30 August 2008

Pretty Saro

I came across this video while searching for information about Sam Amidon, the performer of this traditional American folk song.

Known variously as "Saro," "Pretty Saro," "Pretty Sarry," or "Pretty Sarah," the song is said to be a relative of "At the Foot of Yonder Mountain," as well as the Irish tune "The Streams of Bunclody," neither of which I know anything about.

While traveling through the Appalachian states in 1916-1918 the British ballad scholar Cecil Sharp collected versions of this song, labeled it #76, and published it in his famous collection English Folk Songs from the Southern Appalachians. If it is connected to the Irish song "The Streams of Bunclody" then, apparently, the song dates back to at least 1749, though the version that evolved into "Pretty Saro" was probably created sometime between 1749-1849--the date that is mentioned in the song. Whether the heartbroken immigrant who wrote this tune sent "The Streams of Bunclody" or "Pretty Saro" back to Ireland is unknown.

Here are two transcribed versions of the song. The first was collected in Asheville, North Carolina, the second in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Both were collected in 1930.

Pretty Saro

I came to this country in seventeen-forty-nine,
I saw many a true love, but I never saw mine.
I looked all around me and found I was alone.
And me a poor stranger, and a long way from home.

Down in some lonesome valley, down in some lonesome place,
Where the wild birds do whistle their notes to increase,
I think of pretty Saro whose waist is so neat,
And I know of no better pastime than to be with my sweet.

I wish I were a poet and could write a fine hand,
I would send my love a letter that she could understand.
And I'd send it by a messenger where the waters do flow
And think of pretty Saro wherever I go.

Pretty Sarah

Down in some low valley in some lonesome place,
Where the small birds to whistle their notes do increase.
I think on pretty Sarah and her ways air so compleat,
I could wish no better pastime than to be with my sweet.

I came to this country eighteen-sixty-nine,
I saw many lovers but I never saw mine.
I looked all around me, I found I was alone,
And I a poor soldier and a long ways from home.

I wish I was a larks man and had wings and could fly
Down in my love's window this night I would lie.
All day and all night I would set down and cry,
And in my love's lily white arms this night I would lie.

I wish I was a penceman (pen-man, i.e writer) and could write a fine hand,
I would write my love a letter that she might understand
I would send it by the waters and the Island do flow
I think on pretty Sarah wherever I may go.

My love she won't have me because I am poor
She says I am not worthy of entering her door.
But I could maintain her on silver or gold
And meny other fine things that my love's house could hold.

My love she won't have me, as I understand
She wants some free-holder that has houses and land.
But she will repent it when her love's all in vain,
For love is a torment and a heart-breaking thing.

Many more versions and a lengthy discussion on this song is available at the Mudcat Cafe.

I went searching in my own collection for other versions of this song and came up with two more.

Perhaps the definitive available version of the song, though, comes from the Smithsonian Folkways release Dark Holler: Old Love Songs and Ballads. These songs were recorded in Madison County, North Carolina in the early 1960s by John Cohen. They represent some fine and particularly moving examples of unaccompanied ballad singing from an area of the country well known for their variation of this ancient tradition. From the liner notes: Pretty Saro sung by Cas Wallin, 1963. Cecil Sharp collected versions of this song (no. 76) from Mary Sands and Rosie Hensley, both of whom Berzilla Wallin knew. Cas Wallin's sense of timing and phrasing is unique, and contributes to the effect of this widely known song.

I wish I were a poet and could write a fine hand,
I would send my love a letter that she could understand.
And I'd send it by a messenger where the waters do flow
And think of pretty Saro wherever I go.

(If you can't see a small, blue square and triangle that resembles a play button, go here and follow directions. Installing this will allow you to read and listen to music at the same time--like a real live multitasker!)

28 August 2008

El Roca Jack

Spent last Saturday on the slopes of Portillo. Though probably one of the most aesthetically pleasing places for a ski resort it's location seems like an impossibility. Set at the bottom of a very narrow and very steep valley, the hotel/lodge sits at a rare flat spot and the lifts go straight up (and down) from there.

The resort is situated on the International Highway that links Chile directly to Argentina and commercially to most of the rest of southern South America: Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Bolivia and Brazil. It also sits at the top of the famous Portillo curves. A shot of them on a flat, gray day:

Portillo's bottom lift dips well below the hotel and bisects several of the curves. In dry, springtime conditions this only adds to the impossibility of the place.

