Wednesday, August 08, 2007
From the Repressed-Memory Files
It's possible you are not familiar with the huaso. That's quite all right; very few people outside of Chile are. The huaso is to the Chilean imagination the direct equivalent of the gaucho in Argentina, and, indeed, the American cowboy. He is a tough son-of-a-bitch, a great horseman, a terrific dancer, and a cherished national symbol.
There exists among the huasos of central Chile a strange and terrible legend, the kind of story that they tell around dying Andean campfires as the pumas rage in the darkness just outside the campfire light, and the chicha bottle has made many rounds. It is the story of the Insane Naked Hermit of Cerro el Colorado, who lives in abandoned silver-shafts, kills with his bare hands, and eats the flesh of the living. His fearsome powers are so great, it is said, that knives clank impotently off his naked chest. It is also said that only three men -- three very lucky men -- have ever seen him and lived to tell the tale.
It is a fascinating little piece of folklore, one that might have had its origins in a Mapuche Indian tale, or perhaps an old Spanish legend brought over with the Conquistador Pedro de Valdivia. But a folklorist attempting to trace the story to those origins would be barking up the wrong tree indeed.
I do in fact know the true origin of the tale, and I will tell it to you now.
In the year of Our Lord 1975, your correspondent, a stripling of fifteen summers, living in Santiago with his diplomat parents, fell in with a rather ambiguous crowd. Outwardly health-conscious and active, given to camping and skiing and taking advantage of all the marvelous natural bounty that Chile had to offer from roiling Pacific coast to lofty Andean aeries, yet they were likewise fond of some of Chile's other, less savory (or legal) delights. Packing for a jolly Vandervogel tramp into the mountains for botanical and geological exploration (so delightfully curious, these youngsters!), they might be prone to include in their fashionable Kelty backpacks a flagon or two of Johnny Walker purloined from Dad's cache from the Embassy Commissary, or even perhaps a rather bulging package of the delicious product of Chile's hemp farms, from which an eyeboggling amount of really fuckin' primo contraband could be extracted for the price of a pair of Levi's donated to the watchman, who was only too glad to look the other way for a half-hour. (A win-win: Capitalism at its best.) (By the way, I never did this. Burros from lo Barnechea were more than happy to do it for you for a portion of the takings. Mom.)
It was on one of these salubrious and educational three-day jaunts far into the mountains, and perhaps after Taking the Hempen Sacrament, that your correspondent decided to set off on a short jaunt alone, away from the larger group. The day was utterly glorious (they all were in those days), and I found myself on a promontory overlooking a wandering mountain stream of snow-melt fifty feet below, miles and miles and miles from any human thing. The breathtaking Andes stretched away endlessly to Argentina to the east, and to the west the smog of Santiago lay in a carpet at my feet. The sun shone delightfully, and I removed my shirt to let the rays caress my back, my 1975 Freak Flag tickling gently my shoulders. That felt so good that the trousers soon followed, and presently I was as naked as the day I was born, lying blissfully soaking up the gentle rays.
After uncounted time like this, I became hungry, and, remembering some Kraft Mac-and-Cheese in my backpack back at the camp, stirred and began to prepare to return. Then a devilish thought occurred: Fuck it! I'm miles from nowhere! Who needs the clothes! I dare ya!
And so it came to be that I began to descend this marvelously remote mountain trail wearing absolutely nothing but a pair of Keds. I don't know about you, but I've had dreams where I could take enormous bounds effortlessly, covering miles with each step, and that is what that mountain trail, ever descending toward Civilization yet endless miles from it, felt like. I began to leap from rock to rock, from switchback to switchback, a veritable mountain gazelle, stark raving naked. I may have had a song on my lips; the memory has faded. Probably something from Jethro Tull.
Then, it happened. There's a particular sound effect that they use in old cartoons, when a character has to stop extremely suddenly; it's the sound of overfilled tires skidding from a sudden violent application of the brakes. That sound effect, I am prepared to testify under oath, emitted from my Keds when I rounded a corner.
They were perhaps ten yards from me. Three huasos. Leading a train of pack-mules laboriously up the trail.
Oh, they saw me. You bet your ass they saw me. I couldn't have been more visible if I'd shot up a fuckin' flare.
It is a testimony to the athletic young thing I was in those days that I was able to reverse course, sprint ass back up the trail a good half-mile, before exhaustion set in. I dove into some litre bushes, well out of sight of the trail, and threw my clothes on like my life depended on it. Who knows -- perhaps it did.
I then picked my way back to camp, staying well off the trail until I saw the huasos and their mule-train a long way above me, moving uphill toward Argentina. I can't know what they were planning to tell their friends and sweethearts about what they'd just witnessed, but I bet any number of Escudos it was pretty goddamned exaggerated.