Week 20 of the Quarantine
SAN MARTIN, ARGENTINA – As expected, the Trump Team offered voters another $1 trillion yesterday.
The final details need to be worked out. But the gist of the feds’ new bailout plan is the same as their first one: give money they don’t have to people they put out of work.
In the short run, the mock money will be used as though it had been earned or borrowed honestly – giving the economy the appearance of a pulse.
In the long run, the extra “demand,” created without a counterbalancing “supply,” will lead to price inflation. That’s when the recipients of the feds’ largesse will pay – and pay mucho.
But we’ll come back to that tomorrow…
Over the weekend, we went to Salta to see our old friend, Jorge, who used to be the foreman on the ranch.
The weather in Salta is much different than the weather at the ranch. On Sunday, it was raining in the city; it almost never rains this time of the year over on our side of the mountains.
Between the ranch and the city is the Cuesta del Obispo, a mountain pass, at about 10,000 feet, which we would have to cross to get home.
When we arrived at Jorge’s house, he pointed up towards the pass, hidden by low-hanging clouds.
“You will have snow up in the pass,” Jorge warned. “Maybe even a viento blanco (white wind).”
“A white wind?”
“Yes… it is very dangerous. It’s when a strong wind picks up the snow, sand, and ice. It’s like a sandstorm in the summer. But much more disorienting. You can’t tell where you’re going… or even which way is up. People drive off the cliff… or just get lost.
“Let’s go inside… I’ll tell you the story my grandfather told me about the viento blanco.”
Jorge was born on the ranch in a mud house with a dirt floor. He spent his whole working life there. Then, at 65, he retired to the city. He didn’t want to leave the ranch. But at the time, his wife, Maria, was having some health issues. And his children and grandchildren had all become accustomed to city life.
Jorge was always polite. Always cheerful. Supremely capable. Our main goal for the 10 years we worked with Jorge was earning his respect.
We learned to saddle a horse the local way… and tried to ride like a gaucho.
We learned to round up the cows… run them through the chute… and cut off the horns (Jorge cut off the more private parts).
And we learned to tell the difference between a ternera (a female calf), a vaquinilla (a female calf that has been weaned), and a vaquillona (a young female heifer ready to breed).
We’re still learning… and still eager for Jorge’s approval.
We sat down in front of his wood stove.
“Juan Carlos Dávalos, a famous local writer, wrote a story about the viento blanco. But my grandfather lived it. He was missing three toes. When I was a boy, he told me how it happened.
“Raising cattle here and selling them in Chile used to be a big business. I’m talking about 100 years ago… or even more.
“But to get the cattle from here to Chile, you had to cross the Cordillera (the mountain range that runs down the whole of South America). There are two ranges of mountains – the Eastern range and the Western range. They are both about 20,000 feet high. And between them is the Puna, a high desert, with no water and not even a blade of grass.
“They would fatten the cattle here in the valley… and then, in May or June, just as winter was beginning, drive them over the mountains.
“My grandfather was just a teenager at the time. But he signed on to one of the cattle drives. There were about 100 cows… and four drovers, including the boss.
“The whole drive took about two weeks. You drove them up over the pass on this side (the Eastern range)… then across the Puna, where they have nothing to eat or drink for five days… then over the pass on the other side (the Western range)… and finally, down to a town on the Chilean side.
“It was always brutal and difficult. But the cowboys back then were as tough as horseshoes… They always lost a few cows. Yet most of them got where they were going.
“But sometimes, things went wrong… or people made mistakes.
“On one crossing, they got the cows up to the first pass with no problems. There were still some grassy spots… ‘vegas’… with water available.
“And then, there was a cattle station further along the way. It was run by an old Indian who knew the territory better than anyone. He had tins of food on shelves… dried meat hanging from the roof beams… tools… straps of leather for repairing saddles – just about everything. He supplied hunters and miners… as well as the cattle teams.
“They always stopped there… and warmed themselves, ate, drank some wine, and told stories.
“Back then, all they ate was a kind of cornflour that they mixed with hot water. And when they had rested, they got up to leave.
