The Generosity of Presence

The sunlight danced through the tree canopy as we rode through the open forest; it dappled the hides of the horses and tickled and teased my eyes.

Oh how delicious it felt to know we were going the right way, to have a clear and distinct trail in front and behind us.

Oh how delightful it felt to have a blue sky above, sunshine in our eyes, and to be arriving where we’d actually meant to arrive, and in mid-afternoon no less!

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Winding forest paths dappled with sunshine

It’s a wonderful practice to notice what you naturally gravitate toward when you’ve pared down all of your comforts to the barest of the bare. At this stage all I needed to squeal with delight were three simple things:

  • sunshine,
  • clear skies, and
  • a sense of certainty that we were moving in the right direction.

Up to now Patagonia had whittled away all other necessities (even food, as we grew more and more accustomed to our incredibly small daily rations); and with these three gems of the day I felt like queen of the forest.

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All the necessary gems

As I rocked gently with Picante’s steady pace as he plodded across the soft forest carpet, a sense of curiosity awoke within me and I imagined who exactly it was that we were about to drop in on.

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Woodland magic

This gaucho who lived in these deep and wondrously remote glacial valleys of southern Patagonia, all alone. A man who rode his horses into town only once a year- a minimum 4 day ride (when you know the way- when you don’t know the way, and lose it often as we did, it takes far longer)- to gather supplies that sustained him in his life way “off the grid”. A man who was somehow a crucial puzzle piece to our journey, and the only person who would be able to share with us the way forward- a way forward that was not documented on maps or guide books or on GPS.  A way forward that lived in his mind, in his heart, and in the musical descriptions falling from his tongue of the rocks, the rivers, the forest and the glaciers that would be our guides from there onward.

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Wild Patagonia

As the trail dropped down we arrived at the edge of a deep, fast flowing river. The icy blue water licked my boots as Picante waded belly deep. On the other side we were greeted by several more dogs, Check and Curi Cuyen said their hellos and then trotted on after us to continue their inspection of this lovely little home in the wildest corner of the world.

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La vida del campo

I suddenly felt self conscious as we rode closer to the house- what if he didn’t want visitors? What if we felt like a burden, coming to him with our questions about the route, with our empty bellies, so hungry from weeks of rationing food? What if he didn’t even like company?

He did, after all, willingly choose to live in one of the most remote places in the world, with only his dogs, horses and cows for company…well, dogs, horses, cows and all the rest of Patagonia’s wild wonders.

But still…what if our arrival felt like an intrusion?

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The horses climbed the last hill and as they did we saw a small, thin- yet sturdy- old man striding toward us. His soft, suntanned face broke into a wrinkly smile as he reached up his hand to take Alejandro’s in his; and then he took mine. He looked us in the eyes, held each hand with both of his, and warmly he welcomed us to unsaddle our horses and unload our chiwas (the traditional Patagonia packs loaded on our packhorse).

He pointed us toward the small smokehouse at the top of the hill and told us meat was cooking over the fire, and we must help ourselves to it. He said he had to go off and take care of some things, but when he returned we would sit and drink mate together.

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Arrivals

I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so warmly welcomed, so wholeheartedly received by someone who moments before had only been some fictional being; someone pulled from a story who now was wrapping his entire heart around us with his presence and generosity. I felt so received and embraced, and for the first time since we had departed on our journey across Patagonia, I felt a sense of true arrival.

After unsaddling the horses and letting them loose, we raced to the meat and ravenously began slicing pieces off, the juices dripping off our fingers as the soft meat was gobbled up. For the last 7 days we had primarily been living off of instant mashed potatoes and rice- so the meat arrived on our tongues with a sudden level of decadence I could never have imagined. Our dogs also seemed joyous to be eating anything other than rice as they joined us in the feast, finishing off the bits of cow that the other dogs had not yet gotten to.

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Cooking meat in the smokehouse

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A feast for all

Later in the evening Don Rial returned with a few other gauchos who had stopped in to help him brand and castrate a few cattle. Alejandro would join them in this work the following day. In the meantime, we dropped into an easygoing conversation and exchange of story, meat, sopaipillas (a typical chilean dish of dough fried in freshly rendered fat), and shared wonderment of the surrounding beauty as the sun dropped behind the mountains and lit the clouds aglow with pink.

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Fresh sopaipillas

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Asado

Our time with Don Rial was far too short in reality; but those three days were deep in their width, despite the shortness of their length. He was everything that had been spoken of him, and more. When he spoke of this place he lived, of his love of this wild place, it was like listening to a poet read their most divine verses worthy of nobel prizes.

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Dinner is served

When he spoke of being gaucho, and the pride he felt for it, he described it not as being a cowboy-like figure who could handle cattle and horses and work the land, but instead as a human being who honored friendship and kindness above all. To receive others with an open and generous heart, and to be a friend to all- this is what truly made one a gaucho.

When he spoke of friendship, I felt I actually understood the depths of the word in a way I never had before. When he spoke of connection, and the way he could live so far from people, yet still feel so deeply connected with everyone he had ever crossed paths with in his lifetime, he stretched my capacity of understanding there as well. Through and through his words carried the depths of how powerful we can be with our generosity of presence, with our generosity of friendship.

He was, and is, quite simply, a sage.

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A moment with our friend, Don Rial

To be with him for a brief moment in time felt like a gift from the universe. To know him, to call him my friend, this too feels like a gift from the universe.

The details of our time with Don Rial will emerge with time, his personality, his sweetness of life, his quick wit and sense of humor, the gorgeous simplicity of his life and being, his commitment to the place, and to his soul- they are all far too large to fit into this brief glimpse of a blog post.

Yet, I had to invite his presence into all of your lives, in this moment in particular. It is two years ago that we were in his magical presence, in his magical home, deep in the belly of Patagonia.

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Don Rial leading the way

He is 80 years old now, still living all alone in his remote cabin. News from the south has been carried to us that our dear friend has grown much weaker, and he is challenged in his ability to care for himself. Also, that he continues to honor his soul, and wishes to remain on the land that has fed it for so long.

