Riding Into the Heart of Patagonia

Riding Into the Heart of Patagonia

by Nancy Pfeiffer

Paperback(New Edition)

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As a novice horsewoman, Nancy Pfeiffer took off across Patagonia alone on horseback. Over the next two decades and 3,000 kilometers of rugged horse trail, the hospitable people who live there took her in, and Patagonia slipped silently into her soul. This is a story of a rapidly changing cultural landscape. It is a tale of a lone woman and a horse, on the most ancient of all journeys.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781945805677
Publisher: Bedazzled Ink Publishing
Publication date: 05/01/2018
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

A lifelong adventurer and outdoor educator, Nancy Pfeiffer has traveled from Antarctica to the Arctic Ocean. Her published works range from poetry to scientific research, exploring subjects from the joys and frustrations of building a house as a single woman to mountaineering for paraplegics. Nancy lives with her husband Fredrik in a cabin outside Palmer, Alaska.

Read an Excerpt


La Semilla (The Seed)

Patagonia 1993

A MAN APPROACHED on a horse. His mount, a rusty red beauty, sported the short-trimmed mane and neatly squared-off tail of a well-kept mount. Colorful handwoven saddlebags tied behind a sheepskin-covered saddle held groceries from town. The man wore goatskin chaps, a woolen poncho, and the jaunty black beret typical of the region. Crinkles around his eyes spoke of years of squinting into the sun. This man and his horse belonged to this place in a way I could only dream of.

He paused on the banks of the rain-swollen river to stare at us, a group of college students up to our knees in mud and dwarfed by huge backpacks. Wet and hungry, we had been stacked up on the wrong side of the river for days, our next food supply a few kilometers away on the other side of the torrent. He looked perplexed. We had tents. We had expensive rain jackets. We obviously had money, but we had no horses.

"¿Por qué no tienes caballos?" he asked as he rode into the river. The strong current piled up around his horse's belly. The man gently lifted his feet from the stirrups and placed them on the horse's rump so as not to wet his boots, as his horse strode confidently through the rushing water.

That moment, I knew. I wanted to travel this country like the people who lived here. I longed to know this place as only one on horseback can. Having ridden horses only a few times in my life, I knew practically nothing about them. This was irrelevant. There was a thirteen-year-old girl inside of me who desperately wanted a horse.

I HAD COME to Patagonia as a mountaineering instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), an international nonprofit that teaches wilderness and leadership skills to young people. For months my colleagues and I had been traversing the mountain ranges of the Aysén Region of Chile with a group of college students, teaching them to read a map, live in a tent, dry their clothes, and be responsible for themselves and each other. Mostly we were letting nature do the teaching. Wilderness, the great equalizer, didn't care if you were rich or poor, if you lost your coat you were going to freeze.

While we often hiked on the same trails the locals traveled on horseback, I lived each day in my own little gringo community, insulated from the lifestyle of Patagonia.

That year, I stayed in Patagonia long enough to watch early spring pass into late summer. On our last morning, the friends I had lived and worked with for the last several months gathered on a windy ridge high above the NOLS base camp. We stood in intermittent rain and sun, while just to the west heavy rain fell from dark clouds. Broad bands of color arched across the sky as a double rainbow stretched from horizon to horizon. One of the senior instructors, Scott, told us the legend of the calafate:

Koonek, the old sorceress of the tribe, was too weak to continue migrating with her people. So they built her a sturdy hut, and Koonek remained there alone. That fall the birds moved away. Somehow, the old woman survived the long winter. When the birds returned, Koonek blamed them for leaving her in such solitude, but the birds could not have stayed as there was no food for them in winter.

The sun shone brighter and the rainbow intensified. Our little band huddled together against the chill as Scott continued the story.

From now on, you will be able to remain here, and you will have shelter and food," Koonek told the birds. When the hut was opened, the old woman had changed into a beautiful, thorny bush with bright yellow flowers. In the fall the same bush bore sweet, purple fruit, and the birds never needed to leave again. Today it is remembered that he who eats the calafate will always return.

