Patagonia Dias Uno a Siete

“The tragedy of this life is not that it ends so soon but that we wait so long to begin it.” 

The cinnamon whiskey is hot as it’s sweetness hits my throat and coats my belly. It makes me feel good and warms me up. Although the inside of our paper-thin ultralight tent is like a sauna inside, I’ve been freezing all day. I lay back and hear the murmured whispers of other people around us. Backpackers are rolling into camp, setting up their room for the night. The wind is hard, and it’s whipping the thin material of our tent vestibules, making it hard to rest. The sun is still high. Today, thank God, was an easy hiking day. I need to sleep. Only a day prior, I had been fever-ridden, sleeping restlessly in a hostel in Puerto Natales, Chile piled four-high with sheepskins for warmth. I lay back wondering if it was smart to start this journey. It was risky. I had considered staying back in Puerto Natales and sending G on his way, but I had to give it a shot, knowing that once we started, there was no turning back. No search and rescue, no way off of the O except finishing it in its entirety. That’s the stubbornness in me. 

When I had woken up this morning, the fever had broke. I still felt like death when we boarded the bus in Puerto Natales that took us to the ranger station of Torres Del Paine in Laguna Amarga. This is a two-hour trip, so I slept on the bus and prayed that this sickness would leave me. There was too much planning, logistics, and heart that had gone into this trek — one of the hardest travel plans we’ve EVER made. 

We climb out of the bus with 60 other backpackers, check-in, and start our day. It’s slow, my chest incredibly congested, my nose stuffed. Even on a good, healthy day, I knew this journey would have some difficulty. I second guess my decision to start. What if I literally cannot make it? I have to! We are carrying everything we need for the next eight days on our backs, and even though we are accustomed to this and have packed light, my pack feels heavy. I am so congested. My breathing incredibly labored. 

The mostly flat/rolling terrain and 13-kilometer hike was a blessing on this first day out of Laguna Amarga. I was still star-struck with the whole idea of us being in Patagonia. Pata-freaking-gonia, I kept thinking. It’s one of those trips we’ve talked about and dreamed about for years. Now I’m sick and miserable and fighting each step to get to our first camp. 

As I lay back in our tiny Big Agnes tent, I think, “there’s no turning back now.” 

We are at Serón. 

Logistically speaking, this trip was outrageous! We didn’t want to go with a guide, a team, a mule train…you get my point, so I was left to the booking arrangements. There are three players in Patagonia;  Fantastico Sur,  Vertice Patagonia, and CONAF. These are the three places you will go to for booking all camps and refugios. We had decided to hike both the W and the O circuit; The “O” includes the “W” trail, with the addition of the backside, or northern section of the mountain to make it a long loop, – 130 kilometers. A max of 80 people are allowed onto the backside O a day. It’s undoubtedly a more challenging trail, and it’s also without refugios, but it’s all worth it when, as you finish climbing John Garner Pass, you get an unprecedented view of the icecap Glacier Grey. 

The booking process was maddening. Very strict dates are required, and none of these agencies work together. Not to mention they ALL hold different camps and refugios on different parts of the trek, and not in order. CONAF being the government-held camps does not even open for registration until much later in the year, so as we booked Fantastico and Vertice camps in August for our February trip, we could not book CONAF until sometime around November. The spots fill quickly, so as you can imagine, by the time CONAF rolled online for reservations, the dates we had booked through the other two agencies didn’t work out into the CONAF schedule. The day we landed in Santiago, Chile, we didn’t have a full camp itinerary, and let me tell you, as you walk into each camp, they check your reservations, along with your passport and the PDI slip. If you are off by a day, you will be asked to go back. 

