Her Odyssey: Meet the Women Who Traveled 18,000 Miles Across the Americas By Foot, Boat, and Bicycle
Bethany “Fidgit” Hughes and Lauren “Neon” Reed recently completed their 18,000-mile human-powered expedition from the tip of Patagonia to the Arctic Ocean. Known collectively as Her Odyssey, they hiked, bikepacked, sea kayaked, river rafted, and canoed their way across the Americas from 2015 to 2022. Along the way, they prioritized connection to the land and the people living in it.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You guys did lots of different modes of travel. Can you discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of each of them? And do you have a favorite?
Neon: I liked all the travel methods. I’m currently in an evolution of my life where bikepacking is slowly becoming more enjoyable to me. Part of it is because my knees don’t like going downhill anymore.
Fidgit: The advantage to having given ourselves the guidelines of non-motorized travel or human-powered travel is that we were able to adapt our styles to align with the ways that the locals were traveling. We first decided to branch out when we were walking across South America, and we were reading about some of the protests going on against the damming of the Marañón River. We decided that it would be a truly humbling experience to step off of the track that suited us in order to tell the story that the people were living, as well as to experience this vast, beautiful Marañón canyon that people were losing their lives for.
Then it came up again when we were approaching the Darien Gap. We attempted crossing it primarily on foot. After two or three different times and some legal confrontations and escalation, I was sitting in Capurganá on a porch with my head in my hands, and an older gentleman was sitting there in his plastic chair. And he said, “There’s only two ways for white people through the Darien Gap, and that is in an airplane or in a boat.” I realized that my interloping into that space would put more people’s lives at risk. I wasn’t willing to leverage other humans’ lives for our personal goals. So we were able to sea kayak from Turbo, Colombia into Lake Nicaragua.
Ed. note: The Marañón is the second-longest river in Peru and is considered the source of the Amazon. The Darien Gap is the only overland crossing between Colombia and Panama. The remote, hazardous crossing is frequented by migrants.
You also canoed the Arctic drainage, right?
Fidgit: I was sitting there on Google Earth Pro scouting routes. I was looking at the Yellowstone to Yukon route. As I was looking over it, I was seeing that much of it would be similar to Patagonia in terms of terrain and similar bogginess. Google Earth Pro can get pretty glitchy when you’re dealing with large data files. So it glitched and zoomed out and then zoomed back in on the Dehcho, or what most of us know as the Mackenzie River. And I realized that nature had provided a water highway that would take us to where we’ve been intending to go.
Our original intention had been to go into Alaska, but there were two significant forces that we would be coming into conflict with: the mining industry and polar bears. The last 400 miles would have been us trying to sneak through an area where people are fighting to protect their lands. It seemed a bit trite to try to go flouncing through a place like that. Then I saw that the Dehcho leads right to Tuktoyaktuk at the Beaufort Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean. And so it took a little bit of humility to be willing to make a shift like that to our plan, but part of the primary moral code that we had set for Her Odyssey was to be traveling in places where the locals want us there.
How did you assess whether or not you were wanted?
Neon: Especially in the rural areas in South America, we would ask in town, like, “Hey, how is it coming up? Do you know anybody in this next town?” Usually they do, because as they grow as families, they’ll spread out into these different towns. That became our main on-the-ground research. When we would have internet, we would also do our own research. We were signed up for State Department notifications, which are country-based.
Fidgit: It’s more about situational assessment and cultural awareness. It means learning how to read body language of people from very different cultures. We refined the Her Odyssey core values down to: 1) safety for ourselves and for the other living beings around us, 2) adaptability, having the leeway to shift our plans according to what behooved life around us, and 3) respect. Whenever we came up against a difficult situation or a large question, we would filter it through these three values and see what fit.
Looking through your website, you were talking about how one of the other core values of Her Odyssey was listening to and amplifying the stories of locals that you meet. Could you tell me one or a few of those stories?
Fidgit: Something that has stood out to me is noticing a series of parallels between what people are dealing with in the far south and what folks are dealing with in the far north. Much of that story revolves around keeping their waters free and wild. In Chile, we were speaking to two young men who were helping to build the dam that they knew would flood their valley, their home. They were talking about the internal conflict that they felt about that and the helplessness that they felt about that.
And I had some of the same experience talking to some of the Dene people around the Great Slave Lake (ed. note: in Canada’s Northwest Territories) in terms of the mining that’s coming into their area. That wrestling between preservation and progress was a common theme of the stories that we heard.
