La Vuelta: A Love Letter to the People and Places that Feel Like Home

On a Friday afternoon in late April, following an early-season snowstorm, the best of autumn holds out in Northern Patagonia. Though the weather ebbs and flows dramatically this time of year here—well, really any time of year in Patagonia—today is a stunner.

The sun beams bright with no clouds to accompany it. It’s the kind of tantalizingly beautiful day that, two years ago, I watched roll by time and again from my one-bedroom apartment throughout the first 50-some days of Argentina’s mandated quarantine during the Covid-19 pandemic. Even more, it’s the kind of simple, glorious day I’ve dreamt of since I left 23 months ago. Now that it’s here—and now that I’m back—I don’t intend to waste it.

As I wrap up my work for the day, I send an audio message to my friend Juli: “Hola amiga! Cómo estás? Qué haces hoy? Quería ver si tenes planes por la tarde o si queres manejar o caminar por el Circuito Chico conmigo. Es un día hermoso!”

Juli’s response is swift, and her sentiment echoes mine: “Estoy bien, amiga! Con ganas de hacer algo! Así que, si estás para esos mates por ahí, vamos!”

We’re on the same page, and just like that, a plan takes shape. Juli boils hot water for yerba mate—I do, too—and packs a loaf of banana bread she recently made. She catches the bus in the center of town and rides 12 kilometers out along Lago Nahuel Huapi to where I’m living.

I hop in my car and pick her up at the bus stop. We greet each other with a hug—our energy is high, palpable—and continue west together along Avenida Bustillo and Lago Nahuel Huapi toward Circuito Chico.

Today, like so many Patagonian days, magic spins in the wind. The light of the afternoon sun shimmers on the lake. The peaks of Cerros López and Capilla, and the many mountains that straddle the Argentine-Chilean border, play peek-a-boo in the distance. As Juli and I coast along this familiar road, Patagonia—this region, all that it is, all that it encompasses to me and for me—reverberates through my heart and soul. “Welcome home,” it whispers, a certain knowing in its voice. “Welcome home.”

••••

I first arrived in Argentina in November 2016, when a desire to live internationally, learn Spanish and more deeply explore and know Patagonia prompted me to move to South America. I arrived with flexibility, minimal expectations and no shortage of jitters. There was no grand plan, and over the course of the next three-and-a-half years, I unexpectedly but intentionally found myself at home here, sinking into a groove and building community, little by little.

In August 2019, I bought a car, signed a longer-term rental contract for an apartment and invested in items to make that apartment a home. I committed to life here, and though I knew I would travel between here, the U.S. and elsewhere, saying an extended goodbye was never part of the plan.

Then, seven months later, life as we all knew it shifted. Significantly. In late April 2020, I was “sheltering at home” in my apartment in Bariloche when the Argentine government announced an extended ban on all commercial flights, domestic and international, until September 2020—at least.

Though I had come to call Argentina home, my family was in the U.S., and in 2020, when the pandemic struck, my dad and sister were both stable but navigating challenging health situations. Not wanting to be unable to reach my family in the event of an emergency, I made the decision, one I will never regret, to travel back to the U.S. that May on a repatriation flight.

When I left Bariloche, I thought I would return within four months—or less. I never imagined I would be away for nearly two years. The thought didn’t exist, didn’t register. But alas, four months became 23.

Throughout those 23 months, I kept in touch with my South American friends through text messages, audio messages and video calls. And while I’m grateful for technology and its ability to connect us, no matter the physical distance, there is simply no replacement for quality time together in person. Even more, there is certainly no replacement for quality time together in person among beloved natural environments.

Today, as Juli and I turn through the roundabout that officially starts, and ends, Circuito Chico, I glance over at my friend—her hat slightly askew on her head, an easy smile on her face as she shares a story. “This is how it should be,” I think to myself. “This is what I love. This is what I’ve missed.” Technology has its place, but there is simply no substitute for quality time in the company of people, and places, that feel like home.

