What I Learned on the Mountain

How's that for a dramatic title? And truth be told, it's not so much that I learned as that I was reminded of what I already knew: a) I'm not now and never have been the center of the universe, because said universe is so much bigger than me; b) ordinary people are extraordinary; c) when push come to shove, those ordinary folks come through, including this ordinary person. (*1) (Translation: I didn't fall off the mountain, break any limbs, or give up.


I don't like to travel, but when I force myself to do so, I don't regret it and I return home a better person. (*2) My husband, however, lives to travel (that's not a typo), so we rarely vacation together (one of the three secrets to a happy marriage). (*3) And I don't vacation much, period. (My last true vacation was in 2008 when we went hiking in Moab. And it wasn't much of a vacation: I was sick the whole time with, as I found out later, pneumonia.)

And The Husband (as we shall henceforth identify him) (he IS a real person) is fascinated by what he calls "monumental architecture": think Angkor Wat, Mesa Verde, anything by Gaudi, Borobudur, etc.   

Naturally he wanted to visit Machu Picchu, and naturally  (and as always) he asked me if I wanted to go with him.

And naturally I dithered, hemmed, and hawed. Until I read about Mountain Lodges of Peru and thought "HEY! If I know where I'm going to sleep and eat every day, and I'm hiking with a guide, I'll go. After all, I love hiking and silence, so what the heck?"

And that, dear friends, is how I found myself struggling to climb and cross a mountain pass 15,000 miles up in the Andes. (Please note: I've lived my entire life at 1,000 feet above sea level.)

Thus My Great Vacation: Six days of hiking up, down, across, and through various valleys, meadows (okay, ONE meadow), mountain passes (okay, okay, ONE mountain pass), ravines, and so on and so forth, all the while trying to a) breathe (did I mention I live at 1,ooo feet above sea level?); b) not fall (here's how to trek downhill when the path is nothing but loose rock: grip your trekking poles and GO. Fast. Don't think. Just move. Your feet will cooperate. Move slowly and you're bound to tumble); and c) enjoy the view and the moment.

The "view" included the two photos above, and ranged from this

to this

to this

Was it difficult? Ohmygodyes.

Was it worth it? YES.

One reason, one BIG reason, was the people. We traveled with ten other trekkers, all total strangers, plus two guides (plus a bunch of "wranglers" who carried our bags and food). My ten trek mates were amazing. Every one of them. That's what I mean about "ordinary" people: we were just a bunch of random people, thrown together, but those other ten (plus my husband) proved to be people of extraordinary heart and compassion and empathy and courage and determination. I was humbled and awed by all of them, and grateful for their company and good cheer.

Then there was the trek itself. Hands down, this was the hardest thing I've ever done. Physically, it was brutal (again, I live at 1,000 feet above sea level. Trekking at 15,000 feet ain't easy....) And because it was so physically difficult, it was also mentally challenging.

On the other hand ---- what's not to like about no noise, few people, spectacular scenery? THE smartest decision I made was to "unplug" for the duration: On August 25th, the day we left, I read a couple of newspapers on the plane. But after that, and until September 6th, no TV, no radio, no phone, no iPad/computer, no web. (The lodges were wired, as were our hotels, but I stayed away from the computers.) Glorious! I highly recommend it.

And being unplugged led to a singularly odd experience: I literally was unable to figure out what day it was. Which led to a comical exchange on Sept. 6th, when we arrived at the Miami airport on the way back to Iowa. As had been the case in Lima, our plane was delayed and we were going to be sitting in Miami for some (unknown) number of hours. So I thought "Meh. Almost home. I think I'll read the Times." (*4)

So I go to the nearest newsstand where I find the newspaper rack, which is in the process of being restocked by the newspaper-stocking guy.

I stand and stare at the stack of New York Times papers.

Me to no one in particular: "Is this today's paper?" (Because honestly, I had no idea what day it was.)

Newspaper guy (and without missing a beat): "Wow. That must have been some vacation."

And it was.

You can see more photos here. (I only own a point-and-shoot, which I bought for this trip, so the pix I took aren't fabulous. The second album in the set, however, contains some astounding photos taken by one of my trek mates.)


*1:  By which contradiction I mean that most humans ARE ordinary, right? By definition, most of us are average. We can't be and are not all Steve Jobs or Mother Theresa. But: "ordinary" human beings are extraordinary in their capacity for compassion, courage, empathy, love, and laughter, and my trek mates provided all of that in spades.

*2: What I dislike about travel is precisely that on which travel aficionados thrive: chaos.

*3: The three are: separate vacations, double sinks, and ear plugs.

*4: After reading the newspaper cover to cover, I was not surprised to learn that nothing earth shattering had taken place during the previous 11 days. And when I got home, all those accumulated emails amounted to, well, not much of anything . . . . because the world goes on, ya know?