A small boy of about 10, small for his age, walks to school on a cold december morning. Breaths of air, warm and misty, cloud his hooded head, he takes delight in cracking the thin sheets of ice formed when the previous nights rain pooled inside large cracks in the pavement. He follows them like stepping stones, leaning his slight physique on the panes of frozen water as they squeal under the pressure then crack. Water oozes through, covering the boy’s shoe with an algid broth. He daydreams, He is a giant, he is an arctic ice breaker, he is a skater, an adventurer!.. he is Mallory!.....he is? .......he is?........The boy is late for school.
The blade on the lucas mill with it’s loud shrill cuts off another length of Oregon pine. Our last for the day. Gustavo kills the motor, which splutters into submission and gives us it’s trademark backfire in salute to our days work. It’s december and it’s hot. A typical summers day in Patagonia. I take my gaze away from the Snow covered Andes and stop daydreaming about my boyhood.
We had turned a dozen or so hardy trunks into lumber, a full days work, under a harsh sun. Which appeared miraculously to have no effect on the tireless snowline of the mountains separating us from Chile. But we, were spent. Wood chips and sawdust in our hair, our clothes, inside our socks, our mouths and nostrils. clothes stinking and discoloured with sweat, muscles ached, ears rang. We climbed into the back of the Ford and rode back to Crux, our lodgings for the past month. We pulled into the yard and jumped out, Faluche, our boarder collie surrogate turned circles of excitement around us. He knew as always, we would be going to Rio Azul to bathe in its cool clear waters.
We walked the dirt road, dotted with the rusting skeletons of old automobiles. Chickens ran out from homemade coops, old toothless women glared with askance from corrugated huts. Faluche lead the way, as he habitually does, occasionally looking back to assure we were following.
The Azul flows, wide and fast, deep in some places and dangerously shallow in others.
But the water is crystal clear. Meltwater from the surrounding mountains. You could lie on your back and drift downstream while gazing up at a scene reminiscent of an alpine postcard.
The river flows into the Lake which which gives this valley its name, Puelo.
Three separate rivers drain into Lago Puelo, which narrows at the boarder with Chile, somehow crossing back through the Andes and out into the Pacific ocean, goading me to follow. “Soon”, I answer.
It’s twilight when Ed and I leave the banks of the river with Faluche in tow.
Arriving back at Crux, there is already a Parilla of half a lamb roasting over charcoal.
The dripping fat hissing like snakes on hitting the embers, sending sparks spiralling into the velvet sky. We sit down next to Gustavo.
“Mañana” he says “we will go to the campo to catch horses” He sips maté through a silver bombilla. Ed opens a large beer bottle and pours two glasses.
The air is warm, but the savoury smoke from the barbeque keeps the mosquitoes away, for now.
We listen to Gustavo speak, his voice, with a calmness that only experience can give tells us stories of the past, how in his youth he crossed the Andes by horse, about family, his hopes for the future. We tell him that in a few weeks we will do the same. But on foot. He thinks we are crazy. We think he is right. He is a man content with life, he lives in paradise and possesses the wisdom to know this. He shares with us willingly his knowledge and advise. Preparing us in his way, furnishing us with his unique philosophy about the mountains. There are no roads, only small trails, and sometimes not even these. “There are other ways to navigate the forests”, “Where snow lies, there are no paths” Thankfully for us we will cross the Andes in summer, avoiding the high snowy passes.
These talks late into the night, by the light of an open fire lull us into desire to stay in Puelo. Atahuapi sings a lament on the radio, we all sit in silence, listening, starring into the flames.
“me llaman abandonado, because I don’t grease my wheels, they call me abandoned, but its too long to walk, no necesito silencio, I no longer think any more, I don’t need silence,
Los ejes de mi carreta, nunca los voy a engrasar.............
I go to bed with the sounds of Yupanqui’s squeaky wagon in my head. Perhaps it’s my ears, still ringing with the sound of the Lucas mill.
Another month passes like this, first christmas, then new years and all of january in the tranquil surroundings of Lago Puelo. We wrangle horses in neighbouring valleys, taking them back to Puelo. Cut timber in the scorching sun. raise posts to support a new roof, painting, varnishing , sanding. Earning our peaceful slumber.
friday the 1st of february.
The bus to Bariloche, winds it’s way north one hundred and thirty five kilometres from Lago Puelo. But Ed and I ask the driver to let us out about half way. What seems to be the middle of nowhere. Where the infamous Ruta 40 which runs the entire length of Argentina meets Ruta 83 along the banks of Rio Manso. The bus roars on in a cloud of dust leaving us in the wilderness. A Loica with his crimson breast, takes to flight from a barb wired fence, flying west, leading our gaze down the dirt road, along the Manso towards Chile. Basalt towers rise above us on both sides. The Loica will be in chile in about half an hour. We’ll be there in about three days.......