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.