Maybe the weirdest of the weird, though, are the Va et Vient lifts, the most famous of which is the Roca Jack. The Va et Vient lifts (literally "come and go," or colloquially "slingshots") are made specifically for Portillo by the Poma company in France. Because pretty much all of Portillo is prone to avalanches and because many of the avalanche paths (a.k.a. alluvial fans) make for great ski runs, a basic system of cables and pulleys were installed at the top of a few of these fans. Avalanches, alluvial fans, and probably the very young and ever-shifting Andes mountain chain in general don't make for very secure or supportable lift tower locations. The Va et Vient lifts take care of that issue and provide a few more thrills not associated with your typical ride up a slope.

Four to six traditional poma platters are arranged horizontally along a long bar and attached to a flexible cable connected only at the top of the slope by a simple pulley. When ready, the bottom operator engages the cable and the pomas are jerked up the mountain at a brisk clip. The ride up is a bit like water skiing (jumps included!) and takes a fairly good amount of strength and concentration to hang on.

The fun part is the exit which amounts to little more than synchronized falling. At the top pulley, the bottom operator (there is no one at the top) disengages the drive and the cable comes to an abrupt and complete stop. Alluvial fans/avalanche paths are fairly steep and operate on the angle of repose theory. This pretty much means that when creatures heading upslope with skis on their feet stop, gravity immediately insists that they return downslope. Backward. So at the end of the brief journey up there is always a bit of miscommunication; fallen, turned, and twisted bodies; clacked skis; laughter; and relief that everyone made it to the top and no one is slipping all the way back down.

(Picture not included.)

It's not for the faint of heart. But the skiing is fun.

Thank you Laura for the last two pictures.

26 August 2008

Cerro Manchón Redux

The Wayfaring Strangers returned last week from their adventures down south. One of their returning goals was to ski at Portillo. Apparently, though, Jeff was also a good enough boy the previous month that he earned permission to do a ski tour. So we did. Back to Cerro Manchón.

The snowline dropped a bit from the last storm. The week's cool temperatures also allowed the new snow to stay quite fresh, especially the south slopes. A beautiful day to spend in the mountains. A few of Jeff's pictures:

From a distance Cerro Manchón looks like a big mound. And I suppose it is. It's also a massive complex of gullies and ridge lines that reveal themselves when you hike up. This lends itself well to a day without goals or plans or cares. The snow conditions were greatly improved since the first time around.

So nice, in fact, that we climbed again. And then skied down again.

All good things must end, I suppose. Buen viaje, Jeff and Laura. We'll see you somewhere.

(If you can't see a small, blue square and triangle that resembles a play button, go here and follow directions. Installing this will allow you to read and listen to music at the same time--like a real live multitasker!)

18 August 2008

The Gravitational Pull of Humanity


For a country that's known in no small part for their mountains, it can be awfully difficult getting into them. It's sort of the inverse of the crab in a bucket theory: rather than the rest of humanity pulling you back down to flat land as you try to escape into the mountains, it often seems that you are in competition with the rest of humanity to travel up the one or two roads that will take everyone to freedom.

Carloads of crabs fly past as you make your way up the narrow mountain road only to slam on their brakes ahead of you as they fall into line behind the other thousand carloads of crabs. Some crabs are so impatient that in their faulty haste they hurl themselves off river embankments, spin-out on dry asphalt, or stall traffic as they pull over to install snow chains still some three-thousand feet below the snowline. No doubt, life in the bucket is stressful and I can't blame all of them (me included) for the desire to escape. And if the maddening pace of bucket life isn't enough to make you want to escape then a perfectly clear day with ninety new centimeters of snow certainly is.

No, there is no blame. But it often feels like you're trying to run up a down escalator: yes, you will get to the top eventually, but is all the effort and time worth it? The mañana attitude that pervades in other Latin American countries is absent here. Chile certainly displays the drive and ambition of their far northern neighbors and European cousins. The problem, ultimately, is that the infrastructure is not quite ready for the clambering hordes of would-be recreationists. At times, it's enough to take a deep breath, turn up the music and fall in line with plenty of paciencia. Other times, it makes more sense to return home and go for a long run on muddy but very deserted trails.

(If you can't see a small, blue square and triangle that resembles a play button, go here and follow directions. Installing this will allow you to read and listen to music at the same time--like a real live multitasker!)

11 August 2008

Cerro Manchón

A great day for climbing around in the Andes--fairly cool, a high cloud ceiling, and a slight breeze--but a lousy day for pictures.

