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“Everyone Gets a Call to Adventure”: On the Road with Erin McElroy

This is a traveler case study. (Read others or nominate yourself.)

Erin McElroy decided to take an extended trip to one of the passionate places she could think of: Argentina. Here are some of her stories from the road.

Introduce yourself!

Erin here, born and raised in Chicago, but consider Colorado as home (when I am stateside). I geek out on personal transformation, following passions and the transformative power of nature, adventure and travel.

I believe the hero’s journey is possible for anyone; that we all get a “call to adventure,” and have the innate desire and responsibility to do something great.

I call myself a writer, adventurer, and change-maker. I work with people one-on-one and in workshops to help them find the “thing” that makes them feel most alive and happy because I believe the best thing we can do for ourselves, those around us, and the world is to be the most authentic version of ourselves at any time—and I want to contribute to this.

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Photo by JoAnne McElroy

What inspired you to travel?

There’s a quote from The Alchemist where Paulo Coelho writes, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” My friend and I experienced just this in South Africa during the 2010 World Cup. We had tasted what it felt like to be whoever we wanted to be, laughing, dancing, singing, exploring, embracing every present moment and we were rewarded tenfold.

With this came a big responsibility. How would we keep this alive?

When I returned home after that trip and went back to work—ironically, as a change management consultant—I knew that I had to live differently. But living differently is a broad term, and I wasn’t even sure what it meant for me and my career.

So I started thinking about what I did know.

My parents took our family camping and on road trips when I was growing up. I had then traveled internationally since I was 16 and had studied abroad in Ireland for a year. From this, I knew I loved to travel.

Two years later, I had sold my house and belongings, quit my job, and was on a plane to Buenos Aires with a three night reservation at a hostel and serendipity as my compass.

Tell us a memorable story from the road.

I was horseback riding in the Andes mountains outside of Mendoza, Argentina. It was more like a cowboy safari than a simple ride as we wandered through fields of tall, golden grass, snuck up behind monstrous condors who were dining on a dead donkey, and watched a standoff between our gaucho, Lucas, and a stallion who was protecting his harem of mares.

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Lucas, my favorite gaucho.

Lucas and I became friends after that, and met up in Mendoza for lunch. After telling me about a specific type of leather craft he had learned from living in the desert for two years with the Huarpes people, I wound up inviting myself on a trip to the desert to buy goat skins.

When Lucas picked me up the next day, there was a Swiss horse whisperer/cowboy of sorts, Fonsi, with us. We spoke in my basic Spanish as we drove towards the mountains and wine country. We stopped to buy chocolate. We stopped to buy wine. We stopped to pick wild chestnuts and arugula. We stopped to have an asado (an Argentinian BBQ) at the side of the road for a few hours while the sun set and at some point I realized we were not in the desert at all.

It turns out plans had changed, as they often do in Argentina. Cowboy Fonsi and Lucas had met on an expedition, crossing the Andes mountains on horseback. We were driving Fonsi out to the ranch of the family who owned the horses they had used. They were having their annual cattle drive, where the men (from grandpa down to the seven-year old son) would set out at sunrise and ride for the horizon to go count their cattle.

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We arrived at the ranch the night before the men took off. Everyone was gathered for a meal around a long table, passing around platters of vicuña milanesa and jugs of wine. The walls were covered with puma skins and horse tackle, the men dressed in the blousy gaucho pants, scarves and hats took swigs of whiskey and smoked cigarettes.

Maté was passed around to share and we slept outside under the stars. I was welcomed as family and affectionately called “Gringa.” I felt like I was in the pages of a National Geographic magazine.

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And a few days later, we eventually made it to the desert to get those goat skins.

It was an experience born from trust, spontaneity and adventure (all things that travel has taught me about).

How do you pay for your travels ?

I used to save, and be willing to go into temporary debt if need be, accepting that experiences were a different type of currency. For the past two years of living in Argentina and traveling South America, I have been helped with airline miles.

I’m trying desperately to bring in an income now, but have been able to support this journey in other ways until then, such as volunteering in exchange for a shared room and food in Patagonia. I don’t make much money, but I don’t spend much either.

What kinds of travel hacking do you find most helpful?

I have a few frequent flyer accounts with United, American, Frontier,  and I have Starwood, Marriott and Hilton accounts too. Right now, I have been spending points more than earning them. I am down to 120,000 miles on United and less than 10,000 each on American and Frontier. I’ve got about 85,000 in Starwood points. I had an American Express Starwood account at one point and recently got the United Explorer card for 50,000 miles.

Most of these miles and points were gained from my cross-country commute when I was a management consultant. I would sign up for promotions that were geared towards people like me who traveled every week.

I’ve earned some Starwood points by attending the timeshare presentation at the Beaver Creek Westin in Colorado, one of my favorite hotels that my friends and I would go to every year. I’m a bit embarrassed to say that they recognize me there now after the 3rd time I did that. It’s worth the points!

