What Patagonia Promised Me

by Brynn Pedrick

Walking my dog on an icy sidewalk this winter I had a thought that surprised me: this week seven years ago I was upside down, reversed. There’s something about a cold morning that brings my attention somewhere I know it needs to be, and this winter I’ve been thinking a lot about Patagonia and the story of how it changed me.

For a recent writing project I thought I’d revisit an old draft, written in a college writing class the first few months after a challenging season of my life, but I quickly found that just revisiting the old draft wasn’t enough.

I’d gone to Patagonia for the promise of risk. As a student who’d grown bored of long lectures, scantron sheets, and essays critiquing my knowledge of the world, Patagonia offered me a test of endurance, willpower, and bravery.

In a quiet corner of my college’s study abroad fair, on a poster just barely wiped from dust and age, I saw the test I wanted to take: three months of backpacking, biodiversity research, and working with local and national Chilean governments in bringing agriculture and conservation to the same table. It was exactly what I thought I needed: an adventure to spell out who I was and how I’d matter to the world.

I was in awe every day of that land’s beauty. And nearly every day I struggled knowing how hard it was to protect it, and how small I felt thinking I could try.

After applying and being accepted to the program, I spent three months training and using the two page packing list of recommended gear, clothing, and academic supplies to prepare for a three-month trek. On January 21, 2015 I left for my first big adventure.

Patagonia put me on my ass. Embarrassingly, it was a full week into the trip before I’d even noticed that the sky itself was upside down in the Southern Hemisphere. I crawled out of my sleeping bag at that time of night when time doesn’t matter—it could be one or two or three-thirty, you wouldn’t know the difference—and copped a squat not far from my tent.

It was pitched just beside the Rio Cochrane rushing glacial waters through the town of Cochrane, the basecamp of the Aisén region. A small town in this sparsely populated region of Southern Chile, Cochrane sits below the newly established Patagonia Park and is home to the Tomango National Reserve and Lake Cochrane, and is a jumping off point for many treks and day trips in the region. I let out a long sigh, looked up, and something clicked.

There was Orion, the constellation I’d looked for on nights when hardship wasn’t far, and here he stood upside down. In a cartwheel, his arms reached sideways and his legs nearly flailing. He was like me—reversed and somewhat unrecognizable.

Last year, mostly quarantined inside my small apartment, where far off places lived only in magazine spreads and dreams, I spent a lot of time flipping through old travel journals. I journal most consistently when traveling, at least a page for every day, and in returning to my pages spent in Patagonia I remembered how most of my days were spent facing a dark place.

It wasn’t lost on me, at the time, the irony in seeing such beauty in the world around me and facing such hostility towards myself on the inside. In the Aisén region I saw deserts and steppes of dried grass and shrubland, fjords meeting mountains with forests and waterfalls, and rivers opaque and aqua with glacial sediment. I was in awe every day of that land’s beauty. And nearly every day I struggled knowing how hard it was to protect it, and how small I felt thinking I could try.

That semester I was in a small group with other students, teachers, and gauchos helping us navigate land without trails. There were the obvious struggles in spending every day with the same 15 people, and there were less obvious struggles, like hiking in damp socks and avoiding poisonous hairy caterpillars. Each sunrise was a welcome to a new challenge, and each sunset was a reflection on how I faced that challenge. And in reading those reflections years later, I see that the most difficult challenge was how I spoke to myself without kindness or grace.

I’d known it was bound to be profound—why else would I have written it all down?—but I couldn’t place how or why. All I knew was that I’d felt ungrounded with myself and with the world, and that each day ended with physical exhaustion, mental burnout, and socks soaked wet from hours trekking in heavy rain through wetlands and raised bogs of sphagnum moss.

…it’s taken me a long time to realize that the pain I see in others and the world, the suffering, the hurt, the loss, isn’t the only story worth sharing.

Back in the United States, everyone asked questions and expected stories, myself included. They wanted wow factors from my first solo adventure, and I’d had to tug at my creativity to find a way to share what I had learned.

