“This is so beautiful and I am incredibly lucky to be here. Next time in the city, when I’m bemoaning not having a career or money, I must remember this” – Robert Kull, Solitude: Seeking Wisdom in Extremes. A Year Alone in the Patagonia Wilderness
Why this trip and what has it felt like? This is something I have been meaning to write about for a long time.
Not that you, the reader, need to hear my pseudo philosophy on life. I have simply felt I owed writing this to myself and by writing it here, in this semi-public forum, I might think this through a bit more deliberately. So please excuse my amateur take at life lessons. This is not meant to be a lecture, but simply a way to capture my thoughts for myself.
I originally had intended to write a kind of a “before and after”. I thought if, before my travels, I wrote about why I was going on this trip and what I thought it would be like it would be great to compare that to the actual outcome. But that felt pretty calculated and I worried it would color my experience. So instead, I let that go and just waited to see what would come up organically.
I have struggled to come up with the words. It’s easy to want to wrap this up in a little bow of profound Hollywoodized life changing importance, but that feels empty and pretty silly. I decided a better approach would be to just letting this thought simmer as the days went along. Sure enough, slowly some vague sense of an answer has emerged.
Sadly, my trip feels like it is coming to a rapid close. Techincally, I have two more weeks before my flight, but tonight I am in Villa Cerro Castillo and tomorrow I will climb the pass and head north back to Coyhiaque. From a cycling perspective, there is significance to this. Going south from this small town of a couple hundred people the road is just dirt and gravel. 600+ KM later it ends at O’higgins, a town that only saw the road extended to it in the late 1990’s. Villa Cerro Castillo is the start of the land that feels like frontier.
To the north, between this town and the rest of Patagonia, there literally is a wall of mountains blocking the old from the new. The northern part of the Carretera Austral, up to Puerto Montt, is a mixture of about 50% asphalt and 50% dirt. It is still the only route through that part of Chilean Patagonia and, if you were to be on it, you certainly would love the views and the small towns. It still feels quite remote. But with the pavement, there is something else. There is a sense of change, a sense of the wild becoming rural, a sense of peace and focus becoming filled with modern distractions. And for me, returning that way, up over the pass, feels like turning a page and closing this chapter in my life.
Given that context, I was moved to write about why I took this trip and what it has felt like. Let me start with the latter, as it is a bit more tangible. Hopefully I can keep this simple and grounded.
Was it “epic”?
No. Sorry, but I think epic is a word that only has a place in Mountain Dew commercials. Yes, I saw some amazing outdoors, met fantastic people, and rode more dirt road on this trip than I probably have ridden in the rest of my life combined, but my take away was not a sense of “epicness” but more a sense of simplicity. Mountains are just rocks, waterfalls are just moving water, glaciers are just piles of old snow, and towns, no matter how cute, remote or foreign, are just places made up of good people with similar needs, wants, joys and fears as you and I.
It was a nice feeling. Life is pretty straight forward. It’s all there, right in front of you. No mater how remote I was, there was always a rock, tree or something right there close by. No matter how long a hill or how long of a day it was on the bike, their was always just the simple 10 feet in front of you. No matter how small or foreign a town, there was always someone who would say “Hola, hola!” and smile.
Was it lonely?
Nope. Not a bit. Yes, there were times I questioned the wisdom of doing some things alone (logistics and safety) but it never felt lonely. How can you be lonely when there is nothing around in the first place? In that context, lonely becomes “by yourself”. That is a very different thing. That is a normal natural state for the situation. At the same time, life was filled with other cyclist and hikers from all over the world and everyone carried with them a different story about why they were there on their journey. I met some of the most amazing, kind and thoughtful travelers on the way. I miss them dearly. Added to this was the enormous warmth and kindness of Chileans in these tiny towns. I even felt closer to my friends and family, scattered all over the US, through their astounding enthusiasm and unwavering support for this adventure. Friends from all over came out of the woodwork to give advice, cheer me on, or just say “I’ll miss you, but am so glad you are doing this!”
Ironically, the only sense of loneliness I have had is when I think about going back to the states. I dread going back to our “busy” lives and a world of socializing through Facebook and text, scheduled dinners, beers with friends once every couple of months, zipping around on bikes with friends but not really catching up. I feel like I will be returning to a world of millions of activities, but fewer and fewer deep connections. Why does it take a trip like this for me (and everyone else) to just stop and say “Hi, how are you? No really, how ARE you? I miss you!” I have to work on that.
