One month into something new: Fitting in like a hen in the dark

When you start something new and hit bottom not long after, you can either call it quits or pull and prod yourself up the hill to a better place.

I hit bottom in Italy around Week 2. I didn’t fit in, I couldn’t understand people, I missed my routines.

(Also, I’m in Italy. A friend recently mentioned I have neglected to mention this critical and wonderful detail.)

After giving myself permission to indulge in a few mopey days, I started building internal bridges and soaring Italian fortresses, getting stronger and more confident in this new place.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of a wonderful analogy from Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love: You must place a new hen in a chicken coop in the night — if you do it in the day, the chickens will violently go after the newcomer. But in the night, something wonderful (or massively forgetful) happens, and in the morning a newcomer is not new at all, just another one of the flock who seems to have always been there.

I’m starting to feel like the hen that was placed here in the dead of night. Not without some sharp picks from the other chickens (really just my own fears), but overall — I fit. I belong, and that is a precious place to arrive, whether in a new job, place, or relationship.

Beautiful cobblestone streets of Padova Italy
of course i want to belong in these wonderful streets of italy!

Unlike the chickens, I have a good overnight memory, so I needed to do some self-pulling and prodding to get myself out of the slump and into this happy place where I am now, a little over one month in.

Realize that you belong here enough. New job, new place, new relationship — doesn’t matter. You are smart, qualified, cute, and gosh darn it, people like you. Basically, go with the “fake it until it’s true” strategy.

Sure, I don’t necessarily look like I am from here (I’ve asked many people many times if I could pass for Italian, and the answer is always, unequivocally and immediately, “No”). I’m only just learning to speak the language. Mostly I speak a Spanish-Italian mix that requires correction every other word, making for very long conversations.

But I love to talk to new people and make new relationships over a glass of wine, and I agree a little shot of coffee is all you need in the morning, so I’m telling myself that I belong enough to walk down that street with confidence now.

italy loves bikes! i love bikes! italy, let’s love each other!
italy loves bikes! i love bikes! italy, let’s love each other!

Know you can bumble through anything. Ideally, you’ll gracefully sail through the challenges something new throws in your path. You will offer a new idea, and your coworkers will all congratulate you for your brilliance and shower you with champagne for taking the initiative and making the company gobs of money.

Maybe more likely, as you are learning the ropes of this new place, you will mess up. Repeatedly. You will offer a new idea, and you will get silence, blank stares and a raised eyebrow.

The key is to realize that when you mess up, no one other than you will remember tomorrow. Even that awkward moment when you misunderstood the situation or instructions or said “I’m sorry, excuse me” to your boyfriend’s parents when you meet them instead of “nice to meet you,” like you meant to say — it all passes.

Which brings me to the most important getting-out-of-the-slump technique.

You must laugh at yourself more often. Fake laugh, if it’s not real yet. Try out different laughs. Find yours and have it at the ready. I prefer the confident, “oh I’m so charming that I just totally messed that up” laugh, shoulders back, a toss of the hair, followed by a wink.

Laughing will get your happy hormones to kick in, and even if your cheeks are deep red and you want to crawl into a hole, you’ll physically start to feel a little better. Which hopefully will then trigger your “I can do this—I do belong” internal monologue.

verona italy at night
i actually used my little confident fake-laugh to recover after a night in Verona when i hit a low point, crying in a pizzeria because i was feeling homesick. if you can’t laugh at the fact that you are in a stunning historical city and crying in a pizzeria, you’re in trouble.

Say yes more often than no. Saying yes, even internally, is another confidence-booster. Even if your brain is exhausted and you really want to eat lunch alone, or that dish looks gross, or happy hour with coworkers doesn’t sound great — say yes anyway. You will start feeling like you belong more with every yes.

Be honest with yourself and say what you want. Not saying what you want is unhealthy. We all know this, and some of us have paid thousands of dollars to shrinks to help us spit out what we already know we want to say, but just need a little (read: a lot) encouragement to actually say it.

Unfortunately, knowing that doesn’t make it easy, especially for a Midwesterner who would rather avoid anything that feels even remotely like confrontation or disagreement or surfacing of emotions.

At two weeks in, when I was feeling caged and antsy and lonely and everything bad, I was holding in what I really wanted—some space to write and be alone. But I was afraid that asking for this would be hurtful to my boyfriend. Fear held me back and was creating all this ugly internal icky-ness inside me.

With encouragement from a friend, I said what I needed out loud to him, and like magic, all of the icky swamp inside me drained away. Beautiful bright fields of space opened up.

well, since i’m in italy, it’s got to be a field that is covered in succulent grape vines, of course.
well, since i’m in italy, it’s got to be a field that is covered in succulent grape vines, of course.

What feels like a miracle is that these beautiful bright fields have stayed with me. I’m making friends, I’m bumbling through speaking a new language, and I’m eating incredible food. I feel whole. I belong!

I am a lucky hen in a medieval stone city, drinking a little café in the morning and local wine at night.

Four Reasons to Get Off the Couch and Go Travel

Inevitably in the life of a traveler, you are having a glass of wine with a friend, talking about where you’re headed next, and they will pop the question:

“But why do you need to travel?”

Or some variation thereof.

As if it’s a choice, I always think, followed immediately by — I am so incredibly lucky. Travel is an incredible privilege, and of course it’s a choice.

But I think once you cross a certain line — maybe it’s a number of days abroad or a surprise experience or your first foreign friend — it also becomes a part of who you are, and you can’t stop traveling any more than you can stop getting older.

