The House at the End of the Earth

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My tent squats low on a gravel bar. Its green nylon contrasts sharply with the surrounding vegetation. The tent fly flaps gently while I tie a new fly on.

I consider how hard it’s been to reach this spot. It had taken days, including rides on two airplanes, two busses, and a boat, two overnight stays, and several hours of hiking, carrying a damnably heavy pack up through this exquisite valley. As the rod begins to load with the motions of the day’s first casts, it looks like it has been well worth all the trouble.

The sun shines, struggling to melt the ice and snow clinging to the peaks above. The valley is stunning. That sky! This stream! Those mountains! It’s easy enough to imagine that no one has ever been up on those peaks. There are no footprints through that snow, summer though it is.

The river is cold, pure, deep. It sings a lovely song. When the light is right and a current window opens, I can see trout holding behind the boulders.

The only footprints I saw on the trail were made by horses, sheep, and cattle. The last house I passed, a lovely little cottage surrounded by fuscia and foxgloves, is miles behind me. I have seen no one. I again cast my Wooly Worm into the unfished stream, in this apparently uninhabited valley. I think to myself that in all likelihood these fish have never seen a fly before.

I enjoy the repetitious rhythm of cast-drift-mend, cast-drift-mend, interrupted occasionally by a strike. The browns are slightly more sluggish than the rainbows, but both fish are wild creatures, fat, strong, and stunningly beautiful. They gaze at me piercingly as I hold and unhook them. They seem relieved when they are placed back into the water. So far they’ve all been pretty average, size-wise, but I am looking forward optimistically to hooking a five pounder.

Heck, why stop at five? A ten pounder, even better! Unpressured, unsophisticated fish, in a river like this, pouring into the nearby sea, there must be scads of ten pound trout here! I want one!

Suddenly, a shout comes from right behind me. “Hola! Como esta?” Badly startled, I whip around to see what this invasion of my private Nirvana might mean. It’s a rider, a young man, sitting on a large and very fast looking horse, not six feet away. I had not heard them approach over the song of the river.

De donde es Usted?” he asks. “Soy Americano. Estoy aqui para pescar.” “Where are you from?” he wants to know. “I’m an American. I came here to fish,” I answer. And I think to myself, “And you just scared the hell out of me. Could you go away now and let me fish, please?”

I want my solitude to come back. But the rider is not done with me, oh no.

He wants to converse with me. But my Spanish isn’t good, and I want to fish. There is a ten pound trout here somewhere, and I want to find it. My time is short. So with all due respect, Mr. Horseman, could you go away, right now, please?

No. He wants to converse. Although I don’t understand much of what he says, one thing I do understand is that a good sized chunk of this valley is the property of he and his brother, and I am trespassing on it. So I stand there quietly, uncertain what to say or do next.

Mi nombre es Hernan Fernandez. Mi hermano esta en Puerto Montt. Megusta Usted dormir en mi casa esta noche.” Said with a smile.

I stand there silent for a moment, dumbfounded. Then some semblance of manners creeps into my consciousness, and I walk over and shake his hand. I hear myself saying, “Mucho gusto, Hernan, e muchas gracias.”

This is my reward for trespassing! I’ve just been invited to spend the night in the home of Hernan Fernandez!

It causes a dilemma, though. I don’t want to spend the night in his home. I don’t want to be an ambassador. I want to fish. I want to spend another night in my tent, in my sleeping bag. I want to fish again tomorrow morning, before I have to leave. My mind races as I try to think of a diplomatic way to turn down his generous offer. Of course, none comes. Like it or not, I am spending the night at Chez Hernan.

He left then. I thought for a moment maybe I’d just stay where I was. But he soon came back with his fishing tackle- a small silver spinner tied to a length of monofilament, wrapped around a tin can. We fish together for a while, me with my fly rod, he with his can, from two different worlds, not saying much, catching and killing a few trout. They aren’t quite as unfished as I had thought.

Hernan cleans the fish at the river’s edge. He gives me directions to his house, then leaves. After a few moments I reluctantly pack my sleeping bag, strike the tent, and break down my tackle. I hoist my backpack, and go looking for this house at the end of the earth.

