Meet the Women Hiking, Biking, and Kayaking from South America to the Arctic Ocean

For the past three years, Bethany “Fidgit” Hughes and Lauren “Neon” Reed have been on a journey spanning countries, thousands of miles, and multiple continents. And they’re far from done. Before their trek is over, they will travel through the length of the Americas, from the tip of South America to the Arctic Ocean, through only human-powered means, from bikes, to kayaks, to backpacking. Collectively known (along with their mission) as Her Odyssey, they are modern day explorers—not adventurers—because they gather stories (along with scientific and trail data) along the way, re-sharing them through prepared resources for teachers, public speaking engagements, and their admirably-consistent-in-its-updates-considering blog.

In a lot of ways, crossing impossible distances on foot leads to an acute juxtaposition in understanding, at once making you extremely aware of its length in every slow, hard-earned step, but also making point A and point B seem closer at the end, when an impossible distance reveals itself to be possible. Her Odyssey set out with the goal of collecting and connecting the stories of the land with its inhabitants. In doing so, they will also connect two entire continents worth of land and stories to each other, showing us that we are not so spread out and isolated as it may seem, by gradually making an impossible distance possible.

Map provided by Her Odyssey.

Her Odyssey has covered the entire length of South America so far, traveling over 8,000 miles through six countries. They are currently tackling Central America on bike, continuing their five-year plan to finish their goal. They graciously took some time to answer questions about this ambitious journey.

How did the two of you end up doing this together? Did you know each other or the rest of your behind-the-scenes team beforehand?

Image provided by Her Odyssey.


Neon:
Bethany/Fidgit and I met on the PCT and stayed in touch. I would visit when I came through Colorado, and she came out to Utah a couple times. When Bethany came up with this journey, I was interested, but didn’t commit until early 2015.
Fidgit: This journey is built entirely on relationships with people who believe in us. From sponsors and supporters to our support crew and families, it is all about relationship.
I began planning this journey soon after completing the PCT. I knew having a partner would promote better balance and safety in such a long endeavor and decided to trust the spirit of this calling to bring what was needed. Neon and I had met on the PCT and during the years I spent planning and living in Colorado, I was in the fortunate position to help crew for her as she hiked the CDT and completed her Triple Crown. We had a casual relationship that had developed over several years.
Over the next few years we would rendezvous from time to time for adventures of biking, hiking, and swimming. Every time she asked me questions about the journey it reframed my thinking (she definitely brings the practical component to my dreaming ambitions) and encouraged me to plan more thoroughly. I can’t remember when I became aware she was interested in joining but I do know we were discussing it earnestly by the winter of 2014 on a cross-country ski traverse in the 10-Mile Range. As I watched her contend with her dislike of cold weather, clambering out of the snow banks but never wanting to quit or give up, I realized she has a steady step and spirit of perseverance that would empower the journey.
In the months before I planned to launch, a group of my women friends sat me down and explained they wanted to help support and share the message, and that I didn’t need to take on the world alone. It was uncomfortable for me. It meant shifting my vision and accepting that I am not in control—I am simply a player. I had no idea how vital that perspective shift would be to making it this far, nor how much it would enrich the experience.

Considering the overall length of the journey and how long you guys will be on it, would either of you have ever considered going solo? Or is having a partner essential?

Image provided by Her Odyssey.


Fidgit:
I was prepared to do whatever it took to make this vision reality, and that meant trusting that the pieces I needed would present themselves. I could not anticipate the turns it would (and continues) to take but I can finally appreciate that not knowing and constantly adapting brings value.
Neon: Bethany was going to do it solo before I hopped on board. I don’t think we’d have made it to where we are if we didn’t have each other.

Is switching travel methods entirely a functional choice (i.e., choosing the best travel method for the terrain) or does it help break up the distance and keep things interesting?

Fidgit: Both. It is important that the way we travel be in sync with what flows and connects us with this planet and people. The changes also challenge us and are a constant invitation to step out of our comfort zone. After logging 16,000 miles for Neon and 12,000 for myself, we look forward to kayaking and cycling. Anything can become a box if you remain in it long enough.

While your end destination is known, the routes and means you are taking to get there are still up in the air in some places. Do you ever disagree on routes to take? How do you make a decision when you disagree?

Neon: We do sometimes disagree on which route to take. During those times, we will sometimes separate and take our chosen route if it’s short. Other times, we each investigate a different route, discuss our findings, and decide which could be better. We also have a general route plan we’re following at all times that we planned on Google Earth Pro.
Fidgit: It’s been funny to realize that many of the times we are debating about a route choice, we actually have the same thing in mind, we just say it differently.

While the distance is obviously intimidating, I think a lot of hangups outsiders would have with your travels involve fears of the unknown that come with traveling through unfamiliar locales and situations. Did you have any fears that have proved to be unfounded thus far?

Fidgit: Fears arising beforehand and from lack of information often prove to be impressively irrelevant to actual events. Fear in the moment is a valuable piece of information.
When faced with something dangerous or uncomfortable I try to take attendance of my “board room.” The various voices and considerations that are in my mind. By naming them, I am able to monitor their sway. So, while a “board member” such as Fear could dominate a decision, by acknowledging it and inviting it to “the table,” it settles down and becomes actually a very valuable contributor.

Neon: I’ve been afraid many times along this trip. Some fears I’ve had are: Is Bethany going to fall off that cliff? What will I tell Bethany’s family/friends if she dies? Will that truck hit me or Bethany? Are these people going to be nice (as we walk up to their house through their backyard)? What if this river sweeps me over that waterfall 100 meters downstream? Why are those men looking at me that way, are they going to come over here?