San Juan de la Costa, Chile
I travel for stumbling upon beautiful moments like this, in San Juan de la Costa, Chile.

When I’m the U.S., I can be in my city of residence for maybe one month before I start to itch to be somewhere else. At two months, my leg starts to twitch and I’m booking a flight, and by three months, I’m on a plane.

I remember once in the last five years being asked where I was going next, and responding, to my own surprise, “I have no trips planned.”

Which immediately set off a major internal panic attack and frantic Kayak search for flights.

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Entirely accurate self-portrait of how I get when I don’t have a flight on my calendar.

But the best way to answer this question of “why travel” is to recount one of the many, many amazing days exploring a new place.

#1: Travel for the taste and feel of a new place.

Last month in Chile, I spent a day in Bahia Mansa, this tiny fishing village on the Pacific Ocean, rugged cliffs and forested hills.  The one road into Bahia Mansa dead ends at the pier’s dusty parking lot, framed by wooden seafood stalls. At the entrance to the town is a sweet cove of a beach, where I sat in the sun, eating blueberries and cherries I bought from a family at the weekend-only market one town over.

Savoring the slight sweet-tart of the blueberries on my tongue, I watched a puppy wildly chase seagulls along the sand – only to wildly run away whenever the water broke a little too close to his paws.

Bahia Mansa Chile
I totally wanted to run after this puppy that was chasing gulls and then save him from the waves he was running away from.

#2: Travel for the lazy discovery of something new.

I had gone to Bahia Mansa with the plan to see penguins by boat, lured by a flyer left in my hostel. On the pier, a man came up to me with the same flyer, and I said I was in. Vamos!

But no, he explained, he needed a minimum of five people, and we were now just three. So, in about 30 minutes we would go, he said.

Having played this game before, I clarified: “Are we going in 30 minutes or when you get five people?”

He smiled. “Five people.”

So I settled into life on an active fishing pier, watching the bartering between fishermen and buyers. Two fishermen pulled up nets full of crabs. People approached, jumping back with squeals and laughter when the claws moved. Families came and went, heavy bags of fish in hand.

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This little guy was fascinated by the just-caught crabs.

After an hour, the penguin guide hurried to me with his thumbs up —good to go, we were now five. I hustled to the boat launch with three other tourists — and it’s clear we are still definitely not five.

The guide goes back to search for his missing No. 5. We keep waiting.

This person supposedly shows up, because the guide comes back and says, “Vamos!”

Only now he checks the boat and realizes we are missing our illustrious captain. The guide goes in search of El Capitano, and we can see the outcome at the end of the pie: He is found eating a leisurely lunch at one of the stalls.

We wait some more.

#3: Travel to meet wonderful people.

The day before coming to Bahia Mansa, I was two towns to the south on a beautiful but ginormous-fly-filled beach. I spent my quick 30 minutes there fending off attacks from kamikazing flies like a crazed person with a branch — imagine the sound of bees, but twice the size.

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I was not the only one battling the monster flies on this beach.

A kind family offered me a ride back to my beach town, so I took it to avoid another hour walking with these aggressive flies. (Which apparently only plague this town for three weeks in January, so avoid those few weeks if you can!)

I arrived at my hostel, and within seconds realized I had lost my phone. I was sure it had fallen out in this nice family’s car, and I was hopeful they would bring it back.

Now waiting in Bahia Mansa a day later, as I spied the penguin guide and our now-satiated captain coming back up the pier, a couple approached me, asking if I speak Spanish. Thinking they wanted to chat, I was slightly tripped up when they ask if I was at a beach yesterday and lost something.

Yes, I answered hesitantly, because this was not the people of the van who gave me a ride.

“Where were you yesterday? Were you batting flies with a branch?”

I laugh, happy my crazy performance made me recognizable as it clicks into place — this couple has found my phone!

They found it in the sand, they explained. They saw me get into the family’s car, they’d been waiting for me to call the phone to find it, and they even went to the police station to see if anyone had reported it missing.

They were so happy to find me, and me them. I exchanged big hugs with the woman, and we exclaimed over and over how amazing it was that we found each other (as the penguin guide was tapping his foot in the background, as if I had kept him waiting for hours).

We said goodbye, and I sent a big thank you to the universe for the incredible kindness of strangers.

#4: Travel for the thrill of adventure.

I have an awe- and terror-filled relationship with the ocean.

I love to be on the beach — at least 30 feet back from the waves.

I love the sound of waves crashing from my room window at night above the tsunami hazard line.

And I love the idea of body surfing, but there is no way in hell I am going in to try unless it’s crystal clear and there are at least 5 people around me creating a perimeter for sharks to bite first.

But penguins!

I will brave this shark-infested body of likely death and drowning for a look at penguins.

As we exited the harbor, I kept a white-knuckled grip on the bar under my boat’s seat as large swells rocked our tiny boat. We hugged the jagged rocks — a little too huggy for my comfort.

The guide asked the captain if we could make it through the rocks in the swells.

“I’m going to try,” the captain said. (Sometimes it’s better to not speak a language!)

By the time we got to the penguins, I was feeling quite green and had decided against my odds for making it to land safely if we were smashed against the cliffs.

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Do these penguins realize their adorableness will not save them from being shark stew?

With my eyes closed half the time and a forced breath at least twice every minute, we made it back to the pier. I wobbled back to the beach and collapsed to the sand, digging my feet and hands into its warmth.

