The dappled appaloosa is wired, kicking and snorting at the white sand that covers Cabo Polonio, a remote beach settlement on Uruguay’s eastern coast. The gaucho saddle cinched to her back and topped with a sheepskin is foreign to me, and the stirrups are ancient. “Sorry, they can’t be adjusted,” says Roberto as I mount the horse and ask about shortening them. “She hasn’t been ridden in four months,” he adds ominously. “If she senses you can’t handle her, she’ll throw you down. And stomp you.”
The wily mare, descended from ancestors brought over by Spanish conquistadors, suddenly bursts off, galloping along the shore and bucking wildly. She’s mad, on fire. She tries to hurl me over her head, then off her back. Then over her head again. I reach for the saddle horn that doesn’t exist and for the stirrups, which fling around uselessly. Uncertainty spreads through my gut. I grab for the back rim of the saddle, willing my herniated disks to stay put, and think, Once upon a time, I would have taken this moment in stride.
A Week Earlier
Magic hour sweeps over the glimmering, rocky fields of Uruguay’s Pampas region. In the distance, little gray puffs of grazing sheep dot the slopes. Herds of cattle amble over bright-green hills, their moos a happy din. Every once in a while I see a man on a horse with a wide-brimmed hat and high leather boots, his silhouette briefly turning toward the road.
This is gaucho country.
I’m taking a detour from a TV assignment in South America to explore off-the-grid parts of Uruguay and a persistent feeling that it’s time for me to leave New York City, a place defined by cement and the tyranny (and opiate) of screens, where the din arises from traffic and arriving e-mails and texts, not moos. I’ve long wanted to live on a wild patch out West. But can I really pull up stakes and drive them in elsewhere—a move that would fly in the face of practicality and career, even if it might make deeper, happier sense? Lately, in my dreams, this desire shapes itself around a memory of my nine-year-old self riding bareback through an Illinois cornfield, my legs gripping my horse with thoughtless confidence, our long manes streaming behind us in the humid Midwestern air as we playfully blaze a tunnel through head-high stalks of corn.
For a few years, in the 1970s, this image was my reality, but as I entered my teens, that visceral sureness, that solid glee I found in nature, was eroded by the gaze of the outer world. Of course, few girls outrun the avalanche that hits us at adolescence—hormones, institutionalized sexism, a damning pop culture. But three-plus decades later, as the heat of the outer gaze cools and old instincts rumble, I remember that barefoot, bold nine-year-old who thought nothing of going full tilt and saddle free.
Harvard researcher Emily Hancock regards the age of nine as magical, writing that “women come fully into their own and become truly themselves only when they recapture the girl they’d been in the first place.” “That age was about being unclouded,” muses journalist Sharon Lerner, “about knowing the right thing to do without thinking about it.” And I guess part of what has landed me in Uruguay, driving a lonely stretch of gorgeous terrain far from the urban chaos of my everyday life, is an impulse to dig up that lost, instinctual clarity. In my rented Volks-wagen, I head into the wildest off-grid parts of the country. My first stop is Pa-n-agea Estancia, a 2,200-acre working ranch in the heart of gaucho culture.
Juan Manuel, the ranch’s owner, is a fourth-generation gaucho with a quiet, commanding presence. Early gauchos, descended from Spanish, indigenous Quechua and African ancestors (the last brought to the Americas by slavers), were skilled, nomadic horse people, he tells me. They tended and drove cattle on the open range until the government issued an edict in 1877 requiring fences and branding. Gauchos were—and still are—often solitary figures “who find freedom in the landscape,” says Juan.
Along with his wife, Susanna, and two hired gaucho hands, Juan manages 1,000 cattle, 2,000 sheep, 84 horses and four dogs. The recent economic collapse led the couple to open their ranch to visitors. But make no mistake—Panagea Estancia (panagea-uruguay.blogspot.com) is a working ranch, and visitors earn their keep. The homestead runs on traditional gaucho values: austerity, discipline and self-sufficiency; an independent spirit forged by a demanding physical reality. The house, built by Juan’s great-grandfather, has no flushing toilet, and the electricity—available only two hours a day—comes from a generator. Visitors sleep in the main house, usually two or three in a room. At 5 am, Juan sets out coffee and water in the kitchen and politely tells me to make my own breakfast. Cups for maté—the hot, grassy herbal drink ubiquitous in South America—litter the mantel. Pigs, chickens and orphaned foals meander outside the house.
Down in the corral, where we’re saddling up, a sign reads it’s not about the horse. Immediately intellectualizing, I say to Juan, “Oh, riiiight, people bring their own baggage, their aspirations, their dreams, pinning it all on the horse, but in fact it’s about them?”
