I was invited by a blogger to answer a Q & A questionnaire about my life and travels…it ended up being a therapy session, as I poured my heart out into my writing and answered his questions perhaps more honestly than he bargained for. But if we can’t speak truthfully to each other, then what are words even for – what are we even here for, if we don’t talk to each other about what is on our hearts?
The questionnaire (included in its entirety at the end of this newsletter) brought back a lot of memories about my brother Patrick. The rest of the week, I felt haunted by him, but haunted in a good way, in a cathartic way. I rummaged through my old journals and found my notebooks that I had written while I was in Brazil traveling with Patrick, and for the first time since his death, felt like I could finally read them, and write about them.
Patrick was a writer as well, and he was in the middle of writing about our expedition together on the upper Amazon when he died, leaving the story uncompleted. Me, being the only other person who was on that expedition, am the only person who can finish that story. It’s been too hard to even look at my journals from that time, let alone revisit them in my mind – when I write, I truly relive the experience – but I think enough time has passed that I am now able to tell that story. There is a snippet of it in the Q & A, but there’s a lot more to that. Stay tuned, I’ll soon be taking up my brother’s pen and finishing our story. The time finally feels right.
With Patrick on my mind, and weather on the forecast, my flights were cancelled for most of the week and I had time to really sit down and slog through some work for Ellen Magellan Expeditions. There’s a lot of legal and business things I’m learning how to do, and it’s very much not my forte, but I’m treating this part of the expedition like an expedition in itself; trying to remember not to take it so seriously, and have fun. People get so serious when you start talking about money, and it’s not even real.
I remember one time on expedition I came across my wallet while rummaging through gear, and pulled out some dollar bills. I hadn’t made a transaction in almost three weeks, and had been distancing myself on the river so much so that these bills in my hand…it was just paper. Out here, the most use they had was to start a fire. We live our whole lives dealing with these little bits of paper, but they’re useless outside of society, and even more useless after you’re dead. I put the bills back in my wallet and put the wallet away, forgetting what I was even looking for in the first place.
So yeah, I’m dealing with some money now, but reminding myself that it’s not even real takes the pressure off. The only thing that’s real is what’s happening right now, and the only thing that’s important is that you’re here for it. That’s your primary job as a human with these strange, advanced consciousnesses… just be here. My forever favorite quote about that is from Mary Oliver. I live my life by this very simple poem:
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
I had a phone meeting with my sister-in-law Isa, who was Patrick’s girlfriend when he died. Despite his death, we all loved her so much she remained part of our family, and I call her sister just as much as if we had grown up together. She’s a graphic designer and social media consultant, and she’s been helping me a ton with Ellen Magellan Expeditions. After a long day of doing things for the nonprofit, we had a phone meeting and addressed some items of business. At the end of the meeting, we both expressed excitement that “we’re really doing it!” and “this is real!”
I drove home after our phone call and was just hit by this wave of gratitude for Isa – so much that my face contorted in the dark and fat tears threatened to obscure my vision. What would I do without her? I very much felt that Patrick sent her to me, to go on this expedition around the world with me. I blinked the tears out of my eyes and suddenly felt like I was not alone in my truck. Patrick was sitting in the passenger seat. He’s never visible, but I know when he’s there.
He told me that I’m doing a great job
Wildside Brand Q&A
| 1. Where your adventurous growing up? Or was it something you found later in your life?|
When I was a kid I thought my childhood was fairly normal, but now I realize I was truly blessed with very loving parents, acres of rural east Texas woods to run barefoot in, and two older brothers that I adored. I grew up on roughly 100 acres of forest, with a homestead with some chickens, an orchard, and a large garden each year. I learned how to grow plants, hunt, shoot guns, fish, paddle, and camp. My dad taught me how to use tools and drive the tractor and treated me no different just because I was a girl. I am to this day more comfortable in the woods than I am in any city. To me, this upbringing wasn’t necessarily adventurous; this was just life as I knew it. It did, however, provide a solid foundation for the adventures I would go on once I grew up, and set the stage for my mentality of appreciation for the natural world.