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A soul’s delight

I wish to sit with him again, to drink mate together around a crackling fire as the sun sets, casting glistening pinks and blues across the glaciers that embrace his homestead; to simply be with him in a way that honors a friendship, and his generosity of life. I wish for another chance to meet his endless generosity of presence with my own.

Regardless of wishes coming true or not, I carry forward a new impression of friendship thanks to Don Rial, and a stunning awareness of how essential a gift it is to be so generous with our whole being.

I’m thankful to my life for all of the curious paths it led me down that brought me into the presence of this incredibly bright, vibrant and shimmering light of humanity, this gaucho who lives all alone, in the belly of Patagonia.

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Don’t Doubt the Magic

I looked at Ale as he stared out across the expansive lake.

Not a single person lingered near the dock. We were alone, with our horses and our dogs and all of our belongings, waiting.

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“I don’t think they’re coming,” I said.

“They’re coming, they’re just late- it’s South America.” Ale responded.

There was no one to ask, no one to call; all we could do was wait. So we did.

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Six days earlier we had made the decision that ultimately brought us to this empty dock overlooking this seemingly empty lake. We had approached the cross roads on our way north and Ale called back to me-

“So, what’s it going to be? Puerto Tranquilo or Chile Chico?”

My mind raced. Ever since we’d left Cochrane we had been experiencing dryer and dryer territory, and it was getting more difficult to find quality pasture for the horses to graze. We’d been warned that the route north along the Carretera Austral was very dry and there would be virtually no food for them in the low country; however, we knew this route- we had hitchhiked through Puerto Tranquilo and had a sense of what lay before us thanks to our past experience.

Alternatively, we had the option of following the road west to Chile Chico to the border of Argentina, where we would have to take a ferry across the vast Lago General Carrerra in order to continue north. It would take us four days to traverse the lake on horseback, and there was no guarantee that we could even put the horses on the boat. We had to assume there would be a way to move livestock across the lake- this was Patagonia after all.

It was a fifty-fifty toss up- Chile Chico was a gamble, in that if we arrived and couldn’t put the horses on the boat, our only option would be to turn around and ride the four days back to the Carretera Austral- losing 8 days total. Riding north along the Carretera Austral meant we would likely push longer days in search of pasture and water and have to deal with the constant flow of traffic that we were surprised to find whenever we dropped onto the road (Patagonia in the summer is not nearly as remote as one might think). Road riding is terribly stressful with the dogs; the horses hated it, and so did we.

Ultimately we decided to gamble and veered from our northern heading to spend a few days due west along the quiet, dusty road toward Chile Chico.

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And so, for days we plodded along the border of the magnificent Lago General Carrera.

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We arrived in Chile Chico at dusk on a Friday, and invisible help seemed to appear at every turn as we found a farrier to shoe the horses, land where we could camp and graze the horses and an actual grocery store to resupply our food for the next leg of our journey. We rested the crew, washed and repaired the few clothes we had and enjoyed the first hot shower in nearly two weeks. It was delicious.

Sunday morning I laid out all of our newly purchased food, packed the horse feed and dog food and organized our equipment while Ale hitchhiked into town to get details about the ferry. Around 2:00pm I received a call from him, telling me to urgently pack the chiwas (packs for our horses) and get the horses saddled and ready to go. He didn’t have time to explain and instead simply said we had to get to the dock by 5:00pm that night or we were screwed.

Somewhat bewildered I hung up and began scurrying around, collecting our scattered gear and haphazardly stuffing our sleeping bag back into its dry-sack. The horses stared at me quietly as I fed them the last bale of hay to munch on while I packed frantically.

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Curi Cuyen solemnly staring up at me as I quickly pack up camp. The story behind her cone of shame is forthcoming 😉

When Ale arrived I was just tying off the last Chiwa. He brought the horses over and began grooming and saddling, quickly telling me all that had unfolded.

Apparently, there was a new company running the ferries across the lake- and this company did not allow horses onboard unless they were contained in a truck. Our dogs were required to be transported in crates. These were new rules, and were quite a surprise to us as we’d grown so accustomed to moving across Patagonia without the need of a car or truck- simply carrying all we needed on the horses.

Patagonia is changing though; and as it does, so do its priorities. As more and more companies move into the region to capitalize on the burgeoning tourism industry, they’re quickly cutting away core aspects of the true Patagonian way. One of these is the ease at which you can move across the region on horseback. Gauchos still primarily move through the mountains on horseback, with packs of dogs- this is absolutely commonplace in the southern region of Patagonia. However, the further north we rode, as there were more roads, towns and fences, we saw less and less of it; and felt the direct impact of this ease being taken away.

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In southern Patagonia, it was common for gauchos to ride alongside us with packs of 10-15 dogs. As we traveled north, this became less common

As Ale recapped the story, my logical mind began to race- what would it cost to find a truck? And how much would we then have to pay for ferry tickets? How would we find crates for the dogs? How much would we have to spend on that? And then what would we do with the crates when we reached Puerto Ibañez? We obviously wouldn’t be able to carry around Patagonia strapped to our packhorse…nor would we want to chuck them in the trash.

Just as my mind was having a hay-day of whats and hows, Ale threw me a dash of Magic.

“So then this guy behind me asked if we were the ones he’d seen ride through town with a pilchero” (pilchero this word most often used in Patagonia for the packhorse).

“I said yes, and he told me about a boat that was coming tonight. It’s the boat that’s traditionally been used for locals to transport their animals across the lake- the old way- just walk them on, tie them up and sail. According to this guy, they’re retiring the boat, and tonight is its final run. The guy put in a call and arranged for them to pick us up. They arrive at 5pm.”

I stopped what I was doing and looked at Ale, stunned.

The sequence of events that brought us here, to this place, to this moment in time, to this one in a million chance coincidence of catching a lift on this boat during its final haul…a boat that only moments ago we had no idea existed…it was almost too much for my mind to process.

Every single moment of our lives had to have unfolded in the exact moment in which it did in order for these crazy stars to have aligned. And that fact took my breath away.

