The first time I’d ever gotten on a horse was when I arrived at an outpost on the way into Estancia Ranquilco, a 100,000 acre ranch in North Patagonia and nestled in the Andean foothills of Argentina. Having already traveled on two planes, a bus, and a car there was no turning back. They say you have to be confident otherwise a horse won’t respect you, so I mustered up all the courage I could and flopped over the back of the horse rather unceremoniously to start on the trail into the ranch.
I’d wanted to find out what’s it like to go truly off grid for a while, and Estancia Ranquilco provided me the first opportunity to experience life at a slower pace. It also allowed me to develop a closer relationship with nature than I had before. I’d done a little research before heading to Argentina, figuring I’d be able to go with the flow like I’d done for the majority of my life. Arriving into the ranch was a jarring bolt of reality.
I thought I knew what I’d be getting into, I’d gone on multi-day hikes, climbed up to the peak of Kilimanjaro, and walked through many of North America’s and New Zealand’s best trails. I backpacked through Sierra Leone and the Gambia and stayed in the bush in South Africa where elephants ate on the trees outside of my canvas tent. I had seen all sorts of animals close up in the wild: lions, rhinos, hippos, polar bears and grizzlies. I’d lived in all corners of the world from Svalbard up near the North Pole to in a van traveling across America for 6 months. I thought I knew adventure, but I soon realized I had only dipped my toes into the water and life still has more lessons to teach me.
These adventures I had before gave me the false illusion that I was a man of nature. I was naive and out of my element. My companions in Argentina made knives from old horseshoes, and told me stories of their former lives as remote Alaskan guides. They were blacksmiths and builders, talking about what wild plants they had eaten, growing dozens of varieties of vegetables in their own gardens. They were life-long ranchers cooking magnificent feasts with limited ingredients before breaking in wild horses in the round corral. They told stories of backcountry escapades, galloping on horseback to save someone who was in anaphylactic shock.
I went on a few long walks, cooked some supermarket food on a fire and thought I could I walk side by side with these people? It was a fantastic lesson in humility, and I acted the idiot accordingly.
Because it was the truth. And I loved every minute of it. I had leaped towards this indomitable chaos and was trying desperately, but willingly, to make some sort of order from it’s potential.
On the ranch, the days seemed longer. When you take away modern conveniences, you slow down simple tasks to their most basic mechanics. Everything simplifies but multiplies. Supplying basic amenities becomes laborious yet personal. If you wanted a hot drink, first you had to cut the tree, chop firewood, strike the match, and build the fire just to boil the pot. You’ve awakened your senses, exerted a little sweat, gathered dirt on your boots, had ash on your hands, and found a deep, pervasive satisfaction in this simple ceremonial act. Whether you give it conscious thought or not, you are touching life again.
I was hooked on horseback riding. I had chased down runaway horses on the way back from El Cholar, the nearest town from the ranch. I rode up the highest mountains, through rocky rivers, joined in on a cattle drive, pushed cows through the hills, slept under the stars on horse blankets, and galloped through the fields. I’d ridden in from the ranch to the nearest town feeling like I was in the old Wild West coming into the local bar for a whiskey and a game of poker. I’d ridden out again back into the wilderness feeling like an outlaw heading into the great unknown. I had gotten a taste of what communal living away from civilization was Having traveled for a long time, absolutely nothing compares to this.
There were many highlights of the four months I spent on the ranch. The best was a pack trip even farther into the mountains near a small lake called Laguna Negra to help them with the yerra. The yerra is an annual branding event for all the calves. The party starts early in the morning collecting all the dried cow patties to start the branding fire. The beer starts flowing, the music is playing, and the hollering begins–both from the gauchos and the calves. One by one, the calves shoot into the pen and are lassoed, tied down, and branded. It was amazing to watch the skills of these gauchos and their fearlessness on horseback.
By the time I’d finish my time on the ranch, I was cut up, bruised, and battered. I was spat back into civilization and convenience again a little wiser than when I first flopped on that horse.
I feel as though life should be about continually educating yourself. To take on challenges that serve up humility so you come out the other side with a new skill or two in the bag. Life on a remote ranch is as much about enjoying the elements as it is about enduring them. I never got the chance to make a horseshoe knife, but I’m looking forward to the next time I see a few lying around to give it a shot.
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Header photo by Dan Sadgrove.