Was it peaceful? Did you have time reflect?
Yes, it was amazingly peaceful.
Well, other than Chalten, but that is a different creature. I will forever associate Chalten with Guns and Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” blasting from the touristy brew pub as I rolled north out of town back in to the mountains. Being the last song you hear before heading off camping for days, it kind of gets stuck, no superglued, into your head. Every morning I would roll out on the dirt road with Axel screaming [Singing?] “Sweeeeeeet child of my-i-ian…”.
Finally, after days and days of torture, I forced my self to start singing John Denver songs to neutralize the effect. Yep, imagine me riding in the Argentinian high desert, nobody around for miles and miles, wind howling almost knocking me over, and me singing whatever I could remember from my Dad’s 8-track and Mom’s record of that 70’s John Denver’s Greatest Hits album. It’s scary how many lyrics one can remember. A few hours of “Country Road” seemed to cancel everything out. Ah, back to silence and peace.
But back to the question. Honestly, I think one gets out of it what you bring to it. Some friends that I met just couldn’t get out of logistics, tourist, and worry mode while others were totally Zen. But yes, for me it was very peaceful, even on long windy or rainy days. It was just so very centering. I want to keep that sense with me going forward.
Was it scary or dangerous?
Nope. Actually, let me rephrase. Packing up my apartment, selling stuff and giving up my lease was terrifying. But once that was done, not a worry. There were practical concerns, sure, but nothing about the trip was scary. I did have my doubts about my intelligence and stupidity of riding Paso Roballos alone and in March…but that was more of trying to think through potential crisis management strategies to make up for my idiocy. It wasn’t particularly scary. (Long story, but I’ll share more details over a beer sometime.)
The rest of the route was surprisingly safe. Again, though it is in the middle of nowhere, the Carretera Austral is the only road through these parts so there are lots of cars, cyclist, and hitchhikers on the road. As long as you stay on the road, all is good (just be careful walking off road, down stream to fish etc). And at least in this part of Chile, it is very safe. People help one another. From this traveler’s perspective, there is an amazing sense of community and support. All you have to do is step up and participate. Start with “Hola!” And a big smile like all the locals do.
Was it tiring?
Hell yes! But that is only because I am a disorganized idiot when it comes to planning my route and maintaining a sane riding pace. Others that I met seemed to have a much better handle on that. I had trouble backing off and not just plowing through the tough days. It is fine to tough it out if you only have one day to ride and a large post ride pizza with friends in Sausalito or a mouthwatering burrito in Mountain View, but stupid if you are riding day after day, every night putting up a tent somewhere and cooking some pasta on your tiny backpacking stove.
This was a classic “Tortoise and the Hare” scenario with me being the Hare and all the friends I made on the route being the collectivized Tortoise. On any given day I’d cover miles crazy fast, but day after day, week after week, the tortoises would beat me every time. On the other hand, I did get a lot more time to relax on the side of the road and embrace my lack of attention by camping, fishing, and wandering wherever I wanted.
Did you have doubts?
TONS!!!! But that was all before leaving. Once I turned in my keys to my apartment I never looked back.
Did you get out of your comfort zone? How did that feel?
Not at all! I bet you didn’t expect that answer. Let me explain.
I have thought about this way too much. This is mainly because I was thinking it would be great to get out of my comfort zone but for the first week or so I just couldn’t. That got me really frustrated and annoyed. It was all too easy. I kept thinking I must be doing this the wrong way. I was way too relaxed.
Thinking about it more, I evolved to a different perspective on my circumstance. I am on a bike, riding dirt for hundreds of kilometers, in the mountains, crossing rivers, camping every night, fishing, and have loads of time to think and ponder everything under the sun like I like to do. I get to be totally spontaneous with my plans and allow myself to get distracted by anything and everything that suddenly catches my interest or goofy sense of humor (I can’t tell you how many fascinating conversations I have had with random town dogs, horses and cows. Their Spanish is excellent!). I get to meet all kinds of great people from all over the world, many of them having their own life adventures. I get to see new ways of living and being, and get to share and explore ideas with all kinds of interesting people. Hell, I can’t imagine a more accurate expression of who I am and what I love! I didn’t get out of my comfort zone. I went to my comfort zone!
This has been this amazing experience of getting to be 100% me without all of the stupid crap life at home that tries to convince you that you should want, should be, or “need” to worry about.
