Written by Fidgit
Ulysses found him busied as he sate
Before the threshold of his rustic gate;
The story of land and people are not independent, for all the advantage and struggle of such interrelation. Encountering those who live as stewards along our walk, and there are many, gives me hope. Some people are history incarnate.
Henry certainly is.
Stories of the past are in his bones, ambitions for the future in his mind. He is the perfect character to tell the story of the frontier pass Portillo/Piuquenes.
We pass him loitering in his driveway, surrounded by orchards, tucked into the back corner of hamlet Villa Veraniega, outside of Manzano Historico, Argentina. A character such as he is not to be passed by. The information and numbers shared in this post come from an afternoon of walking among his trees, collecting hazelnuts and history.
Before electricity arrived to Manzano Historico Henry was a lamplighter; in 1968 he and his wife traveled 40,000 km through the 24 provinces and 5 bordering countries of Argentina. “When I left, my friends knew where I found the best place, I would live there and they worried I would never come back. So, when I returned I told them
‘I found it. This is it.’
I have all the fruit trees you can name, growing here.”
To this day he is a gardener, tending plants and regional history alike.
About to turn 80, “for the first time,” he grins. His goal is to live to 144.
Why? Because it is a double dozen.
In these first 80, he has lived more than most would in 144 years. José de San Martín, the general credited with liberating South America from Spanish control, crossed the Piuquenes Portillo Paso four or eight times (depending on if you count them one way or round trip). Henry has crossed at least 24 times with the local mountaineering club, on foot, horse, and once in Nicanora. He knows something about everything since humans began crossing the pass and has notions as to where it might go from here.
Originally, the pass was used by the Mapuche, who called it “Uueco” (phonetic), as it was the shortest way to cross from west to east through the Andes. The valley is called Hueco, which stems from the native word for water. Today there are some five water bottling companies functioning in the area. “Our gold is water, as if we are not going to defend it. That is why we do not want mining industries to come here.”
The pass gained notoriety in 1817 when San Martin’s forces used it in the move to liberate South America from Spanish rule. Captain Jose Leon Lemos led 155 soldiers and impassioned locals over the two 13,000 ft passes, Portillo and Piuquenes, as one of six contingencies gathered and organized in Argentina over the course of two years to move through various strategic passes into Chile to combat the Royalists. After victory, they went north and joined with the Bolivar forces to free Peru.
Altogether it was a massive feat, and not just because they did not have WhatsApp group messaging to coordinate their efforts.
Only a few days before meeting Henry, we sat at a long table in the echoing dining hall of the remote military refuge, Refugio Militar Real de la Cruz, tucked into a river valley between those very passes. We happened to be hiking through the region on the bicentenario, 200 years since the forces moved through. These days, this valley sees at least 1000 horseback and hiking visitors each summer season, between January and March.
After that it was used by arrieros to move herds of up to 11,000 animals between Argentina and Chile. They were opposed to the building of a road, because they feared losing their livelihood, now that animals would be moved in trucks. In 1972, they ran the last herd through, because now they fly it over as frozen meat. Henry shakes his head, “progress cannot be stopped. The world can’t stop it. Much less here.”
His vision is that which was held by Dr. Scaravelli before him, that a road be built through the pass. After all, it is the most direct route between Santiago, Chile and Mendoza, Argentina. Both countries have specified their interest would be in building a tourist road only, for ATVs, etc. The idea is resisted by locals, who have been told if a road is built, mining industry will come. It is also opposed by tour companies who guide cabalgata and hiking tours through the area. Henry contends that a tourist road would not adversely affect tourism opportunities, rather, increase business.
In 1946, Dr. Scaravelli convinced the Argentine army to put 12,000 men to the task of building a road up the western side of Paso Portillo. They were working “with picks, sticks, and dynamite and hauling equipment up on burros.” Upon completion of this segment of road, “five crazy men and a journalist from the Andes diary decided that Nicanora needed to get up to Portillo refuge.”
In a recording of our conversations he sings the story of that adventure.
Today, Henry keeps Nicanora in fine shape in his garage, waiting until the day she can cross all the way into Chile.