I first discovered Heather Hillier when we started liking each other’s Instagram photos. She was traveling down the coast of Chile on horseback, searching for surf and documenting the trip with her boyfriend, Matt Hannon.
Heather and I exchanged many messages about handling horses and I felt her spirit and boldness through our conversations. Without much planning, Heather and Matt embarked on an adventure from Alaska to Chile—first on motorcycles, then on horseback—with just their camera gear, camping equipment and clothing, and using only paper maps.
I was impressed by the trek and their vulnerable modes of transportation. Such a nostalgic form of travel is no easy feat. Riding down the coast of Chile on horseback is a huge risk in terms of timing, convenience and safety. Horses, much like humans, have unique personalities, fears, delicate psyches and habits. A horse can panic and bolt upon hearing a branch break or at the mere sight of trash. A journey on horseback requires an immense level of trust in one’s self and the horse.
Heather and Matt didn’t aimlessly trek down the coast. In the absence of a GPS, they were guided by their instincts, intuition and trusty paper maps. It’s easy to make your way along a coastline, but crossing river mouths around rocky headlands to get into town for supplies is what makes the journey complicated. It’s a trip that seems counterproductive when there are faster and more efficient ways of getting around these days. Their approach was unpredictable and placed more focus on the journey rather than the destination.
The art of getting lost allows one to really challenge their senses and patience—something unknown to most people in the information age. What is it like to get lost in another country on horseback? Have we curated our senses and experiences to only find the best cafes and surf spots? It’s possible.
With torn-up maps and a lack of internet data, Heather and Matt experienced more adventure than they bargained for.
What inspired you to do this trip?
The journey was brought on entirely by chance. My good friend had come up from Northern California to help out at my farm in Vancouver, eat good food and catch up for a few weeks, and we decided to make a trip to Vancouver Island to surf. It was the end of August and only my second time away from the farm all summer. We slept three-up with her dog in the back of her pickup truck. We ended up meeting this tall and dreamy rider of a radical-looking motorcycle sidecar, whose Indonesian batik shirt and traditional Mentawai tattoos definitely did not fit into what I thought of as the “motorcycle type.” He convinced us that his campsite had plenty of room for another vehicle, so we spent a few days surfing, eating and chatting around the campfire.
Matty, this dreamy Australian, was two months into what he planned to be an 18-month-long surf trip via motorcycle, from the tip of Alaska to the bottom of Patagonia, surfing the Pacific Coast and documenting the entire way.
Matty sparked a fire I had let burn out. Most people have some sort of wanderlust, but I didn’t really, at least not before this trip. I had been purposefully creating a self-sufficient life, based on as small a world as I could make, but when I met Matty, something switched. This fire was lit, and whether it was fueled by love or the idea of finding a balance between freedom and responsibility, I couldn’t stop it from raging through my mind and burning into my dreams.
Matty and I kept in touch, with plans to meet again in Baja over the winter. I drove down to meet him there, and we spent two months camping, surfing and spearfishing. By the end, it was clear I wasn’t just going to be able to leave him and return to Canada, probably never to see each other again. Instead, we found me a bike. I went home, spent two months getting my motorcycle license, sold what I could, organized gear and booked a flight to Puerto Escondido.
How did you pack for a trip like this?
The tropics were the first destination so I mainly packed for the heat and humidity. I was given some amazing motorcycle gear from Rev’It, and aside from that, I didn’t have many clothes. The nature of the trip forced us to think twice about everything we packed and how we packed it. On the motorcycles, we were living out of panniers, one of which was filled entirely with a 5 mm wetsuit and booties for when we finally reached Chile. And on the horses, every ounce mattered.
We filled a dry bag with food and strapped it to my bike, but most of the vegetables got squished by the packing or ruined by the heat inside the bag, so I started making sauerkraut to augment our nutrition and avoid the heartbreak of moldy veggies. I found this little process to be a way to embrace a deeper connection with food I often feel is missing while traveling. We also tried to forage for some of our meals, especially in Chile, when I started to recognize the temperate climate plants again. We also carried spearguns with us, fishing whenever we could.
Whose idea was it to ride horseback down the coast? Did you have previous experience with the horses or did you just wing it?
I think it was Matty’s idea, at first. We had met so many people in the mountain towns of Colombia and Peru who still used horses for transportation and packing, and Matty joked about how great it would be to sell the motorcycles and finish the trip on horseback. A couple hours later we stopped at a gas station, and I told him that I couldn’t get the idea out of my head; we agreed on the spot, at the gas station, to just go for it. The next day we made an advertisement for our bikes, and a few days later we had sold them to a couple of Aussies.
Matty had no experience with horses, aside from a couple trail rides as a kid, and I had taken riding lessons for a few months when I was 7 or 8, until I fell off and quit. I loved horses, but never felt very comfortable around most animals, let alone horses. Matty is a natural with animals, and is scared of nothing, so we were a good combo.
