What is so amazing about this show is that beyond basic clothing, each of the 10 contestants is only allowed to bring 10 survival items with them for the duration of their stay, and they only have themselves to rely on. There are no film crews following them around, no medics to help out if they get sick or injured. The contestants are expected to rely 100% on their own wits to out survive the other nine contestants. There is no gimmick here, and only first place gets the big prize. There are no prizes for the runner’s up. There are two ways your stay can come to an end: either you “tap out”, or you are evacuated if you are in grave danger from weather, injury (self reported, of course) or starvation.
The contestants can stay as long as they want, and are expected to face starvation, thirst, inclement weather, predators, and worst of all, loneliness, as long as they can stand it.
Season One and Season Two were filmed on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The winner of Season One was Alan Kay, and he lasted 56 days, setting the bar high for future participants. Season Two was won by David McIntyre, and lasted 10 days longer than season one, and finishing on day 66.
Now, Zachary went into uncharted territory with Season 3. Patagonia was an all new location for the show. The participants, all from North America, left to film in May, right at the beginning of our Summer, and were unceremoniously dumped into late Fall in the Andes Mountains of Argentina.
Zachary did something no contestant has done before, he won the show after a whopping 87 days. Which brings me to how I ended up in Patagonia.
While all of this was going on for him, and there are plenty of write ups, interviews and videos about his experience that you can check out for yourself, my daughters and I were splitting our time between my mom’s home in Everett, Washington and our land in Appleton, Maine.
I had never planned on flying cross-country alone with two kids under the age of 5, but my brother was hit by a car while crossing the road with his headphones on in Los Angeles, the day before Zach went out into the wilds of Patagonia (he was already in Argentina at this time preparing for “launch day” with the other contestants.) Unfortunately my brother was pronounced brain-dead and was put on “organ support” long enough to arrange an organ donation team and some very fortunate recipients.
This was utterly devastating to me in a lot of ways, and I’m still reeling from all the changes that death has brought into my life.
Suddenly missing my husband seemed like the easiest thing I’ve ever had to do. I needed him, I needed his support and wished I could lean on him during my time of grieving. But I found that missing Zachary and missing my brother weren’t even close to the same thing. Patagonia no longer felt so far away, I knew that whether Zach won or not, he would be home in the not-so-distant future.
So I packed up the kids and flew across the country to spend a few weeks with the remains of my family. I officiated my youngest sister’s wedding, my girls got to spend loads of quality time with my mom and sisters, and I found myself in a cocoon of love where I could finally fall apart.
The whole time all of this was happening, I had gotten no updates at all on my husband’s progress. When they say “Alone” they mean it in every sense of the word. I didn’t get to know how he was, and assumed if something went horribly wrong they would let me know. My husband and the producers knew about my brother’s accident, so I worried it would mess with his mind while he was competing, but there was no helping that, I couldn’t keep that information from him.
Finally in July some emails started trickling in. They were along the lines of “we can’t tell you anything about Zach, but there has been some movement over the weekend, and he’s still hanging in there. No news is good news. By the way, do you have a passport?”
Before Zach left on his flight, we discussed if I wanted to be flown out there if he won. We both knew it was a long shot, accidents happen, starvation happens, etc. I was of the mind that if it got to the point where he was a finalist and a family member was to be flown out, it would not be me.
But life happens, my brother died, the farm was dismantled, we had a drought and the garden dried up and withered away, a family member heard I had no plans on flying out to see Zach when the probing passport questions started coming in, so she stepped in and offered to foster the girls as long as needed if it came down to flying out.
Sure enough, in early August the email came that said, “we need a copy of your passport. There has been some more movement” (I had been guesstimating how many contestants were left each time one of these rare emails came through, and thought this meant two or three people were left).
A producer I dubbed my “Jami-sitter” picked me up at a very small, rustic airport and took me to town.
The driver and I arrived very late in the evening to a place that looked completely deserted. We waited for nearly an hour, and then there was an ambulance pulling out of the gates. We drove back to the main lodge and found there were finally people there to greet us. The driver was quite relieved because there was 100% language barrier between me and everyone else, and I don’t think he wanted to just abandon me, but considering how long the drive was, I’m sure he was eager to get back to town.
I met my new “Jami-sitter” and she escorted me to a cafeteria full of activity, lights, and amazing smells. I suddenly found my mouth-watering and realized it had been half a day since my last meal (ironic considering the fact that not-s0-far-away was my husband, probably starving.) It felt late for dinner, but that’s because I’m American, in Argentina dinner often doesn’t even start until 8 or 9 pm.
I was sitting down enjoying my hot meal when one of the executive producers came in and asked me if I knew why I was there. Honestly, I had a hunch, but the ambulance threw me off, so I said “I’m assuming it has something to do with my husband. Is he okay?”
And the producer looked me in the eyes and said, “yes you are here because of Zach. Everything is fine, and he’s okay. I wanted to let you know that we flew you down here because he won, and you will get to see him tomorrow.”
I only have a handful of moments in my life that have been completely overwhelming me to the point where I felt like collapsing: the birth of each of my three daughters, the death of my brother, and those words from that producer.
That night I was over the moon, and giddy, and exhausted, and a million other feelings and emotions hitting me like waves on the shore. I had brought a vial of my brother’s ashes to release somewhere in Patagonia, and decided that I would do it at Zach’s camp if he was okay with it.
The front shoreline of Zach’s camp, where I released some of Ryan’s ashes.
I knew that in the morning I would see my husband for the first time in three months. I knew how much my life had changed since I had seen him last, and could only guess at the changes he had undergone as well. I was going to walk up to him, and hug him, even if he smelled gross, and kiss him even if he had bad breath, and tell him his ordeal was over, that he had won and that he could go home with me.