The Lost Thanksgiving
It’s Thanksgiving morning and I’m sure the first thing on everyone’s mind when they wake up is, “I wonder what Nacho is doing today?” The truth is, this is the first time in our lives that we decided not to celebrate Thanksgiving. But don’t despair! We spent the day, and the last few for that matter, in the home of a wonderful family that has adopted us and treated us like one of their own. Our bellies are freshly full of water buffalo (mmm!) and tea, and we’re thankful.
But still, it is Thanksgiving, and so we thought we should do something thanky. As you might recall, last year we didn’t write a Thanksgiving entry either, so what follows is the story of last year’s Thanksgiving celebration in Patagonia. This is one of several new stories that were only included in our book.
Lastly, remember that tomorrow is Black Friday; it’s a day in America where we trample each other to a pulp at the gates of Wal Marts the nation over. As a shameless plug–the last one I’ll make this year–I will suggest that our book would make a great Christmas gift for the adventurer in your life. And it will save you from being trampled at Wal Mart. Saving lives and entertaining people, it’s what we do.
And without further ado…
We sat in hypnotized silence, swaying back and forth as we glided along the curvy shoreline of Lago Nahuel Huapi, the rain saturating our windshield just as fast as the wipers could clear it away. To our right, the dark water was made even more ominous by the jagged rows of rain-pocked waves, purposefully marching in rows across the lake’s surface, a deep opaque blue hinting at the extent of the water’s depth. The side of the road was lined with flowers waist high and three feet deep, vibrant yellows and blues and purples. We were surrounded on all sides by jagged Andean peaks bearing crowns of ice, and wearing streaks of iron ore and pumice and evergreen.
“Oh wow,” Sheena said, as if awoken from a trance. “Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.”
We’d had no use of knowing dates for so long, and often had to strain our minds to remember what month it was. Whenever I had to remember the date, I would start by trying to remember what season it was. From there I could work out the month, and then try to recall recent milestones that could give me some hint as to the day. Sitting in the passenger seat, being rocked back and forth along the winding lakeside road, Sheena must have been working it out in her head.
“What are we going to do? We haven’t even prepared?” It was true, a couple of months prior we had talked about doing a big Thanksgiving blowout. We had imagined cooking turkeys and sausage and stuffing, mashed potatoes, the whole bit, and all outdoors over a campfire. We would invite anyone we knew and have a great feast. But now we were a day away, the weather was cold and wet, and we had nobody to invite. It was looking like we’d spend the holiday alone, bundled up against the cold, eating whatever we happened to have in the van. Thanksgiving in Patagonia.
We drove on in silence, swaying with the curves as the rain battered the windshield.
An hour later the road had veered away from the lakeside, climbing and descending between mountains, crossing over rivers, and after a while the rain disappeared and was replaced by a strong wind pushing down on the road from the ridges above. We sailed out of the mountains and into the foothills, pushed along by a powerful tailwind. Up ahead we caught sight of what seemed to be several motorcycles cruising in the same direction as us. After a few minutes we had gotten close enough to realize that in fact they were bicycles. Four cyclists, bundled in their jackets, easily pedaled along at 45 miles per hour, helped along by the powerful tailwind. As we reached them, we realized that two of them were Matthias and Andrea, the Germans we’d met in Junin de los Andes after Nacho was burglarized.
We gunned the engine and pulled around them, Sheena waving frantically out the window. After we’d put a safe distance between us and them we pulled over and waited. Andrea arrived first, grinning wildly.
“Brad and Sheena! Hello! I can’t believe it!”
“Look who it is!” Matthias said, coming to rest in front of Nacho, out of the wind. “We have just ridden the fastest that we have ridden on our entire trip – 70 kilometers per hour! This wind is great! Meet our new friends, Wiebke and Axel.”
Wiebke was athletic and tall – perhaps six feet – and had wisps of blonde hair hanging down from her helmet. Axel had a nice smile and an athletic build. On the front of Wiebke’s bike sat her young daughter, Smilla, while Axel pulled a trailer carrying their other youngest girl, Selma, a three year old.
