A return to adventure turns into a turn towards inventure
Chile's fantastical Atacama Desert, a vast expanse of breathtaking beauty, brutal dryness and lack of rain, is a wonder. For a long-time adventure traveler, and one whose preferred mode of transport is horse through the world's remote places, the Atacama has always been at the top of my bucket list.
As luck would have it, a rescheduled foot surgery combined with a last-minute change of plans for someone else opened up a chance for me to finally take a week-long adventure ride in this marvelous place. October is early spring here, the air redolent with desert shrubs and the tall cactus festooned with blooms.
Never heard of the Atacama? You might have seen it as part of a movie backdrop.
If you're a Bond fan, you saw part of this desert in Quantum of Solace. However.
Sitting in a comfortable theater or in the safety of your living room, you can't possibly appreciate either the vastness or the beauty of such a place.
You also can't appreciate the high altitude, the galloping or skittering wildlife, or the lush valleys that nestle next to the salty waters of the rivers and streams which burble at the base of enormous canyons. Those long, snaking, thin oases are like green exclamation points against an endless backdrop of ochre, red, beige, white and browns.
But I'm ahead of myself.
I very much wanted that kind of epic, badass ride which would not only remind me that I belong in the saddle but also renew my recently-shaken faith in my body after so many surgeries and injuries. That's not what I got.
As with all things trusted to Forces greater than ourselves, I got precisely what I needed.
I left the turning leaves of the Pacific Northwest and the exploding early American holiday season for Santiago, Chile with my bags full of riding gear and my heart full of high hopes.
I landed in Calama, which is a fast-growing town and the closest airport to the desert, four days in advance to give me time to write and to acclimate as well as pick up last-minute items unique to the area. On October 23rd, Macarena, the tiny, irrepressible and wonderfully enthusiastic wife of Esteban, the trip's guide, picked me up at my hostel and we collected the other rider, Katharina, from the airport.
From there we drove to Chiu Chiu, a tiny town which would be our jump-off point for the ride. Katharina, who is German, and I were lodged in a gorgeous, rustic hostel right next to ancient ruins which we explored and photographed at length.
If you're a veteran adventure rider, you know that there are several key elements which can make or break a big, challenging ride. First, the other riders. The guides and the support teams, the quality of the horses and tack, and of course, what you bring with you: your attitudes, your willingness to be inconvenienced, compromised, uncomfortable and all the other euphemistically-named "opportunities for growth" that such an extended ride can offer.
If any one or more of those elements goes sour, it can make the experience far less enjoyable, if not outright miserable.
As someone who has done many of these rides over the years, I can attest: it is rare indeed that all the pieces come together perfectly. Even when they do, as they coalesced so beautifully on this trip, something is bound to go sideways. In this case, I was the one who went sideways, and I was very fortunate to be surrounded by this particular group of people.
The night before our trip launched I walked outside to marvel at the sky, untouched by light pollution. I tested out different breech and chap combinations for the day. In a few hours, Esteban, Macarena and the rest of the team would arrive with the horses and the car which would accompany us.
In that knife-sharp, clear air that is so characteristic of high deserts, Katharina and I photographed the local llamas and finally welcomed the crew as they clopped up the road.
That's when my trip changed. I was carrying my luggage down the steps when one foot skewed the wrong way, and I went face first into the flagstone. My cheek was gashed, but I ignored my left knee. That body part took the brunt of the impact. I didn't know it at the time, as I was more concerned with my scratched face, which was bleeding profusely, as facial cuts do.
Esteban and Macarena had brought two of their daughters, a son and one of the daughter's boyfriends as both riders and part of the support team. If you've done enough of these trips, you can understand why both Katharina and I were initially nervous, but we underestimated the family.
First, this is a crew that loves one another, loves horses and loves the outdoors. In all ways, they went out of their way to make the trip not only a pleasure but as easy as possible, especially given that it turned out that my knee was actually pretty badly damaged.
I didn't realize just how much until by the end of the day, given some lively and energizing gallops which required that I grip with precisely that part of my knee which had taken my full weight and an additional forty pounds of luggage. So I now had a non-working left leg. I would spend seven days in a saddle with a knee so badly swollen and purple that I could hardly bend it, much less mount a twitchy, active horse.
