( Originally Published Early 1900's )
I quote again from my journal: "On steamer Gallegos, Feb. 21. I am sitting in a whaleboat, as there is not room on deck; the promenade deck is only about eighteen feet long. The Gallegos is the tiniest seagoing craft that I have ever ridden. She has, however, twelve cabins and a tiny saloon. She is crammed with freight and people; even the boat in which I sit is laden. I have a tub of ferns and flowers at my feet, and lean against a crate of furniture. On the forward deck are crates of chick-ens and Rambouillet rams. We are churning along at the rate of six miles an hour. Every now and then the fireman goes below and throws in another shovelful of coal. From the lower deck one can dip one's hand in the salt water, and yet these coasts are often washed by terrific seas. It is a perfect day. The coast two miles away is bordered by long lines of cliffs, desolate to see, Sometimes on their summits we see yellow grass, and on one cliff a number of guanacos, strange, camel like animals that stand and stare at us. I am told that the native ostrich once lived as far south as this. Now the guanacos are the only survivors of wild nature, save the few pumas and the birds. Many wild ducks, resembling Muscovies, fly past us and beautiful black and white dolphins accompany us. They dive, showing their graceful curves, come up again, swim with incredible swiftness past us, and dive again. It seems a game with them. Barring a black spot they are snowy white. These dolphins are warm-blooded things ; I wonder how they keep their babies with them, suckle them and keep them warm in this ice water. There are large flocks of penguins in the water, and the gulls quarrel ceaselessly with them, perhaps hoping to share some fish that the penguin may catch.
"I was too late to secure a berth on the Gallegos last night and was amused to see the crowd of us that assembled to go aboard, many men with their families, and some nuns, poor things. It was a crowd that would have been enough for six such boats as this. However, we all came aboard and paid big prices for the privilege, too. If there is anyone down here in Patagonia for his health I have not heard of him. I wondered, a great deal about what we would do to pass away the tedious night hours. We sat jammed in the tiny cabin, filled with smoke, the poor sisters huddled together in a corner, the men having wine and playing cards on the dining table. There is a young Argentino, Ernesto Behr, of German ancestry, who has a cab-in engaged, and he came to me and insisted on my taking his bed. I protested without avail and finally accepted; he slept on a sort of lounge which was too short, but our feet lay across one another. Señor Behr insisted that an Argentino would never permit a guest of some foreign land to sit up while he enjoyed a bed. A delightful young man, I won-der whether we could show just his equal in fine courtesy at home. This morning the men in the cabin still sat and played cards and drank wine, while the sisters in their corner no doubt endlessly said their prayers. Why did we not give them our beds? Because another man occupied an upper berth in our cabin.
"Afternoon: Lovelier and lovelier becomes the scene—the water so blue and the sky so clear. Such delightfully ornamental little fleecy clouds never were meant for aught but ornament. Our old tub is peacefully nosing her way along. Señor Behr and I sit together in the whaleboat, and he teaches me Spanish. Breakfast, at noon, was amusing. Our one waiter is a peon, who is very slow and stupid ; he became confused by the many orders shouted at him. The `courses' were far apart. The new governor of the territory of Santa Cruz borrowed the one napkin on ship, and audibly blew his nose on it, then passed it back for general use. Later some señoritas, dining in state in their tiny cabin, sent for it, and it was carried to them. Credit Punta Arenas for growing delicious lettuce for salad.
"We approached Rio Gallegos, entered a large bay and landed at a gravelly beach. A one-story house of galvanized iron was Hotel Londres, and a straggling row of houses marked the street of the capital of a great region. One or two dead horses lay in the street, well flattened out by being run over by the enormous wheels of bullock carts laden with wool. It was Sunday afternoon in the most remote, the wildest and the most God-forsaken spot that it has ever been my lot to see. The tide went out, falling forty-five feet, leaving our vessel sitting on the sand (she is built as square as a dry goods box, on purpose for this contingency), and bullock carts came about her to remove a part of her cargo.