Oh, gosh. This one is a doozy. I had just turned 19 years old, and my oldest brother Patrick invited me to come down to Brazil and paddle for 3 months in the upper Amazon in a 400 pound wooden canoe he was living in. Our destination: the Serra du Aracá, a plateau in northern Brazil so north it extends into southern Venezuela. It’s known as “El Dorado” and there’s waterfalls coming off of it, supposedly there’s buried treasure up there, and rumors circulate about people being executed there, deep within the jungle. The government prohibits helicopters from landing there, and the only way to reach it is by boat. However, your boat has to be small because in order to get to the Serra, you have to go upstream on progressively smaller and smaller rivers until you’re on a river no wider than 20 feet, with so many trees and debris across it you have to hack your way through by machete, and portage. So this is what my brother Patrick and I did, upstream for 18 days in this wooden canoe.
Along the way, we camped in the jungle, shot and ate monkeys, parrots, and large rats, fished, and salted and dried rations of meat for our hike up to the Serra once we got there. We were two days shy of reaching the Serra – it was right there, you could see it looming – when disaster struck. We were passing underneath a tree that had fallen at an angle across the river, leaving enough clearance on one side for us to squeeze underneath and not have to portage. Once we cleared the tree, however, the current – which was now quite fast – grabbed the bow of the canoe and pushed the boat broadside against the tree. The current then instantly rushed over the side of the canoe and our boat was swamped and pulled underneath the log in a matter of seconds. I leaped on top of the log as the canoe sank and then immediately jumped into the icy-cold water downstream to try and rescue as much gear as I could – including the bag with my passport in it!
I was swept downstream alarmingly fast, and was several bends of the river downstream before I knew it. The current was going so fast that even though I’m a strong swimmer, I couldn’t swim to shore. I only stopped when a submerged log caught me around the middle, knocking the wind out of me. I clung to the log, and spent a minute or two catching my breath. I didn’t think about Patrick until I heard him calling my name and saw him come walking along the shore. He talked me over and I carefully made my way along the log to the edge of jungle. We immediately took off all our clothes and hung them to dry; we didn’t care about seeing each other naked, we cared about not getting hypothermia from the ice-cold, high elevation water. I noticed Patrick had an angry red burn that ran around the smallest part of his middle. While I was being swept downstream, he had (wisely) grabbed the bowline to the canoe, but the line wrapped around his waist and pulled him underwater. He told me later he was underwater for several minutes, fighting to escape from the bowline in the rushing current. For the rest of his life he had a scar around his waist from that rope.
The worst part about this situation was that the canoe was trapped underwater. Patrick had tied the bowline to a tree, but the other end of the line just disappeared into the water. The current was pinning the boat underwater, and there was nothing we could do but wait until she showed herself again. So we opened the one bag I had saved and in it found: our passports, Patrick’s tobacco, and a deck of cards. So we put a stick at the waterline to mark the water level, and sat down to play cards and watch the river.
After a few hours, the water level had dropped a little and the boat had worked her way closer to the surface – we could see her hull now, only a few inches beneath the water. We then devised a system of rope pulleys and leveraged the boat out of the water, flipped her over, and got her floating again. If we hadn’t had recovered the canoe, it would have been very difficult to get out of that jungle alive. We had no cell phones, no GPS, no search and rescue button. We hadn’t seen other people in two weeks. We were far, far into a stretch of jungle that gets one or two intrepid and potentially dangerous visitors a year. Nobody expected to hear from us for at nearly a month. The only way we were getting out of here was by ourselves.
