Note: This is part 2 of our amazing trip to Peru. If you haven’t read part one, go back and dot that! Then, join me as I stagger up the Salkantay trail, en route to Machu Picchu. These posts are longer than usual, to include all of the wonder that we experienced on the way. I wrote in my journal daily, and hope to share what was truly the trip of a lifetime with those who read these posts.
When our alarm clock went off at 3:00 and Smart Guy flicked on the
ridiculously bright lights, I was sure it was a mistake. The mistake: that I was going to attempt a trek that I was woefully unprepared for, physically, and which I’d heard from numerous sources (including our guide, Edgard) was “very difficult.” Strangely no one said, “yeah, that’s a challenge;” they all said “Salkantay? Wow, that’s really tough!” We were setting out to do what Lonely Planet calls a “5-7 day trek,” in 4 days. As I’d tried to fall asleep the night before, I’d also made an effort to talk myself off the ledge I’d wandered onto. What’s the worst that can happen? There’s a horse there if you need it. You agreed to go on this (even if Smart Guy did lie fluff up the details a boatload little). You can just go slower if you need to… With these things running through my head, I’d drifted off for the barely four hours of sleep that I was now being woken from. None of my pep talk sounded right by the cool dark of morning.
In fifteen minutes we were all dressed and loading our stuff in the van, and getting settled for a four hour drive to the trail head. We road in a strange van with incredibly high ceilings. The cook Samuel, his assistant Pancho, Edgard our guide, the driver (with us only for that drive), and the five of us all settled in and tried to get comfortable. The idea was that we’d sleep in the van, but I couldn’t. The driver had the radio turned down low, but the lively music (imagine this playing, for four hours, along bumpy dusty roads) and the booming voice of the DJ announcing “El Radio Santa Monica,” kept me from dozing off. Someone had dropped a water bottle and it rolled back and forth with each turn or bump in the road, and with Little Man unconscious on my shoulder, I was incapable of putting back in a pack. Roll, thump! Roll, thump! For hours. I watched as small dusty towns passed outside the windows, in the dim headlights. Dogs, always the dogs, wandered the empty streets and occasionally we’d pass a small store lit up; but, mostly the towns were quiet as we drove up and onward. When the sun eventually began to rise, I began to make out the scrappy trees and dry landscape, the mountains around us, and others in the car began to stir as well.
We eventually stopped and parked in a small pasture. The horses had arrived ahead of us, and had been loaded. Edgard informed us that our meal would be ready soon and that should get our day packs ready. As we staggered out of the van, into the freezing cold morning, the cooks set up a our first “kitchen” and began making our breakfast. I made use of a secluded spot to go to the bathroom and took in the amazing mountain peaks around us and the trail ahead. Then I made a point of introducing myself to the horses. A long time rider, I wanted those ponies to know who I was. It was incredibly cold and my anxiety began to set back in as I realized how far from Cuzco we were and how foolish I’d been to think I could change my mind and walk back if I needed/wanted to. It was clear from the long drive that there wasn’t any turning back, unless I hiked out and took the entire group with me. I felt sick thinking about the day ahead of me, despite the staggering beauty around me.