We were lucky though—the Aussies we sold the bikes to are both real cowboys in the Outback, so they came with us to test out horses and ultimately made the final decision of which horses we should buy, and proceeded to teach us to ride for a day or two.
How did you navigate your two trips?
We barely did any planning. We had a series of paper maps, as well as a GPS, and sometimes used an app called maps.me. We also asked for directions a lot.
We mostly used paper maps while we were on the horses along with the GPS when things got confusing, but halfway through our horse journey, we lost the GPS. We left it behind in a big open field after having our midday rest. Matty galloped back in the thunder and lightning to look for it while I tried to calm the other horses in the crazy storm. We had been trying to find a good, sheltered campsite to wait out the storm, but instead spent hours searching for the GPS and getting soaked. After finally giving up the search, we got lost for 24 hours in a massive pine plantation where every tree looks the same as the last. So that night we had to set up camp in the least muddy spot we could find, and the horses slept hungry, because there was nothing for them to eat in the plantation (we did give them all of our breakfast oats).
What were some of your favorite waves?
It took a long time for me to find confidence surfing on this trip. It was a surf journey, and we always chased the biggest swells, thanks to Matty. I loved the long lefts in Peru, although it would have been nice to have had a longboard there. Still, they were some of the longest waves I’ve ever had. I also loved surfing in Chile: the cold water, kelp, sea lions and trees (albeit pine plantations) made it feel like home.
The surfing was unreal, but I feel like my biggest accomplishment from having seen so much of the coastline was getting a much deeper understanding of how the ocean works in general. Beaches, reefs, points, rivermouths, spearfishing in the bottomless blue, freediving… Even though I often felt frustrated with myself for feeling scared and hesitant, I now realize that the uncomfortable situations I was forcing myself to experience were only helping me become more competent.
What did you do with the horses after the trip was over?
We had four horses, all Chilean Criollo or some mix thereof, which are well-known to be hardy and good for riding, work, anything. The original plan was to sell the horses once we had reached Patagonia, before the weather got too terrible in the south. However, once we started asking around the community and receiving offers, we found out that one of the offers had come from a butcher disguised as a man who wanted a horse for his child, and that one of the horses was an unlikely sale to anyone other than a meat factory.
Serendipitously, we met a couple who had just done a long ride through Patagonia, and were living in a beautiful town in the mountains. They moved to Chile the year before and had grand ideas of setting up a horse-packing adventure business in the mountains. So we decided to help them by riding our four horses from the coast, through the mountains (in winter), all the way to their farm, where they could live out their days surrounded by native forest, a glacier-fed river and a smoking volcano. The couple now sends us photos of the horses in their new home, and it makes us feel warm and fuzzy to know that they are loved, ridden and able to continue their life of adventure with such lovely people.
What were some of the challenges from this trip? What perspective did the challenges give you?
The whole journey provided an onslaught of new experiences: riding a motorcycle when I had never so much as sat on one in my life, trying to improve at surfing while chasing big swells at not-so-friendly spots, and being about as far from a “natural” with animals as one can get while trying to train four horses. Also this trip was a strange way to begin a relationship, and working together to film and document the journey provided its own challenges too. The horse journey really challenged us, as I had all these concerns that may or may not have been well-founded, and Matty didn’t. He’s got a more gung-ho approach to things. So I felt alone with all these concerns, while he thought I was just resisting any efforts to organize the next part of the journey.
I think that by constantly pushing my limits I blurred the line between real and perceived danger, so by the time we were working with the horses, I was burnt out and overwhelmed. I had a hard time overcoming my fears, which kept stacking up. I felt that I was being pushed by Matty, rather than myself, and was swept in a downward spiral, unable to forgive myself for my sudden scaredy-cat attitude but also unwilling to move past it.
I suppose it reinforced the idea that getting through the present moment is the most important thing. Thinking too much about what might happen made me more scared than I probably should have been, when I could have been focusing my energies on forgiving myself and being positive.
What are some of the highlights from the trip?
The entire horse trip was a highlight. It shrunk our perspective, which feels dangerously insular in this age of data overload, when we’ve been told that the more information we have, the more mobile, the better.
The horses forced upon us a local dependency on the land above all else, but also on the communities we passed through, and each other. We were constantly aware of swales in the landscape, as a tiny creek running through it might be our only water for the day.
The heightened sense of awareness to everything around us began on the motorcycles, passing smells and differences in temperature, and adding to the already over-stimulating Latin American scenes, but we were still unprepared for the complete immersion into our surroundings that we felt on horseback. We had a lot of time to sit and just be, whether while resting the horses and ourselves by a river during the heat of the day or while plodding along, listening to the birds around us. On a horse you can see, hear and smell everything for so long as you pass by, so your mind has a lot of time to think each decision through.
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