In our last installment, we had just spent the day waiting in a desolate stretch of desert. What we were waiting for was never clear. But when we got tired of waiting and drove into the police station, we found ourselves presented with the prospect of waiting some more.
Finally, we gave up waiting and agreed to settle out-of-court and off-record. We would meet in the town square of Cafayate at high noon, two days hence. Your editor would come with 35,000 pesos in his pocket. His adversary would come with the title to his little Volkswagen.
By then, it was about 6 PM on New Year’s Eve.
We loaded into our remaining truck and headed home. But home for us, in Argentina, is a ranch…about two and a half hours up into the mountains.
We set off in high spirits. What could go wrong?
It had not rained at our ranch in nearly two years. Every day, the sun shines hot and the wind blows out of the East like a hair dryer. But it was beginning to look as though nature was toying with us. As we have said, the odds of two automobiles being in exactly the same place at exactly the same time, on that deserted mountain road, were extremely small. The odds of it raining must have been very small too. But still, it rained. And it came down hard.
After a few minutes of driving, we saw automobile taillights ahead. A couple of cars were stopped. We stopped too, got out, and ran up to find out what the problem was.
“The river has flooded out the road. We can’t go on.”
We walked up…sure enough, the riverbed – which had been dry when we crossed earlier in the day – now looked like a dam had broken.
We were set to give up…and return to town for the night…when we noticed that one of the trucks waiting was from a ranch near our own.
“Hola…are you from Colome?” we asked the driver.
He turned out to be the fellow in charge of the winery. A cheerful man…he gave us some advice.
“If you have 4-wheel drive, you can go down river a little ways…you can cross there.”
“Are you sure?”
“And are there any more rivers that we have to cross…we don’t want to get stuck on the other side.”
“Yes…there are two more…but you can cross them too. And if you can’t, just come back.”
And so, we set off on what turned out to be a major adventure. In the dark of night, we couldn’t find our way. Henry and Jules got out and scouted ahead, searching for a way through the rocks and trees. Finally, we came to the riverbank. The water was still high…and the current looked dangerously swift.
But Nestor showed up again. He had followed our lights.
“Are you sure we can get across here?” we asked again.
The boys got back in. We made sure we had the 4-wheel drive engaged. We revved the motor and eased into the water.
The current was strong, but the bottom was solid stone. The water splashed up to the windows and we pitched and lurched from stone to stone. But we made it to the other side and climbed up on the bank.
Then, we looked ahead…and saw only more rocks and trees. We had reached the other side of the river…but where was the road? There was none…
The boys got out again. We moved the car so its lights lit up a path to the right. When that gave out, we edged around, looking for an opening to the left. We were on soft sand. Ahead of us was a pick-up truck with its axel resting on the sand. Could we help get the man out? The two boys and your editor pushed, while the driver spun his wheels.
After a few tries, we judged it impossible to free him. We bid him good luck, got back in our own truck…and followed the track that he had pointed out for us. After a few minutes of twisting between rocks and trees…trying to keep up momentum for fear of getting stuck in the sand…we were able to recover the main road.
All was well again, until we reached another river. This one also had a few cars waiting. But it looked passable. We eased in…and splashed our way to the other side.
It was the third river that stopped us. Arriving at the edge, we saw a truck stuck in the middle. It was almost half submerged…with an entire family sitting on the opposite riverbank while a man and a woman struggled to free it.
“Have you got a line? Can you help pull us out?” the man yelled.
There was nothing we could do for them. We couldn’t reach them…and had no rope to throw them. They would just have to wait for the police and road crews…who probably wouldn’t arrive until morning.
All we could do was head back. Again, we crossed the first river with no problem. The second, though, was a struggle. We had to find the track that led down to the crossing. By this time the boys felt they were accomplished scouts. They got out…looking for tire tracks and hard ground. The scene was confused by several other trucks, trying to find the same passage. Two of them were stuck in different places. One blocked the main track. The other seemed to be in strange position, probably where he ended up by trying to get around the other. Headlights from these two trucks…and our own…criss-crossed in odd patterns. Some areas were in complete darkness. Others were invisible because of the brightness of the headlights in front of them.
“Don’t go that way…go over there…” said a helpful man, whose own truck was going nowhere.
Going over there proved a dead end. In front, were a couple of large boulders.
“You’ve got to go back and go around that way,” Jules pointed to the right. “That’s the way we got through this the first time.”
He was right. The truck that seemed completely out of place was the same one we passed coming from the other direction. We passed it again and saluted its driver.
“No vale la pena…no point in going any further anyway,” we explained. “You can’t get by the second river.”
We meant the third river, but we couldn’t think of the word for ‘third.’
Finally, we were crossed the river again and got back on hard road. Driving all the way back into Cafayate, we went directly to the best hotel in town, the Patios de Cafayate, and asked for rooms. It was almost midnight. Chic guests were dressed in their party clothes…waiting for the fireworks. They looked at us with quizzical expressions; ‘What happened to you?’ they seemed to ask.
We walked by, our blue jeans covered with mud…our shirts soggy with rain…no luggage, not even toothbrushes.
“Would you like champagne?” said a young woman.
The champagne was served out…just as the clock struck midnight…and the fireworks display began.
“Happy New Year,” we said to each other.
“Kaboom…” the sky lit up.