matter in their lives. I longed to understand the subtle differences that others could see. Someday, if told to pick the potrillo zaino estrallita from a herd, I hoped to return with the right horse, a young, almost black male with a rusty tinge on his nose and a small white star on his forehead.
The cows were content, and no new calves had been born. We started downhill. With Sergio leaning back in the saddle, his horse strode down the fall line. Nimbus did zigzags, picking each step carefully and trying to avoid the steepest sections. We soon fell behind. I had never ridden down anything this steep, and I thought her reluctance was just part of the city-girl attitude she would need to outgrow. Sergio’s verdict on my new horse was different.
“The way she is walking means her knees are not good,” he said.
“Maybe you should trade her.”
Trade her? The words smacked me in the gut with a log. What? How? It had taken two weeks of hard work to find this horse. How could I trade her, and to whom?
I didn’t doubt that there were things campo people knew that veterinarians did not, but I had watched the vet pick up each leg, fold it back hard on itself, and stare into Nimbus’ eyes looking for any sign of pain. Could the vet have made a mistake? Could he have purposely steered me wrong? I did buy the horse from a friend of his. My mind was a kaleidoscope concerning what had happened in the past. The horse I bought and already loved was somehow deficient. But no ideas came to me about what I should do about it now.
“She may have been used in the rodeo,” Sergio said, interrupting my thoughts.
In the Chilean rodeo horses and riders push two-year-old cows along a wooden fence. The goal is to check and turn the animal four times, eventually pinning it against a padded part of the fence. Horses dance sideways along the fence, crossing their front legs. I had felt it. That crossover step was the motion Nimbus did when I first climbed on her.
“Sometimes horses miss and plow into the fence with their knees,” Sergio told me.
The look of horror on my face must have said it all.
He softened his words. “You never know, maybe it will be years until her knees get really bad.”
It didn’t matter how it had happened. The fact was my new horse wasn’t perfect, maybe not even good enough. I sensed that Sergio’s concept of time was different than mine. Selling this horse and buying another was a real option in his world. My gringa brain just couldn’t accept starting over, pounding the streets again, looking for another horse, trying to sell this one knowing her knees were bad. Besides, the NOLS director had let me know I was welcome to stay for two weeks, until I could launch my expedition. I had already overstayed my limit. The entire way to the valley bottom, scenarios flooded my mind, but no solution came to me.
At the base, a message was waiting for me from the NOLS director. I suspected that he was either going to inform me I had overstayed my welcome and needed to leave or someone had canceled a contract and he wanted to offer me work. Either way it was going to be bad news for my expedition. NOLS had been good to me by providing a launch pad for my journey. If the school needed an instructor, agreeing to work would be the least I could do. On the other hand, I had planned this trip for years. I had already abandoned home and work and friends. I was here, and I had a horse, albeit an imperfect one. I could not bail on my trip because I was scared or unsure about my new horse without losing face. But accepting a job would be a normal, sane choice that mainstream America would support.
The director offered me work.
I turned it down.
I was going and I needed to go soon, before anything else came up. But first, I needed a saddle. New saddles were more expensive than horses. Horses reproduce themselves. Saddles had to be carefully made by hand.
Sergio told me of a neighbor, Señor Foitzick, who might have a used saddle for sale. The story of the Foitzick family was part of the history of Coyhaique.
Between 1910 and 1920, Chileans, some of whom had been living in Argentina for years, began to colonize the Coyhaique area. They came into the country and established homes, trails, towns, and schools without the central government in Santiago knowing of their existence. By 1920, there were 155 households in the Coyhaique area. Chilean government officials, fearing that if Chile didn’t populate Patagonia, Argentina would, leased huge tracts of land in the southern regions to large cattle companies.
When the company men arrived they found the land already occupied by a strong, independent breed. The cattle companies fenced off what it considered to be their land and warned the locals that cutting the fence would be a violation of the law.
One of these early settlers, Juan Foitzick Casanova, had had his eye on a piece of land inside the company’s fence. Senor Foitzick simply built a bridge over the fence and settled his family on the other side.
The company also prohibited new houses from being constructed within its holdings, so neighbors collectively built houses in a single night. The homes were naturally nestled into whatever protection the landscape offered from the Patagonia winds. By the time the cattle company owners noticed a new house, the residents would simply claim that it had been there all along. Their sudden appearance earned these homes the name casa brujas (witches’ houses).
In Argentina and other parts of Chilean Patagonia, estancias, large tracts of corporate-owned ranch land, the legacy of the original cattle companies, are more the norm. However, to this day the style of agriculture in the Aysén Region is primarily small family farms, and Laguna Foitzick, and the land around it, is still in the hands of the Foitzick family.
Nimbus and I rode off to talk to Senor Foitzick. Riding, even beside the road, was delightful compared to dragging myself around on foot. No longer a person without a horse, I understood the pity that had once been directed at me. The road indicated on Sergio’s hand-drawn map branched into smaller and smaller roads, eventually ending at a closed gate. The gringa in me was not inclined to open the gate, ride through, and close the gate behind me as is the local custom. Trails are the same as roads here, and they often run right through people’s yards. It is expected that if you have business there, you will enter, if not, you won’t.
In Juan Fotzick’s cluttered kitchen, lace doilies and old photographs adorned a house that had been occupied for generations. We drank maté and talked about his land and his horses. He did not have a saddle for sale. He owned one saddle, the one he used every day.
In the end, a friend loaned me a saddle for my journey. Next, I needed a rope to tie my horse at night. In every garage in my neighborhood in Alaska there was plenty of unused rope. The ingrained North American mentality that there is always a little extra of everything was still strongly within me. Ropes, like everything else in Chile, were owned by someone who had a specific use for them. There was no “extra” anything lying around. Half a day’s shopping later, I owned a rope. I would need to take good care of it.
One evening, everything was done. The sunlight spread in long silver fingers beneath the clouds that were always present to the west. Nimbus was grazing in front of the house. On a whim I jumped on her bareback. Moments later, we were galloping around the now-green pasture. Pure exhilaration pulsed through my body as we bounded over open, undulating terrain. All her power was my power. She ran like she wanted to run, and I felt the expression of my joy within her.
I was finally mentally ready to go.
As if watching an old, black-and-white, slow-motion movie, I can still see myself leaving the campo. I looked back at Sergio and Veronica waving from the yard. After closing the heavy wooden gate behind me, I stepped up on onto the left stirrup and swung my right leg high over the overstuffed saddlebags that contained all of my current life’s belongings.
We headed off down the dirt road across the street.
Fredrik Norrsell’s images of Pfeiffer’s adventures, including the Calbagata Sin Represas, the horseperson’s march against dams on the Patagonia’s wild rivers. (Photo of the Cabalgata entering Coyhaique courtesy Ignacio Grez.)
When not in Patagonia, Nancy Pfeiffer lives with her husband, photographer Fredrik Norrsell, in a cabin outside Palmer, Alaska, where she enjoys hauling water, chopping wood, and high-speed internet. The subjects of her published works range from the joys and frustrations of building a house as a single woman to mountaineering for paraplegics. Riding Into the Heart of Patagonia will be published in the spring of 2018. Click on these links to learn more about Pfeiffer and Norrsell.