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The Butterfly Effect

The road to nowhere always leads you to somewhere unexpected—no matter if that is the summit of a wilderness peak or the courage to rethink the way we see and define ourselves in the outdoors.

Maps scatter across the passenger seat and slide swiftly just out of reach. My brakes screech and I stop for a pack of street dogs chasing each other into traffic. Here on the outskirts of town (is a city of 6 million a town?), I can nearly taste freedom from the smog, the machine-gun Spanish, the sideways looks cast toward this solo woman traveler. Shackled by a chain of stoplights and the uncertainty of a used car, the blinged-out Subaru and I in it, lurch slowly toward the skyline. To the east, snowcapped peaks beckon with cradling arms. Vamos.

The chaos of the city feels stifling, never-ending in its choking clamor of logistics. Maybe my goals cloud my vision, the desire to leave layering pressure into an unpredictable series of events. I hadn’t intended to bring so much gear, but flying out of Portland for Santiago with even just the basics for surfing, snowboarding, climbing, backpacking, and camping meant just one thing: a road trip.

Two weeks became three, then four, as I oriented myself in the anarchy of entropy. After all, boarding my one-way flight gave me no time to process what I left behind, only to face the onslaught of a new life unfolding. Like small leaves unfurling in the frost, first chances fight fiercely for life. Everything feels important, urgent.

New friends, locals, had helped me set a course for the next few months, and this first trip to the mountains would be my test for self-sufficiency. Close to the city, I’d drive to the jagged skyline with a plan to camp, climb, and even ski tour. But I didn’t take into account the trusty Outback would overheat after miles of stop-and-go traffic. Stella, my newly acquired adventure vehicle that was supposed to take me to Patagonia and Peru, into the Andes, and to the deep Pacific, bellowed angrily as I pulled over, apparently in front of a mechanic’s shop. Two men walked over to greet me: “Did I need help?”

Several friendly conversations assured me that a leaky metal line needed to be replaced, but the Sawzall sealed my fate for the evening: I wasn’t going anywhere, and the part wouldn’t be ready until tomorrow. My life’s possessions were trapped in the vehicle, which I couldn’t drive. But did I feel safe sleeping at a stranger’s home? The answer was a resounding no (several comments had raised red flags). I’d sleep in my car, even if my hosts thought this was a strange solution. “I will camp in my new home,” I insisted stubbornly.

The next morning, Stella bumped to a box canyon in the Cordillera de los Andes, 160 million years of geological history hailing their greetings: ore-banded walls towered above, glaciers shimmered in the alpine, and boulders happily sunned themselves in the shadow of massifs. Horses ranging along a fiercely bounding river gazed lazily as I crossed a tire-reinforced bridge: “Did I know where I was going?” they inquired with looks of curiosity.

The chaos of the previous weeks dropped away that night in the silence of moonlight pebble wrestling. It disappeared with the whooshing wind that nearly knocked over a Jetboil effervescent with water for tea. Stars twinkled above as I tucked into my sleeping bag. Dreams came slowly, a spiral of flashbacks and hazy hopes of the future.

“The English word chaos comes from the Greek word meaning “abyss.” In ancient Greece, chaos was originally thought of as the abyss or emptiness that existed before things came into being…” (Merriam Webster)

I awoke the next morning completely confused: Where was I? Moments passed before I remembered I was in Chile, not bivvying at Smith Rock with my friends from the Nike Rock gym. I’d awakened with a pang of regret. Had I left behind the first chance of new community I’d known as an adult? “Keep moving,” I told myself. “There’s no time for regrets today. You’re in the Andes!”

Moments later, as I ran through the boulders, I heard shouts: Dale mujer! (Send it, woman!) Following the voices, I cautiously stepped onto the outer edges of a group of Chileans. They were here to boulder for the day. Did I want some yerba mate? Did I know about the proposed hydroelectric dam? Had I ever gone on a randonnée in Valle de las Arenas? Did I want to join them for their big campout? There would be climbing, ski touring, and an asado.

