Wednesday, July 31, 2019
It has been pouring down rain for three days and three nights non-stop. It’s as if someone unzipped the sky and all the water in the world poured out. Oddly enough, even though everything outside is a soupy, muddy mess, I am grateful. First, because it is raining instead of snowing—although it does occasionally come with snow mixed in but then quickly turns back into rain. Second, because it has been enough rain to finish washing the trees clean of accumulated snow and enough to help melt off part of the twenty inches that were still on the ground from a devastating winter storm a week ago.
Last week was a rough one for the region. The only people grinning were those whose tourist trade depends on the ski slopes of Mount Catedral, located about midway between our house and the town of San Carlos de Bariloche twelve miles away. And even they weren’t all that happy to begin with since the snow storm hit precisely at the start of winter vacation season. With the Bariloche airport shut down due to the snow emergency, thousands of travelers headed this way from Buenos Aires, Brazil and other cities and countries around the world were stranded in the Buenos Aires hub, a thousand miles from here, until the snow let up and the landing strip could be plowed.
To be clear, the seasons here in South America are exactly opposite to those in the Northern Hemisphere. So, weather-wise, June here is like December in the States, July is like January, and so on. We’re now in the midst of our winter season.
No one predicted this big snow. Accuweather’s forecast was for some snow in the high country but only a wintry mix of rain and snow down below, with scant accumulation.
They say that if you don’t like the weather in Bariloche, wait around an hour and it’ll change. But I’ve never found that to be true in the two and a half decades that I’ve lived in the Andean-Patagonian region. The weather may often be surprising. But it seems to me that each stage of the weather moves with agonizing slowness to the next. Major rains are preceded by three or four-day blows with winds gusting to gale force off of the Pacific on the other side of the mountains. And once it starts raining, especially in late-autumn or early-winter, as well as in the springtime, it can, like now, rain hard for days on end. The most enduring rains that I recall have accompanied the first onslaught of winter, and have lasted as long as twenty days. And in wintertime the rain is occasionally followed by heavy snow.
The same is true when it quits raining. Usually, by late November, the rains are pretty much over until at least March. There are exceptions. Some years you’ll have a damper summer than others, but the norm is very wet winters and very dry summers, although just about anything can happen in between. I can remember one dry season when the rains and snows stopped in October and didn’t return until May. It happened back in the nineties after an unusually wet winter in which we had snow on the ground—sometimes as much as two and a half feet of it—non-stop from June through September. The following spring and summer marked a freakish-bad drought-year for the dense hardwood forests. Centenarian beeches, which require at least twenty-two hundred millimeters of rain a year to survive properly, died by the hundreds. We’re still cutting firewood from some of those dead giants twenty years later.
When new arrivals to the region say—with something like barely muted terror in their eyes—that they never knew it rained so much here, I always tell them that if they can’t stand the rain, they need to move elsewhere. The immense forests, the million and a half acres of Andean woodland national park that surround Bariloche, wouldn’t exist without abundant rain. These are forests so dense and water-dependent that scientists refer to them as “cold rainforests” and they share a lot of characteristics with the tropical rainforests found in the north of Argentina and in neighboring Brazil and Paraguay: abundant ferns, “live” hardwoods, dense cane breaks, and other lush and verdant species.
But despite fairly regular weather phenomena and four distinct and usually recognizable seasons, this remains part of an area of the world that meteorologists call “the roaring forties”. This refers to the latitudes between forty and fifty degrees in the Southern Hemisphere where strong west-to-east currents are stirred up by warm air from the Equator and frigid air from the South Pole, Earth’s rotation, and a scarcity of landmasses to serve as natural windbreaks. As a result, the weather is indeed capricious.
A symbol of this windy region is the “flag tree”—not a particular species, but vegetation that, in the windiest areas of “the roaring forties”, takes on the shape of a flag fluttering in the wind, from having its branches persistently and forcefully blown from west to east as they grow. Also iconic are whacky-weather change ups, usually mountain cold snaps in the warm season of the year, like the time it snowed six inches for my birthday in December, which would be like getting a formidable snow in early June back in my native Ohio. Or like the time I chose summertime as the best time to build a nine thousand-gallon watering tank because it would be warm and dry out, and the workers and I all ended up drinking hot coffee and shivering in our winter jackets because a big wind came and the temperature dipped to near freezing in mid-February, which is like mid-August back home in Ohio.
