There are three Patagonias. One, and it is incomparably the largest, is a wilderness of ubiquitous pebbles, black lava flows, sterile volcanic ash, sparse thorn bushes, and eternal wind. It is a caricature of a country, a setting for antique melodrama, and in the words of the melodramas “it ain’t fit fer man ’r beast.”
The second is so unlike this that it seems a misnomer to call it Patagonia at all. The narrow ridges of the cordillera, the glaciers of the southern Andes, and the wooded coast region of South Chile historically belong to Patagonia, too, but they are so unlike the pampa and meseta region in appearance, climate, and spirit that it is misleading to include them under the same name.
The third Patagonia is a saving grace in the midst of the first. Even in the wind-swept grimness of pampas, if there is soil and water, verdure may appear, and a welcome haven from the rigors of one of the most unattractive of the earth’s corners may arise. Unfortunately the requisites of soil and water are very rare, and the green land forms such a small part of the Patagonian landscape that it is no more than a few scattered oases.
Look at a map of extreme southern South America. It will not be accurate, for even now there are large areas which have not been adequately explored or correctly mapped, but it will show the main features. In extreme northwestern Patagonia two streams, the Neuquén and the Limay, rise in the Andes; one flows southeastward and the other northeastward, and they meet at the little settlement called Neuquén. The resulting river, the Río Negro, flows on through the meseta region, barren even in this milder latitude, and into the sea near historic Carmen de Patagones, most southern town of Buenos Aires Province. The narrow valley of this river is the most northern Patagonian oasis.
For about three hundred miles south of the Río Negro there is no water except in occasional wells or desert springs. Then comes the Río Chubut, which also owes its continuous but fluctuating flow to headwaters in the distant mountains. Its middle course is near latitude 44° South (Portland, Maine, is nearly in latitude 44° North).
The next permanent river, the Deseado, is nearly two hundred miles farther south at its nearest point, but between the two are the large lakes Musters and Colhué-Haupí, whose waters are also being utilized for the gradual development of a small oasis.
The region between the Río Negro and the Río Deseado is the most sterile and unpleasant part of Patagonia, a strong superlative, and the Chubut River flows nearly through the middle of this. Here in America it is hard to visualize what this means to the country and to travelers in that distant land. I sit here looking out at green grass, leafy trees, busy streets, tall buildings, and it is an effort to recall the thrilling joy, the real rapture, that I have felt at seeing a muddy stream, a few poplars, and a rather forlorn little frontier town.