Claro, I responded. Of course! We climbed until sunset, my fingertips as pink and tender as the soft horizon clouded by Santiago haze. Into the night we climbed until the food, drink, and film projector came out. I howled songs of joy with my new friends. We loved this place, I as much as they. We lamented the dam that would be built, belting sorrowful ballads to the moon: “No alto maipo!” they barked at imaginary legislators, at the mining company that wanted to buy the water rights.

The next morning, one of the skiers—a woman who had been on the bootpack at dawn with me—chained herself to a bulldozer. A climber unfurled a banner that read “No Dam, No Mining, Power to the People.” I snapped photos, hurriedly, before workers bullied us away.

I emailed my photos to friends the next week and watched online as community members posted about the event. They encouraged each other to share stories, rallying decision-makers to action. I realized, over the coming months, that this was rare: community-driven storytelling around a common cause—saving a place they loved—hit differently than other stories about peaks they’d climbed or lines they’d skied. There was a power in these collective voices that dissolved tension lurking within the culture of single-minded dominance.

That lesson stayed with me over the years as I collected stamps in my passport and miles on other (equally ugly) vehicles. The push and pull between self and other, personal goals and external demands, never quite left me as I built a freelancer portfolio. First as a digital strategy director, then as a creative strategist, and finally, on my own, balance eluded me. Too much work on the docket swapped priority with too many gobies on the back of my hands. Was this the worst set of problems I’d find on the path of pursuing my dreams?

I felt the stress of manufactured and real problems strain me over the next few years, bending me with the pressure. I poured time and energy into a newer mold for life, growing wings with each step I ran (both figuratively and metaphorically). With new climbs developed, longer distances run, and more fulfilling projects on the horizon, the tang of my work sliced closer to the heart of my being.

It wasn’t until I took a run down a gravel county road in our new home, when I saw a red pickup pull from around the corner and slow, that the shank of this blade struck something deeper. The driver rolled down the window, pointing a rectangular object straight at me. Solar flares through the dust obscured the object: Was that a phone?

The stranger tailed me, filming me as I ran, encircling my sixty minutes of sanity with a cyclone of uncertainty. It was then that I realized: My existence would always confound, if not threaten, somebody. Later that night, I sat down to write out my frustration, and found myself quoting Audre Lord: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

I wrote, and shared, in a story called “Yo Alcanzo: She Se Puede,” of what my family, our community, and even my heart wanted of me. That Latino Outdoors, the nonprofit that would post this blog, allowed me to say: “We are just individual musical notes in a symphony beyond our comprehension” blew my mind. Was this creative freedom?

I knew, deep down, that my story wasn’t just my own to tell, and that I wasn’t the only one who felt like this. Our stories as humans, outside, focused so narrowly on the individual in much of outdoor media. The focus is often so tight that much of the light and beauty of our natural world, and her other kin, falls out of frame.

My work opening the aperture of what “being outside” means took on a new form. First through writing, then public speaking, and finally, via film, I learned to shift focus from the individual to the collective. I learned chaos and order can exist harmoniously. In the tangle of new stories, the challenges of political identities, a deterministic set of commonalities emerged.

The smallest of differences in my experience traveling—spending time with friends that cared deeply about a place they might lose forever—compounded over time, transforming how I viewed the storytelling forever. My seemingly random experience may not have been that random: This past September, The North Face tapped me to join its Explore Fund Council to broaden the conversation on inclusive exploration. Through grant-making, storybanking, and thematic exploration, this work circled back to that evening under the Andean moon.

As I walked through the garden that afternoon, I turned sweet compost in the sun. I mused at the stars and bars dangling from my neighbor’s flagpole as a monarch alighted upon the milkweed. After looking straight at the sign of hate, I sat down with my journal to write. “Today,” I scribbled, “a butterfly began a revolution.”

Dani Reyes-Acosta is a filmmaker and professional athlete aiming to inspire individual action and collective communion through self-care and self-determination in the outdoors. Honored by Protect Our Winters as Alliance Member of the Year for her advocacy, she is also an Explore Fund Council Member for The North Face. Find her online as @notlostjustdiscovering or follow @outlierfilmseries to expand the conversation on community.

Cover photo: Abigail Lafleur-shaffer

Photos from top: Loreah Winlow, Abigail Lafleur-shaffer (x3)

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