Campsites are arranged like this:

Vertice Patagonia – Campsites: Dickson, Los Perros, Grey and Paine Grande

Fantasticosur – Campsites: Serón, Los Cuernos, El Chileano, Central and Frances

CONAF – Free Campsites: Italiano, Paso and Torres Ranger Station & Camping

After arriving in Santiago, Chile and spending a day and night we flew down to Punta Arenas and stayed at a great hostel. I was chilly as we took a walk around town, and we were amused that our weather app showed that we were in the “Antarctic Zone” as it is the southern-most city before Antarctica. We wandered down by the water; The Straight of Magellan, for a while and headed back to our hostel and to bed early as we had a bus to catch at daybreak.

Thankfully we had three days to spend in Puerta Natales before heading onto the O. I was incredibly sick and we still did not have our reservations for camp. After going back and forth between the offices of Vertice and Fantastico, waiting in line and jostling dates we thought we had them all together, but after further review I had missed a camp, shifting a date, and had to start all over with new dates. I was down for the count at this point, in bed, shivering with the worst flu ever. My poor NON-Spanish speaking husband had to go back to these offices with new dates. By the grace of the Holy God, he was able to “pictionary” his way through. They made some calls for him and BOOM, he came back with our itinerary…..to leave in the morning!

Seron Camp is a basic camp. It’s a grassy field with two picnic-style tables that have a tarp for wind cover. You have to cook in these designated tarp areas only at every site. I barely remember being at Seron, to be honest. I slept and went into the hut to cook dehydrated soup with our MSR stove one time. I loved hearing and seeing all of the friendly faces and different nationalities and languages of the people we would be spending the next 8-9 days alongside. Once you start the O-circuit, and because they limit the number of people on the trail, these become your leap-frogging trail friends. 

The following day, we broke camp early and headed out to Dickenson Camp. The views were unbelievable, and we kept finding ourselves stopping every chance we got to take it all in! It’s a steep climb and steep downhill coming into Dickenson. Today was 19 kilometers; It’s one of the most beautiful camps on the O. Once you arrive and check-in, you can find a spot for your tent anywhere you want. We shrugged out of our packs and wandered around. We saw a fox scampering along the treeline. We set our tent so that in the morning, as we unzipped to make coffee, we would have a perfect view of the soaring mountains and glaciers. Dickenson has a great set up for cooking. A little cabin-like shelter, with electricity — also, hot showers and bathrooms and even a small area where they sell snacks. We bought Pringles and chocolate here. 

After pitching our tent, we showered and laid in the hot sun, waiting to see who and when the others would roll into camp. It was at this camp that we met “the two traveling nurses” who were from the States, working at different locations in the States until they save enough for their next great adventure. They travel on their earnings for a few months, return to the US, work for a few months only to repeat the process over and over. We loved swapping stories about the places we’ve all been in common and the enjoyment of different cultures, cuisines and our unquenchable wanderlust. 

We also met “One Pole and the Goodr Girls”, a group consisting of a guy and two women traveling together. One Pole lost one of his trekking poles along the first leg of the trip and came into camp with one…deeming him “One Pole” The women he was with both wore my favorite brand of athletic glasses; Goodr and have friends who work for the company, thus-The Goodr Girls.

There was also an Argentinean father and two sons, two Chilean buddies traveling together, and a pair of Aussies (a father and son) who we cooked and had dinner with at Dickenson. We’ve never laughed so hard in our lives as we did with these two and their quirky personalities. Still, some of the moments we laugh about the most from this trip come from these two. 

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Tales From the Trail -The Mess of Healing-Donahue Pass

Everyone needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. ~John Muir

IMG_5693Marie Lakes Junction. 2.67 miles from the top of Donahue Pass. This pass is long. 23-miles. And we have been climbing for 2 days already. We will go up and over the pass in the morning. We are camped next to a gorgeous creek with the pass in view. I climbed to the highest point of an outcropping of rock that I could find at camp and picked up limited reception on my cell. I called G. He and Finn (our pooch) are in Bend, OR, making their way to Yosemite to retrieve their weary hiker. I cannot believe we are almost done with this journey. It makes my heart ache.