Hernan is lighting two kerosene lamps when I arrive. He gives me a tour of his home. It doesn’t take long. There are only two rooms, very Spartan. One room has a beautiful wood stove, a handmade table, and two handmade wooden chairs. The obligatory calendars featuring naked women hang on the walls, two on each. The other room has two beds. From the rafters hang every kind of tack imaginable- saddles, bridles, collars, reins, hobbles, buckets, ropes, and a whole lot of other farming-looking stuff with which I am totally unfamiliar.

The house is small, and clean enough, and warm, and nicely lit. It looks altogether like quite a nice place to live, as long as you don’t need a TV and a dishwasher and all that sort of thing. I still want to be in my tent, but the feeling is starting to soften a bit.

It is getting dark. We are both hungry. We sit down at the table. Hernan takes out some bread and butter and cheese. I supply peanut butter and honey and dried fruit. As we eat a simple dinner he tells me he and his brother are farmers. He is 17 years old. His brother is 21. They have 16 cows, and horses, goats, sheep, various fowl, a garden, pasture, woods, and of course the river.

He wants to know about me. I tell him I am an American. I live in Brazil, and I am a schoolteacher there. I have come to this valley on my summer vacation to fly fish for trout. I intend to hike back to Bariloche.

I have enough trouble conversing in English. This language barrier is altogether too big. It is very hard work holding up my end of the conversation.

As we talk and eat, dusk comes on. Inside the house it begins to rain ants.

At first there are only a few. But as it gets darker the ants become more numerous, flying around and crawling on everything. They become impossible to ignore.

Hernan says, “Estes formigos san muy perigosos.” Certain I have misunderstood him, I ask him to repeat himself. “Mas despacio, por favor.” “More slowly, please.” He repeats himself, word for word, very slowly and very clearly. There is no mistaking his meaning. “These ants are very dangerous.”

I want to know why. He says, in Spanish, “They crawl into your ear.”

I know a little entomology. I teach biology. I have never before heard of ants taking refuge in a human ear. As a gringo ambassador to this man’s home I can’t tell him, “You’re full of shit!” So I ask him diplomatically if he knows anyone this has happened to.

Si, un chico, abajo el valle.” “Yes, a little boy down the valley.” “What happened to him?” I want to know. “The ant had to be removed surgically,” he says.

I am trapped by good manners and circumstance in a small house full of large flying ants that want to eat their way into my brain. It’s a hell of a long way to a doctor. I have a perfectly good tent that will keep the ants off of me, out of my ears. The accursed, aforementioned good manners prevent me from using it. I grit my teeth, and resolve to make the best of the situation.

Hernan and I finish dinner with somewhat diminishing conversation. All my brain power is being used to wonder how I’m going to keep the ants out of my ears. There’s not enough brain left to translate too.

After dark, without electricity, Hernan and his brother always go to bed early. They’re farmers, and their long days start at dawn. I soon find myself preparing to lie down in the brother’s bed.

The bed, to my surprise and relief, is absolutely heavenly. The sheets are clean, even though they’re made out of flour sacks. The mattress, the comforter, and the pillow, are all stuffed with goose down. It’s like lying on a cloud, as delicious as a bed could be. But this cloud lacks a silver lining. This cloud is lined with ants.

All night long, every time I start to doze off, ants crawl on me. I awake with a start, and begin slapping. I can’t sleep, afraid one will crawl into my ear. Then I don’t feel one for a while, and exhausted from travel, hiking, and fishing, I doze off again. Another ant wakes me, and the process repeats. Just to make things even more interesting, my throat is sore because I’m getting sick.

It’s a slightly torturous infinite loop. Dawn is a long time coming.

Dawn does finally show. Except for the dead ones, of which there are plenty, the ants are gone. We eat some breakfast, bread and peanut butter and unpasteurized milk. I pack my belongings. I take some photos of Hernan. I thank him profusely for his hospitality. I shoulder my too-heavy backpack. We say good bye.

I feel fortunate, surviving the ants. Thinking of the ten pound trout I’m not going to find here, I begin the long walk back to Bariloche.