So it has made me start wondering, what the hell is up with this “Get out of your comfort zone” crap? Sure, in some cases it makes sense, but why do we always equate and romanticize comfort with “bad” and doing something “different” with “good”? That seems odd. Sure you don’t want to do things that make you unhappy, but why do we assume that falls under the classification of “comfortable”?
I am just throwing this out there, but could it be that the new thing we go do is actually comfortable and the familiar thing that we do every day is actually what is uncomfortable? I mean, hello, if it’s comfortable, that is a good thing, no?
I think if one is frustrated with life, one should ponder that maybe you should “Get in your comfort zone” and that maybe just maybe your daily life, though familiar, is UNcomfortable.
But I digress…
Did it change your perspective on anything?
Yes, mainly that I (we?) do and worry about a lot of silly shit in life! I mean, I have always known that, this just made me realize just how much silly shit there really is in our day-to-day life. I mean, wow. Silly, silly, silly. Really. Think about it.
Another random thought I had along those lines on one of those long days in the saddle:
The past is over. It doesn’t exist. Any memory of the past is just a story in your head that has no association with reality and actual events (even if you have pictures to “prove it”). At the same time, the future doesn’t exist either. Any worry is just a set of assumptions you are making about a series of events that may or may or happen. At this point those events don’t even exist, so why get so wound up convincing yourself that they not only will exist but will happen in your prescribed order? How self-absorbed is that? The world doesn’t care. It’s not going to line up events to align with your worries. Let it go 🙂
“Yeah, but…”, you and I think. I say to hell with that thinking. Bottom line, be here now. Worry and think a shit load less. You will have time to be more you. Yes, problems will come up, but deal with them when they happen. That is much less stressful than anticipating them. Hell, problems in the moment can be downright entertaining. I found myself laughing out loud at all of the silly problems I had to deal with. 99% of life stress is anticipation. Anticipation is nothing real.
Recommendation: When in Chile, talk with the town dogs when dealing with problems of the moment. They will always give you the time, listen and be concerned. They prefer Perro, but will speak a bit of Spanish. English kind of confuses them…but they will still be empathetic and try to understand. (Horses and cows work too, but their Spanish is a bit rustier. )
Anyway, the more you are “you” the happier you will be. I am convinced it is in our DNA.
Sorry for the amateur philosophy. I have too much time on may hands today.
Was it life changing?
People often wonder how a trip like this changes someone, or if it changes you at all. Of course it changes you, any new experience in life changes you, but it is not in that dramatic Hollywood sort of way. No, this hasn’t been a “Wild” or “Eat, Pray, Love” experience. There was no drama from home to escape from or “work through” or whatever. Sorry, no crying on the bathroom floor at 3 AM and then having an epiphany to go travel…or whatever the hell she was doing in that book, I forget. This has been a much more subtle process of change.
For me, the subtly lies somewhere in the beauty, challenges and joy of the adventure. On some level, maybe this is not about change, but about having quiet time and being out of your normal element. That sets the context for your true self to shine and for you to see yourself in a new light. You are the same person but maybe you start to see what has been there all along. Again, you are not out of you comfort one, but more IN your unique comfort zone…if that makes any sense.
So did it change me? Yes and no. I guess the trip has just given me an opportunity to spend quality time with the “me” that I know and love and have too often overlooked.
So then…why this trip?
I can’t give a specific answer to this question, but there are two quotes that have bounced around in my head during this time. I think they nicely capture my feelings about this whole experience.
I love quotes. I have a little book at home that I use to capture ones that inspire me. It’s not as if I searched for quotes to define my trip, it’s just that these two kept bubbling up organically as I went about wandering this land. These aren’t quotes from famous people. They are from everyday people in my life, but that makes them all the more powerful. Both have influenced me in ways that their authors might not realize. Neither of them is likely to be reading this blog, so I feel free to babble a bit about it. I don’t think they would mind. 🙂
Quote #1 – “Real life can wait” – Kelly E.
Kelly is a friend of mine who I have known for about a year. Unfortunately, I don’t see her often but we occasionally keep up over text and often get sucked into long digital discussions. “Real life can wait” was an outcome of one of these chats.