“That’s too deep for me,” he responds dryly. “Everybody blames the horses when the horse doesn’t do what they want, but it’s always the rider’s fault.” I shut up, and we gallop off on smart, responsive horses, chasing down stray cattle and rustling groups of outliers. Juan’s hired gauchos are in the nearby town of Taquerembó for an annual festival, so I am his only helper. Every time Juan corrects me, I work harder and faster to redirect the herd; I cling to every Perfecto! with pride.
By 2 pm we have corralled 30 cows. Now it’s time to determine which of them are pregnant and therefore to be spared. Juan, a large-animal vet, pulls out a razor-thin clear glove the length of my arm and blows into it. Then he explains how I must screw my hand into the rectum of each cow (going in via the vagina would introduce bacteria and probably cause abortion). I take heart in knowing I would not be involved in this had I not earned his respect in the roundup, but still I falter.
“Can’t she just pee on a stick?” I ask, half joking.
Silence. The man does not waste words.
“Have no mercy!” he bellows as I feebly try to gain entry, apologizing to the cow. Suffice it to say, diving into the huge, hot intestinal tracts of cows is an athletic, sloppy job. Messy for sure, but by the fourth cow I am secretly inspired. When I am up to my shoulder, earlobe to arse, I curve my arm down and feel for an amniotic sack, telltale cyst-like bulbs or a fetus itself. “Sometimes the fetal calf will even try to nibble on your hand,” says Juan. After each examination, Juan checks my work; my record of success in identifying pregnancy is 100 percent.
There’s no real explanation for this. My diagnoses felt somewhere between guesswork and just knowing, but they kept being right. I think of Sharon Lerner’s comment about being “unclouded.”
“Wild guesses,” says Juan, straight faced but quietly pleased. “It usually takes years of training to identify pregnancy. I should take you to a casino.”
As we relax over ice-cold local Patricia beer and spicy fresh chorizo, we talk about Juan’s two young daughters, who are outside, exploring, nearly all the time. Before leaving for Uruguay, I’d conducted a straw poll among my middle-aged peers, asking about their experiences in the preadolescent years. They often spoke of a link between a childhood spent immersed in the natural world and their authentic selves. Richard Louv writes about this vital connection between kids and nature in Last Child in the Woods and about the piles of new research that link “our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature.” Maybe spending time -shoulder-deep in the natural world is not a luxury but an essential—and not just for nine-year-olds?
The next day, Juan and I climb into his pickup and drive to Taquerembó, an hour away. Thousands of gauchos, and as many horses, have come from all over South America and taken over the small town for the 26th Fiesta de la Patria Gaucha, the biggest gaucho festival in the world.
“First I am a gaucho, and second I am Uruguayan,” Juan told me during our time on the range. “The word gauchadameans an act of kindness or integrity.” Clearly, gaucho is not simply the South American version of cowboy, and it’s not just a job; it’s a rich, old culture with deep traditions. Gaucho is a way of being connected to the natural world and other people. “Because we have so few relationships, we value them more,” Juan says. I wonder aloud how long the gaucho ethos and lifestyle can exist in this era of globalism and industrial food production. To my surprise, Juan feels optimistic. “The entire world, I believe, will have a return to values from Mother Nature,” he says. “Modern societies eventually will start degrading. I see the signs in the visitors who come to the ranch, who are unable to perform the most basic things, like make a fire, use a hammer and nails. And you see all the young gauchos at the festival? It is cool to be gaucho. Their parents left for cities, but their grownup children are back.”
On the fairgrounds, hundreds of gaucho families—women, men and -children—are camped out. Women wearing long period dresses serve up platefuls of traditional fare—tangy hot beans, tongue, other meat and more meat and more meat, and sweet, silky flan. When the gauchos’ nomadic era came to an end in the late 1800s, gaucho often became a family (not solo) affair, and there was a clearer place for women: the kitchen, with all its attendant domestic oppressions. But from what I see at the festival, women are also corralling cattle, shoeing horses and participating in traditional dance and song. Gaucho culture hasn’t transcended the continental penchant for machismo, but as I watch clear-eyed young girls—nine, 10, 11—ride bareback throughout the grounds, I sense something familiar and share in Juan’s optimism. They aren’t just Riding a Horse; they are Going Places with unconscious ease.
A grating, tinny loudspeaker announces the beginning of the bronco-busting event. A sea of gauchos in hats and baggy pants—some with wide, traditional ornamented belts, and daggers dangling off them—fill the grandstands to watch young men (no women riders in sight) compete to see how long they can stay on a wild horse.
A lithe chestnut filly is run into the ring, tethered between a pair of gauchos on horseback. They are struggling to control her. The horse is blindfolded and held in place while a gaucho in his twenties climbs on her back. The blindfold is pulled off, and the horse lunges toward the center of the ring, ferociously bucking and trying to eject the young man, who hangs on to her mane with one hand and swings his other arm in huge circles, trying to stay on until the clock ticks out. She throws him off quickly and with vigor, circles around and, before she dashes for the gap in the fence, steps solidly on his neck. The crowd freezes with a collective “Ohhh!” An ambulance and medical personnel come out to help the gaucho; eventually he walks off to cheers.
