Monday, August 27, 2018

AMÉRICO



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.
“Cooking?”
“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.  
   

No comments: