Let’s Get Lost: A Family of Four Goes Out of the Country and Off the Grid

Author // Anik St. Martin, D.C., CACCP

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Let’s Get Lost: A Family of Four Goes Out of the Country and Off the Grid
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We all have fantasies of what we might do if we weren’t afraid. I’m talking about those ideas that flash in our minds, giving us a glimpse of what it might feel like to act upon something that lives only in our theoretical parts. That if you did this thing you think about often but seldom talk about, you might catch a glimpse of yourself that you always knew was there.

These daydreams might infiltrate our thoughts when we’re running, meditating, cooking, driving or lying awake at night. These flashes of what could be sometimes seem like a distraction, but what if they represent something more?

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Photos Courtesy of Anik St. Martin

B.J. Palmer, the founder of chiropractic, referred to these intuitive glimpses as “innate thot flashes.” These “thot flashes” are said to be connected with our inner compass, pointing in a direction that we’re meant to follow. Trusting this inner compass should lead us to a path of least resistance and literally make our dreams come true…yet this seems like a rare story.

It’s proposed that disregarding our intuitive glimpses and pushing them away will evoke physiological responses that activate the sympathetic nervous system. This part of our nervous system, also known as “fight or flight,” is activated in response to feeling threatened and fearful.

Common sense, then, would have us take these dreams of ours seriously. However, they frequently get thrown out the window because the mind boggle that comes with making them real forces us to create a very unpredictable version of ourselves.

From an early age, we’re taught to go through life with a plan and a predictable outcome. We spend our time trying to fit in. We should graduate high school with honors, go to college, get a job, get married, have kids, get them through college, work like dogs and save for retirement. Above all, we should certainly learn to foresee the unforeseeable.

My husband, Darin, and I live in a beautiful town, in a house we love, with Marco and Simon, our 9- and 11-year-old boys. Our chiropractic practice is thriving, with four chiropractors, four massage therapists, an office manager and four chiropractic assistants. Our patients and staff feel like family, and our community fits our version of near-perfect. For years now, we’ve been living the life we had originally envisioned, with all the soccer games, music lessons, yoga classes, school involvement, and community participation detail we’d always imagined. In essence, life is good!

Yet, in the figment of our imagination, our inner voices suggested that we should leave it all for an extended period of time, just for the exact sake of doing so.

Disconnecting ourselves completely from our lives was not only enticing and thought-provoking, but it somehow felt necessary. Despite the fact that our lives seemingly reflected everything we’d hoped for, we wanted to get off of cruise control. Musician Michael Franti’s words, “only a rat can win a rat race,” resounded loudly. We also wanted to disconnect in the literal sense. We wanted to leave our iPhones, iPads, iPods, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and National Public Radio behind, just to see who we were without these distractions.

One evening, while sitting in the kitchen, we finally said it out loud: “What if we just ship our Volkswagen Eurovan to South America, and travel and live in it for four months?” Now, I realize that living in a van for four months may not be the stuff of dreams for anyone else, but it’s the bigger picture, the big idea, that counts.

The first thing that happens when you take a daydream and truly entertain the notion is pure excitement. You get caught up in the feeling the dream is meant to evoke in the first place. You don’t quite understand why you want to do such a thing. All you know is that there’s a truth in it that your soul is seeking.

It was at the exact moment that Darin and I let ourselves get excited about this potential reality that the door swung open to the multitude of reasons why we couldn’t possibly do it. What if our practice failed in our absence? What about our house, our pets, our children’s school? What if the van broke down in the middle of nowhere (assuming it even made it there in the first place)? What if one of our kids got hurt? What if we hated it? There were so many reasons not to do it and as we’d get older, these reasons would give birth to new ones. In essence, it was a crazy thing to do. But what if we threw caution to the wind and trusted in ourselves and our intuition and just did it anyway?

We spent the next three months organizing our lives and our minds. A few of those close to us were supportive from the start, while many others were confused and dismayed. “What if you get hurt? What if you get kidnapped? Do you even speak Spanish? Why would you leave your practice in its prime? What if you get malaria? What do you mean you won’t vaccinate before you go? Will you take a gun? Why would you want to do that? Oh, you always were a dreamer!” The truth is, we didn’t have answers to these questions, because in the end, we didn’t feel we needed them.

We shipped our van from Tacoma, Washington, to Cartagena, Colombia. We flew to meet it two weeks later. Coming from a world where every moment is accounted and planned for, the transition into “go with the flow” and nothing but free time was unsettling at first. Being together every minute of the day was a bit difficult in the beginning. Unlike our usual family vacations, where we’d maximize our time off and squeeze as much as we could into a week, all this free time left us with ants in our pants. Those first few weeks were comparable to what you go through during the first few days of a cleanse, where you want to feel refreshed and pure, but first you have to shed some dirty layers.

After a while, we got used to the 48 square feet of living space, enjoying the routine of spending our days loafing around, surfing, eating fresh food, finding good water and comfortable places to park and sleep. We came to terms with the mosquitos, the sand fleas, the heat, and the daily encounters with the Policia Federal. Our Spanish learning curve was steep but ameliorating, and we—well, Darin—successfully dealt with a few van mishaps and breakdowns along the way. The wind was at our backs and we were pleased with ourselves, feeling quite grooved in. Little did we know, we’d barely touched the surface.

Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor clothing maker Patagonia, once said, “For me, when everything goes wrong, that’s when the adventure starts.” It took a Colombian turn of events to peel back just enough of our way of being to force us to truly see the inherited sense of urgency we’d been living with for decades.

We had looked forward to doing some backcountry hiking in El Cocuy National Park, Colombia’s Sierra Nevadas. The forecast report informed us that we had a four-day window before the weather would turn and hiking would be discouraged. Feeling pressed for time, we spent two days driving on washed-out roads, with hairpin turns, at high elevations, through FARC red zones, where a simple moment of eye contact with some locals clearly communicated that we shouldn’t stop or get out of the car.

We arrived in El Cocuy—pretty much the middle of nowhere—late at night, tired, nauseated, and cold. We spent the night in a hostel, where we luxuriated the first hot showers we’d had in weeks. A day later, with no Internet access anywhere to be found, we made our way to the park office, which consisted of a wooden desk with a stack of maps meant for someone in kindergarten, without topographical information or anything else of value, considering the rugged country we were going into. We registered for our hike and drove a few hours to the trailhead, at 10,000 feet, where we quickly got our backpacks ready for the two-day trip. After all, there was no time to waste; acclimating was overrated.

Three hours into our hike, our oldest, Simon, started complaining of a headache. We pushed forward, making sure to hydrate and snack frequently. After all, when we hike at home, this seems to fix everything. Hours later, at an elevation we’d later learn was nearly 14,000 feet, Simon and I were suffering from severe headaches and nausea and the sun was going down. We considered turning around, but it was too late. The thunder and lightning behind us was foreboding, and Darin’s gray skin and bloodshot eyes were surreal. But our high-altitude, oxygen-deprived state of delirium drove us to a state of giddiness. We were beyond rational.

We had to spend the night at close to 15,000 feet in a cave, surrounded by fog so thick that if we moved, we would be lost in an instant. The reality of our altitude sickness had set in, and we tried to keep it together as our camp stove caught fire and our blue-lipped boys groaned and vomited. What had we done? What were we thinking? We spent the night short of breath, checking our kids’ vital signs and forcing ourselves to hydrate every half hour. At sunrise, alive, dizzy and weak, we slowly headed back down. Hours later, we reached the trailhead—humbled, raw, vulnerable, and questioning everything.

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Photos Courtesy of Anik St. Martin

People talk about gaining perspective through midlife crises. For us, it took a single night in a clouded-in cave in the middle of Colombia. We spent a few more days in and around El Cocuy, in a state of indescribable gratitude. Our family came away from that night closer than ever. Suddenly, being together every minute of the day was all we wanted. Time slowed down, and a chunk of our North American sense of “git ’er done” still remains camped out in that cave. From that moment forward, the plan was to not have a plan.

Over the months that followed, we spent many more days acclimating to high elevations. We rock-climbed in Colombia and Peru, camped out for days at the edge of heart-warming hot springs in Ecuador, and we hiked through the Cordillera Blanca of Peru for four days with a guide and a few donkeys.

On many mornings, I woke up in my sleeping bag, wedged between the mess of four people living in a van, and wondered, How is it that I am just now, for the first time, getting to truly know my family? We suddenly had no work, school, sports, laundry, or yards and homes to maintain. We weren’t plugged in and we were no longer weekend warriors. The kids had a few bouncy balls, a Hacky Sack, and a Frisbee (which we eventually gave to a family in Ecuador). We had a few outfits each and an entire section of the van devoted to books. We barely had anything, but we became engulfed in a richness we had never known.

We met person after person who reminded us that people are inherently good. We observed a culture that believes in using and taking only what they need. A world where there are giant holes in the streets and sidewalks, dogs on the loose, live wires near faucets and shower heads, and rebar everywhere. Here, “liability” and safety mean taking it upon yourself to not fall in the holes, touch the live wires or make the dogs mad. In fact, we repeatedly discovered that for a single piece of beef jerky we could make a deal with a street dog to guard our van, regardless of where we were parked.

Due to the fact that every experience was new, our intuition was all we had to rely on. Here, we didn’t know more or better than our kids; we were on an even plane of learning. Our boys revealed themselves to us as patient, tolerant, observant, appreciative, problem-solving individuals with whom we were privileged to travel. About six weeks into our journey, Marco asked, “Mommy, have you noticed that everyone here has black hair?”

We spent some time in the tropical paradise of Canoa, Ecuador, where we surfed while the kids swam around in a river a few hundred feet away. They spent countless hours floating around on logs with makeshift oars, free as can be, with no cares in the world. One afternoon, while walking from the beach back to the van, Simon encountered an enormous boa constrictor, unassumingly slithering its way toward our van. The man who ran the hostel where we were camped informed us that the boas were numerous and that they all lived in the river that the kids had been playing in for days. As he left on his bicycle, toting the captured snake in a potato sack, we all looked at each other and couldn’t help but laugh.

It was also in Ecuador that Marco contracted the mosquito-borne virus, Dengue fever. After a few days of supporting him through high fevers and severe headaches, we realized that everywhere we looked, there were signs proclaiming that we were in a Dengue endemic area. At the age of 8, even Marco seemingly trusted his body’s innate intelligence to work through this virus, for which the only preventative measure is to stay away from mosquitos. Staying away from mosquitos there is like dodging drops while it rains. After days of lethargy, I took Marco to an urgent care center, where they gave him IV hydration. We were there for hours as they doted on Marco like a prince. They refused to accept payment of any kind, which left me speechless, and once again humbled. Simon has since talked about winning the lottery and sending all the winnings to that urgent care center.

We saw firsthand what the Nazca Lines, ancient geoglyphs created in the desert of Peru, look like from a six-seater prop plane. We spent time camped out at the foot of sand dunes the size of mountains, where we learned to sandboard. We learned to eat soup with tripe and chicken feet. We saw blue footed boobies, scorpions, and giant turtles. We held hands in a death-grip underwater as we swam with 10-foot-long hammerhead sharks, which we learned are nocturnal feeders, and generally not aggressive. Simon still talks about the feeling of water displacement created by these sharks as they swam by.

After four months, 7,000 driven miles, hundreds of stories, and an unforeseen quiescence, we dropped our van off at the port of Lima and returned home.

We came back, feeling tenderized and moving at a much different pace. We found ourselves overwhelmed with how much we have. Within that first week of being back, we overheard our kids marvel at the size of our bath towels, at the clothes in their closets, at automatic sliding doors and the abundance of toilet paper in public restrooms. After being back for two days, we left and slept in a tent for a little while because our home offered us so much space that we felt lost.

After months of being back, we’ve found some balance. We’re back to being busy and often distracted, but with an awareness that keeps us grounded. Our daydreams now feel tangible and realistic. People still ask us, “Why did you do that?”

Here’s why: Because not following our intuitive yearning would have stifled us. Because there’s no time like the present. Because we wanted to find out what would happen if we let go of everyone else’s expectations and just paid attention to our own. And because who says life has to be taken so seriously?

What would happen if we trusted our innate intelligence to be our guide? Children certainly appear to do so. Scaling the proverbial wall affords us a view of our lives with unknown outcomes and a certain element of risk. But any life-altering experience worth doing can’t be dissected into its individual parts. Because, in the end, the story and its impact are much bigger than the sum of these parts.

For now, we continue to teach our kids and the kids in our practice to nurture and trust their intuition. Instead of being afraid to act on our inner voice, our intuition, and our innate wisdom, maybe we should closely consider the ramifications of ignoring that voice. If you weren’t afraid, what would you do?

Pathways Issue 46 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #46.

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