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  • Writer's pictureBen Hatt

A Time In Space

A Visit to Parque Nacional Perito Moreno in Eastern Santa Cruz Province, Argentina

Cerro San Lorenzo, Parque Nacional Perito Moreno

There’s a hotel on the road to nowhere: Two stone-slabbed buildings with red corrugated iron roofs and a drift of gravel for a parking lot. This is Las Horquetas. It gives its name to the town because it is the town, a headstone in a vast, empty space punctuated by former estancias. We are in the in-between: Not pampa, not mountain or campo, but rather a desert like no other, an undulating scrub of yellow and brown, carved by the whip of the wind.

This is the eastern abandon of Santa Cruz Province, Argentina, a place, some may argue, that exists as a twenty-hour inconvenience between the hiking meccas of Bariloche to the north and El Chalten to the south. But, as with any inconvenience, it is a matter of perspective. Dispel the notion of time –– dispel the notion of saving it, of planning and efficiency, of short-cuts or fast-drives; dispel the notion of “basics,” of gas pumps on tap or roadside grab-and-goes; dispel the very rule of people (think of them more as an exception) –– and one lands on something that approximates this stretch of the in-between.

It is places like this, these gaps in the map, where everything is in “the nothing, ” where the largest of detours gives life to the largest of adventures. A simple car takes on the thrust of a craft hurtling through space, leading us somewhere we cannot plan for because we cannot preconceive it. Here, we find ourselves cast out into the ether, floating at the end of a long tether of rope. We free our grip and feel the shape of a place where we will visit but never stay, where all that is alien is all that we know.

Alexandra and I got into our craft and centered our sights on Las Horquetas, the final docking station, a blip in the sand between Gobernador Gregores –– a town of note if only for the fact that it has roads (plural) –– and our ultimate destination, Perito Moreno National Park, 200 kilometres away and the mother of all inconveniences. But before we could set off, we had a trio of to-dos.

Food supply: Check. La Anomina is Patagonia’s incongruous answer to Walmart and the main draw in town. Gas supply: Check. Our camper van, nicknamed Neta (after camioneta, of course) needed a full tank of gas, and the YPF was the last reliable gas station for 350 kilometres. Our last to-do, purchasing a jerry can –– vital in the expanses of such a place –– proved a lot more difficult.

It seems Gobernador Gregores treats jerry cans the same way a taxi driver treats a 5am drunk: with an innocent dose of extortion. The only hardware store in town gave us a straight-faced offer of a jerry can for the equivalent of $40 (a straight-face, we later learned, they had spent much time perfecting with previous travellers). We went in search of another option. We scampered through town from one road to the next and then back again, asking the handful of car repair shops if they had anything. Each pointed us back to the hardware store until we came across a mechanic in equal parts bemused and kind. He refused a single peso for a jerry can he found in the back of his garage. (Only when we reframed our 3,000 peso (~$8) offer as a beer on us did he finally relent….) The checklist complete, we put Neta into gear and a handful of roads fell into one.

Neta cut along the dust trap north of Gobernador Gregores, shivering in the wind, shaking with a metallic scream. Everything was loud. Nothing was new. We eased to the left, to the right, along a jumble of turns and curves which, for all we could tell from the landscape, could have led us straight back to Gobernador Gregores. Instead, with the sun languishing low in the sky, we finally saw the corrugated red roofs: Las Horquetas. The booming metropolis of one.

Las Horquetas Hotel

We turned into the empty parking lot, a place we hoped to call home for the night. For all the van’s screaming in the wind, Las Horquetas was a picture of quiet. The crunch of our feet on the gravel interrupted the amphitheater of emptiness in front of us. We approached the front door of this last-standing sanctuary and we knocked. We knocked again. Had this slab of stone finally succumbed? The windows were dark, the place empty, but with a soft push the door eased open. Skylights brought the soft, evening light into a room of wood and stone. The place was more artefact than restaurant: There was a selection of blue and green tables with plastic tablecloths. A bar of brick and wood stood like a mausoleum, and on the far wall a mantelpiece of memorabilia ran from one end to the other –– a hacksaw, a ceramic bowl, a paraffin lamp. With a shuffle of activity, a woman emerged at the bar with a young girl, no older than four, by her side.

“Can I help you?” the woman said.

“Buen dia,” We responded. “We have a camper van outside. Do you mind if we park in the parking lot overnight?”

She shrugged. Sure was the implication. The girl kept her eyes on us.