"With Dr. Richelet I went to Hotel Español, hoping that there I might learn a little of the Spanish language. It was a queer little hostelry, of galvanized iron, none too clean, but then the wind came sweeping in, bringing the dust of the street; but the señora who managed it was a good, kind, hard- - working woman, and the food was excellent—better in fact, than one secures in even high-class hotels in North America. That dinner table was an international affair. We had on it condensed milk from Switzerland, jam from London, butter from Sweden, olives from Spain, salads from Chile, wine from Mendoza and meats from Patagonia. Our bread was no doubt from Argentine flour. Coffee (from Brazil) was served in our rooms, if we de-sired it, breakfast coming at noon. There would be always a good soup, then boiled mutton, boiled beef and beef steak. The bread was good, as it always is in Latin countries. We- had potatoes from Chile and wine in enormous decanters on the table and partaken of very freely. Wine is rather more plentiful than good water at Rio Gallegos, situated on an alkaline or salt flat with no good wells.
"We were a happy family at Hotel Español. Dr. Richelet and half a dozen young Spanish men, newly come to various government appointments in various parts of Patagonia, waited there for slips to carry them on to their new posts. We had a special dining-room to ourselves, and for the first time I sat among men who conversed in Spanish only. What fine, bronzed, mustached, black-eyed, handsome men they were. How they did eat and drink and how merry they were. I remember wondering vaguely whether if I were to eat and drink as much as they did, if I should live as they lived. I too might perhaps become robust looking and for-get my hereditary ills. I ventured to test the thing in a mild way, but soon concluded that the differences between us were internal as well as external; that to eat and drink as merrily as they did would simply kill me, so regretfully I resumed my old occupation of being myself."
The Spanish language I had carefully studied for more than a month. The only words I could catch in the swift flow of excited conversation were "manana" or "cinco centavo" or a word that identified an article of diet. I did learn from a man who sat next to me to say, when leaving the table, "con su permission" (with your permission). T may as well here own that I did not learn enough Spanish to catch all of a table conversation. It is most difficult. However, one learns, after a while, that it is not necessary to know what others are saying if only one can make them understand what he him-self says. I must say of these Spanish Argentinos that while they were strenuous and, during carnival week, went a pace in dissipation, yet they were always courteous and kindly. Is it not too bad that perfection seldom is lodged in any one person or race'?
I had much writing to do and there was no writing-room, save a small table in the dining- room; but at the back of the house the senora had a glass-covered veranda, a sort of Patagonian con. servatory, and in it flowers and plants. I asked her if. I might not sit there to write. She cheer-fully assented, and placed there a table for me. In this conservatory were hollyhocks, now nearly past blooming, and other flowers that in nature grow outdoors in temperate climes. There also was a stalk of maize as high as my shoulder, to which the señora pointed with just pride in its beauty and thrift. As coal is all brought from England, and there is no other fuel, fires were never needlessly kindled. In the room adjoining the conservatory was the sitting-room of the señora and there on a charcoal fire they heated irons and did the ironing of sheets and pillow cases. I was tempted to ask to be permitted to sit in this room, but hardly dared. Already the cold was being felt —the cold that was to pursue me for some months and make my fur-lined overcoat a thing of joy. Often I would put it on when I went into my room, even though I might not need it when outdoors.
The señora had about her a number of children and on this topic we became confidential. I explained to her that my own "muchachos" were already taller than I, and she presented her own smiling and blushing little señoritas. She was a very good señora, of a kind heart and full of good works. As I sat writing my interminable reports for my Government, there arrived a very merry lot of children, mostly señoritas, wonderfully arrayed. They were dressed for the carnival that began next day. What gorgeous and fantastic costumes they wore, what bright colors, what merry faces they had, how dark and appealing their eyes, how oval and sweet the contour of their faces.. The Patagonia air had made their cheeks far too rosy to need the rouge pot. They were much like merry children anywhere—all animation and laughter and whisperings, a bit abashed at the presence of the "Norte Americano." One maiden was dressed as we imagine Pocahontas to have been dressed.
