I had a dream.
To ride horseback from my adopted home of Canada to my birthplace in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
This wasn’t a dream that came about from one day to the next. This was my life’s dream and at times, it felt like nothing less than my destiny.
I was born November 1, 1986 at 11:41 pm. My mom’s water broke at my uncle’s birthday party. He is a renowned horse vet. My father, Luis Leite – or Iso as everyone calls him – who grew up riding bulls, broncos and roping, chose the name Filipe for its meaning; a friend or lover of horses. And before I could walk I was sitting atop a sorrel quarter horse named Hollywood, sharing a worn out saddle seat with my old man. The leather reins sat in between my tiny fingers while my father’s rough hands guided my 3-month-old grip.
My father was my first hero. To me he was a super-cowboy and I wanted to be just like him. Not only did he pass down this passion for animals and the horse to me, he also told me a story that changed the trajectory of my life; Tchiffely’s Ride. The story of Aime Tschiffely’s Long Ride from Buenos Aires, Argentina to New York City between 1925 and 1928 with two Criollos names Mancha and Gato. Every night before I fell asleep under the horse-stamped bedsheets, my dad would tell me this epic tale.
Flash forward to 1996. Iso, who had worked in London, Ontario at a Tobacco farm when he was 16-years-old, decided to move his family to Canada. My life changed very quickly. I became addicted to maple syrup, learned how to speak English fluently, started playing ice hockey and roping in the rodeos.
But one thing never changed. The desire to one day go on my own long ride like Tschiffely.
When I was about to graduate from Ryerson University’s Journalism program I was faced with a hard decision. I could stay in Canada with the after-school work permit the government had given me, or I could saddle up and ride back to Brazil, where my family had returned to during my first year of university.
I loved Toronto. I lived in an amazing apartment on Queen Street with my girlfriend at the time and one of my best friends, Terry and his girlfriend. I knew I could get a great job in the city as a journalist. But at that moment it was like every cell in my body was telling me this was the time to live my dream.
I listened to my instincts.
I spent nearly two years working two jobs to pay the bills and the rest of the time, working on “Journey America.” I built a war-room, an empty bedroom where I glued white paper on the walls and began listing everything I needed in order to begin this odyssey and finish it alive.
“Do not die,” was the first thing I wrote.
After my eight-hour shift at work I would spend another eight hours planning and revising. At the top of the colossal whiteboard read: Process, Action, Uncertainties, Funding and Equipment, and underneath were long rolls of colourful sticky notes containing the specific task to be carried out. The more items I checked off the board, the more sticky notes went right back up!
Strategic Planning is everything in life. To me, it meant the difference between life and death.
With the aid of Long Riders like Brazilian Pedro Luis de Aguiar, Canadian Stan Walchuk and American Bernice Ende, I traced my route south. My mentors explained how I would probably ride very little of the route I drew before-hand as the locals during my journey would guide me toward the best roads to travel on horseback – full of grass, water, farms and less car traffic – but that this exercise was important to prepare me mentally for the terrain and problems I would come across.
Legendary Long Riders Cuchullaine and Basha O’Reilly, founders of the Long Riders Guild, the world’s first international association of equestrian explorers, supplied me with an arsenal of knowledge and skills and my packsaddle.
Circle R saddles in Brazil built me a one of a kind saddle for the journey. NC2 Media, out of Nashville, Tennessee became my major sponsor in filming this endeavour and sharing it online through their website outwildtv.com. And my two beautiful horses came from Copper Spring Ranch and Stan Weaver Quarter Horses, both from Montana.
Somehow, someway, I managed to convince the Calgary Stampede to allow me to depart from its centennial rodeo and the Royal Mounted Police musical unit, to accompany out of the rodeo.
On July 8, 2012, scared to death of what awaited me down the 16,000 kms of uncertainties I was about to face, and extremely happy to be starting this dream, I said goodbye to the life I once knew. Along with the comforts it offered.
After 803 days in the saddle, 10 countries crossed, several near death experiences and too many stories to tell, I rode into the largest rodeo in Latin America permeated with the smell of horse sweat. More than 30,000 people screamed and clapped while I cried in the middle of that colossal arena with my kids, Frenchie, Bruiser and Dude (a mustang that was given to me by the Taos Pueblo indigenous people and Karen Hardy in New Mexico).
