A Shedding Toward Self – An Essay on the Inca Trail
“Stacy, look at me. You can do this. You can do this!” She insisted. “Calm down and breathe.”
I grabbed onto the breast of her fleece jacket, overwhelmed by fear, and an altitude-induced vertigo buckled my knees. “I can’t do it! This was a mistake!” I cried, lifting my face toward the pristine, cerulean sky. Searching for courage with tear-filled eyes, I begged, “Oh God, please help me!”
Slowly, she relaxed her grip on my shoulders as I tried to lean against the mountain’s jagged edge, attempting to gain control of my breathing. I inhaled deeply, filling my lungs with air that was much too thin to satisfy my heart—too thin to stop it from pounding against my chest, demanding more oxygen.
In a stillness that arrives with the passage of time, I began to look beyond my fear. Through swollen, squinted eyes, I gradually became aware of the expanse of beauty that surrounded me. Breathtaking beauty…boundless in the absence of a horizon. A free-flowing mosaic of snowcapped mountains shrouded in puffs of drifting white clouds that tossed a shadow onto the copper-brown slopes of the Andes. The portion of mountains devoid of trees in the thinness of air that stretched downward into an array of forest-green conifers kept alive in air thicker than above. And the magnificence of nature transformed itself yet again, into a carpet of dewy moss which lies at the base of the Andes, sprinkled with Bougainvillea and Cantu, crimson and pink flowers that are native to the highlands of Peru, and frame the gushing, untamed waters of the Urubamba River.
As I regained control of my breathing, no longer gasping for air, I quenched my thirst with the warm water of my thermos. I tightened the laces of my dust-riddled boots, slowly shifted my weight away from the mountain, and stood firmly upon the three-foot-wide, stone-paved path that offered no railing for safety. I was 12,000 feet above the Amazon basin, at a height where trees do not grow and few birds fly, deep within the Andean mountains of Peru. As the sun warmed my tearstained face, I arose to a new level of awareness: I was too far into my trek to turn back, and I was too afraid to continue on.
“Vamonos, senoras, let’s go,” my guide called out to the four women with whom I shared this journey. “We must arrive at camp by sundown.”
They were Caucasian women from Canada and a compatriot from Tennessee, each of our lives converging for the very first time. With them, I spent two nights in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, acclimatizing to altitudes higher than that of Cuzco—the magical, ancient Peruvian city I meandered through for five days prior to meeting my fellow trekkers. I left the Valley with these women, and we walked in single file across a wooden-plank bridge suspended above the turbulent waters of the Urubamba River.
“Stacy, you are now beginning your hike,” my guide, Disnarda, announced in a congratulatory way as I stepped off the bridge and onto the Inca Trail, a 14th century stone-paved path that led Incan emperors on spiritual pilgrimages to a mystical place called Machu Picchu.
Disnarda is a Peruvian woman whose strength is obscured by her soft-spoken presence. Patiently, she prepared us for the physical and emotional challenges of our trek prior to our arrival at the Trail, and she offered us support and encouragement so that we could see it through. For four days, she guided us toward Machu Picchu, along with eleven porters. Peruvian men who carried on their backs sleeping bags and tents, a portable stove, our clothing and their own. They carried oxygen, a water filtration system, a portable toilet, and refrigeration. They carried our food on their backs, and the pots and utensils with which they would prepare our meals.
They pitched our tents at dusk and disassembled them at dawn. Trekking along the narrow crests of the Andes and down the steepness of its slopes, some in sandaled feet. They carried everything that ensured our safety and comfort. For them, I carried my compassion and guilt, convinced that their pay is not enough. And so, to Disnarda’s dismay, each day I would share with them a portion of my snacks and meals.
Together, the women and I endured a 28-mile trek along the Inca Trail, arriving at Machu Picchu on the morning of our fifth day. We hiked on mountainsides that demanded we scoot and crawl. We walked along stone-paved paths that narrowed to three feet as it slithered along the face of the Andes with us on its back. Slowly, I walked and kept a keen eye on my footing to ensure, as best I could, that I would not die on that path. And I understood how precious my life is to me.
