Sunrise in the Andes. My 12-year-old (T) is bounding down the Inca Trail, jumping over rocks, running up hills and chatting with other trekkers, excited to reach Inti Punku, the famed Sun Gate and the entrance to Machu Picchu.
“He is like a mountain goat the last two days,” our guide, Elias, says to me. “I didn’t expect this.”
“I know. I tried to explain.”
In June of this year, my son and I hiked the famed Inca Trail. My son, hungry after a 2-hour drive, and just before the start of the four-day trek, wolfed down a cheese sandwich in town. Wrong choice. Combine that cheese sandwich with a tendency towards anxiety and a touch of altitude sickness and he hit the trifecta of “things that make you feel lousy.” Then worse. Then he was pretty sure he was going to die, right there at the Passport Control station at Kilometre 82, the start of the Inca Trail.
He freaked the freak out.
“I’m fine mom. I can make it, just to…there.” T threw himself onto a bench. “I can make it” so slowly, to the next rock, ten yards away.
(Note photo where I am carrying both backpacks. T is….standing.)
So what do you do from there?
It takes months to get a permit for the Inca trail. Per the Peruvian government, you have to take a guide and a team. You have one shot, to enter on the day of your permit.
My kid, the most adventurous kid I know, the one who charges up hills with a backpack, drops into anything on his skis and checked Vertfest off his list at twelve year old, was splayed dramatically across a rock. My kid, who also lacks a single chill bone in his body, whose exuberance for life is matched sometimes by his frustration when things go wrong and by anxiety when things go really wrong, was scared. My kid, who a day before, wanted to hike trail “more than anything!” but wasn’t so sure in this moment.
Our guide thought we should turn around. The passport control agent suggested a doctor’s visit.
T and I thought we should go. We had a heart to heart and he realized that yes, he didn’t feel great, but he was also in the middle of an anxiety-induced meltdown. We both know him well enough to know that the best solution is a little time and space to calm down. Now try to explain the idea of childhood anxiety to your very highly trained guide, whose job is to keep people safe, and who, I’m sure, did not want to carry my kid out off the Inca trail.
Let’s just say he was skeptical.
I convinced him (ok, begged, but really nicely) to let us go two miles. If, at two miles, T still looked lousy, we would turn around.
Our guide agreed. He told us later he figured it would be a slow two-mile slog and then we’d all turn around and head home. He didn’t think there was any way T would make it.
The funny thing about anxiety, at least for T, is that once he calms down, he’s ready to face whatever he was scared of, right then. I think he likes to know that he can choose how to experience the world, even if it didn’t seem that way in the moment.
So, after ¾ of a mile, T took his backpack back. After a mile, he picked up his pace. By two miles, he was chatting with a group of hikers who stopped for snacks at one of the houses along the trail. (Because, exuberance for life. He’s the best.)
We finished our snack and shouldered our backpacks. I looked at Elias, waiting to hear his decision. Did he think T could make it? They were already heading up the trail, talking about the ruins, the campsites and the people we would see on our four-day walk to Machu Picchu.