Don’t all spontaneous adventures start out with an invitation to road trip out to the desert to buy goat skins? Enter again, Lucas, the dapper gaucho who I had met at Estancia La Alejandra for the incredible experience on horseback. We’re sitting in a quintessential Argentino cafe in Mendoza, basking in the high sun and enjoying a bottle of white wine at lunch on a Tuesday, like ya do, when he mentions that he was going to head out to the desert where a guy who knows a guy who owns a roadside restaurant and raises goats, occasionally sells their skins for leather…great price. As a teenager, Lucas had headed out to the desert to live with the Huarpes people and apprentice to their particular style of leatherwork, developing quite the knack for this unique skill. This is what lunch is like with Lucas, casual mentions of indigenous art and errands to the desert as if he were talking about picking up the dry cleaning…chilled out, unconventional, and full of surprises. Ok, so maybe it wasn’t an invitation, but I immediately invited myself anyway.
Two days later, I get a message that he’ll pick me up later that morning. At this point I still think we’re going to the desert and I pack a day pack in case we spend the night out there. I’ve been informed that Fonzi the Swiss horse whisperer of sorts will be coming with us.
But of course.
Just another day at the “office”, Lucas had recently led a group of people on horseback on an expedition crossing over the Andes Mountains into Chile. I cannot wait until my career description includes words like “expedition” and “mountains”. So this expedition group included Fonzi from Switzerland, and as part of the experience, they had all had a lesson in how to train horses by tuning in to their energy and using your body as signals to the horse, instead of using force and a whip. Fonzi was sticking around Argentina for another month or so of other such horse-related experiences, including the one we were about to have, unbeknownst to me.
We all crowd into Lucas’s car, which is held together by duct tape and faith and head out of town. Fonzi passes me a bunch of grapes and we start getting acquainted with each others’ stories with our comparable Spanish. We stop to buy food for an asado; we stop to get gas and have to pile out of the car; we pile back in; we stop to buy chocolate; we stop to buy wine; we stop to get gas again, pile out of car, pile in car; we stop to take pictures; we stop to get a damajuana (jug of cheap wine) for the family at the estancia that I have now been informed we are going to. It’s as if we are making excuses to stop, that this is all part of the adventure and I relish the contrast to life in a world where ‘fast’ and ‘busy’ are glorified. The car inches over the crest of a hill and the beautiful Valle de Uco, garden of eden-esque wine country, stretches out before us while the rich, smoky voice of a jazzy pop French artist, Zaz, sings through the speakers and I feel like I’m in a beautiful foreign film having a romance with life. We all agree with our smiling eyes, esta es la vida. This is the life.
We start looking for a place to have our asado and find a makeshift fire ring of stones along the side of the road where someone else has had the same idea. It had never occurred to me that me that this is what Lucas was talking about when he mentioned lunch in wine country. Fonzi starts the fire, Lucas grabs a maze of metal out of his car that will have to do as a grill and I grab my camera.
Any good asado lasts for hours while you eat the food as it comes off the grill, tenderly cooked by smoked wood…campfire bliss meets 5 star cuisine. After keeping the setting sun company in this manner, the last drop of wine reminded us that we were actually on our way somewhere. We crawled through Manzano Historico, a district named after the apple tree that the great Libertador, San Martín, rested under on his way to Chile to liberate Argentina and Chile from Spain…so the story goes. We pull into the drive of an estancia and climb out of the car.
And then we walked through the door and were teleported back in time a couple hundred years. That foreign film feeling…well, it seems to be in black and white and now I’m truly in it. The walls are covered with a few skins of puma who have been caught in the act of hunting the cattle, tin jugs, hats, ropes and harnesses and other such horse tackle, and dust. Kids are doing laps around the room, weaving through the forest of legs of their parents, relatives, and neighbors that fill the room. The women are filling the long, wooden table with platters of food, vicuña milanesas, and wine. The men are passing a bottle of whiskey around and smoking cigarettes, looking like extras in an old western waiting to be called onto stage, as if they were born in leather chaps and boots and spurs and scarves and hats with knives casually tucked into the back of their pants…and have been wearing those very things ever since. Hell, it’s as if they came into this world already on the back of a horse. I was told that when they welcome new babies to the family, they immediately start putting them on the horses…they ride before they can even walk. Hundreds of kisses were exchanged and we were greeted like family, no one even flinching at the oddity of the strange gringa in the room.