We woke early and were really pushing and surging ahead today at a pretty quick IMG_2205speed. It was a lot of switchbacks and granite. A lot of work. J tripped and pulled her calf which slowed our pace a little. K and I went ahead and found some great campsites. It was earlier than we would have usually stopped, around 1:30, but it allowed for the day to become a little unscripted. I always know when things don’t go as planned there is a HIGHER plan. I sat on a flat rock out near the water, bathed in sunlight. I was praying and thanking God for this journey. This adventure. The able body I have to be able to complete the things I love. The passions that drive me. His passions. I thanked Him for WHO I AM and the person he’s created in me. I marveled at the fact that as I looked up, even the pines and the mountains stretch their way up towards the Heavens. Even they are in praise! I was lying there in the silence, listening, God really started to speak to my heart. “Your walls Paula! It’s really time to fully allow me to break them down.” I sat bolt upright! Years of not knowing how to love and be loved flooded me. I have always held people at a distance. That’s what hurt and betrayal do to you. I know this. That’s a part of me that is broken. My past had taught me that trust was something that cannot be easily given and once broken so terribly hard to repair. I was really never taught, unconditional love. Or maybe just never felt it. Laying there in that moment, in the wilderness, I felt a deep, cemented-on-layer, strip away. It pealed right off and fell to the ground. And oh it hurt! I knew this was a point of complete rawness. Complete vulnerability. I don’t trust people because they constantly let you down. What a HUGE fault of mine. What chances have I missed because of this? Even with my incredibly, amazing husband, who has shown me nothing but complete unconditional, true, passionate, deep, love, respect, and adoration I think in my mind I’ve felt there has always been that chance of him trampling my heart. I am not sure that I have ever truly let love completely in. And that is tragic. It was time. It was like a veil being lifted. I sat out on the rocks for a long time. I cried, I laughed and I cried again. God had to take me into the wilderness, in the silence, in the deepest canyons and highest mountains to peel me down, to allow me to see and feel and realize and taste the incredible love all around me. His love is so vast and so wide and so deep. To allow me to see how my past has shaped me, but for it to be used as GOOD! I have walked some pretty desperate and terrible roads and its ok. In fact, it’s amazing, because God brought me through. There is no other answer than that! He strengthened me and gave me a story to share. Not to be ashamed about. Not to dwell about or continue to feel hurt by, but to thrive out of, to show His goodness and his love and his miracles. That no matter the past, He is the present and the future. And He is so good and so faithful and so giving and SO full of healing!FullSizeRender

My relationships with people will never be the same now. They can’t be. I am a lover…but MAN has that grown ten-fold. I don’t hold back. I LOVE with the most extreme passion. Truly! I am not afraid to let love in and even risk the possibility of being hurt. I think to NOT would be the hugest tragedy of all. I’m not willing to allow the fear of being let down, stepped on or not being someone’s cup of tea ruin what could be an extraordinary relationship. Hurt and emotion are the consequence of loving. It’s so worth the risk!IMG_5696

Our last days on the trail were some of the best. Coming into Lyell Canyon in the Yosemite Valley was incredible. I longed to see even a glimpse of a bear, which never happened. We saw Tony, our dread-locked farmer pass us by only to meet back up at the end of our journey. We saw Igor’s bare feet in the dust of the trail but never saw our Euro’s until we were sitting at breakfast after meeting our loved ones. What a sight for sore eyes my husband was as he stood in the middle of the campground as we came off the trail. Clean, with his giant, loving smile, and heart outside of his chest laid open right on his shirt. Me, filthy and ragged and exposed. Bruised, uncovered and stripped of a lot of baggage.
We all came together for a last breakfast. My hubs had, as promised, met us with a cooler full of COLD beer. It was early morning, but our trail family (all of them) and our real-life families all shared in a SALUD to a journey complete!


