As Reese Wells boarded the plane to Chile, he checked social media for the last time in 2016 and savored the last bite of the cheesiest, gooiest pizza he could find.
Where he’s going, he’ll be lucky if he gets to feast on a platter of Chilean pinecones, and the only tweeting he’ll be doing is birdcalls.
Abandoning a life of luxury — or at least indoor plumbing — for the unknown, Wells jetted off to Santiago, Chile, on Thursday to meet his friend, a fellow Mount Tabor High School graduate, Tyler Nachand, and start the adventure of a lifetime.
They hope to share their findings from the six-month journey with the folks back home, Wells said.
“We’re both so passionate about North Carolina and all the outdoor possibilities here,” Wells said. “We’re excited to bring our experiences back to our hometown and show people anything’s possible.”
Patagonia, a sparsely populated region shared by Chile and Argentina, is the most beautiful place you’ve never heard of, Wells said. At the southern tip of South America, the frontier boasts the jagged peaks of the Andes Mountains, pristine rivers and dusty backwater oases in a land virtually untouched by humans.
The duo will be the first travelers on the Greater PatagoniaTrail (GPT) this year. The trail has been completed by fewer than 100 people worldwide.
“It’s not like the App Trail with trail guides and markers; we’ll be bushwhacking and roughing it,” Wells, 25, said. “I’ve always heard what a mystical, magical place Patagonia is, so I feel really lucky to have stumbled upon the trail while it’s still in its infancy.”
The route was discovered by Swiss-German hiker and explorer Jan Dudeck, who the men have been in regular contact with throughout their past year of planning. Using a GPS device to keep them on track, Wells and Nachand volunteered to help Dudeck by extending the trail.
By the time their journey is over, Wells and Nachand plan to expand the 27-section-long trail to 33 sections, linking Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park to the route.
The eventual goal is to have a continuous trail that travels all the way to Cabo Forward, the southernmost point of the South American mainland, or even to Tierra del Fuego, an island off the tip of the continent.
“We’re helping contribute information, like the best places to camp, where the water sources are, where friendly locals live, stuff like that,” Wells said. “I suspect, in 10 years, this will be a very highly traveled trail.”
But, at this point, “trail” is a loose term, he said. More of a series of goat trails, abandoned roads and devising clever ways to slice through mountains.
They’ll have no contact with the outside world as they camp under the stars with their meager possessions — only what they can carry on their backs.
It’s an ambitious feat, hiking and pack rafting 1,500 miles, a distance equivalent to walking all the way from Canada down the western U.S. coast into Mexico.
Their backpacks were already weighed down with 55-pounds of gear when they left and will only grow heavier as they resupply with food — mostly rice and beans — and water every three to four days.
In some of the more remote sections of the trail, they won’t be able to replenish their supplies for up to 14 days. Easy solution: They’ll drag a dead goat between the two of them and chomp on that for protein.
“The unfinished, less-developed nature of it all really intrigues me,” said Nachand, 23. “I’m looking forward to those feelings of overwhelming excitement coupled with uncertainty on a day-to-day basis.”
The duo plans to hike 10 miles per day, a modest amount that will allow them plenty of time to deviate from their path and traverse the local villages, said Wells, who studied environmental science at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Part of their mission is to give people back home a glimpse into the environmental issues plaguing the region and bring awareness before it’s too late.
As big businesses swoop in and local farmers burn native forests to make space for livestock, the region faces grave deforestation threats with up to 4.5 million acres disappearing per decade, according to the California-based Patagonian Foundation.
By the end of the journey, they hope to have a collection of short stories and a short documentary about the local tribes and issues they can share with Winston-Salem.
“When it comes down to it, our goal is to learn from … every backpacker, cowboy, farmer, fisherman, father, landowner and mother that blesses us with their smile and thoughts along the trail,” Nachand said.
While Wells doesn’t speak a word of Spanish, Nachand, who studied in Chile while he was a student at Appalachian State University, is fluent in the Chilean dialect of Spanish.
After studying abroad in 2014, he has had an itch to go back, but he never thought he would do something like this.
Rewind 20 years and Wells and Nachand were just two little boys, one dreaming of becoming a professional baseball player, the other imagining a life as a dogsled guide.
Neither panned out, so they settled for traveling the world instead.
“I’ve really missed the thought of moving from place to place and meeting new people, that very simple lifestyle,” said Wells, who backpacked in Asia for several months in college. “Survival style is more my bandwidth instead of worrying about social media and getting caught up in the hustle and bustle of this world.”
Wells has been rejecting modern technology for years, preferring to ride his disco-ball-clad bike anywhere in Winston-Salem he needs to go.
In 2015, Wells and five friends embarked on a self-supported 8,000-mile cross-country bike ride from Florida to Alaska to raise money for the U.S. National Parks Conservation Association. During the five-month journey, dubbed “Keys to Freeze,” they raised more than $25,000 and visited 122 American and Canadian cities.
Amid bear encounters, blazing temperatures and brutal headwinds, it was a journey he’ll never forget.
As they partake in their next adventure in Patagonia, which is expected to finish in mid-April, they know they’re in for another trip of a lifetime, Wells said.
“This is a new continent, a new language, new everything,” he said.
“It’s really scary not knowing what to expect, but I’m excited for the unknown.”