The next day, the local news reported massive irregular swells along the Chilean coast of up to 5 meters (16 feet). We had been just ahead of the storm.

Bahia Mansa Chile
The view of Bahia Mansa from a path to a lighthouse in San Juan de la Costa, Chile.

I finished the day in a hammock with a glass of wine. Seriously, traveling is the best.

Why do you travel?

When Your Choices are the Known and the Unknown, Choose Adventure

One of the many reasons I travel is for the heart-pounding moment of choice: Do I follow a known path or take the plunge into the unknown?

At home, I often follow a routine. The same route to and from work. The usual places for lunch. A standard grocery store. Knowing these places, and being known by others at these places, is what makes them home.

Abroad, that comfort and quality of being known is stripped away, and so the field of “known” is much narrower. You know where you get off the bus, and where your hotel is. That’s often it.

Abroad, I end up exploring further and pushing my limits, even in tiny ways.

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When traveling, I would totally ride into the sunset for parts unknown.

Case in point—in northern Chile last month, I set out in the morning from my hotel thinking “walk,” which nearly immediately turned to “bike.” The man at the rental store assured me a lovely little town awaited just 9km up the valley with only a “more or less” hard up-hill slope.

Sold, I looked at my half-full water bottle and thought, “this should be enough.”

Now this is a rookie mistake anywhere—why in the world would you not just take the two minutes to go back to your room and fill up the water bottle? I literally passed by my hotel again on the way out of town.

But this is impatient me, who can’t wait to explore a new place, even if it means just two more minutes.

Backtrack for water? No way! I’m 100% sure there will be shops along the way where I can stop if I need it. And there are some clouds in the sky—no problem!

So let me step back now and describe where I was when I made this brilliant decision.

Pisco Elqui is in the heart of the Elqui Valley in the middle-north of Chile, in the high desert foothills of the Andes.

The average temperature in January is around 74F at 1300M (4265ft), with a whopping .2mm of rain that month. In a year, Pisco typically gets only 107.5mm (4.2in) of rain.

This clear, arid climate makes for stunning star-gazing, so Elqui Valley is home to some of the world’s most important observatories.

It is a desert nearly empty of many types of vegetation, other than an occasional cactus and some low-lying bushes. The valley is framed tight in steep shades of tan and pink-rock slopes. Improbably green pisco vineyards cover the skinny valley floor, pressed for water the last few years as snow cover has declined by 60 percent and reservoirs depleted by 80 percent.

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The beautiful Elqui Valley, as seen from Pisco Elqui, where — you guessed it — Pisco vineyards abound.

The key word in all of this is, of course, desert.

I started my bike ride, which quickly turned into walking with my bike up the “more or less” hill (read: mountain.) Beautiful views framed every direction, and even though January is the height of tourist season, I felt completely alone in this beautiful place.

DSC_0965 (1)
Pisco Elqui gets about 4 inches of rain per year.

Of course, after some time of continuing to walk my bike, I started to get quite hot.

Those few clouds somehow decided it was time to move on.

And I had about two sips left in my water bottle.

With at least 5km left to my destination, I had a choice. I could:

A) Turn back. It was downhill, and a shorter, known distance back to the hotel.

B) Keep going and hope for the best.

A planner by nature, I went through the various scenarios within Option B.

I pictured myself passed out on the side of the road, lips cracked, barely able to breathe from lack of water.

I squinted at the cactuses on the side of the mountain, trying to decide if I had any idea how to get water from them (I didn’t).

I frowned at the valley floor, trying to decide if I could scale the loose-dirt slope to the river that had to be down there somewhere. Not that I could drink that water, but at least it would be cooler, and I could wait until dusk to walk back without passing out from heat.

ScenarioB_faintfromthirst
Totally likely Scenario B: I faint southern-belle-style from lack of water and some very kind but confused (next town only 5km away) strangers find me.

Shaking my head, I looked at the road ahead.

Yes, I decided, I can go on. 5km (I really need to learn the conversions!) can’t be more than a 30-45 minute walk, and with two sips of water, that’s totally doable.

Really, I thought, the chances of me passing out of thirst were probably 1 in 50, at best.

Fear, you are not winning today.

I am woman, and I roar.

Even when slightly thirsty.

My reward: a little convenience store with ice cream and water not 30 minutes away, and very pretty town.

And a super fun downhill (read: mountain) bike ride back to my hotel, where a pristine pool awaited.

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Pretty sure this was heaven on earth.

Hiking the W in Torres del Paine, Patagonia, as a Solo Female Trekker

Note: This is a day-by-day technical guide to trekking the W in Torres del Paine, Patagonia. For a related read, check out my previous post on what I learned about myself doing the W as a solo hike.

YES, you can hike the five-day “W” in Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile, with no problems as a solo female trekker.

I start there, because I searched for that clear answer before deciding to head there anyway. On the trail, I felt completely safe, physically challenged by the hike, and in awe of every spectacular curve of the path. I never had the slightest concern of getting lost.

So go do it. Go now.

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CONAF’s map of the W trek, which you can get in full here: http://www.parquetorresdelpaine.cl/es/mapa-oficial-1

This was my experience, with the huge caveats that a) everyone (of course) has a unique experience, so mine doesn’t guarantee anything; b) I went during high season in mid-January;  and c) I had sunny, nearly no-wind weather the entire five days.