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As the nearly full moon rose, we rode to the dock, arriving just shy of the 5pm departure time. Time ticked by, each passing minute brought a fresh wave of doubt that threatened the wonder that had previously overwhelmed me. 5:30pm, and I felt the butterflies in my stomach. My mind raced with all of the reasons the boat was late, followed by all the reasons they may not be coming at all. By 5:45 I had nearly lost all hope; I decided to walk around the block to the grocery store to get a drink. Ale shook his head, saying they would come; I doubted it. I was already planning what we would make for dinner back at the campsite.

As I walked back to the dock from the grocery store, I saw the large silhouette of a boat approaching in the evening light. I broke into a run, coming up to Ale just as it reached the dock. He turned and laughed, calling for me to guess the name of the boat.

What?

Pilchero.

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Pilchero, the very word used to describe our packhorse. Hahahaha. Oh universe, you my friend, have a delicious sense of humor.

Once the boat docked the crew waved us on. We loaded the horses one by one, followed by the dogs. We shook hands with the crew and looked around at the boat; aside from us and the crew, the boat was totally empty.

They had come only for us.

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As the sun set and the boat powered through the crashing waves, we sat with the crew in collective disbelief of how well timed our luck had been. The crew could laughed with us, and they seemed to delight in the fact that the Pilchero’s final haul across the grand Lago General Carrera would carry friends who were upholding the Patagonian tradition of traveling by horse with a pilchero carrying all we needed- just as their previous generations had.

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As we’d experienced so many of the old ways of Patagonia changing during our ride, it felt as though we were riding the coat tail of its previous generations. Our presence, with our horses and dogs, on that boat, felt like a small gift to Patagonia; just as the boat’s very existence, and the generosity and friendship of its crew, was an absolute gift for us. We all felt the reciprocity of the Magic.

Sometimes I need to be reminded that magic can flow into my life in the most unexpected of moments. I think we could all use this reminder. We don’t often leave room in our lives for magic- we want to control the outcomes of our efforts, have everything neatly planned out for success and efficiency. I’m endlessly grateful that we decided to leave our journey across Patagonia so open, to allow for so much magic to flow in, thanks to the lack of concrete plans confining us. We let that journey take us where it wanted, rather than making it fit into a clear cut plan to serve some pre-formed agenda.

Magic has no interest in such plans or agendas. It aims only to delight in our surprise when it wraps itself around us unexpectedly.

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Don’t doubt the magic. It’s real. 

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The Privilege of Sharing Abundance

The sweet scent of the summer meadow grass tickled my nose as the evening twilight settled across the field. The children gathered all around me as I told them stories of our close encounters with bears and hedgehogs. They giggled with glee as I described the adventures of Houdini, my most mischievous hedgehog, and her tendency to roll into a spiky ball and throw herself down the steep flights of stairs- simply for the sake of adventuring into the unknown. My, what life lessons that brave little hedgehog had for us all.

Lila played with a simple braided bracelet I wore on my wrist, telling me she liked all of the colors.

“You know,” I said, “this is a very special bracelet; it was given to me by my friends who are on a grand adventure. They are two women who are walking 20,000 miles across the Americas. They’ve been on the trail for two years and expect it will take them five years to walk from the southern tip of South America to the northern tip of North America!”

The children all stared at me with wide eyes and let out whispers of “wow” as they imagined these wild women who could embark on such a journey.

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I smiled and told them that I was very lucky because recently I had the opportunity to be a Trail Angel for these women. Again, eyes widened and faces lifted in interest and curiosity as a choir of questions spilled out into the cool evening air. The primary question of course being, “What’s a Trail Angel?!”

It was obvious that to the children, this sounded seriously magical; and in that moment, I realized just how magical it actually was.

I leaned in a little closer and did my best to paint a worthy picture of a Trail Angel across their imaginations. I described the way Trail Angels welcome travelers- be they hikers, pilgrims, neighbors, or even random strangers in need- into their home and offer them simple but wonderful things that travelers don’t always have when they’re on the trail or the road; things like freshly ground coffee, nice smelling shampoos and lotions, soft pillows and hot showers; home cooked meals and a warm fire on a cold, rainy day. These things seem small, but they are very meaningful.

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After many years of living on the road or on the trail, it always feels like a gift when I have a cozy home to offer to another.

Trail Angels give without any expectation of receiving money or things in return. We give because we know how simple pleasures can mean the world to someone when they’re in the midst of a long journey. And in some way, we are all on a journey at any point in our lives, so we’ve all been there.

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Living outside on the trail through cold and wet conditions have definitely made Ale and I particularly knowing of how wonderful a roof that doesn’t leak and a warm fire can be.

“It’s a very, very special gift to have the chance to be a Trail Angel,” I told the children.

Lila, who had been quietly sitting on my lap, looked up at me and asked in a voice just above a whisper if she could be a trail angel with me next time; the other children heard her and all chimed in, “yes me too, me too!! I want to be a Trail Angel too!!”

This moment felt special, it felt important, as though I had just extended a lifelong invitation for these children to trust one another. For them to be willing to participate in the journeys of others through simple acts of kindness. In some special way I had just shared with them a little secret of humankind, that it is a privilege to share simple abundance with one another, and that we all have an endless capacity to offer kindness to one another.

My heart just about burst with delight as I smiled broadly and squeezed them all in a big hug, promising that the next time I was lucky enough to be a Trail Angel, I would call on all of them to be Trail Angels too so they could bring their favorite gifts and offerings to the next weary traveler.

They cheered in delight. As should we all.

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Simple little delights that bring smiles and gratitude

I believe it’s in our nature to give to one another, and most people deeply appreciate opportunities to offer kindness without expectation. As soon as we tie an expectation to our giving, as soon as we draw conditions around our willingness to give, our entire world becomes smaller, and so do we. But when we give without expectation, when we are able to acknowledge what a gift it is to have something to give in the first place, that alone will fill us with an overwhelming sense of gratitude, love and compassion. The world in which we can give becomes larger; and so do we.