I still have a lot to learn about travel hacking and wouldn’t call myself a travel hacker just yet.

[Ed. Note: Sounds to us like Erin is well on her way!]

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Tell us about a memorable encounter you can’t get out of your head.

I was in Nahuel Huapi National Park in Argentina for the first time on a four day backpacking trip. We were hiking along the top of a ridge when my friend called my name and pointed. I looked up just as a massive condor soared by at eye level, staring at us as we heard its nine-foot wingspan slice through the air. Remembering that event still fills me with a sense of awe.

Fast forward a year. I was back in the States a little unexpectedly, staying with family in Chicago and blogging about my adventures with Lucas the gaucho. Lucas wound up sharing my blog around, and one of his friends reached out to me. She wanted to know where I was and what I was doing – and two weeks later I was at the base of the mountain where I saw my first condor.

The rustic resort I was staying at in exchange for work was called Peuma Hue, meaning Place of Dreams, and it was indeed dreamy. I lived there on the lake with the mountains towering above. We galloped on horses through the valleys and along the lake. We hiked in the mountains and foraged for mushrooms in the forest. I would meditate at the lake in the mornings and write there with the sunset in the evenings. We would trade stories and wine around a fire every night and if there wasn’t rain, I would sleep outside under the Milky Way.

It was here I learned my nephew was born  – and that he would have to have open heart surgery in his first week of life.  Bob Marley’s song Three Little Birds popped into my head (you know the one, it goes, “Every little thing, is gonna be alright”). I hiked up to my favorite mountaintop and sat there hoping for a sign.

“Just let me know that everything will be alright,” I said out loud.

Right then, three condors soared out from behind the neighboring peak and off into the distance.

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What has surprised you while on the road?

One reason I chose to go to Argentina to find my passions was that it always struck me as a very passionate place. I saw it in the traditions of tango, the zealous soccer (or “futbol”) fans, in gaucho culture, in the custom of sharing maté (a loose leaf tea that is passed around a group and drunk through a straw), and the slow, delicate process of slow cooking meat over a fire. And all greetings are with a kiss, period.

I had thought I was pretty laid back and spontaneous based on my adventures, but the passionate and spontaneous Argentinos made me realize there was still quite a bit of room there for me to grow.

I learned again and again through example, how to embrace the journey as much as the destination, how to live fully and passionately in the present and how to be so grateful for whatever it is you have like you are the luckiest person on Earth.

Porteños (people from Buenos Aires) are often teased for thinking they are the greatest city and people on the planet, but I think what people are really experiencing is this perspective on gratitude.

I learned a phrase that I love, that I think encompasses their humor, vitality and unique interpretation of the clock: “La noche está en pañales!” Literal translation: The night is in diapers! In other words, the night is young!

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Have you learned anything else?

Long-term travel is a skill. I got better at making decisions, trusting myself, navigating bus schedules and seasons, learning and applying cultural differences, initiating interactions with other travelers and with locals.

It helps to know and embrace what style of traveler you are. For me, I am equally happy backpacking through the mountains without a shower and eating whatever I can carry for a couple of weeks as I am getting dolled up and seeking the best foodie and wine experience in a city.  

I am happy to stay in hostels and high-end hotels alike (points permitting), and I learned I actually need both types of experiences, the dirtbag ones and the high-rolling ones.

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The great debate: aisle or window?

Middle. Just kidding, but I wouldn’t mind if I was between two fascinating people. Really, I’m a window girl.

Best travel advice…go:

Bring a good kitchen knife with you.

When in hostel or Airbnb type situations, you can find local markets and cook with local foods – and this way you always have an essential piece of cookware (it’s like learning a new kitchen every time!).

Have a keepsake with you.

A personal item – like a flag, a tiny print, a favorite small memory box that packs well – is a great touchstone to yourself.

Use cloth zipper drawers to stay organized.

And they’ll help you keep anything you pack condensed. Great for backpacks and suitcases.

Pick up something new.

Starting to practice a new skill becomes a conversation starter, and gives you something consistent to go to when everything else changes. For me it was guitar, I bought a mini one to take along with me and I also dedicated myself to learning Spanish.

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Whereto next?

I was just at WDS 2015 this summer. Now I want to return to Argentina to finish my books and climb Cerro Aconcagua, the tallest peak outside of the Himalayas. And then? Well, I always keep a running list of my next five dream adventures. In no particular order they are:

1. Coast to coast Canada – by car, train, bike, kayak, backpack and skis

2. Road trip around India – climb the peaks, study yoga and meditation, work with tiger conservation, dive

3. Indonesia Sailing and Diving trip

4. Thru-hike the Andes

5. Antarctica

Stay up to date with Erin at A Call to Adventure.

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