The one piece I wrote about my trip that first semester back at school was a letter; from the voice of the Southern Ice Field, the world’s second largest contiguous extrapolar ice field in the Southern Patagonic Andes, I wrote a message to the reader, pleading for attention. It opened, “I’ve never met you and there’s a good chance you’ll never know me, but mine won’t be a story of loss without humility and grit, so I’ll try anyway.” It covered the expanse of existence such a glacier had in shaping a landscape. Fjords, glaciers, lakes, and more, were all carved over a millennia by a field of ice that was now melting in a warmer climate, forcing ecosystems and communities to adapt with little time and resources.

Rereading the pages of my old journal now, I see the many ways my heart was broken: as an environmentalist, a lover of wildlife, and someone who’d seen how those without privilege suffered in ways I’d never understand.

Mostly, though, I see how lost I felt as a girl freshly facing the struggles of anxiety, depression, and grief as a young woman. Each day, night, and the moments in between, I felt more broken than amazed by the world’s beauty.

One night a week or so into that spring, on ground unlevel and barely fit for pitching a tent, across a narrow valley from one of many glaciers of the Southern Ice Field in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, I woke from a dreamless sleep to the deepest anger I’d ever heard. A glacier calving sounds like the thickest thunder in a summer storm, and though it happens plenty in a world of ice, this one felt personal. This crumbling of ice shook me and the world I grew up seeing, one of goodness, of kindness, of stories where things work out. It was a sadness I knew well, and to hear it come from the Earth itself uprooted any grounding I’d had months into this journey. It was only sleep that calmed me, and I’d only found it with the help of a few late night tears over what’s been lost.

In three pages, and from the voice of ice as I imagined it, I wrote a message of grief, of sadness, and of anger that I thought was enough. It was the only piece I wrote about that trip: there, I’d done it. My life had been changed. I had my printed pages of what a semester abroad had taught me, ready to share with anyone who asked to read them.

But this year, a mere seven winters later, I see that grief, sadness, and anger was also my own, I just hadn’t been brave enough to name it. Even now it’s hard to face, but with all the good and beauty in that trip, the idea that travel could save me was a bandaid. At nineteen I hadn’t yet faced the loss of a second shot at family; a second marriage for my single mom that filled our lives with promise—he had kids of his own and played piano on the weekends—but which ended in pain and grief I hadn’t yet processed, and certainly didn’t understand.

At nineteen I hadn’t yet faced the pain in understanding that saving the natural world couldn’t save my own.The voice of grief, sadness, and anger for a suffering planet was all I could share about my time in Patagonia, but with time comes clarity.

The summer after that season abroad I acknowledged my anxiety, depression, and the symptoms that came with both. I started meditating, for real, and faced an eating disorder I’d battled for years. That summer was a turning point in my health and my ability to speak to myself with compassion and love. And it wouldn’t have happened without having reached my darkest place in one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes.

One thing I’ve learned in this difficult season, and something old journals showed me years later, is that life is filled with suffering for so many, in ways that make us different and in ways that bring us closer.

Looking back, I see there can be a hidden loss in writing. An idea that life’s lessons are written, printed, shared, and in a way, finalized. Myself seven years ago thought that had to be the case. She thought she learned her lesson, saved in a single story to share with those who’d ask to read or listen. But those words weren’t really mine, they were words of hurt for something I felt connected to. Our planet hurts, and even when it screams it’s pain in melting glaciers, raging fires, and lives lost to natural disaster, we don’t always listen.

But that isn’t my pain, and it’s taken me a long time to realize that the pain I see in others and the world, the suffering, the hurt, the loss, isn’t the only story worth sharing.

This practice, this story, has been one of revisiting the past and reaching out to a younger self with love, grace, and the promise that not everything has an answer.

As this winter thaws and our lives warm up to long walks with friends, dinners out on downtown patios, and planning adventures we’ve craved in these recent years of greater isolation, I can’t deny a level of unease I feel thinking of how we move forward. But one thing I’ve learned in this difficult season, and something old journals showed me years later, is that life is filled with suffering for so many, in ways that make us different and in ways that bring us closer. But fear must never surpass our kindness, especially towards ourselves. Not every trip or season of life changes us; sometimes, they simply melt our walls and ask us to listen and look ahead with love and compassion.

 


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