Fear is in our lives to keep us safe from danger, though so many people allow fear to rule their lives or turn innocuous things into perceived dangers. My biggest fear is that I’ll someday become complacent, which is what motivates me to live the life I do.

How did locals in South America react to hearing about your journey compared to reactions of people in the US?

Image provided by Her Odyssey.

Fidgit: About the same.
Most people don’t believe us, even more don’t care, preferring to stay within their realms of comfort. We have learned to honor that and often when people ask where we are going, we just say the next town. This also often yields the most helpful and down-to-earth conversations because people of the campo down here have a deep knowledge of at least their surrounding 20 kilometers; anything outside of that is generally just a concept.
The true gems in either of the Americas (who are few) seem immediately to accept the undertaking and connect.

Aside from needing to be competent with various human-powered travel options, you also need to be expert navigators, familiar with an array of cultures, and have had to wear a number of hats beyond “explorer,” including data collector, teacher, and public speaker. How much of your previous life experience prepared you for this, and how much preparation did you need to do beyond that?

Fidgit: I began preparing specifically for this journey (saving money, drawing routes, making connections) in 2010 and it launched in 2015.
Every step and stage of my life has honed me for precisely this journey. From being raised abroad to being institutionalized as a teenager, each experience can be wielded to create a deeper and more impactful traverse. Could I execute this with a singular focus of the journey itself? Possibly. But that is not who those previous experiences have made me and thus it would not fulfill me. It is very different for Neon, and for each and every other hiker. It is “hike your own hike!”

Preparation beyond that has been logistics, outreach, education, and finances. Those are some of the other hats I wear daily. I am also constantly checking in with myself to asses what I am bringing to this, whether this is my best self, and if not, why not and what can I shift to bring that back. Also communicating with my team, advisers, and community to keep us all on the same page.
Neon: Having walked four long-distance trails in the US previous to starting this journey as well as working as a wilderness therapy guide for over three years, I came into this endeavor well-versed in most things involving the out-of-doors, as well as therapeutic tools. The tools/skills I needed to work on/have worked on during this journey are language skills, learning/adapting to different cultures, learning more about public speaking, self-promotion, and I’m sure many more little things along the way. Also learning to interact and communicate effectively with someone so different than me (Bethany) has been a perpetual learning opportunity.

When you talk to people about your travels, either in public speaking events or regular conversations, is there a story you always want to include? What’s the story?

Image provided by Her Odyssey.

Neon: Man, there are so many stories at this point! Per usual with stories, it depends on the audience. We’ve crossed high mountain passes, waded through glacier runoff, gotten lost and found so many times, had amazing/interesting social interactions. Check out our blog for many of those stories or come to a talk for others.

Fidgit: It changes every time, but the heart of the message is: everyone has a story and they want that story to be validated. So, take a moment to listen. Look into their eyes and journey with them. This is the greatest gift we can give one another.
For more on Her Odyssey and to follow their trek, check out their site, Facebook, and Twitter
Responses have been edited for clarity and length.
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Comments 4

  • John : Nov 15th

    Their journey is so far beyond my imagination that that when one thinks about it, they should be sitting. I hope a couple of books come out. Questions that I have are: What was the most serious injury? Did anyone give support when the idea was new? How long was the longest time W/O food. Legal problems? Either of you have to be talked into not quitting? Did you eat any bad food that made you sick? How much of your water was filtered? Have you used any celestial navigation?

    Reply
    • Bethany : Nov 15th

      Good questions, John!

      I am actually beginning to work on a manuscript now. It is a lot to try to convey.

      As to your questions:

      What was the most serious injury?
      Injuries are the typical muscle and joint damage, a few cuts and bruises here and there. Physically the most challenging have been illnesses. We were both pretty sick through most of Bolivia. One of my worst days was on the salt flats in Bolivia, I was reduced to crawling until we sat in a drainageway under the highway and I just sobbed. Got angry that I was wasting water on tears, and then got a hotel where I slept for a few days and got back to enough health to keep going.

      Did anyone give support when the idea was new?

      They did. Lauren, for one. A small group of friends, who became our team. A bike club in Kansas City, the Earthriders. And our first sponsors, Hyperlite Mountain Gear, jumped on board before we even left the US. That kind of support makes you realize that it is more than just about you. It is about a community of people who believe in dreaming audaciously.

      How long was the longest time W/O food?

      Patagonia had some long stretches. 9 days between towns. The one time we ran out of food, it was Christmas Eve, a man happened to ride past on a horse. We didn’t mention the situation and he rode off but a few minutes later he came back and gave us a loaf of bread. It was one of the most impactful Christmas gifts I’ve ever been given.

      Legal problems?

      Border crossings. These last few weeks in the Darien gap between Colombia and Panama were a hot mess.

      Either of you have to be talked into not quitting?

      Mostly it has been friends talking me into resting when I need to.

      Did you eat any bad food that made you sick?

      Yes.

      How much of your water was filtered?

      Not as much as we should have…

      Have you used any celestial navigation?

      The Southern Cross was fascinating to learn about and connect with. Though we are not versed enough to have relied solely upon such.

      Reply
  • Angélica Turner : Nov 15th

    I love every detail of this journey!! Guys we should meet in some point en la playita caribeña!!!

    Reply
    • Bethany : Nov 16th

      Yes, let’s!!!

      Reply

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