A challenge worth the effort

It was the coolest thing I’ll never do again.

“Can you go to Peru with me next month?” asked my college bestie, Jen, in mid-July. Pre-COVID, she had booked a trip to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, but then Peru closed to tourists. When it reopened this summer, Jen was ready to go, but her travel partner’s passport had expired.

First, I confirmed that my children could stay with their father while I was gone. Then, after weighing the pros and cons, I decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and told Jen it was a go.

Ignorance can blissfully forestall doubts. I didn’t research what a four-day hike to Machu Picchu entailed. I figured it was like walking the Great Wall in China — mostly flat with gentle inclines.

I learned the truth the night before our hike began when our guide, Alex, met with me and the other member of our group, RJ, a 22-year-old recent graduate from Duke University. Jen was not at the meeting because earlier that afternoon she was felled by a GI bug.

Alex explained that we would be hiking the 26-mile pilgrimage route (there is an easier, equally old, commerce trail) up and down the Andes Mountains to the ruins of Machu Picchu, a 15th-century Incan city. He also gave me a list of medicines for Jen, including Cipro (10 500 mg. tablets for $8), which doesn’t require a prescription in Peru.

Soon after I returned from the pharmacy, I, too, became ill. When a van picked us up at 4:30 a.m., we weren’t sure we’d make it through the day.

In hindsight, Day 1 of the trek, with dirt trails and relatively gentle inclines, was easier than what was to come. The trailhead is 8,500 feet above sea level. By day’s end, we had hiked 9 miles and were 11,000 feet above sea level.

Looking back, the 26-mile Inca Trail is rugged as far as the eye can see in Peru.
Looking back, the Inca Trail is as rugged as the eye can see

But Jen and I were weakened from the GI bug, which, combined with the high altitude, made the first day seem like the hardest. Depleted of fluids, my body absorbed all the many ounces of water I drank that day, making bathroom breaks unnecessary. (I know, not medically advisable.)

That night I skipped dinner and was asleep by 6:30.

On Day 2, we resumed hiking at 6 a.m. and I reached the unfortunately named Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest peak of the trail at 14,000 feet above sea level, by 9:37 a.m. On the way up, hikers from the two other groups on the trail slowly passed me. Most were in their 30s and they frequently muttered, mantra-like, “Oh, my God, this is killing me.”

On Days 2, 3 and 4, the trail is rock paved. But the stone stairs erected 700 years ago have been rendered mostly akimbo by erosion over the intervening centuries. As a result, the mountain passes look like resting avalanche flows. Steps are anywhere from 2 inches to 2 feet high. And while going down was easier on the lungs, it was also terrifyingly treacherous.

Not surprisingly, RJ was the fastest hiker of our group. Jen was the slowest and, like a good shepherd, Alex would start out with RJ and then stop and wait for Jen.

This left me in the middle and frequently alone. I practiced walking meditation, listening to the sounds, smelling the fragrances, feeling the breezes as each erupted and passed.

As often happens when the mind’s nonessential chatter quiets, emotions arose. I found myself weeping over the abrupt death of my sweet dog just days before I departed. I also wept at the ineffable joy of reuniting with my first love this past spring.

But most of all, the child of mine who has been sitting on my heart much of this year grew heavier. My right hand, still clutching my walking pole, often pressed between my breasts when I stopped to catch my breath. Sobs occasionally escaped. Until recently, I sided with the dutiful child in Parable of the Prodigal Son. I’m now wiser. A child returned is cause for great celebration.

Persevering on the Inca Trail was an effort of mind over body. When climbing up, I often focused on my feet, for the view ahead was daunting. Periodically, I’d stop to take in the sensorially rich microclimatic diversity of the Andes. The trail starts in a desert that reminds me of the Catalina Mountains near Tucson, Arizona and ends in a cloud forest jungle.

“Take the four-day hike, they said. You’ll see many Incan ruins, they said. You’ll be too tired to walk 5 feet off the trail to look at them — Oh, that they didn’t say,” Jen riffed after we’d hiked 12 hours on Day 2, and we giggled like two crones. Older than any of the other four-day hikers by a decade or more, the exertion of hiking 26 miles up and down higgledy-piggledy trails left us a bit loopy.

But we did it, never falling behind schedule.

When we arrived at Machu Picchu mid-morning on the fourth day, it was jarring. Not the archaeological site, but the throngs of tourists, all shiny clean, wearing makeup and perfume, who’d arrived by bus that morning. Their guides told them to let us pass, these hikers who spent “cuatro dias y tres noches” making the pilgrimage to the sacred site.

How often in life do we tell ourselves we could never do something when in fact that’s just an excuse to avoid challenging situations? How much might we grow — physically, mentally and emotionally — if we forgo continuous comfort for even a few days?

When I ran for a connecting flight on the way home, I noticed I didn’t get winded. My 55-year-old lungs had developed new capacity for pulling oxygen out of the air in just four (physically taxing) days. Every arduous step along the Inca Trail was worth the effort.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on September 5, 2021.

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