A CARNIVAL WEEK
That night there came to the hotel some Spanish singers with castanets; they sang and danced for our entertainment, very much as people dance in old Spain and certainly with grace and abandon. All this was because of carnival week. Tiring of my writing, I went for a walk in the town. A tame guanaco wandered meekly about, seeking a wisp of hay; at the post office I attempted to send a telegram but after much patient labor the official made me understand that the line was "ill." It was perhaps the wind that had overthrown it.
Everyone had done all that could be done to make shop or residence gay, with bunting, ribbons and streamers, for the carnival. One street had even been cleaned, although on nearby streets the dead horses were yet lying, and in the clean street there was a booth for the señoras and señoritas to it and review the passing show.
I spent next day an hour at the carnival; it was well worth while. Beautifully decorated carriages passed and repassed; as they went along streamers of paper ribbon were thrown over them and confetti already carpeted the street. There were cleverly decorated horses, too,. although the horses themselves needed an internal decoration of oats and alfalfa. One motor car took part in the parade, and an ingenious youth mounted a bicycle on stilts, so that he was far aloft. With grave, courteous merriment the parade wended its way back and forth, back and forth; endlessly the colored ribbons were thrown and endlessly the clouds of confetti filled the air. It was all the echo of other carnivals held in Spain and Italy, in cities in the far-distant North, and cities of South America. There were seven balls in Gallegos that night; I think my Spanish friends attended each one, coming home at daybreak and arising next day at two o'clock.
My stay at Gallegos was far longer than I had planned or wished. I must await the coming of a steamer to take me northward, and that perhaps would not arrive for weeks—"quien sabe?" (who knows?) The steamers that plied that coast stopped at many ports and discharged cargo or loaded wool. Meanwhile, I was forced to make the best of it. I found it was impossible to hire a horse during the carnival, or to buy one. However, I was not idle; various estancieros came to town, and I interviewed them. There was James Welsh, manager, with his estancia only eighty miles inland, and 80,000 sheep under his care. Mr. Welsh came to town to deliver some thousands of fat sheep to the canning factory. This great establishment could take thousands of sheep each day, with despatch and some neatness, and put them in tins for England.
The sheep were bought by the head, although it was a rule that they must weigh a certain amount dressed. Thus Mr. Welsh remained some days during the killing of his sheep, and weighed a lot of their carcasses after they were dressed, until. both he and the killers were satisfied with the average. Mr. Welsh sold the wethers for about $2.25 per head. They were good ones, but only fat enough for canning. There had been a most serious drouth, and while drouth is a normal condition here this one had been unusually prolonged, and sheep were not considered fat. Mr. Welsh had on the river Coyle a few little meadows of native grass that he cut for his horses during winter. He knew the country well and thought that there was no room for another sheep in it, so well was it all taken and stocked. He left, after delivering his sheep, for Punta Arenas to secure a lot of Romney rams. He had lived in Texas and longed to see the the states again. He had built adobe houses on the estancia and rode in an American motor car with high wheels, which were necessary because the rivers are not bridged. He made his estancia pay 20 per cent dividends to the owners.
I spent hours in the wool-sorting sheds, seeing the deftness with which the sorters selected fleeces and put those of one quality by themselves, so that when finally the wool reached Germany it was ready with no further assorting for the machines. Wool was the topic of conversation here—wool and mutton, and the prospect of the forthcoming winter. If a hard winter came with much snow many sheep would die, possibly nearly all of them. It was March, and that means September down there; little grass would grow after that time. Thus there was uneasiness among the estancieros. Snow is more apt to lie here than along the Straits of Magellan, and sometimes losses among sheep are most severe. Men told stories of hard winters that piled snow over the tops of fences, and of how the sheep drifted out of the pastures and off, no one knew where, so that the losses were almost entire in some instances. Nothing could be fed them, of course, for there is as yet absolutely no agriculture here and God only knows whether there will ever be.
