An English woman leaves the green grass of home to experience outdoor adventures and wildness that adventurous American women take for granted
Sleeping outside without a tent never appealed to me. There were thoughts deeply rooted in my thinking such as, “What if something sinister crawls inside my sleeping bag?” It’s ironic, because the first time I slept outdoors, I was less worried about creepy crawlies and more about being trodden on by a horse.
A Big Step Outward
Naturally, I chose some of the best scenery imaginable. I travelled to Argentina from my home in England to volunteer at Estancia Ranquilco, a 100,000-acre eco-lodge that stretches over the wild and rugged terrain of northern Patagonia in the foothills of the Andes. Surrounded by rivers, valleys, high steppe and cliffs policed by Andean condors, the estancia is so remote you have to brave a steep, rocky descent on horseback just to get to it.
I decided to camp out in a grassy clearing with a fabulous view of the surrounding peaks with my 16-year-old American friend Kincaid, whose family owned this enormous property. We passed the time cooking on the fire, listening to music and patting some of the free-roaming horses who stopped by to graze. Unlike me, California-bred Kincaid was used to doing “outdoorsy” stuff, so I figured I was safe with him (though in hindsight I doubt he would have saved me from a spider). I was proud to say I made it through the night trauma-free, despite finding the experience slightly cold and uncomfortable.
The next time I spent the night outside was on a group trip to the Confluencia – a beautiful riverside spot about two hours’ ride away. Having already faced my fears, I was looking forward to a peaceful slumber to the sound of the river flowing, but my hopes were dashed. As the “horse volunteer,” it was my job to take care of our five horses, and since the fence at a nearby pasture was broken I tied them to a tree next to our camp. Terrified they might run away or get tangled, I barely slept a wink.
Blame it on England
When I admitted to my friend that I’d never slept outside before this trip, he was shocked. How did I make it to the age of 34 without sleeping outside? I blamed it on growing up in England. I know it sounds like an excuse, but think about it: in America, you have vast swathes of breath-taking wilderness, incredible wildlife and natural beauty at your doorstep, whereas tiny England, though beautiful in parts, is a country of hills, fields, sheep and cows — and never feels quite as cinematic. In the United States, people seem born with a sense of adventure tattooed to their psyche, whereas I was born with an innate desire to stay warm and dry amid relentless rain.
Why I Envy American Women
In truth, I envy the American women I see on Instagram, decked out in their activewear while posing by a snow-capped mountain range or a burnt-orange canyon with a blue-sky backdrop. Similar scenery on a vast scale is just not available to us in England, and outdoor adventure doesn’t feel as ingrained in our culture. Many of us, at best, will go for a Sunday bike ride or walk in the woods. Occasionally we might dare to camp in a tent, but even then, wild camping is generally thought to be illegal in most of England and Wales (and there’s a high chance you’ll get soaked). There are exceptions of course, and actually I’d say things are changing. But when I was growing up, wild weekends of camp fires and bushwhacking weren’t the norm.
So here’s the truth: until I took off to volunteer on horse ranches in Argentina I’d never really been adventurous. I spent most of my days working in offices and my nights watching television on the sofa or hitting up glamourous bars. In my 20s, I was what you might call a “girly girl.”
I wasn’t in Argentina long when my world shifted. Admittedly, the first estancia gave me a comfortable room and was conveniently close to civilization. But I still got a taste for outdoor living. I spent my time herding cattle, gardening, taking care of our pig and drinking from a hosepipe. I was initially reluctant to pee outside (I’d done it before, but never willingly). However, my Colorado-born co-worker suggested it was “therapeutic” to relieve yourself in nature. One night when squatting under the stars, I realised she was right.
Moving to Patagonia challenged me more, mainly due to limited gas and electricity. I made as many as five fires a day. In the first week alone I frequently came away covered in soot, feeling like I was suffering from smoke inhalation. Chopping wood called for strength and skill, while waking to mice darting about my room was mildly terrifying. Also testing, was a ride out in thunder and lightning. So was getting lost in wilderness for hours in the dark. And perhaps most daunting of all: venturing underwear-clad into Patagonia’s ice-cold rivers (spurred on by Kincaid’s encouragement that I was “badass”).
What’s in That Apple?
However, I think the tip of the iceberg in finding my adventurous self was when I realized I was eating fruit from the trees out of necessity. Due to the remoteness of our location, greens were hard to come by and fruit was almost unheard of. Except when we stumbled across an orchard. Or when one of my horses discovered an apple tree. I’d eaten berries from bushes in England but only for fun. The apples, dare I say it, didn’t seem edible, but I needed the fiber. So I ate them.
Back in the United Kingdom writing this story, I confess to hiding inside the house nearly all day. Because guess what? It’s raining again! But I have found my adventurous self, and there’s no doubt my appetite for outdoor pursuits will stay with me. In fact, after Patagonia and a dose of luxury in the Caribbean, I lived off-the-map for a while longer. I journeyed to a remote paradise in Mozambique before heading to a dude ranch in Wyoming. Home to a Butch Cassidy hideout, this place was nearly as wild as Patagonia with its alpine views and dearth of humans.
I hope I might finally be thought of as “an outdoorsy person” after such a whirlwind year. I’ve ridden horses through rivers and the sea, scoured Wyoming backcountry in search of elk antlers, and danced with African village children. And, of course, I’ve slept outside.
I can only wonder with excitement what I’ll discover about myself on my next adventure.
To follow Elizabeth’s adventures, you can visit her travel blog: www.outlandagirl.com or Instagram @outlandagirl