Irredeemably wealthy in Patagonia

Mark Schatzker describes an unexpected -- and ultimately, bittersweet -- idyll in the wilds of Patagonia.

Published June 29, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

Erik and I were lost and had been for about three hours. When we began, the road was paved. It was now a gravel-covered streak of potholes barely filling even the loosest definition of the word "road," slowly taking us deeper into nowhere. We were looking for Lago Misterioso, a lake existing somewhere behind the Patagonian Andes and supposedly just a couple of hours from Coyhaique, where we had landed that morning. But we couldn't find it.

Local shepherds passed by on horseback, clad in woolen ponchos, with faces carved by the wind and sun. We asked them for directions and each one told us, in a barely intelligible Spanish, that we were generally going in the wrong direction and that the now appropriately named Lago Misterioso was just over those hills or through that valley, and it never was. We had forgotten our map.

Then we came upon the leather-booted man. We caught him in the middle of an afternoon nap inside a wood-chopping cabin on the side of a large hill. He didn't know about Lago Misterioso. He mentioned something about Scottish people living in the next valley and then went back to bed. Scottish people in the middle of Patagonia. It seemed absurd.

This was a fishing trip. A reunion. Erik, my brother, had been living in Santiago for three years and I had barely seen him during that time. We were about to write the next chapter in a book that began when we were children looking over the gunwales of a boat watching perch and rock bass take passes at worms.

We had arrived that morning in Chilean Patagonia, a three-hour flight south from Santiago, rented a truck, packed our cooler full of groceries and beer and set off in search of adventure in this land of mountains, sea-bound rivers and sprawling grassland. The volcanic riverbeds were rich, the growing season long and the trout as numerous as they were large. They would soon be ours. This was Patagonia! But we were lost.

We pointed our 4-by-4 toward the next valley thinking that any road must be better than the one we had just taken. At the bottom of the first hill stood a sleepy little cabin warming itself in the afternoon sun. We approached it, expecting another cryptic message about Lago Misterioso. We knocked. A middle-aged couple appeared.

"I'm Donald McDonald," came an Aberdeen greeting.

"And I'm Martha Crawford."

In an hour we were all more or less drunk, sitting at their table enjoying the fruits of their pantry and our coolers, frying sausages, eating leftover stew and drinking beer. They had not spoken English with anyone other than themselves in quite some time and the newly found company sent them off on enthusiastic narrative tangents that would dissolve into questions about ourselves and what we did and what we were doing in Patagonia.

Martha and Donald were living under the roof of an old and honest cabin to escape the ravages of the European Union, which had made farming in Scotland impossible. They had sold everything back home and bought a number of farms in Patagonia, where they were now raising sheep, geese, reindeer, turkeys and chickens, and were awaiting a planeload of Jersey Cream cattle from New Zealand. One of their farms, they told us, was on the Nirehuao, a river where the fish reportedly jumped out onto the bank to eat large grasshoppers. They told us exactly where it was and insisted that we stay in an old farmhouse on the property. "Just tell us what you catch" was the only condition.

We spent the night bewildered at the curious place to which fate had brought us, and the next morning, after tea and toast, we were sent off with farm-fresh eggs, homemade bread and a new set of directions. By 3 o'clock, our red Suzuki 4-by-4 had pulled onto the rolling, grassy fields of Martha and Donald's other farm. It sat in a high valley between tree-covered mountainsides. The fields were dotted with bamboo shrubs and the occasional bush. Down the road ran the cold, clear Nirehuao.

We were exotic newcomers to Hernan, the local
doctor's 17-year-old son whom Martha had hired to watch over the place. He greeted us with
surprise that verged on wonder, asking questions as he helped unload the
truck. He introduced the family that ran the farm -- the patriarch,
Segundino, his wife and their 15-year-old daughter. They lived in
another farmhouse about 50 meters down from ours. They smiled at us a
lot and sent up fried bread, a local preparation, when we gave them a
couple of fish to eat.

Hernan's duties on the farm must have been rather light because he
became our self-appointed fishing guide. Each day he took us to a different
part of the river, often leading us over tall hills and through thick
scrub. We would pause to pick tiny wild strawberries, inspect giant
Patagonian beetles or watch long-beaked Bandurias feeding on worms in the
next field. The river would greet us with the sound of rushing water and at
its edge we would see deep pools, moving riffles and the occasional rise
of a feeding trout.

When we fished, Hernan watched curiously as we teased the water
with our funny-looking fly rods. He worked the river's depths without a
rod, just a lure and a tin can wrapped in line. His $3
contraption worked surprisingly well, though -- often better than our own,
in fact.

