As my husband and I travel the long Argentinean road toward Puerto Natales, I can’t help but gaze at the mix of cobalt, gold, and the brightest shades of blue imaginable. I’m tired, but the landscape I see through the windows of the double-decker bus I’ve been on for the last 48 hours distracts me from sleep. Every time my eyelids start to close, I’m jolted awake by the sight of rhea—a flightless grassland bird that can grow to be over 5 feet tall and weigh up to 88 pounds, or a herd of grazing guanacos—a tawny relative to the llama.
This is a land of light and shadow. Patagonia is known for its iconic mountain ranges, but much of the region is made up of grassland. It’s often hard to get a sense of scale when standing in the lowlands looking toward the mountains, but the distance can be measured by how the clouds move across the landscape: The golden fields of grass become muted as clouds cover it in shade. When the same clouds hit the mountains they swirl around the peaks, creating areas speckled with rays from the sun. Bare rock that is hidden in shadow is exposed as the clouds and light shift around the peaks.
I’m in Patagonia realizing a decade-long dream. There’s a chance I was inspired by a Warren Miller ski film somewhere along the way, but my dream probably goes back to when I was a kid watching nature documentaries in my living room. Either way, the source of inspiration created a vision of a land of glacier-covered mountains and golden plains that was stitched into my mind.
It wasn’t until my husband and I were thinking about having children that I finally made it to Patagonia. I always wanted to start a family; now that the right time had arrived for us, I wanted one child-free last “hurrah” before entering the unknown world of motherhood.
A major part of my identity had always been tied to having the freedom to take off on a climbing trip with only a day’s notice or spend an all-girl’s weekend in the mountains. I admit, I’m scared that having children will change that freedom; others’ advice is always “travel before you have kids”, which implies that continuing to do so afterward is not an option.
In planning this trip, we decided to spend three weeks exploring different areas of Patagonia. We wanted to trek “The W” in Torres Del Paine, go on an overnight kayak trip on the Rio Serrano, see penguins off the coast of Punta Arenas, and backpack in El Chalten. Thus far, with the exception of the penguins—canceled due to high winds—we’ve been able to do all of it.
“The W” hike, one of the most popular in Patagonia, brought us up to the base of granite monoliths and along lakes so deeply turquoise, it look as though paint were dumped in them. We spent our nights in the refugios along the way. At one point during the four-day trek, I looked out over an array of fjords, glaciers, wooded glens, and peaks as it all spread out before me. I was overwhelmed by the number of places to explore and couldn’t help but think that the trip would be impossible if we had children; they would slow us down, not be able to hike as far nor navigate the rough terrain.
There was still so much to explore, so much more time needed. How was a child going to fit into all of this?
Later, while sitting in a kayaking on the Rio Serrano for the better part of two days, I had a lot of time to think. As I stared at the glaciers melting off the mountains and into waterfalls, I remembered how my parents took me hiking and camping when I was little. If not for those formative experiences, I probably wouldn’t be there, kayaking in Patagonia.
The milky blue color of the water merged with the glacially fed Rio Grey, and my thoughts turned to the rewards of having a child and fostering in them a love for the natural world. I realized that, although I have doubts about fitting a child into my life, it would be amazing to expose a child to this kind of wonder.
El Chalten, the last stop on our trip, is the home to the mountain range that graces almost every piece of Patagonia clothing—the iconic Fitz Roy. We spent a few days backpacking, rewarded with sunny days and views of Fitz Roy, which is often obscured by cloud cover.
It was here that I came into contact with a woman who was two months pregnant. We were camping beside the young couple and learned they planned their trip before they knew they were expecting. Both were flush with the excitement of being parents.
I asked the mother-to-be about traveling while pregnant and it was through her response that I came to a realization: Motherhood is about flexibility. She admitted to having less energy and slowing down a bit, but she also was firm in her resolve that she and her husband weren’t letting parenthood stop them from exploring and backpacking Patagonia. Though they had to swap out extended backpacking time with instead day hiking and camping in the lakes region of Chile, they were thankful that planning for flexibility in their trip allowed them to see an area of Chile that they would have otherwise overlooked.
I began seeing my role in motherhood and adventure with a new perspective: I am the one in control of this change. I didn’t have to cancel plans, just be willing to modify them, whether that means shorter hikes or car camping instead of long backpacking trips. Starting a family will change our plans, but in exciting new ways. And, as far as adventures go, exploring life with my own child is going to be my greatest adventure yet.
. . .
Update: After a season of seeing parents with kids out on the trails, Betsy and her husband recently decided they are ready for little hikers of their own.
About the author
A lover of the outside world, Betsy Dionne lives in Riverside, California and works as a ecological resource specialist for the County of Riverside. When she is not working to conserve open space, she is out hiking, climbing and exploring.