Author Archives: Johanna Berkman

A Fire of One’s Own

Our 14 year-old is working on climbing all 46 of the Adirondack High Peaks that are 4,000 feet in elevation and higher, a noble goal that is known up here as “becoming a 46er,” but what this means, in effect, is that every time we come here, he begs either me or my husband to take him off on a very intense day hike so he can bag another one.

Today he somehow convinced my husband, who was already complaining mightily about his plantar fasciitis after our six mile hike yesterday, to take him on a ten mile hike up Dial Mountain so he can bag number 37.

And so they left early this morning, taking our water bottles, our maps, and, most significantly, our car, with them.

Were it not freezing with a high wind chill this wouldn’t matter much because there’s so many hikes we can do right here (which is, after all, the point, and the reason I’m so gamely putting up with the rusted fridge and a few other indignities).

But it is freezing, and though we are inspired by reports of a bald eagle sighting right here on the lake, and we get new maps and buy water bottles from Dr. Doolittle, when we return to the cottage after a hearty breakfast we lose all momentum.

Led by my 10 year-old daughter, we set out to make a fire in our big stone fireplace, something I have never attempted before. We burn dozens of sheets of newspaper and blow through nearly a whole box of matches before she sets out for help from the maintenance man, whoever that is, and arrives back home with Dr. Doolittle, who is apparently a jack of all trades.

Dr. Doolittle, who I learn is from Montana, builds us a fire quickly, and efficiently, while teaching us how to do it for ourselves.

Eventually the wind dies down, and we go out for a beautiful hike around the lake. And when we come home we finally do it — we build a fire of our own.

Pura Vida

“I want to kill myself,” says Martin, who is front desk, concierge, restaurant cashier and head of housekeeping all rolled into one.

We have just arrived in El Calafate, and Martin’s despair, fueled by the simultaneous arrival of too many guests, seems fitting because El Calafate looks, and feels, like the end of the earth.

Unlike Bariloche, which was gorgeous and fertile, El Calafate is a desert moonscape. A desert moonscape punctuated by beautiful turquoise lakes, snow capped craggy peaks and glaciers the size of cities, but a moonscape nonetheless.

There are almost no trees here, certainly not many indigenous ones, the ground all dirt and scrub, and the entire town, to the extent you could call this a town, feels like it has sprung up over night, as if we are out in the American west in the 1800s and someone has just discovered gold. There are lots of shacks, houses of corrugated tin and this, our glassy modern hotel hard between the desert scrub and the sea.

“There is wifi,” says Martin, “but it is slow. Very slow. The whole town’s wifi is slow.”
“I don’t know if I can stay here,” says my husband.

For dinner we eat in a restaurant called Pura Vida. By the front door there is a map of the world where you can add a pin showing where you’re from – apparently there have been guests from virtually everywhere – and the menus are handpainted. My daughter’s menu says “All you need is love,” mine has a VW bug and a rainbow, and we spy another one that is covered in crochet. The service is kind but painfully slow, one of the waitresses massively pregnant, wearing flair pants and a sequined top.

Until now one of the nicest things about travelling around Argentina has been the feeling that we are far from home, meeting hardly any Americans and not having the same sorts of conversations that we typically have, be it about politics, our kids, our jobs and whatever else.

But ironically it is on our boat ride to a remote estancia, or ranch, two hours outside of El Calafate that this idyll comes to an end. We meet a group of four families from Long Island who travel together every year and all have the same gray cotton shirt emblazoned with the Argentinian flag and an acronym formed of the first letter of each of their last names to prove it. One of their daughters has just been deferred from Northwestern and is revising her college essays on her cellphone, planning to send out more applications via hotel wi-fi when she gets back to Buenos Aires. There is also a large group wearing Horace Mann hats. Rather than rely on the estancia’s own guides who live at the ranch, managing the animals and taking guests on hikes, the Horace Manners have brought along their own guide which seems odd and aggressive if a touch enviable, perhaps a bit like New York itself.

The ranch itself is spectacular, flat and mountainous both, and rife with canyons, fossils, waterfalls and views that literally stretch for miles. It is, in fact, so hauntingly beautiful, that you can almost imagine how you too, like its erstwhile founders, Victoria and Joseph Masters, might be willing to give up a well-off life elsewhere to settle here, virtually all alone.

On the boat ride home after a long day of hiking the Long Islanders, or the “Flok,” as they call themselves, open up six bottles of wine, what the former Goldman employee among them has calculated is about half a bottle per person. “I can share some with you,” he says, but then does not. Meanwhile the Horace Manners disappear into a catamaran and our family, somehow the last ones to board the boat, wind up sitting on the couch up front along with the boat’s employees.

“I learned a lot about the United States from Mad Men,” says Barbara, the boat manager who comes from Buenos Aires and spends half her year working on the boat and the other half travelling the world. “I have a book in English,” she offers, when she hears me tell my husband that in the chaos of getting everyone ready this morning I’d forgotten to bring along something to read. Barbara takes out “Crime and Punishment,” one of my all-time favorite books, and sitting there rereading the beginning I am reminded of how I too once used to carry big fat classic books and how I used to have more time to read.

