You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, 'I lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along. - Eleanor Roosevelt
There used to be a time in my life when I was unable to sleep without the corridor lights on and the door wide open. The loneliness would be so overwhelming that it would paralyse me. Still, I never believed that life without fear was a viable possibility, but rather that it is vital to try not to let fear interfere with your dreams, whether they seem too big or too far-fetched or whether you consider them small and trivial.
A few years back, while travelling through the salt flats of Southern Bolivia, a little dream seed was planted in my brain when I saw two intrepid cyclists riding through the seemingly endless desert with nothing other than their bikes and a set of panniers. What an amazing way of travelling, I thought. This seed eventually sprouted into a well-shaped idea until this winter it finally bore its fruits and, taking advantage of a perfect window of opportunity, I booked a flight to Chile. My heart had long been beating to explore the infamous wilderness of Patagonia. By bicycle.
And so the journey begins
The initial fear I felt of the unknown, which would clog my brain and interfere with sound reasoning during the planning stage, was quickly replaced by ecstatic excitement when I finally held my fully-loaded, ready-to-ride bicycle in my hands. The only thought occupying my mind was that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. None. Nothing but the bit of theoretical information I had gathered on different blogs and websites in the previous three weeks. Hence, I knew how to ride a bike, I knew which way to go, yet somehow the whole journey was a big question mark to me. Just like life itself. I may know how to walk, I may know I’ll die eventually, but that has always been the extent of my knowledge.
It took me about a minute and a half to realise that I was way out of my comfort zone: the weight on the rear rack was challenging my balance and the strength of my thighs in a matter of seconds, and I felt as though people were staring at me because they could tell that I was uncomfortable. I pedalled on because that’s what I had come for. The first kilometre, 10 kilometres, 50 kilometres... Soon I started realising that each kilometre, as I was riding through ever-changing landscapes and conditions, told its own story: kilometre 25 was my first lunch break by the sea. Undisturbed, I dipped my feet into the fresh water and thought: “This isn’t so hard.” That thought faded faster than I could hold on to it. At kilometre 60 I got introduced to my first section of impossibly frustrating dirt road, where I had no choice but to push my bike uphill under streams of sweat and inhaling unhealthy amounts of dust. The previous thought was replaced by: “It’s too hard, I can’t do this.”
But, then there was pride.
Surprise took me by the unexpected appearance of a fellow cyclist at kilometre 99, who, against all the odds, had wormed his way into my heart by kilometre 275. Those days were filled with struggles and heated discussions on the bike, but affectionate tenderness off the bike. But above all, there was mutual support. One can learn to do everything alone in life, but every now and again someone comes along who softens your edges and reminds you that you don’t always have to.
The next 400 kilometres were filled with the most undimmed, star riddled night skies, dreamy lakes and turquoise rivers, as well as relentless rain, unforgiving climbs and tearful breakdowns. The intensity of Patagonian wilderness started reflecting on the intensity of my emotions. At a crossroads at kilometre 699, I finally had to part ways with someone whom I was just beginning to fall in love. As I rode down the lonely road with tears pouring down my face, I felt the presence of fear once again. Fear of being alone, when just two weeks earlier I had relished the prospect of being on my own.
On my own again
It was time to spread my wings now. I decided kilometre 720 would be my first solo attempt at stealth camping. For lack of experience, I settled on a less than perfect, somewhat crooked slope with complete exposure to the almighty weather gods. I was punished with merciless wind gusts that tore on my tents outer sheet fly and kept me on edge all night long. It felt like I was violently yanked out of a dream every few minutes. That was the first time I realised: just like every other wild animal, my brain now needed to stay alert, my senses sharp, even while I was asleep. In our civilised culture, we have grown used to building ourselves forts around our sleeping quarters; therefore most of us have no reason to expect danger while we rest our brains. It struck me that this is a real luxury.
Further along, somewhere around kilometre 785, an aborigine spirit stroked my neck while I was enjoying my REM phase, leaving a creepy sensation on my skin that remained so vivid, it would haunt me for days. Apparently, the presence of these spirits is a well-known and accepted fact in these corners of the world. Sleep deprivation and exhaustion were starting to wear me out.
