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It had all lead to this moment

I started out on my 6 week solo backpacking adventure with a few goals in mind. I wanted to see different parts of South America yes, but I wanted to clear my mind of clutter, free my heart from pain and most importantly, conquer the Salkantay Trek to Machu Picchu.

I started hiking when I lived in Santiago, Chile. My first hike I thought would nearly kill me. When I told the leader of the trekking group that I was an experienced hiker before we set out one foot in front of the other, what I learned about 50 steps in, is that I was experienced in looking at flowers along riverbeds that led to tubes in the rivers to float down. I was NOT an experienced hiker. It was humbling that first one, but somehow, it was also addicting.

I never aspired to hike Everest or Kilimanjaro, but the feeling of being in nature, testing my body's capabilities by challenging my mind was crack for my soul. Hiking is not easy, especially when doing it on the base mountains of the Andes. But there are wins along the way. Like the one time I hiked above the smog line of Santiago. Or the time I hiked halfway up a volcano in Pucon. I could have been down on myself for having not made it to the top, but instead, I would celebrate what I did accomplish. Celebrating every win is important, my publisher reminded me yesterday. Celebrate every word, sentence and paragraph. And coincidentally, the memory popped up on my phone from 2014 when I celebrated what I considered to be "my Everest".

On each excursion during my backpacking trip I went on a challenge hike. One was half way up the volcano, the best part of that climb was the stories I got from it. I signed up for the hike on a whim because one devilishly handsome Spaniard I had met at my hostel asked if I wanted to do it. I had to strap what I later learned were called "crampons" around the bottom of my shoes in order to safely hike through the solidly packed ice that covered the side of the volcano. The irony not lost on me. And when I was the first one to say I was done, which inspired half the other part of the trekking group to exhale and exclaim they were too, I celebrated my bravery for announcing it first. And then when I got to take that plastic tarp and hook it through my legs and onto my waste with a carabiner, remove my ice pick from my waste band, sit down and free fall as fast as I could all the way back down, I was thrilled. The ice pick was used to stop ourselves, which I tried once to see if I could and I celebrated my arm strength that I didn't know I had. The other half of the group that made it to the top of the volcano, looked into her belly and then spent 4 grueling hours hiking back down because of an injury. I celebrated stopping early because I got to experience the thrill of free falling and they didn't.

On another excursion in the Atacama Desert I went on a hike through some old ruins, a path up the side of a steep hill or small mountain, look at it whichever way you want. The wind was gusting, I had to duck down or throw myself up against the side of the mountain many times so as not to be blown off the side during the gusts. I saw one group go up, but did not see them come back down. I remember talking to the universe a lot, asking to be spared, promising to alert the authorities that it is too dangerous to allow hikers up right now, oh and there was a group that I think may have disappeared. The authorities were on break when I got back, and I don't mean to leave you hanging, but I never did see the group again. I did check the local paper out for a while and there was never a mention about missing hikers. I think I just got blinded by the sand flying into my eyes and may have missed them on the way back down. On that same trip, I rented a bike. I had a bike in Santiago I would ride around town, so I was an experienced biker, or so I thought. Turns out, my biking experience was as much as my hiking experience before that first hike just a year and a half before. The wind was still raging, somehow that town became uphill on all sides, it was also apparently delivery hour for 18-wheelers who would whiz past me and nearly blow me off the side of the road multiple times. I was windblown, cold, terrified, everything hurt, including my throat from yelling "FUUUUUCKKKKKK" as loud as I could the entire time.

But these experiences and the other treks I did through the Patagonia region were for one thing and one thing only. They were to get me prepared to hike up to fifteen thousand feet on my way to Machu Picchu.

I was terrified I wouldn't be able to accomplish it. And it is all I wanted to do. I didn't even have to carry my own backpack, donkey's did. I didn't even have to make my own food, the guides did. I just had to hike, breathe, camp, repeat. My pace partner who I met on the very first day and I decided early on that we were in no rush. That we would take breaks at the bends, which were the switchbacks that were leading us to the top. We talked about our lives, shared our fears, stevia leaves for oxygen regulation and giggles at nothing and everything. At that last half mile, the steepest one yet, I found my breath rhythm and I took off. With each two steps I took in an inhale and with each two steps following I would exhale. Slowly, rhythmically, with determination. I watched each rock along the path come and leave my vision. I passed others without saying anything. I would smile with encouragement to those who would pause on their way up. They knew, they saw it, I found my pace.

When I got to the top, my eyes filled with tears. I felt joy I met my goal. I felt exhaustion from the speed of which I was traveling to the top. I was sad I didn't get there with my pace partner, I was afraid she would be upset for having left her somewhere along the trail. Instead she celebrated my success, and I celebrated hers. We reached the top, we did not push others out of the way, and we encouraged other other and our fellow trekkers with a silent smile and a high five. I didn't get to the top by ruining the experience of others, I got to the top with fire, determination, grit, practice, encouragement from others and myself, and most importantly, by my breath. When I matched my pace with each inhale and exhale, I met my Everest.

So the moral of this story, be okay with doing it alone, being the first to call time out, find people to break with you when the road gets steep and tough, and celebrate every success and every win. Every word, every sentence, every breath, every sudden halt because you put the ice pick down and every time you choose to go at your own damn pace.



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