It was hard leaving the trail. I feel a connection to these friends like no other. I love what being out there taught me about them and myself. I don’t think you can share in that sort of journey and not be completely connected and changed by the people around you.IMG_2195

K, your complete and utter will to succeed at this journey astounded me. You battled, failed equipment, the cold, broken laces and poles but never a broken spirit. You would grind out the day no matter how hard it was and finish in the evening laughing. Your determination and inspiration were incredible. Your fortitude and steadfastness is a huge testament to the type of person you are. You gave me the motivation to continue. You are one of the strongest women I know. You have such an incredible presence about you. Your friendship in cherished!

IMG_5703J, woman you are so tough. You could’ve allowed your falls and injuries to side-line you, but you just kept on. You were such a caretaker and source of reason for our group. Your sweet disposition combined with a kick-ass attitude was infectious. I loved your jokes, your singing and the games you initiated to help keep our minds off of the mire of the trail on those days when we all felt defeated. I learned a lot from you. You are so smart. The day we lost you out there my gut was hollow, I was worried, but I knew you are resourceful and smart and not one to go down without a fight. The Cheech lighter was the BOMB! Thanks for that and the gift of getting to know you.

K, our rooster in a flock of hens. Your desires and passions run deep. You’re a great coach and a greater friend. You withstood a lot from this group and I commend you for that. You are determined and so sold-out dedicated to everything you put your mind to. I know we had days of butting heads and I loved the challenge. I loved more the grace you extended to me. Your honesty and friendship mean the world to me. There aren’t a lot of people who can speak the truth and not be afraid. You’re kind and bold and persistent but have such a tender heart. Your willingness to be solid in your thoughts but show mercy when needed is an amazing quality. Thanks for not pushing me over a cliff when I really needed to be. And thanks for pushing me over the cliff when I needed it most.

IMG_2202I have loved reading through my journals of the JMT. It made me laugh out loud and become completely overcome with emotion at times. This trip stripped me down to bare bones and built me right back up. I am happy for the sheer blessing of this trip, for friends with the same passions, for a supportive family even when they are nervous or unsure of my outrageous decisions. For a husband that SO gets me, encourages the utter crazy in me and loves me to the pit of my being no matter the flaws and dirt and decay. The fact that you applaud and spur-on every hair-brained wild desire that I have in life and rally around me says so much about the man you are! God blessed me with such an incredible partner in life! I am so thankful that you’re the water that feeds the soil of my reckless, wild heart! I love that I felt through the adversity, I was reintroduced to myself. That we all chose to seek out the seed of triumph in the adversity along the way. I am grateful for the friends and family that encouraged us, prayed for us, thought about us, and checked in on us when they could. I am even more grateful for those who allowed me to come home a changed person and loved me all the same. Knowing my scars and my battles. My weaknesses and my strengths. Loving the soul of who I am and allowing me the true GIFT of loving you so deeply and so generously.IMG_2207
Good timber does not grow with ease. The stronger the wind the stronger the trees. ~T Monso 

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One of my FAVORITE pics from the entire trip. At the top of Donahue Pass. Job well done my friends!

*Start my JMT journey with me HERE

Tales From the Trail -Red’s Meadows

IMG_5634IMG_5620We traveled 11.75 miles this morning after breaking camp in 5-hours! We were a tad motivated to get to Red’s Meadows. As we hiked, we talked about the upcoming luxuries of SHOWERS. REAL FOOD. CELL SERVICE. Among many, one of the things this trail has lended me was to absolutely and constantly be thankful for the little things. As I paid the $15 for 15 minutes of clean water in an actual shower I considered people who do not have this option and how easy it is to take for granted. I couldn’t believe the MUD that rolled off of me and down the drain. Serious filth! Even though I was bathing daily in whatever body of water was available to us each evening, it just didn’t compare to a warm, clean, shower. How much this relates to Jesus! I would’ve paid $100 for this luxury. We laughed! Us girls. We all three went into the shower at the same time, finding three empty stalls and as we plopped our tokens into the coin operated machine and stepped in, we laughed! Hard! We stood under the rush of warm water and felt like pampered princesses and REALLY felt clean! We didn’t shave the entire trip. It was our pact. The feeling of wanting to now was SO incredibly overwhelming. It was part of the journey and being all in. We may be clean princesses but we are hairy! And so was our dude! His facial hair was reaching epic proportion! For me, this shower washed so much more than dirt away. It washed away my bad attitude from the days before, it washed away feelings of guilt over decisions I have made, expectation I’ve placed on myself and ones that have been put there by others, it washed away things I’ve been holding on to that needed desperately to be let go of, past hurts, pride issues, being judged, negative feelings, mistakes, times in my life that I fell apart, fear, the mess of the last year and the dirt of the past…..It all ran down the drain in a puddle.

