The Old Ones – an adventure on Horseback through Condor Valley

“The Old Ones” was written by Jodi Lorimer (Faye Sweeney’s mother) upon her visit the the Bodega. The essay is a account of one of her adventures on horseback.

The afternoon had settled in nicely at the Bodega. It was the edge of autumn and the weather was perfect. Tati took off work a little early so he could escort us on a horseback ride. Neither Carol nor I are what you’d call horsewomen. In fact we sparred over who would get the nagiest nag, particularly after hearing Faye’s adventure tale of being thrown by a spooked horse, unhinged by the sight of a flapping tarp. At the hitching post on the side of the Colonial House we met our mounts and Tati and Toti who helped us get aboard. Carol won. She got the mule.

We set off down the trail to the east from the Colonial House, followed by a gaggle of dogs, and crossed the Tunal River. As my horse slid over the wet stones I repeated the mantra that she lived here and I didn’t and she probably knew what she was doing. I kept telling her quietly what a fine, beautiful, noble and sure-footed animal she was. She snuffled in response. Up ahead, Faye and Tati shared a horse since we were one saddle short. The blanket she sat on slid off the horse and she hopped down to retrieve it. Tati, a gaucho known widely for his horseman’s skills, maneuvered the horse to a little rise on the bank and Faye artfully leaped, swung a leg over the horse and we were on our way again. I marveled then at how much she had changed these last few months in this rugged and beautiful country. My formerly mall-rat daughter now carried a gaucho knife in her belt, wore hand-made boots of buffalo hide, was tanned, strong and one of the boys in this macho man’s country.

Just as I was beginning to get the hang of riding and getting over the irrational terror this huge animal would somehow crumple under me, taking me down to life in a wheelchair, we stopped along the riverbank and dismounted. Tati had something to show us. The bank and, really, the whole valley is sandy silt studded with riverstones of every imaginable color. The torrential rains of summer roar down the canyons as flash floods pushing debris ahead of it, carving new channels in the soft earth and depositing new topsoil. The evidence of previous floods was laid down like a rocky layer cake in the exposed banks.

We followed Tati through the underbrush, careful to not get tangled in the spiky teatin bushes. A narrow arroyo had been formed when rushing water eddied into this spot and scooped out the bank. Tati carefully removed some rocks from the bank and we were face to face with a human skull. Where he had lain down to die was anyone’s guess. But in some long-ago season his bones had been lifted from their resting place and tumbled down the river along with the rest of the debris, and here he settled, grinning from the bank.

My first impulse was to dig him out and see what else was there but, with reverence, Tati placed the rocks back over the skull and we left the old one in his peaceful niche by the river where Pachamama had seen fit to leave him.


Struggling back onto my patient horse, we continued east, away from the river and up into the trees. It was late afternoon now and the light was shifting, slanting through the leaves in gold bars. The calls of unfamiliar birds echoed through the woods. I had no idea where I was, where we were going or for how long and it was a wonderful feeling. We came to a place where a seasonal creek had sliced a deep ravine in the red sandy soil. Trees, their roots exposed like unruly hair, clung to the edges. We climbed down into the arroyo and there, at eye-level, was an upright burial urn. It was broken in half down the middle and the interior was exposed. Inside, resting on the bottom was a small pile of tiny bones, the cranium of a baby under a little tangle of ribs. Babies, we would learn, were buried in these ceramic urns, covered with bowls, and sometimes decorated with images of the mother goddess, Pachamama and magical animals that facilitated reincarnation. I began to become aware of this seemingly solid land under my feet shifting continually, renewed annually by the fertile floods and heaving up the dead into the light of day as reminders of our mortality.

As we began our return to the farm, the sun was setting behind the mountains and firing the clouds with a prismatic spectrum of color. Parrots screeched overhead as we made our way down a gentle slope to the river. The ground was littered with bits of ancient pottery, fragments of designs still discernable. The old ones were very present, their reminders everywhere. The other night at the asado, Sr. Ontiverros and Antonio had been telling ghost stories, personal encounters with the dead. It is no wonder. The Bodega is a time warp. I felt we had stepped into the 19th century when we arrived and may as well be in the American Wild West without the gunfighters. As Faye said, they have guns, just no bullets. It is a small step through another veil into the Indian world of the Diaguita who lived in this lush valley for thousands of years and left their bones in the sand.

It was dark as we made our way back across the river. The parrots had gone to roost, replaced by bats out for an evening meal. An occasional firefly glittered in the dark trees and the stars, undimmed by city lights began their sparkling display in unfamiliar southern patterns. Again I patted my horse and told her what a magnificent animal she was and trusted she could find her way home in the dark without killing me. Horses in the corral nickered a greeting and Sr. Ontiverros met us with smiles to unsaddle the gringos’ horses. I thanked Tati for giving us an unforgettable evening and, simultaneously excited and peaceful, I looked forward to dinner. Then Faye told me the horse I’d been riding was the one that had thrown her. At least she waited till then.

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