My dictionary says that manchón means "a large stain or spot." I'll admit that it's not the most aesthetic chunk of rock in the neighborhood, nor is it the highest. It's neighborhood, known as the Grupo Plomo, contains some hefty and very aesthetic chunks of rock: Cerros Plomo, La Paloma, Leonara, Parva, Pintor, Altar, Altar Falso, and Bismark, among many others. So the competition is heavily weighted. But a stain or spot?

At any rate, at about 3,700 meters (12,150 feet), an elevation gain of about 1,700 meters (5,500 feet) from the trail head at Villa Paulina, and, most importantly, just slightly over an hour outside of the city, Cerro Manchón makes for a good, long day in the mountains.

We're still in need of some more lower elevation snow but once you've beat through a bit of brush and busted a shin or two on a slightly covered rock it's smooth sailing up the main ridge.

Not quite visible from the bottom are all the other gullies available for skiing and all the other rocks and holes for rabbits to hide.

Looking down one of the options on the way up.

Ok, I lied. Apparently I didn't make it quite to the summit. The true summit is a couple hundred meters or so higher and another hour or so around the horseshoe ridge. And heading that way would also open up at least two more systems of gullies and bowls and short chutes. Both Cerro Altar and Altar Falso (directly in front of the higher Altar) are in the far right background.

My planned exit for the day. After the distinct rollover, the gully turns directly down canyon for a nice, long run out. The village of Farellones, the base of La Parva, and El Colorado are all visible in the background.

The last stretch of not-so-skin-able scrambling to the top. Santiago is somewhere down there, too.

The support crew at about the halfway mark.

Close to the bottom the gully narrowed and the snow thinned a little too much to ski. So in the waning hours of daylight it was back to brush beating and shin banging.

Always on the go and ready for that one last chance at a rabbit or mouse, the dogs beat me back to Villa Paulina.

The biggest surprise of the day was seeing and then meeting two skiers who followed my skin track partway up before running out of time and turning back down. They said they saw me ski from the top and then sent me a picture as proof. Thanks for the picture, Carlos, but where am I?

Update: Carlos resent the photo with me and the pooches circled. Thanks again, Carlos! I once was lost but now I'm found!


04 August 2008

Life In the Flat Lane

A decent storm passed through and left about 50cm (19 inches) of snow throughout the central Cordillera. Finally. I took the opportunity to head up the
Cajon del Maipo with the Parque Nacional El Morado as a destination. I had a great first tour up there last year with the continent-skipping Lea and was hoping for more of the same.

The 5,856 meter (19,214 feet) Volcan San José stands at the top of the Cajon del Maipo and straddles the border between Chile and Argentina.

The problem was that the Andes weren't quite ready to accommodate. When the Andes ask for your patience it's best to comply. The relatively dry preceding month had taken its toll on the snowpack and the new storm was both warm and wet. Though the snow level dropped significantly the snow itself was heavy with water and the storm probably went through an interval or two of rain.

The ranger at the park entrance told me to watch out for avalanches. Fair enough advice. Upon reaching the main valley floor, though, it seemed his words were a little late. As far as I could see nearly every available slope and gully had sluffed or slid its way to the valley bottom at some point the previous day or during the storm itself.

Not real encouraging. In addition to the avalancharama that often slid to the bare ground, the thin, unsupportable morning crust quickly melted into a heavy, waffle batter-like glop that stuck to skis, boots, egos, and plans. The day turned rapidly from cool and crisp to warm and warmer. The nice thing about avalanche debris, though, is that it provides a safe locale for sunbathing, picnics, and naps. So I did.

The rest of the day was spent slogging up the river, slogging down the river, looking up, looking down, looking side to side, taking pictures, and eating chocolate. A pretty good place to do all of the above.

While basking in the sun for about four hours I remember thinking distinctly that I felt like the only living boy in Santiago. A beautiful Sunday afternoon and a giant city of five-million and I was completely alone for the entire time. Until I made my way out, that is. It was then, in the waning hours of the afternoon, that the rest of Santiago woke itself up and realized that there was a real live day going on and they better make use of it. I passed several groups on their way up, postholing to their knees (and I thought skis were ineffective). Then back down to the road where everyone with a portable grill and a pile of meat made their way out of the city to see what this thing called fresh air was all about.

So I will employ more patience, skin around river bottoms, sunbathe. A week of warm temperatures and clear skies will help straighten things out. Or melt them all away.

I skin. I skin I am. I skin therefore I am. I think.

The Flatt & Scruggs Preservation Society!
The Flatlanders website.

(If you can't see a small, blue square and triangle that resembles a play button, go here and follow directions. Installing this will allow you to read and listen to music at the same time--like a real live multitasker!)