After hearing the story, we solemnly passed around a handful of calafate berries that had been ripening all summer. I placed a dark, juicy berry into my mouth and let the sweetness of the whole summer sink into my soul.

THAT YEAR I returned to my home in Alaska, but I had vowed to come back, and I did. For three more seasons I hiked, kayaked, and climbed mountains in Patagonia, bringing groups of young people with me. But something was missing. I was still traveling like a foreigner. Worse yet, I still lived like one. My gringa impatience and the futile desire to bend the world to my will followed me everywhere.

Sergio and Veronica, the caretakers of the NOLS campo, were my closest contacts with the Patagonia ranching life that so intrigued me. My Spanish was still so poor I understood little of what they said, but I sensed they knew the things I needed to learn, lessons that would run far beyond saddling horses and shearing sheep.

BACK HOME IN Palmer, Alaska, a town famous for its giant mountains and giant cabbages, I began taking horseback riding lessons. My classmates were thirteen-year-old girls. I was thirty-eight. Twenty-five years earlier, I had been one of those horse-crazy girls, bugging my parents endlessly about getting a horse. I grew up in suburban Denver and a horse was the furthest thing from what my parents needed or wanted in their lives. To my bitter disappointment they had the common sense to say no. Fortunately, I wasn't thirteen anymore, and I was far from suburban Denver.

In riding class, I learned to brush coats until they shone, cinch a saddle, and pick rocks out of a horse's hooves. I walked in circles in a ring. My first horse, Yukon, was a big, brown gelding. He was old and gentle, and probably everyone's first horse. Yukon stopped hopefully at the gate every time we went by.

"Keep him moving. Give him direction," my teacher urged me.

With practice and persistence, I prompted Yukon into the laziest of canters. I was hooked. Moving in unison with another living thing delighted me.

In the barn one Saturday, confused by the array of leather and metal tack before me, I looked to my classmates for help.

"What bridle do I put on Yukon?" I asked.

A cute girl stepped forward, grasping a bridle and holding back a tiny giggle. Later, she caught her reflection in a window, and I overheard her say, "I can't stand my hair."

Looking at her lovely, long blonde hair, I wanted to say, "Don't worry, you won't always feel like that." I had been that girl, awkward in my own body, completely assured that everything about me was wrong.

In high school, a misguided guidance counselor suggested I consider working in a bank. The possibility of spending my life indoors in a tiny box counting money horrified me. At the same time, I almost laughed out loud. Let's see, I thought, I am terrible at math, I can't sit still, I hate being indoors, and I abhor dressing up.

It took me years to understand. The guidance counselor hadn't even remotely known who I was, and mountain guide was not on her list of prospective careers for young women. Someday there would be a place for me. At nineteen, I found that place — Alaska.

A couple of months after my first riding lesson, I graduated to a sweet dun mare named Carmel. By then I had earned the right to rent a horse by the month, and my world opened up. I basked in the aroma of freshly hayed fields mixed with the sweet, acidic scent of over-ripe cranberries. Carmel and I trotted along dirt farming roads, kicking up mounds of fallen birch leaves. We explored the trails through valley cottonwoods, hillside birch, and hilltop spruce, occasionally coming across huge glacial erratic rocks standing in the woods like messengers from another era. Mostly we searched out hay fields where we could gallop.

The Matanuska Valley still held a rich rural flavor. Palmer's main street reminded me of the small town in Montana where my grandparents lived when I was a child, a place where kids could ride their bikes to town for an ice cream soda.

A year later, as Carmel and I galloped through recently hayed fields, the "termination dust" of the first snowfall on the mountains reminded me that the seasons were changing. But that wasn't all. Scattered across the valley, the original colony homes, along with the wooden barns and pastures that had once dominated the landscape, were rapidly being replaced by suburban houses and shopping malls. It reminded me of the Denver suburb I had fled. Change was everywhere. It was happening in Patagonia, as well.

A calafate seed was growing inside me. The idea was simple: return to Coyhaique, buy a horse, and head south. The reality was a bit more complicated.

