Our Ranch Is Becoming a “Death Valley”
Day after day all the earth wearies, drooping unto death.
— The Earthstepper
GUALFIN, ARGENTINA – “Two of them called me Elizabeth,” said Elizabeth.
She was referring to one of the cowboys’ wives and one of the local women.
“And one of them sided with the originarios [the local indigenous people claiming property rights over our land].
“That’s the first time anyone around here called me by my first name. When we first got here, they called me Patrona. Then it was Doña Elizabeth or Señora. Now it’s Elizabeth.”
Times are changing…
Before we get to that story, we close last week’s story of being wanted by the police.
We’ve been lying low at the ranch…
The owner of the truck “stolen” out of a parking garage called the police. They watched the video at the garage and found the desperado – a tall gringo wearing a cap with the New Holland logo on it.
The police alerted its roadblocks, but too late to stop us. Meanwhile, our lawyer went to the garage, found the owner, and sorted it out.
“He is not a criminal,” he explained. “He’s just not very bright.”
Meanwhile, we got the truck out of the sand. Sergio, one of the cowboys, worked out an exchange… and got the charges dropped.
The immediate crisis was solved. But the longer-term, and more serious, crisis remains.
“Bill, you are trying to recreate something that is no longer possible.”
Francisco, our lawyer, was not trying to discourage us. He was trying to make us understand the reality that we have gotten ourselves into.
“Everything in the valley is for sale. The Italian lady went back to Italy. The Swiss guy went back to Switzerland. The German guy…”
“Well, he’s selling out, too. None of them can figure out how to make these farms work. And they’re professionals. Except for the Italian. I think she’s in a class of her own.
“And there’s that guy from Buenos Aires who has 90,000 acres next door… and even the local guy at Molinos. And Luracatao. That’s a farm that’s been in the same family for hundreds of years. I know because it’s my family. And they’re selling out.
“You get a good year, with a lot of rain, and you can break even – if you carefully control your costs. Then you have a bad year, and you’re in the hole. Another bad year and you’re desperate.
“That’s the way it has been here. And it’s getting worse.
“We were facing back-to-back drought years. Then, finally, it rained. [A month after the ‘rainy season’ ended, our ranch got an unexpected five inches. That is the total for the year. No more will fall until December.] So we’re okay for another few months.
“But if you want to raise cattle, you go over to the eastern part of the province. There, cattle raising is a real business. The land is flat. And there’s plenty of rain. You can make it work. [A serious cattleman we know] has 8,000 head out there. He makes money.
“But you can’t raise cattle and make a profit in Gualfin. You are too far away. Your land is mostly rocks. And you don’t get enough rain.
“Maybe 20 years ago… owners could make a living selling their tough beef to the locals. But now, good beef gets carried in by refrigerated trucks.
“Your cows are so thin, they get pregnant only once every two years. And their calves, when you sell them, weigh only 200 pounds. You’re never going to compete.
“And you’ve got the originarios [local people claiming to be descendants of the Diaguita tribe with rights to the whole valley] to deal with.”
The outlook was depressing. For the ranch. And for the people who live and work here.
For us, it’s a different story. We can blow out as easily as we blew in. But we had hoped for a remote, beautiful, self-sufficient, and sustainable ranch… an heirloom bolt-hole that we could keep in the family for generations.
Instead, we have our own Death Valley.
But it isn’t the loss of money that depresses us; it is deeper than that. We feel like a child whose town was hit by a devastating tornado that left the school untouched.
Our life has been one move after another: We lived in the Baltimore ghetto. We lived in a barn in southern Maryland. We moved to France, where we lived in a large house in the country… and then an apartment in Paris.
We moved to London – twice. Then back to the U.S., where we lived in Bethesda… and then Baltimore again.
All the while, we kept the family farm in Maryland. It remained fairly true to itself. But the world around it got turned upside down.
The D.C. suburbs advanced, bringing the swamp from Anacostia to the shores of the Chesapeake.
The people we knew as a child died… or moved away.
The old farmhouses were torn down and replaced with McMansions.
And the old farmers and oystermen who used to live there were replaced with GS-13s… human resource experts… public health functionaries… and budget analysts.
Here in these barren hills, finally, we had something that wouldn’t – couldn’t – change.
Who would build a house up here? Who would come here to live? Who would put up a strip mall or a Roy Rogers?
Here we had a life that was as timeless as stone… as ageless as the desert that surrounds us. A life protected from the outside world… that would remain an unsullied family sanctuary for generations.
Camino de la Cruz
As we write, Elizabeth is doing the Camino de la Cruz – the “journey of the cross.”
Every Friday during Lent, the local women climb the mountain behind the house.
They follow a zigzag trail… stopping at a white cross every hundred or so paces. At each stop, they recite a Gospel passage and prayers…
“Mother full of affliction… engrave the name of Jesus in my heart…”
They have been doing this for as long as anyone can remember.
But things are changing fast there, too.
“When you came,” Gustavo, our new ranch foreman, told us yesterday, pointing at one of the cowboys’ new pickup trucks, “no one had a pickup except the foreman. Now everybody’s got a pickup.”
When we came, too, no mention was made of originarios. There were none at the time. But now they are up in the hills like the wild cattle, tough and dangerous.
Ten years ago, about when we arrived, none of the local people had electricity or TV. Now, thanks to a government program, they all have solar panels over their rude houses and watch tawdry soap operas inside.
Cattle prices have gone up, but not near enough to keep up with soaring prices for gasoline and wages.
“You can’t stop time. Not here. Not anywhere,” concluded Gustavo.
This is not a message a man in his late 60s wants to hear. He is as alert to the sound of a ticking clock as the bomb squad. He dreads it.
Your editor hoped that, at last, he had found somewhere so remote… so desolate… that no one would want to take it from him. A place where CNN wouldn’t reach… politics wouldn’t touch…
…so marginal that even time wouldn’t notice.
The years could go by uncounted… Like a gnarly old algarrobo tree, he could let the rest of the world go about its business without bothering him.