The sunlight danced through the tree canopy as we rode through the open forest; it dappled the hides of the horses and tickled and teased my eyes.
Oh how delicious it felt to know we were going the right way, to have a clear and distinct trail in front and behind us.
Oh how delightful it felt to have a blue sky above, sunshine in our eyes, and to be arriving where we’d actually meant to arrive, and in mid-afternoon no less!
It’s a wonderful practice to notice what you naturally gravitate toward when you’ve pared down all of your comforts to the barest of the bare. At this stage all I needed to squeal with delight were three simple things:
- clear skies, and
- a sense of certainty that we were moving in the right direction.
Up to now Patagonia had whittled away all other necessities (even food, as we grew more and more accustomed to our incredibly small daily rations); and with these three gems of the day I felt like queen of the forest.
As I rocked gently with Picante’s steady pace as he plodded across the soft forest carpet, a sense of curiosity awoke within me and I imagined who exactly it was that we were about to drop in on.
This gaucho who lived in these deep and wondrously remote glacial valleys of southern Patagonia, all alone. A man who rode his horses into town only once a year- a minimum 4 day ride (when you know the way- when you don’t know the way, and lose it often as we did, it takes far longer)- to gather supplies that sustained him in his life way “off the grid”. A man who was somehow a crucial puzzle piece to our journey, and the only person who would be able to share with us the way forward- a way forward that was not documented on maps or guide books or on GPS. A way forward that lived in his mind, in his heart, and in the musical descriptions falling from his tongue of the rocks, the rivers, the forest and the glaciers that would be our guides from there onward.
As the trail dropped down we arrived at the edge of a deep, fast flowing river. The icy blue water licked my boots as Picante waded belly deep. On the other side we were greeted by several more dogs, Check and Curi Cuyen said their hellos and then trotted on after us to continue their inspection of this lovely little home in the wildest corner of the world.
I suddenly felt self conscious as we rode closer to the house- what if he didn’t want visitors? What if we felt like a burden, coming to him with our questions about the route, with our empty bellies, so hungry from weeks of rationing food? What if he didn’t even like company?
He did, after all, willingly choose to live in one of the most remote places in the world, with only his dogs, horses and cows for company…well, dogs, horses, cows and all the rest of Patagonia’s wild wonders.
But still…what if our arrival felt like an intrusion?
The horses climbed the last hill and as they did we saw a small, thin- yet sturdy- old man striding toward us. His soft, suntanned face broke into a wrinkly smile as he reached up his hand to take Alejandro’s in his; and then he took mine. He looked us in the eyes, held each hand with both of his, and warmly he welcomed us to unsaddle our horses and unload our chiwas (the traditional Patagonia packs loaded on our packhorse).
He pointed us toward the small smokehouse at the top of the hill and told us meat was cooking over the fire, and we must help ourselves to it. He said he had to go off and take care of some things, but when he returned we would sit and drink mate together.
I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so warmly welcomed, so wholeheartedly received by someone who moments before had only been some fictional being; someone pulled from a story who now was wrapping his entire heart around us with his presence and generosity. I felt so received and embraced, and for the first time since we had departed on our journey across Patagonia, I felt a sense of true arrival.
After unsaddling the horses and letting them loose, we raced to the meat and ravenously began slicing pieces off, the juices dripping off our fingers as the soft meat was gobbled up. For the last 7 days we had primarily been living off of instant mashed potatoes and rice- so the meat arrived on our tongues with a sudden level of decadence I could never have imagined. Our dogs also seemed joyous to be eating anything other than rice as they joined us in the feast, finishing off the bits of cow that the other dogs had not yet gotten to.
Later in the evening Don Rial returned with a few other gauchos who had stopped in to help him brand and castrate a few cattle. Alejandro would join them in this work the following day. In the meantime, we dropped into an easygoing conversation and exchange of story, meat, sopaipillas (a typical chilean dish of dough fried in freshly rendered fat), and shared wonderment of the surrounding beauty as the sun dropped behind the mountains and lit the clouds aglow with pink.
Our time with Don Rial was far too short in reality; but those three days were deep in their width, despite the shortness of their length. He was everything that had been spoken of him, and more. When he spoke of this place he lived, of his love of this wild place, it was like listening to a poet read their most divine verses worthy of nobel prizes.
When he spoke of being gaucho, and the pride he felt for it, he described it not as being a cowboy-like figure who could handle cattle and horses and work the land, but instead as a human being who honored friendship and kindness above all. To receive others with an open and generous heart, and to be a friend to all- this is what truly made one a gaucho.
When he spoke of friendship, I felt I actually understood the depths of the word in a way I never had before. When he spoke of connection, and the way he could live so far from people, yet still feel so deeply connected with everyone he had ever crossed paths with in his lifetime, he stretched my capacity of understanding there as well. Through and through his words carried the depths of how powerful we can be with our generosity of presence, with our generosity of friendship.
He was, and is, quite simply, a sage.
To be with him for a brief moment in time felt like a gift from the universe. To know him, to call him my friend, this too feels like a gift from the universe.
The details of our time with Don Rial will emerge with time, his personality, his sweetness of life, his quick wit and sense of humor, the gorgeous simplicity of his life and being, his commitment to the place, and to his soul- they are all far too large to fit into this brief glimpse of a blog post.
Yet, I had to invite his presence into all of your lives, in this moment in particular. It is two years ago that we were in his magical presence, in his magical home, deep in the belly of Patagonia.
He is 80 years old now, still living all alone in his remote cabin. News from the south has been carried to us that our dear friend has grown much weaker, and he is challenged in his ability to care for himself. Also, that he continues to honor his soul, and wishes to remain on the land that has fed it for so long.
I wish to sit with him again, to drink mate together around a crackling fire as the sun sets, casting glistening pinks and blues across the glaciers that embrace his homestead; to simply be with him in a way that honors a friendship, and his generosity of life. I wish for another chance to meet his endless generosity of presence with my own.
Regardless of wishes coming true or not, I carry forward a new impression of friendship thanks to Don Rial, and a stunning awareness of how essential a gift it is to be so generous with our whole being.
I’m thankful to my life for all of the curious paths it led me down that brought me into the presence of this incredibly bright, vibrant and shimmering light of humanity, this gaucho who lives all alone, in the belly of Patagonia.