“Nice to meet you,” they said, shaking our hands, “these are our children.” Wiebke smiled at Smilla, who responded with a sweet, “hellooo!”
We exchanged greetings and talked for a while before we remembered Thanksgiving.
“As it turns out,” I said, “Thanksgiving is tomorrow—it’s the time of year when we North Americans celebrate the final meal that we shared with the Native Americans before driving them off their land. Basically a really big feast. Will you guys be around Bariloche tomorrow?”
“Ah yes, I saw it on an episode of Friends once,” Matthias said. “We will be in Bariloche, but we have been invited to stay at the house of a fellow cyclist who lives here.” He explained how this man, who has come to be known as “Pelado”—literally “Baldy,” on account of the fact that he has very little hair on his head—once tried riding his bicycle from Argentina to Alaska, but didn’t quite make it. Since returning home, he has opened his home to all cyclists who pass through. No reservations required, just show up and have free reign of the house, a bed to sleep in, a kitchen to use, and an instant friend. Only one catch: we were driving a car.
“Maybe if you get a cabin for the day we can come meet you for dinner.” They seemed sorry, but were already expected at Pelado’s house.
We loaded up and continued on toward Bariloche, sandwiched between Lago Nahuel Huapi and the towering snow-capped peaks of the Patagonian Andes. When we arrived it was late afternoon and cold. Rain fell in intervals and a freezing wind whipped up off of the southern shore of the lake, giving the town the feel of Zurich in the winter. We parked downtown and made our way to the office of tourism to find out about cabin rentals.
The woman at the tourism office showed us listings for several cabins, most of which were well out of our price range. We armed ourselves with the names of a few of the cheaper ones and hit the streets. For the remainder of the day we went from cabin to cabin, checking each one off of the list. Most were the size of small walk-in closets, which explained the low cost. Defeated, and with the sun gone over the horizon, we rolled out of town to the campground.
By the time we found the campground it was dark. We drove in and negotiated our way through the thick tangle of trees until the small dirt road ended. I would have to back up and turn around. Sheena got out and went to scour for possible camping spots on foot. Unable to see, I decided to back up blindly, aiming for what appeared to be a blank spot between enormous trees. Everything was looking good…looking fine…a little faster now…and CRACK! Nacho came to an immediate stop; I had slammed into a tree.
For a minute I just sat there, contemplating. Thanksgiving was a bust. I was cold. We had so looked forward to Bariloche, “The Gateway to Patagonia,” but it would more than likely be remembered at the freezing cold windy city where we crashed into a tree and ate Thanksgiving spaghetti.
“Brad!” Sheena said, running up to my window, “you’ve just run into a tree!”
In the morning our windows bore a thin skin of ice and we shivered in our down jackets as we brushed our teeth outside, trying in vain to capture a few stray rays of sunlight through the thick evergreen canopy. We loaded up our things and headed into town where we would check our email and then go to the grocery store to try to put together some kind of sad Thanksgiving dinner for two.
On the way to the store we swung by the Berlina microbrewery and hopped on their free Wi-Fi. The first message in my inbox was from Matthias, and had come the previous evening, right around the time I was slamming Nacho into a tree.
We finally found the “free house for cyclists.” Here is a very, very friendly family and we do feel a little bit like home. I think all the Germans gonna stay here a few days. But also we wanted to have a Thanksgiving dinner with our friends from Arizona. So I asked the guy if it would be ok to have a dinner all together in his house. He just says “Sí, Sí, Sí, no problem!” Here is a place of big hospitality and it’s no problem to find a place for Nacho (and for you to sleep)… there is a farmer in the neighborhood that sells meat and he was recommended by the people here. Should I ask for special meat?
We excitedly wrote back to Matthias and proceeded to drive to the grocery store, where we spent at least a week’s budget on all of the fixings for the best Thanksgiving blowout we could concoct.
“Bacon! Sheena, they have bacon! Can we do something with bacon?”
