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Trekker blazes trail in Patagonia

(This is a first-person account of the author's experiences during a month-long trip to South America.)

Over Winter Break I went, quite literally, to the end of the world - the tip of South America. I think I had romanticized it all my life: the Andes, me and the answers to all life's questions meeting up like old friends for drinks in a remote cafe called Patagonia. Somehow I believed these mountains to have secrets and revelations dangling like fruit from trees, waiting to be plucked and devoured by me.

Boy, was I naive.

The opportunity to realize my fantasy came last June, when my equally curious friend Ali said she wanted to go trekking for a few weeks over Winter Break. I jumped at her proposal, and a month later we both bought non-refundable tickets to Santiago, Chile.

I was sure my life was going to end along with 20 other adventure seekers on the flight down into the mountains surrounding Santiago. We traveled on a dingy little plane that carried about as poorly as a feather on wind. Twice the gusts blew the plane deceptively close to the mountains, and as the pilots heroically slalomed through the snow-topped peaks, I couldn't help but question my decision to make the trip. After a 15-second nose-dive, we landed onto an ice-covered runway, and it took every ounce of gumption in me not to resist booking myself on the next flight out.

When we got to the hostel in Punta Arenas, the southern-most city in the continental Americas, Ali and I had our first conversation about what this trip meant to us. We quickly found we had completely different aspirations. She's the kind of person who's not happy unless she has some impending, outlandish journey to look forward to. For her, Patagonia was an exotic, far-off place saturated with mystery and adventure.

I, on the other hand, was looking for tranquility, peace of mind, relaxation, and those little secrets and revelations fruit.

We probably should have discussed this difference of opinion before we left, but as it would turn out, the details of why we came were insignificant when faced with the day to day toil of being in the Andes.

If you have ever been trekking before, you know that it is not a glamorous affair. You would never say to a new boyfriend/girlfriend, "Hey, wanna go trekking together?" because the first thing you would do after getting back, besides showering, would be to break up.

You're coughing up lugies, sweating, sliding on your butt through mud, falling on your face at least once a day, brazenly defecating behind small bushes, eating nothing but horrendous-tasting power bars deceivingly called "Yummy Yummy Chocolate," and never changing your clothes or showering for weeks on end. Personal hygiene is secondary to things like eating and staying warm.

This trip was not about cute clothes, great parties or impressing boys. It was a chance for us to leave behind our blow-dryers and make-up, just for a little while, to be alone with nature, and to find ourselves. Ali wanted to do it in a blaze of glory, and I wanted to do it by candlelight. But we were both united in our cause: to conquer the wilderness alone as two strong, independent women.

That vision lasted nearly 8 hours. Then we met the boys on New Year's Eve: two 21-year-old Australians traveling the world together for two years, and they were the only other English speakers we had come across since arriving in Patagonia. It couldn't have been more perfect. Both were gorgeous - not to mention the nice accents - and seemed to remind us of Mel Gibson. But when they said they wanted to make the trek with us, we were hesitant.

Ali and I had our first little tiff that night.

"I don't want to be bothered with guys," I said. "No way. We can do this alone."

My tongue hung on the back of my teeth as I spoke, and I could almost taste the secrets and revelations fruit being ripped out of my mouth.

"Think of how much fun we'll have," Ali pleaded. "We can make it a contest: the boys against the girls. And every day we can think of something new to compete for."

I knew I was going to lose this argument. In a matter of minutes, the trip had taken on a whole new identity. I began to worry about the clothes I had packed and whether they were cute or not. Pathetic, I know. I was all too eager to kiss goodbye the deep, contemplative hiker persona I had taken on in exchange for my flirtatious (and somewhat flighty), natural self.

Ali and I saw this as the ultimate challenge in guy-chasing. How do you maintain any modicum of sex appeal while trekking? And then I realized that adding guys to the picture in no way diminished our accomplishment. It made every day that much more difficult. Not only did we have to walk through knee-deep mud for hours, but we had to do it as gracefully and lady-like as possible.

Patagonia is the most beautiful place I've ever seen. Everywhere you look, glaciers are peeking out through wedged mountains, lakes are nestled in narrow valleys and fields of daisies stretch along for miles. It is a place of ultimate extremes. You can be standing in the sun on a green hill with flowers while a backdrop of stark ice-capped mountains looms in the distance. One minute there are rainbows, the next, horizontal freezing rain pelting your face. The adventure began every day at sunrise, and was utterly unpredictable day by day. My former dream of finding calm and serenity was quickly erased: Patagonia is everything but.

Puma tracks on the trail convinced me that we were being stalked. The condors flying overhead did nothing to quell my fears. Wandering horses and cows would sometimes stick their noses into our tent to wake us up in the mornings. River crossings, if any, were unsteady logs that were sure to give out on contact, leaving you on your rear end in a raging river. On many occasions, I had to scoot across the logs on my butt. Nothing could have prepared me for Patagonia.

In retrospect, I knew I would not have come to any life-changing conclusions while I was there, even had I been without the boys. But I came to this one: A great experience doesn't have to be life-altering. I had romanticized it for so long, I think I had lost sight of what I was looking for. You don't have to travel to the end of the world, or throw hygiene to the wind, or put your life at risk in order to think great thoughts. I learned more about everything from Australian life to how to better pitch a tent. It turns out that once I had reconciled myself to learning nothing, I learned more than I ever could have imagined.

And now that I'm back, I have time to plan my next great adventure.