Personally, when I offer kindness without expectation, I find that I already have an endless well upon which to draw from. When we give from a place of abundance, we are continuously replenishing that abundance by expressing our gratitude for it in the purest form- setting it free again in the world.

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We all have a capacity to share what we feel we have an abundance of

Throughout my life I’ve experienced the powerful beauty of the kindness of strangers time and time again. As a young woman traveling solo around the world, I crossed paths with countless strangers who were always willing to help.

As a thru-hiker walking miles and miles everyday, carving my belongings down to the barest of essentials and opening myself up to a new sense of vulnerability, I was introduced to the true magic of Trail Angels who had sprouted up along the Appalachian Trail so that they could intentionally offer kindness to Thru-Hikers passing through.

Last year when Ale and I headed to Patagonia and spent four months traveling and riding our horses across the region, we were again continuously embraced by the kindness of most whose path we crossed, constantly being invited to share a warm fire, a warm meal or tea, and warmhearted stories and conversation.

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After riding for seven hours straight in freezing cold rain, we stopped at the last smoking chimney in sight to ask if there was a clearing ahead where we could camp. Alexi immediately welcomed us to spend the night in his home, fed our horses hay and even put them inside his barn so that they could dry out as well.

When Fidget and Neon, the two women walking across the Americas, headed through our tiny town in Southern Chile, it was only natural for us to receive them with open gates, open doors and open arms.

We are all, in some way, pilgrims on a journey as we live out our lives. Sometimes we’re traveling in a literal sense, but most of the time, most of us are simply traveling through the expanse of our individual lives. If we pay attention, and we leave the light on, we may be lucky enough to receive a fellow pilgrim and offer them a few simple gifts to make their journey a little more comfortable, their bellies a little more full, and their spirits lifted a little higher.

If we allow ourselves to perceive the beauty in the world, the beauty in one another, we will not only attract this beauty, but with a willing heart we can live the privilege it is to share the abundance of kindness that lives easily within each of us.

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If you’re interested in learning about and/or contributing to the journey of my friends Fidget and Neon, the wild women who are walking the length of the Americas, check out their blog and website at Her Odyssey.

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The Road Ahead

I think we reached the old road today. We won’t know until morning, but it looks as though we have.

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I’m so ready for a hot shower, to send the family a message that all is well, and to eat something, anything, everything- other than rice and potatoes and tuna.

There’s a chance we’ll get there tomorrow, the gauchos said it was an 8 hour ride from the start of the road, but we’ll just have to see. Everything has taken so much longer than they said it would.

I no longer speculate about where I’ll be when, it’s not worth the energy.

I’ll get where I’m going whenever I do. It’s as simple as that.

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The next morning the dawn light tickles my nose, and draws me from our broken tent. The frost has formed a heavy crust atop the rain fly and all of our gear, I pull on every last layer of clothing I have and quietly slip outside into the wild morning. Pink stripes splash across the mountainous horizon as my eyes adjust to the darkness. I check the horses, happily munching away on the abundant pasture, then I hike up to the suspected road.

We’ve followed the wrong path before, countless times before. That was what had taken us so long to do this traverse, the constant process of finding and losing, and finding our way again. Two steps forward, three steps back. It was like this dance with the unknown, where we were given just enough clues to keep moving forward, and yet never entirely confident we were going the right way.

If this was, in fact, the road, then somehow we’d made it across the wild mountains, somehow we’d managed to find our way along the unmarked trail that the pioneers had used so many years ago, somehow our persistence and relentless belief had brought us to the place where we’d intended to arrive.

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Where we’ve arrived, there is no more room for self-doubt. It is, quite simply, no longer an option. Self-doubt has been exposed entirely along this journey, its frivolous carelessness with my energy, its persistent exhaustion of my attention. I’ve cast it away, and in its absence I suddenly have found a deep, resounding earth-entrenched awareness of self-trust. Without a doubt, beyond any rhyme or reason, I believe entirely in the guidance of my gut, my heart, my soul, and in the destination that calls me onward. Even when I cannot entirely grasp that destination, I can feel it grasp me. And I’m overwhelmingly certain that I can manage all that unfolds before me as I continue finding my way toward it.

It’s not a frivolous trust or belief that I’m on the easy road, void of discomfort, where I will not encounter hardship. Quite the opposite- it’s a bold acknowledgement that hardship will embrace me, just as joy and beauty and laughter does, and through it I will be continuously confronted with the simple choice- do I trust, or do I fear. And as long as I remain aware that I have a choice- I can rise above my fear and continue onward.

68 kilometers and two days later we finally arrived in town. Our last evening before societal re-entry, we found a magic place to camp where the mountains jutted out from the horizon and the sound of the rushing river lulled us to sleep as our horses grazed in the evening. The road had been relentlessly hot and dusty and we were exhausted. We pitched a simple tarp, too tired to put up our broken tent, and fell asleep with our heads among the moss and meadow grass.

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Where is it that we begin to answer the calls of self-doubt? When is it that we begin listening to all the noise outside of us, rather than engage in conversation with our inner-selves? What would it look like for us to build communities, businesses, schools and governments that made space for this type of inner-dialogue? These are the questions that visit me now, as I realize how many moments self-doubt stole away from me, and I relish in the fierce strength this embodiment of self-trust brings on.

Somewhere along the way we’re told that there’s a magic formula out there for happiness and success, and if we just abide by the rules set forth by others, we can achieve “it all”. But I call bullshit. The universe has far too great a sense of humor to allow such restrictions of formulas. Self-doubt comes into play like a jester, playing tricks on us and making us feel foolish, but it is just a player among the crowd barraging us with their noise; it does not speak to us from our intuitive core.

We all have a stunning capacity for self-trust; and with the acknowledgement and commitment to this self-trust, we step into a way of living that is incredibly resilient.