••••

During the summer months and shoulder seasons, Circuito Chico—a scenic route among Bariloche’s lakes and mountains—is typically packed with people. Today, save for two or three other pairs, Juli and I have the beach at the bridge that crosses Lago Moreno to ourselves. Outside a hut, home to a dive school that’s closed for the season, we set our backpacks down on the edge of the wooden patio and sit side by side, our legs hanging over the edge.

Juli pulls the yerba, her thermos of hot water and the homemade banana bread from her bag. From mine, I take out another thermos of hot water and some pieces of homemade zucchini bread. Juli prepares the mate, and as we typically do, we chat about everything under the sun. Though Juli doesn’t speak much English and my Spanish is good but not perfect, our conversations find a way. There’s a soul connection between us. Somehow, someway, we understand each other, even when we don’t have the right words.

Juli pours hot water into the mate and passes it to me. With my first sip, I take in the view. Patagonia is authentic, honest, sincere. Out here, there’s a clarity that floats on the wings of the cool, crisp breeze. Every minute, hour and day is different. The ever-changing nature of this region calls you to live in the moment, to make the most of the day before you—especially the breathtakingly beautiful ones. It calls you to be present with the places, and people, that surround you.

And while Patagonia swirls in constant motion, its foundation remains the same. The Andes loom large; the glacial lakes run deep. Simultaneously, natural currents and elements—life forces all their own—dance around and within them, invariably changing your experience and perspective.

In many ways, my friendship with Juli—and so many of my treasured and true friendships—carries the same: a solid foundation with dynamic details. The essence of who we are and the friendship we’ve built holds strong, and at the same time, we’re always evolving, always growing from one day, week, month, year to the next.

It feels like there’s no better example of this evolution than the past two years. A real-life study in changes and consistencies, as I left Bariloche in May 2020 and returned in April 2022.

••••

In the months leading up to this return, I was careful, as careful as I could be, to not carry expectations. Sure, I had hopes and anticipations, but I was also well aware that so much—myself, my friends, the world—had changed throughout the past two years.

The Argentina I returned to would not be the same Argentina I left; the Emily who left two years ago was not the same Emily who was returning now; and the friends I left in 2020 had surely evolved as well.

In 2020, I had just turned 30. Now, I’m 32.

In 2020, I was returning home to Michigan to my dad, mom and sister, all in relatively good health. Now, following a well-fought battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia—one I truly thought my dad would overcome—my dad is no longer with us.

In 2020, I was working on my first independent short film(Opens in a new window)—and our crew was facing an uphill climb. Now, that award-winning film has screened at Mountainfilm, Banff Centre Mountain Film and Book Festival, No Man’s Land Film Festival and more than 15 other film festivals globally—and I’ve directed and produced a second short film(Opens in a new window).

In 2020, I didn’t have any pets of my own. Now, I have two cats.

In 2020, with Bariloche as my base, I was traveling throughout Argentine and Chilean Patagonia and working full-time as a freelance writer, editor and content producer. Though challenging at times, I was living my dream. In the past two years, while freelancing, I worked in the service industry—first a brewery, then an adventure sports shop—in my hometown as well as at the Patagonia store in Telluride, Colorado. Now, I’m returning to Argentina with a full-time job as a creative project manager at charity: water. All while still navigating a balance with my freelance writing, editing and content production work—centered on the stories I’m most passionate about and most excited to tell.

I have lived what feels like an entire life, maybe a few, in the past two years. We all have. And while so much has changed, a lot has also stayed the same.

Today, Bariloche feels far more populated. Even in the shoulder seasons, the traffic is thick—thicker than I’ve ever seen it. New bus stops line the roads, and in some cases, the buses have doubled in size. Still, the mountains I know by name stand the same; Lago Nahuel Huapi continues to cycle through many shades in the span of a day; and my favorite panaderías, heladerías and cervecerías don abierto signs. Most of all, Bariloche is still home to some of my best friends.