What are some of the advantages and challenges of traveling as a pair?
Neon: We joke that we’re like an old married couple at this point. It’s definitely taken a good amount of work and a good amount of, “yes, I’m still in this, for better or worse.” We both learned a lot about communication. That’s a huge, huge part of traveling with somebody else that I know I was not the best at.
Fidgit: There were some stretches where our partnership felt more like being astronauts on a foreign planet than being weekend hiking buddies. One thing that Neon and I have talked about, that we both experienced, is as astronauts, you count on each other. And also you need ground control. And so each of us had our friends at home.
Neon also suggested having a daily check-in that was a space that we would hold to each express where she was at. We also had a therapist who we would touch base with every three to four months as we built not only the physical component of Her Odyssey but the partnership, the outward-facing piece of it. Keeping all of those fronts healthy takes a lot of help from an incredible support system.
Do you guys have any particular advice for pairs or small groups traveling together?
Fidgit: Who a person is on the internet is very different from who they are in body. One of the things that I saw in several partnerships on the CDT was people who ideologically were very different, but physically, they worked well together and had great partnerships. There were also people who had established a promise of partnership online and then got out there in person together, and no matter how aligned they were ideologically, just their physical form of travel was incompatible. I saw relationships fall apart in messy ways from that.
Neon: We’ve evolved so much side by side. Just because you think something’s going to work out doesn’t mean that it has to, or doesn’t mean that it has to look exactly the same way you expect it to. Our journey with ourselves, like our journey across the Americas, has evolved. And so not allowing a relationship or a friendship or romantic partnership to evolve can be really detrimental to it.
Was your partnership ever threatened? Was there ever a moment where you didn’t think you would keep traveling together, or where either of you thought about quitting?
Neon: I don’t know that there was a moment where I thought about quitting. There were moments when I was concerned that we would not be together for the long run. Those were usually pretty emotionally intense moments, moments that we were able to move through it in a useful way. Because of who we both are and what our thought processes were, we were able to calm back down and not go into that place where we were like, “this is definitely not going to work” for longer than a day or so.
Fidgit: I think from some of those early experiences of conflict, we evolved the relationship and adapted to cultivating intentional space for individual movement. There were a couple of times, for example, through Ecuador, which is one of the more stable countries across South America, we would assess the situation, we would look at the stretch ahead, and would determine a distance. And at that point, we wanted to go different ways. We made sure that it was an area where we had communication devices, and our inReach was extremely helpful for being able to maintain contact. And then we began to each go travel by our own means.
One of the largest ones, as you see from our map, is that Neon bikepacked the Western Wildlands Route because she had already hiked the Continental Divide Trail while I hiked it. Then, when I got to Ghost Ranch, I walked in and tried to get a campsite. And they were like, “What’s your name?” And I was like, “Bethany,” and they’re like, “Oh, someone has reserved a site for you.” And there appears Neon with baked goods, and it made it joyous to reconnect.
Speaking of the Western Wildlands route, Neon, what happened in Utah?
Neon: I was going southbound on the route, and I had underestimated the amount of time that it was going to take me to get down to Flagstaff. I had told a friend to book a flight to come meet me to travel the rest of Arizona together. When I got to Park City, in northern Utah, I was like, “I’m not gonna have time to cover these 700 miles that I still need to cover in a week unless I slowly kill myself trying to do it.” So I just ended up driving that section.
Did you guys have any other family or friends meet you and do part of the journey with you?
Fidgit: Both of our moms flew down to meet us in Peru, and we got to walk into Machu Picchu together Thanksgiving of 2017. Sitting in the sun gate watching the clouds part over Machu Picchu with my mom is one of the highlights of the journey.
What are some of the other highlights?
Neon: We met a lot of amazing women down in Patagonia. They all lived in different cities along our route. Fidgit was the master of reaching out to people, and she found this woman, Estefania. Estefania then introduced Fidgit to Marcela, who then introduced us to Sandra, who then introduced us to someone else.
Fidgit: We call them our Southern Cross. They don’t have the North Star down there, their primary navigation constellation is called the Southern Cross. And those women lay the beautiful route for us across Patagonia. Another high point was up on the Altiplano. I met one young cholita, and she said, “the enemy of cholitas are the snakes.” I was like, “but there’s no snakes up here.” And she’s like, “Yeah, cuz they’re our enemies.”