It reminds me of something I realized while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail- as my body became more conditioned from the great distances I walked each day, I could climb mountains with greater ease. That’s not to say the muscles in my legs didn’t burn, nor did it mean I could climb a steep mountain without breathing heavily. Even after 2000+ miles of walking, my muscles still burned on an inclined slope, yet my recovery time shortened significantly. The momentary discomfort of the climb never went away, but the length of time that discomfort lingered diminished over time. It was, after all, momentary- temporary, always ebbing and flowing- like everything in life. And I could always, always, continue onward.

I suppose what it all comes back to is settling into a state of wonder and curiosity about the road that lies ahead, even if it’s cloaked in uncertainty. As I take a moment to reflect back on this year, and all the years I’ve lived prior to it, I feel that I’ve been undergoing this vast conditioning to grow comfortable with the fact that I will get where I’m going, whenever I do. That no matter what comes my way, I will always have the choice to trust. And, by choosing to trust, I’m allowing myself to enjoy the hell out of the ride along the way.

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Sunset on the evening before we arrived in town. We’d been rationing our food for nearly three weeks and had been dancing all along the way with the uncertainty if we would ever get out of those mountains. In this photo, we knew exactly where we were, that we’d made it to where we had meant to arrive, and that we would have full bellies in the morning. Even with the destination clear, we relished in the beauty of the crazy view behind us.

A Simple Act of Kindness

Plump, swollen, frustrated tears formed around the edge of my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. I sat beside the riverbed, the misty rain beginning to chill my bones, feeling utterly defeated as I held our broken water filter in my mosquito-bitten hands. I had been trying to get the pump to work for nearly twenty minutes, all to no avail. I pushed myself up, wiped the mud from my knees and headed back to our campsite.

What had already been a tough day filled with steep elevation gains, constant rain and sadistic mosquitos that could fly in the rain and bite through rain gear, was now made a whole lot worse by the realization that our primary method of water purification was broken; and the nearest road crossing was a 4 day walk from where we were. Crap.

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Yet another very wet day on the Appalachian Trail

Ale and I had been on the Appalachian Trail for 9 days, we were just beginning our 5 month journey walking on foot from Maine all the way to Georgia. Prior to this “little” adventure of ours, neither of us had really done any backpacking; we’d both done a good bit of camping before, but nothing like this. Everyday seemed to hold a new lesson about what it would take to live on the trail.

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Simple lessons learned on the trail: best technique for climbing over fallen trees

I guess you could say the mountains were “testing” us, giving us a run for our money, proving whether or not we had the wear-with-all to walk the entire 2,189 miles to Georgia. Blisters were forming on our feet and I had them appearing ominously on my collar bones, right where my 45lb overloaded backpack sat rubbing heavily. An overloaded backpack filled with everything EXCEPT a back-up water purification method…Crap.

When our water filter stopped working, we were in the middle of a remote  stretch of trail called the 100 Mile Wilderness, which is essentially 100 miles of trail with zero road access; so once you go in, it’s totally up to you to get yourself out. It’s pretty much the worst place on the entire Appalachian Trail to have a critical piece of gear, like a water filter, fail.

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Taking in the vast, expansive section of the 100 Mile Wilderness

Ale and I surveyed our options and decided to boil all of our drinking water for the next few days rather than risk a bought of giardia. We would be cutting it close, but if we took care we should have just enough fuel to get us to Monson, the first town at the end of the 100 Mile Wilderness where our first re-supply box awaited us.

The next two days were brutal. Each morning we pulled ourselves from our warm, dry sleeping bags only to be greeted by cold, damp clothing that never dried in the wet night air. The mountains battered us with steep ascents to cold, windy summits followed by slippery, knee-jarring descents. At the base of the mountains, we were met by swollen, freezing, fast-flowing rivers that had to be crossed carrying our packs overhead, soaking us to the bone. All the while the mosquitos tortured our psyche, swarming our heads and attacking any exposed flesh.

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Ale going “all in” to cross the swollen rivers and find the trail. He came back to carry my pack across, as I was afraid if I slipped it would pull me under and I’d drown

I was jolted awake on the morning of the third day sans-water filter by a terrible dream that ended with us running out of fuel. I looked around the dark and quiet lean-to, reassured that it was just a dream. We were 19 miles from Monson, about 2 days of hiking (at this point we didn’t have our “trail legs” and hiking 11 miles in one day was a pretty big deal). I pulled out our camp stove and fired it up, pouring in water to boil.

Just as the water began to boil I heard the distinct sound of the canister emptying it’s last bit of fuel and *poof* we suddenly had no way of purifying our water or cooking the rest of our food.

Once again Ale and I surveyed our options as we gulped down our half-cooked mac and cheese. After nearly a week of soaking rains the likelihood of finding any wood dry enough to start a fire was low to none. Neither of us had much drinking water left, I had maybe half a canteen and Ale had half his Camelbak. Aside from Nutri-grain bars and trail mix, the only food we had left required cooking for eating. It looked as though we would have to try to push out the last 19 miles in one day with no water.

We left camp with a sense of urgency, climbing up Mount Barren, quickly soaking in the views and moving on. The sky was finally clear and the sun was warm, a nice change from the rain, but not really helping with the thirst. We hiked onward for hours, soon running entirely out of water.

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Taking that very last sip of water

My mouth was parched as we hiked along, sweat beading up on my brow. As we came around a bend in the trail, we saw two hikers ahead of us, walking along the river. They didn’t have any backpacks, and appeared to have just hiked a short distance to check out the trail. Ale ran ahead to ask if they had any water they could spare.

Now- mind you, we are looking pretty worn and torn by now. Neither of us have had a proper shower in 12 days, we smell…simply awful. Our clothes are covered in dirt and sweat. By most accounts we probably looked a little bit crazy, suddenly emerging from the woods. However, none of that seemed to phase Jake and Gram. Without missing a beat they immediately invited us to follow them back to their campsite nearby where they had bottles of water in ice filled coolers.

Ice. Filled. Coolers. I never thought I would looks so forward to hearing those three words. But after two days drinking boiled/hot water and hours of hiking without a sip of anything, this suddenly seemed like a dream.