It’s all part of the intricate climatic tapestry that governs this extraordinarily beautiful region of the world. And if you’re going to make your home in “the roaring forties”, then, you have to be willing to “do Patagonia”, as they say here, meaning that certain hardship is the price you pay for living on one of the last great frontiers of nature. But sometimes it’s hard to look at these weather phenomena dispassionately and from an objective and realistic point of view. Sometimes, when you’re at your least objective, it seems as if the weather were your enemy and out to get you.
That’s how it felt last week. It was a phenomenon that I’ve only witnessed one other time since I’ve lived here. When it rains a cold hard rain for several days, pushed over the mountains by the wind from the sea. And then, suddenly, the rain changes to a wet, heavy snow, big splotches of snow that, instead of floating down in dreamy flakes, land in fat, sloppy wads that make a slushy thudding sound when they hit the roof. Just as suddenly, the wind stops completely and the snow storm parks above you for the duration.
The snow is too wet to slip from the rough bark of the big trees and there is now no wind to shake it loose from their branches. And so, it accumulates...and accumulates...and accumulates. And you keep thinking that it has to stop any time now, but it doesn’t, it just keeps on coming down and piling more and more weight on limbs and foliage. And then, when it has piled up a foot or more and is exerting a crushing weight on the trees, enormous branches start snapping like twigs and come crashing down. Some trees get top-heavy and tumble over in their entirety.
If you’re lucky, they miss you. If not, they don’t, and it’s all she wrote. This time, the forest showed us its love. It respected our house and vehicles and only slightly damaged one of the woodsheds. But it dropped huge limbs all around us in a night that was a lot like living through a shelling attack.
By the time the snow stopped, after two unnerving days, over two feet of it had accumulated. It had wreaked havoc with phone and electrical lines and blocked roads everywhere in the immediate region. Then it turned colder and it all froze in place.
That was Saturday and Sunday of a week ago. On Monday, we started venturing out of our dark caves like hunkering animals to assess the damage and to see how to make our way down to the highway and to civilization to acquire fuel and supplies. It took a good half day for two neighbors and me, with my chainsaw, to buzz through and remove enough fallen timber to blaze a trail with my trusty ’95 Toyota four by four Hilux.
I bought this truck used from a mountain guide, but it has been mine since 2001 and I can’t think of any good reason to get a newer one. I’ve had many an offer from guys who wanted to buy it from me and I tell them that barring any prior fatal pickup truck mishap, the Toyota and I will very likely end our days together with a Viking funeral.
So once some timber was cleared and with three neighbors in tow, I dropped the Hilux into all-wheel-drive low and powered through a mile and a quarter of snow-choked mountain road down to the highway, with snow up to the bumper and dragging belly all to way. And then did it all over again, but this time going up instead of down, once we had acquired a stock of provisions and of gasoline for our chainsaws and my generator.
For five days, I generated my own electricity, until the municipal snowplow from Bariloche finally made its way out to us and cleared the mountain road so that the power and light cooperative would deign to venture up from the highway and reconnect us. Bariloche is officially a “sister city” to Aspen. But if you think the services in any way reflect those of America’s winter playground in Colorado, think again.
Electric power lines that long ago should have been placed underground remain aerial and wend their way through dense woodland. A running feud between the electrical coop and National Parks keeps the power company from clearing a strip of land where high and medium tension lines go through. The result is that, as soon as it starts to snow, you can expect to suffer light cuts. And if the snow is heavy, you may well be without power for a week or more. Bariloche is a village, basically in the middle of nowhere, whose population has grown to the size of a city. When I first visited the place in the seventies, its population didn’t reach twenty thousand. Today it’s over a hundred thousand. Infrastructure hasn’t kept pace and municipal services lag far behind demand. A municipal insider told a neighbor of mine that while the city owns eight snowplows, only two or three are ever operable. Since priority is given to keeping open the road to the ski complex on Mount Catedral and to the downtown area, this means that in a major snow emergency, neighbors living outside of the micro-center of town are pretty much on their own.
But this lack of, well, everything tends to make us all a lot more self-reliant. Those of us with four by four vehicles pull out our neighbors and each other. And we clear our own roads when trees are down.
