‘The Last Time My Friend Tried This His Horse Dropped Dead…’

The Dow plunged 280 points — or 1.6% – on Friday. It effectively gave back all of this year’s gains. 

But we’ll come back to the markets on tomorrow. 

Today and tomorrow, we’ll be riding through the puna — the high-altitude desert between Argentina and Chile — with a small group of friends, led by Jorge and his wife, Maria.

The morning conference

Days at the ranch follow a simple pattern. At 8 a.m., Jorge appears in the yard. 

Typically, he is surrounded by a small group of gauchos. There is Jose, for example, a stout young man with a broad, ready smile who is missing most of his front teeth. 

Pedro is less ready with a smile. He is more thoughtful and often appears to be calculating. Pedro had a medical problem a few years ago; now, he refuses to get on a horse. 

Jose wears a typical cowboy hat. The rest wear local, broad-brimmed hats; they look a little like flying saucers have landed on their heads. 

Saturday morning, they came dressed in layers of homemade sweaters and coats. It is autumn. The nights are turning colder. It does not warm up until midmorning. 

Unlike cowboys in the US, the gauchos here do not wear blue jeans or cowboy boots. Instead, they wear workpants, often stitched up in several places, and black, lace-up work boots. 

When we bought the ranch, we had winter coats made for all seven employees. The khaki coats are insulated. And they have ‘Gualfin’ monogrammed on them. 

They look very cool when we wear them in Manhattan. But here, we’ve never seen a single one of the gauchos wear the coats — maybe because we’re never here in the wintertime. 

Three of the gauchos — Javier, Natalio and Jorge — stood together, each with his flying saucer hat slanted forward. The sun shined on them as they discussed the day’s work. No one smiled. No one joked. There was no discussion of football games or comedy shows. 

Origins unknown

Javier would take the backhoe to clean out the irrigation canal by the river. 

The idea is to divert the little remaining water to the ‘swamp land’ on the banks of the riverbed. This will give the grass there a few more weeks of growing season — leaving the cattle with a little more to eat in the winter. 

Following the 8 a.m. conference, Natalio put his shovel over his shoulder and headed down to the alfalfa pasture. There he will be a regador — an irrigator — moving the water around the field so that it waters as much grass as possible. 

Jorge sent the others to the vineyard, where they’re digging a hole next to each plant and putting fertilizer into the hole. 

When all the workers had dispersed, Jorge turned to Gustavo and gave him instructions. We were riding up to the Rio de los Patos (the river of the ducks). Gustavo would help to pack up the mules and saddle the horses. 

Gustavo has a bright look. He is Pedro’s adopted son. His mother is Pedro’s common-law wife. Many are the informal liaisons in this area. 

Gustavo does not know who his father is. This is not unusual. When Elizabeth, teaching English to a group of young girls, asked each girl to give her parents’ names, in most cases she got only half the story. 

The other half was ‘unknown’.

A journey to the river of ducks

Our trip to the puna was planned weeks ago. 

Jorge — who has lived on the ranch all his life — has never ridden to the Rio de los Patos at the west end of the ranch. Maria, his wife, had always wanted to. Now that Jorge is getting ready for retirement, it seemed like the right time to go. 

‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ asked our friend David, whom we invited to join us. 

‘I checked GPS. You’re talking about going to a place that is at 17,000 feet…or more…above sea level and spending the night. A friend of mine tried that recently. His horse dropped dead when he got there. 

‘And I went to about 15,000 feet. That’s as high as I’ve been. But I had an oxygen tank.’ 

We put the question to Jorge. 

‘Are you sure this is something we can do? Can we breathe at that altitude?’

‘Not very well,’ was the reply. 

Jorge smiled. He has very regular white teeth. And a warm smile. 

‘But some people are all right and others aren’t. Some get terribly sick. We call it apuna. And if it is too much for us, we’ll just turn around.’ 

He used the ‘us’ generously. It was only the gringos who were likely to stumble. But the plan seemed like a good one. 

We’ve gone up toward the puna a couple of times. Two years ago, we spent the night at about 12,000 feet. We couldn’t sleep. Each time we began to fall asleep, we awoke with a start, gasping for air. 

But we were younger then. Now, with more age and experience, maybe we’ll be able to do it. 

‘We’ll ride for 10 hours the first day,’ Jorge explained. We’ll camp overnight at the puesto of Sylvia Gutierrez. She’s the farthest from the ranch house. Then we’ll push on to the puna the next day. That should be about another eight hours.’

But Jorge had never been there on horseback. And we had learned that many of the estimates of time are little better than economic forecasts… 

Stay tuned for more… 


Bill Bonner,
for the Markets and Money Australia

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Since founding Agora Inc. in 1979, Bill Bonner has found success and garnered camaraderie in numerous communities and industries. A man of many talents, his entrepreneurial savvy, unique writings, philanthropic undertakings, and preservationist activities have all been recognized and awarded by some of America’s most respected authorities. Along with Addison Wiggin, his friend and colleague, Bill has written two New York Times best-selling books, Financial Reckoning Day and Empire of Debt. Both works have been critically acclaimed internationally. With political journalist Lila Rajiva, he wrote his third New York Times best-selling book, Mobs, Messiahs and Markets, which offers concrete advice on how to avoid the public spectacle of modern finance. Since 1999, Bill has been a daily contributor and the driving force behind Markets and Money.

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