How does one prepare to undertake a dream? What really goes into getting ready for an incredible journey? Unlike Reese Witherspoon's character in WILD, it seems there is a little more to it than ordering some new sneakers from REI.
Aniela apologizes, but she has to push our call back, as she is about to head out on an arduous 8-hour journey to drive her horses from Arizona to Ojai, California, and is trying her best to miss the hell that is LA in rush hour.
When I catch up with her that evening, she explains that long-haul driving with her animals is part of the norm now, preparing for her upcoming adventure. Although she feels exhausted, the focus of chatting with me after a long drive is actually just the kind of mental training she needs.
Mental stamina will be vital to get right for Aniela Gottwald. Aniela is a young woman who is about to embark on a lone trek, riding 4,000 miles from the US-Mexican Border to the Sacred Headwaters of Canada, with only a team of recently broken wild Mustangs and a wolf dog for company. Beyond what frankly sounds like the start of a tear jerking movie narrative, she hopes the adventure will raise awareness for the issues affecting the United States and Canada’s indigenous peoples, the wilderness, and its wild horses.
Her training to become a modern superwoman started early. Growing up in a forest in the middle of nowhere, her father would take her out on 7-hour-long hikes at just age 6. “At first, I hated them. I was like, 'What are you doing to me? This is awful.' Then I started to realize he was actually giving me a gift; because when you slow down that much, you are fully there. You become transformed by a place. You are part of a magical, natural puzzle.”
If her father’s gift was that of grit and a curiosity for the wild, her mother’s was empathy for animals, horses in particular. Aniela recalls her instant connection as an infant: “I look oddly dazed and confused in all my baby photographs, apart from one where I’m meeting a horse for the first time. Suddenly my eyes are focused and open with wonder, looking up at it from my mother’s arms.”
Rescuing horses was a huge passion for her mom, and thus a big part of Aniela’s life. She was often the one given the task of testing their temperament. “I grew up falling off,” she tells me.
As experienced as Aniela is with temperamental domestic animals, the horses she is taking with her for this journey are a little different. Her chosen companions for an 8-month trek are three wild Mustangs. She explains, “It’s definitely a huge risk, but at the same time I wouldn’t choose any other type of horse for this journey. Wild horses are really connected to their instincts; they are so agile and sturdy, and they have such strong willpower. They have such a strong will to live. I need that edge to my animals; that wildness and magic.”
That “will to live” plays into one of the main reasons for her journey — to highlight the plight of North America’s Mustangs. I was shocked when she explained that the mare she is traveling with came from a horse meat sale, where animals are rounded up and then sold for around $10 each, and then (often very inhumanely) slaughtered for meat.
Alongside telling the horses' story, major risks from the actions of both big business and government have also made her journey feel more pertinent. Public push back just stopped a U.S. bill which proposed selling off 3.3 million acres of protected lands. While Standing Rock becomes a part of all of our vocabularies, Aneila hopes that her documentary will also draw people’s attention to the place of her journey’s end in British Columbia, a spot where the First Nations are in a continuing battle to protect the Sacred Head Waters from open coal mines and destruction of both access to clean water and the surrounding environment.
There is something about the journey that also feels innately feminine. Aniela uses words like “mother nature," “agreement," and “magic." She talks of the insecurities of traveling alone. “I know its going to be really lonely at times, but for me it’s not about being really extreme. I want to share the journey as much as possible." She never speaks of speed, controlling, or taming.
Is being a role model for female explorers something she has even thought of? “I want to inspire a lot of women to do anything they want. In particular, I want to inspire girls, because they are our next generation. I see so many passionate hearts out there, who really want guidance and to be more connected to that power within themselves. They don’t have to be masculine to have an adventure, but they can just bring whoever they are to whatever project they attempt. I’m very excited to continue being me.”
“This trip is really a collage of my life, bringing everything together. I feel like this journey is my masterpiece." Alongside all of the hope and optimism Aniela exudes, the loss of her father also seems to loom large in channeling her bravery. There is a sense of wanting to make him proud and to hone the skills he gave her.
“Fear is a really healthy thing to have. If you have that tool, you can have solutions ready. Risks will always be out there, but more people really need to live for their passions. The more people who are happy and connected, the better the world we will have.”