A brief rehashing of issues: When Smart Guy first asked me if I was willing or interested in doing a 3 day trek to Machu Picchu, I told him no. Actually, I said “No fucking way.” I thought it was a pretty clear and definitive answer. I told him that I hate hiking up hill, my knee would never make it, I’m a weenie, and that while I understand that trekking is his thing, it really isn’t mine. Fairly clear I thought. Day hikes in the North Cascades, where we live, is my speed… and even then I huff and puff and swear my way up the tough inclines. A 3-4 day trek, at high altitude, where much of it would be climbing, was not my game, and I said so. Suffice it to say, I was not a happy camper when a couple weeks later I learned that Smart Guy had booked the trek. When I said I wouldn’t do it, he informed me that he’d already paid for it. Arrgh. So, and there’s no sugar coating this, I bitched and moaned about it right up until our departure. I was not kind, and I did not let an opportunity go by to mention that I did not want to do the trek. I admit, I was not magnanimous in my attitude. For the record, I’ve never suggested that I’m easy to live with. The only thing that had kept me from losing it all together was my stop, drop and roll plan. I figured I had a way out if things got too hard. (Read Peru or Bust)
As I huddled shivering in that pasture, drinking my coca tea and eating a bit of a breakfast I didn’t really like, I was miserable. I was honestly terrified that this was way beyond me and that I would now be in the position of letting down the whole family, when I needed to take one of Edgar’s
quitter car options. I ate quietly and tried to think through the day. We would be trekking for about 12 hours Edgar told us, it would be “very hard amigos” but it was clear that once that van left I was in it, and I wasn’t ready to get back in the van. “We are a family on this trip,” he explained. “We must all trust each other and support each other.” We went around the circle and introduced ourselves, and shared a little about our lives. “The most important part friends, will be that you tell me honestly what you are feeling. It is very important that I know if you are having problems with the altitude, or anything else. Getting you there safely is my job, but you must be honest. I don’t want anyone in my family getting hurt. Altitude is a tricky thing. Sometimes you feel fine, and then suddenly things are very bad. If you feel anything, you must tell me.” This was sobering, in my already anxious head, though I knew that Edgard was simply looking out for us.
When we started up the trail, my lungs fighting to keep up with the altitude and my legs burning, my first thoughts were pretty negative. All of us were breathing hard, but in addition to keeping up with the physical challenge, I found my thoughts drifting to pretty negative, bitter places. I told him (Smart Guy’s) I hated uphill hiking. I will never listen to him again when he tells me something won’t be that bad. Blah blah blah blah. I began to spiral into negative thinking. I took a couple of deep breaths and tried to quiet my thoughts and just focus on the scene around me. The views were stunning. The sheer razor sharp edge of Mt. Salkantay, blanketed in blinding white, hovered over us as we moved along. The site was humbling, truly amazing. Once we were in the sun, it got very warm and I took off my layers, and huffed and puffed along. As I walked, I began to dig in and remind myself that I had chosen not to take the van back, it had been an option, and I’d made a choice to be here. I would need to push on. I used my hiking poles and just began to talk myself through it, as we began to go up vertically and the effort intensified. I stopped when I needed to and worked on pacing myself. After about an hour and half, I had a slight headache and my lungs were still working hard, but I was finally finding a groove. Then, I looked up and realized our trail was about to take a dramatic shift, and go up, up, up in a steep switch back that stopped me dead. Edgard had been chatting with me a bit, checking in from time to time, but allowing me my solitude as I’d begun to focus on the trail and tried to keep pace. Now he saw me looking up and he slowed down a bit and began to hike closer to me.
“Are you ok my friend?” He asked me as we started the approach to the switch back section. His voice was kind and non-judgmental. Yes, I’ll be ok. I’m just working on pacing myself, I lied. And then I thought about his warning: “You must be honest with me…” I do have a little headache, and I’m wheezing a little, but I think I’ll be ok. I acknowledged. I’d used my inhaler a couple of times, but wasn’t very worried. The others were breathing hard as well. I didn’t want to be the weak link, I wanted to push on. He smiled and watched me for a minute. “Well, we have the horse you know. You can choose that any time you want. Remember, you have options.” Yep, I know. I think I’ll keep walking. He was quiet for a few minutes and he just walked beside me. “Well amiga, I don’t know your family very well yet, but I want you to think about this option. This is why we have the horse. It’s important for you
to remember that you have nothing to prove, at least not to me. If you need the horse, that is what the horse is for.” I paused, not ready to give in but increasingly aware that the trail was getting steeper and seemed to go up for a very long time. “There is nothing to prove Amiga. This will be a very hard day and if you ride for this section, there will be plenty more that will be hard after this. It’s your choice, but there’s nothing to prove.” Options.