We followed Jake and Gram back to their campsite where we met their four other friends- Matt, Russ, Loney and Chad. All six of them had been best friends growing up, and even though they had families now and lived all over the country, once a year they had an annual guys weekend out in the woods.

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Ale and the guys

Before we had even finished introductions I had an ice cold bottle of water in one hand and a double stacked cheeseburger in the other. As we guzzled our water and inhaled our cheeseburgers, they peppered us with questions about what on earth we were doing and how we’d ended up in our current situation.  As I finished my burger, without missing a beat, they passed me another and replaced my empty water bottle with a beer.

Not only did the guys maintain a consistent flow of food and beverages along with their questions and endless jokes, but they offered to drop us in Greenville on their way back to civilization that afternoon. I was overwhelmed by their kindness, their unhesitating willingness to help and their genuine openheartedness.

As we jumped in the back of the truck bed and pulled away from the trail, the wind whipped my hair and I closed my eyes, smiling, relishing in the speed at which we could suddenly move. We’d moved so slowly for the past 12 days, to suddenly be cruising at 80MPH down the dirt logging road was exhilarating to say the least. I let out a belly laugh and watched as the forest zipped by with dizzying speed.

As promised, the guys drove us to Greenville where we were finally able to buy water treatment that would hold us over until we fixed our water filter. We offered them money for gas, which they refused, and instead they offered take us all the way to Monson (a good 20 minutes out of their way) so that we could resupply food. Their selfless generosity flowed like a swift moving river, and it lifted us up and carried us onward, momentarily allowing us to lay back and simply rest.

When we reached Monson, they wished us luck on the rest of our crazy adventure, shaking their heads and laughing as they piled back into their pickup trucks to head home to their families. Ale and I shouldered our heavy backpacks and walked toward the nearest hostel where we would sleep in a bed for the first time in nearly two weeks. My feet ached, my muscles ached, my blisters threatened to pop and my bug bites itched- but all I could feel was the lightness of my dancing heart, so thankful for the simple act of kindness from a few random strangers. For the next 2070 or so miles, this lightness would remain with me in many ways, carried forward by the kindness of many more strangers, and would play an essential part of my journey toward Georgia.

Our capacity to be kind to one another is truly remarkable and one of our greatest treasures. We all share this capacity, regardless of race, religion, gender or ethnicity. Throughout our lives, opportunities to offer simple acts of kindness often arise out of nowhere. Our lives intertwine unexpectedly in the most essential of moments. Each time we cross paths with someone, each time we have a conversation or share a random encounter, we have the opportunity to choose kindness. And when we do, we can only imagine how far that simple act of kindness may travel…

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Live to the Point of Tears

Three months ago I was wiggling my fingers and toes as I rocked back and forth in the saddle, willing my body to maintain whatever heat it could generate to keep my extremities from going numb. I pulled my wool hat a bit lower and tugged on the hood of my jacket to keep the cold rain out of my face. I held my reins in my right hand, my thin gloves soaked all the way through, the tips of my fingers poking out of the holes; I tucked my left hand under the saddle pad, feeling the warmth of Picante’s thick coat, still dry beneath his saddle.

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Picante resting as we traverse a deep mountain valley in the middle of Patagonia

It had been raining for three days straight. Our equipment was soaked. Our tent was soaked. The dogs and horses were soaked. Our boots and socks were soaked. Dampness seemed to be creeping into my bones, the days of wet travel through Patagonia were wearing on us.

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Another rainy day of riding

Ale turned in his saddle, calling back to me- “How’re you doing?”

“Freezing, I’ve lost feeling in my toes again, do you mind if we get down and walk for a while?”

Ale nodded and we pulled the horses off to the side of the dirt road. I loosened Picante’s girth, hung his stirrups over his saddle and gave him a hug. He lowered his head, his ears pointed forward and he curiously nuzzled my back. Check and Curi Cuyen ran up behind me, tails wagging, searching for some explanation for our dismount. I gave them both a quick pat before rubbing my hands together and stepping forward to follow Ale and the other horses. The rain continued to fall heavily, and we continued our long journey north.

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Together we walk

After an hour of walking, the blood was sufficiently flowing in our bodies again and the feeling of cold limbs was replaced with the feeling of hungry stomachs. Luckily we found a brief escape from the freezing rain in a small refugio on the side of the road. We let the horses graze in the rain as I quickly pulled out our Jet Boil stove, a cup of instant mashed potatoes, a carton of cooked vegetables and a can of tuna. The dogs curl up beside our backpacks and slept as we cooked.

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A welcome refuge on a cold rainy day

I paced around the refugio, trying to stay warm, grateful for the roof and walls that were momentarily blocking the wind and rain. This place felt like a little paradise after days of riding and walking outside in the elements. The water quickly came to a boil; I combined the ingredients, adding a dash of merken, a pinch of salt and a healthy dose of oregano. We feasted quickly as cars sped by, splashing cold puddles on our feet.

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Happiness is shelter and warm food on a cold day

The warm food disappeared just as quickly as it had cooked, our bodies seemed to be in a constant state of hunger as so much energy was required to simply stay warm. There were no leftovers when it came to meals on the trail.

We loaded the chiwas (packhorse packs) back on Zalig, bridled Aysén and Picante, pulled on our wet backpacks and climbed back into the saddles. The rain had turned into a drizzle and the clouds seemed to dissolve into fog, drifting in between the mountain ridges. Maybe, if we were lucky, it would stop raining by nightfall. Maybe, if we weren’t so lucky, it would rain everyday for the rest of the week. Either way, onward we rode.

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Rain or shine, we travel on.

About a year ago, I was listening to one of my favorite poets giving a talk about the depth at which we must be willing to dive, in order to fully embrace the lives we are given. During his talk, he mentioned the famous quote by Albert Camus- that we must “Live to the point of tears.”

Those words grabbed hold of me in that moment, they captivated me in a manner that made my heart beat a little faster. That was it- those words captured the essence of what I was seeking. Living to the point of tears felt like an invitation to pursue the grand adventures that visit us in our dreams, that give us such stunning experiences while we live them that we could cry with delight and gratitude.

