It was February of 2006. My Mom and I signed up for a 2 week cruise around Cape Horn from Santiago to Buenas Aires, the area that is kown as Patagonia. Cool. Maybe I can practise algunas Espanol.
We stop at ports along the way, with exotic names like Puerto Montt, Isla Riesco, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia... even Uruguay for cryin out loud. My 85 year old Mom and I are fun hogs, and sign up for excursions at every port. So penguin colonies, train trips through the forest where prisoners used to chop wood, peat cutting in the bogs of Falkland Islands... who could pass this stuff up? My credit card is burning like a hot tin roof.
In Punta Arenas, Chile, we choose the Estancia Fitz Roy trip, a 400,000 acre ranch, 45 minutes by bus from our port. I've been dying to see a sheep farm and find out how to dip and sheer sheep. Do they sheer in circles, or north-south? Beats the exhausting climb up the Eiffel Tower any day.
On the way, our guide tells us sadly that we may not see any condors, because it is so damp out their wings get too heavy to fly. WHAT???? YOU HAVE CONDORS???? AND I DON'T GET TO SEE THEM??????? I spent a semester of my life in college doing an animal inventory of proposed wilderness in theLos Padres National Forest, where the last of the free-roaming condors lived. I once saw a Bald Eagle fight think it was fighting try to pester mildly annoy a condor for about 20 minutes. The Condor just ascended on the thermal updrafts as the Eagle flapped itself silly. My wildlife claim to fame. And now I'm going to miss the Condors due to frikken MIST???
We turn the last bend. The bus driver screeches to the side of the road. "Andale, andale".... hurray, hurray. We clamber out of our mini bus and follow his sun-scorched finger to the sky. Up over a ridge fly 3 condors! No, 4. No wait, there's 3 more. EHHH.. 2 more. OMG this is fantastic. Another. And another. In all, 18 magnificent condors fly over the ridge! EIGHTEEN!!!!! Our guide, who grew up on the island, has never seen that many. I've hit the naturalist's mother-lode. The trip was worth it.
After our sheep shearing demo (they zig zag it off in one giant fluffy strip, BTW... check out the dude on the right), and a lunch of lamb grilled on an open spit, the gauchos bring their horses for anyone who wants to ride. For this part, you must understand I spent 2nd grade on my Grandfather's 20 acre farm in Bothell Washington. He had horses.... show horses. He rode them in parades, and my untrained handling would "ruin their gentle mouths". So here I am, a horse-sick little girl who obsesses over plastic horses and makes string corrals under our piano... who is not allowed to ride them. Like putting heroin in front of an addict. It killed me. Later, all I got to ride were the nags at the rental joints, that reluctantly walked out, then trotted back to safety... and food. I had never actually galloped on a horse, unless you count my dreams. My MANY dreams.
As the other tourists gently walk their horse around a hundred foot radius, I begin plotting. Hmmm... these are the best of the best horses, trained to herd sheep. There's a road up there, that goes who knows where. The horses live here. They know where it goes. And how to get back. I'll never get another chance like this. I forget there is no Kaiser on the Island... or the Country, for that matter.
When most are done, I spot my victim. I swing up onto the brown and white horse, and we start up the road. No one else has gone there. Up aways there is a worn path through a fence into the woods. We take it. Heels nudge. Horse trots . Man, I ain't here to trot...let's go for it. In a heartbeat I am galloping.... galloping into the woods of Patagonia on a real horse. And while I've never galloped, I know how. I know the rocking motion from my dreams. My thousand dreams. I am ecstatic.
We loop into the woods, and out the other side, into a field with a path that leads back to the ranch. And the tourists. And the laughing gauchos. And my Mom who was verging on cardiac arrest. "What the Hell is my daughter doing?? She doesn't know where she is. SHE DOESN'T EVEN KNOW HOW TO RIDE!!!"
That was a day that will live in my mind forever. Only I don't remember it quite the way it happened. In my mind, I am riding bareback across the plains of Patagonia, long blond hair billowing in the breeze, horse frothing at the exertion, as 18 condors fly overhead. The lead condor winks at me, and screeches acknowledgment as my totem protector. Sheep scatter at our approach. And somewhere there is a gaucho who knows his horse is in safe hands.
Don't miss Part 1 of My Favorite Vacations Series, on Sandrailing in the Oregon Dunes