Red’s Meadows is such a great place. Magical. The gathering place for all wanderers just outside of the beautiful Mammoth Lakes/Devil’s Postpile area. IMG_5630Full of wonderful, backpacking, happy people. It’s no wonder I loved it! (“My People” as my hubs refers to them) We quickly recognized some of our trail family. Those we’ve met along the way, and continue to see on the daily. Leap- frogging along, but always ending up camping alongside each night. Our Slovakian’s whom we met WAY back on Glen Pass; two buddies hiking together, one of them barefoot. Tony, our dreadlocked farmer, who gave up an organic farm to hike the JMT, and of course the sweet 50th-anniversary couple, Brooks and Rita. We all filtered in little by little to the showers, the Mule House Cafe (that had the BEST cheeseburgers, fries, and fruit pie on the planet, ON THE PLANET!) and little general store that held our resupply. Interestingly enough, none of us rushed for our resupply. We opted instead for a shower, food, beer and hanging in the sunshine talking with other hikers…. in that order. We met Sam, a guy from the UK who is hiking the PCT. He is 3 weeks from finishing his 6-month journey and even though I have suffered some pretty rotten things out on this trail, I yearn for the opportunity to hike the PCT at some point. I was a little jealous. We talked to 2 women hikers from Maine that were having issues with sleeping bags. They were freezing at night and were asking opinions from everyone about new sacks that they were considering purchasing in Mammoth Lakes. We met a group of 4 women hiking together that were sharing a jar of queso dip and chips from the store. HEAVEN! We listened to the stories of fun and laughter, of animals, of heartbreak, of spiritual journeys, of blisters and sprained ankles, of sleeping COLD, of favorite and least favorite passes, the stories of their journeys and what brought them out here in the first place. I was happy to see so many solo-female hikers, and Ladies of the JMT (all of us wearing our blue bandanas on our pack to signify who we were) I was fascinated by these people and their stories and just wanted to take it all in! Sometimes I thought; man we must have a screw loose to do this, to want this, to enjoy (to some extent) the suffering of almost a month in the wilderness. The isolation, being dirty, being in the complete silence, the remoteness…but then I realized…Nah, it’s passion. It’s passion that drives this and every. single. one. of. us.  has. a. story.

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This was some DANG good coffee!

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With our “Slovakian’s” Igor (who hiked most of the trail barefoot and Jakob (Jakub)

We picked up our resupplies from the little general store and sifted through the contents. I dug….WAY down to the bottom for my note, but quickly saw that Greg had added a few other goodies to this bucket. A can of Pringle’s (oh sweet Jesus) about 5 lbs of Starburst, blister care items (first aid) and a few bottles of Fire Ball. That man knows exactly what I need even from thousands of miles away and not hearing from me in over 10 days! This would be our last resupply. My last note. The last little bit of correspondence until we finish this out. It excited me as much as it grieved me. It was bittersweet in several aspects and as happy as I was to be finishing up this incredibly, epic experience, I was deeply SO saddened at the same time.

My note to myself.

