At about 4700m above sea level, along the unmade road known as the Paso de Agua Negra (Black Water Pass) between Argentina and Chile, where the air is thin and dry, there’s a stunning surprise made of bright white ice. Its peaks seek the blue above like the points of a giant fairy king’s crown. Even though you know it will freeze your fingers, you feel compelled to reach out and touch it as it towers towards the sun. And, if you happen to be travelling at low speed on the back of a very small (150cc) motorbike, you can.
I know that to be true, because not so long ago I did it myself.
I’ve been on quite a journey over the months since my last blog post here about the apparently ‘broken threads’ that we may wish to make our peace with in #midlife.
I believe that once you shine light on anything that is troubling you, its grip on you fades. Space is created, and into that space you can invite anything you want. As the year turned and I began to let go of my obsession with past expectations of myself, I became still enough to whisper into the now,
Hello dear Soul, remind me again, who we really are?
(I realised afterwards that maybe a conscious invitation is not even necessary, because more of the truth can perhaps simply be seen or sensed, once the stuck clutter of ‘old’ story or beliefs has been released.
But anyway… just to make sure) I invited clarity, and it came.
Adventure. Explore. Be free.
The words were familiar to me, of course, because really I was remembering them. They ARE me. And I also know that whenever I move towards them, by taking action that helps me ‘live’ them, it’s a relief. It doesn’t really matter how I do it, it’s the feeling I get when I do it that counts.
A daily practice like thirty minutes of writing or painting from a start point of curiosity at what may emerge can feel like exploration to me. Just sitting with the paper and words or paints and creating something out of nothing awakens me and connects me with myself. Five minutes in I feel more alive.
But I do dream of ‘bigger’ adventures too. My heaven might be something like the chance to set off on two wheels from Buenos Aires on a 6000km month-long round trip (that spontaneously turns out to cross the Andes twice) with not much more than 10kgs of motorbike tools and spares, a tiny tent, and a pack of ‘post-it’ notes and a biro in case I want to make some sketches on the way.
In January, the opportunity to do the latter presented itself. I took it.
The adventure involved twelve-hour-long riding days, putting my trust in another human being to navigate me safely through high-altitude switchbacks and stomach-churning inclines formed of shifting gravel and stones.
It meant respecting the capabilities of and relying on a machine that coughed and stuttered its way through oxygen-starved air, with me getting off and walking past active volcanoes (and what seemed like a zillion crosses and spirit houses marking previous road deaths) when it couldn’t cope with carrying two.
We had to pick the bike up twice when it fell over in the wind as we were stopped at the roadside. At times my body needed to lean hard into the gusts to prevent the bike from flying into the abyss, and sometimes it felt like we weren’t moving at all because the headwind was so fierce.
I felt my fear rush and my breathing barely there. But, when I stopped to push my fingers into the ice of that magical ‘penitentes’ glacier (do click HERE to watch this short clip filmed by a drone and check out the scale of the land in relation to the motorbikes!), in the silence you can only experience above the snow line, I knew I was meant to be standing on that very spot, almost as high in the world as it’s physically possible to ride.
I’m still digesting that truth and its significance, but as it turns out, I’ve been given some extra time out to do that. Because, after all the mind-blowing surprises that traversing the mountains twice had offered up, the Universe had one more in store for me.
On the very last day of the journey, on a flat straight road crossing plains dotted with calmly grazing cows, a nail pierced our rear inner tube. It happened right at the same moment that a truck was pressing to pass, refusing to brake, despite my driver’s warning hand signals, just a few metres in our wake.
Skill and fast reactions meant that we managed to reduce our speed a fraction and get off the road and out of the path of that truck into long grass. That’s all I remember. Weaving across the tarmac and back and across the tarmac and back and on to the green verge and thinking, Oh God, we’re going down.
Next thing, I’m coming round in shocking pain from what turns out to be a broken collar bone, and that, as they say, is that. The first bone break of my life. A whole new adventure. One of voluntary firemen and kind strangers, police paperwork, surgeons, titanium plates and twelve screws holding me together. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to punch the air again with my right hand, but not quite yet.
So, as if mirroring the process of clearing the mind of old stories and beliefs, my future has become somewhere I can no longer rely on past experience to imagine; something has literally changed in my body and that makes me different now; even my skeleton is pushing me to face the future from a fresh perspective.
Aside from the obviously challenging aspects of such a jolt to the ‘system’ — most of life as you know it gets put on hold — there have been some cool creative consequences. I had made lots of biro drawings on my ‘post-it’ notes while travelling and, I wanted to try painting from them with my left (normally non-dominant) hand. I made several small paintings (see some of them along with the original drawings at the end of this post), but found it was difficult to mix the colours with the heavy-body acrylics I normally use. So I went and bought some liquid acrylic paints. I was attracted to the bright colours and I began to experiment.
I feel that what I have ended up with is possibly the most ‘joyful’ painting I have ever made. Here it is surrounded by some of the scenes that inspired it.
The painting is a landscape born out of a real journey, across challenging terrain. But, its joy, for me, is in the vibrancy of colour that represents us, us and others like us — the adventurous Souls — creating our own transformational experiences, no matter what, out there on ‘the road to Chile’.
When you’re honouring your essence, and in the flow of it, however you are doing it, it feels infinite. There are no limits. You find yourself ‘remembering’ that you can do anything, and that the lands you create for yourself to travel through can be any colour you want.
Please scroll down for more from my journey and left-handed explorations:
The Paso de Agua Negra crosses from Las Flores, San Juan in Argentina to Chile heading towards La Serena, and includes 160km of unmade gravel/rocky road traversing the highest altitudes. The images above are mostly from the Paso de Agua Negra, and the painting is the first I made entirely with my left hand (but with the thicker-consistency paints); I was thinking about how it feels to ride on a motorbike across the Andes.
The Paso de Jama crosses from San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama desert towards Purmamarca, Jujuy, Argentina. It’s a tarmac road, so in theory ‘easier’ to ride than the Agua Negra pass, but it’s a little higher, reaching 4800m and the climb up from Chile is unrelenting. The combo of engine power required and lack of oxygen means that non-fuel-injection motorbikes may stutter, as ours did. I had to get off and walk past the stratovolcano Licancabur (5916m) on the border between Chile and Bolivia. The images above are mostly from the Atacama and the Paso de Jama, and the painting is the second I made entirely with my left hand (but with the thicker-consistency paints); I was thinking about the way that almost every time you turn a corner in the mountains your definition of the most amazing thing you ever saw or felt is overwritten with something even greater.
Ruta 9, Cordoba was where I broke my collar bone. I don’t have any photos of the place. Just a small self reflection I made to help me process things, later, when I was getting the use of my right hand back. The background was made with my left hand and the drawing of me with my right. It’s flanked by some of the biro sketches I made on ‘post-it’ notes on my travels. They may be miniature, but they kicked off all the paintings, proving that any start point is enough.
I’m so grateful I could paint with my left hand after the accident, and that my curiosity meant I wanted to. The practice of creating something new has helped me heal. The paintings are mixed media on linen-canvas texture paper and they are just 30x40cm. My body has constrained me physically, but my motivation to make art has been reignited. The ‘process’ continues, and I hope it will lead me to write here again soon.
I’ll be super-happy if you share my creations. Please use short quotes from the piece if you like, but always always link back to this page.
For any other use, please ask me first.
See the journey of my paintings and drawings over the years here:
Photographed with an iPhone the colours can be compromised and small amounts of cropping can occur. The real paintings and drawings speak more clearly.
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© Sally Townsend Blake 2019