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Life and Near-death on the Inca Trail

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The Inca Trail changed me. It completely changed me. There was the feeling, this mysterious aspect about it that changed a lot of my views on life afterward. There was something about that one trail and the entire journey I took on it that can completely reorient how you view small things in the world. The trail itself was one part of a long spring vacation, but that’s the one part I will always remember.

The story of my journey probably starts way back in the fall, when my parents mapped out the year ahead. My mom pestered us all, asking us what we wanted to do for spring break.
She finally gave up, saying that we’re going to Peru for spring break. We were going to see the usual famous Peruvian sights, but of course Machu Picchu was the main attraction for us. However, my mom gave us a choice of how to get there: we could take the train, the luxury ride through the majestic Andes, where we could sit back, relax, and, when we would arrive, we would explore one of the great wonders of the world. The other option was just as appealing to our family though: a four day backpacking trip up in the mountains, with supposedly even better views of the snowcaps, and with a simply great outdoor experience. I, of course, wanted to immediately do the backpacking trip. It sounded like such a great, fun idea. “It’s at altitude” my mom warned us, but I didn’t care. I was simply looking forward to the backpacking.

Maybe it was the three agonizing days in Cuzco that should have warned me of the days that were to come. All of the medicine and hydrating ahead of time before flying to Lima and then Peru did nothing to avail my sheer sickness that kept me in bed, suffering, not being able to sleep or even think as I was racked with a pounding in my head and nausea. Still though, I thought positive towards the week ahead. Once I got to the hiking, I would be fine.

The actual journey to the Inca Trail started at 3:00 in the morning. We gathered our gear, hopped in the shuttle, and we were off to start an epic adventure. We met our hiking crew and our native porters, and headed off.

By the time we got up into the mountains, it was raining. The mountains though were still pretty impressive. I had seen the Alps and the Rockies before, but these were truly astonishing. As opposed to those previous rocky, earth-toned ranges, these peaks were lush and green, with summits shrouded in mist that cloaked their true height, and waterfalls that cascaded down to the river as the rain came tumbling down. Before, my mom had warned me still: “We’re going to go at the end of rainy season.” My only response then was “It’s just rain. It’ll add to the adventure.” I didn’t think that we would both be right.

We started the hike across a suspension bridge over a fast-flowing river. From there, we ascended the first 300 feet of the trail up to a stretch parallel with the river. The trail seemed easy enough at that point. It had a flat, consistent terrain that made the hike easy and simply pleasurable. We meandered along so jovially that day, enjoying our peaceful stroll along the river, despite the light drizzle that continued to dampen us. I still felt mildly ill as well, but my morale was high as we had finally started the backpacking part of our trip. But we were all deceived: we simply had no idea what was to come later on just that first day.

We tourists were not the only ones occupying the trail. All day long we were passed by these super-humans, a native Peruvian group of people that simply put all my high-tech backpacking equipment and skills to shame. With nothing but mud-crusted sandals, tarps over their heads, and their 50 pound packs knotted to their chests, they sprinted, yes, sprinted right by us. This was impressive the first day, but as we carried on through the week, our respect and sheer astonishment at these beyond human people grew.

The first major climb we encountered was one we could see from a far way off: across a slight gorge, the trail went straight to the top of a crooked cliff that imposed over a bend on the river. In retrospect, I had come to appreciate being able to see the trail ahead. I could see it would be a long climb, but I could see where it ended. It looked tough, but it easily could have been worse. The rain had even stopped at that point, and some Incan ruins were visible perched atop a nearby hill. This was most definitely one of the high points of the trail, figuratively.

Of course, the trail would not grant us that dry spell for long. It started sprinkling again as we began moving. Again though, the trail played with us. As we headed down towards the river, it got sunny again, completely changing the world around me. The cloud-crowned dark green peaks were replaced with brighter, taller mountains that revealed themselves in their full height and glory. That was as sunny as it got for the entire trip, and yet we would not see that coming.

Lunch impressed me, with a nice tent complete with a full dining set-up. That was to get us in to shape to propel us up mountain that we knew we would finally have to truly climb that afternoon. What we simply did not know was how cruel that trail was going to be. It wasn’t so bad the first few hours, ascending up a winding trail through the bright vegetation that coated the mountain, with small clear streams that rushed down beside us. But came late afternoon, and I was accompanying my mom up the trail. The rain and clouds had returned, this time with a little more intensity as to pour straight through the darkened canopy above as, so that we never had shelter. And still the trail played with us as the nice dirt path transformed into solid stone stairs, wide, crooked and slippery stairs that kept going up. There were no reprieves, no flat stretches to rest upon. With the wetness, stairs, and darkness closing upon me, I was not excited about the trail anymore. The stairs, those long, evil stone stairs… they just kept on going. The rain kept falling, and the light kept fading, and every time we turned a corner, there were more. They simply never seemed to end, and as we got higher up, we simply got wetter and wetter, and it got darker and darker, as if every good thing in the world were melting away all at the same rate. I wasn’t excited anymore, I was getting depressed. Rounding the corners of damp vegetation and seeing more of those dreaded ledges that simply drained all the life from us, and turned us into mindless, drenched zombies, wanting simply for the stairs to end. That single section of stairs robbed us of optimism and energy for the rest of the trail.