Paula,

Wild Mama, just because you cried today doesn’t make you weak, Allow the tears to come and wash your spirit clean. You’ve come a long way baby! You’re at Red’s Meadows. Reflect on where you have come from and where you’re heading. Continue to celebrate all that lies within you. God has created in you and adventurer, a lover of nature and of stars and extraordinary views. This is why you’re out here. Breathe it all in. You are stronger than you ever give yourself credit. Keep it up, badass warrior! Thanks be to God. Remember, you planned well and are ready for the next few days to the finish!IMG_1659

And from G.

Look at you, Lady! Wow! Bad-assery in its truest form. Your body is probably a little beat up and tired, but that’s ok. Better this than a lump on the couch. Embrace it all! You can make it this last stretch, dig in and remember, LOOK UP! Hopefully, you remember me at the end of this. I will be the guy standing with a cold beer, a super-soaker, and a razor. Ha-Ha! I love you, G

I roared with laughter as I read this. Along with his funny note, and myriad of additional goodies, he had packed the baggies of my re-packaged dehydrated meals (yes RE-PACKAGED because weight is EVERYTHING when it’s on your back) and had renamed a few for me, which brought some great laughter around our little Jet Boils as we cooked dinner at camp.IMG_5623

We had to say goodbye to Red’s Meadows  in the morning and start our way up Donahue Pass. It was hard leaving. We ate an AMAZING breakfast with WAAAAY too much coffee from a pot. Donahue is a big pass with 23-ish miles to the top. It’s long and gradual reaching 11,703 feet. We camped part way up around the Shadow Lake area. We had decided to bite this last section off in chunks. This was a gorgeous camp, with a waterfall right outside my tent door. (and for me, besides sunrises and sunsets, waterfalls rank HIGH up on the food chain of gorgeous-must-sees for me. I LOVE them) I climbed to the top of the falls and spent some alone time with God thanking Him for his creation, for His love for us through his creation. The beauty here and along this entire journey has been unsurpassed. I thanked Him for the opportunity of being out here, for His healing on my feet and body. I thanked Him for my hiking partners and keeping us all healthy (for the most part.) and safe. Out of the four of us, we had one common thread before going into this hike….our dude! K and I knew one another, but not to the depths that we did now. J and I met the day she, K and her hubs picked me up in San Bernardino to head to Lone Pine. Talk about really putting your faith into your hiking partners. So for us to make it this far with only a few small scrapes and bumps along the trail (so to say) I think I was in good company. I was so thankful for their underserved patience, and their inspiration, and kindness. I know we all had days where the raw emotion was high and we wanted to scream at one another, but in the end, we showed love, appreciation, devotion, fortitude, humility, mercy and grace. We showed friendship.  I was so grateful for that. Complete and utter favor in the most extreme conditions Their compassion was incredible. I know full well that some days, probably most days, I was deserving of NONE of it!

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That one day that J fell and K had to bandage her up with a Maxi-Pad!!

I took a deep breath as I climbed into my tent and into my mummy, the cascading sound of the falls outside the door making me dizzy with relaxation and tiredness. It had started to rain and we all retreated to our tents early. The daylight still lingered. I sat up and re-read the note from G and giggled. He has the greatest way of always making me and those around him laugh! He would love this spot. I cannot believe this journey is almost ending. I didn’t want it to. It had changed me in some pretty profound ways already. What would going home be like? What would matter to me that hadn’t before? What things would I cherish more and what would I no longer need or care to have? Would I want to go home and buy a Tiny House in the woods after living in Big Agnes for the past 3 1/2 weeks? What would I appreciate more and find unnecessary? What would food and water taste like? Different? Possibly. I do know the need to see my family was so colossal. To breathe them in deeply was all I wanted. That, and to lift and inhale the sweet, dirty, earthy, grass-smell of my puppy’s paws. (this is something her and I do several times a day) Those things that on a daily we become so accustomed to, that are so ordinary at times, that never will be again. They just can’t be.

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Start my JMT journey from the beginning HERE