As for them, most have new jobs, some have new homes, a few have new adventures on the horizon and one welcomed a new baby—her first—last year. Regardless, the same warmth and ease of connection guide our time together. We dance through conversations that carry similar themes to those of a couple years ago, though perhaps a little more mature, a little wiser. We hold the same passion for adventure and desire to get outside, explore and enjoy the simple moments.

Though Bariloche, my friends and I have all lived a lifetime and then some in the past two years, we greet each other all the same—with open arms and a sure embrace. And while I was careful to keep my expectations in check, a feeling of “home” hits me square in the heart and swirls through my soul. Like the fiercest gust of Patagonian wind, it all at once knocks me off my feet and leaves me laughing in delight, as I feel completely alive in the most raw and real way.

Like a condor shifting on the Patagonian wind, there’s something that makes sense to me about my being in this place. This region has a powerful pull on my heart and soul. I feel so “me,” so like myself, here—in a way that I’ve never felt before, in a way that I never knew I could feel before. Patagonia has unearthed something within me. This region has altogether set me free and holds me captive. Our relationship is a push and pull unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.

Retracing these steps in Patagonia—reconnecting with the people and places that feel like, and are, home to me, regardless of how we’ve changed or stayed the same—reminds me of that. Above all, this return reminds me that my heart and soul, that the core of who I am, remains the same. There is a constant within me, just as there are constants around me.

••••

As Juli and my conversation fills the gap left by the past two years, the sun sinks—a slow, never-ending, magnificent sunset—behind the mountains to the west. The sky burns through a series of blues, purples, pinks, oranges and yellows before dimming to gray and black. Through it all, Juli and I marvel at the lake before us, the mountains that surround us and the sky above us. How blessed are we to know this place well and call it home?

Gradually, a handful of lights flicker on around the lake. Every so often, a clickety-clank, clickety-clank sounds from the nearby bridge as a car passes over it. Minutes slide into hours, and before we know it, we’re emptying our second thermos of hot water and only crumbs of the homemade breads remain.

The last ones around, Juli and I use the flashlights on our cell phones to pack up our backpacks before climbing into my car and driving home. The ride home is quiet, soft, warm. For 20 kilometers, our conversation continues. The magic of Patagonia now rests in the stars that start to stretch across the nighttime sky.

Outside Juli’s apartment in the center of town, we sit in my car a while longer and chat. Finally, we hug each other goodnight, and I make my way home. I love driving these gently winding roads at night. The traffic is minimal; the route is tranquil.

Back home, I unlock my front door and turn on a few lights. I change into my pajamas. I brush my teeth, wash my face and get ready for bed. As I climb into bed and pull the covers close, I make note of the following in my journal:

My heart. My soul. All that I am. I just feel so whole and so complete right now.

I feel this shift, this expansion in my life. Returning to Bariloche has been greater than I ever imagined it could or would be.

I just feel like myself again.

I can’t put it into words, but in this moment, I am so full of happiness, joy, contentment, love.

My cup is overflowing. I am so grateful for this life. This life that I have chosen to live. This life that is uniquely and beautifully and intentionally and serendipitously mine. This life that God has given me.

I don’t know. It’s late, but as I brush my teeth and wash my face, I just can’t believe that it’s possible to feel this good. To feel so content. So at peace. So at home. Everything.

As I cap my pen, close my journal and flip the switch on the light beside me, I let this immense gratitude wash over me.

How blessed am I to be here?

How blessed am I to have the opportunity to return?

How blessed am I to have unexpectedly but intentionally built a life here over the years? To have stepped into this life and these dreams that are uniquely mine? And, along the way, to have found a community of people and a place in this world that so fully feel like home?

••••

Author’s note: While the base of this story—the setting, the weather, the moment—was written from a day in April 2022, Juli and I ventured around Circuito Chico another time in November 2022 with our friend Sofía(Opens in a new window). The photos that accompany this story were taken at that time. For this reason, Patagonia is blooming and the weather and setting portrayed in these photos are slightly different from our magical day in April—though the love, joy and gratitude are the same.