Kelly sent this message to me in a text last summer. I don’t think she intended it to be profound, but the simple message had a big impact on me. I had spent a few days camping in the Sierras and participating in a mountain bike race with friends. Driving home alone, I was dragging my feet and took a detour to Truckee just to get lunch, hang out, and savor the mountains for a few more hours before getting back on the highway and doing the long slog back to the sprawling Bay Area. I pondered spontaneously staying in Truckee for the night but then decided I “should” go home.
Later that week I was relaying this experience to Kelly over text and Kelly, being Kelly, immediately replied that I should have stayed and that “Real life can wait!”. Her comment really struck me and has stayed with me. Taken on its own, the statement is pretty simple and nothing new. I am sure many of you have said (or heard) it before. You likely completely agree. I’d guess though your thoughts follow these lines:
“Real life can wait!” – Sure! Absolutely, but then….
“Real life can wait!” – That is cute! Great motto for a 22 year old. Go for it while you are young…
“Real life can wait!” – Yes, and then that at some point you need to be responsible.
On the other hand, I heard it very differently. Kelly has an admirably good head on her shoulders and, from what I know of her, seems to have a great balance of enjoying life and getting things done. To me, the statement was not about goofing off and being “irresponsible” for a while. Actually, I heard quite the contrary.
Determining and owning what it is that makes you happy IS being responsible. In fact it takes an astounding amount of courage to clearly know what lights you up, declare it to the world (and yourself!), go after it, and address the logistics, consequences and maybe even social stigma that surround it. The typical “knee jerk” reaction of “that is cute, but then you need to grow up” is actually the voice of fear, not of responsibility. It is easier to not think through what you want and not go after it and instead just let daily life guide you and pull you along with the supposed “responsible” things. Ultimately, “Real life can wait!” is kind of like saying “Love yourself!”
OK, maybe Kelly didn’t mean all of that in that moment, but that was how it impacted me. That phrase kept spontaneously coming up in my head over and over as I bounced along on my journey along the Carretera.
Another thought that occurred to me at that time was that if one can truly live this philosophy, eventually that “unreal” part of life becomes a large part of your existence. Ultimately, that is real. We have one life. Might as well do all that you want. Nobody is keeping score.
Quote #2 -“Sometimes it turns out that the things we fear the most are the things that matter the least” – Mike D.
I am paraphrasing here, because I don’t have Mike’s book in front of me. I don’t know Mike very well, but he is a close friend of my good friend Greg. And like Greg, Mike is just one of those down to earth, modest, kind, warm types of people that you can’t help but enjoy being around. A few years ago, Mike rode his bike across the U.S. as a kind of a break from a high pressure though very successful job. After blogging about the journey for his family, Mike humbly self published a book that summarized those blog entries. At the end of the book, Mike makes this point when thinking back about his trip.
Mike’s comment surprised me, as he is a wildly successful corporate lawyer with an impressively calm and confident demeanor. Though admirably humble, Mike seems to exude success with everything he touches. His mentioning of fear really caught my attention.
I don’t have much to say about the quote as I think it is pretty self-explanatory. We so easily fall into the trap of thinking of fear as a real tangible thing that is actually out there in the world. But it really doesn’t exist. It’s a figment of our imagination, just like the monster under our bed was as a kid. The world doesn’t have fear per se, it just has stuff. You have the power to perceive it and react to it however you choose. Worse yet, we often attribute fear to all of the wrong things.
What matters, folks? I mean what are you worried about that really matters? Make a list. Then call “bull shit” on that list and write it again. Repeat. Repeat again. And again. Whittle that that list down. I bet you can get it down to nothing. Or you will at least get it down to some surprisingly simple things.
So that is it:
“Real life can wait”
“Sometimes the things we fear the most are the things that matter the least”
It’s a vague answer to a tough question and I don’t expect this to be an answer for your own life adventures. I just wanted to capture this for myself.
I can’t say these two statements really line up neatly. They don’t really make quaint bookends for this trip. Instead, I see them as two different paths of thought, two dirt roads wandering though the mountains and valleys. They meet at a cross roads in the middle of nowhere, and that is where I am today…out there, surrounded by mountains, glaciers and rivers and feeling the sun, wind and rain…and smiling my ass off. Travelers pass by me through those crossroads on bikes loaded down with gear, or walking with their backpacks while sticking out their thumbs hoping to hitchhike. Locals drive by in their red pickup trucks with dogs barking in the back and gauchos leap out of the woods on horseback crossing the road and head back into the woods.
“Hola! Hola!”, everyone exclaims.
Welcome to the adventure, everyone. Enjoy it.