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!

 

 

5 Reasons to Leap – and 10 weeks until I’m quitting my job

In 10 weeks, I am quitting my job, leaping out of the career race that is Washington, D.C., and boarding a plane to Chile.

Eek!

Look, this has NOT been an easy decision. I’m in my mid-30s and have been on a fantastic upward trajectory in my career. I believe in Lean In. I spent the last year of my life working 70+ hours per week on a massive priority project, prepping my boss for meetings with the Big Guy, and it’s been incredibly rewarding.  My career is important to me.

But at some point in the last six months, I realized my life has pretty much looked like this for several years now:

toomuchwork_pie chart 2
i worked 110 hours one week. seriously.

Sure, I’d take vacations once in a while. But something wasn’t right.

I couldn’t stop thinking about certain pieces of advice I’d heard from mentors and articles the last year.

  1. Unwitting Mentor: What do you love so much, you could do it every day, without stop, forever?

Everyone has something like this, but so many of us have lost it. It’s usually something you did non-stop when you were little. Maybe it’s being outside in the sun (and now you’re in a windowless cube), or sketching, or playing a sport, or reading or baking. You know what it is. That thing that every time you do it, you disappear into the zone, hours pass, and you are at peace.

This advice came from Elizabeth Theranos, who I think is one of the most amazing and talented women alive today. She worked nonstop on her invention for years on end. She loved it so much, there was nothing else she could do but this. (Of course, she eventually got to her goal and now is a gabillionaire, but money isn’t the point here.)

Probably most of us aren’t built like that – I know I’m not – but there are things I love so much that I would like to do every day, and I’ve lost over the years. Like writing for pleasure, and not for work.

Here is a cover and a page from a “book” I wrote at 8:

my writing has improved thankfully since i was 8

pentraveler_book_3

2. Fully Aware Mentor: What stories do you want to tell from your rocking chair?

How you won that big account of a paper company and your grandchildren don’t even know what paper is now because it was obsolete by 2030? Or how you wrote a billion papers that were used for a total of 10 seconds in some meeting once?

Or do you want to talk about the time that you ran from a bear, you almost drowned learning to dive, or that person you loved but just wasn’t right for you? That you explored the world and made huge mistakes, but you don’t regret any of them?

I don’t know if I want to have grandchildren of my own, so I’m not entirely sure who will listen to my stories, but I definitely want to be talking Big Adventure. Big (more, already made plenty) Mistakes.

  1. Random Online Quote Mentor: Make new mistakes. Do what scares you.

Making mistakes is scary. I don’t think you can be human and not fear making mistakes and being judged for them.

This is probably a healthy emotion to a degree, but you have to know at what point it stops being a positive – don’t-go-down-that-dark-alley-alone-it’s-dangerous – and turns into a negative – don’t-try-purusing-that-thing-you-love-because-it’s-new-and-different.

Letting fear hold you back leads to only one thing, as far as I can tell – regret. Whether it’s starting something new or leaving something, it’s the first step that is the most terrifying.

In fairness, I’ve quit a job previously and gone to travel. It was one of the best six months of my life.

nortern peru valley penwriter

But to do it now, when my career is going so well, when everything and everyone around me is telling me to settle down, buy a house, have a family, keep that steady job and keep advancing it?

Very scary.

  1. My Mentor (and Unwitting Love) Mark Manson: Just don’t give a fuck.

I need to be honest with myself: I don’t want to be judged.

It’s kept me from making decisions before in my life. I do care what people think. And not just my family and friends, but random people I’ve never met who might theoretically learn something about me and think it’s stupid. Yea, I’m that scared of judgment.

Unfortunately, you can’t avoid it. People are going to judge you. Whenever you do something out of the norm, you’ll hear or see a reaction.

Which is why I love Mark Manson, who writes that learning the difference between when we should and should not give a fuck is essential to being comfortable and honest with yourself and others. It’s tricky. But worth it.

Unfortunately, Mark is not single as far as I can tell, so I will continue to love him from afar and recommend his articles to anyone who will listen. (Especially this one on relationship myths.)

  1. My Closest-Thing-to-a-Life-Coach Mentor: Visualize your two futures.

Fair warning: My friend called this technique “very Portland-y.”

Picture yourself, 10 years from now, having made one decision, on your current trajectory. Build that full picture in your mind – the job you’ve achieved, the office, the car, the family. Or maybe it’s a relationship or a place you live.

Did you feel something good in your body? Maybe you sat up a little higher, or smiled, or relaxed your shoulders? Or did you feel a twist in your stomach, a frown, or a claustrophobic sense of breath?

Now picture the other choice and the future it’s created in as much detail as you can.

How does your body respond to that future?

Your body already knows the answer.

Mine knew. It was time to leap and create a new future from the path I was on.

So I drew a new chart, composed of the kind of stories I want to tell on my rocking chair.

better life pie chart 2

Even now, sitting with my decision made and out in the open, I am scared some of the time. And I feel the weight of judgment some of the time. But after a few minutes of indulging those some of the time, I either call one of my friends who supports me 100% for a pep talk, or I look at the cover of my Chile travel book.

liz lemon i want to go to there chile_book

I am to go to there.

Or I sit and write and two hours have passed and I’m happier than I’ve been in weeks because I’ve been doing something I love.

Because this life has to be about more than just work. Starting a new path will never be easier – a lot of planning and saving, yes – but the timing will never be better.

I can do good, meaningful work, AND have a good life. I am convinced.

So I’m leaping.