After kilometre 850 I started screaming and swearing at the road for being so uncooperative. I honestly was giving it all I had to offer, all my strength, mental as well as physical, all my motivation, my anger, my fear, my joy, my sweat, my everything. Eventually, it took my voice as well, and I couldn’t remember why I was doing this in the first place. I thought about quitting, then and there.
But, then there was pride.
Crossing the border - A fresh start
The Argentinian border at kilometre 985 was my absolution. The painful hills lay behind me; I had reached the end of the bumpy dirt road. Ahead of me extended an even, perfectly smooth road into new, unexplored territory. I could breathe again… Though not for long, as it turned out.
There are two parallel roads that cross almost the whole of Patagonia: The Carretera Austral winding its way through the rough mountains, lakes and rivers of southern Chile, and its Argentinian alternative, Route 40, a lonely and desolate road extending from northern Argentina into the country’s never-ending, monotonously flat, yet nonetheless beautiful Pampa.
As I experienced this extreme change of scenario that day, with a light drizzle cooling down the air and my temper, I felt like I was starting fresh. But although the road was nicely paved and mostly flat, I had one new enemy to face. This part of the world is renowned for its cruel and unforgiving wind, and I soon learned it thoroughly deserved its reputation.
Three days, three challenges
On the first day, I ended up stranded between two equally unprotected plains of spiky shrubs and thorny bushes on either side of the road. I had no other option but to set up my tent on top of a remote hill to stay out of sight. How it didn’t get ripped to pieces by the heavens that night, I’ll always wonder. The morning finally came about with a sudden cease of wind and a strange sense of profound peace and serenity that filled the air. The sky, as if trying to apologise to me, painted the horizon in a layer of pure gold, with only the dome shape of my tent standing out against it.
On day two, I found refuge in a dark and narrow tunnel hidden right underneath the road. The decomposing corpse of a guanaco lay as if placed there purposely, on one end of the subway, setting a sombre atmosphere. A thick, rugged, black plastic cover hanging down the other end was being brought to life by a stiff, cold breeze blowing through the passage. It vividly reminded me of Harry Potters' death-eaters.
On day three, I reached a river, where hidden between a few trees, I was sure to catch a good night’s sleep. I forgot to take into account that, in the desert, where there is water, there are also thirsty creatures are wandering about. I was abruptly woken up in the dark of night by the sounds of some mysterious animal wanting to explore the surroundings of my tent. I held my breath for longer than any free diver has ever done because I knew pumas were roaming the land... I may never find out what was on the other side of the thin sheet separating us, but the footprints I found nearby the next morning were bigger than your average cat’s.
My journey goes on and every day brings about a new story, a new struggle, a new surprise, a new lesson. I have found a deep sense of pleasure in not being able to tell what tomorrow might bring – where I will sleep, what food I will be able to eat, whether I will find water, whether I will be full of energy or if my body will fail me. One could think I’m at fate's mercy, but I believe it to be quite the opposite. Every day I learn how to survive a little better. I learn to listen to my body. I learn to ask for help as well as fend for myself.
There used to be a time when I was unable to sleep without the corridor lights on and the door wide open. But today, I can sleep almost anywhere. Creepy underground tunnels, abandoned ruins or desert plains, far away from civilisation.
There used to be a time when loneliness would be so overwhelming that it would literally paralyse me, but I don't feel that way any more. Two fellow cyclists once told me that “The road never abandons you”. They were right. Travelling alone doesn’t necessarily mean being alone. I never was. Even on the worst days, I could rely on perfect strangers offering me their support and kindness. All I had to learn was how to ask. Most of them felt no less vulnerable than I did. I had to give priority to trust rather than apprehension and doubt. In exchange, I experienced a level of humanity and humility that has humbled me to my very core.
Every so often, fear still grabs me by the throat. I’m still on the road, discovering new things every day. And even though I cannot kill fear, nor do I want to, I have become quite skilled at overcoming it. For me, it acts as a motivator. Psychologically speaking, fear is a very primal, natural and even necessary emotion – but then again so is curiosity.
Author - Carolina de la Hoz Schilling
Biologist, diver and writer of Spanish/German descent with a passion for solo traveling, unhealthy amounts of chocolate and everything marine, especially if it has gills.