How a Bay Area native in Patagonia made it home

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Not a broken-down truck, a nighttime hike in freezing temperatures or multiple police checkpoints could keep Fremont native Thomas vonGnechten from coming home from the remote Patagonia ranch where he had been sheltering-in-place during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It feels really good to be home. I’m glad I caught the tail end of springtime, wildflowers are out,” he said from Calaveras County. “Spring in the foothills is one of the main reasons why I’m here.”

For weeks, vonGnechten had been in a race to get out as Argentina shut down and a harsh winter approached the isolated Estancia Ranquilco, the 100,000-acre ranch where he has volunteered for years.

At first, the ranch was an ideal shelter, shielding him and other guests from the virus in a place where they had plenty of food, space and company. But after a cluster of COVID-19 cases one town over and an Argentinian ban on all commercial flights, it was clear it was time to make the multi-day trip to Buenos Aires for a seat on one of the last repatriation flights home.

On what he hoped would be his last Saturday in Argentina, vonGnechten went out for one last ride on his horse. He remembers thinking, “I hope the tickets don’t come on sale while we’re out.” They did and by the time vonGnechten got back, the flight was sold out. Luckily his boss had purchased tickets for him and the other guests at the ranch who were flying back. vonGnechten spent the next two days packing and doing some last-minute repairs on the supply truck, which had been making strange noises and seemed on the verge of dying.

“Our final day we spent baking bread and smoking a rump roast,” he said. “We prepared with a two-day supply of food.”

The group set off early Tuesday, some on horseback, one person in the supply truck with all the gear and luggage, and vonGnechten and three others on foot. At the base of a steep hill, the truck gave out. They carried luggage up the mile-long hill with the help of a couple of mules to another truck, which the ranch owner kept at the top of the hill. Some guests took the gear and second truck to a nearby ranch for the night while vonGnechten and two others walked, doing part of the 15-mile trek after sunset under a high, cold moon with temperatures dipping into the high-teens.

Fremont native Thomas vonGnechten (left) at the top of a mountain pass on his way to a U.S. repatriation flight in Buenos Aires. Courtesy of Thomas vonGnechten 

The next morning, vonGnechten and the rest of the ranch travelers boarded a bus for Buenos Aires, arranging a quick stop at a nearby hospital to get a temperature check and medical clearance to travel and passing through several police checkpoints. They had a BBQ on the rooftop of an apartment the ranch arranged on their last night in the country, as local residents came out on their balconies to cheer medical workers.

“The whole experience was our first, ‘Oh, now we’re in a pandemic, we’re supposed to be scared.’ I had to keep myself from shaking people’s hands,” he said, adding that the ranch group that had isolated together wasn’t used to urban restrictions. “Now all of a sudden we’re in this world where we have to keep away from everybody.”

From there, vonGnechten flew to Miami, where the group tried to sleep in the deserted airport waiting for their connections. Unlike Argentina, he said, there was no screening of passengers — not even the usual agricultural screening. From Miami, he flew to Dallas, and then on to San Francisco, where his parents were waiting with a car stocked with food, toilet paper and sanitizer.

“It was really hard to not give them a hug. I’ve been gone for four months,” he said.

Eventually, vonGnechten made it home to Vallecito, where two other ranch guests and their newly adopted Patagonian dog, Django, are quarantining with him for a couple of weeks.

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