This was a land where buildings had no electricity and
where horses were a privileged form of transportation. But we lived well.
Too well, perhaps. The morning's fare was frugal, but we returned to the
cabin each day at lunch to eat large sandwiches filled with meat and
cheese. Dinners were more celebratory. They were eaten late, as the summer
sun tucked itself behind the Andes for the night. We made good use of
certain essentials that car camping affords -- bacon, eggs, pasta, onions,
garlic and packaged soups -- all washed down with cans of beer kept cool in
the creek behind the cabin. Hernan claimed that he had never eaten so well
in his life. Erik and I looked forward to buying steak on our next trip
into town.

The river was healthy enough and received so little fishing
pressure that we decided it would be OK to eat a few fish. Three
pan-sized brown trout caught one morning became lunch, fried in butter and
dressed with salt and lemon. They were joined by a rare, '91 Chilean
Chardonnay, a single bottle of which Erik had spotted on the shelf of the
supermarket in Coyhaique. We sat in that old cabin with its creaky floors
and stared out the window at the blue sky and white clouds and spoke of
simple things between sips and mouthfuls.

A feeling of incurable, isolating wealth set in during those days.
It was undeniable. Erik and I were loaded with objects that at home were of
negligible significance, but stood out here like feathers on a peacock -- a
portable CD player, carbon-fiber fly rods, halogen flashlights, polyester
fleece jackets, a rented truck, bags of gear. Anything we did seemed to
almost flaunt it, though at first it didn't feel all bad. We were only
different. We simply had what we had.

The feeling came when we would depart for the day, suited in
neoprene waders, fishing vests and polarized sunglasses while Segundino's
wife walked up the hill to feed the turkeys. It became more acute when we
went through the cattle gate that marked the border of Martha and Donald's
farm. I opened it for the truck to pass through, and when I went to close
it, Segundino's daughter appeared on horseback, looking happy and beautiful
and laughing at me a little bit, perhaps out of shyness. Her horse clopped
up to the gate, she closed it and we sped down the road to find new
adventures, new stories, while she returned to her chores.

She laughed at me much more the next day when Hernan took me
riding. I had ridden horses before and had no problem mounting the animal.
But the Chilean style was different from the English style I knew. The
horse wears a different bridle and is steered differently. As a result, my
efforts at following Hernan resulted in a number of absurd figure-eights in
front of Segundino's cabin. She sat there on the front porch laughing at
the hilarity of my situation, slapping her knee at the wealthy fool who
couldn't ride a horse.

Our wealth didn't sit so easily for very long, though. A day later,
on a trip back from town, we bumped into Martha in her beefy Toyota
pickup. We were happy to see each other and she seemed glad that we were
enjoying her farm. The situation had changed. Martha had "just given
Segundino the sack," as she put it, and it probably wasn't a good idea to
stay at the farm any longer.

She wasn't happy about it. Segundino had diabetes and a heart
condition. Farm work wasn't doing him any good, not to mention the fact
that much of it wasn't getting done. It also didn't help Segundino's health
that the only thing his family ever ate for dinner was beef and deep-fried
bread. But Martha had a farm to run.

Hernan told us that Segundino's only possessions were his three
horses, one of which I had ridden the day before. His daughter had been forced to
leave school that year due to a lack of money. She was hoping to return the
next year in the hopes of finding a husband among her classmates. But that
was probably uncertain now.

I felt a certain tangible self-disgust rising in my throat as I
walked to the creek behind the cabin, waders pulled down to my waist, to
scoop out the remaining beers and bottle of wine. As I walked back, cans
and bottle dripping onto my sleeves, I looked over to their cabin, the
center of the unhappy news. A wisp of smoke rose out of its chimney and
fought a fine mist of rain being blown by the wind. I was only a visitor to
this land. I came to be a witness to its beauty and a well-fed sympathizer
for its people. But I would soon return to my comfortable, ordered
existence and their fate would be farther out of my way.

In our shiny 4-by-4, packed once again, we left the grassy fields,
closed the cattle gate for the last time and headed for a larger river
closer to the ocean. Three days later, Erik and I boarded a plane bound for
Santiago, returning from a fishing trip as we had so many times before,
recounting over and over the ones we caught, those that got away and the
ones that never told us they were there.

In Santiago, Erik went back to his office. A week later, I returned
to Toronto, where my CD player inches closer toward obsolescence and my
fly rod tempts me with promises of the lived life when I'm rummaging in the
basement. If I close my eyes, I can go back to that dream and see the
mountains and feel the river between my legs. I can see the smiling,
laughing face of Segundino's daughter. I wonder where she might be.

By Mark Schatzker

Mark Schatzker is a freelance writer living in Toronto.

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