“But the old Indian said that they should wait there. He said he thought some bad weather was coming.
“One of the young cowboys had caught malaria down in the lowlands. He had a fever from time to time… and then, it would go away. Anselmo was his name. He had seen a fox cross his path from right to left that morning, which he thought was a bad omen.
“But the boss said he had a contract. He was a stubborn man. And he’d made the crossing dozens of times. He wasn’t going to be held up by the Indian or superstitions. The sky was clear. And he had to meet the buyer in a week or so.
“So, they put back on their coats and their ponchos… and got the cattle moving again.
“That time of year, the sun warms you up in the daytime, but the nights can be very cold. Crossing the Puna, they kept going all night long. They rode mules, and they covered themselves and the mules with ponchos; the heat from the mules helped keep the cowboys warm.
“And somehow, they managed to sleep while in the saddle, taking turns staying awake to keep the herd headed in the right direction.
“In the morning, it was cloudy. A light snow began to fall. A little snow was no problem… but they didn’t know how long it would continue.
“‘Maybe we should go back [to the cattle station],’ said Anselmo, the boy with malaria.
“‘Are you cold?’ asked the boss.
“‘Yes.’ The boy was shivering.
“The boss took out his extra poncho and gave it to him. ‘Let’s keep going,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a contract to keep.’
“So, they just kept moving the cattle. Heading west.
“But it kept snowing… They had to go for three days and three nights through the snow.
“Then, they were in serious trouble. They still had the second pass to cross… And the cattle were so weak… and the snow was so deep… that they couldn’t go on. The cowboys had put on all their vicuna coats and their spare ponchos… and they were freezing, too. So, the boss called them together.
“‘Okay… You can see as well as I can…’ he said to them. ‘The pass is a couple more miles ahead. The cattle are worn out. And I can’t ask you to go on. We can just abandon the cattle… and save ourselves.’
“‘Or, we can try to save the cattle. And the only way I can see to do that is by digging a trench through the snow up to where the pass begins.’ There was less snow on the rocky hillside, where the ground rose steeply to the pass.
“But you know cowboys. They spend so much time with cows and mules, they begin to act like them. They’ll suffer any hardship… They’re used to it. Hard work, no food, cold… it’s just part of their lives.
“So they told the boss that they would go along with whatever he wanted to do.
“And he decided to try to save the herd. They took off their saddles and used the bare cradles as shovels. Working all day, they cleared a path. And then, with the strongest bulls in the lead, they pushed, prodded, and drove the cattle up to the pass.
“By then, it had stopped snowing. And for a few hours, they thought they were in the clear. They made it to the top of the pass…
“But there, they felt the first wind against their faces. It was light… then stronger… And then, it began picking up the snow… and the sand… and the ice… It was the viento blanco.
“They couldn’t see where they were going… or feel their toes in their boots… or their fingers in their gloves… They couldn’t stop – they’d freeze to death. So, they just had to keep going… even if they weren’t sure where they were headed.
“They’d only been going for a few hours when one of the cowboys yelled, ‘Anselmo has fallen off! He’s on the ground.’
“They all went to see if they could help him. But it was hopeless.
“‘He’s dead,’ the boss announced.
“They couldn’t do anything for him… not even dig a grave. They just crossed his arms over his chest… piled some rocks over him… and moved on.
“Somehow, the rest of them made it to safety, with most of the cattle. And when they got to the town, my grandfather had to have three toes cut off due to frostbite.”
We left Jorge at about 3 p.m. The police stopped us several times on our way home. At the last stop before the pass, they were turning cars back.
“Only residents are allowed through,” the big policeman told us.
“No problem,” we replied. “We live up there.”
“Do you have a document? Proof?”
“Uh… well… no…”
At our urging, the policeman called his colleagues in the valley.
“Do you know this guy? A foreigner… says he lives in the valley. Bonner. William.”
“Oh yes. He’s the owner of the ranch where we ran into the bull. Totally wrecked the truck. But he paid for us to fix it. He’s okay.”
We were let through.
It took about an hour to get to the top of the pass. It was beautiful, dusted with snow.
But there was no viento blanco.
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