I wrote down in my journal that I wanted to live to the point of tears- that this was my intention as I moved forward with this grand adventure called life, and I believed that my adventure on horseback in Patagonia would allow me to do just that.

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Standing in awe as I look out into the expansive wildness of southern Patagonia

In some ways, that’s exactly what it is. Our ride across Patagonia was an unbelievable dance with the rawest forms of being present that I’ve ever experienced. We witnessed wild places that were so beautiful they did invoke tears. We faced hardships that resulted in tears of frustration and tears of overwhelming gratitude when relief was realized. We met strangers who embraced us as friends, and were overwhelmed by the gratitude that flooded our hearts after they showered us with simple things such as homemade bread, sharing a warm stove together, and giving us their undivided attention.

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Waving farewell to Don Patricio, a deaf gaucho who opened his simple home to us late one evening after we’d ridden for hours into the night in search of water for the horses

Embracing grand adventures that demand a larger experience of living is important- but I’ve found it’s not entirely the essence of this whole “living to the point of tears” business.

What I’ve realized since finishing our ride, and returning to the “day-to-day” post-adventure living, is that the wholesome act of living in the present and acknowledging the simple things that bring us joy, continuously nurtures a deeper appreciation for life in general. When we find gratitude in our moment-to-moment existence, we may find ourselves living with the same fullness that we experience in those “bucket list” pursuits.

The inspiration for this post was a simple moment that happened a few days ago. After dinner, I poured the leftover curry into a recycled pickle jar and strolled over to the refrigerator. As I held the door open, scanning for a spot to stuff the jar, I suddenly felt goosebumps and tears well up. I leaned back, shaking my head with a smile.

My refrigerator is so full, practically overflowing, and it suddenly took my breath away. Fresh vegetables spilled out from the bottom drawer and lower shelves; a chicken sat on the middle shelf defrosting; on the door there were a dozen eggs of varying shapes and sizes, homemade cheese and butter – all bought the day before from the neighbors down the road. We don’t have a huge refrigerator, but as I looked at it’s contents and tried to squeeze in leftovers from our last meal, I was overtaken by a wave of gratitude by the abundance before me.

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Acknowledging the abundance of our community

There I was, staring at a refrigerator full of food, on the verge of tears.

These days I could cry with joy each time I step into a hot shower, or put on a lovely smelling lavender lotion. The waves of gratitude are palpable. Each morning I awake and I look out my front door and see our horses grazing, the joy bubbles up in my heart and I’m again on the verge of tears of gratitude. I notice more moments in the day that delight me- the moment the sunlight dapples the forest with shimmery gold, the hay we have neatly stacked to feed the horses for a month, the way the sun bursts through the clouds on a rainy afternoon, the warmth of the house when I come inside after working outside all day with the horses. I take a moment to simply close my eyes and smile, so thankful for this roof, these walls, and this wood heating our little home as winter settles into the mountains of southern Chile.

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Crisp early winter sunrises with the river and volcano in our backyard

“Live to the point of tears.”

Looking back, I didn’t actually think that living to the point of tears would be so literal. But it actually is. Not to say I’m walking around all day crying (don’t start worrying), but the fierceness of the joy that overwhelms me when I acknowledge this underlying gratitude- for incredibly small things- it brings me just to the point of tears, quite literally.

I do experience a heightened sense of gratitude for hot showers and a warm house on a cold rainy day, for a full refrigerator and left overs after being able to eat to my heart’s content. To be sure, that heightened sense of gratitude is easily invoked thanks to all those cold rainy days we endured riding across Patagonia.

But, what I’m continuing to discover is that living to the point of tears is actually a way of being that we can carry with us through our daily lives. It can elevate us in moments of everyday hardship and uncertainty by allowing a constant celebration and acknowledgement of the small things we can easily be grateful for.

After all, life is not always a grand adventure- and in fact, the small, quiet moments make up much more of our lives than the risky bold adventures do. With each breath we take, with each new day, we have the opportunity to wholeheartedly live to the point of tears.

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Life after the grand adventure continues to invoke incredible moments of gratitude

So, what inspires a deep sense of gratitude in you, one so powerful it may just bring you to the verge of tears, followed by an outburst of joyful laughter?

 

Beyond the Boundaries of Imagination

My heart beat rapidly as I looked upward and stared at the belly of the massive condor flying directly above us, diving and swooping and soaring up and over the edges of the surrounding peaks of Patagonia. It was a magnificent creature, looking prehistoric. Although I’d seen condors in other parts of Chile, I had never been so close and the sheer size of it was overwhelming, and we were overcome with a distinct sense that this was his territory, we were in his kingdom now.

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As we continued climbing Alejandro snapped photos in quick succession and I kept a wary eye on Curi Cuyen, who I imagined must look like a delicious morsel to the large dinosaur-like birds circling above us. The wind picked up, tugging at the flaps of my hat and drying the sweat forming on my brow. I pulled out my vest as the air cooled the higher we climbed. 360 degree views of jagged snow-covered peaks and numerous hanging glaciers surrounded us. Jewel-toned lakes dotted the valleys below. The blue sky was crisply dotted with fast moving puffy white clouds. A wide smile spread across my face, this place, like this trip, was so beyond my imagination.

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Majestic Patagonia

Our dreams are born from our imagination. They are carefully nurtured within the boundaries of our minds- the have edges and lines, distinct colors and shapes. These boundaries and lines are necessary for the dream to be constructed, they are necessary for us to fully grasp the idea of the dream, and the possibilities it could lead to. However, there comes a time when we must deconstruct the dream, we must erase some of those edges and lines to let the universe in.

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When this dream of riding horses across Patagonia was born, it began very simply- a basic image- us sitting on the backs of our horses, staring at the jagged snowy mountain ranges of Patagonia. The grass of the meadow where we sat reached our knees and was tinted golden in the warm sunlight. A soft breeze blew across the valley, invoking the sound of a million tiny whispers as the grasses bowed in it’s presence. Exactly where we were, or how we would get there was not yet exposed- there was only this image, and this feeling of weightlessness.

