Gnome, Sweet Gnome In Villa La Angostura
Our arrival to Villa La Angostura, about an hour north of Bariloche, set the tone for a wacky week. Driving the windy road on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi thrilled us with views of snow-capped Patagonian peaks but made poor Kyle throw up all over himself in the car. When we eventually reached our cabaña complex, called Guardianes del Bayo, we probably looked as bad as we smelled because an icy rain and wind left us bedraggled and shivering.
As we unloaded our belongings and cleaned up the mess, my eyes took in a babbling brook that cut through a well-kept lawn and a cluster of wood cabins, flowing past a play structure and under several arched footbridges. Then my ears caught a tune from long ago that was piped in from speakers somewhere — The Carpenters’ “Top of the World.” Karen Carpenter’s saccharine voice singing “I’m on the top of the world, lookin’ down on creation …” floated through the breeze and became a tape loop in my brain.
Then I began to notice pointy red hats on little bearded figurines inside and outside our cabaña. And then the sign with our cabaña’s name: Los Gnomos.
With a mix of shock and awe — uh-oh and oh, wow! — we realized we had booked ourselves into some kind of fairy-tale lodge where everything seems a little bit off.
It’s not just our cabaña — these wooden creatures are everywhere. Just as varnished burl bear carvings decorate the landscape in the backwoods of Northern California, so do fanciful carvings of mythical spirits on these roadways.
This part of Patagonia has a distinctive, Disneyland-esque style of mountain architecture that I hereby dub Gnome Home. We got our first hint of it in Bariloche, at a restaurant called Tarquino that we nicknamed the Hobbit Hole, which has an exterior that belies a surprisingly sophisticated menu.
But Gnome Home truly flourishes in this smaller, quainter tourist hamlet of Villa La Angostura. Large, heavily lacquered logs, all gnarled and knotted, frame every door and window, and over-sized, lumpy-looking rocks form the foundations and chimneys. Some of the dimensions of doorways and furniture seem designed for trolls — low and wide — while other doorways and stairways seem unnaturally narrow.
The kids are enchanted by the place and seem more elfin with each passing day. All they want to do is read, play make-believe and run around. They’re probably inspired in part because Morgan is reading The Hobbit to Kyle and helping both kids draw hobbit-like creatures. Another book we’re reading together, Lois Lowry’s classic The Giver, motivated them to spend hours creating a fictional community. They seem to have moved past their homesickness — at least for the time being — and Morgan observed the other day that it’s been weeks since we’ve heard either of them complain, “I’m bored.”
But just as every fairy tale has something frightening, so too did our week. We had to cope with a dental emergency when a crown on one of Morgan’s molars popped off, leaving the tooth underneath painfully exposed. We had no choice but to seek treatment — and very limited options. Hence we found ourselves two days in a row in a small office that specializes in cosmetic dentistry for the tourist trade. It had a waiting room decked out as though designed to appeal to twentysomethings from West LA. The kids and I spent a few hours sitting there on an oddly curved couch with faux fur trimmings, surrounded by neon accent lights and multiple video screens that played MTV videos from twenty years ago. We had noticed in Buenos Aires that American pop from the ’80s and early ’90s is big, playing on radios and in stores everywhere, but this dentist office showcased retro flashbacks as much as any late-night VHI marathon.
Morgan, meanwhile, seemed to be disassociating while watching four music video screens that surrounded the dental chair. When the dentist (a fashionable and relatively young woman) prepped Morgan’s tooth, he discovered that she skimps on Novocain, and he later described the process as excruciating. The good news is that after back-to-back appointments, everything seems fine.
Perhaps you’re wondering, after all this, why we’re here as opposed to somewhere warmer and not quite so weird, such as Mendoza (where we’re headed next week). We came to Villa La Angostura, which has a population of around 7,000, for this weekend’s Salomon K42 trail marathon that traverses the town’s main peak, Cerro Bayo. Some 2000 runners and their families have arrived for the 42K and 15K races, so the town’s three-block center permeates an athletic vibe. We’re two of only three participants from the United States registered for it, but the event draws runners from all over South America.
Earlier this week it seemed the weather would play a trick on us all, as fresh snow coated the ground and deepened the frigid knee-high river that runners have to cross, but the sun came out yesterday and everyone is cautiously optimistic it’ll hold. Nonetheless, I’m admittedly nervous about this event. But Morgan is game for it, and so am I. If I find myself plagued by doubt, exhaustion or hypothermia, I’ll just keep singing that Carpenters’ tune that’s been stuck in my head all week: I’m on the top of the world …