The eclipse, finally some peace, and the old (new?) northern Patagonian Gaucho life: The Coronavirus Chronicles

“They’re partying AGAIN?” I ask incredulously as Camila and I settled into a Netflix show before we went to sleep. We had gone to bed around 11:30 and thought this New Year’s Day/hungover, gaucho/German group was done. The thumping music proved otherwise.

We last left you rocketing south in my van, dodging quarantined communities and filling out our “sanitary passports” to move between communities that actually allowed departing and arriving travelers. Not an easy venture in this super long and narrow country with only one major hiway north/south. We moved from Pucon, a stunning region of volcanoes and lakes, towards the coast; my angst constantly gnawing at me as it seemed we were going to get a storm at the exact day and time of the eclipse.

I had seen two. I wanted this for Camila. On her birthday.

We found a camping spot expecting 100 people and settled in for five days of rain, sun, wind and pseudo-outdoor time. The seafood is this town of Puerto Sevaadra was so good. Every time we thought of making pasta or soup, I said “hey, let’s get some Machitas!!” and Camila agreed.

Eclipse day came and we had this crazy storm sandwiched between two completely clear days. The Mapuche (the local indigenous community) has been hit hard by the virus but the eclipse promised an economic injection. The community was safe and kind in its approach to pando-tourism.

We were told that our spot was going to be the best chance for eclipse totality in Chile. I would have chosen Argentina and being on the dry side ( and seeing my Argentine friends) but closed land borders prevented that movement.

Eclipse time came as we ventured to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We had chosen that spot the day before on a stunning sunset evening and hoped for a mid day miracle. As totality neared, we had glimpses of near totality through the alternating thick and thin clouds.

As totality neared I kept saying “ I see a blue patch coming!” However, as totality hit and we were plunged into surreal darkness in this intense rainy, windy scene right out of “The Ring”, there was just enough clouds to prevent us from seeing the intense “black hole sun” that can be life changing. Camila was astounded at the changes. But she didn’t know what she missed!

We were told the Mapuche want nothing to interfere with the sun. It’s bad luck. So it certainly seemed they had a hand in the weather as it cleared completely a few hours after the eclipse. Fortunately it wasn’t ten minutes!!

Being the only travelers from other countries there, we didn’t mingle much. But did get to chat with some locals and make some friends for post-pandemia.

Heading south towards Patagonia we weaved our wave around communities locked down to get to the beautiful lakeside town of Frutillar and it’s volcano-ringed shoreline just north of where Patagonia and the Carretera Austral begins.

We found an old boutique guest house/hotel and reveled in the daily stunning sunsets and got some hiking in. The owner/matriarch was a kind woman of German descent ( many of the folks here are). She cooked us breakfast and shared her life story. Her kids are planning to turn this charming place on the cliffs overlooking the lake into an event center. Ughh. One night turned into three and we stocked up on our supplies and secured a cabin (really a dome) off-grid thru air BNB. We talked to the owner and got a reduced rate for a multi-week stay in a 40 year old property founded by her father.

As we crossed the tiny wooden bridge to the property in my big ass van, loaded down with a month of supplies and camping gear, her brother assured me it was okay. With all of eight inches on each side, I nervously accelerated.

The cracking and flying wood behind us fortunately did not destroy the bridge. Nor drop us in the river. But it did have us realize there wouldn’t be in and out privileges; especially after the mile and half jaunt thru the forest on a dirt road made for the suspension (and width) of a pickup. An intense 30 min slow roll thru the darkening forest had us arrive at this beautiful small lake with stunning snow capped peaks in the distance. We made it. Camila and I. Together. Finally.

No more flights. No more quarantines. No more PCR tests. No more time apart. I’m not getting kicked out of a country. She’s not prevented from entering a country by an opportunistic asshole president.

We can stop. And enjoy each other. For awhile at least.

Wait what? Other than the first two months of our relationship, we had been chasing for this moment. We are here.

I think we slept 16 hours a day the first two days. We were mentally and physically drained. But as we slowly realized how intense that was, we got to know the Venezuelan family who was caretaking this place of three cabins. 18 months ago, they had risked life and limb to illegally cross into Colombia and, along with 20-30 other refuge-seeking Venezuelans, jammed their two kids into a private bus that made the 40 hour direct 3000 mile journey to Patagonia in search of a better life; leaving older family members behind.

