Seven years, two continents, 13 countries, 31,704 kilometres — and two very determined women.
A Tolkienesque odyssey came to a close Aug. 24 when Bethany Hughes and Lauren Reed reached the Arctic Ocean, completing an epic quest from one tip of the Americas to the other.
“We were walking across the side of a volcano and it starts erupting,” said Hughes. “So we’re wondering what does one do when walking across the side of a volcano when it’s erupting? Walk faster?
“There was one time we were walking through this snowstorm in Bolivia and Lauren shows me her hands and three of her fingers are white and numb, and everything we had was soaked so we couldn’t dry off. We made it to a tiny community that had a little clinic. The nurse was there, he let us come in and he fills Lauren’s hat with animal crackers. So a small little clinic and some animal crackers saved our butts.”
It’s been a long road — the pair of wonder women first set out to travel the entire length of the coastal mountains from the southern coast of Argentina in Ushuaia on Nov. 23, 2015, determined to reach the tip of the Arctic coast in Tuktoyaktuk solely by human power.
Since then they’ve hiked, cycled, paddled and toughed it out through forests, across mountain ranges and over deserts — making friends all along the way.
Hughes said part of her motivation in undertaking the journey was to decolonize travel.
A daughter of missionaries, she said she was eager to reinvent how cultures interact.
“I wanted to help change the narrative from people going around to other parts of the world and telling people how to live, but instead to show up in a humble way and listen and learn and connect with people, instead of the way my parents and the Church did it,” she said. “I love moving slowly through nature. It heals and helps me think.
“One of the things I’ve learned is your attitude and your behaviour in a situation can be just as impactful to the experience as the environment around. I think I’ve also learned that having a sense of humour can save your life.”
An open mind and an open heart
Crossing both hemispheres didn’t just take courage and grit, it also required detailed planning and logistics. Using notes from earlier trailblazers — someone has in fact crossed both Americas on foot before — the pair put together a route and broke their journey down into smaller blocks to make completion feasible.
Even so, they had their work cut out for them. Crossing South America took the pair “730 days of travel, 8,024 miles, across 6 countries, and 20 pairs of shoes.”
“The journey broke itself into chunks because of the seasons,” said Hughes. “Starting at the bottom of South America, the seasons are the opposite of up here. So we started in November and then we walked through the Andes until April. We got wintered there, so we stayed in the community and I taught for a little bit and spent some time translating an anthology of Machista women’s poetry into English. Then we came back to the United States for a couple months to see family and get more gear because everything had broken down by then.
“The next summer we came back and walked 14 months from Argentina to Peru, then the rainy season happened.”
Once the pair reached Columbia, they were forced to return to the United States again, to re-stock. They needed to get kayaks to make their way up the coast into Central America. And then the pandemic hit.
“We were in Central America when Covid-19 happened, so we stopped our journey,” said Hughes. “Hospitality down there is very much like it is up here. You can’t stop the grandmas from taking care of you and feeding you and kissing you.
“We were not willing to risk their lives for our ambition, so we stopped for the pandemic. Once Covid-19 passed we resumed our journey and road bikes across Central America.”
After completing the 4,000 mile journey from Nicaragua to the U.S. border, the pair split up in 2019.
Hughes hiked the Continental Divide Trail and Reed biked the Western Wildlands Route.
“Showing up with an open mind and open heart can really get you far in most travel situations,” said Reed. “The capacity that we as travellers and the people we run into have for interacting is amazing. I’m not very good at speaking Spanish, but the patience people in South and Central America had with me was so impressive.”
They reconnected in 2020 to tackle the Great Divide Trail in Canada. They finished their seven-year adventure this summer by canoeing from Hinton through all of the Athabasca and Mackenzie River systems to reach Tuktoyaktuk.
“We took the Athabasca from Hinton to Fort Chipewyan, then the Slave River, then from Hay River we’ve been on the big river,” said Hughes. “It’s got a personality.”
‘What the hell are we doing here?’
While they met incredible people and stayed in some fantastic places along their journey, it wasn’t easy.
The pair second guessed themselves many times, especially when challenged by the elements.
“We would regularly ask each other ‘What the hell are we doing here?’,” said Hughes. “We’ve just learned that if your body has to rest, then it has to rest. Your body does not lie to you.
“We are the ones that make ourselves in a hurry. Nature is not in a hurry. Learning doesn’t happen in a hurry. Growth doesn’t happen in a hurry. It’s all learning to be patient.”
Reed said being able to share the experience with the people along the way really touched her.
“In Patagonia, we met this artist named Marcella,” said Reed. “The next day she comes up to us with a little drawing on a napkin. She said ‘It is you. Can I paint you?’ It’s that realization of even across distant lands, there’s similarities.”
Many cultures they met shared similar concerns. The pair heard tales from the Gauchos of Patagonia, who worry they have no one to share their stories and way of life with, and who saw connections to the determination to preserve culture in the north.
“People are very generous in sharing their stories, their time and their tea,” said Hughes. “There’s more effort up here to preserve the culture and stories, but there’s a lot of common ground.”
Having finally accomplished something very few people have ever dared, Reed has returned to her hometown of Moab, Utah and Hughes is back home in Briscoe, Colorado.
Both described their time on the trail as an enlightening and educational experience. They’re still getting used to the idea that it’s finally over.
“We keep having to remind ourselves of that,” said Hughes. “Usually we’re out there for between five months and 14 months at a stretch and then we have to rest because our bodies start breaking down or our minds start struggling.
“But this time our bodies can rest. It’s okay.”