If you want to discover your mettle but also that of the support team and other riders, suffer an injury which not only slows you down but makes it nigh impossible to set up your own tent, help with tacking up and breaking down camp, all of it. It's supremely humbling, especially for someone who likes to help with everything and throw her weight behind the camp work. Not this time, I couldn't.
Frankly, this was one of the best trips I have ever taken by horse not only because it was such an extraordinary place, but also because the injury forced me to rely far more heavily on the support and patience of those around me. I couldn't have asked for a richer experience on all counts.
In order to enjoy such a trip you absolutely have to sit your ego down hard, and make it stay there, especially when the body is not going to cooperate with whatever program you had in mind.
While I will go into greater detail about what we experienced in future articles (and when I can get all my photos off my camera card, which is currently not cooperating), this article is about grace. Esteban, who is a deeply spiritual man, spent time with me while others galloped, and we delved into these very issues.
Grace is in fact the most important message not only in being in such a place but also in being able to receive what you truly came there for.
While I love to make fun of those things which hurt, hamper or otherwise make a damned fool out of me (all of which I most richly deserve), this trip in particular was a challenge for the long, long days in the saddle being surrounded by the kind of thundering silence that only such a place can impose.
You are forced to think. You put away all the technology (if you're wise). You put away all pretensions (if you're willing). You get to strip down to the essence of who you are, in this part of the world ruled by Pachamama, and deal with the Goddess within whether you want to or not.
I did not get to feed my ego by galloping triumphantly across the Moonscapes. I didn't get to participate in the traditional race at the end. In fact, for this trip, I was the one who had to ride in back while everyone else galloped gaily away, watching their horseshoes catch the sun and glint silver while my horse (justifiably) snorted and struggled and complained at being left behind.
Back when I began such trips I used to think poorly of riders who couldn't participate at the highest level of the trip. Well, look. They say Pachamama is the mother of earthquakes. What better earthquake for one's own ego than to be forced to be the one everyone else has to accommodate?
This is what real Goddess work looks like.
Not the Great Return to Adventure I had envisioned. Precisely what I needed. For riding in the back, I had time to talk to Maca or Esteban, and work on my skills with twitchy Jocko, who would have been THE perfect horse for me had I not been injured. I got to watch others do what I wanted to do, and take deep pleasure in that Esteban and Maca ensured that nobody lost out on the quality of their rides because of me.
That's good guiding.
I was forced to slow way down, focus on the horse, my body and the surroundings. Deal with the pain and be willing to both ask for and graciously accept help, whether it was in tent setup (Katharina was forever helping) or in getting ready so that I didn't delay departures. I was also invited, not forced, to challenge my ego needs to be at the front, something I used to really want ten years ago, and be perfectly happy to poke along at the very back.
I had to find ways to negotiate with the constant pain, which by day's end took the breath away. I had to find ways to make jokes, find humor when it was thin on the ground, and use the scenery to distract myself from the body's complaints. A great many of us, as we age, have to deal with precisely these kinds of things.
The results are many and varied. Perhaps the greatest is the increased regard and appreciation for those times in life, and they come to us all, when a busted limb or an illness or a spot of lousy luck means that we don't get to be the Conquering Hero with the ticker tape parade.
And finally, this. Pepe, a family friend, fine rider and a great enthusiast for legend and traditions helped us begin our trip by laying a piece of fabric on the grounds of the ancient Indian ruins where we would offer up our prayers to Pachamama for a safe trip. I watched each of the locals carefully as they poured wine and whiskey into a glass, over coca leaves and into the ground itself.
I did the same, although in English, and offered sincere thanks for the chance to be in one of the world's great places. At the time I had no idea how the trip would change me. I also joked that it was too bad we didn't do the ceremony before I'd done a header with my luggage on those flagstone steps.
But here's the way I see it. Pachamama knew precisely what She was doing.
I got a seven-day immersion in learning to receive, surrounded by good and kind people, magnificent scenery, fine horses, affectionate dogs, all from a most generous Goddess.
Pachamama surrounded me with love.
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