Along the Baker River
March 18 2014
Don Andino was four the day they set the world on fire. “The smoke was so thick all day the sun looked like the moon. At the end everything was covered.” The year was 1948 and Don Andino lived up the valley over the Baker River as it made its ferocious, glacier driven way to the Pacific. His father, a Policeman, bought land from the Federal Government as an investment. First 800 Hectares, then another 3,000, which he rented back to the Government, a good cyclical earning for his investment. Now his nephew runs the family farm. The Chivarria’s were Basque people before they became Chileans, and they brought their independent streak with them to the end of the world.
The Native Americans had been cleared out by then, the Mapuchas, the indigenous tribe, lived closer to the Coast. “They were civilized Indians, though.”
Approaching his 70th birthday in September Don Andino is the polished bronze stereotype of a life-long outdoorsman. His hair is still streaked with black, with the gray lighter than his skin, framing his face in silhouette. His skin is taught save under his chin, and age only betrays him in a bend in the spine. He sits, right leg over left, wearing a black felt beret which would easily have placed him in Paris in the 1950s. A short sleeved shirt shows arms which have worked every day of his life, strong, lean, sinew-ed. A sheathed Brazilian steak knife is tucked into his pants, with the handle tipped towards the right. “In Chile, if you don’t have a knife you don’t eat,” they say here. To outside eyes the intent is at first more sinister than a ready-blade for a bit of lamb.
Don Andino is the senior hired hand on this farm in the Valley of the Baker River, the man “they trust to keep the house safe and open when they are out.” He had been something of the foreman, but now he is sick and cannot work. “Bad liver,” he says.
Don Andino’s legs seem spindly thin beneath blue workpants. In between his shoes and those pants he’s sporting white, black and red argyle socks, betraying his working-man’s demeanor as a bit of a dandy, too. Between the beret and the socks its clear he takes his appearance seriously – never too old to look good.
He smokes long hand-rolled cigarettes, which he keeps between the index and middle finger even as he tips the tin kettle atop the coleman stove ( Fabrica El Yhunke – Cocina A Leña – calefaccion combustion tentat – Lauratro 855 Coyhaique, Chile) tel : 23 3255– the source of heat in the house here in the valley – and pours another cupful of water into the Maté cup. Maté is the drink of choice. Here, and refusing it for coffee is somewhere between a lack of good manners and a lack of good taste.
Don Andino offers guests at the farm thickly-sliced white bread and guinda jam preserved on the farm. As a cook for the military in the early 1970s he was known for his baking talent. The bread, best served after a turn atop the wood-fired stove, is his, something he takes a bit of time, but an ample amount of measured pride, in telling you.
When Allende was overthrown in the ’73 coup that brought Pinochet to power they pink-slipped Don Andino and sent him on his way. Cooking apparently is as political in Chile as it is in the fine dining of Paris. No word about the quality of bread served the Chilean army in the years since.
Between sips and refilling the cup, he talks about that day he still remembers even though at four few things are available to memory. “They set fire to the forest as high as the snow-line, which was the only thing that stopped the flames.” 66 years later the land is still filled with the husks of 200 year-old cedars, many of the trunks standing straight-tall just as they did that day in 1948 when the fire came. Cedar gives itself back to nature slowly, and the gray-white of the fired trees are everywhere, and elephant’s graveyard of ancient deciduous timber that had filled the valley since the end of the last glacial period. In some parts the forest is making a comeback, saplings and younger trees populating the plain. But for the most part it’s scrub grass now. All the better for the free roaming cattle which dot the landscape and leave enormous piles of scat everywhere, fouling the otherwise untouched air. Sheep dash about, staying just out of reach – perhaps knowing that a human caress is the first step to the dinner table. The cows, as they are wont, just stand and stare at you as you walk by, like attendees at a parade, watching from the stands.
Just then the father of the family farm comes through the door, if anything darker than Don Andino himself. Behind him trails Reneé, our host of the last three days and a gifted wrangler. Reneé is our ride back to Cochran. Before we can leave, though, he has to give some help to the farmer. One of the largest, strongest and, apparently meanest bulls on the farm has got loose and needs to be corralled and returned to a place safe both for him and for others.
Don Andino, approaching 70 and “too sick to work” tosses his knife on the table by the door and dashes out the door with the gait of a 20 year old in search of a mad bull.