The sun was shining and hot with no hint of wind the day I went riding with Carol Jones. Carol is a genuine gaucha who grew up on Estancia Nahuel Huapi, across the lake from Bariloche. She inherited the ranch from her grandpa, Jared Jones, who was the first white man to settle in the area. He arrived over a hundred years ago, whether heading towards Patagonia or running from Texas, I couldn’t say. But this sureña cowgirl is the real deal: a life lived from the back of a horse. Carol was ranch-raised and began riding and helping out with ranch chores when she was 5 or 6. Her grandpa Jared had seven sons; so she had plenty of aunties, uncles and cousins to play with.
On account of the still-present and very visible ashes from volcano Puyehue, Carol had to move her livestock to another ranch the family owns higher up in the mountains to the south, farther away from the volcano. She’s already lost one horse who colicked from a gut full of volcanic dust.
After we hit the trail, Carol was happy to talk to me about local medicinal plants and discuss their uses. She says none of her horses have had shots or medical treatments except for herbal remedies, and they’ve all had exceptionally long lives – well into their thirties. She built up her knowledge of local plants and herbs through conversations with the old women whose families have lived in the area for generations. She knows which plants are which, and how to collect, store and administer the herbs to treat equine problems, and human problems too. Unfortunately, her horse’s ingestion of volcanic dust (by foraging on dusty plants and ingesting the dust) was not something herbal remedies could fix.
Carol and I drove east out of Bariloche to the estancia of a friend, Estancia San Ramón, where she keeps a few head of horse for these rides which bring in a few dollars, as she waits for the natural cycle to restore her pastures. On the way we picked up a young English couple that had signed up to go along.
We saddled up with the help of Miguel, the gaucho in charge of the posta, the section of ranch that’s his to take care of, and where he lives year round with his wife and family. Also riding with us was the ranch manager, an Aussie, and his two boys ages 8 and 10. The jefe grew up working on ranches in Australia before transplanting himself and family to Patagonia. The English couple and yours truly made up the rest of the group. We hit the trail before ten am and rode till six. The Estancia San Ramón is huge – 75,000 acres – which explains its amazing variety of rock formations, creeks, canyons, and high rocky peaks. There’s an old graveyard, too.
We saw red ochre Indian paintings on a rock overhang, and explored a cave.
Patagonian gauchos wear berets! Takes some getting used to, I admit. Can’t turn it upside down and use it for a horse drinking fountain, either. The little flea-bitten grey mare Carol was riding had quite the personality. Don’t let the sleepy demeanor fool you: definitely a boss mare!
We climbed up, down and around the rocky hills and steep arroyos. The sky was the bluest of blues. And the volcanic dust was, well… everywhere.
We rode past a herd of goats that I might not have noticed but for the tinkle of their bells. They paid no attention to us.
After a few hours in the saddle breathing trail dust we stopped by a creek in a lush little valley bottom. Miguel got the asado going. The horses were unsaddled and turned loose to graze the tall grass in the shade of the willows by the creek.
I loved the choripan; a piece of sausage hot and dripping grease straight off the fire, wrapped in a French roll. We fix it the same way back home, only we wrap the sausage in a hot tortilla. Mate was passed around, and I refilled my water bottle from the creek. This was my favorite time, I think, sitting around the fire enjoying good food and good company in a beautiful place.
Some more pix from the ride:
Carol told me a story about how she saved a horse’s life with help from the ant people: One time she had a horse that was seriously ill and two different vets told her there was no remedy and no hope. But she had heard about a treatment using ant-dirt. Ants collect seeds and whatever else they can find to eat, digest it, poop it out, and then, in true harmonic harmony and sisterhood carry the residuals outside the kiva-like hill, where they are strategically and reverently placed in the ongoing, never-ending task of renovating the community housing project. So Carol collected some ant dirt from a nearby anthill, made it into a watery paste, and fed it to her horse. She didn’t say if her horse liked the goop she poured down his throat. But guess who made a complete recovery! I had heard of using gopher dirt to make ceremonial altars, but this use of ant dirt is new to me. Blessings be upon the Horse Medicine Woman!
I wonder if Edward O. Wilson, Pulitzer prize-winning author of On Human Nature, (famous ant behavioralist at Harvard) has heard of this use of ant dirt. “If all mankind were to disappear,” he wrote, “the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” Wow, this prof rocks the boat!
Now, I really don’t like ants, and if they invade my space I go on the warpath, but… maybe it’s time for me to renegotiate my relationship with the tiny critters. Should I be more ant-friendly? (except for the red fire ants?)
We finally reached the end of the trail. Miguel’s wife was waiting for us with maté and fresh hot Indian fry bread. I didn’t know they made that here! Made me feel quite at home. Served with honey and jam, it hit the spot!
And this post is almost over, too! But I must pause to wish my daughter Autumn a very happy birthday!
¡Felíz Cumple Autumn! ¡¡¡Te quiero mucho!!!!
CIAO FROM PATAGONIA! Next week we’ll be back in Buenos Aires…. hasta la próxima!