Monday, July 19, 2004

San Lorenzo

I recall the beaten path of rocky grass, entrenched by moss covered stone walls. It ran alongside the border of my father's farm, and for many miles farther across the foot of the mountain. El Camino Real, it was called. Too narrow and contoured for any wheeled vehicle, it was only to be traveled afoot or on horseback.
Before the advent of carriages -and later motor cars- brought about the need for better roads, El Camino Real was the only way for the local folk to cross the territory without trespassing on somebody else's property. In rural Colombia, during the early twentieth century, the lands were vast and sparsely populated, and the laws were vague and barely enforced. People brandished machetes and shotguns, and defended their turf by whatever means necessary. Many shallow graves were dug near the riverbank; unmarked and unvisited.  
Inhabited mostly by mestizos and descendants of the tribal natives who innocently welcomed the Spaniards and the slaughter they brought along with them, the valley near Leyva in this northwestern Boyacá countryside was an arid wasteland of scant resources and little rainfall. Foreign investors would occasionally arrive, eager to take advantage of the cheap land and the inexpensive labor. They would bring about wild schemes and blind notions of harvesting dye plants or looking for oil. Very few left behind anything more than large stretches of useless land, covered by dividivis that nobody wanted.

In the late 1950's, the military took over the government. Agrarian reform removed the land from the hands of the wealthy and distributed it amongst the poor. At least that was its intention. Alas, too many favors were paid with large deeds. Friends of the government enjoyed great land wealth. But many farmers were also able to acquire the lands they toiled as a result. Colonizing was acknowledged as legitimate, and deeds were handed out like taxes. Everybody became a landowner.

But it wasn't until the 70's that people started buying and selling land from each other again, and wealth from the capital started pouring back into the area. Man-made lakes were built and irrigation became commonplace. The valley became to show some color. As more water was dammed, more condensation was produced, and thus more rainfall befell the thirsty land.
It was around then that my father visited the valley and fell in love with it. He envisioned grapevines running along the fields, growing fat and fruitful in a pollution free environment; making possible his lifelong dream of  producing wine.
He purchased a small area at first. It contained a large house, which was a half century old and falling apart, but had a strong foundation. Barely a child of ten, I was aghast at the sight of it. I couldn't see what he saw in it, but he had a vision. He named it San Lorenzo del Escorial, because he thought it would look wonderfully on a bottle of wine.
During the next few years we would work on making that vision a reality. Every weekend we would make the three hour drive out to work on the house. My father hired some locals to do most of the major reconstruction that was needed, but we did all the cleaning and the painting. In time it became the most beautiful house in the valley. Dozens of family members would sign up to visit every weekend once the project was done. Nobody had known anything as peaceful as San Lorenzo.
My brother and I worked hard to buy horses. My father would meet us halfway on the cost, which made it tough but manageable. It also made us appreciate and care for them a lot more.
We grew up riding along El Camino Real, playing cowboys and indians and viewing the breathtaking beauty of the valley. Never did you cross paths with another person that didn't greet you, nor ever did you hear an unkind word. It was nothing short of paradise.
It was a good ten years before my father's grapes began to take root. He imported the seeds from California and France, and planted a wide variety: Chenin Blanc, Pinot Grigio, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, and others. The grapes were ravaged by birds, possums and other critters, and many methods were devised to protect them. They mostly failed. There were never enough grapes left to make the wine. Yet every season he went at it again.
I had already left home when my father bottled his first wine harvest. He sent me a few bottles. They were Chenin Blanc. In that wine, though far from home as I was, I tasted the sweat and tears of the many years my parents had put into it; restlessly toiling after each failed attempt, and going through with it over and over was the sweetest juice a man can taste! I savored each drop like it was the nectar of the gods, and basked in the pride I felt for my father's accomplishment.
Many more wines would come, and much success would be enjoyed. But the cost of maintaining the vineyard became prohibitive. The sales of the wine would never pay for the expenses that were incurred by producing it in such a remote region.  The dream would end, soon enough.
But the old man did it, and the wine was good. How many people can chase a vision down that well?


Amber said...

Oh my GOD, Mick, that was poignant! "I tasted the sweat and the tears that my parents had put into the wine"

Brought tears to my eyes.

RRnET said...

Truely beautiful writing

Sarah McBroden said...

You made me want to be there, smell the air, taste the wine. It was lovley to read, thankyou for sharing that with me.

Anonymous said...

That was an exceptionally beautiful post and a wonderful piece of writing. More, please.

Camino real? Royal road, right?


MICK said...

Wow, what kind comments. Thank you!

It's Royal path, actually. I always believed it to be our road's original name, but as it turns out it's a term commonly used on all public paths that cross other people's lands.

Anonymous said...

The compliments are deserved. Thank YOU for writing.

Royal Path, huh? Do you know anything about its history? Was it used as a mail and communications path for colonial administration?


MICK said...

Actually, yes. The path begins about 4 kilometres away from Villa de Leyva, a colonial town founded in 1572 by the conquering spaniards. It was originally cleared as a path to the interior to be used as a trading and courier route. In the early nineteenth century, the revolutionary forces fought many famous battles against the spaniards within 50 miles of the area. El Camino Real served as an open road for troops, in an otherwise dense wilderness that was yet to be cleared.
It's been around for a long time, and it's served many purposes.

SN said...

this was beautiful

Anonymous said...

Cool. Thanks for the explanation. I sort of figured it had to serve a colonial administrative purpose. Roads, even paths, are expensive to build.