August is a slow time of the year, when I start to think about returning to South America but am not really doing much about it. My wife María Laura, though, has been visiting family in Argentina and, this past weekend, I left the house for the roadhouse—that is, to Marin County’s Rancho Nicasio for the annual outdoor “barbecue on the lawn” performance by Asleep at the Wheel.
|Asleep at the Wheel played Rancho Nicasio on Sunday, August 14th|
In rural west Marin, but only 35 miles from my home in Oakland, the village of Nicasio feels remote from the rest of the metropolitan Bay Area. At one time, businessmen bargained for cattle and timber here, and Rancho Nicasio is a reminder of the roadhouse hotel—destroyed by fire in 1940—where they once stayed. Though I wouldn’t want to exaggerate the comparison, it also reminds me of the Patagonian roadhouses along Argentina’s legendary RN 40—the counterpart to Route 66 that Asleep always sings about (many other artists, of course, also perform this standard).
|Bandleader Ray Benson's memoir|
Over the years, my wife has embraced bandleader Ray Benson’s traditional western swing, though the band’s other personnel has changed over time (only Ray remains from the band I first saw at Berkeley’s legendary Longbranch Saloon in 1972). The band’s story is available in Benson’s memoir/autobiography Comin’ Right at Ya, which includes a period of residence in my longtime hometown.
|Javier Jury of Ushuaia didn't arrive on his motorbike, but he did get to see Asleep at the Wheel at Rancho Nicasio.|
We’ve even taken Argentine friends to enjoy the afternoon, such as my friend Javier Jury of Ushuaia’s Martín Fierro B&B, at the southern end of “La Cuarenta.” Most of the highway’s roadhouses, though, are on the thinly populated stretch between El Calafate (in the south) and the northern Santa Cruz province town of Perito Moreno (to the north)—a section of highway where, when I drove it in the early 1990s, I saw only four vehicles in three days. At that time it was almost entirely gravel, but now it’s nearly completely paved.
|Hotel La Leona is probably the most visited of Patagonia's roadhouses.|
Again, I don’t want to take the Rancho Nicasio comparison too far. After all, the roadhouses along “La Cuarenta” can’t offer western swing, but they are undergoing something of a renaissance—the riverside Hotel La Leona, for instance, has become a popular stop along the highway from El Calafate to Argentina’s “Trekking Capital” of El Chaltén. Farther north, west of Gobernador Gregores and near the turnoff to Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, the rejuvenated Hotel Las Horquetas is worth a stop or even an overnight.
|Closed for many years, Hotel Las Horquetas has reopened to offer accommodations and food on one of the most remote segments of Patagonia's RN40.|
|Hotel El Olnie, sadly, is now closed.|
Farther north, the Hotel El Olnie, now closed, offered the ambience of a place where gauchos once congregated for drinks. The granddaddy of them, all, though, is the Hotel Bajo Caracoles, close to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Cueva de las Manos. At Bajo Caracoles, lines of southbound buses, cars and motorcycles often queue in hope that the weekly fuel supply will arrive—by the most direct route, it’s several hundred km to the next gas station, at Tres Lagos. Northbound vehicles can usually make it to the town of Perito Moreno.
|Hotel Bajo Caracoles is a landmark roadhouse in northern Santa Cruz province.|