"In Search of Santiago’s Aunt"
By Bill Bonner
SAN MARTIN, ARGENTINA – "Was she still there? Was anyone there? Had it been turned into a hippie colony? Or abandoned altogether? On Sunday, we went to find out. And we pass along this recollection of our expedition while it is still fresh in our mind.
Degenerate Capitalism: But first… from The New York Times comes another illustration of how late, degenerate capitalism works. First, the feds weaken an industry. Then, they make it dependent. Here’s The New York Times: "Federal payments to farmers are projected to hit a record $46 billion this year as the White House funnels money to Mr. Trump’s rural base in the South and Midwest ahead of Election Day.
The gush of funds has accelerated in recent weeks as the president looks to help his core supporters who have been hit hard by the double whammy of his combative trade practices and the coronavirus pandemic. According to the American Farm Bureau, debt in the farm sector is projected to increase by 4 percent to a record $434 billion this year and farm bankruptcies have continued to rise across the country."
Mule Story: But let’s move on. The adventure began with a mule. Or the story of a mule. “I went with my father. Must have been 20 years ago,” said Santiago. “There’s an oasis on the other side of the Apacheta. That’s where we got the mule. My aunt lived there.” The story seemed so implausible, it had to be true.
The Apacheta is a spine of naked, brutal, unforgiving mountains on the east side of the Calchaquí Valley, about 10 miles from our house. No water. No grass. Just bare rock, sticking almost straight up. We have admired them for the last seven months. The evening sun hits them… and they almost sparkle.
But we never imagined that anyone lived out there… on the other side of them. There are no roads. No rivers. No farms. Nothing. As far as we could tell, there was no way to cross the mountains. And no reason to. The map showed only one thing – an abandoned uranium mine that could only be reached by a long, circuitous route around the whole mountain range and down the valley on the other side. But after Santiago’s report, we checked Google Earth. Was there a green spot somewhere out there? Yes… a small patch… Looking closer, we saw what looked like corrals and tiny fields. But it was not just on the other side of the Apacheta… but on the far side of a further mountain ridge.
Who lived there? What did they do? Were they still there? Or was it, like the uranium mine, long since vacated? “What happened to your aunt? Is she still there?” we questioned Santiago. “I don’t know. We haven’t heard from her in two decades.” “Maybe we should go check?” “Yes, that would be a good idea.” “But how do we get there?” was our next question. “There’s a small pass. I remember where it is… I think.”
Expedition to Cortaderita: That was all the encouragement we needed. “Cortaderita” the homestead is called. Our farm is the nearest thing to it. And yet, when we began asking questions about it, almost no one had ever been there. “I went there as a boy,” said one of the old-timers, wrenching his face up as he tried to recall. “My father would go out there to hunt guanaco. You can get there. Takes about eight hours. The trouble is, there’s no pasture to feed the horses. You could go in one day… but you have to leave around 4 in the morning… and hope to get back before midnight.”
So, Sunday morning, we saddled up in the dark. There were four of us going on the expedition. Your editor and his wife, Elizabeth, of course. Ramón, a neighbor, who has been here all his life, but never ventured east of the Apacheta. And Santiago, our guide.
The horses seemed to know we were going on an adventure. They are not usually summoned before dawn. They pulled at their bridles, eager to move ahead more quickly. We headed south… across the soft desert behind the house… and then turned to the north and east, following a dry riverbed. We were in high spirits, aiming for the “red hills,” which act as a prelude to the Apacheta. The red hills are the oldest of the three ridges we would cross. In some places, these are little more than dunes of red sand. We skirted them easily. And by the time the sun rose, we were already headed into the Apacheta.
There, millennia of rain and wind had carved out a narrow channel, very different on one side from the other. On the east side, there were towering rocks, smoothed and sculpted into strange shapes and sizes. To the west were sheets of stone, millions of years of sediment, pushed up from the ground. Not rounded, but sharp and straight. Called “the arrows” locally.
Ramón was mounted on a Paso Fino – a Peruvian with a steady gait, but not recommended for rough mountain terrain. Santiago rode a tiny horse from the south of Argentina, sturdy and surefooted. Your editor and his wife were both mounted on bigger horses, mixtures of creoles and thoroughbreds, well-trained and dependable. Elizabeth was on our old horse, El Bayo (the Bay), leaving us with El Chavo (the Joker), a younger, more vigorous animal.
We passed through the narrow defile… marveling at the fantastic, voluptuous forms… nooks, crannies… sweeping shoulders of stone… soaring promontories… Then, the channel opened up. We knew we had to go east. But there were several different possibilities.
