Our steps were rhythmic. One footfall after another. I trusted that I would be safe to continue if I held the pace set for us by our veteran guide, Javier, who has been leading treks like ours through the Andes for forty years. At 62 years old, he was a tower of experience that made him seem much taller than his six feet. His red rain jacket and 36-liter lime green Osprey daypack had faded from years of constant use. The stories he told from the edge of the trail while we perched above the glistening river that carved the ancient valley below, he likely shared a thousand times before, but to us they shined like newly discovered Peruvian gold. Javier offered the history of this less traveled path to Machu Picchu as the gatekeeper with the knowledge and the manageable pacing to bring us all the way there, up and over Salkantay Pass, and beyond for six days before arriving in Aguas Calientes. He planted his poles as he moved us forward, one steady step at a time. Our breath was collective as we labored for oxygen in the thin air at 14,900 feet above sea level with almost three hundred feet to go.
The air was crisp and humid. The elevation was the great equalizer, taming the wild in each of us who craved to be first or fastest. We learned quickly that there was no prize for being the first up the mountain. Success on the Salkantay Trek was secured by surviving the distance while maintaining a will to continue with an attitude that would help buoy others whose energy and spirits began to fade, for some dangerously low.
The sharp granite rocks pressed upon the edges of my feet, each inch a different pressure point that the mountain played upon me like piano keys, sore as my feet were from four full days of hiking. The “Javi shuffle” was the moniker we gave to the consistently slow and deliberate pace of our climb up to the top of the Salkantay Pass sitting at 15,190 feet. With our heads down, eyes on the trail, and poles in hand, we landed each foot fall with a deliberateness that ensured our steady progress, chipping away at the distance to our goal of the highest elevation of our nine-day trek.
We appeared to be climbing into the clouds. The higher we rose, the thicker was the veil we entered, until at the height of the pass, we could see only 20 feet ahead with patches of sunlight illuminating the surrounding glaciers that dangled like opals from the craggily ridges of Humantay and Saltankay mountains. From white to a pale blue the glaciers glistened, the shining jewels on the crown of this part of the Andean range.
We peeled off into our pairs to take turns being photographed before the weathered blue metal sign announcing our arrival at the crest of the pass. We hugged and congratulated ourselves having made it to the top of what we perceived would be our most rigorous physical challenge of the entire journey. Only later would we each define for ourselves whether or not that was in fact the case. For some it may have been more of a struggle to step back into the still damp boots to start the sixth day of hiking under a cloudy sky threatening more rain. And for others, it was most difficult to spend the majority of the later days of our seven-day trek climbing sheer mountain faces that made our conquering of the seven snakes of the Salkantay Pass seem insignificant.
What was most challenging for me had nothing to do with the hiking or any of the physical feats presented to us each day, but had to do with a nagging concern for the wellbeing of our kids that we left behind with Gigi, my mom. Leaving the kids for two weeks has been done before by us, but not for eight years. In that time, Wyatt, our youngest, has sprouted into a newly minted ten-year-old (yes, while we were gone he celebrated his 10th birthday) and Poppy, our daughter, is on her way to twelve. Being blessed with children that adore you is a lovely fact to live with, most of the time. On typical days at home, I can ask them to do chores like feed the dogs, pack their lunches, make their beds, and put their things away, and generally, it gets done in a timely manner without much drama or flack given back to me. We snuggle a lot and I pour my love and affection into their love buckets with every opportunity. We read together in the morning by the fire and sing our favorite songs on the way to school each day. Life is peaceful, a complete contrast to how I was raised in Mom’s house. So naturally, when we decided to take this reprieve from our life as working parents, away from the kids, the dogs, the meal prep, the laundry, the contractor (yes, still dealing with the punch list six-months after the remodel “ended”), we needed someone to take on the whole of it. What we do as parents is major. Leaving home for two weeks will remind you of that fact if you need to refresh your thinking on just how remarkable you are to do this work as a parent on a daily basis.
When Mom heard about our trip, she volunteered for it all. The bulk of her duties were to stay with the kids, take them to and from school, feed them, keep them safe, and walk the dogs. The details as you zoom closer in made the piece about “staying with the kids” the adventure that it was. Like our travel expedition to Perú, the kids and Mom had their own version, and this gave me pause daily. Poppy made a habit of sending video and audio clips capturing her anxiety from being left on her own, and with Gigi, who loves her granddaughter but can be intimidating for those less accustomed to her abrasive, say-it-how-she-sees-it ways.
When we called home, the kids wouldn’t say much but would stare longingly into the phone as if drinking in our visages, thirsty for our presence and trying to fill up for later. Often there were silent tears sliding down cheeks we were not there to kiss. My heart sagged to see them sad. Ultimately, Brent and I were unified in our shared commitment to our own joyful adventure, so we continued to call to check in, but kept it short and sweet, and got off before anyone noticed how much they missed each other. But I hiked each day wondering how my babies were doing. We persevered trusting that their struggle being apart from us would prove to be a growing experience for them as they learned what they are capable of enduring. Setting small goals helped, and soon they learned, like we did on the trail, to move through the challenges step by step, day by day.
For one in our group, the hike up to Salkantay Pass triggered a chain reaction in his body that would keep him from completing the journey. Michael came alone on this 9-day trek, leaving his two boys and wife home, to take a much needed break from the stress of his demanding ophthalmology practice to decompress and reset to his best self. Fit from trail running and an active lifestyle at 47 years old, Michael was the least likely to get sick among the ten of us, but he developed Pulmonary Edema within days of the start of our trek. A condition of altitude sickness where fluid collects where it shouldn’t such as in the alveoli sacks in the lungs, Michael, a doctor himself, was very aware of the growing risks he was incurring with each passing day of headaches and dizziness on the trail.
