Monday, August 27, 2018


I once camped under the same tree with my wife for twelve days. Out of that dozen days, it rained eight and snowed one.
This was in Los Alerces National Park in Chubut Province, Argentina, almost two million acres of stunning wilderness located in Andean Patagonia. At the time, I was trying to strike up a relationship with a renowned mountain guide so as to get him to help me set up some trekking circuits.
Los Alerces National Park
It's a long story... I was about forty at the time and had recently left my job as a newspaper editor. I decided that I wanted to do something else, something fun, with my life for a while. This was about 1988. I had been traveling to different parts of the vast Patagonian region every chance I got since about 1975. I loved the region and eventually wanted to live there.
Anyway, I got it into my head that a good way to mix business with pleasure would be to bring groups of no more than six Americans at a time to Patagonia on walking tours of some of the wildest areas in the Andean wilderness. I would eventually take a three thousand-mile working tour of the region with a nature photographer whom I had known for some time, and we would make contact with different trackers and guides in the various places we visited to get a commitment from them to help us if we started bringing American travelers in. The guy I happened to be tracking down now was a cantankerous mountain man and fishing guide called Américo Rosales, who had made his first trips to the surrounding mountain tops on horseback under his father’s poncho when he was only four. Now in his fifties, to say that he knew the area like the back of his hand was an understatement.
I tried to seek Américo out on my own but he shunned me. I was invisible to him and the messages I left him in the different places he frequented went unanswered. So I tried a different tack. I made friends with a nephew of his who was the owner of a campsite—the one where we set up our bivouac while I waited for Rosales to deign to talk to me.  César, Américo’s nephew, and his wife, a descendant of Welsh settlers whose name was Elizabeth, were nice, pleasant people. We spent some time at their comfy cottage by the fire, drinking mate or coffee and enjoying the biscuits or pastries that Elizabeth fed us.
Eventually, I explained my plight to César. I had heard that Américo was the best guide in this part of Chubut and I wanted to see if I could get him to work with me if I started bringing small groups of Americans down for trekking tours.
His uncle, César said, was a loner. A difficult man with an irascible nature. It wasn’t easy to get him to meet people unless he himself decided he wanted to.
Seems, for instance, that he had once taken up with a woman for a couple of years who shared a shack by the lake with him. Once he came home carrying one of his dogs that had been opened up by a wild boar that Américo and his pack had been hunting (he hunted wild boar with dogs and a knife). The boar had ripped the dog’s side open with its tusks and now Américo laid the whimpering dog on the kitchen table, got out peroxide, iodine, needle and monofilament fishing line, and starting cleaning the wound and sewing the animal up.
Just then Américo’s woman friend came in and immediately said, “Get that thing off of my table!”
Américo looked up from his sewing, stared at her with his cold blue eyes and said, “This thing, as you call him, is my dog. He’s been with me nine years. You’ve been here two. You can get the hell out, now!”
But César promised he would see what he could do.
Obviously on César’s urging, Américo began to observe me. I could tell, because he started showing up at the campsite oftener than usual. He would pretend not to see me, pretend to be going down to the lakeshore to get something from his fishing hut or to check the moorings of his boat or whatever. But I realized that he was keeping an eye on me, seeing how I was coping with the inclement weather, how I built our cook fires, how I stowed my equipment—in short, seeing if I was nature-worthy. Clearly, his first impression of me was that of some American journalist type by way of Buenos Aires and that, as such, I was bound to be a tenderfoot pain-in-the-ass who would be a liability in the field if ever there was one.
But after keeping an eye on me from afar for a while, he finally decided to give me a try. It was raining torrentially that afternoon and snowing in the high country. It was way too wet for a fire so my wife and I had managed to boil some broth and noodles on the gas ring, washed them down with a so-so red wine, and then settled into our damp bedding for a nap. The squawking of a couple of tero-tero birds (they're better than a watchdog) woke me and I heard feet shuffling on the ground outside and sat up. Under the tent flap I saw a pair of well-worn military hiking boots and heard somebody clear his throat. I opened the flap a tad. It was Américo Rosales. He looked sternly down at me and said, "Feel like taking a little walk?"
It was the first time he’d ever spoken to me. He clearly didn’t stand on formality. No introductions. No names. Not even a howdy-do. Just, “Feel like taking a little walk?”
“Sure,” I said, pulling on my hiking boots, my jacket and hat. I drove, following his instructions, along flooded, swampy dirt roads and up a mountain side on an old logging trail as far as my poorly adapted two-wheel drive Ranchero pickup would take us. Where it stalled out and refused to go any further, we set out on foot.