So we started floating downstream, leaving the Serra behind. We had no paddles, so cut down poles from the jungle using a hatchet that had been tied underneath one of the canoe seats. Along the way, we recovered about a quarter of our gear, but the only food we rescued was one soggy bag of farina, a dried root common in northern Brazil. That first night was pretty miserable. We had recovered our hammocks, but they were of course soaking wet because we had trash bags as dry bags. So we cut down some large leaves in the jungle and made a bed, and threw a tarp over us for the rain and the bugs. (Fortunately we had rescued a tarp on our downstream gear reconnaissance). After two nights and three days, we made it to the first outpost that had people. Only two people, but people. From them, we got paddles and food and continued downstream another few days back to civilization.
At the time, the whole trip felt like a dream. Now, it feels like another life.
How old were you when your brother’s accident happened? And where were you when you heard the news?
My oldest brother Patrick died in 2016 in a small airplane crash. I was 21 and he was 26. I was living 3 hours away and was driving south on the highway into the city with my bicycle stuffed in the backseat of my little Honda when I got the phone call. It was Dad, and he said “hey” in a way that I knew instantly something terrible had happened. I somehow managed to exit the highway safely and parked in an empty parking lot. Should I just drive myself home? I phoned a friend. She came and got me. I’ll never forget what it felt like in those fifteen minutes she took to get there; I’ll never forget what it felt like because I am to this day still hit sometimes with the exact same feeling. So that’s where I was when I heard the news.
Man, was he the real deal. It’s been long enough since he died that my relationship with memories of him have started to change. I no longer have an updated version of him, he’ll forever be 26. But he really packed those years. The story is he took off hitchhiking south and crossed the border into Mexico with an expired passport and $20 tucked into his boot. The rest is history – he didn’t stop, and spent the next 6 years of his young adult life hitchhiking all around Central and South America, learned Spanish and Portuguese, paddled the Amazon basin. He was just that guy, but he always did it with charismatic insight, a sense of awe, hilarity, and a real joie de vivre. And he was like that growing up too. He wrote a lot while he traveled, and I would really encourage you to read his blog at https://hitchtheworld.com/. This isn’t a plug, I’m not selling you anything, it’s just there are some really great writings there and you’ll really understand what I mean when I try to describe Patrick.
The most recent expedition I did was this summer from Kansas City, Missouri to East Texas. It was roughly 2,700 miles, took me 4.5 months, and I rowed it in a 17 foot aluminum Grumman canoe with two 9 foot oars. I was solo most of the time except for the 400 mile flotilla party I had from Kansas City to St. Louis. That was my 3 week pregame before the flotilla dispersed and I entered the Mississippi River, where I went down to the Gulf of Mexico. I linked up with another thru-paddler for 400 miles thru Baton Rouge and New Orleans, then continued solo again along the Gulf Coast barrier islands for a week, up a bayou to the Intracoastal Waterway, and then about 450 miles along the Intracoastal Waterway to Galveston, Texas. There I went north on a small river called the Trinity River to near the place where I grew up, and finished my expedition back home.
The summer before that, I rowed the Upper Mississippi River from Lake Itasca, Minnesota to St. Louis. In 2017, I paddled the longest river in North America, the Missouri, roughly 2,300 miles solo in a kayak in 100 days. The Missouri River confluences with the Mississippi River in St. Louis, so I’ve just been linking the waterways and letting one river lead me to the next one. Along the coastline back to Texas just made sense if you zoom out far enough on a map of the Gulf coastline. I think that’s my problem sometimes, I zoom out too far on maps! But I did what I said I would do, and had a real blast.
6. You seem to have this great “just fucking do it” attitude, no fancy equipment, or micro-managed plan, just a destination and a means of transportation. Is that your favorite way to tackle these adventures?