If I had to choose one spice that flavored our journey, it was these thousands of interactions with humorous, resilient women in remote places. All the way up to when we rolled into Tuktoyaktuk, we were taken in by the Steen family. They fed, housed, and welcomed us, the women even taught us how to make slippers. To have that nature of relationship both guide the starting of our journey and to be there to hold us at the end was a pretty precious continuity.
Neon: Along the Dehcho, a lot of the First Nations people knew that we were coming before we would show up, then they’d be like, “Oh, yeah, we heard these two women were paddling the river.” Like, “Did you meet so-and-so in this last town,” or, “When you go to the next town, you need to say hi to so-and-so.” To be able to share that with them was really cool.
What’s your favorite Big Four, and what’s another non-big-four item that you loved?
Fidgit: I enjoyed repping the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Southwest 2400. It was a smaller pack for some of the longer hauls that we were on, which could be nine days long. One of the things I’ve learned in a career of backpacking has been that humans will fill whatever space we give ourselves to complete occupancy. So choosing a smaller pack was one of the keys to carrying a lighter load and having a simpler journey.
We repped various kinds of Therm-a-Rest. We used the Z Lites when we were in more desert or pokey areas, and their inflatable pads when we were in the colder regions. And then for our shelter, we went with a Hyperlite Mountain Gear UltaMid 2. We both have really long torsos, and we both like our own space. So having the pole in the middle made a really nice line. This is my side, that’s yours. It’s super spacious, and it held up to some pretty gnarly snowstorms along the way.
For a non-Big Four item, we really appreciated carrying umbrellas. Those were fantastic both for some of the stretches with no shade, as well for some of the wetter areas.
Neon: I love my Granite Gear backpack. I have to admit that it is a sponsored item. And at the same time, I ended up getting one because it fit me properly. The first couple of seasons we went through a couple of backpacks, and none of them quite fit my hips.
I had a really amazing sleeping bag, a 10-degree Western Mountaineering bag. It was definitely an investment, but it definitely has been worth it. To have a warm foot box and be warm around my center and around my butt has really been amazing.
We had many tents over the years. I liked them all, but all for different reasons. I don’t know that I have a specific one. It is always nice to wake up and watch the dew roll off your tent instead of drip onto you. So I would say if you’re gonna go with a freestanding tent that’s nicer, but obviously, it’s gonna be a little bit heavier. So you would do that more for like a bikepacking trip or a canoeing trip.
What shoes did you guys used in your various different nonmotorized travel methods?
Fidgit: When we were in the boat, we would wear Xero shoes. When hiking, we went through a variety of shoes. I think one of the things that’s taken for granted in American thru-hiking is access to new shoes. That’s very much not the case traveling in Latin America. The quality of products that make it down there are not as high, and shipping from the U.S. is not an option. So for our first few pairs, we went with the Moab Ventilators. We could get up to about 900-1100 miles out of them, which was pretty good for a shoe.
We generally have very strong shoe opinions, but that’s a privilege of walking around in the first world. When you’re in other countries, you live as they do, and you make do with what you can get your feet in. And when you have absolutely enormous feet by Latin American standards, there’s not a lot of options.
Fidgit, I saw that this was originally your idea. Neon, when and how did she convince you?
Neon: I don’t necessarily know that it took too much convincing. She and I met on the PCT in 2010 and stayed in touch. I would come to visit her either on the way to or from visiting my sister, who lived near her. I just started asking questions because I was really curious about this journey that she was planning. So I committed to South America in January 2015. It’s always been a place that I’ve wanted to explore. When we were about halfway done with South America, I was like, “Huh, what about the rest of this.”
What resources did you use when planning these routes?
Fidgit: That was primarily me. It was a multi-tiered planning system. First, I worked in Google Earth Pro. I drew as detailed as I could have a route across South America. In doing that research, I connected with other route makers, such as Jan, the creator of the Greater Patagonia Trail. Then from Salta, Argentina north, we were on the Qhapaq Ñan, which is an Inca 30-40,000 kilometer long road network. For that I was in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites, finding data points, and then connecting lines So I had an overview from a distance.
The real nitty gritty information about the trails, can’t be attained without a relationship with the locals. We would spend about a day in towns, relationship-building. Then they would introduce you to grandpa or uncle who every year walks the goats over the passes to the next town. From there, we would get directions like, “Well, you walk until you find the green rock, and then you turn left, and you walk until you find the burnt tree. And from the burnt tree, you walk to where the river is born.”
We used digital maps. There weren’t physical maps of a lot of the areas that we were going through in the first years. We’ve used the map overlays with our Garmin inReach satellite tracker. Then we would cross-compare that with our Gaia GPS. And between those two, we could usually get a pretty accurate overlay and good information set to make decisions about routes.