I went to my mechanic’s shop last week to have new contacts placed on my battery cables, but when I arrived, he’d left a message for me to come back the next day. I later found out that since he hadn’t heard from an old friend and client of his for several days and knew the guy lived up in the mountains in a remote area, he tried to call the fellow. When he got no answer, he didn’t hesitate to climb into his truck and make the perilous trip in the snow to the guy’s house. His friend lived up a steep grade on mountain road that hadn’t been cleared. He knew the guy was in poor health, suffering from acute prostitis and a kidney disorder, as well as heart problems, so he was about to attempt to get to the friend’s house in nearly three feet of snow when he saw a provincial highway road grader at work clearing the highway. Mario, my mechanic, pulled up beside the driver, signaled him to stop, and somehow talked him into clearing the mountain road up to the friend’s house.
Mario found his friend holed up with no food, no power, no fuel, no heat and only semi-conscious under a pile of covers, shivering in his bed. He got the guy out of his house and to the hospital where he was checked into the ICU. A few more hours and he wouldn’t have made it. Mario, to my mind, is a hero. Someone who cares. Someone who is always thinking of his friends and clients. Someone who doesn’t stop at worrying, but leaps out of his comfort zone and into the fray, taking charge and doing what needs to be done in an emergency. He’s what it means to be a true frontier Patagonian.
Sometimes I tell myself maybe I’m getting too old for this crap. It’s all too easy to start thinking that way when you’re staring seventy in the face just a few months down the road. But then I realize that I have the privilege of living in a place that doesn’t permit complacence, a place where you have to do certain things just to survive, a place that requires you to stay on your toes and not give in to old age.
In Patagonia, you can’t take living for granted. And, as an old friend who lived to be ninety once said, “It’s a good life if you don’t weaken.”
Sunday, July 14, 2019
There were numerous times when I was a kid that I remember my mother, Reba Mae, demonstrating her deathly fear of electrical storms. I think the reason that this trait stands out in my memory is that, although shy, she never seemed afraid of much of anything. I mean, other than bad weather and driving through the rough South End of nearby Lima, Ohio (where she worked, oddly enough, through much of World War II).
She taught me that I had to stand up to bullies, and throughout the long years in which my father, Whitie, lived through pendulum swings between energetic euphoria and crippling depression, whenever he suffered a decline, she always stepped into the fray and ran his business for him—often for months—until he could get back onto his feet and do it himself. And she always did it with a smile and to the very best of her ability, even if, in private, I sometimes saw her cry.
But storms scared her silly. There was no rationale that would convince her otherwise. When the wind was up, the lightning flashing and the thunder rolling, she panicked.
When I was older, Reba Mae told me that her irrational fear of storms came from a childhood incident and that she was glad she hadn’t passed the phobia on to my sister, brother and me. Indeed, when there were tornado warnings, back when we were teens and she would start pacing the house in the middle of the night, trying to wake up the rest of the family and get us to accompany her to the basement, my sister Darla and my brother Jim would tell her to leave them alone, and I would always mumble, “You go ahead, I’ll be down in a while.” Whitie would just keep on snoring. It was his learned response to everything from fire and floods to riots and insurrection.
Anyway, it seems that when Reba Mae was a little girl growing up in the west-central Ohio countryside, she was out on her pony one humid summer’s day, when cooler air marshalled in a canicular storm of major proportions. She was out in the fields of the tenant spread that her father farmed in Shelby County. The storm came up so fast, with strong gusts of wind, thunder and lightning, and cold sheets of rain, that she had no time to make it back to the house. She could think of nothing better to do than to take shelter under a lone pin oak that stood in the middle of one of the fields.
Now, that pin oak, all by its lonesome in the midst of a field made it the perfect lightning rod, and although it had withstood thunderstorms of every intensity, season after season, for donkey’s years, it picked this particular day to attract a lightning bolt. The fire-bolt hit with incredible, explosive force and split the hardwood tree like some cosmic axe. The expansive force of the explosive blast stunned Reba Mae and her pony threw her and ran off to parts unknown. As soon as she could think straight, she picked herself up and ran for home. She arrived shaken, with ringing ears and soaked to the skin. From then on, it was as if every storm were out to get her. No one could tell her different.
Curiously enough, it was as if some poltergeist were following her around making sure that she was never able to shake that otherwise irrational belief. Indeed, three different TV sets of ours were struck by lightning over the years, until the advent of cable television made that a near impossibility. And the last time it happened, Reba Mae had rushed to unplug our set as soon as she heard the first clap of thunder, but despite that preventive action, the electrical charge followed the TV line in, jumped the breach and hit the plug on the floor before knocking out the apparatus.