PRE-TRIP PREP

Reading and Planning: I spent maybe an hour over the course of a few months reading about the W trek vs. day-hike options. But by far the most helpful pre-trek information was from a free orientation session at Erratic Rock Pub in Puerto Natales, which I attended the day before my trek. This session served as my Gospel of the Trail, and henceforth will be thus referenced.

Direction of Hike: The main decision you’ll need to make before you arrive to the park is which direction you want to go. I went east to west and loved every minute. This meant I did the hike to the base of the Torres the first day—by far the most challenging and crowded day—and everything felt easier from there. Some people say west to east is prettier, but when every curve of the trail reveals a view that makes you say “WOOOOWWWW,” I think you’re in good shape.

Training: I aimed for 30-60 minutes of cardio and strength training three to four times a week for about three months ahead of my trek. Totally worth it.

Alone vs. Group: As a solo female traveler/trekker, I initially thought I would need to do this trek with a tour group, but I found enough blogs before booking to understand that in high season, you’re not isolated on the trail at any point. This was definitely true. I was alone for maybe one wonderful hour at a time one of the days, but otherwise, I passed at least one or two people every 15-30 minutes. The campgrounds felt safe at night, and there is no way you can get lost—there is only the one, extremely well-marked trail. There were plenty of trekkers who also arrived alone if you do want to pair up with someone for a day or few. I passed a few tour groups on my last day, and by then, it felt absolutely silly to have even considered a tour group might have been necessary.

Reservations: I rented a site, tent and mat at four separate campsites along the trail, which was great in keeping my backpack light. Every ounce less helps if you don’t do this kind of thing often, which seemed to be the case for a lot of people on the trail (including me!).

Trekking Poles: Not having trekking poles was my one and only regret of the entire experience. They definitely would have helped on the steep, slippery descents.

MY 5-DAY ROUTE

DAY 1: Hard. Arrive to park plus Torres Central Camp to Torres Base and Return.

  • KM: 18, HOURS: 7.5, Elevation variance: ~750M / 2460ft
  • Reservation: Torres Central Camp
  • Hiked with Backpack: No

I hopped onto one of the many early buses from Puerto Natales to Torres and arrived at my campsite around 11 a.m. with the plan of relaxing in a gorgeous place, taking photos near the campsite for the afternoon, and then hitting the trial early in the morning. After a quick chat with one of the campsite workers—he said the weather was predicted to be bad the next day—I quickly packed a daypack and set out for the Base of the Torres.

Torres del Paine Chile hiking the W as a solo female hiker
The clear-skies day meant great views and intense sun. Re-apply sunblock liberally.

Following the Gospel, albeit with skepticism at first, I filled my water bottle with water from the glacial-fed streams. But I had no problems the five days in the park, so I count this a miracle of nature that a park with 115,000 visitors a year still has clean, drinkable water.

I kept nuts in my pocket and snacked frequently as I walked (per the Gospel again), speeding past all the folks who were sweating under massive backpacks. There are two campsites up the trail toward Torres, which is where you would stay if you want to make the red-rocks sunrise.

The last slog up to the Base was HARD—36% of the full day’s elevation gain of 2296ft was in just the final 45 minutes of ascent. I gave myself a kick in the behind when I passed a 70-something-year-old woman descending.

Torres del Paine Chile hiking the W alone
A tiny ledge, steep slope and slippery dirt is ripe for slipping—of which I saw enough to go very slowly. And yes, your path is in this photo.
Base of the Torres, Torres del Paine Mirador
I sat at the Base for a while, writing, eating, and convincing myself I could totally do the return hike. Also, I had to.

Going down was harder than the climb up, given the slippery slope plus gravity—I can’t imagine doing this in the rain and driving wind that usually batter the mountain. An hour out from my campsite, I had just three thoughts, playing on loop: Bathroom, Beer, Shoes (off).

I more or less crawled back into my site, drank the most amazing warm beer in the history of beers, cooked my first-ever cookstove meal with no burns and only a small eek!, and slept like the dead for 10 hours.

DAY 2: Anything seems easy after that Day 1. Torres Central Camp to Cuernos Camp.

  • KM: 12, HOURS: 5, Elevation variance: 150M / 492 ft
  • Reservation: Chileano, changed to Cuernos easily
  • Hiked with Backpack: Yes

I had passed the riverside campsite of Chileano on my hike up to Torres the day before, so I had nothing to gain from going back up—this time with my pack. The company that owns the campsites, FantasticoSur, very kindly checked for space, confirmed its availability, and so my plan changed—onto Cuernos for the day.

Despite the poor weather predictions, only a few clouds hung in the sky, and the wind was nonexistent enough to see reflections in the lakes.

Torres del Paine hiking the W solo glacial lake reflections
The wind picked up just minutes after I arrived and started snapping photos of the reflections in the glacial lake. You can see the wind just starting to disturb the calm lake here.

Even with my 25ish-pound pack, I loved this day’s hike. I had nice 15-30 minute stretches alone, and every turn revealed new surprises.

I wasn’t in love with the crowded Cuernos campsite, but the location was hard to beat—just under the looming Cuernos peaks. Here, I re-met a trail buddy, Zackary, a hiker from the Bay Area who was also doing the W alone. We had first met speaking Spanish (badly) in a hostel the day before in Puerto Natales, before we realized we were both native U.S.-ians. We made plans to hike together for a bit the next day.

DAY 3: Easy, then kind of hard. Cuernos Camp to Frances Glacier Mirador to Frances Camp.