“Buy it!” Sheena wailed.
“I have some sausages here, how many sausages?”
“All of them!”
“Is this Bastille Day? No! Put those down and find some dinner rolls!”
When we pulled into Pelado’s driveway on the shore or Nahuel Huapi, Nacho was full up with bags and bags of American soul food. Matthias met us at the gate.
“They didn’t have any turkeys,” he said, “but they have some chickens bigger than I have ever seen. The farmer is preparing them for us now, we must pick them up at 2:00.”
Inside Pelado’s house we were introduced to his wife, Felicidad, who was hanging out with Axel, Wiebke, and their children. After a tour of the property and Pelado’s backyard bakery, we got under way.
Pelado made two loaves of fresh-baked braided bread. Andrea and Matthias made a radish salad, procured two turkey-sized chickens, and provided copious amounts of beer and wine. Felicidad made a second salad, composed entirely of edible plants from the yard. Sheena and I commandeered the kitchen and proceeded to season and roast the chickens and made garlic mashed potatoes, sausage stuffing (with bacon), green beans (with bacon), and fried potatoes and peppers (with bacon). For dessert, Andrea made apple pie from scratch, but without bacon.
“This is great,” Pelado said as we filled the table with food, “I once saw Thanksgiving on an episode of Friends!”
Just as dinner was served, two more cyclists arrived; Renata and Arturo from Brazil. They had heard through the grapevine that there was to be an American holiday celebration, popularized by the TV show Friends, and they wanted to see what it was all about.
The food was incredible, and our international group of friends took to the gluttonous tradition like David Schwimmer to paleontology. As we ate, Pelado recounted for us his experience during his attempted bicycle trip to Alaska.
“I left this house in 2001,” he began, “with the goal of riding all the way to Alaska. I just decided to drop everything and go. I was going to ride until I got there, it didn’t matter how long it took.
“Everything went fine until I got to the border of the United States. I spent all of my Mexican pesos before I left Mexico, and then crossed the border. The first thing I did was go to the ATM machine to get US dollars. But when I tried, it said I had no money left. I immediately called home to see what was happening, and I was told that our economy had collapsed overnight and that the banks had no more money. Everything we had was gone!
“So now I was in America with no money. I asked the border guard what I should do, and he didn’t know. He said I should try the Red Cross. I had never heard of this ‘Red Cross’ before, but I rode there. When I arrived I told them that I had no money and no food. They took me in and gave me a place to sleep, and then they opened their cabinets and told me to take all the food I wanted. They filled my bike trailer with canned food! I couldn’t believe it!
“I continued riding through America, going from Red Cross to Red Cross, and every time they gave me a place to sleep and food to eat. After this I love the Red Cross. I am a big fan now, and I tell everyone how much I love them!
“When I arrived in San Francisco it was September, and the Saudis attacked the Twin Towers. This was a very sad time and everybody got closer to one another. I felt so much love, and I started wearing a banner in support of the victims. People would clap when they saw me ride by because I was riding in honor of them.
“But then,” he continued, “I ran into trouble. My visa in the United States was for three months, but because of my troubles I had only made it as far as Seattle when my visa ran out. I was so close to the border! But I was stopped by the police, and they realized that my visa had expired. They arrested me and deported me back to Argentina. I had ridden my bicycle half way across the world, and they sent me home when I was so close to the border! I was heartbroken. I have been here ever since. When I got back here I built an oven and started baking bread, and selling it in Bariloche.”
Pelado’s story saddened us. To have been treated with such hospitality in so many places ourselves, and to have felt warmth from strangers, the thought of our country deporting Pelado and putting an end to his dream, gave us something to contemplate. But after all of it, he still loved the United States, and above all he loved the Red Cross mission.
As night closed in around Pelado’s house we looked around the table. We were Americans and Germans, Brazilians and Argentineans. Through serendipity and great fortune we had all ended up in the same home to break bread together, and in doing so we had enjoyed our best Thanksgiving to date. It’s funny how things work out sometimes.