Our attempt to reach the high plains of the Andes on horseback didn’t work out as planned…
We’re back at our desk a day early…and count ourselves lucky to be alive…
More on that in future updates. Today, the story of how one of the locals froze to death alone on the sierra…
Last Wednesday, we were invited to lunch at our closest neighbor’s place.
‘It’s about a three-hour journey by horseback,’ was the local guess. But no one had been there on horseback for many years.
As it turned out, it took us five hours to get there. And they were not easy hours.
After we got over the pass, the way down was very treacherous, with the horses slipping on granite rocks and practically sliding down steep hillsides.
The death of Emiliano
We passed the time, as we always do, by asking our ranch foreman, Jorge, questions…
Don Jorge and Don Bill swap stories in an alley of elephant cacti
Click to enlarge
We wanted to learn more about the farm, the people on it, the history, the families, the plants, the trees and the mountains…
Most of the plants have sharp thorns. There are prickly bushes everywhere. They are often so thick the horses refuse to go forward.
One plant, especially, caught our interest. It is Jurassic-looking, with long up-curling spines rather than leaves.
‘That’s a remate,’ Jorge told us.
But it is the stories of the people that we find most interesting.
‘Natalio’s father had eight or nine children. His name was Emiliano.
‘He was a great guy. Many of the people who work and live on the ranch today are descended from him. Not just Natalio, but also Nolberto’s wife…and Martin…and Justo’s wife. It was a big family.
‘They were not native to the farm. They came from the big ranch to the south — Jasimana. That was years and years ago. Maybe in the 1940s.
‘Emiliano was active and ambitious. He settled in that valley where Martin lives now. And he raised cattle up in the mountains.
‘But when he was about 75 years old, he was up in the mountains on a mule, looking after his cattle, I think. It was wintertime. And he was alone.
‘You know how difficult the high sierra can be. There are rocks and cliffs, and cactus. It’s hard. And dangerous.
‘He had spent the night at Severiano’s house, way up in the mountains. And the next day, Severiano saw his mule come back, but without Emiliano.
‘Emiliano had spent his whole life up here. But things happen.
‘Apparently, his mule slipped. Emiliano fell off and broke his leg. With a broken leg he couldn’t get up. The sun went down and the temperature dropped. We found him the next day, frozen to death.’
Rough going on the Mesa
We are learning that the mountains can be dangerous.
The weekend before, with Elizabeth, we rode up to some ruins called the Casa del Molle.
The molle is a tree that looks a little like a willow. It survives in dry conditions. Two or three are still living at the Casa del Molle — barely.
This was a homestead that had run out of water in the 1970s. It was abandoned — maybe after thousands of years of habitation.
You see the evidence of it everywhere. In any direction you take, you walk on pottery shards.
From what era? The 1900s? The 1500s? 1000 BC?
We have no way of knowing.
We can see the Casa del Molle from the bottom of the valley — a patch of dark green against the light green and brown mountains.
But getting there was another matter. We rode up the riverbed and tried to find the path up to the mesa on the left side. It took a long time to find it, because there has been no traffic there in years.
And even with the path it was rough going. We had to dismount and lead our reluctant horses by the reins.
Dark clouds gather
Once on the top of the mesa, the journey got easier.
We picked our way through the spiny plants — trying our best to protect the horses’ legs.
After another hour or so, we arrived at the terraces that marked the edge of the homestead. Some were from the last settlers. Others were much older. There were dozens of them. Some washed out. Some more or less still intact.
Just as we were coming up to the ruins of an old house, dark clouds gathered overhead. Thunder…followed by a sharp strike of lightning nearby. Then a light rain began.
We took shelter. But the only shelter was under a roof that had partially collapsed. We took off the saddles and led the horses to some shelter beneath one of the molles.
We spread the saddle blankets on the ground and made ourselves a little nest under the broken adobe roof.
By then the rain was coming harder. We were drenched before we got under cover. And then we discovered our cover wasn’t very good. The rain came through the roof and dripped on all of us.
We were getting cold…and wet.
‘It will stop soon,’ Elizabeth said cheerfully.
‘I don’t know. I’m a card-carrying doom-and-gloomer. It could go on all night.’
‘When has rain ever lasted all night here? And this is April. It never rains in April.’
‘Well, it’s raining now,’ we replied, beginning to shiver.
And then the rain turned to hail. Water was dripping on us from above as balls of ice — about the size of peas — flew in from the sides of the shelter.
Now, we were getting seriously cold.
We put one of the saddle blankets against the adobe wall behind and put our back against it. Elizabeth put her back close against us.
We wrapped the remaining saddle blankets around us. Our wide-brimmed hats now diverted the rain to the sides of the heavy blankets, where it ran to the ground. Wound together so tightly, we were able to keep each other warm.
‘This is romantic,’ said Elizabeth.
‘Yes, I didn’t know you were such a warm person.’
‘I can be.’
Moments later, a patch of blue appeared. The rain abated. The sun came out. We put out the blankets and saddles to dry in the sun while we ate a few raisins and some dry sausage.
for the Daily Reckoning Australia