I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. After hearing for months that I should train more, and building up in my own head that this would be impossible, it was so nice to simply hear that I had a choice, and the choice was mine alone to make. Nothing to prove? He shook his head and smiled. “Nope.” I wanted to hug Edgard right then. Instead, I grinned and said: Ok, I think I’ll ride this section and then I’ll hike. “I think this will be a good decision for you Amiga.” I was coming to love that smile. Frankly, the rest of my family looked jealous when I got up on that horse, and all of my self doubts melted when I got in that saddle. I’ve been a rider all my life, and sitting on a horse felt damned good right then. I put my earplugs in and turned on my
iPod. As soon as we started out, the song They Live In You came on. In it Mufasa sings to Simba about his ancestors and how they live in each of us, and are always with us. I sang along and didn’t worry about who heard. Sitting there, looking out over the Andes, I thought of my grandfather. We had so often talked of traveling together. He supported me in everything I did. I am a sentimental, spiritual person; for a few moments he rode along with me and I was so happy.
The horse was lead by the horse wrangler; I had no reigns, something I’m not used to when I ride. I just sat there and enjoyed the ride… at first. Eddie Vedder’s Into the Wild came on next. Perfection. That music followed me around Yellowstone all last summer and the lyrics are perfect for wild places. I sang along to each song and my companion smiled. He had no choice but to listen, but the experience: The mountains around us, the deep blue sky, the shining mountains, all of it was so much bigger than me, so inspiring. I threw my arms out in the air and cried. I cried and cried, moved by all that magnificence, and I resolved to finish the trek and not complain any more. I would talk myself through my fears and doubts and not put it on anyone else. I would walk the walk and finish this trek. In that moment, I just surrendered to that idea and felt such relief.
The ride was a blessing, but let me clear: it was the scariest horse-back ride of my life!
The cliff we rode along was high up, very high up. The trail was about three feet across at the widest point, and two at the narrow parts. Horses do not like to ride against the hill; for some insane reason they prefer to hug the edge. When you’re sitting up on a horse, on the edge of a very high cliff, it’s hard not to look down… way down. It’s a dizzying place to be. I can’t tell you how many times my little horse’s feet slipped and I thought I was going over. At first I made a high pitched whining/hissing sound when this happened, and my riding companion laughed. I learned to stay quiet, but I was so happy when we reached the top and were off that trail. Along the way we passed several trekkers who
looked like they were about to die and I reminded myself, I have nothing to prove. We passed an emerald blue mountain lake with the skull of a cow, horns and all. It was surreal. And always the mountain loomed above us. We stopped at the top, 15, 750 feet, and in my broken Spanish I told the wrangler that maybe one of my kids would need a ride (Little Man was very grateful); that I would wait at the pass for them all. He smiled and turned back down the trail, as I took in the view and got used to my land legs again.
I wasn’t alone long. A young boy, guiding other riders came along and stopped beside me. Hola, como esta? I asked, as he watched me. “Bien, et tu Senora?” Ah, muy bien! No caminando, pero tengo un caballo. “Tu hablas Espanol Senora?” No hablo bien, pero un poco. Entiendes? Como se llama? Me llama Dawn. I’ll spare you the rest of my pathetic Spanish, but the boy understood. He told me his name was Elvis. For real. He was well aware of his famous namesake. (I would go on to meet a 10 year old Jefferson, “Like the American President, Mr. Thomas Jefferson”, a young Lincoln, and lots of Curt Cobain fans). He was 14 and had been working as a horse guide for a year. His family lived in one of the small towns we’d passed in the van. Elvis kept me company for about 20 minutes, as I waited for my family (all 7 of them) and we made do with the Spanish I learned 30+ years ago, in high school.