Secretly, I doubted my ability, as well as my sanity. Why is it that I insist on doing things that other people never even think about?

I often get asked, "Did your family do things outdoors?" What people want to know is, "How did a girl from suburban America end up living in Alaska and climbing mountains for a living?" "Yes, we did." I'd recount weekend trips to local ski areas and summer car-camping vacations in the West. What I had neglected to say was that we didn't pursue outdoor activities in a way that takes over your life, makes you want to live in a tent a hundred-and-eighty days a year, or makes you crave wilderness to the point that anywhere within a hundred miles of a road feels cramped.

MY FIRST DAY at summer camp — was I eight? Was I ten? I don't know, but I recall that the prospect of spending a week in the woods sounded like heaven. I was ushered to my cabin by some nameless, faceless young camp counselor. A red squirrel was chattering away in the tree just outside the door. I stepped outside. It was gathering pinecones and bombarding me with them from the treetops. As it scampered off to the next tree and the next, I followed.

Before my parents were out of the parking lot, a lost camper alert had been sounded. A girl was missing.

"I wasn't lost," proclaimed the skinny blond girl firmly seated on her bunk in front of her counselor and the camp director.

"You need to stay in here until we all go out together," the camp director explained. "If you need to go to the bathroom in the night, you must wake up your counselor to go with you. Do you understand?"

I understood all right. This wasn't heaven. This was jail, and I was going to hate it here!

That experience may have been my first inkling that I was somehow different, as well as my first blatant understanding that I had darn well better pretend that I wasn't. I tried to get along, do my arts and crafts, and never chase squirrels again.

It didn't work.

BACK IN PALMER, I was well into making plans to return to Patagonia when I met an acquaintance in the grocery store.

"What are you doing this fall?" he asked.

Could I say it out loud? "I am going to buy a horse and ride across Patagonia by myself." That sounded both pretentious and crazy.

"Uh, going back to Patagonia?" I mumbled.

"Oh, to work for NOLS," he said, not overly interested.

I said nothing. By not denying his assumption, he would at least think I was off to do something productive, like work for a living.

I envy people who are great self-promoters. I am not one of them. National Geographic wouldn't be sponsoring this expedition. Besides, I didn't want the world watching my escapades on TV.

Over tea, I told my friend Cathy, what I had in mind.

"Aren't you afraid?" she asked.

Was I afraid of driving myself crazy? Maybe. Afraid of boring myself to death? Possibly. However, I knew what she meant: Aren't you afraid of the men? My answer to that was absolutely not.

"The people of Patagonia are respectful, even shy, especially with foreigners," I explained. "Women hitchhike into town to get groceries." I didn't go into the rest of the story, which was that I felt safer and more looked-after in southern Chile than I did in my own hometown.

That fall, I did it. I left Alaska for Patagonia, taking with me a horse first-aid kit far more comprehensive than the one I brought for myself, a pair of new saddlebags, some horseshoeing tools I didn't know how to use, and way too much excess baggage in worries and uncertainties.

RETURNING TO PATAGONIA was exactly how I pictured it. Veronica saw me as I stepped off the bus at the campo gate.

"Hola," she hollered from the porch. "Pasé a la casa." She invited me into her cozy blue house and gave me a beso on my cheek. I had missed the Chilean tradition of greeting and parting with a kiss.

Her hair was shorter now — the unruly ringlets of a slightly younger woman had been replaced by loose dark curls.

"Sienta sé," she said, pointing to a comfortable, worn sofa. Sergio's father, an even older man than I remembered, sat silently behind the woodstove.

Veronica filled a gourd with yerba maté and added hot water from the kettle on the woodstove. She took the first, often bitter, taste of yerba herself, and spit it into the sink. Next she passed the maté my way. As I sipped the stimulating herb at the center of social life in Patagonia, time rewound.

That illusion was shattered when Veronica's son, Humberto, wandered into the house. No longer a small, round child wedged into the saddle in front of his dad, he looked all grown-up in his navy and gray school uniform.

