Last week was an amazing one- I rode every day, got to experience eating some interesting things, and best of all I got to see and hang out with an old friend. The coincidence is astonishing- the one and only American I have seen since being in Argentina is a guy, who upon my arrival was high up in the mountains of the ranch studying a species of deer that is all but extinct. Come to find out that guy and I are childhood friends who grew up as neighbors in our hometown of 500 people in Northeast Oregon. Crazy or what? We hadn’t seen each other in years. Euell, who spent six weeks in the country, decided to spend his last week out on the ranch helping with the roundup. We had a great time chasing cows and catching up!
Since I don’t have access to a computer during the week I have started hand writing my posts on paper at night in my room in the light of a candle (which in addition to being the only form of light available, I think helps get the creative writing to flow). Here is what I had written.
I feel like I’ve had a fight with a weed eater. I’ve got scratches on my face, back, neck, arms, my knuckles are all skinned and there are thorns embedded all over my body. Spending a good portion of time digging thorns out with my knife has become part of my evening routine.
Yesterday was a long day of riding. Unlike back home where gathering cows means driving tens if not hundreds of bovine at a time through the sage hills, here the cows are scattered so thin, over so much inhospitable land, that in a day of gathering we are lucky if each rider finds even one cow- and getting it back to the pastures is a whole other challenge. The brush is so thick and nasty that cows usually can’t be driven through it. Moving cattle through the bush often requires two gauchos (or in my case, one gaucho and a gringo) just to get it out. One leads it with a lasso around its neck and the other harasses it with whistles, yells, and a whip if needed, to keep it moving through the brush. It’s a long arduous process. Yesterday we rode from 8 to 5 and the day was a success by bringing in 3 cows. When they told me that roundup usually takes a month I wondered how the heck it could possibly take so long- now I know.
The day offered more excitement than simply bringing in cows though. Out in the bush, whenever a wild boar is spotted, all but the most important tasks are put on hold for a hunt! We managed to take two pigs yesterday. One was nearly killed by the dogs anyway so we finished it off, and Louis lassoed the other one and “hog tied” him for the ride home to keep him alive and fresh for another day. Two hogs and three cows- not bad for a days work I suppose. Last night we had a feast of wild pig and beef meatballs- as much of a vegetaran’s nightmare as most of the meals we have. One big meal and a few glasses of red wine (a favorite of the gauchos) and I slept like a baby.
This morning we had a special task: butcher a bitch of a cow that Tati had tied to a tree in the yard the night before. That’s what you get for being too difficult around here I guess… To keep the herd somewhat tame they take the really wild ones out of the genetic pool. Anyway, it was a fine way to start the day. I’ve never seen a full grown steer get dispatched with just a knife but it was surprisingly quicker than I was expecting. When David (pronounced Daa-Veed) approached the animal with nothing but a large knife, I was expecting a horror show complete with bellowing, bucking, and showers of blood. To my surprise, it took only one quick well placed stab to the back of the head and the thing hit the ground like a ton of bricks. A rifle shot to the head wouldn’t have been any more effective or humane. And man, these gauchos can butcher! I’ve never seen an animal come apart so quickly. From the time it hit the ground less than 45 minutes passed before it was skinned, gutted, and hanging in half a dozen pieces. Tati, Euell, and I took the tractor and a large wagon trailer to gather firewood for another giant feast.
Now to say that the gauchos use or eat every part of the cow is an understatement. We ate things that I didn’t even know existed in the anatomy of a cow. Lunch was a meat supreme spread of more wild boar, and cow brisket, heart, liver, and kidneys. I found all of it to be delicious, except the kidneys… I’m not a big fan of the urine filters.
After we were all stuffed we suited up for a long afternoon in the saddle, gathering more cows. It was a great day in the bush that included riding in some true mountain goat country. There were times that I was literally trusting the horse’s footing with my life. When we did find some cows it was a jackpot- more than ten cows all together! So far it was the most I’ve seen banded up. It turned out to be more of a cattle drive like I’m used to except it was very brushy and at extreme speed. These rangy cows know what we are there to do and they do NOT want to go down from the hills. It’s more like trying to drive a group of wild deer than tranquil cows- they take off hauling ass as soon as we get close. The feeling of blowing through the brush, galloping down reviens and through washes at near running speed is extremely exciting to say the least. I felt like Buch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid running from a posse. At the end of the day we had a dozen cattle, lots of scratches, and one horse with a gaping wound to it’s front shoulder. Never fear though- Louis just grabbed an old hypodermic needle previously used to administer medicine or something and some fishing line and sewed it up like he was repairing a ripped pair of jeans. No biggie, these things happen all the time.
Rode all day and in the most extreme country yet. I’ve ridden horses in the mountains my whole life and I’ve never ridden anywhere this nasty before. Following the gauchos, I went places that I honestly didn’t think a horse could even go, let alone with a rider. We went up slopes so steep, had I been on foot, I would have had to use my hands to aid in climbing, and we went down chutes so steep that the horse would just squat its rear end and we’d slide down the whole hillside. And the brush- I can’t get over the brush! I didn’t mention but we have to wear what is basically a rawhide suit of armor that keeps our clothes and skin from being shredded off. Also, at first I wondered why the gauchos wore such stiff, hard leather hats- well now I know- they are literally helmets. I was glad I was wearing one yesterday… while doing the standard laying on the horse’s neck, holding on for dear life, blindly ripping through brush so thick and spiny that to even open an eye would be nearly a guarantee to loose it, all of a sudden I hit a larger than normal branch- one that didn’t budge. It smashed me in the top of the head and in an instant I was on the ground. Luckily the horse stopped- I think I would have perished in there without her.
We had baked cow head for lunch. They skinned the head of the cow we butchered, wrapped it up in wet paper, covered it in mud, and baked it in a large wood fired oven for 24 hours. I was surprised at how tender and delicious cow face can be.
Well that was my week for the most part. Saturday Euell and I took a bus about 50 km to the city of Salta for some good times. We went out and experienced some good nightlife, which in Argentine terms means dancing until the bars close at 6am. Euell got on a flight from Salta to Buenos Aires, from which he will fly home to Oregon tomorrow. ”Suerte” Euell, it was great seeing you!