I’ve started and deleted a post about my experience on the Inca Trail three times now. What I’ve come to realize is that I don’t know if I should be telling a success story, a story about epic failures or a cautionary tale.
It seems like that could be the story of my life right now.
The Inca Trail: It’s A Success!
That’s how I started out my post, anyway. I did it! I took my son and I trekked the Inca Trail, all while carrying medical supplies and medication and more than a little trepidation in my very light daypack. And this is true. We had an amazing time together, and I’m so proud of showing him that the world is bigger than our own (beautiful) little upper left corner. I’m proud of showing him that it’s worth the effort to do hard and scary things, that the literal and figurative views from the top of the 14,000 ridge are worth whatever effort it took to get there.
But Is It Really? Maybe It Was Failure, After All?
So, here’s my secret. Day two of the Inca Trek for me? It’s a bit of a blur. Yes, it’s the hardest day and the steepest climb, but it wasn’t that. I’ve been hiking since I was a teen, and I’ve always loved going uphill, hard as it may be. It started off well enough. T and I left our camp about 6:30 and made our slow and steady way up. We got our passports stamped at the check-point, about an hour in. And this is where it gets a little hazy. This is where my body screamed, “Wait, not so fast!” For the next four hours, I remember footsteps and pain.
Here’s the thing about true functioning, if you’ve never had to think about it. You can walk when you can’t do other things. Higher level thinking and reasoning goes first, then creative thought, then coherent thought, then speech and the ability to stand up straight. (Being physically able to walk goes very shortly after that.) Putting one foot in front of the other is about as basic as it gets, and one can keep doing that, without being particularly aware of much else. So, I walked. I remember thinking “I feel terrible. God, I hope this wasn’t a mistake” and “if I take pain medication now, I will throw up on the Peruvian plant life. Keep walking.” I walked, T talked, the pictures are nice. At the top, our guide offered me some Advil and I do remember laughing as I took something much, much stronger, watching the view come into focus as some pain receded and then starting downhill for the last 90 minutes of the day. That 90 minutes I remember.
But I Made It, So…Let’s Call It A Cautionary Tale
I’ve had some mixed feelings since I got back, and here’s why. I’ve heard stories from guides, local ones here in the PNW, international guides and from our guides in Peru. They all have a story about someone who put themselves into a position or a situation that was foolish at best and dangerous at worst. I don’t think that was me….but maybe it was? I went into the trek knowing that I would have to rely on every ounce of stubbornness I had, every hour I trained for marathons before I was ever “chronically injured” and every bit of grit I had in me to keep going. It took all of that, plus 24 hours of recovery once we made it back to Cusco to be able to stand normally and another week or so to feel as ok as I ever do. Like I always have to do, I skipped a few planned activities after the hike, rode in a van, stayed at the hotel instead of walking. And I expected that; it’s part of my life now. Where I find myself second guessing is here: What if I really couldn’t go further? It does happen. In my mind and with my doctor, I had a plan. Stop, rest, use medication judiciously, in a way I might not at home just to keep going for the day, move slowly, but move. But what if I couldn’t move? Was it fair of me to put other people, maybe not at risk, but in the path of my injuries so that I could have this experience with my son? I still don’t know the best answer for that.
My Life: Success? Failure? A Cautionary Tale?
I ask these questions all the time now, in real life. What is a successful career? Does cancelling on my kids (again) constitute failure or are we all just doing the best we can and teaching empathy along the way? I don’t have answers, really, for travel or for life. I think my life is all those things now. It’s a success because I’ve tried to build a new life that fits into a totally changed framework, travel and all, and I think I’ve done that with as much goodwill as I could. It’s an epic failure because….well, partly because I had to learn how to live in a changed body and there are bound to be some bumps along the way. Sometimes I was gracious. And sometimes I was…not. I think mostly I was angry. Let’s call it “how you learn”.
But maybe, it’s redefining success and failure? 20 years ago, I would have considered using porters on a trail an epic failure, akin to not pulling my own weight. And I might not have considered part-time writing “successful” 20 years ago, either. Now, it’s more than I imagined I’d be able to do 7 years ago, when every day was difficult in its own new way and a hike seemed like a fairy tale. And the cautionary tale? Work hard, be kind and consider other people. I’m pretty goal-oriented by nature, and when you are suddenly thrust into a body that doesn’t allow for a straight path to goal, what do you do? I’ve learned to be a little kinder in my definitions of success and failure, and to value whatever I am able to accomplish. More than anything, I’ve been reminded to appreciate the people who help me along the way, whether that is over the Inca Trail or in my own corner of the world.