Frisco woman shares conservation lessons learned during 3-year hike through South America
As a self-described “mover and shaker” who is routinely hiking in new places, it was interesting for Bethany Hughes to see a people’s true connection to a piece of land.
The epiphany came for Hughes deep in the wilderness of Chile during her and her traveling partner Lauren Reed’s ongoing five-year, non-motorized journey from the bottom of South America to the top of North America. The quest is dubbed “Her Odyssey,” and the Frisco resident Hughes was this past week back home during a respite between the South American and Central American legs of the trip.
Beginning in November 2015, Hughes and Reed embarked on their journey, which is expected to take five years. Now three years in, the duo has completed their hike northward through South America before they begin their Central American portion by paddle in February.
At Wilderness Sports in Dillon on Wednesday, Hughes spoke of her journey to this point via an event called “Conservation Perspectives in South America” put on in partnership with the Friends of the Dillon Ranger District. The presentation effectively caught attendees up on Hughes’ 8,000-mile journey to this point, highlighting the challenges conservation efforts face in several South American countries compared to what is commonplace here in the United States.
Overall, Hughes said the most interesting element of conservation in South America is the very different approach to public lands policy. For example, Hughes brought up the case of one prideful Chilean family that welcomed her and Reed into their home.
To be more accurate, they welcomed the two foreign thru-hikers into their valley. The family were descendants of the indigenous Mapuche people of south-central Chile and southwestern Argentina. The family had been on this property for five generations. They originally owned it before it became a national park. But in order to keep their connection to the land, they became national park staff.
“To continue to protect this valley,” Hughes said to attendees at the Wilderness Sports presentation. “They told us, ‘this is our valley. This is our job. And we will be whoever we need to be to continue to be with our land.’ I never considered a connection to land like that before.”
For Hughes, it was one of her first real tastes on the five-year voyage of how an indigenous collection to land runs so deep. This was a family with the same last name as the name of the valley. Each year, they’d rebuild their family bridge at the heart of the valley. They and other families like them truly were the protectors of segments of land through remote South America.
Continental conservation issues centered around elements like garbage in the backcountry, illegal use of public lands and trail ethics.
Hughes said in general in South America there is not a lot of trail maintenance that goes on. And there certainly isn’t the concept of staying on the trail or staying off of it if it’s muddy, like there is here in the United States.
To complicate things further, she described the continent’s public lands policy in general as a “patchwork quilt.”
“That doesn’t look into the long-term interest of the land and protecting it for future users,” Hughes said to the crowd at Wilderness Sports.
“If it wasn’t the hot spots that everybody goes to hike, like Machu Picchu,” Hughes said, “they just ignored it. There was a lot of neglected national park land which, on one hand, is kind of nice. Because it means the land is preserved and can go back to its natural state — because nature will take it back. But it’s also discouraging when people are discouraging you from hiking their trails.”Hughes described the trash situation on South America’s public lands as an integral part of her and Reed’s story along the journey. In her presentation, Hughes did not want to come across “on her high horse” ridiculing modern amenities such as plastic. She described plastic as a “shadow blessing,” that makes hiking easier while also potentially damaging the environment.
That said, there were certainly “come to Jesus” moments for the duo during their journey specific to the issue of plastics and garbage. In fact, oftentimes plastic bottles were the locals’ trail markers. Also, during one interaction with a local police officer, Hughes asked where they should dispose of the plastic they found along the trail.
“I was like, ‘well, just take it down to the dump,’” Hughes said. “And he explained that they try to burn all of the trash that they can. This is what they’ve got. It’s the only option they have.”
Hughes, though, also credited the people of South America for their ability to be resourceful. For example, some people would re-use plastic bottles as fencing for their llamas — by running fence wire through the bottles and filling them up with rocks.
There was also the issue of private lands bordering public lands. It spoke to that patchwork quilt element of public lands across the continent. Yet it also spoke of a kind of mirage reality to much of the public lands in South America. On the surface, or within the first 10 kilometers of a popular spot, Hughes often said there would be a certain public-facing appearance to what was going on there. But, hike a bit deeper, and the actual reality was different.
“At one of the preserve parks, we walked in the back way,” Hughes said, “and they were clear-cutting trees, grazing cattle — doing all of those things you’re not supposed to be doing. But we were where no one else was walking.”
Over the first three years of the trip, the main trails Hughes and Reed hiked along were the Greater Patagonian Trail in southern South America and the famous Qhapaq Ñan “Inca Trail” to the north.
It was the Qhapaq Ñan that truly impressed Hughes, as this “road that connected an empire” to this day provides a walking highway through some of the continent’s most rugged of terrain. The land surrounding the trail is still very much in use. Hughes and Reed sometimes found themselves walking between rows of quinoa or other crops. The stonework, they said, was amazing. It was built a half-millennia ago for the trails to drain themselves. Hughes described it as “a trail maker’s dream and highest ambition.”
Perhaps most interesting to Hughes was this: Along the trail, there were Incan rest houses — such as Machu Picchu — that resided approximately every 27 kilometers. After three years hiking through South America, her and Reed’s average daily walking distance was — you guessed it — 27 kilometers. All these years later, the Incan trail’s modern hikers are still moving at the same pace.
“We’ve changed a lot,” Hughes said. “But we haven’t changed that much. We still need to be outside in these places.”
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