AN ESTANCIERO AND HIS GARDEN
There was also another interesting estanciero, Mr. Felton, who came in the early days from the Falkland islands and settled on the river. He owns 20,000 sheep and is rich and prosperous. He keeps his own sailboat for bringing down wool and taking back supplies, but his garden interested me most. It is a wonder, a subject of conversation all over Patagonia. It is surrounded by high walls and fences to break the wind, and is supplied with a primitive irrigation system. Here Mr. Felton grows apples, cherries, currants, gooseberries, vegetables and many flowers. Scoffers say that he spends as much effort on his garden as on all the rest of his estancia ; perhaps it is worth as much to him. He was a most interesting man, a typical colonial Britisher, observing the niceties of life, taking his wife occasionally for a season in London, loving good living and comfort and yet a fine, sturdy, energetic, enthusiastic man, well worth knowing. He had so well tested the plants of the world that he had growing in his garden the buffalo berry, a native to our dry western plains.
Wind, Mr. Felton says, is the worst enemy of plant life in Patagonia. It curiously influences vegetation. He had growing the Lombardy poplar, a tree naturally very erect, tall and slender. Feeling the wind, it had grown a short, stout, stocky trunk, double its normal diameter, and was only half its normal height, but high enough, no doubt. How furiously the wind blew. It would clean the streets of Gallegos, drifting sand and debris up against the houses, or perhaps. it would take all out to the vacant spaces beyond. I met coming down the street a small flock of empty kerosene tins, tumbling merrily over and over up the street.
"That is some wind," I remarked to a native.
"What! Do you call this wind? Why, man, when it really blows hard here you could see cast iron stoves rolling along the street instead of empty tins."
I believed him. Every house is encased in close-fitting galvanized iron, which effectually keeps the wind out. It is a windy country.
"It is a lovely climate," said Alfred Barclay, manager of the English canning factory and the new frigorifico, just erected. Later he explained that the climate is finer in winter, that then the wind does not blow. I should say that I saw it blow fully fifty miles an hour while I was there. However, the skies were very beautiful. Usually the sun was bright and when there were clouds they were often light, fleecy, seemingly existing merely for ornament. In the evenings there would be the most marvelous sunsets that I have seen anywhere—great banks of cloud, perhaps, with all the gorgeous colors that one could imagine. And yet little or no rain fell ; what showers came were hungrily swept up by the mad wind. It is in win-ter when the snows melt and moisten the soil so that enough moisture accumulates to make the grass grow. Like our own West, a dry winter may mean starvation to the flocks; a snowy winter may mean the loss of many sheep, but those that live through will find grass in abundance.
The carnival terminated at last; most of the people of Gallegos sobered up and a doleful lot they were for a time. Then I could hire horses and get into the camp. We left the last wayside drinking place, and entered a wide, flat plain, strewn for some miles with old tin cans, bottles, the remains of dead horses and other rubbish of the town. There was a little grass, which was very short, and town horses nibbled it. It was unfenced fiscal land. Then the fences began and the estancias came into view; we entered a wide road, or "camino," about 100 meters wide, running straight back toward the Andes. The road was supposed to have grass on it for passing flocks of sheep and the bullocks that bring down the wool from the Andes. Alas, the grass had mostly disappeared and the wind blown away the top soil, revealing the gravel beds, of which most of Patagonia is composed. This is indeed all an old sea beach, not very long lifted above the sea, as a careful observer may readily understand.
The pastures were now on either side of us. The fences were splendidly strong, with their smooth wires passed through holes bored through the posts and likewise through wooden stays. All the wires were taut. South America has the best fences in the world. The sheep nibbled the short grass; they were Romneys, mostly, though there was some evidence of the blood of the Rambouillet-Merino. The sheep were in good condition, even though the grass was short.