As I say good-bye to Juan and his family and prepare for the last leg of my journey—to Cabo Polonio, on Uruguay’s coast—I think about how incredibly hard Susanna and Juan work; what living so close to the animals, the earth, the capricious seasons, demands. “People who come always tell me how to ‘improve’ the ranch,” Juan told me. “How to run more water, electricity, cattle. They don’t understand that this is the way we want to live.” I’m reminded of my old friend Sunny Speidel, who left the city for rural life and recently extricated herself from decades in the family business to pursue Reiki bodywork. “Huh, funny you should ask,” she responded when I e-mailed her my questions about age nine. “I recently put up a picture of myself at that age because I felt it was a representation of my true self.”
Another friend, Kathleen Gasperini, was a country girl at nine, and a gifted equestrian. She now lives in Los Angeles but is scheming to buy a ramshackle 1870s farm in upstate New York. “I have no idea what I would do with it other than go into the hole financially,” she says. “But I feel compelled.”
Clarity of vision, supremacy of curiosity, connection to some special corner of the outdoors—this is the turf of the nine-year-old and what my pals in their forties and fifties are reaching for. And so am I.
When I called my mom weeks earlier to float my theory about the consequential nine-year-old in all of us, she merely listened. But now she’s sent me a seven-page e-mail describing the exhilaration she experienced during childhood trips to Yosemite. After living in Chicago much of her life and raising four children during two marriages, she finally, at age 55, returned to her passion for the mountains, where she now spends most of her time, feeling truly herself. I read this cautionary tale in a dusty Internet café, before boarding a bus to Cabo Polonio, and think, My God, I don’t want to waste time off course.
The sweltering old bus stops at a deserted gravelly patch 15 kilometers from my destination. There’s no road to Cabo Polonio, an outpost surrounded by sand dunes and rumored to have no running water or electricity, thus putting it even further off the grid than Panagea Estancia. I’d been warned against staying overnight because of the rugged physical realities—but that only made me more determined to go. An inner compass is drawing me toward what is raw and wild.
I climb aboard one of the infrequently scheduled giant dune buggies that take people to the settlement. It claws and rumbles over the sandy ridges for half an hour, then bursts onto the beach in a Mad Max–meets–Gilligan’s Island fury before skirting roiling surf and dead baby sea lions, both results of last night’s storm. I’m sitting on the buggy’s roof, loving the gusty ride, when a smattering of dwellings on the edge of the Atlantic comes into view. They are rickety, colorful structures anchored, it seems, only by ingenuity and the rainwater barrels on their roofs. I drop my pack on a bunk in a hostel and head outside. A young woman gazes at the ocean while pedaling a rusty stationary bike that powers a decrepit washing machine. I figure Cabo Polonio is the sort of place where young people sell braided bracelets for a few months before moving on. Then I meet Roberto, one of 80 or so residents, who is in his midfifties and has a rasping voice and a shoulder contorted by an old injury. At first, I think, This guy is running away from something. But over the sound of surf, I come to understand the opposite is true. Roberto describes his British education and his former life as a restaurateur in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. He talks about visiting Cabo Polonio a few times and crying when he left, not understanding why. After a divorce, he felt free to return here and live permanently, which he has done happily for a decade. “I found a place for myself in the world,” he says. “And it is Cabo Polonio.” Roberto’s eyes twinkle, and his shoulder relaxes when he speaks about his grown daughter and his fiery Appaloosa. The horse, he says, is a force of nature. “Do you want to ride her?” he asks.
After 15 hellfire minutes of snorting, bucking and resisting, the Appaloosa has finally stopped trying to dash me to the ground. We are both worn out, panting in a taut moment of truth on the deserted beach as Roberto watches us from a long distance, smoking in the shade of a lonely tree.
I can get off or parlay the moment. Riding a horse through an Illinois cornfield has been a hazy iconic image in my psyche, but here and now I’m given the chance to call up that girl for real.
I notice the exceptional sparkle in the rollicking blue surf and the sleek sand dunes that hug the beach. I push aside the useless long stirrups and grip the horse with my strong legs. I let go of the back rim of the saddle, and a strain of visceral sureness climbs out of my muscle memory—and it’s as if the horse feels it, too. I click, and squeeze her sides; she responds with might and respect.
Over and over again we tear along the water’s edge of the deserted beach. My thinking-planning-yearning mind empties, and a clear, fleeting vision of a life on Montana’s Rocky Mountain front washes over me. Maybe not this year, or next, but the move will happen. I feel as if an old friend has sprung from dormancy into the fresh light of day.