  • KM: 11, HOURS: 6/7, Elevation variance: ~400M / 1312ft
  • Reservation: Cuernos, changed to Frances with a little of a hard time
  • Hiked with Backpack: 2 hours only

Over ramen instant soup for breakfast, I met trekkers hiking the 10-day “O” circuit at the shared cookstoves table. A solo female trekker from Germany, Julia, and I started chatting, and by the end of breakfast, Zackary and I had a third co-hiker for the day.

“But I’m veeery slow,” Julia warned. I assured her it would not be a problem.

We met up with Zackary, and my two hiking companions immediately launched into a slow-off, each determined to convince the other they would be the slower hiker.

As we were leaving camp, the campsite worker nowhere to be found, I decided at the last minute to collect my gear in the hopes of finding a space for the night at Frances Camp, two hours west on the trail, to save me having to backtrack to Cuernos for a  second night.

The hike from Cuernos to Frances was (again) stunning, hugging the glacial lake with distant rumbling of glaciers calving.

Hiking the W in Torres del Paine as a solo female trekker
Yet another gorgeous view on the W.

At Frances Camp, I arranged to change my reservation with just a little bit of a hard time from the camp worker (no, I did not bring a printed email of my reservation with me, and no, no one else had asked for this), and dropped my big bag in exchange for the daypack.

Just 30 minutes more, and we reached Campo Italiano, where everyone leaves their bags for the hike up into Frances Valley.

My hiking crew started up the trail and within 15 minutes, we arrived at a plaque that said Frances Mirador—thus spurring a debate between Zackary (a lawyer) and Julia (a journalist) if we had indeed arrived already at the point that should have been an hour hike in. I half-heartedly weighed in, but was itching to keep going, so Zackary and I moved on, bidding farewell to Julia.

Within seconds, descending hikers confirmed that we were not insanely fast, but in fact did still have at least one hour until of hard up-valley hiking to the Frances Mirador.

At 3,050M (10,007 ft), the Paine Grande mountain is an impressive sight face-to-face at the Frances Mirador. We avidly watched avalanches off the Frances Glacier, sounding for all the world like thunder.

Frances Mirador in Frances Valley Torres del Paine
Fun fact: Paine Grande mountain is very, very tall. 10,007 feet is like 8 Empire State Buildings or 66 Statue of Liberties stacked on top of each other. (Zackary, I win that round, but you win the Mirador debate.)

When you can tear your eyes from the falling ice, you have a spectacular 360-view.

Frances Mirador view in Frances Valley Torres del Paine
I kept forgetting this view was directly behind me. Watching for glacier avalanches is that mesmerizing.

Zackary and I decided this Mirador was beyond amazing enough, especially given the three-hour-roundtrip the next lookout would require, and headed back down. Frances Camp is a newer facility, and a lovely place to spend the night.

DAY 4: Long, and I saw icebergs! Frances Camp to Glacier Grey Mirador to Paine Grande Camp.

  • KM: 19.5, HOURS: 7.5, Elevation variance: ~200M
  • Reservation: Paine Grande
  • Hiked with Backpack: 2 hours

I decided that for Day 5 I should follow the Trail Gospel’s advice for the earlier boat to the bus, so Day 4 was going to be a big one. At 8 a.m., I hit the trail, blessedly all to myself for nearly a full hour.

I wasn’t sure if I was that much stronger or the hike was that much easier, but I sailed along the trail, halting only when the trial crossed a stark line from green full trees into stripped-bare trees.

In December 2011, a fire started by a 23-year-old trekker in a non-approved campsite raged for over a month in Torres National Park, consuming 40 percent of the park. Four years later, the return of life is reassuring, but it’s hard not to feel bone-deep anger at the carelessness that led to such a disaster.

Torres 2011 Fire Boundary
You can see the clear line on the mountain where they were able to stop the fire that ravaged 40% of the park starting in Dec. 2011.

I arrived to Paine Grande Camp energized. A backpack lighter and a lunch fuller, I set off on my last leg of the W toward Glacier Grey.

The trail felt solitary and fierce today, with the wind whipping off my hat when I wasn’t careful. Hiking along a ridge, I could see across the iceberg-dotted lake that sharp peaks were covered in towers of snow and ice—so deep that even at a distance I was intimidated by the raw menace of the place and its power to make me feel like a tiny speck on the planet.

At the Glacier Grey Mirador, I sat and wrote until my fingers froze in the icy wind. Given my worsening blisters and the extra 3-4 hours the next destination would require, I headed back to camp, nearly dragging myself in by the end of it.

Glacier Grey torres del paine national park
Glacier Grey is spectacular, and one of the edges of the Southern Patagonia Ice field, the second largest nonpolar ice field on earth.

I bought a cold beer from the camp store and promptly passed out for a few hours in my tent.

Drained but happy, I watched the sun set and moon rise over the peaks I had finished “W”-ing.

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Paine Grande Campground in Torres del Paine National Park. I did all this!

DAY 5: Sad to leave. Boat from Paine Grande to Pudeto, Bus to Puerto Natales.

I had some time before the 10 a.m. boat to the bus stop, so I hiked up a path and wrote for a while. The 30-minute catamaran ride provided yet another satisfying view of the park that allowed a deep sense of accomplishment. I hiked to the waterfall near the Pudeto bus stop and sat in awe of these amazing last days.

Waterfall_View Salto Grande Torres del Paine National Park
View from Salto Grande, a short walk from the Pudeto stop off the catamaran and bus. So happy to have been able to do the W!