“How much does it cost?”

Another shrug. Nothing.

“Is it possible to have dinner?” Alexandra asked.

“We have beef with fries or beef milenesa with fries,” she said, handing us each a menu with a tome of unavailable options. We picked the beef with fries and asked for a bottle of wine.

The wine was sour and bitter –– another signal that the Argentina we knew was long behind us. We sipped on it and inspected the photographs below the memorabilia. There was one of a man with wide eyes and a wider smile, a fish the length of his arm clasped in his hands. Further along the wall, a picture of the indomitable San Lorenzo mountain, a must-see in Perito Moreno National Park with its sheer wall of ice, hung from the wall. I tapped on the plastic table-cover and turned over the pages of the menu until I landed on the back page. There was a photograph of the stone slab hotel in black and white, a man standing by the entrance, the picture dated in the 1920s. The First Estancia In the Region, the caption read. A bold claim, I figured, but who was there to refute it?

Las Horquetas Hotel, with Ben enjoying his sour wine

I imagined decades prior, when the road ran through with dirt, when cars were a thing of the future –– when even Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia would have seemed cosmopolitan –– that the wind swept in those that had made good on their promise to run from something, for that was the only thing that would bring a person to a place like this at a time like that. Perhaps it gave brief sanctuary to a German pioneer, escaping the depression after The Great War, or a group of campesinos, their collars still matted with blood after turning on their estancia owner –– or perhaps it was just old enough that Butch Cassidy, with his gruff and grift, sat at a table in this room, a whiskey in hand, The Sundance Kid across the table, and Etta Place by the fire. If these walls could speak… but they seemed long tired of speaking.

Whatever the past, Alexandra and I were the present –– the newest characters to cross the threshold –– and the little girl, lingering by the bar, approached. She signalled to the chair and Alexandra helped her up. She sat, turning a rind of cheese in her hand, and nibbled on it like popcorn as Alexandra and I exhausted our attempts to talk and instead turned back to our own conversation. Perhaps, taking offence, she then offered Alexandra a taste of the saliva-soaked rind. Alexandra declined once, twice, three times, and then the young girl departed. She disappeared into the kitchen, where the sound and smell of our dinner was as loud and wholesome as the road was busy.

I gazed out of the window. The blood-red sun poured over the scrub, painting a Martian red. Another camper pulled in and chatter murmured outside. Life rolled on, and the prospect of a dinner became something that was in front of us and then behind us, but never with us. We sipped on our bitter wine and, just when we figured we would return to our camper, a smell wafted through the room. A feast of salt, seasoned with meat, landed on the table. We ate. We slept. Las Horquetas –– the town, the block of rock in the sand, the remnant of history, the final docking station –– was in the rearview mirror soon after sunrise the next morning.

The road to nowhere has a turn off just north of Las Horquetas. It is a flat, rock runway that reaches toward the horizon. In the distance, mountains pique like ridges on a saw. Neta trundled at a steady speed, interrupted by the occasional cattle grid and, all the while, I looked for a place to pull over. My one non-negotiable when I travel is to find a way to bathe each morning. It can be in a bucket. It can be in near-zero temperatures. It can be in a stream a short way downhill from a glacier –– there are any number of scenarios I have begrudgingly put myself through –– but bathe I must, and that morning was no different. Yet, even in the vast expanse, I can be picky. “This place is too exposed.” “The road here is too narrow.” “What if a car comes around the corner?” (What car you may ask?) But eventually I made my decision. In the brisk morning wind, with an audience of a million rocks and a bemused Alexandra, I stripped down, took the water hose attached to our camper, and shook and shivered. I dried myself off, a refreshed man, reinvigorated by madness, and saw a car whoosh past as I was cleaning up. That car. The only car we’d seen for 70 kilometers. I may have tried to avoid people, but in the plains of nowhere a driver had been within a minute of seeing the sorry sight of my shivering buttocks through the windscreen.

The first change in the scenery was the looming peak of San Lorenzo. A clear sky gave a blue canvas to its thick wall of ice. Then the yellow and brown scrub took on a hint of green. Something desolate was becoming something sanguine. We had crossed so far from the edge of civilization that it felt like we had reached across the abyss, that the earth had simply played all its cards for what was inhospitable, what was bleak and desolate, and had been compelled to play a flush of life. Over the lip of a hill, we saw the ranger’s station –– a car, a building. We rattled past the welcome sign. We were there.