We passed little huts of galvanized iron; these were for the "puesteros" or pasture attendants. There was not about these huts a shrub or a tree, nor rarely evidence of any women living there ; perhaps that is a fortunate thing. The pastures were very large; they may contain 6,000 acres or much more. The puestero sees that the fences are good, that pumas do not kill, and keeps a sharp lookout for the appearance of the dreaded disease, scab. It is seldom that the presence of scab, even at the outset, escapes his detection.
EL CAMINO DEL LANA—A HIGHWAY.
Let us imagine ourselves on the spot for the moment. What is this coming to meet us? A great cavalcade of ox carts laden with wool. What huge wheels they have. The oxen, great, gaunt, half-famished, patient creatures, come wearily on. Their swarthy drivers are Chilians. They may be good men, but they scarcely look it. Poor, weary oxen, you are near to the end of your long road. From the far-distant Andes have you come; weeks have you been on the way. The grass has been scanty, the load heavy, in places the road terrific. Soon now you will get at least a few feeds of alfalfa, I hope; then will you turn toward the mountain pastures again, but not with empty cart—no, they must carry back food, fence wires, all the hundreds of things that are needed in the distant camp. When, I wonder, will you ever have time to stand tranquil beside clear streams, filled with grass, and chewing the cud of contentment? Nevermore, perhaps, for this is a stern, cruel and savage land.
The boyeros (ox-drivers), walk beside their straining beasts with long goad sticks in their hands. They are as kind as they can be to their patient bueys (oxen), but, when once the load is on the cart and the start made for the sea, what would you do? Must not the wool come? Can the drivers make grass to grow in the caminos? If the roads are bad, who is there to mend them where houses are leagues apart? It is indeed a terrible road—"el camino del lana," the road of the wool. Think what suffering exists for our comfort that we and others in chilly England may be warmed by these soft fleeces. The puestero endures life in a tiny iron hut, absolutely without pleasure, if his bottle of spirits has run dry. He rides endlessly through the bitter cold; he is howled at and flung about by the cruel wind. Thus are the sheep watched and the wool is grown. The sheep them-selves endure the biting cold of winter, pawing their scanty grass from beneath the snow with their tiny feet, living through the winters, perhaps, and coming with joy to springtime. Then are the lambs born on the sheltered slopes; then springs the good green grass; then are the sheep happy enough. The wool is shorn by swift machines and baled in great bales. The bales are loaded on carts, the oxen are brought from the pastures and the wool begins its journey toward the coast, and toward our backs. It is a long trip, interesting to study.
There is no farming yet; there can be none until irrigation has been provided, so the poor bueys must get along as best they can. The boyeros are the Arabs of the camps; every man's hand is against them and their hand is against every man, yet they have certain sterling qualities—endurance and un-complaining fortitude being the foremost. They follow their creaking carts and their straining beasts all day. At night they perhaps hack down a fence post or two (in a land with no wood) and make their tiny camp fire. The wind howls and shrieks about their tiny camp; they huddle in their ponchos (cloaks) over the fire, sip eternally their mate (Paraguayan tea) and lie down to sleep in a bed that would freeze you in short order. Morning comes; early they are astir; the bueys are yoked with those curious Spanish yokes that attach to the horns and over the forehead, and the journey is begun again. When the port is reached, or one of the rare "boliches," or taverns, the boyeros drink, as might be expected. Sometimes, indeed, unless the "capitaz" (foreman) is along the caravan comes to a halt near the drinking place, for how long, quien sabe ?
Death takes toll of the famished, over-driven bueys. One sees them dead along the way, or their skeletons picked clean by the little pampas foxes. Truly "el camino del lava" is one of the most terrible in the world, and the memory of it will go with me, unwelcome though it be, to my last day.
There is wool back by the Andes that has waited for years to be shipped. Transportation is one of the great problems of Patagonia. There is not enough freight to justify railways; no one has yet shown how to inaugurate agriculture. 'Rio Gallegos is a fine stream, affording probably enough irrigation water for 50,000 acres; some day surely it will be dammed, put into canals, made to grow alfalfa and perhaps wheat, and then there will be less reason for setting famished oxen to terrible tasks.