Just go. In fact, go now.

I wish I was back already.

Getting to Re-know Me on a Solo Hike in Patagonia

To walk alone is to know your whole self — without titles, without a gaggle of friends to text, without all the usual services of daily life. What makes your heart thump in fear, your jaw drop in wonder, and where your limits really aren’t the end.

In January, I went on my first-ever solo overnight trek — and because I don’t do anything halfway, I made it a big one:

Five days, four nights. 40 miles. 2,296 feet elevation gain in one day alone.

In the heart of Chile’s Patagonia, in Torres del Paine National Park, where four seasons in one day is routine and the wind is so fierce it knocks a person to her back.

Torres del Paine National Park
Torres del Paine National Park is in Patagonia, Chile, past the end of a road that calls itself “The Highway of the End of the World.” And yes, that’s Antarctica not so far away.

I needed this, desperately.

Between major life changes and an intense job, I had lost little pieces of me the last few years — locked away or beaten down in the routine of daily life. I needed to recover myself, re-ground, and know again those parts of me that went missing.

So I promised my friends and family this trek was totally, absolutely safe to do alone (I was decently sure it was) and booked the trip.

Now, as I write with this pen on paper* on the edge of a slate cliff, overlooking the mountains I “W”-ed over the last days, I am so happy to say hello to my whole self once again — and I even found a few jewels I had no idea existed within me.

Torres del Paine National Park
*This was my view when I wrote this post on paper, while looking over my shoulder once in a while for lurking pumas.

You are so much stronger than you think.

As I came to the Base of the Torres, I passed a 70s-ish woman hiking alone, and she was my hero. This was a 9km (5.6mi) mountain climb with an elevation gain of 2,296 feet — 36 percent of which is in the last 45 minutes of hiking.

Nearly everyone took pauses to get up that mountain. But the reward we all knew was there, just another step, and another, and another — worth it. So, pause and climb.

And then do it again tomorrow, with a 25-pound bag on your back.

Torres del Paine Mirador, Base del Torres
Once arriving to the Base of the Torres destination, you collapse on a rock for a while, and then take the obligatory arms-wide “I made it!” photo.

You can surprise yourself.

It is an incredible gift to realize something wonderful is in you that you didn’t know existed.

I had a plan. I was going to warm up to this trek, do it in smaller pieces. But every day I went farther than I thought I possibly could, loving the strength I found in my muscles and the willpower waiting in my mind.

A trail buddy said to me, “You keep surprising me.”

I replied, without prior thought or hesitation, “I’m surprising myself.”

Torres del Paine
I hiked the sides and the middle around this, making a “W” shape. W as in WOW, me! I am a super gosh-darn bad-ass!

You can walk into the unknown.

I am a planner by love and genetic shaping. So there was no way I wasn’t going to plan the heck out of this trek.

When I booked my campsites in the national park, I made what I thought were good choices.

They were not.

In fact, I would have had to redo the hardest route one day, and compress two days into one on another. But I am nothing if not stubborn, and I’d already made that decision, so I was sticking to it.

Until I got to the first campsite on my first day, and the park workers recommended I hike NOW, today, to Torres, because tomorrow the weather was supposed to be bad.

So I went, best-laid plans constantly changing over the next days, based on weather, company and my amazing ability to sleep and recover, with no guarantee of finding space at the next campsite. And yet, I always did.

Torres del Paine Cuernos
When I changed my plans, I unexpectedly ran into an American from Oakland who I had met the day before at the night’s campsite. So the unknown brought trail buddies and spectacular sunsets.

You can be that kind stranger.

Each day, at about an hour from my destination, I reached the “am I there yet?” stage of exhaustion, and started obsessively asking hikers coming in the opposite direction how far the next campsite was.

Without exception, these hikers from everyone around the world were kind, often stopping to chat and lending encouragement.

I happily offered the same.

At the end of every day’s gorgeous hike, hikers at the campsite would relate trail stories and count blisters at a shared cookstove table. One morning, I met a friendly German over my ramen soup breakfast, and we agreed to hike together for the day along with an American from Oakland.

Torres del Paine National Park
This woman from Princeton asked me if she was on the right trail. I assured her she was — the one thing you cannot do in this park is get lost. The trail is exceptionally well-marked.

You need to be in just one place at a time.

I saw a handful of hikers with headphones, which mystified me. The sounds of this park were a symphony in itself — the rush of the wind through the tall grasses, the roar of the giant waterfalls, the birds’ songs and the rumble of avalanches.

I saw a wild rabbit one day, only because I heard its thump-thumping away from my approach.

I know, to really be present and hear and see what’s around you is not easy.

At one point on the trail, my mind was circling obsessively about a past relationship so loudly that I had nearly blocked out where I was. Luckily, a splash of bright purple broke my circling, and I turned to see a whole field of these beautiful bell-shaped flowers.

To disconnect and not multitask, and just BE, that is the harder path — but so rewarding.

Field of bell flowers
Sometimes you just need a field of beautiful purple flowers to pull you back to the place you actually are in.

You should stop and stand in awe.

One afternoon, I sat and watched avalanches calve from glaciers, each tumble of ice causing a thunder-like roll through the Frances Valley.

“Look, look!” I called to my trail buddy for the day, yelling like a child and feeling the heart-hammering flush of amazement.

To feel awe like this is to feel alive.

I want to stand in awe more often.

Torres del Paine Frances Glacier
I sat and avalanche-watched the glaciers on this mountain.