We are approaching the shore now and as I think about getting back to town and searching for a place to eat that won’t take the customary two to three hours for dinner, I think about all the guides we left behind on the island who live there from October to April and then travel the world like Barbara.

I don’t envy the Horace Manners or the Flokers or any of the other tourists we’ve met today, but Barbara and the guides I do. I envy them their freedom, their youth, their chance to travel and perhaps more than anything else at this stage of my life, knee deep as I am in family responsibilities, I envy them their opportunity to be alone.

In Patagonia

In Patagonia…Although we, unlike Bruce Chatwin, have not hitchhiked to get here – it’s a 22 hour drive from Buenos Aires just to get to the northern part where we are currently so we took a plane – and we have not been staying in the homes of local Welsh farmers, or any farmers, for that matter – we had one of our best hikes as a family today and learned that the bamboo here lives for 60 years and only grows seeds just before it dies. It all dies simultaneously and so we saw tons of it dead along our trail and lots of new leaves too, the whole process having begun again just three years ago. Even if Manny and I were to be so lucky as to live a super long life we will surely never be back in time to see the next cycle though perhaps our youngest will.

May the Best Woman Win

We voted! Unfortunately it wasn’t one of those teary, dreamy, perfect experiences that I keep reading about today. The basement of the Senior Center where we voted was hot as hell – hence I took off both my suffragette white sweater and my coat and voted in the moral equivalent of lingerie, though kept on the pearls — and as I had my six year old son, who had already voted early this morning with my husband, with me, and since I was thinking of this as a quintessential mother/ daughter moment, I tried to get him to give us a little private time, mostly to no avail. “Take my coat off the bottom of that dirty table!” I yelled at one point. And then, when I saw that he had not only gone underneath a curtain into some old-fashioned Oz-like voting equipment but was hoisting himself on top of it, “I’m going to punish you!”

In the midst of all this excitement and the thrill of voting with my daughter for what – fingers crossed – will be our first “girl president,” I got all ferklempt and after filling in the bubble for Chuck Schumer for Senate mistakenly voted for the Republican woman as well only to then realize that you could only vote for one of them. Needless to say we got our ballot voided and began again, an experience which made me think of all those poor senior citizens who mistakenly voted for Pat Buchanan in 2000….

A little while later, with my kids successfully dispersed to piano and drama, an older woman of my mother’s age, though really just the age she was when she died, stopped me on the street and asked me if I was wearing white for Hillary. When I told her yes, she unzipped her jacket and proudly showed me her Hillary t-shirt. We then high-fived. “May the best woman win,” we said, and that indeed was dreamy.

A Magic Trick of Our Own

In the clear, gray light of morning, everything looked smoky and beautiful, even the enormous swarm of white bugs outside the dining hall which Dr. Doolittle referred to as angelic, and we decided to take advantage of the real reason we had come here: the 40 miles of private trails.

We chose a 2 mile hike up Clear Pond Mountain both because our youngest is six and because there was talk of rain this afternoon. (Also, admittedly, because I mistakenly thought the entire hike would be two miles rather than four.)

But somehow, entranced by all the beauty here, and the quiet, we wound up rambling all around the pond and going up something called Grandpa Pete’s Mountain instead.
With a name like Grandpa Pete’s we assumed the mountain would be small and dinky. But as it turned out, Grandpa Pete must have been quite the mountain man because the path was steep and rocky and I found myself occasionally using my hands and leaning over on the trail in a hobbly sort of way.

But the summit, our six year old’s first, was more than worth it, the kind that makes you feel like you can see forever, or to Canada at least.

In the end, we reached the lodge four hours after we set out, beating the rain and returning to wi-fi and giant shortbread cookies with raspberry jam.

Back at our cabin, the kids played card games and worked on magic tricks, and we pulled off a magic trick of our own — finally opening our bottle of wine and taking a nap.

I’m Dr. Doolittle

Last night, after a twenty minute drive down a long and winding private dirt road, we arrived here, deep in the Adirondack Park, and all I could think was, sure, this hundred and fifty plus year old wilderness retreat may be on Outside Magazine’s “Bucket List,” but it is not really a place where you want to be having a heart attack. The lodge was rich in taxidermy – the obligatory bucks but also a coyote, a beaver, and a fisher, an animal I’ve never before seen or heard of – and we were greeted not only by a big, friendly dog, but also a turtle strutting the floorboards. “I’m Dr. Doolittle,” said the man who checked us in and handed me both a bottle of wine and a corkscrew. Our cottage by the lake, which had looked beautiful on the website, was beautiful, but it also had a rusted over fridge, spider webs and a thin layer of pebbly grit on the floor. “We’re lucky we even have electricity,” said my fourteen year old, who is the most rugged among us. “It’s better than camping,” said my husband, who was once as rugged as our son, “and I’m too old for camping.”