La Torta
“We’re going up there,” the crusty guide said, pointing to the truncated summit of a mountain known as “The Cake” (La Torta). “Takes a few hours to get up there and a couple to get back down and we’re starting kind of late. So we don’t have time to take the trail to the top. We’re going cross-country. You got a problem with that?”
“No,” I said, knowing that any other answer was unacceptable.
So off Américo went in front of me, opening the dense underbrush with his hands and a sharp facón with a bone handle that he carried stuck crosswise at his back through the black sash that he wore to hold his pants up. His pace was incredibly fast. I was immediately reminded of my first hunting trips when I was still very small with my tenant farmer grandfather. Grandpa was long-legged and a tireless walker. He’d take off through cornfields and overgrown thickets setting his own pace and you either kept up or were left behind. This was the same thing.
 The land was a densely wooded roller coaster of ridges and ravines punctuated by impassable cane breaks leading toward the summit. It was apparent that Américo was putting me through my paces. I hadn’t done a forced march like this one since I’d taken my Basic Combat Training with Ranger and Green Beret instructors at Fort Bragg North Carolina nearly 20 years before. But I knew it was of vital importance to keep up, to be dogging his heels all the way up the mountain.
Somewhat more than halfway to the top, we crashed through a dense thicket into a high mountain clearing where the wind suddenly grew chilly. There were a couple of fallen trees there. Américo reached into a hollow in one of them and retrieved a Tetra Brik carton of common red wine. Seeing my surprise, he said, “I keep a carton here and a carton there in different places.”
From the small canvas field pack that he was carrying, the guide removed two loaves of French bread and a small salami. Américo handed me one of the loaves of bread, and on a fallen tree trunk, he used his facón to cut up the salami into about a dozen slices. In silence we ate bread and salami and passed the carton of wine back and forth to wash it down. When the carton was empty, Américo put it back into the hollow tree. “These are good for cooking,” he said.
“Yeah, you catch a fish, you put it in one of these cartons that have tin foil inside, you put it on the fire and when the carton has burned off and only the tin foil is left, your fish is done.”
Now the forced march became even more intense. It was a grueling climb through tangled thickets going almost straight up the side of the mountain. When we finally broke from the vegetation at the tree-line and reached the last gravelly few hundred feet, the climate changed drastically. We were wet with sweat under the outer shells of our clothing and now we had to brave thirty-five mile-an-hour “Andean breezes”. Sleet blew almost horizontally, slashing at our faces.
Above the tree-line
As we stood catching our breath, quail-like copetonas, unaccustomed to human company, came almost up to our boots to check us out. “If a person were pernicious,” said the guide, “these birds are really good eating.” He grinned, shooed the birds away and we made the last run to the top of the rock.
The view was spectacular, range after range of Andean wilderness. “I wonder what’s beyond those ridges,” I said a little too romantically for Américo’s taste.
“More ridges,” he grunted. “And eventually, the Pacific.”
“Let’s take a picture,” I said, digging my 35mm camera out of my shoulder bag.
“It’s going to be a picture of us dying of cold,” he said. It was the first time he’d shown any sort of weakness.
“So what?” I said, found a rock to perch the camera on and set the timer.
Afterwards we climbed back down to the tree-line and prepared for our descent.
It was then that Américo turned to me and said, “You walk pretty good!”
I smiled. It was the best compliment anyone had ever paid me, and I knew I’d made a friend.  

Saturday, August 11, 2018


I’d like to explain my absence.
Where to begin?
A couple of weeks back I had what, at the time, I considered “a little accident”. I was doing some work outside the house here in Patagonia—scraping the snow off of Virginia’s car, checking to make sure the entry valve to our water storage tanks wasn’t frozen, unsticking the padlock on the front gate so Virginia could get out, etc.
I was doing all of this in my indoor shoes, something I seldom do in freezing weather, but I was in a rush and not putting on my boots, I thought, would save some time.
It was as I was again climbing to the top of our flagstone steps to open the gate for Virginia that I stepped on a patch of ice and felt myself starting to slip. Now, I’m usually sure-footed and immediately sought to recover, but failed to be able to get off of the ice or to stop the slide.
Unfortunately, I was at the top of a six-foot drop into our patio and simply, like a man washed overboard, slipped off the edge back first. The first thing to break my fall was a large granite boulder. Obviously, my body did the giving. I tried to scramble to my feet so as not to scare Virginia who was running back to see what had happened, but I was feet upgrade, head down, and scrambling never came into it.
I struggled to turn over, got on my knees and managed to push myself to my feet with the help of the roof of a sturdy doghouse. The pain was excruciating. I knew it was bad. Nothing had ever hurt like this before. But I managed to convince Virginia to go ahead about her errands. I just needed to catch my breath, I told her.
