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A Journey in Patagonia

A mystical wasteland whose solitude has long fascinated Europeans and Americans, Patagonia conjures an image of absolute desolation. Explored by the likes of Darwin and Saint-Exupery, and more recently Chatwin and Theroux, Patagonia is home to a dwindling population of sheepherders, with whom Sara Taber lived for several years. Her narrative provides an intimate portrait of their life and land as she follows the social history of the region from its first settlement by Basques and Spaniards in the 1860s to the present decline of the sheep-ranching community. Illuminating the lives of these "survivors," the author offers an insider's view of the mystical and forbidding terrain as well as candid insights on solitude, self-sufficiency, and relationships to the land.

Dusk on the Campo is distinguished by a deep love for the spare landscape of Patagonia and an equally deep understanding of the hearty people who make their lives there.
-Ronald Wright, author of Time Among the Maya

A beautifully written account...readers may find themselves transfixed...lured, as Sara Mansfield Taber was, to search for the key to surviving solitude and hardship with abundant faith and grace.

Most books on Patagonia are written by travelers just passing through: this one probes deep into the meaning of living there.
-Library Journal



Minutes after we put down on Patagonian soil, we are hurtling along a dirt road, heading out into the barren wilderness that comprises this last 1,600-kilometer stretch of South America.

In the distance, a cloud of brownish dust is coming toward us. At first it appears ominous, like a dust storm, but we soon realize that it is simply an automobile coming from the opposite direction. The car nears.

The windshield of the dusty, ancient orange Ford is plastered with the flattened palms of at least ten human hands—children's hands and large adult ones placed every which way against the pane—they are so plentiful that I cannot see the driver or the inside of the car.

In a flash I see the hands, then the car hurtles by, our two dust plumes mixing so that, for a few moments, we are inside a swirling, murky brown cloud. Then we are on an empty road again.

Later I realize that the hands were protecting the windshield against the gravel flying up from our car, but the sight gives me my first shot of awe and fascination for the people who inhabit the desolation of Patagonia, a fascination that is to hold me in its grip for years to come…

It was late afternoon when we finally reached the Whale Camp.

We descended from the tableland down a rough washout that threw the car back and forth between gullies and ridges. Then, suddenly, like a world flung up before us, Golfo San Jose came into view: a great plate of blue-gray sea was whipping toward the land from as far into the distance as we could see and thundering onto the low, pebbled shore and scrub.

Following the track through the dunelands that interrupted two rows of cliffs leading north and south around the bay, we drove up to the Whale Camp.

A whitewashed cement house, a rude wooden A-frame, and a battered outhouse stood at the foot of the cliffs, facing the sea. The buildings stood not ten meters from the beach. This little sea-edge outpost, forty-five minutes from the last sign of another human habitation, was to be our home.

To our dismay, no one came out to greet us, and the house was locked tight as a vault. The researcher whom we were to replace was nowhere to be found. Having no other choice but to stay where we were, we sent the taxi driver back to La Bonita, the estancia indicated by the little roadside sign, where, we had been told, Don Jose and Dona Clara, the managers of the ranch on which the field station was situated, lived, to let them know we had arrived and to see if they knew anything about the key or the researcher's whereabouts.

Once the taxi disappeared around the bend, we hefted our two emperor-size duffel bags, five mammoth suitcases, boxes of batteries, tripods, and other assorted gear onto the concrete veranda that spanned the front of the house.

As we were assembling our gear, a baby guanaco rounded the corner from behind the house and came right up to us on the porch. The golden-furred animal with long legs, a proud head, and a supercilious eye nuzzled Peter lovingly. Then she got an ornery look on her face, chewed her cud, and spat a wad of green slime in my direction. We had forgotten that the researcher at the camp was raising a guanaco that had been injured while jumping a fence.

After Peter had given the beast a thorough massage, and she and I had sized each other up out of the corners of our eyes, Peter and I climbed the steep path up the washed-out, baked cliffs that rose directly behind the house to survey our surroundings. We walked along the top of the sixty-meter cliffs, trembling from the height, from the onslaught of the thirty-five-knot wind, and from awe.