Thank you, I was taught by the best. Really, if I didn’t have Patrick as a brother, I probably never would have seen this way of travel as an option. That disaster trip in the upper Amazon rainforest actually ended up being a good thing, because we then had about 6 extra weeks left until my flight back home, so we hitchhiked around northern Brazil, a little bit of Venezuela and New Guinea. That was just as eye-opening as the month-long disaster canoe trip. We saddled up some old canvas backpacks and hit the road, hitchhiking, sleeping in hammocks in parks, gas stations, roadside stands and forests, bridges, abandoned buildings, sometimes new friend’s houses, a boat once. We made street art out of wire and played the harmonica and sold caipirinhas. It was quite the experience, and I learned how little you really need to travel, if you’re willing to live out of a backpack and think as well as sleep outside of the box.
A micro-managed plan will only serve to make you a good micro-adapter, because you’ll spend your whole trip micro-adjusting your plan. Plan in large swaths: general directions, major cities, points of interest in a vague direction. When resupplying, have a general idea of how long it will be until the next place with food, but that’s really as far as you have to plan ahead with any specific detail. When I cycled across Europe, I didn’t follow a route but just took all the roads that went in the general compass direction I wanted to go. You know, if you want to go south, just take all the roads that go south. If you want to go down the river, follow the river. Plan enough to be smart, train enough to be safe, but don’t let the micro-details rob you of the real reason you did this trip: to enjoy it.
This next expedition starts in the same area where I stopped this summer; the water is all connected. Basically what happened was I decided, since all rivers end in the ocean, that it was time to get a bigger boat and start rowing on the ocean. The rivers deposited me there. I’ve graduated. Where shall I go? Well, if I get a boat that’s capable of open ocean, I can row across an ocean. And if I row across one ocean, I can row across another, and another, and I can eventually end up back where I started and then I’ve gone around the world in a rowboat.
So that’s the thought process, and though I’ve never done anything on the ocean before, I’m taking every step to ensure I’m doing everything I can while here on the ground to make a safe and calculated trip on the big water. I have no urge to rush the planning. I’m not going on a suicide trip. In fact it’s quite the opposite: a trip to live as much as possible.
Regarding Question #5, here’s where I put my foot in my mouth about planning and the micro-managers have a heyday. This next expedition is going to involve much more preparation, but in relation to the amount of prep versus the length of the expedition, the math actually checks out for what I’ve been doing for all my expeditions thus far. On average, I’ll spend 6 weeks planning a 3 month expedition. Using that proportion, the length of time it should take to plan a six year expedition the way I’ve been doing it should be about 2.5 years of planning. So far I’m right on schedule with that.
I think that we are all here for a purpose. I’m not talking about humans in general, but you specifically. Your path has a reason, and it’s up to you to find what that path is, and follow it. The trouble is, we aren’t given maps of our path. We only can see as far as the next bend. This upsets people, because they always want to know where they are going. They spend their whole lives craning their necks to try to see a little further ahead, and in the process miss the beauty of the path and forget to enjoy the sensation of walking down it. All you really need to know is that the path is the right one, and you’ll know you’re on the right path when you see the right signs.
What are the signs? They aren’t going to be literal signs on posts, although sometimes they are. They can be anything, from a passing comment made by a friend or stranger, to just a feeling in your gut. A river paddler friend of mine has the words “CONSTANT VIGILANCE” tattooed on their hands. This is a reminder for them to always pay attention to the signs; they really do present themselves to you on the daily. Constant vigilance will tell you were to go.
Look, our various purposes for being here want to be fulfilled. They are not trying to hide from us, they just often get drowned out in the noise of society. What’s that dream you’ve always had in the back of your mind, that you put on the back burner? What’s that one thing that you can’t stop thinking about? What’s that one thing that when you think about doing it, you get a relief feeling in your gut, and excited in your heart? That’s a sign – that’s your soul saying yes, yes that’s our path. That’s your reason for being here.
It’s like a breadcrumb trail. Find that first step, and that action will lead you to the next step, and the next and the next, and then you’re walking down your path of life. I’m not a guru and I don’t know everything – I’m just a 25 year old woman from Texas. But this is how I’ve been living my life.