When the gourd was empty, I turned the gourd so that the bombilla, the silver straw used to strain and sip the tea, was pointed in Veronica's direction and handed it back to her.

"How old is Humberto these days?" I asked in my rusty Spanish.

He was now seven, and in the first grade. Veronica told me that she hitchhiked with him to school in Coyhaique every morning, hitched home alone, and then back in to get him at three. She must have seen the look of disbelief on my face. This was a hardship I could barely imagine.

"We are fortunate," she said. "We live close enough to town that I can bring Humberto to school each day. It is much harder for many families. Often when the children reach school age, the woman has to move to town, while her husband stays and runs the campo."

I knew that many families either maintained two separate houses or sent their children to live with relatives, or even to boarding schools. Despite the hardship, every child goes to school. Still, I couldn't help but think about what a simple thing like a school bus could do for my friend. In Alaska, I live at the end of a dirt road, slightly farther from town than Veronica, who lives along the main highway. A bus arrives daily at the corner, picking up the two school-age children who live on my road.

As the servidor, Veronica refilled the gourd and passed it to Sergio's father, who participated in the maté, but said nothing. Even years ago, I hadn't understood a word he said. Was it because my Spanish was so poor or had he been suffering, even then, from the dementia that had now left him mute?

Out the window I saw Sergio coming from the upper campo. He tied his favorite dun mare, Reflauta, to the fence post and joined in the maté session. Sergio had the kind of round, boyish face that never seemed to age. His easy manner of greeting me made me feel like I had never left. He had already asked around about a horse for me.

"It may be difficult to find a good horse," he told me. "You must know someone. A horse that is advertised could be lame or wild."

Only a few hours into my trip, my enthusiasm could not be squelched. "I will find something," I assured both of us.

Days blurred together. I hitched the twelve kilometers into town daily. In the last decade, cars had replaced horses, and Coyhaique, the capital of the region, had become a bustling community. I looked longingly at the few horses still tied in the empty lot at the edge of town, but I figured their owners, people from the campos buying supplies in town, did not want to sell the horses they were using.

Although the streets were full of noisy automobile traffic, Coyhaique was still the kind of place where a walk down Calle Prat, the main street, could result in running into a half-dozen people I knew. I spent my days visiting tack stores, veterinary offices, and talking to anyone I could think of who had anything to do with horses. At the end of each day, my feet hurt from pounding the cement sidewalks, and I was no closer to finding a horse.

At the campo, Veronica and I made empanadas, and I talked incessantly to Sergio about horses. None of Veronica's other friends came into her house and talked endlessly to her husband. Socially, women talked with women about women's issues. Men talked to men about horses. But it was well understood that gringos were different. Here, I was unusual, but I was accepted.

A lead on a horse took me to the nearby village of Balmaceda, where I tromped all day in the cold, dry wind and dust. I had been told his place was a cement house that could not be seen from the road and that there was a wooden gate with a big rock nearby. None of the houses were visible from the road. Every one, of course, had a wooden gate, and there were many large rocks.


Excerpted from "Riding Into the Heart of Patagonia"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Nancy Pfeiffer.
Excerpted by permission of Bedazzled Ink Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 La Semilla (The Seed) 13

Chapter 2 Los Lecciones (The Lessons) 30

Chapter 3 Perseverancia (Perseverance) 50

Chapter 4 Vagabunda (Wandering) 69

Chapter 5 La Ruta Antigua (The Old Route) 90

Chapter 6 Al Interior (The Land Within) 107

Chapter 7 La Vuelta (The Return) 118

Chapter 8 Estancia Valle Chacabuco (The Regions Largest Sheep Ranch) 133

Chapter 9 Cambios (Changes) 150

Chapter 10 Otoño en el Campo (Fall on the Farm) 167

Chapter 11 Al Norte (Northward) 185

Chapter 12 Angeles y Diablos (Angels and Devils) 203

Chapter 13 Cabalgata Sin Represas (Horseback Ride Against the Dams) 221

Afterward 249

Acknowledgements 252

Resources / Recommended Reading 255

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