Riding into the Heart of Patagonia: Weaving Together the Threads of Life

My suitcase is unpacked from Peru and repacked for Wyoming. The new lilac bushes are deep-watered; the flower box planted, and the rock garden’s perennials weeded and refreshed with new soil. My mare’s feed is sacked up and my corral group friends will check on her each morning while I’m gone. John is holding down camp, the granddaughters are healthy, and the heartbeat of Sarah’s unborn baby girl is gurgling along in a happy rhythm.

These details form the connective tissue between yesterday and tomorrow. Life, for all of us, transitions one detail at a time, one heartfelt emotion after another. Literature, too, can transition us from one moment to the next, the stories we read threading their way through the patterns of our lives.

Before I left for Peru, I started reading Nancy Pfeiffer’s memoir, Riding into the Heart of Patagonia, about a solo journey through the remote Aysen region of Chile. Nancy, an instructor for the nonprofit National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), is an experienced wilderness guide, but traveling alone horseback through the wild mountains and rivers of unknown territory, speaking very little Spanish, was a brave new experience.

Photo by Fredrik Norrsell, Patagonia
“Beside a rain-swollen river in Patagonia,” she wrote, “a man approached on a horse. His mount, a rusty red beauty, sported the short-trimmed mane and neatly squared-off tail of a well-kept horse. Colorful handwoven saddlebags tied behind a sheepskin-covered saddle contained a few supplies from town. The man wore goatskin chaps, a woolen poncho, and the jaunty black beret typical of the region. Crinkles around his eyes spoke of years of squinting into the sun. This man and his horse belonged to this place in a way I could only dream of.”

Photo by Page Lambert, Peru
I dove back into Nancy’s memoir when I returned from Peru, the threads of our South American connection stronger, more vibrant. While in Peru, I had ridden compact mountain horses up an old Inca trail high above a fertile river valley. The ride lasted only a few hours, and there were seven of us. Nancy Pfeiffer had ridden over 3000 kilometers of rugged trails, most of it alone, a journey that ended up spanning the next two decades of her life. Yet a slender thread formed a link between us, and I could better appreciate the immensity of her journey.

Nancy Pfeiffer, photo by Fredrik Norrsell
As I prepare for two weeks of riding horseback through Wyoming’s wide-open spaces, the differences are, once again, extreme. We will have wranglers, trail-wise horses, cozy cabins, and hot meals. Nancy’s was a go-it-alone, ride in the rain, eat on the trail, sleep in a tent, kind of life experience. The horses taught her the lay of the land and after a few treacherous river crossings, deep dangerous bogs, and vertical scree-covered mountain trails, she learned to listen.

Each page of her book takes the reader further into the unfolding of the journey. Nancy writes vividly. We are there with her, along for the ride with every cell of our imagination.  As Nancy grows into the experience, she grows into the landscape and culture of Patagonia. Roots establish themselves, adding texture to a life that will never be the same. She comes to belong to the place, and the people of Patagonia take her into their hearts.  

I, too, seem to have taken Nancy into the heart-threads of my journey through life. Her stories have become mine in some small way. New patterns are revealing themselves in this tapestry of life, the one that belongs to us all.


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