I tried to explain to my mother that these things happened because Whitie was a stickler for TV reception and always got our town’s resident TV genius, Tom Cartmel, to install the tallest antenna towers available. The metal-frame towers provided excellent reception, but made our house a high-profile conductor just waiting for a chance to catch a bolt. It was years before Whitie figured out that if you were going to put up an antenna that tall, you needed to have it attached to a real lightning rod buried in the soil so that any lightning that struck would be grounded out instead of following the line into the house. But it was useless. To Reba Mae’s mind, storms were out to get her.
There was one night in particular that I recall. I was about four at the time. Perhaps that’s why I remember it so well. Maybe because it was the first time I realized how unhinged she became when a storm broke. And that set my own fear aflame, even though when Whitie saw that I was scared of thunder, he had assured me that it was only the cooks in heaven rolling the potatoes around in the bin. It wasn’t until I was a pre-teen that I started going out, much to my mother’s displeasure, and intentionally walking around town in the worst of electrical storms in order to lose all fear of them. In the end, I got so that I actually liked them and found them singularly inspiring.
So on this particular late-summer Friday evening, it was about dusk when a big, loud thunderstorm rolled in, turning it pitch black outside. This was back when the Teddy Bear, a soda fountain and sandwich shop that Whitie and two of his brothers had founded right after the war, stayed open late on Fridays. Whitie wouldn’t get home until after midnight, once he’d finished the clean-up. If he was home, Reba Mae could handle her fear better, but when he wasn’t, it took complete possession of her. Like I say, I was around four and Darla around seven when this happened. We had a TV, one of the first in town, but our mother was afraid to turn it on with all the thunder and lightning. So she sat my sister and I (our little brother wasn’t born yet) down on either side of her on the couch and started reading stories to us from one of the beautifully bound and illustrated Childcraft books in the collection that occupied a shelf in a small bookcase at one end of the living room.
I usually loved it when Reba Mae read to us. She was an excellent reader, who made the stories come alive. But right now, all I could hear was the tension in her voice that had gone suddenly high and thin. She was halfway through the telling of a story about a little dog with a bone crossing a bridge, seeing his reflection in the water and dropping his bone in the river to bark at what he thinks is another dog with his bone.
It wasn’t a story I particularly liked—I much preferred the one about the stork and the fox—because I always felt sorry for the little dog. I guess I identified because it sounded like something stupid that I might do. After that night, however, I would always identify it with frightening tempestuous weather. Little wonder, since right in the middle of the reading, there was an enormous clap of thunder with rolling aftershocks that shook the house to its foundations. And that was it for Reba Mae. She briskly snapped the book shut and in a voice that was tissue-thin and tremulous, said, “Come on, kids! Let’s go get Grandma and go have an ice cream!” And before you could say Rumpelstiltskin, we were in the car and on the way to Reba Mae’s mother’s house on the other side of town.
|Reba Mae, Darla and Danny at Grandma Myrt's|
When we arrived, Grandma Myrt was glad, as always, to see us, and, its being Friday, Grandpa Vern was off at the Monkey House playing cards. There was a brief powwow between mother and daughter, and then we were off to Max’s Dairy Bar for ice cream. Max’s, a tiny carry-out frozen custard store on the east side of town, was one of my favorite places on earth back then, which made me feel a whole lot better about the storm. Reba Mae too, evidently, since her fear was assuaged somewhat by being in the company of her mother and by virtue of the fact that Whitie had once told her that you couldn’t be struck by lightning in a car because the tires grounded it out.
|Grandma Myrt and Grandpa Vern years later|
Even after we finished our wonderful, sweet, soft ice cream treat in lighter than air wafer cones, the thunder was still rolling and fire-bolts splitting the night. So instead of going home, we went back to Grandma’s until time for Whitie to get off work. For Darla and me, it seemed like the middle of the night since it was well past our bedtime. We’d been rousted out in our summer shorts and t-shirts and with the rain the evening had grown cool. Eating ice cream had made us downright cold. Cold enough for our teeth to chatter.
Reba Mae told Grandma Myrt not to go to any trouble, but Grandma said it was no bother, and while she put water on to boil for coffee for them, she spread one of her wonderful patchwork quilts on the front room floor for Darla and me to lie down, and once we had, she covered us each with a warm, scratchy Indian blanket. With the voices of my mother and her mother chatting in the kitchen as background, I drifted into delicious sleep next to my big sister. Had I been able to articulate my thoughts into words back then, the word would have been...safe.