"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
A few years back, whilst traveling 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 traveling, I thought. This dream 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
It took me about a minute and a half to realize 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 realizing that each kilometre, as I was riding through ever-changing landscapes and conditions, told its own story: km 25 was my first lunch break by the sea. Undisturbed, I dipped my feet into the crisp water and thought: “This isn’t so hard.” That thought faded faster than I could hold on to it. At km 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.
The next 400 kilometres were filled with the most undimmed, star riddled night skies, dreamy lakes and turquoise, lush 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 km 699 I finally had to part ways with someone I was just starting to fall in love with. 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
Further along, somewhere around km 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 km 850 I started screaming and swearing at the road for being so uncooperative. I truly 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. 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
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 Route 40, its Argentinian alternative, 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 well deserved its reputation.
Three days, three challenges
On day two, I found refuge in a dark and narrow tunnel hidden right underneath the road. The decomposing cadaver 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 strong, 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 certain to catch a good night’s sleep. I forgot to take into account that, in the desert, where there is water, there is thirsty creatures 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 there were Pumas roaming the land... I may never find out who was on the other side of the thin sheet separating us, but the footprints I found nearby the next morning where bigger than your average cats’.
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, it would literally paralyze me... Two fellow cyclists once told me that “The road never abandons you”. They were right. Traveling 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.