I awoke again this morning to an entirely clear sky. It is cold early in the morning in late summer in the mountains of South Chile, about 45 degrees. We are suffering through a very long dry spell. There has been no significant rain for over two months, and the clear sky is mostly obliterated by heavy smoke.
The two forest fires, incendios, are fortunately on the other side of the Puelo, a wide, fast river flowing right in front of our cabin door. We would never be allowed to build here, so close to the river, at home. This might be a wise restriction, because some year, before too long, the river is going to take the land, cabin and all, in a spring flood.
With the government budget for the helicopter with the water bucket having been exceeded and a neighbor endangered by one of the fires, the firefighters, axes, pumps, shovels, sleeping bags, potatoes, flour, and a watermelon arrived at our airstrip by Twin Otter and were ferried nearer the fire by my husband and the neighbor, who own the only two motorboats on this part of the river.
Downstream from us lies a canyon, not navigable; upstream, another canyon, even more wild; beyond that, Argentina. The “road” behind our house leads past a few farms, the nearest a 25-minute walk, to a rowboat ferry across the river and on to another airstrip, a school, a few houses, and a radio-phone. By foot, it is perhaps five or six hours; by horse much less to Llanada Grande, this “town.”
This year, it is still a three-day trip by horse, more or less, to the auto road. But progress is coming. They are working on the road all the way to Llanada Grande and have built the bridge over the Rio Manso. The ferry’s in place to cross Lago Tagua Tagua, five miles long and impossible to walk around, where the mountains come down directly to the deep, turquoise-colored lake.
I suppose this is one of the last, mostly isolated, remaining farmed areas. The cash crop is beef, shipped on the hoof most of the way to market. That happened some weeks ago this year, when the lower pastures dried up. The hill pastures are small, and even they are barely green. The clear skies and sun raise the afternoon temperatures into the 80’s—sometimes into the 90’s, in a puelche when the hot, dry wind comes from the pampas of Argentina.
Most of the farmers are self-subsisting, needing only flour and oil from the city. From their farms come sheep and goats, apples, plums, and cherries, potatoes—wonderful potatoes—and a few vegetables. They can the cherries and make the apples and plums into chiche, a very hard version of hard cider. When they tire of the menu, the kids go to the river with a lure and a monofilament wound around a can.
Everyone can obtain running water by placing a hose in a nearby mountain stream—in our case, a quarter-mile away—and presto, cold, clear water runs all day, sometimes into the bucket of laundry. We have other handy amenities; they mostly do not.
We city slickers also have imported from the city by air, in the form of gasoline for a generator, electricity—enough to keep a refrigerator/freezer cold and to operate a washing machine for our clothes. The dryer, however, is semiautomatic and consists of lines between two posts.
So, since resupply happens at most once a week, we must know how to make bread, chop wood for the stove, find our way around in the dark, and walk. All of the locals—women, men, and boys—make bread, and they all ride horses. We don’t have a horse.
Life is hard, but life is fun. Big bets are placed on the horse races held on our airstrip; neighbors gather together for an asado (roast lamb or goat) with boiled potatoes, boxed wine, and chiche, and if anyone has been to town, ensalada Chilena.
The firefighters have left, but the fires are still burning, one furiously. The houses are safe, at least for a while. Perhaps after the high pressure is gone in three or four more days, it might rain. We have asked our friends in the States to pray for rain for us; one deacon even announced it during the service.
Will it be good to have a road? That depends on what we and our neighbors believe is good. Is freedom from most oversight good? Sometimes. Sometimes it is bad, when the fires start and no one in the city cares. But once the road comes, life here will never be the same, just as it is not the same in the American Midwest as it was in times past. Perhaps that is why we come here.