Ben & Alexandra at the Parque Nacional Perito Moreno entrance

A ranger welcomed us in. He was all muscle with a permanent smile –– a necessary constitution for a man tasked with living on the other side of the abyss. (He later explained that his mother’s friend had just visited the park, bringing with her a cake, a rare reminder of civilization that was sure to have turbocharged his smile). He pointed out the different trails and refugios where we could stay. This was our first chance for almost two weeks to take a break from sleeping in the camper, and so we snatched at the places he recommended: Dos Bahias the first night, and Archipiélago the second –– two shelters on an almost-island, entirely surrounded by Lago Belgrano if it weren’t for a narrow spit of land the width of a road.

We headed toward the almost-island, rocks clacking on the underbelly of Neta, until we rose to the crest of a hill and saw Lago Belgrano. It is a lake split into two shades of blue. On one side the water is turquoise, a cloud of color that could deceive for some Carribean lagoon (although, no doubt, the temperature would be a dead giveaway); and on the other it is a deep blue, the color of cold itself. We drove down to the lake and parked by a handful of cars and campers. (What is isolated is not always lonely.) After an hour or so of repacking our bags, we headed across the spit of land and onto the wind-brushed landscape. It was a place that had clung onto the edge of the earth and would have fallen away were there anywhere else for it to go.

Lago Belgrano –– Ben crossing the isthmus onto the almost-island

We passed through a scene of stout trees, puffs of grass, and basins dried from the summer months. Here, as far as our tether of rope would take us, we loosened our grip.

To be human in a place like this is not to be a resident or even a visitor, but to be alien. Lago Belgrano –– Perito Moreno National Park, for that matter –– is a place where nature has done its darndest to keep the hoard of humanity at bay, and where patience and perseverance are the distinguishing traits between those that see it and those that don’t. As the wind kicked up on our backs and around our necks, as the grass turned in the wind, as droplets of water whipped off the surface of the lake and sprayed us, it became clear that nothing here was meant for us, for this is no longer a home to people. Those that once braved this place are now long gone, migrating centuries ago. Today, these lakes and hills are home to the pumas and the guanacos, to the herons and the geese, the trout and the perch, an ecosystem made of sturdier stuff. People instead arrive in their metallic crafts, wrapped in their warm clothes, and hold their rectangles up to the landscape. Then they turn back, as they must, for the air is too thin here now for the likes of us. Astronauts cannot survive without their oxygen.

That first night Alexandra and I arrived at Dos Bahías, on the south-west tip of the almost-island. As its name indicates, the refugio was flanked by two bays that fell into the turquoise water. We blew off the cold from our hands, kicked off our hiking boots, and lit up the stove. This little block of wood was now our home for the night. That evening we were joined by a couple from Esquel, 800 kilometers to the north; the next night by a couple from Puerto San Julian, 400 kilometers to the east (locals, in the grand scheme of things). Isolation bred familiarity and, in two sunsets made only for us –– under a night sky of a million stars –– we fell into conversation.

Refugio Archipielago, our home on the second night

If the nights brought community, then the days were a counterweight, a workshop in the art of observation. All around us a canvas unfolded in slow motion. Huge clouds twisted and whipped into dense cylinders, like an armada of spacecraft shrouded in white. They danced off the snow peaks that marked the border with Chile –– a dead end, impassable, something that signalled, all the more, that one could go no further. Below, the grass sung and the water and wind waltzed. We walked through it all, absorbed in it — absorbed by it — and held onto the moment like one holds their breath. Then, before long, the shape of civilization pulled us back towards orbit. Our fingers reached for the tether of rope.

We spent a final lunch in a bird-watching hut, a rudimentary creak of wood and wind. We munched on our cheese and tomato sandwiches and looked out over a dried lake. The ducks and plovers pecked at the soft mud underfoot, faint specks of color in the foreground of our return journey. Our time was up. We put Neta into gear and whistled along the crunch of rock, away from Earth’s cliff-edge, in the direction of people.

The bird-watching hut where we had our final lunch

Las Horquetas, half-tomb, half-ressurection, pointed us south, and in a routine of turns and curves, the road led us back through the looking glass, to where one road becomes a few. Gobernador Gregores never felt so grand. We re-cycled through our list of to-dos, found a campsite on the edge of town, and tucked ourselves into our sleeping bags for the night. In the grip of our van, the world never felt so wide. We regaled our playtime in the plains of nowhere, our place of adventure, Our Great Inconvenience and yearned for our fingers to loosen on the rope once again.

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