The bay was a great madness of water. Ridge after ridge of gray water, rising and frothing, charged onto the beach in front of the house, which looked like an insignificant white die in a huge gray world of sea, land, and sky. Albatross and black giant petrels circled over the raging water, and gulls, with straggly feathers whipping off their flesh, rose up and down off the beach in a single, loosely woven sheet. Far off, against the towering clouds, we thought we could make out hundreds of petrels and albatross, swooping and flashing up and down from the water in a feeding frenzy.

As we squinted through binoculars, taking pains to hold them steady in the wind, we saw a giant black flipper and then the glistening black back of a right whale, just barely distinguishable in the darkness of the bay. Hearts tripping, we pushed our binoculars around the perimeters of the gulf; we sighted another whale, but we did not bring into focus one human dwelling.

Suddenly the bleak sky, the open sea, and the frigid wind were walls closing in. We pulled our hats close on our ears, breathed into our mittens to warm our noses, turned our backs to the sea and the onslaught of wind, and tramped inland.

Stopping once, we looked out again. Spread before us, from the toes of our shoes to the horizon, was another ocean: a drab, obdurate ground lay flat to the horizon. Miles and miles of low, wind-crippled bushes spread across the pallid land in a jagged, stabbing carpet over the round of the earth. The land was a fortress of emptiness.

As I stood in this gray, freezing, inhospitable frontier, a question formed between my chilled ears. What on earth was I doing here?

My father taught me, from the time I was very young, to suck stones. On the weekend hikes my family took, the four of us, my mother and father, my brother and I, carried canteens, but we were not supposed to drink from them. When we were thirsty my father picked stones from the streams we forded and gave them to us to suck.

Even though raised abroad, I grew up among North American mvths. My father used to quiz my brother and me on U.S. history as we traveled through Europe. I gobbled library books Daniel Boone and Abe Lincoln's cabin boyhood at the American schools I attended, and during my teens in Japan, I spent months steeped in Thoreau.

I knew my Indiana, country-bred mother had the grit to be a pioneer, and I grew up wanting to live in the woods as she had as a girl. I longed to be a member of a wagon train, and I imagined myself sauntering gallantly through a glorious, wide-sky country, my hand lightly touching my horse's flank, my head high and my heart buoyant. I wanted to taste that elusive North American elixir, pure independence.

It was these North American myths, this stone sucking, this “water discipline," that gave me a thirst for unknown lands, fueled my passion for testing my grit, and led me to live, twice, 1978-1979 and again in 1984-1985, in the wilderness of Patagonia. The opportunity to study whales (on my first visit) and to collect the life stories of the Patagonians (on my second) was a chance to prove that I had the self-reliance and independence exalted in my culture.

Patagonia, however, and the people who inhabited her wastes were to give me lessons wholly unexpected. She would topple the little cairn of stones that had been my guidepost for twenty-four years, forcing me to fashion a new one out of unfamiliar materials: fox skulls, elephant seal teeth, South Atlantic beach pebbles, and ostrich dung.

About an hour after we mounted the bluffs, the light started to dim and the land to take on an even deeper bleakness. It was as if a gray shroud had been laid over the earth. Just as desolate feelings were beginning to take hold, we spotted, through our binoculars, a red truck parked beside the house at the camp and a wisp of smoke rising and speeding away on the wind. We made our way back along the cliff edge and down to the camp; there, by the smoke, were Clara and Jose, the old ranch couple. As we approached, the two small people rose from the fire to greet us.

They had built a fire in the camp's outdoor asado pit, a circular, four-foot-high windbreak of piled thornbush fagots about eight feet in diameter. It looked rather like a roofless igloo with a fire pit in its center. On a grate over the fire, a side of mutton was sizzling, and a pot of eggs was jiggling at a furious boil. A bottle of red Argentine table wine, hunks of dry bread, and knives were heaped on the ground. Beside them stood the guanaco.

The man's face was a delta of purple-and-red veins, the wom¬an's was pale and furrowed; he looked about seventy, she about sixty. Both pairs of squinting eyes looked straight into ours above cheekbones sharpened and polished by years of wind.

Jose, in his jaunty British-style tweed cap, stood very still, feet planted wide apart. His face held a serene grin, and without wasting words on introductions, he said, "Hola, young ones. How was your trip?" He had a stick in his hand, with which he had been prodding the meat, and as he spoke, he patted it into his other palm. A thin windbreaker flapped around his chest, and the wind whipped his baggy pant legs. On his small bare feet he wore black, rope-soled alpargatas, which made him seem graceful, like a dancer. After greeting us he immediately turned shy and squatted down to poke at the mutton.

