Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Asleep at the Roadhouse(s)

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.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Bye-Bye, Buenos Aires Herald

In 1979, when I first visited Argentina, my Spanish was basic, and the country was in the depths of its worst dictatorship ever—one that “disappeared” and executed many thousands of its opponents. I was also naïve, but my own experiences in a brief visit to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego unnerved me despite the country’s stunning natural landscapes.

I doubted whether I’d ever return but then, two years later in Bolivia, I met the Argentine woman who would become my wife. A couple months after we parted in Chile, where I was researching my M.A. thesis on llama/alpaca pastoralism in Parque Nacional Lauca, I made my first visit to Buenos Aires, where she was studying literature.
Robert Cox (left) with Australian filmmaker Jayson McNamara, who shot a documentary about the Herald, in Cox's Buenos Aires apartment.
By that time, my Spanish had improved considerably, but I got to know the city and country partly through its venerable English-language daily, the Buenos Aires Herald. While the Herald’s relatively small staff could not match the broader coverage of high-circulation dailies like Clarín and La Nación, it had gained an international reputation by publicly reporting on the military junta’s record of brutality and repression (the Spanish-language dailies almost ignored those atrocities). That made its staff, such as editor Robert Cox and news editor Andrew Graham-Yooll, the target of threats against themselves and their families, and both had to go into exile.
Andrew Graham-Yooll, outside the Herald's old offices on Calle Azopardo
Even after the dictatorship ended, I continued to rely on the Herald as an essential digest of Argentine news. On visits to my wife’s provincial hometown of Olavarría, in the Pampas, the local newsagent would reserve me a copy and my late father-in-law—who barely recognized a word in English—would devour the Spanish-language version of its editorials. Later, as I spent more three decades traveling in the country, I got to meet the heroic Cox and Graham-Yooll, and other Anglo-Argentine legends such as food writer Dereck Foster and senior editor Michael Soltys.

I've also written for the paper on occasion, on topics such as Argentina's now discontinued tourism reciprocity fee and the Falkland/Malvinas Islands (for which, in one reader's letter, I was accused of being a CIA agent).

In recent years, the Herald had lost much of its critical edge, and also its readership as it went from a daily to a weekly. It finally closed its doors this week—sadly, without so much as a farewell edition. The best summary I’ve read in English comes from The Economist, which notes (and I agree) that online publications like The Bubble may pick up some of the slack. My own generation falls somewhere in between the Herald’s methodical heyday and The Bubble’s snarkier millennialism; I sometimes enjoy the latter, but I’ll always miss the former.

Friday, July 28, 2017

On the Open Pacific

Chile's Juan Fernández archipelago was, for years, the home of castaway Alexander Selkirk - the real-life Robinson Crusoe.
In the course of a career spent traveling throughout the Americas, I’ve had the opportunity to visit numerous offshore Pacific islands—mostly, though, in South America, where the Juan Fernández archipelago is one of my favorite destinations in this category (I omit Rapa Nui/Easter Island here, due to its 2000 mile/3500 km distance from the mainland). I’ve set foot on many of archipelagic Chile’s islands, starting with the Chiloé group in the south.
The Farallones are about 25 nautical miles west of San Francisco.
North of the Equator, I’ve not had so much experience. One highlight was a trip to Mexico’s Isla Cedros—off the Baja California coast—where I caught a fishing-boat lift to the more distant Islas San Benito (There I saw northern elephant seals and, on the voyage back, the crew treated me to a scallop ceviche). Having spent decades in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’ve often seen the outlines of the forbidding Farallon Islands, and have always yearned to see them up close and personal.
The Farallones' rugged topography helps make them a wildlife reserve (photo, public domain)
That’s not easy, because, though the Farallones belong politically to the City and County of San Francisco, they’re desert islands off limits to the public at large. In the 19th century, collectors gathered hundreds of thousands of seabird eggs for sale on the mainland, and US Navy and Coast Guard long kept a presence, but today the archipelago is under protection of US Fish and Wildlife Service as the Farallon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Only research biologists have access to the islands themselves, where several buildings remain from their previous incarnations.
Once a naval and coast guard base, the Farallones now host research biologists.
Earlier this month, though, we booked a day tour to the islands with Álvaro’s Adventures, from Pillar Point Harbor at Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. Álvaro Jaramillo, whom I’ve known for some years, lives there but also leads birding trips to Argentina and Chile, where I usually work. This, though, was an opportunity to see something new.
Nesting murres and guano cover much of the rugged Farallones terrain.
Many, if not most, of the other passengers were enthusiastic birders who braved the rough seas in hopes of expanding their lifelists—though some were repeat customers. I’m only a casual birder, but the sight of islands covered with birds and guano reminds me of my experiences in the penguin-rich South Atlantic, and the presence of buildings on remote islands reminded me—on a midsummer’s day that was no less chilly than the Strait of Magellan—of structures in Tierra del Fuego. It’s also whale-watching season, though we didn’t nearly as close to the grays and humpbacks here as I have in antipodean destinations like Península Valdés (where it’s now breeding season for right whales) and Isla Carlos III (summer feeding grounds for southern humpbacks). The Farallones are also a place to spot great white sharks, though July’s a little too early for that.
Unfortunately, at the Farallones we never so close to the whales as I was to this southern humpback in the Strait of Magellan.

Later this year and early next year, I should get the chance to revisit some of my South American islands, but there’s one notable omission on my offshore lifelist. I’d really like the chance to visit Chile’s Isla Mocha, off the coast of the Araucanía region. Nearly half of it’s a national reserve and, though it might not complete my insular aspirations, it would be a major step forward.
Chile's Isla Mocha is on my wishlist, even if it won't look the way it did to 16th-century Dutch pirates.

Custom Search