Travel Patagonia: Summit County woman’s mission to hike from South America to Alaska | VailDaily.com

Travel Patagonia: Summit County woman’s mission to hike from South America to Alaska

Heather Jarvis
hjarvis@summitdaily.com

"For me, long-distance walking is a meditation. I just really find myself at peace. … It gives me the time to sort through the things that are in my mind and try to process the things that are going on in the world. I can come out of the backcountry each time stronger and able to give back in a way that I can listen better, that I can be more present in the moment with people, and share the stories in a way that's true to the folks that I'm lucky enough to get to talk to."

Summit County resident Bethany Hughes tackled her first long-distance thru-hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2010. Two years later, she was completing the Colorado Trail. Each of these journeys only fed the flame further, offering her peace, a way to slow down and the frame of mind to want to give back. Every time she saw a sunset, or someone showed up at the perfect time to give her a ride into town, it was an affirmation that life happens with a reason in mind.

Now, Hughes hikes with a mission for more than just herself, a trip that she's been planning for the last five years. In November 2015, she and her hiking partner, Lauren Reed, set out for what would eventually be their longest journey thus far — to hike from the southern tip of South America to the top of Alaska. The women finished their first season in Bariloche, Argentina, after walking an estimated 1,500 miles, from Nov. 23, 2015, to April 19, 2016, covering 13 degrees of latitude after starting in Ushuaia, Argentina.

At "Truths from the Trail: Bringing Home the Secrets of Patagonia," Hughes will present tales and photos of her adventures thru-hiking and travel tips for South America. This speaker series event is free and open to the public and will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the Eileen and Paul Finkel Auditorium at Colorado Mountain College in Breckenridge. Hughes will also highlight some of the national parks and trails in South America for potential visitors.

FINDING A DREAM

Although Hughes has always been outdoorsy, there was one clear moment when she decided to embark upon the Americas thru-hike. She was reading "Born to Run," by Christopher McDougall, and read, "The Sierra Madres are the middle link of a mountain chain that stretches practically uninterrupted from Alaska to Patagonia." She knew right at that moment, just reading that particular sentence, that she needed to hike that route.

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She was managing the book-keeping department with H&R Block in Kansas City at the time, and right after she read the book, a man came up to her after she gave a presentation at work and asked her what she planned to do next. She told him her dream to walk the length of the Americas, and he handed her a $5 bill to get her started. She went home, put it in an envelope and began planning the journey.

"It seemed clear in my mind: This is the first step toward making it a reality," she said.

Raised in South America from the ages of 4 to 12 due to her parents' missionary work, she describes the route as a re-run through her life.

"A lot of my cultural understanding from the age of 4 to 12 came from those cultures," she said. "I guided Boy Scouts in New Mexico, living in Colorado, working on a ranch in Montana and running sled dogs in Alaska — it's cool how it all ties together like that. … I didn't realize how much my life revolved around that mountain chain."

'Her Odyssey'

Hughes and Reed met hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail. Because Reed lived in nearby Moab, Utah, the pair continued to keep in touch. About a year before Hughes was scheduled to leave, Reed decided to join her. Their mission, which they call "Her Odyssey," is to travel the length of the Americas by non-motorized means — from hiking to biking to possibly even dog sledding — "gathering stories along the route and inspiring others to pursue their own audacious dreams," according to their website and blog at http://www.her-odyssey.org. As they hike, Hughes and Reed have been documenting the journey and the women they meet along the way, collecting stories.

"I want to be able to hear those people's stories and share them and be able to share them along the way so that maybe we realize we all actually aren't as different as the TV or media might tell us, and we actually have a lot more in common," she said. "We are each working toward our own dreams, no matter how crazy they are.

"I'm not going to South America to tell other people what or how to believe. I want to hear how they believe because I believe we can all share what we believe and compare those notes and come closer to finding a middle ground and stronger communication, rather than the polarization that's happening in politics, international matters and within our own communities as well."

Another one of their missions is to bring awareness to the water crisis in South America. Just as water rights in the West have become almost like a battle, people in countries such as Argentina and Chile are dealing with the same issues.

"They're dealing with a lot of the same things that we are, but people don't know that because the major media outlets don't draw those parallels and we are all fixated on our own stories," she said.

Hughes said Chile and Argentina are developing their water systems based off what the U.S. was doing in the 1960s — systems that the U.S. is now moving away from, realizing these ways don't work, while the South American countries are locked into them. She wants to document these issues and create dialogue, not only in South America, but also the U.S.

While Hughes has spent the last five years saving up for this trip, the hiking duo also fund their journey through local support, selling their photographs and writings, and relying on the kindness of strangers along the way.

Hughes and Reed — or Fidgit and Neon, as they are known on the trail — will begin the next stretch of their journey in early November. This piece of the trip will be longer, as they will be closer to the equator, which means a longer hiking season. They plan to hike for about a year straight, with hopes to get to around Machu Picchu by the holidays next year, making it to the halfway mark of South America. They hope to complete the entire journey, finishing in northern Alaska, by 2020.

With each leg of the trip across the Americas, Hughes will continue to learn, share and enjoy her surroundings, to take each day at a time and revel in the reasons why she chose this path.

"Mother Nature doesn't discriminate — you don't have to pay money for a hike," she said. "It's one of those things that's accessible to everyone, and I love that about it. … It rains and shines on all of us the same."

IF YOU GO …

What: “Truths from the Trail: Bringing Home the Secrets of Patagonia.”

When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 13.

Where: Eileen and Paul Finkel Auditorium at Colorado Mountain College, 107 Denison Placer Road, Breckenridge.

Cost: Free.

More information: Visit http://www.her-odyssey.org.