Those stairs haunted us all through the rest of the trip. Of course, the rain didn’t stop though as we trekked to the highest pass on the trail. It was a nice long trail that we should have been able to see all the way up, but again we were cheated. We were so high that those spectacular clouds that made the mountains so mysterious and awe-inspiring from below were stealing those same sights from us then. They surrounded us and made up our entire world so high up in the mountains. Our beautiful views that we had come to expect had been robbed from us. This was so over the course of the trail: a world made of a cage of clouds that veiled the outside, and still they mercilessly pounded us with water. The ground gave us no better treatment: there were still no flat stretches. From that high pass at the top, we descended down jagged chunks of stone, stairs only in name. There were no safe footings, especially as the ever-present mist and rain made them all treacherously wet. Unfortunately, by the second day, it was too late to act when we realized that doing the Inca Trail, especially in rainy season, was not the best of ideas. We trudged on though, soaked through our ponchos, down from the highest pass on the trail. It was still all “steps”, and I still could not see. We finally reached the valley below to the tents of lunch, where we prayed for a letup from the rain, so that we could carry on in slightly better conditions. Alas, the trail did not grant our plea. It was so cruel as to slightly lessen the rain during lunch, but afterward, it never ceased, but it went right on soaking us every minute as we started out again. The ground too wore us down: flat ground was non-existent on this side of the mountains. It was only rocks, large, treacherous rocks that could you could trip and slip on continually, which is exactly what I did. Despite all of these conditions, those super-human porters kept up their status as they hopped up the stone steps as comfortably as they would walk up the steps in their home.

Besides the physical aspects of the trail that were beating down on me was still the altitude. I was still sick, and that alone is an understatement. This sickness plagued me just like the rain and rocks: it never let up. What it did though, was it continually weakened me and the whole group. My mom’s words haunted me: “It’s the altitude.” Now I understood what she had meant. The pain in my stomach simply ate away out my morale, infected my legs so that it became difficult to keep them moving, and wore my entire being away. I was sick in a fashion I had never felt before, and so I was completely unprepared. It made resting miserable and deprived me of my optimistic attitude over the course of the trek. Eventually I started simply throwing up every day from the second ay onward. How was I supposed to do this? The whole trail, miserable and cruel as it was physically, was intensified by something that ruined me from the inside out as the trail ruined from the outside in. And yet I pushed on, simply gritting it out as we made our way closer and closer to our goal: Machu Picchu. Yet as we kept on toughing out the same rocky wet trail, and later even when the trail became slightly tamer, we were still denied our vistas, our snowcapped mountain views, and our views of mighty Incan ruins that dotted the mountains showing the extent of their massive empire. Another day of pretty much the same passed, and we finally approached Machu Picchu. Our guide magnificently presented to us…a wall of fog. He claimed Machu Picchu, the famous view of it, was right there. We endured four days of rain, sickness, rocks, and stairs to see a wall of fog. Needless to say, this did not make any of us happy.

In the end, the clouds cleared through the day. That first moment, when we stood on the ledge and when we first saw it made up for the whole trip. The whole event was so dramatic you would think it would only happen in stories. As we stood expectantly in the upper ruins of Machu Picchu, after a moment, the fog lifted like a curtain, so suddenly, and there it was. I could almost picture “Also Sprach Zarathustra” playing in the background. The ruins stretched from right where we were standing to the far end of the summit they were nestled on. They stood so impressively, with sunlight (finally) gleaning and a halo of fog dissipating slowly to reveal the valleys and rivers below. There was Machu Picchu! It simply couldn’t, and still can’t, be summed in words. It was simply astonishing, magnificent. How else could I describe it? We all stood there awestruck, thinking about how this place could even exist all the way up here. At that point, I could finally reap the rewards I had so dearly earned. But the magnificent, unforgettable view came at such a high price.

I had achieved something epic, seen something truly epic, but I couldn’t truly appreciate then what it took to get there and finish. But now, now I can look back and understand what that journey meant. Today it means to me that rain is no longer an obstacle and that stairs could always be worse. And of course, I learned to respect my mom’s advice and infinite wisdom. I look back and see that yes, The Inca Trail was a cruel entity, one of the cruelest I have encountered in my life, but it was an effective teacher nevertheless. I can appreciate the world in a new light, or now, sometimes in lack of it. I also can look back and appreciate how much endured, so I know how much I can persevere through. Rain, stones, sickness… none of that could stop me, and I understand that now, I can get through a lot of what life dishes out at me. The end result too, that one moment when the clouds first cleared, and I beheld Machu Picchu glimmering in the early morning light…that was something the Inca Trail gave me too.



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