The women and I traversed mountain ranges, several miles a day. Ascending and descending, traversing the highlands of Peru. Together we walked, almost in unison, for thousands of feet each day, ascending 2,000 feet up one side of the mountain, then descending 1,000 feet down the other. We descended into the Amazon basin, where droplets of humidity fell off twisted vines and onto our faces in a syncopated rhythm. Restoring and fortifying us in the coolness of shade, under a canopy of lush vegetation adorned with bursts of flowers, magenta and white.
We ascended out of the basin, and returned to the warmth of sunlight and, in time, to the cacti and conifers, and to the copper-brown mountains, barren of trees. We ascended to an altitude where we became shrouded in opaque clouds, gray and milky white, which transformed us into slow-moving silhouettes. And we continued to ascend above the clouds, where purity of oxygen is foreign and unsatisfying to my lungs. Never enough, it forced me to gasp for more.
“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” I said.
“You wouldn’t be able to talk if you couldn’t breathe,” Disnarda replied. “Now stop talking and just breathe.”
We each responded to the challenges of our journey in ways that were as distinct as the lives we each left behind. One woman faced the challenge by insisting that she had no fear.
“You guys should know,” she informed us, “that I came here to have fun and that is exactly what I’m going to do.”
And much to my irritation, that is what she did.
The Andes became her playground, and she fearlessly skipped her way along crests and cantilevered bridges which hung thousands of feet above nothing. Another woman grunted the experience away, constantly complaining of her exhausted knees; while another distracted herself from herself by repetitiously humming, “It’s a Small World After All.” And the other decided anger was easier to express than exhaustion and fear.
“I say fuck the Incas!” she yelled.
“How could you say that!?” I replied. “You’re disrespecting Disnarda and her ancestors.”
“I don’t care!” she said. “I say fuck the Incas! And fuck this trail, too!”
Her comment and seething anger put an irrevocable wedge between her and me.
My journey on the Inca Trail unfolded in an unexpected way. At the base, I was filled with excitement, and the trepidation that tapped my shoulder was not enough to make me think about what might lie ahead. But by our second day on the Trail, as we gained altitude, I wondered, What was I thinking? Why didn’t I just go on a cruise!?
And as I climbed higher into the mountains, thousands of feet into the air, my thoughts and mood shifted to a deeper place…a place where I began to grieve.
“Mom! Why did you have to die and leave me?” I wailed, as I stood on a crest, gazing at waves of snowcapped mountains and verdant valleys wrapped in cobalt blue.
“Mom! Oh, my mother!” I cried, falling to my knees, overcome with a sudden grief for my mother’s death fifteen months earlier.
“I miss my mother,” I eventually said, as Disnarda silently remained by my side.
“But she is here with you, Stacy,” she replied. “Allow yourself to feel her presence.”
In the Andes, I grieved many losses…the loss of those I walked away from, and those who walked away from me. The porters, bowed down under an unowned weight, reminded me of my ancestors who were beaten into submission and forced to bow down under the weight of others. I grieved for them, too. As I climbed the mountains in the Highlands of Peru, I began to mourn the person I learned how to be, peeling off layers of protection, moving closer to the essence of me. Each tear that I shed was a shedding toward self. And in time, I remembered how to smile.
~Stacy Elena Rogers
A mountain lover and world traveler, Stacy has spent time in the Himalayas, the Andes, the High Atlas Mountains, and Southeast Asia. Her writing captures her transformational experiences in places far away. The Intent of Bhutan, Truth in Tiananmen, and A Calling in Cambodia are among her collection of essays. She recently completed her debut novel, Behind Jagged Edges of Silhouette Trees, set in the kingdoms of Bhutan and Morocco.
Stacy hiked the Inca Trail on Wild Women Expeditions’ Inca Trail Trek to Machu Picchu trip in 2014, and has her eyes on Antarctica next!