What the fuck was I thinking?
I could be lying by the pool in a Tuscan tennis villa. Instead, I was gasping for breath in supermodel-thin air, already too knackered to walk around the donkey shit splattered on the trail. The Inca Trail.
"I'll give you $100 bucks U.S. for a ride!" I pleaded to a Peruvian cowgirl leading a pair of capable looking horses. She just flashed me a "stupid gringo" grin and kept going.
I had only been walking for a couple of hours, but it felt like days. Right off the bat, I had no intention of keeping pace with my traveling companions – a smorgasbord of fit British, Australian and Irish twenty somethings who left me in the dust shortly after our inspirational gathering at the first of many Incan pit stops for worship and reflection. With them, and with my blessing, went my reluctant 15-year old, who said he would never forgive me for making him come on this journey. Making matters worse, our guide kindly pointed out a Black Widow spider, and I just passed two clusters of retreating trekkies – wisely turning back, having surrendered any hope of crossing this pilgrimage to Hell off of their bucket lists.
I was screwed.
The Inca Trail is not so much a trail, as a trial. A series of irregular, steep, masochistic steps designed to crush the soul. No wonder the Spanish were so pissed off – their knees were killing them – and they likely had the shits from so much corn and quinoa. And, no wonder this celebrated schlep to Machu Picchu is considered a once-in-a-lifetime thing. You'd have to be fucking nuts to do it again.
Nevertheless, after a few warm-up jaunts to various ruins, there I was, alone on Day One – heralded as the "easy" day – my mind already wandering down the dusty path to Day Two, when we would climb 4200 metres to Warmiwañusca, or Dead Woman's Pass.
As it turned out, the first day's climb was hot, slow, steady and doable – but later that evening, all cozy in our tent, under a blanket of stars – a mild panic attack set in. What would happen if I was the dead woman on Dead Woman's Pass? I'm already oxygen deprived and I'm lying down! If I croak, how will the Little Bastard get home? Who will look after him? Will I clutch my heart and shit my pants – finally succumbing to 49 years of treating my body like crap? And what will they do with my body? Fling me off a cliff? Again, what the fuck was I thinking?
"I can't do this." I whispered in the dark, tears streaming down my face.
"Mom," responded the sleepy Little Bastard, miles away from his own personal comfort zone. "If anybody can do this, you can."
There are words that roll around in your head as we plow through the donkey shit on the path of life. Words like: Can't. Never. Won't. Fat. Unloved. Old. RRSP's. Should have. Wrinkles. Don't. Guilt. Ugly. And, regret.
Tuscany is for pussies.
For the next few thousand toenail-lifting footsteps, up and down the Andes, under a brilliant blue sky, came words like: Wow. Awesome. Yes, I'd love some coca tea. Sunny. Beautiful. Keep going. Amazing. I can do this. Birthdays are good. Orchid. Believe. Slow and steady. Alive. You're doing this. Butterfly. And, I'd kill for a solid stool and a toilet seat, but this hole in the ground will do.
After a 6 am start, on the afternoon of Day Two, and about 45 painstaking minutes from the top of Dead Woman's Pass, I was sucking wind with a bunch of fun, like-minded, out-of-shape women from around the globe, when our lovely guide Victor said, "My lady... Cynthia... I believe Jack is waiting at the top."
"No fucking way," I said, puffing, with my hands on my knees. My kid was happily resting at the campsite – shoes off, fed, and playing cards by now.
Doubts aside, I looked up to see the lanky silhouette of a 6' 4" teenager, motioning like an impatient 3rd base umpire waving in a blind, geriatric base runner.
He was waiting.
When I finally reached the top of Dead Woman's Pass, I succumbed to a different kind of heart attack. I fell into my kid's arms – sobbing – my heart bursting with love and self-worth and happiness. I have never felt so tired, and so alive. He patted my back and said, "Mom, don't make a scene. Let's go, I'm starving". We took a few pictures, then I released him, and slowly inched my rubbery legs down the whorish steps that led to our next campsite. My soul was skipping, even if my body wasn't.
Tomorrow was another day. The longest day. And the day after that, we would wake at 4am to catch the sunrise on Machu Picchu. The earliest day. But today, was the hardest day. The highest day. The day that made you ask yourself over and over, "What the fuck was I thinking?".
The best day.
Dead Woman's Pass, my ass.
Nadine at Maritime Travel will book you on a Gap Adventures tour to Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, with or without the grueling hike. She also gives a pretty good Tuscany. Call her at 902.429.7883. Oh, click on the JIM logo to support Elaine Shortt's pilgramage to Hell.