While you were going about your day to day business and I was writing my book in the city, this family was supplying the pack horses that supported the expedition over the Andes. Tomorrow morning will kick off the annual “job” a la City Slickers where all the males in the family ride out over their land to count and check in on the cattle. Fonzi has been invited to join them and Lucas and I are here as his glorified chauffeurs. I don’t think it was my Spanish that got in the way of the message: “We can’t go out to the desert for goat skins because we have to take Fonzi the Swiss horse whisperer out to the annual cattle drive on this ranch. We’ll stop in wine country for lunch though.”…as much as the obscurity of such a story. This day had not been translatable in the mere words of any language…only in the shared moments infused with authentic, abundant life and the dream of capturing photos of the experience worthy of the pages of National Geographic.
But wait, the adventure is not over. We fell asleep on the front lawn under as many stars as there were seconds in that glorious day and woke up with the sunrise and sound of eager horses and hounds being rounded up and readied for the drive. Mate (mah-te) was shared all around and then Lucas and I played paparazzi while they all saddled up and set off for the horizon.
Lucas and I headed into town and are enjoying a hot cup of coffee, flipping through pictures, when he gets off the phone and informs me that he has been called into work at La Alejandra tomorrow so we’ll now head up to the mountains to spend some days there instead of going back to the city. Well, I certainly don’t see why not. What’s an adventure without fun exploration along the way though….we make a stop at Atamisque, one of the best wineries in the area, and pick up some fresh trout for dinner later. We stop to pick up chestnuts that have fallen from a tree by the side of the road and end up making the acquaintance of the owner, the only police officer in town, and give him a lift into town while making plans to come back later that week for more chestnuts. We stop and pick some fresh mint and stop again to get hot water to make fresh mint tea to enjoy while we drive into the mountains. We stop to take pictures of the vines starting to fall to the embrace of autumn. We stop to pick wild arugula along the back country roads. When we arrive, we sit down on the postcard perfect deck and enjoy a lunch of empanadas, wine, and our harvest gems…followed by the most lovely siesta under the blanket of shade from a big tree in the fields.
The evening is spent sharing wine and cooking the trout we had bought at Atamisque over the open fire and dancing in front of the fire into the night. The next day is spent rounding up horses for another course on working with their energy to train them. We head back into the city to freshen up and then back out to the estancia to have dinner with the cattle drivers again. By this time we’re not “like” family, we ARE family. The younger boys are enamored with Lucas and Fonzi and I’m enamored with the emphasis on relationships, authenticity, and the passionate approach to life. Lucas shows them how to make a tool out of a bone for the leatherwork and how to use it. The 9 year old teaches Fonzi how to throw a lasso. The teenager plays cards with the older guys, swigging whiskey, always with a cigarette in hand like it’s part of him. The mother of the boys couldn’t be sweeter and she practices English with me. I promise to send pictures and I’m extended an infinite invitation to return.
Oh and we did go out to the desert to get those goat skins and that was glorious as well…a pallet of earthy, endless brambly bushes, an infinite sunset and spontaneous stops to drop in and share mate with old friends. We chatted with the goat herder that used to be a neighbor of Lucas when he lived in desert and had tea with a family he knew that we ran into at a kiosk. We were led into a back room where the goat skins were hanging amidst the menace of millions of hungry flies…and saved by the happy hands of Lucas as he bobbed and weaved, picking his prizes that he’ll turn into beautiful art.
I could get used to this life. And I’m not using that as a cliche. I really mean I could get used to it and I intend to live this fully all the time. I realize I’m getting glimpses into the life I set out to find and that I believe is available to all of us…intensely passionate and living in the immediate present as if I’ve been looking forward to this very moment I’m living right now my entire life, and the next one too, and the next and the next. And able to say yes to it all and go with the flow.