Now my challenge, as always when amazing experiences wrap up, is to thread these pieces of me into every vein and keep them near the surface, so they are not lost again in routine and rush.

Or I guess I could always go back again — and this time for the 10-day trek!

 

 

Reflection without absorption and letting go with love and tenderness

Somehow, I made it. It’s Week Zero. I step on that plane tomorrow.

I might cry with relief.

December crawled by at a turtle’s pace. I went through my what-should-I-do loop about 20 times a day. I stressed about what I was doing, about what I wasn’t doing, about what I was sure I was forgetting to do.

stress ball
i was basically a living stress ball in december.

So I desperately need Chile. I need to feel the sun on my skin and breathe sweet, clean non-big-city air, and see bright stars that make me go “wow.”

I’m hoping by Day 3 that the stress loops finally loosen, unravel, and just drop off the back of my bicycle on some mountain trail.

In my one earnest attempt at de-stressing this week, I headed to a year-end Yoga Nidra class last night (yes, I know it’s very Portland-y, and no, I don’t care! It’s heavenly and please try it!).

At the start of the candlelit practice, the instructor gave us all a few moments to reflect on 2015.

Reflect: /rəˈflekt/:

1) (Of a surface or body) throw back (heat, light, or sound) without absorbing it.

2) Think deeply or carefully about.

The lovely thing about definition No. 1 is the space it provides. It’s an examination at a distance, not a re-engagement with either best or worst moments. Just watching and noticing — without letting any of those moments bowl you over like they did the first time around, hence making it onto your year’s best and worst list.

Next, the yoga instructor encouraged us to imagine what we would leave behind in 2015, and this thought bloomed within me.

It’s not the usual “what’s your new year’s resolution” with all the baggage and expectation, but a soft, kind question to yourself:

What few things would you like to place on a little wooden sailboat on the edge of a lake, and gently push off into the sunset?

Put these items on the boat, and say goodbye with all the tenderness the moments deserve.

Now you can move on to 2016, a little bit lighter, with space for something new.

create space
imagine freeing up all this space inside of you. minus the ostrich.

My boat has three hefty pieces, each comprised of many moments from 2015 to which I’m ready to leave behind:

Unhealthy living. I started this year with no life other than work. I didn’t eat healthily. I didn’t exercise. I felt fragile – and I can’t honestly think of a thing I hate feeling more than that.

So, I’m leaving Unhealthy Living forever in 2015. I’m not saying I won’t have slip-ups and live not-so-great once in a while, but not consistently, not as a way of life again.

unhealthy jabba
i was basically as unhealthy as jabba but with none of the sidekicks to keep my company in the first half of 2015.

Silence. I can count too many times from earlier this year when I wanted to say something, but didn’t in a sticky situation. I thought I wasn’t the expert, or I was younger than everyone, or I was the only woman in the room, or I would be judged. All fear-based, mostly gender-taught.

But when I decided that I was willing and ready to leave my job for something different, a wonderful thing happened — I was suddenly free! I could say whatever I felt, whenever it felt right (in a respectful way, of course)! And I did!

All those fears didn’t matter anymore – I wouldn’t be working with these colleagues in a few months, I had nothing to lose. So why not call out a colleague who is saying inappropriate things?

it was kinda like the monty pyton god said to me: i’m giving you a task to keep you busy. your purpose is to go forth and say stuff.

This opening within myself kept getting better and better. I realized no one judged me, and in fact, they wanted me to say what I wanted to say (well, sometimes). By the end of the year, colleagues even said this is what they admired about me – that I spoke up and challenged people when needed, respectfully and with persistence.

So I am leaving Silence in Sticky Situations forever in 2015. You do not serve me, you serve only Fear, and that is not who I am.

Perfection. Mostly, I just can’t strive for this anymore. My nearly life-long obsession with perfection – I was a newspaper copy editor, for goodness sakes, which is just about a perfectionist’s dream job to look for tiny errors and get paid for it – has just become too exhausting. Like a box I created for myself, but I’ve grown and the box hasn’t.

I’m done.

Perfect IS the enemy of the done. And sometimes, I just want to be done.

So, I’m leaving Perfection forever in 2015. You served me well many times. I bid you a fond farewell, and best of luck in finding a new copy editor in 2016.

perfection in book form
i literally slept with this under my pillow in college. seriously.

Now with all of this beautiful space, this empty shore and wide-open lake, I am welcoming a few things with open arms. In fact, it’s more like I’m running at them in a crazy happy tackle:

Saying YES. Research shows we regret what we DON’T do much more than anything we do try. So I’m saying YES every chance I get.

Finding balance. I’m changing my life to put work on equal footing with relationships and the other things that nourish me. One of which is…

Creating things. Starting to write again, here on this site, has been one of my many great joys of 2015. Elizabeth Gilbert writes in Big Magic that there are little jewels of creativity in all of us, just waiting to be found. It doesn’t matter if absolutely no one likes or reads what you create. You create something because you can’t not create – and that’s what writing is for me. It’s who I am. I love the electricity it lights inside my skin, the warmth it sends from my toes to my fingertips.

create
what lights a brilliant explosion of creation in you?

What are you gently leaving in 2015 and welcoming at a run in 2016?

 

Prepare Yourself for the Highs and Lows of Something New

Something big and new is starting and I am excited, and nervous, and all butterfly-stomach and obsessive. This endorphin rush is the BEST and I want it to last forever and ever.

