In the anfiteatro, I built a small man of red rocks. This was in the Valley of the Shells, on a remote stretch of desert between Cafayate and Salta in northern Argentina.
It was March, when hardly anyone goes there. We were on motorcycles, the off-road variety, four men in our late 50s trying to cheat death in the Andes, to prove we could live forever. I had never ridden a motorcycle before. I liked it a lot, but it frightened me, and I often fell behind.
The anfiteatro, or amphitheatre, was a giant, clamshell-like declivity carved out of the sandstone of the Andes by a stream. The Incas used it for five millennia as a megaphone to implore the mountains (the gods of the Incas) for rain and good fortune. Then, in the course of 50 brief years in the 16th century, the Incan empire was wiped out.
I was the only person in the anfiteatro. It made my voice extremely loud and seemed to give me a slight New Jersey accent. I talked to myself out loud for a while, and then, in the middle of its open ground, in a pool of warm sunlight raying down through the top of the cavern, I built a small inukshuk. I don’t know why.
A man, a foot high. Narrow-chested, but well-balanced. It was a little cheesy, I suppose, but seemed preferable to painting “Moron Tour” or “Starsky and Hutch” on the walls of the cave, as previous visitors had.
Then I climbed back on my Honda XR 250 and leaned my way through the rest of the Quebrada de las Conchas. I loved the way the bike’s engine split the piled-up air in the narrow canyons, loved careening through my turns. Every moment demanded my full attention, which I figure is why I felt so alive. Condors hovered off the cliffs plunging down to my right. Elegant cardon cacti, the tallest species in the world, stood on the slopes like a crowd of dignified skeptics.
An hour and a half down the road, I spotted the others, bikes parked under a tree by a roadside restaurant. I was ordering a ham sandwich when my cellphone rang. For the first time in a week.
There was only a text, from my brother.
“Dad has died,” it said, characteristically brief. “Please call.”
According to the time stamp, the old man had dropped away just as I was making the inukshuk in the amphitheatre. Not that I put any store in that kind of thing. But a death in the family always draws out the ironies. While I was trying to cheat death, my father decided not to.
It wasn’t a tragedy. He was 98 and wanted to die, after a life that suggested he might not, ever.
Peter Henry Brown, born Feb. 7, 1914, at Winchmore Hill in north London, Essex, was one of the indestructible war generation. He played his last game of squash at 87, lived with his first and only wife in their own house until her death at 95, and was still going to work twice a week – he was a scrap-metal broker – at 98.
People liked having him around: He never willingly wanted to embarrass anyone, wasn’t pushy and was a good listener with a ready laugh and an eager interest in the news of the day – especially news that reeked of impending economic doom. He liked to be the one who read the omens first. He had lived, after all, through a stretch of history when they abounded.
Twenty minutes of rigorous calisthenics daily, without fail. His profanities were limited to bloody and the odd, eye-rolling Christ! for emphasis. After 80, he threw in an f-word more often (so did everyone) but remained even-tempered. Good with figures. Quick hands and feet (boxing, wicket keeper, flyhalf for the Saracens rugby team, a tryout for England). He only ever struck me once, after I’d been especially rude to both him and my mother; I never saw the blow coming. An affection for English tailoring and manners.
He held doors for both women and men, and wore a tie – to visit his lawyer, to birthday parties, whenever a show of respect was called for. He ate fast like a wolf (a product of three brothers, boarding school, scarcity and the navy), but never too much. He hated pears. Two scotches a day, or rye and ginger in the summer.