Inside the house, I did a quick damage control. The pain was persistent but I was getting my breath back. I could walk with certain difficulty but none of my limbs was broken. I was sure it was just a bad fall and that by the next day I’d be feeling better.
The next day, however, I realized that certain ways I moved a rib was clicking and decided to get myself looked at. At the local clinic they took x-rays and confirmed that I had a broken rib. There wasn’t much I could do about it, they said—wear a wrap eight hours a day and take painkillers. No going out for at least five days and no physical exertion for at least two weeks.
The third day, a Saturday, I did as I was told, but I started feeling worse all the time. I had to wear the wrap only a couple of hours at a time rather than eight straight because I was having difficulty breathing. In the evening when I took off the wrap, I immediately felt dizzy and confused. I had tunnel-vision and felt that I might black out. I told Virginia that I wanted to lie down on the couch and that if I didn’t get to feeling better soon, I’d let her drive me to the clinic to get checked out.
That never happened. Once I was down on the couch, I was never able to get up again under my own power. Virginia called the paramedics and in a short time, two consummate professionals, a man and a woman, managed to sit me up and started asking questions. I kept trying to doze off but they kept talking to me, loudly, assertively.
“Come on, champ! Hang in there. You’re going to be all right.” They asked about medication, ailments, etc., and I muttered answers as coherently as I could. But by now, all I wanted to do was sleep, and they apparently had to avoid that at all costs.
They’d had to leave their vehicle fifty meters above the house, partly over rough terrain. They wanted to see if they could get me there on foot. They managed to drag me to my feet, but as soon as they did, everything went black. Next thing I knew the male paramedic was yelling my name in my face. I think I tried to say something like, “Just let me sleep a while and I’ll be okay.” But I don’t know if I actually said it.
Finally, with the help of Virginia, they were manhandling me into a strange sort of wheel chair and strapping me in. How they did it I’ll never know since the woman couldn’t have weighed more than 120 pounds, but between the two of them, they managed to maneuver my 235 pounds up the path one step at a time, across the gravel and into the ambulance.
Once inside they locked my chair to the wall so as not to have to get me onto a stretcher. They told Virginia to follow us in her car. It was already well after midnight by this time. We had a mile of rocky pitted mountain road to negotiate before we reached the highway. They were constantly asking how I was doing, if I was with them. I could hear them like from very far away talking among themselves. The woman was driving. At one point he was consulting her about my condition, reading her my vital signs, such as they were, and she stopped the ambulance and climbed into the back with us.
She was busying herself over me, perhaps giving me an injection, when I heard him say, “You’re lucky you got her, champ, she’s a genius.”
And then we were under way again. I felt the jostling stop as we pulled onto the blacktop of the highway. As we drove, the guy stayed close, talking to me, squeezing my hand, saying, “Stick with me, champ! Come on, it won’t be long now. You’re doing great!” But then I heard him say to the woman, “Hit the lights and step on it. I can’t find his pulse anymore.”
At the clinic they were waiting for us. Between sleep and semi-consciousness, I felt myself being borne dizzyingly fast on a stretcher through the narrow halls, the front end being used as a battering ram to open successive swinging doors. There were drips hanging above me and they were taking blood pressure, temperature, pulse. Somebody cut my shirt off with surgical scissors. Then I felt them slide me into the tunnel of a tomography unit. I wanted to warn them that I was claustrophobic, but suddenly I was asleep again.
The next thing I knew, a doctor was shouting in my face, “Danny! Danny! Can you hear me?”
I nodded.
“You punctured a lung, buddy.” I wanted to mention that I was taking blood thinners, but clearly, he was already aware of that. Instead, I grimaced and nodded. “The surgeon’s here. We’re going to get a tube into your lung to draw off the blood.”
Later, in recovery, I heard the surgeon say, “We’ve drawn off about four and a quarter pints of blood. We’re leaving you hooked up because you’re still bleeding and we’re taking you to the ICU.”
I would later find out I’d lost another couple of pints to an intramuscular bleed that had bloomed across my back and side.
When I awoke in the ICU the next morning, I knew where I was. I was fairly comfortable. I’d gotten an end bed with a window where I could watch the sunrise on the mountains and the lake. As I lay there watching the beautiful red light tinge the snow-choked mountain tops, the phrase “brush with death” came to mind. And I suddenly, to my surprise, teared up and felt a wellspring of emotion thinking, “This is what it means. I might never have seen this again.”
Then I thought, “It’s a new day, the only one I have, and nothing will ever be the same again.”