The view from the top was gorgeous. How many words can I use to describe beautiful? They all begin to sound weak, in relation to what we saw trekking. The landscape is like nothing I’ve seen before, and I live in the North Cascades. I’ve seen beautiful mountains; but the Andes are something else all together. The altitude was more challenging than I’d imagined in my many pre-trip thoughts, the experience so much bigger than I’d anticipated. The sun was intense, but the wind and cold bit through my jackets, as I waited for the rest of my party. I was there for about 45 minutes, checking out the many cairns, left by
previous trekkers and the locals, as tributes to the mountain. When they arrived, I told Edgard about my few minutes of tears, and of feeling overcome by the place, and he held me in a warm hug and whispered: “Congratulations Amiga.” Edgard told us to place three coca leaves, along with our wishes or hopes, and an offering (mine was M&Ms) under our cairns. I wished for piece of mind on the rest of the trek, and to finish in a way I could feel good about. Spoiler: The fact that I’m writing this, is validation that those “wishes” came true.
From the pass on, the rest of the day was a series of ups and downs; some quite difficult, others easier. Edgard and I talked for a long while during our initial decent. He shared that that this was his last trek before he would be married the following weekend (6 days away). He would be celebrating his 30th birthday, his daughter’s first communion, and his wedding, all on the same day. Three became the magic number for our trip. We talked about life, marriage, and the things that bring us joy, and as we shared, we became the family that he kept calling us.
Our crew had set up a tent at the base of the pass, at the start of a long valley. We ate beside a stream, and guacamole, mushroom soup and chicken never tasted so wonderful! We spent about two hours crossing the valley, with pigs and sheep grazing, small homesteads and occasional glimpses of the farmers who live there. A small yellow cat ran out to greet me, happy for the petting. My daughter chastised me throughout our trip for patting the dogs and cats we met. Admittedly, most were filthy and no doubt flee infested, but they all were so grateful for the attention, that I couldn’t pass. I walked on my own for much of the day, listening to my music or just taking in the scene and thinking. I pushed myself on, and talked myself through it, despite a lingering headache. I picked up a pure white rock and a perfect oval one to bring home, and a few times wondered if extra weight was a wise choice or hoped there were no ancient curses coming my way. (Across the valley)
The mountains fed into lush jungle, a surprise at such altitude. There were thick vines and flowering plants, orchids everywhere, and always the sound of the river and the birds. There were areas where the trail had been washed away by the frequent landslides and we clambered up and over precarious sections of trail, with steep drops to get around. And the day went on and on and on. When I think back even now, it seems as if it should have been two days… at least. Instead, we walked and walked, up and down. I found myself thinking: this may be harder than childbirth, but I can do it… and I’m not sure it wasn’t. My knee (injured skiing a few years ago) began to ache hours before we reached camp, and even with the use of my poles the pain became intense. The final few miles were done in darkness, as night fell and the trail continued. Each time Edgard would say “it’s just around that bend,” my hopes would go up, until I just stopped listening to him. In the final section, I stumbled and fell 3 times, scraping my shin, as my knee gave out. Yet, when we got a glimpse of the full moon through the jungle and beyond the darkened mountain, I howled like I do each month at home. It was such a joyful moment, howling on that trail! Edgard was amused. “You are a very different kind of family Amiga!” (Scenic, treacherous, fragrant and colorful- the trail went on and on!)
I stumbled into camp a wreck, but deliriously proud of myself and truly grateful for each thing I’d seen and done that day. I had talked myself through all of my anxieties and through each tough moment, and had made it… albeit a filthy, smelly, sore-all-over mess. I crawled right into my tent and would have happily skipped dinner if Edgard had not come and rattled the tent and insisted that calories and hydration were necessary. I don’t remember ever, ever, being that tired. The popcorn our cooks had made over the fire, for appetizer, was delicious. The dinner, who knows. I was too tired to really register it, but I ate it and was happy to have it. I was much happier to climb into my down sleeping bag and drift off… to the sound of the river, other camper’s voices outside and yes, the dogs playing outside my tent. (Another day, another dog…)
In part 3, the trek continues. Day one was the hardest, but the scenery only changed and grew more amazing each day. Next entry: on toward Machu Picchu, with a brief stop to party in the mountains. Trekking with hang-overs.
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