“Are you going to be okay?”
It was a popular question I had been getting as of late. I had been asked it when I quit my job without any plans lined up for what came next. When I had gone through an unexpected and unnerving health scare. When I freed myself from a long-term relationship that came to a dark and painful end. When my grandfather passed away and left our family devastated. When I decided to move away and leave the city that I had called home for the past seven years. Yeah, the past few months had been a rocky one to say the least. And now, a strange Chilean man sitting next to me on the airplane was asking me that very same familiar and loaded question in broken English.
I thought my nerves might have come across as charming, but clearly my inability to sit still next to him came across more like unnerving and frankly, probably annoying. Either way, his question was completely justified. After all, he was about to be stuck next to me, shoulder to shoulder, for the next eight hours of his life on this flight.
The truth to the answer to his question, and all of their questions, was yes. I knew I’d be okay, eventually. But how I’d get there I had no idea. All I knew was somehow boarding this plane would get me one step closer. And somehow, in some way, this journey to the southernmost part of Chile would hold the answers I was seeking.
During the first few days in Santiago, I felt like a fish out of water. Normally, I was no stranger to exotic places. I had spent my entire junior year of college studying abroad – in Sydney, Australia and Rome, Italy. I lived for travel and exploring unfamiliar places and cultures. My overwhelming nervousness of feeling out of place was just evidence of me falling away from my true self over the course of a toxic and belittling relationship and my resulting state of mind. Two of my biggest passions, writing and traveling, I’d let myself fall away from over the past few years. Even though I was feeling timid and terrified of my new surroundings, at my core I felt something returning to me, like I was being reintroduced to myself. Ironically being completely out of my element was pushing me closer to finding my way home to my old self than I had been in a long time.
My older sister, Kelly, joined me on my trip to South America. Truth be told, it was her who was the mastermind behind our Patagonia expedition. When I told her about my plans to quit my job and jump on a plane to Chile, she supported me. And about an hour later, she called me back to say she was going to come with me. I took a deep breath and smiled. The truth was I couldn’t have been more thankful to have her by my side to take on Patagonia with me.
After spending a few days visiting my best friend and her fiancé who lived in Santiago, we were officially off on our Patagonian adventure. After taking nearly every possible form of transportation under the sun, we finally arrived at our destination at the end of the earth – a small refugio located right off of the famous W trail in Patagonia.
Patagonia is the only place I’ve ever been where you can truly feel the remoteness in every part of your being. I had never felt so off the grid in my life. With the exception of few horses grazing outside the refugio window, it was just us, alone with the majestic mountains surrounding us. No cell phone service, no internet, and absolutely no noise. The quiet was almost overwhelming. in a most beautiful, calming way. I pinched myself that this was real life and I had actually made it to this magical place.
For years I had dreamt of being in Patagonia. Most of all, I was completely smitten, maybe even obsessed, with the iconic Torres del Paine – or the “Torres” as many refer to them. I’d been drooling over photos on Instagram, Pinterest, and countless travel blogs as a distraction and symbol of hope from my broken life leading up to our journey. If we only got to do one thing in Patagonia, seeing the Torres was all I wanted.
Naively, I assumed the hike to the Torres would be similar to national parks in the United States. I thought all we’d have to do was walk to the lake at the base of the Torres, snap a picture, maybe have a picnic, and we could call it a day. I convinced my sister that I thought I had even seen the lake from the road. We started off on our way only to soon realize that the “quick walk to the lake” would not quite be the case. It was more along the lines of an 8-hour hike uphill through the mountains, scaling boulders, and battling intense winds strong enough to blow you off the sides of a cliff. After learning this new information, I immediately began having second thoughts. My head started racing with a hundred excuses and fears. Were we in shape enough for this? Did we have enough supplies? We were completely alone, in the middle of nowhere. What if something horrible happened? All in hopes to see a few rocks?
Kelly saw my head spinning from the outside, and me getting caught up in fears and doubts. She immediately shut down all of my excuses and “what-ifs”. She refused to let me turn back. She knew how much it meant to me to see the Torres. After years of giving my sister a hard time about her limited athletic abilities, as sisters do, I was surprised by her determination and took all my strength to silence the worst-case-scenario voice in my head and meet her at her optimism.
Even though it was just the two of us, I learned quickly that we were far from alone on the W. We met other travelers on the trail and saw some others who were staying at the refugio. During our first stretch of our hike, we ran into our roommates – a set of Canadian twin geologists. Patagonia was just the first stop for the twins. They were trekking around South America for months, without a care in the world and only matching smiles on their faces and goofy laughter to accompany their thick Canadian accents. They took on any challenge across their journey with a self-proclaimed “right on” attitude.
Then we came across our other roommate, an energetic, thrill-seeking Australian who came to South America by himself and had only decided to hike the W a few days ago, on a whim when he saw a poster advertisement in a coffee shop in Santiago. Like the Canadian twins, his energy was contagious. Even after only spending a few short days together on the trails and over a few beers at the refugio, we become a Patagonia family. No one judged each other. No one cared about anyone’s employment status, where they came from, or what was ahead. All of us came here for different reasons but yet the same – to live, to experience something truly magical that is Patagonia.
After scaling the last few boulders, we finally made it to the top. And those “rocks” I doubted earlier were anything but that. With the sun shining brightly, they were as whimsical, as perfect as I could have ever imagined. As I took in their beauty, I couldn’t help but smile. We had made it. I smiled for longer than I had in a long time and hugged my big sister to thank her for helping me make it here. I finally started to feel like I was going to be okay. Maybe even more than okay.