He reported to us one evening that he was collecting fluid in his lungs which he could hear with each breath, making it increasingly more difficult for him to get the oxygen he desperately needed with each passing day. With blood oxygen levels slashed from a normal range in between 95 to 98% to a mere 50%, it was clear to Michael that he needed to end his journey with us, letting go of his intention of reaching Machu Picchu, in order to get to a lower elevation as soon as possible before traveling home.
He had come on this trip alone, eager to have a needed respite from the pressures of work, but found instead that the escape could not offer the rebound he longed for. He, like the rest of us, signed up for an organized group trip—a 9-day lodge-to-lodge trek to Machu Picchu on the Salkantay Trail, one of the most rugged and least traveled ways to approach the ancient city. This was a trail that had a reputation for being an incredible way to arrive due to both the range of the topography and climates it includes, as well as bisecting through the heart of the the river valleys where the communities of Andean Highlanders still reside as they have for centuries, working the mountain landscape they call home. Each of us who signed on to this trip were seeking an experience that would push us beyond ourselves, to grow us in a way we couldn’t do at home or alone. Like me and Brent, Michael signed himself up weeks before the trip’s departure date, happy to go alone on what he trusted would be the trip of a lifetime. Michael ended up leaving us early to go home. The risk of ending up in a hospital in Lima was too great and not one he was willing to take, especially during a global pandemic. When he spoke to us about his decision to leave, he was disappointed but shared that the opportunity to get to know and rely on each of us in some way was a gift. The greatest impact of the trip for him was the reminder of how important it is to ask for help. We can depart for an adventure alone, but we are not alone in our travels, and help is always available if we are courageous enough to ask for it. On the day we summited Salkantay Pass, Michael finally asked for the help he needed and climbed on top of the horse nicknamed, Justin, as in just-in-time, to complete the remainder of the trek for the day with the support of two of the three guides. The rest of us in the group waited for Michael at the top of the pass, eager to celebrate his arrival and take a group photo to commemorate our shared accomplishment.
Michael’s medical emergency underscored for each of us remaining on the trek how fortunate we are to have our health and each other. Altitude sickness is a fickle fiend, affecting some and not others without clear rhyme or reason. Like life itself, we can’t always understand why bad things happen to us, or control the outcome. We do get to choose how we respond to the circumstances we are dealt. Michael met his health challenges, as scary and defeating as they were, with a sense of gratitude and vulnerability, sharing his appreciation of us and our guides as the true gift of his adventure. His affirming attitude went far to unify the group into a feeling of family. New to each other and only four days into the nine-day trek, through witnessing Michael struggle, as a group we stepped up our support of him and each other. His weakness made us all stronger. Our experience was enriched by how we looked out for each other.
I was delighted to discover the many advantages of traveling in a group. When things got tough, we pepped each other up. If our gloves were soaked through, someone could offer an extra set. If we slipped, there were hands to lift you back up. If you couldn’t remember the song lyrics as you sang yourself up the hill, voices joined in to carry the tune when you faltered. Together, what was hard felt a bit easier, and much more joyful. We hoped but couldn’t plan that this collection of strangers would become our friends—friends who we’d want to know forever, travel to see in the future, and whom we came to care for, appreciating the good each offered more than any difference that under normal circumstances would have prohibited us from getting to know each other. Our differences kindled our curiosity to learn more about each other. Like true travelers, what united us was our shared love of discovery, learning, and adventure.
The surprise and greatest takeaway from our travels to Perú was that it was all so much better together. Like most things in life, it’s the people we surround ourselves by that make our experiences fulfilling. The freedom we feel when we open up to new experiences and people is the vitality of our days. The African proverb captures what we discovered in the culmination of our days together: “To go fast, go alone. To go far, go together.” On the trail, hiking a steady stream of strong bodies, the shine of being first and fast faded, replaced by the glow of being a part of something bigger than our individual selves. Away from home on our first international trip since the pandemic began in March of 2020, it took immersing myself in a group of fellow travelers to appreciate the value of going beyond my comfort zone of being just with family on my trips. I appreciate for the first time since traveling abroad my junior year in college how soul expanding it is to travel far to deepen our sense of self and home. Travel allows me to honor my value of meaningful connection in places that simultaneously inspire and challenge me to think bigger and differently about the world and my place in it.
I love traveling mostly because it keeps me in the moment. I am alive to possibility, unable to predict what else I will learn or witness anew. Traveling is the method I enjoy to move me out of my familiar box where life feels most predictable, and therefore often stale and rote. On the proverbial road I let my wings expand, and with them my hopes and dreams. I imagine new visions for my life, and wonder about possibilities I never considered before. The world feels smaller when you fall asleep on the flight and wake up in a different hemisphere. It is with that knowledge in my bones that I begin to believe that what before seemed impossible is entirely doable. With boots laced up, the traveler within me is ready to begin on the next adventure. Whatever it is, I know I’m not alone when it gets scary, nor am I alone when I do eventually make it up that mountain pass. Although I am alone as I write these words at my kitchen table, I know that it is the people I share my life with that make it special every day.
Now home, I’m more convinced than ever that how we travel through our days, is how we travel through our lives. May this one life to live be our favorite and best adventure.