Riding Herd — In Patagonia
Nick Reding (WCAS94) immersed himself in the isolated and tragic world of the Chilean "gaucho" to research a book about the last cowboys in South America.

Nick Reding

Photo by Adriano Fagundez

Nick Reding (WCAS94) held his breath in terror as the gaucho Duck pointed a butcher knife at his throat. The cowboy with whose family Reding had been living in Middle Cisnes, Patagonia, Chile, was violent after a night of drinking. In this barren land, inhabited by only a few gauchos, Reding knew that no one would have come to his aid if he had screamed.

Reding made it through that terrifying night, just as he managed his first sheep slaughter and his first cattle drive (not to mention first time on horseback) across sheer mountain cliffs and coniferous forests at the southern tip of Chile. Life-threatening episodes and personal fears did not sap Reding’s determination to tell the stories of Chile’s nearly extinct cowboys.

His sojourns in Patagonia between 1995 and 1998 culminated in the publication of his first book, The Last Cowboys at the End of the World: The Story of the Gauchos of Patagonia (Crown Publishing, 2001), which has received national attention both for its writing and for its insights into a little known and fading way of life.

Reding, an avid fly fisherman and hunter since his Missouri childhood, accepted a job at a fly-fishing lodge in Chilean Patagonia in 1994. There he grew interested in the indigenous gauchos and the toll modern development was taking on this legendary populace.

After returning from Chile in 1995, Reding worked as a magazine editor and attended New York University on a fiction-writing fellowship but tired of city
life and the daily routine of his job. So in 1998 he cashed in some of his savings to live and work among the gauchos.

Semi-nomadic cowboys, gauchos originated in Argentina. Some crossed the border into Chile at the end of the 19th century for political and ethnic reasons. They live in isolation. Patagonia, which covers 250,000 square miles over the two countries, averages less than one inhabitant per square mile. Many Chileans go their entire lives without coming across a gaucho.

“People have disputed everything from the gauchos’ ethnic or historical origin to what they do to what language they speak,” Reding says. “Some people even deny they exist.”

Reding’s book proves their existence. In 19 chapters he records his months living with Duck, Edith and their children, a gaucho family struggling with a modernizing environment. “The toll on them was really based on the introduction of desire into their lives,” Reding says. “They started wanting things they had never even known existed, like inoculations for their children, TVs, electric stoves and cars.”

After reading Reding’s book, English department chair, poet and novelist Reginald Gibbons said his former student demonstrated “stamina, determination and self-discipline as a writer.”

Not until Reding took an expository writing class at Northwestern did he realize he was interested in writing. Then he worked his way into the creative writing program. “From the beginning Nick had an excellent sense of how to write about the outdoors, because he is an excellent observer and he already knew a lot firsthand,” says Gibbons.

Now the New York City and Florida–based writer is working on a novel. While The Last Cowboys took an ethnographic tone, Reding says he just wants to tell people’s stories, not write science.

— Emily Ramshaw (J03)

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