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A taste of far away

Argentina's Ruta Nacional 40 is legendary. It runs most of the length of the country, a distance of more than 3000 miles. A recent article in La Nación [Spanish] notes that the task of paving the remaining dirt stretches has a hefty price tag. When we spent a day driving RN 40 last month, we drove past some paving machinery, though I don't remember seeing anyone at work. I was glad we got to drive some of the original road before it got paved over, anyway.

That day offered up some of the most exquisite vistas of our trip. We started out in the town of El Calafate; our destination was El Chaltén, which Lonely Planet told us is Argentina's newest settlement, built in recent years to ensure sovereignty over that particular patch of mountainous land, since the Chilean border isn't far at all.

It took us three or four hours to drive from one town to the other, and most of that time was spent on RN 40. The drive was extraordinary. Great sweeping plains which drew the eye to distant mountains, some capped with snow. Here and there, glacial lakes, a surreal shade of mint-green or aquamarine-blue, like tropical seas wildly out of place. Between them, the rushing waters of glacial streams. From time to time, turnoffs for estancias, usually little more than signs pointing offroad to tell us that someone owned property here, that there might be a house if one turned and drove far enough. Maybe.

Ethan did all of the driving. (My stick shift skills are... limited at best.) So I sat and soaked in the scenery. From time to time I consulted the map we'd bought in the southern part of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, to try to discern where on the road we might be. Where the line denoting RN 40 turns dotted, it turns out, the road drops its swank new asphalt and becomes dirt. We spent a lot of time bouncing along the rocky road. I learned to cushion our cameras, stashed in a cubby on my side of the dashboard, with a bandanna so they wouldn't clatter.

As we approached El Chaltén, the mountaintops shrouded themselves in fog. Sure enough, as we drove up and up into the town itself, we entered cloud. It felt like a backpacker's paradise crossed with the wild west. There are a handful of short streets, but nothing feels quite completed yet. A bookstore, though it wasn't open. There was construction equipment busy paving one street; on another, an enormous truck piled with hay bales was parked seemingly at random. There's a tiny chapel dedicated to the memory of mountaineers who've died ascending the range's peaks, though we found it locked. Several foreign backpackers hiked through town, dressed in raingear, with packs and walking sticks.

Following the advice of LP, we had lunch at Cerveceria El Chaltén, the town's small brewpub. The day was blustery and drizzly, but inside was all warm light and honeyed wood. A bookshelf runs around the room, around head-height, stacked with worn paperbacks in a variety of languages. The walls are plastered with newspaper clippings -- again, multilingual and fairly random. We ordered empanadas, one of each of the beers they brew, and the specialty of the house: a stew called locro. The stew was satisfying, thick with pumpkin and hominy. It fortified us for a chilled, windy ramble around town and a brief hike up one of the hills. (In the end, I had to admit that my lungs weren't up to the task of climbing very far; we retreated to the car and turned on the heat and drove back down onto the sunny plains.)

Locro turns out to be the perfect supper on a cool damp spring day here in the gentle hills where we live, an almost unimaginably long way from the far end of South America. It's our own variant, of course; not precisely like the one we ate at the cerveceria. But it's close enough. I find myself strangely happy with the realization that we came home from this vacation with a dish we can add to our household repertoire. A taste of Argentina, modulated to feature local butternut squash (and, okay, hominy corn from a Mexican supermarket down the road. Not everything can be hyperlocal.) A way of integrating a little bit of that trip into our everyday lives.

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