As we spent Xmas dinner with this family and heard their story, and thought of people griping about wearing masks in my country, I just couldn’t help but think Américans in general have lost all grip on reality. Or certainly live in a different one.

Our location is basically geographically and climatically like northern CA. Think the Eel River valley minus pot growers but with a border near Canada. No bears or snakes but the odd “prepper” who neither believes in the pandemic, nor the ability of society to survive it. Huh?

Gaucho country is full of friendly colorful multi generational families that focus on subsistence living. Well, if grilled sheep and stocked salmon is subsistence!

We dropped our stuff in the dome and explored the property. 300 or so acres of trees and rocks and meandering roads/trails to towns and other houses.

Camila and i settled into meals and smoothie making. I had jammed my Vita-mix into the secret van compartment (i learned the technologic shortcomings of blenders down here two years ago!) and, while we are on solar, figured how to run it low enough to mix our daily smoothies!

Our days consisted of exploring and meeting other rugged souls that live out here within spitting distance it seems of Argentina.

The place is ringed with giant glaciated mountains. But while we’re only at 600 feet of elevation, it feels like we are in Switzerland!

The beautiful El Puelo river crosses the border from Argentina thru a series of lakes and winds it’s way thru the verdant hills. We got lost walking one day and happened across the owners cabin perched over the river. Stunning!

He’s an approximately 77 year old German that’s lived here 40 years. Huh? His kids are trying to improve the place for tourism and expand. Sound familiar?

Wild animals are scarce. But pigs, horses and sheep are plenty. Just ask Camila. She was forced to climb a tree to flee an angry (or amorous) sheep and avoid being attacked. Or so she said. I laughed “sheep don’t attack people.” She assured me she was in danger. When I found the sheep in question, I patted his head but he looked at me with these piercing (and seemingly dead) expressionless eyes.

Like the “Night King” in Game of Thrones, his soulless eyes challenged mine. He seemed to try and push me with his head. I thought we had reached an understanding. I was wrong. As I turned to walk away, after three or fours steps, it felt as though someone had kicked me in the ass. A sheep? I thought only goats did that! Quite a shock. After another “attack” on Camila yesterday, we had another chat.

With very little, and certainly intermittent, cell service, I had to use my US number for phone calls, text and WhatsApp; almost never accessing the news to monitor sports scores or to keep track of our democracy-bashing asshole-in-chief and his Republican enablers. In case you didn’t know America, we are NOT a direct democracy. If Rs held both houses, we indeed would be concerned about what we just saw. Who would have thought Mitt Romney was the voice of reason!!

After 10 plus days of solitude, 20 or so folks from the gaucho side of the family descended on our quiet camp for a night (or three) of food, cheap beer, and thumping accordion-based traditional music.

They weren’t too interested in Camila nor I, but nonetheless were kind and sharing and let us partake in their fun. I got to share another moment with my sweetie at New Years and we stayed up to see the nearly full moon rise over the hills; making our way back to the dome around 2:30 am as the party seemed to just be getting started.

The next day, as we walked down to the lake, the riddled corpses of festive gauchos lay amongst beer cans, grilled fish and sheep remains (sadly not the Night King’s!); resting up for round two!!

Over the next several days, Camila and I explored the lakes and rivers and mountains, finally spending our first night in a tent together!, and got to know these colorful, spirited folks a little more deeply.

Finally deciding to leave, we needed WIFI. The youngish German/Argentine/Chilean guy owner whom I took a liking to (with his rapid fire Spanish I somehow was able to slow down and understand), invited us to camp at his house. We arrived yesterday to his three kids (with whom we connected with over New Years but now were un distracted.

They greeted us with cherry eating and showing us around their third generational farm of cows and ducks and dogs and horses and pigs and well, every back to the landers dream. All off grid.

The kids are adorable and we spent several hours with the gaucho clan that afternoon and the next day.

A day of community closures, more Covid test requirements and a stunning drive to Hornopiren (one I missed two years ago as it was as raining) have us back in 2-3 day planning increments. It’s not fun. But it’s fun.

As I watch the US news from afar, I am sick to my stomach over what’s happening there. We all knew it would come to this. If you still support the president, for whatever reason, you’re pathetic. Just admit you made a mistake and move on. And still…

I can’t wait until January 20th.

One thought on “The eclipse, finally some peace, and the old (new?) northern Patagonian Gaucho life: The Coronavirus Chronicles

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