Could you also figure out your resupplies by looking at the satellite images?
Fidgit: In South America, it was as simple as, “OK, it looks like there are at least four roofs there, so probably someone has a store.” Then it was a matter of carrying small bills and gifts to bring to the communities and being able to establish relationships, and also having patience. There is almost always one lady in the community who’s selling stuff, but who knows if she’s off visiting her son for the weekend. Sometimes you would have to wait. Sometimes the resupply was some handfuls of quinoa. We adapted pretty early to carrying one or two days extra of food. Then, of course, you could see larger towns. And once there were more than 25 or 50 roofs in a community, you knew that there would be options.
Did you guys ever struggle with injury?
Neon: It came and went. With any trail or long-distance thing, you’re gonna have overuse injuries. After the first couple of years, we got better at taking care of ourselves. I had an ill-fitting pack for the first two seasons, so my I had hip issues and some shooting nerve pain, and shoulder issues. Then in our second season, we went into Bolivia, which was kind of a food desert. So it wasn’t even necessarily physical injury, it was digestive issues. Then I don’t have very good shoulders. So when we were doing the paddling stuff, it took a while to adjust to that. I think my lower back is actually still coming back from sitting in a canoe for three months. So there are those long-term use injuries, but it never got to the point where we severely injured ourselves. We just got malnourished and thin.
Fidgit: At one point, Neon turned to me and goes, “Look, I can play my ribs like a xylophone.” That was through the food desert that she mentioned. So I would say nutrition was the largest one. We chose to prioritize staying in the mountains and staying in the mountains meant waiting out winters. I think that time for healing reduced some of the physical repercussions.
So now that you guys are across this finish line, are you thinking of your next adventures?
Fidgit: For me, the Odyssey continues, except now it follows lines on a page rather than lines on a map. In terms of further exploration of this globe, yes, certainly, they’re places that call my name. But I gotta rest first.
Neon: We’re still keeping the fires glowing with the different ideas of what Her Odyssey is going to evolve into next. And it’s definitely writing, teaching, and passing it down to others. It’s also going to involve rest.
I’d love to hear about your experiences traveling as two women and any advice that you would give to other women who are thinking of traveling.
Fidgit: There’s a lot that we can do as women to mitigate risk before a situation becomes dangerous. Much of that ties into listening to your body and your instincts, which is something that I have seen very much trained out of us. Leaning on that voice in many situations saved our lives.
Neon: Recognize and respect the culture that is already there. There are a lot of women here doing work about women’s rights. It just might look a little bit different or feel a little bit different. Be aware that it’s not your culture and that there are certain things that maybe it’s not the best idea to do. Sometimes we found traveling as women a little bit easier, especially with Fidgit being so well-versed in the language. The people would feel more comfortable around us too because we weren’t a threat. I think it opened up a good amount of doors.
What advice would you give to people in general who are dreaming of some huge, epic international adventure?
Fidgit: Savor the process. The effort that you put into planning it directly informs the depth of experience that you will have. Slow down while you are out there. Be present in the moment. And as Neon said, observe how people are engaging with you. Watch how they engage with one another, and follow their lead. As a third culture kid, the thing that made me bristle the most was seeing so many travelers from the First World coming down and spending their entire time expecting to be accommodated. Then walking away proclaiming they had “such an authentic experience.”
Neon: Slow down, and observe your surroundings. Be open to cultural differences. Take your time. If you’re not enjoying something, you don’t have to keep going. I had a rule that if I wasn’t enjoying myself, I would make it to the next town. And then, if I still felt that way in a day or so, I’d be done. If it’s not fulfilling you, then find a way to figure it out.
What are some ways that people might be demanding that they might not realize is demanding?
Fidgit: Expecting things to run on a schedule. Expecting to have WiFi everywhere that we go. Expecting furniture to be comfortable, or clothes to be fitted to us. Assuming that our language be understood. A really big one that I saw, particularly between North and South America, is in our attitude towards guides. We have this idea in North America of “I want to go do it by myself.” Latin cultures are much more communal. If you’ll set your ego aside and hire a guide, you truly will find the experience so much more enriched. In that way, you’re also putting more money back into that community.
Read a previous interview with Her Odyssey here. Listen to Fidgit on Backpacker Radio here. Check out the Her Odyssey website for blog posts, trip resources, and merch. Follow them on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
All images, including featured image, courtesy of Her Odyssey.
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