Clara hung back for a second or two. She was wearing a plain wool skirt that came to well below her knees and a tan Shetland sweater with the sleeves pulled right down over the span of her hands for warmth. The wind must have been piercing each stitch of her pullover. She was hunched, and though thickened about the middle, she looked trim in her clothes. She wore no stockings, and her smooth legs looked girlish. Her attire made it appear as though she had listened to the taxi driver's account of our plight, slipped into the closest pair of shoes, and rushed out of the house in order to reach us as soon as possible.

The guanaco was tormenting Clara, chasing her in a circle, intent on nursing. Using one hand to hold her skirt down as the wind threatened to blow it above her knees, and waving the ether hand behind her to protect herself from the guanaco's advances, she hurried up to us and kissed us each on both cheeks.

She chattered to us, nonstop, in fast, animated Spanish. I caught the simplest words and managed to translate a few phrases, "Pobres. Poor things. Oh, it's too cold here. Life is hard. You must keep warm. Are you warm enough, dearie? This camp is too difficult for you! You are too far from your families! It's lonely here. This weather is ugly. Life is too hard, poor things. You must eat a lot tonight."

The tiny woman pushed us over toward the fire, and we squatted inside the asado pit. Once we were inside the piled-brush circle of the windbreak, the air ebbed to a constant pacing cold, and I huddled down on my haunches like a chick, hugging myself through my billowy orange down jacket. I watched the eggs boiling on the tiny fire.

Jose stood, unaffected by the wind, and poked at the slab of mutton laid over the flames with the branch of a thornbush. Affable Peter gestured to Jose, and the two spoke haltingly, Peter using his rudimentary Spanish. Clara sat beside me on a fruit crate, chattering in soothing quavering clucks which I under¬stood mostly through their cadences.

She coaxed me, again and again, to have more meat to fend off the cold. "It's cold. Come. Come," she said. "Eat. Eat." She handed us ribs heavy with meat and fat, while she herself whittled at a nearly bare bone. She ate filmy strips of pink meat as she scraped them off and shivered.

Even inside the asado pit, the cold was harsh. Over and over, coatless Clara denied being cold while she quaked and shivered and hunched over so far that her bosom nearly rested on her thighs. Her pale face caught the firelight, and her short, dark hair, pinned above her ears, spun around in the wind. As she chattered and scraped with her dull knife, she darted glances at the guanaco and waved her hand ineffectually as it neared. "It's ugly. I don't like this animal," she said to me, scrunching her nose.

Now and then, as we sat, focused on the fire, the moan of a whale reached us on the wind. The sea crashed on the beach pebbles, only ten meters from us; the night grew progressively colder.

Clara's rapid, friendly words, though, bubbled on like a warm brook. She disregarded our simple Spanish and seemed to assume that we would understand everything she said. Now and then she would stop just long enough for me to nod and say, "Si. Si." Her eyes met mine for just instants, as though to rest them too long on mine would expose too much.

Hunched inside this odd thornbush windbreak, with the sea stampeding onto the shore only feet away, there was, in the bowl of my belly, both a disquiet I had never experienced before and a sense of being rocked.

After Jose and Clara assured themselves that we had eaten our fill, Jose held his cap on his head with one hand and stood up in the wind. Without ado, he and Clara motioned for us to come with them for the night, and feeling rescued, we squeezed into the middle of the bench seat of their truck. Clara let loose a last rush of admonishments at the guanaco and boarded beside me.

We rumbled the forty-five minutes to the couple's house over a dirt road that was indistinguishable from the surrounding ground and through a thick, starless darkness.

At the small house Clara sat us down and served us tea, then bustled us to a plain room with two single iron beds. The room had no light, and we climbed between the cold sheets in the dark. Clara left the door slightly ajar when she went out, as though we were children.

As I lay in the strange, cold Patagonian bed, feeling as far as I could be from any known world, an ominous image kept coming to me.

Just before we had driven from the camp, Jose had gone into the camp tool hut and brought out a ten-liter fuel canister. He poured some of the liquid on a clump of thorns and tossed a match on it; the bush exploded into flame. "Gasoline, not kerosene," he said, and then filled his tank.

We drove away with the bush still burning in the dark.