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.