“Stay here… I’ll see where this one leads.” Santiago trotted off to the right. We sat on our horses, waiting. In a few minutes, he returned. “Yes… We can get up out of the canyon here.” We followed. But now, we were no longer on the smooth surface of the arroyo. Now, we were on the rocks, with the horses picking their way along. It was difficult going, especially for Ramón. After about 20 minutes, we came to the end of the arroyo… and arrived at the base of a hill. It was steep, but the horses could make their way up… finally coming to a flattish plain on top. From here, we could see what looked like a pass far in the distance. We had already been riding for about four hours. “Another couple of hours to the pass,” said Santiago.
Perfect Gaucho: Everybody is related in the valley. Santiago works at a nearby farm. He is the son of one of our tenant farmers. He is the nephew of two of our cowboys and the cousin of several others. Other cousins, uncles, and aunts fill the valley. He is thin, agile, and strong. Dressed in a wide-brimmed black hat, with his bombachos and high boots, he is a perfect gaucho, more at home on horseback than on foot.
Santiago’s aunt, whom we were aiming to visit, is the sister of one of our tenant farmers (arrenderos) and the sister-in-law of another. She is also the aunt of more than one of our ranch hands… and so forth. It seemed unlikely to us that Santiago could remember a trail he took one time, 20 years ago. But he seemed to know where he was going.
Santiago leads the way
As a precaution, we had studied the Google Earth map carefully before we left. But that proved not especially helpful. We knew the general outline of the land, and we could point in the direction we were meant to go. But we didn’t know which path or arroyo to take to get there. And you can spend hours following a dry riverbed that leads nowhere. Once on the high plain, it was easier to see where we were going. The sun was high, but not hot. Santiago took off a coat and put it under him. We kept going.
Limping Horse: The oasis we were looking for was on the other side of the pass in front of us… and then, on the other side of a third ridge of mountains. On Google, they appeared to be uncrossable. But ahead of us was a little notch. We could even see a little bit of green. We came to the pass without incident. Again, we puzzled over which path to take. But we decided to follow the one recently used by the guanaco. They must be going somewhere… probably to get water.
The other side of the mountain proved greener. But more difficult to navigate. More rocks. More churchi bushes with long thorns. More cactus, too. “This is the kind of country where you need chaps,” said Ramón. The needles stuck into our legs and forced us to detour… down off the trail and into another arroyo. And then, Santiago led us to another trail, which led up and over several steep hills.
“My horse is starting to limp,” Ramón noticed. It had probably hit its leg on rocks… or had a thorn in it. Ramón got down. Santiago joined him, as the two of them felt the horse’s leg and massaged it briefly. Then, they remounted and we continued.
Uphill Struggle: Your editor, fresh from his Google Earth search, suggested a different way. “We could go down to the bottom of the arroyo and then head up the next big one. That should take us where we want to go.” But it was too late. We were in the middle of a complicated and difficult configuration of hills, cactus, rocks, and washed-out trails. And even if we went back to the bottom of the arroyo, we had lost our bearings… It wouldn’t be clear where we were or where we should go.
“No… It’s this way,” Santiago insisted. We continued northward. The horses struggled up hills… and slid down the loose stones on the other side. Then, coming to the crest of yet another rugged hill, we saw it in the distance. “Cortaderito,” said Ramón.
Sign of Life: Ramón is in his sixties. He was born here. He is a farmer and a cattleman. But he is a little heavy. Diabetic. With high blood pressure. “If I survive the coronavirus,” he joked, “I’m good for another 10 years.” We were not sure it was such a good idea for him to come. His wife fretted about it. But he is tough. And good humored. It was his horse we worried about now.
With the destination in sight, we continued with lighter hearts and easier conversation. Down one hill, up and over another. And then, we followed the trail to a cluster of improbable trees… a pine and a poplar… and on to a small pool with a tiny stream of water still running into it.
First sign of life
“There are people still here,” said Santiago.
No One Home: Continuing along, after a while, we heard dogs barking. In front of us was one of the most ramshackle clusters of buildings we had ever seen. Cactus wood, adobe, poles, junk, plastic… windswept… on a barren knoll, away from the trees and the water… We arrive at a house.
The dogs kept barking. But they were wagging their tails. They must not see many strangers… but they were friendly. Chickens wandered about. And a young guanaco – its fleece still wispy, as if of tiny threads of gold – came out to greet us. Guanaco are usually wild animals. This one was a household pet…
Ramón and the two Bonners held back. Santiago advanced… “Hola!…” Santiago, still on his horse, yelled towards the house. No answer. We shifted in our saddles. The horses, tired and thirsty after six hours and a 3,000 foot climb, breathed heavily. “Hola!…” Santiago tried again. Still no reply… To be continued…"