By Darin Wahl
Numentina is a ranch in the Santa Cruz province of Argentine Patagonia.
Numentina sits on the long sloping rise of a hill, barren from afar, but covered in scrub brush, grass, and some very stubborn pampas bushes. "When you get off the bus, head out of town. Veer just right of the road, and walk about 10 miles. You can't miss us." There is no electricity. A wood burning stove. An outhouse. When I wrote to the owners, the first question they asked me was whether I knew how to bake bread. They were French. Bread. We baked it everyday in our wood stove. We'd wake up and make the dough. Knead it at breakfast. Leave it to rise while we worked our morning shift. First, we visited the shed. We collected our tools: axe, pick-axe, and shovel and headed onto the semi enclosed farm area. Long sleeves to protect from wind, bugs, and sun. We'd hack and dig, hack and dig for hours. Lunch. We'd knead our dough. Eat. Drink mate (mah-teh). Then gear up again for more hacking and digging. Once every few days one of us would peel off to the wood pile to chop wood for the stove. We spent countless hours figuring out the irrigation. One small hose with a constant trickle. We dug mini canals with our hands. We used detritus to make sluices. We'd stand back and watch the water flow through our canals, creeping its way in the dry dirt, seeking paths of least resistance. We'd make little mud piles to redirect the flow when the strawberries had enough. It was patient work. Satisfying. Then we'd stand, look up at the uncleared field, grab our picks, find a bush, and swing.
The setting sun signaled the end of our workday. We never tired of sunset over the pampas. There was an old crumbled stone wall we would climb up to watch. Candles were lit. The dough was readied for the oven. The oven was stocked with wood and monitored closely. How hot was hot enough? Some nights we scraped charred crust. Half the bread went straight to the table. The other half we wrapped for breakfast next day. Most nights one of us would pick up a guitar and play softly by candlelight. Before bed we'd wash and lotion our hands carefully. It took three days for my hands to crack and bleed at the joints. Those cracks didn't heal at the farm.
Once, we climbed up to the top of the mesa beyond the dry lakebed in our front yard to see if we could see a neighbor. We could not.
A neighbor came anyway.
He rode on horseback two days trailing four dogs. His friends. His only companions.
We invited him in for mate, which he accepted, but before entering he took off his dusty jacket, folded it in half and placed it, and an old six-shooter pistol, on a wicker chair on our porch.
He barely spoke. When did he last speak to another person? And here were foreigners. What did he ride all this way to do?
He returned a week later. Trailing dogs.
"Hello again," we said, passing the matero. "We were just about to go work the fields, would you like to join us?" And then it happened. A smile swept across his face like wind through the pampas: long in the coming and passing, and irresistible.
A week later, when el dueño came to check on us, and bring our weekly supplies: flour, butter, onions, a sheep leg, which we hung by the achilles in the bathroom, we asked about the people who live and work this area.
"What do these gauchos do out here?"
"They manage the ranches for the owners. They go out every few weeks or so to check on the herds. They might hunt a fox."
"Do they marry? Do they have families?"
"Not normally. These are very special men. They live their entire lives out here. Alone. Its a dying culture. Before they were honored. It was more noble. Now they quietly live out their lives in isolation. Once every few months they'll go into town for supplies. They might stop at the brothel. Whatever they do, they say very little."
Our neighbor worked with us all afternoon ploughing the fields, clearing the brush, and passing the mate. In the evening, he mounted up and started his long trek home.