I looked at Ale as he stared out across the expansive lake.
Not a single person lingered near the dock. We were alone, with our horses and our dogs and all of our belongings, waiting.
“I don’t think they’re coming,” I said.
“They’re coming, they’re just late- it’s South America.” Ale responded.
There was no one to ask, no one to call; all we could do was wait. So we did.
Six days earlier we had made the decision that ultimately brought us to this empty dock overlooking this seemingly empty lake. We had approached the cross roads on our way north and Ale called back to me-
“So, what’s it going to be? Puerto Tranquilo or Chile Chico?”
My mind raced. Ever since we’d left Cochrane we had been experiencing dryer and dryer territory, and it was getting more difficult to find quality pasture for the horses to graze. We’d been warned that the route north along the Carretera Austral was very dry and there would be virtually no food for them in the low country; however, we knew this route- we had hitchhiked through Puerto Tranquilo and had a sense of what lay before us thanks to our past experience.
Alternatively, we had the option of following the road west to Chile Chico to the border of Argentina, where we would have to take a ferry across the vast Lago General Carrerra in order to continue north. It would take us four days to traverse the lake on horseback, and there was no guarantee that we could even put the horses on the boat. We had to assume there would be a way to move livestock across the lake- this was Patagonia after all.
It was a fifty-fifty toss up- Chile Chico was a gamble, in that if we arrived and couldn’t put the horses on the boat, our only option would be to turn around and ride the four days back to the Carretera Austral- losing 8 days total. Riding north along the Carretera Austral meant we would likely push longer days in search of pasture and water and have to deal with the constant flow of traffic that we were surprised to find whenever we dropped onto the road (Patagonia in the summer is not nearly as remote as one might think). Road riding is terribly stressful with the dogs; the horses hated it, and so did we.
Ultimately we decided to gamble and veered from our northern heading to spend a few days due west along the quiet, dusty road toward Chile Chico.
And so, for days we plodded along the border of the magnificent Lago General Carrera.
We arrived in Chile Chico at dusk on a Friday, and invisible help seemed to appear at every turn as we found a farrier to shoe the horses, land where we could camp and graze the horses and an actual grocery store to resupply our food for the next leg of our journey. We rested the crew, washed and repaired the few clothes we had and enjoyed the first hot shower in nearly two weeks. It was delicious.
Sunday morning I laid out all of our newly purchased food, packed the horse feed and dog food and organized our equipment while Ale hitchhiked into town to get details about the ferry. Around 2:00pm I received a call from him, telling me to urgently pack the chiwas (packs for our horses) and get the horses saddled and ready to go. He didn’t have time to explain and instead simply said we had to get to the dock by 5:00pm that night or we were screwed.
Somewhat bewildered I hung up and began scurrying around, collecting our scattered gear and haphazardly stuffing our sleeping bag back into its dry-sack. The horses stared at me quietly as I fed them the last bale of hay to munch on while I packed frantically.
When Ale arrived I was just tying off the last Chiwa. He brought the horses over and began grooming and saddling, quickly telling me all that had unfolded.
Apparently, there was a new company running the ferries across the lake- and this company did not allow horses onboard unless they were contained in a truck. Our dogs were required to be transported in crates. These were new rules, and were quite a surprise to us as we’d grown so accustomed to moving across Patagonia without the need of a car or truck- simply carrying all we needed on the horses.
Patagonia is changing though; and as it does, so do its priorities. As more and more companies move into the region to capitalize on the burgeoning tourism industry, they’re quickly cutting away core aspects of the true Patagonian way. One of these is the ease at which you can move across the region on horseback. Gauchos still primarily move through the mountains on horseback, with packs of dogs- this is absolutely commonplace in the southern region of Patagonia. However, the further north we rode, as there were more roads, towns and fences, we saw less and less of it; and felt the direct impact of this ease being taken away.
As Ale recapped the story, my logical mind began to race- what would it cost to find a truck? And how much would we then have to pay for ferry tickets? How would we find crates for the dogs? How much would we have to spend on that? And then what would we do with the crates when we reached Puerto Ibañez? We obviously wouldn’t be able to carry around Patagonia strapped to our packhorse…nor would we want to chuck them in the trash.
Just as my mind was having a hay-day of whats and hows, Ale threw me a dash of Magic.
“So then this guy behind me asked if we were the ones he’d seen ride through town with a pilchero” (pilchero this word most often used in Patagonia for the packhorse).
“I said yes, and he told me about a boat that was coming tonight. It’s the boat that’s traditionally been used for locals to transport their animals across the lake- the old way- just walk them on, tie them up and sail. According to this guy, they’re retiring the boat, and tonight is its final run. The guy put in a call and arranged for them to pick us up. They arrive at 5pm.”
I stopped what I was doing and looked at Ale, stunned.
The sequence of events that brought us here, to this place, to this moment in time, to this one in a million chance coincidence of catching a lift on this boat during its final haul…a boat that only moments ago we had no idea existed…it was almost too much for my mind to process.
Every single moment of our lives had to have unfolded in the exact moment in which it did in order for these crazy stars to have aligned. And that fact took my breath away.
As the nearly full moon rose, we rode to the dock, arriving just shy of the 5pm departure time. Time ticked by, each passing minute brought a fresh wave of doubt that threatened the wonder that had previously overwhelmed me. 5:30pm, and I felt the butterflies in my stomach. My mind raced with all of the reasons the boat was late, followed by all the reasons they may not be coming at all. By 5:45 I had nearly lost all hope; I decided to walk around the block to the grocery store to get a drink. Ale shook his head, saying they would come; I doubted it. I was already planning what we would make for dinner back at the campsite.
As I walked back to the dock from the grocery store, I saw the large silhouette of a boat approaching in the evening light. I broke into a run, coming up to Ale just as it reached the dock. He turned and laughed, calling for me to guess the name of the boat.
Pilchero, the very word used to describe our packhorse. Hahahaha. Oh universe, you my friend, have a delicious sense of humor.
Once the boat docked the crew waved us on. We loaded the horses one by one, followed by the dogs. We shook hands with the crew and looked around at the boat; aside from us and the crew, the boat was totally empty.
They had come only for us.
As the sun set and the boat powered through the crashing waves, we sat with the crew in collective disbelief of how well timed our luck had been. The crew could laughed with us, and they seemed to delight in the fact that the Pilchero’s final haul across the grand Lago General Carrera would carry friends who were upholding the Patagonian tradition of traveling by horse with a pilchero carrying all we needed- just as their previous generations had.
As we’d experienced so many of the old ways of Patagonia changing during our ride, it felt as though we were riding the coat tail of its previous generations. Our presence, with our horses and dogs, on that boat, felt like a small gift to Patagonia; just as the boat’s very existence, and the generosity and friendship of its crew, was an absolute gift for us. We all felt the reciprocity of the Magic.
Sometimes I need to be reminded that magic can flow into my life in the most unexpected of moments. I think we could all use this reminder. We don’t often leave room in our lives for magic- we want to control the outcomes of our efforts, have everything neatly planned out for success and efficiency. I’m endlessly grateful that we decided to leave our journey across Patagonia so open, to allow for so much magic to flow in, thanks to the lack of concrete plans confining us. We let that journey take us where it wanted, rather than making it fit into a clear cut plan to serve some pre-formed agenda.
Magic has no interest in such plans or agendas. It aims only to delight in our surprise when it wraps itself around us unexpectedly.
Don’t doubt the magic. It’s real.