I’ve felt this thrill every time I’ve moved to a new place or started a new job. Every new person is the smartest, most amazing individual, and every new street is exciting and full of wonder – and look! Over there is a sparkly unicorn shitting a rainbow that ends in a pot of gold-shaped hearts!

[I will happily draw that image if anyone requests it.]

But then, usually around the one-month mark, all the rosy wonderful new things dim a bit, and I miss my old room/friends/routine/job, and I can’t find the unicorn anymore.

I just really want a grilled cheese with a pickle on it, and my own super comfy pillow, and this new place doesn’t have pickles or my pillow. Or I want my old officemates back, who had their issues, sure, but at least it wasn’t this issue, which I really can’t stand.

Grilled-Cheese-Pickle
if you’ve never tried a grilled cheese with pickles, stop reading and go eat one right now…. welcome back. and, you’re welcome.

In living abroad, this phenomenon of a high honeymoon stage followed by a steep crash to a crisis point is called the U Curve of Cultural Adjustment (according to some old men named Lysgaard and Oberg, among others).

U curve of adjustment
the U Curve of Adjustment with my highly accurate depiction of complex emotion via emoticon.

I’m pretty convinced this experience is applicable to more than just moving abroad. Think about it – everything from a new house (beautiful bungalow –> the roof needs repair) to a new city (every street is amazing –> every street is dirty) to a new career (best job ever –> nothing here is functional) requires a similar emotional adjustment process.

As much as I’d like going after my new goal to be rosy and wonderful for the full year I’m pursuing it, I don’t think I can make that honeymoon phase last longer.

But I do think some preparation can make that crisis trough a lot shallower and the recovery a lot speedier.

So here is my recipe for pre-new-thing preparedness:

Know that you WILL hit bottom.

That’s right, just acknowledge that rock bottom is going to happen. You can’t avoid it.

Recognize that this whole experience is helping you grow into a more authentic you. It will hurt at times, it will definitely be hard, and it will put you through the wringer.

When you hit bottom, greet that low point with the wisdom of expecting its arrival, and a Warrior 2 stance.

Yoga_WarriorII_02_300x350
bring it, crisis. i can warrior 2 all day. or for 5 minutes while sobbing.

Get enough sleep.

Studies routinely show we need somewhere around 7-8 hours of sleep as adults. When we get less than that, we start making poor decisions and our focus is compromised.

Meeting your goal is a marathon. You need to be in top shape and not make a sleep-deprived decision to give up when you hit bottom.

Make sure you are making decisions with a clear mind. If you’re having trouble sleeping, ask your friends or family for advice. Or try one of my tried-and-true remedies in the picture below.

things to help you fall asleep
things that help you fall asleep.

Go look at something beautiful.

When you hit bottom, you will need something comforting and completely separate from what you are pursuing. Keep your eye out for this beautiful thing while you are in the honeymoon phase – maybe it’s a sun-filled spot outside your new house, or the tall pine in the town’s park where you feel at peace.

Then when the bottom arrives, head to your beautiful thing as often as you need it. Spend 15 minutes just looking at this beautiful thing, leaving your goal aside.

When you’re ready, head back in, feeling a little bit stronger.

happy spot
i find a hundred beautiful things in this spot.

Make an adjustment.

Do you need to move closer into the city, so after you work on your goal all day, you can visit friends instead of commute for an hour? Admit to yourself what’s not working, and fix it.

In looking at my plans, I know where I can be flexible in my budget and timeline, so if I need to adjust, I’ll be ready to do so.

halfway between home and gym adjustment
probably you just need to be nearer the ice cream shop.

Immerse yourself in at least one fun, social thing twice per week.

I believe satisfaction in life is directly correlated to the friends you have, so nurturing friendships and creating a support group while you pursue your goal should be a top priority. Call your friends to do something you love – biking, hiking, a glass of wine.

Especially when you hit bottom, don’t hide yourself away. Go out with your new or old friends. Call family. You are not alone in your crisis, so lean on your support group.

Be extra conscious of your negative traits.

When you hit the bottom of your adjustment curve, you’ll be in a bad mood, and your negative traits may be amplified.

Being conscious of your negative traits can help you separate out what’s a momentary reaction to hitting the bottom vs. something you actually need to address.

For example, maybe you are an impatient person. So when you hit bottom and you’re in a bad mood, you obsess about how you’re entirely behind on your goal and you’re all snappy and unpleasant to be around.

Fortify yourself against this known upcoming reaction by:

1) finding a gym to work out and pump in positive endorphins;

2) keeping a big calendar of by-the-week plans so you can see you are on track and not behind; and

3) taking an overnight trip somewhere to clear head space.

4) buying your friends drinks to remind them that they still love you, even when you’re snappy.

patience
somehow this quote is supposed to help me be a more patient person.

Write postcards to friends and family.

Especially if you have moved to pursue your goal, writing postcards when you hit bottom is an easy way to reconnect, and give yourself a short boost in mood.

Each part of this will leave you feeling better: Choosing a postcard you know a particular friend will like, spending a moment to write a message just for them, and the satisfaction of dropping it in the mailbox.

Then there’s the extra happy boomerang effect of hearing from that person when they receive your postcard.

postcards
i love writing postcards. and receiving them.

While there’s no amount of preparation that can completely erase the low that follows the initial thrill of starting something new, I just need to remember:

As much as it sucks in the moment, rock bottom is the start of a new upward curve.

Six weeks!