Fireworks lit up the sky above while the presenter yelled out my name over the loudspeakers. It felt like my spirit had left my body.
After the ceremony came to an end, I was given a present few receive while alive – a statue, more than 5 metres tall of the horses and I. It was an unbelievable moment in my life. One I will never forget. But when the smoke from those fireworks settled, all that was left was a broken man.
The months that followed that journey were hell. I had symptoms of PTSD and trying to go back to living a “normal” life became very difficult. Almost impossible.
Not only had I lived some terrible moments – not having water for my horses and myself, seeing two people shot dead, witnessing a man trying to kill his wife with 5 shots, seeing Frenchie get hit by a truck, having Bruiser fall down a deep ditch… I had become accustomed to the life of a saddle tramp. Travelling 30 kms a day. Sleeping with my herd in the great outdoors. Constantly meeting new people and living with a heavy-daily dosage of adrenaline.
But one visit to a children’s cancer hospital is all it took to set me straight once again! I went to do a motivational talk at the Barretos Children’s Cancer Hospital in Brazil – The most advanced oncological hospital in Brazil with 100% assistance through Brazilian Public Health System (SUS), sustained mainly through associates’ donations – and my life changed.
First of all, I have never felt so proud to be Brazilian in my life! My country is plagued with corruption, which as a result leaves very little money for things like education and health. In Brazil, people die in hospital lines due to a lack of doctors, medicine and infrastructure. It’s very sad.
When I walked into the state of the art hospital in Barretos, it was as if I was in Canada or the USA or Sweden. It was beautiful. Clean. Spacious. Colourful. It was free of charge for the patients. And when I met the patients, young children who have lost their hair, some their limbs, but none their smile and will to fight for their lives, I decided I needed to help. The hospital is run by private donations. Nearly 17 million Reais must be raised monthly in order to pay the bill.
I went home, opened Google maps and saw that I had 7,500 kms to get to Ushuaia, Argentina – the southernmost city on the planet – the literal end of the world.
I decided that this is where I needed to go, again on horseback. This time to raise funds for the hospital and to speak to people along the way about the importance of an early diagnosis for childhood cancer. While I was at the hospital I learned that we lose many children in Latin America to cancer because they are arriving too late to the hospital. In St. Jude’s Hospital in the USA, out of 100 children who are diagnosed with cancer, they save about 95. In Brazil, only about 60 out of every 100 survive. This is mainly due to the fact that by the time these young kids arrive at the hospital and are diagnosed with cancer, the disease is too far advanced. Even with a state of the art facility like the Barretos Cancer Hospital, there is nothing the doctors can do.
Since I only travel 30 kms a day and have the opportunity to speak to media outlets nearly every week, it was perfect to get this message out and hopefully help save lives.
April 10, 2016 I rode out of Barretos with hundreds of riders by my side. I felt a peace I had not encountered in a long time. Being in the saddle again felt like home.
It took me 1 year and 3 months to finish this ride and suffering became the norm. I faced off against Latin America’s truck drivers and its narrow roads, forest fires in northern Argentina, winds of 120 kms an hour, snow and temperatures of -16 degrees in Patagonia, and solitude.
There was also many magical moments. A mother in the state of Parana, Brazil used a simple test I showed her to diagnose a cancer in her 2-year-old son’s right eye. The child was treated and because the cancer was caught early on, he survived and didn’t lose his sight. I made a friend for life in Argentina who helped me by driving a support vehicle for 6 months. Toti and I are now brothers. In the small town of El Bolson in Patagonia I adopted a street dog I named Butch Cassidy and fell in love with a stunning woman. Clara Davel stole my heart the moment I looked into her strong gaze. We have been dating ever since. And finally, I managed to raise a lot of awareness about childhood cancer and raise more than USD $30,000 (USD) for the Barretos Hospital.
But it doesn’t stop here!
While I entered the final stage of my ride to Ushuaia, it became evident to me that this would not be my last long ride. I still have one more odyssey to undertake before I can hang up my hat. I need to ride the 3,500 kms that separated Alaska from Calgary. The final stretch to finish off the Americas from North to South on horseback.