When we decided we were actually going to make this happen, we began the process of constructing the boundaries of the dream. How would we pay for it? Where would we buy the horses? What would we do with them after the ride? What would we share about our journey, was there a larger purpose? How would we set our route? Where would we buy the equipment for our horses? How would we travel to southern Patagonia in a very remote region with our dogs?

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We didn’t originally plan to hitchhike the Carretera Austral, but by doing so we opened ourselves entirely to the kindness of strangers- and they showed up without delay

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The unfolding of this adventure has felt a bit like this hike up Volcán Chaitén (our first adventure in Patagonia just before we began hitchhiking south)- stunning moments of beauty awaited each immediate step. And even though we couldn’t see exactly where the path was leading, we knew we were heading in the right direction. 

Our imagination began to construct possible ideas and solutions to answer all of those questions. At the same time we prioritized what questions actually needed immediate answers and what could wait until we were in a more appropriate place to find (or simply receive) the answers. Here and there we erased lines and boundaries, we left questions unanswered and options wide open. In a delicate manner we focused our energy on preparing for anything, rather than preparing for everything.

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One of those “pinch me” moments hiking along the Carretera Austral with our pups

What began as an image of a guy and a girl sitting on the backs of their horses staring at the snowy mountain ranges of Patagonia has evolved into these life experiences that keep defying the boundaries of my imagination. Never in my life have I imagined I would hitchhike 1200 kilometers across Patagonia with our dogs. I couldn’t have written into this script unfolding in my mind the countless characters we’ve encountered already who are continuously connecting us to our next destinations. Heading over to the local radio station in a tiny remote town in southern Patagonia to announce that we wanted to buy three horses and two saddles…nope can’t say I planned that. Nor could I have fathomed I would eat one of the best sandwiches I’ve tasted here in Chile on the porch of this bus as the sun lit up the breathtaking Cerro Castillo for our viewing pleasure.

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Just stopping for a quick bite mid-hitch on the Carretera…no big deal

So here I am- writing this post from the southern tip of the Carretera Austral, in the tiny town of Villa O’Higgins where we’ve set up base camp in search for our horses. We’ve been traveling across Patagonia for nearly a month, and the answers to all those hows and all those questions are still unfolding. We’re not rushing though, we’re not trying to manage this with a forceful hand. If we’ve learned anything down here in Patagonia it’s that everything will unfold in the time that it’s meant to; in the meantime patience and enjoyment of the present moment trumps all. That is, after all, how we managed to get here in the first place.

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Check, Curi and I overlooking Villa O’Higgins, our temporary base camp while we find our horses for the ride north

We’re spending the next two and a half months riding our horses 1800 kilometers across Patagonia. We’re not following a set route or a strict path; rather we’re weaving our way through the backcountry and trails that aren’t marked on maps but are instead held in the minds and hearts of the people and communities who’ve lived throughout this region before any roads existed. Once again, just as we did in order to get to our first destination (Villa O’Higgins), we’re opening ourselves up to the kindness of strangers and intentionally seeking their participation in this journey. We’re leaving edges and lines undrawn so that they can contribute and weave their stories into our own.

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When we finally arrived in Villa O’Higgins and found this statue in the town square, I knew we’d chosen the right place to find our horses and begin this adventure!

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Don’t let your dreams be dreams. 

The last little bit of this dream, kind of a dream within a dream, is tying my work into this adventure. When we left San Francisco, I always had the intention of finding a way to tie together my passion for wild places and outdoor adventure with my passion for sustainability and ethical supply chains. In many ways this dream is still in motion, still in transition from idea to reality, but it’s already begun to evolve and I’ve decided to bring it into this ride in order to give it a path forward. Again it’s a bit like that climb up Volcán Chaitén, I can’t quite see where the trail is leading, but the beauty of the path forward is continuously unfolding with each step I take, and I know I’m heading in the right direction.

When I first began working as a manufacturing manager overseeing production in factories across China, I had no idea where that work would lead me. At that moment in time it was so beyond my imagination that those experiences would ever connect with my other life passions, or even inspire them, and yet here I am, redefining the work I can’t not do.

In addition to sharing stories about our adventures on the trail, I’ll be writing stories about the things we carry with us, and the life that we give these things. Through creative storytelling, I hope to inspire curiosity about product life cycles, invoke reflection on the life we give the things we own, and motivate creative thinking about how the life of these things can continue beyond a landfill. I’ve got some ideas about how I’ll continue this work after the ride, but I’ve erased some lines and boundaries here as well, so that something can evolve that truly exceeds the boundaries of my imagination.

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I would love for you to follow along on our adventures across Patagonia, and my husband and I created a website to document our travels. I’ll continue to post stories of our adventures on this blog, but you can find more stories on our other site that will carry three main themes- adventure (sharing adventure stories as they unfold), simplicity (celebrating the simple things that inspire gratitude) and curiosity (stories of the things we carry with us, the lives they lead and the role they play in our life on the trail). Here’s a link to our website: www.abriendocamino.net – here you can find our blog, photos, profiles, and a bunch of resources to help inspire curious consumerism (check them out here!).

We’ve got a Facebook page where we are sharing great articles on solutions to move toward zero-waste economies and conservation and will also post trail updates, blog posts and photos.

Lastly, this is an adventure through one of the most stunning places in the world. All the photos in this post were shot on our way south- you can see more of this beautiful corner of the world by following our Instagram @abriendo.caminos

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For me, watching this all unfold as it has, it’s a beautiful reminder that we can’t let our dreams live only within the boundaries of our minds, we can’t delay bringing them into our reality until they are “perfect” and all the hows have been answered; instead we must let them grow wings on their own, we must let them evolve in ways that defy the constructs of our reality and instead let the universe influence their growth and development as well. If you have any doubts, let them go; if you need any reassurance that the world is waiting for you to step off the ledge, the world is waiting to celebrate your boldness, believe me it is.