This statement holds more meaning than simply being someone who goes from one place to another; it is more a state of being, that I carry within me. When I journey to a new place I always live it fully. The new land becomes another home…a place where dear friends live and memories of good food, drink, and laughter last beyond the journey itself. Most people who travel are tourists, they go there but carry sameness with them, and never taste the flavor or suspect the lessons that are waiting to be learned. A traveler lives the journey. A tourist goes holding expectations along with the luggage. A traveler goes wondering what will be around the next corner.
Each journey leaves me forever changed. Each journey teaches me…about life and love, hardships overcome and history shared, and about my own greater journey. I hope in some way I touch my new faraway home: I hope I do no harm. I hope I leave only memories of kindness, respect, and smiles shared. Each journey increases my immortal spirit. As I travel from land to land I always notice that we are all dreaming upon the same distant star. The earth holds us all within the curved, palm of its hand.
Recently I journeyed to Peru. I met up with my daughter Megan. I knew that this journey held some real risks for me: asthma in the thin air, a propensity for elevation sickness, and the possible loss of my job. I went anyway because the risk of regret was far greater. I completed the trek alongside my seven young companions even through great hardship and suffering; I would have it no other way. The Salkantay is known for being the toughest of the Inca trails and this is not false advertising. I was joking prior to leaving about the possibility me dying along the trail and my family collecting the insurance…but I always joke when I know I might be facing that passing. I have faced it many times as a Marine, Peace Officer, and Adventurer/Explorer. It is the way of things in my life. In this case, the premonition almost came true.
I had spent two wonderful days in Arequipa and three days exploring Cuzco. We enjoyed every bit of it including our decision that instead of sleeping in a room at the Vanderbilt University flat, that we camp on the roof-garden under the stars. Those first two nights were wonderful, briskly cold and clear as we lay beneath the Milky Way and Southern Cross. Dogs barked from rooftop gardens and roosters crowed all night, but still it was magical as I watched a shower of shooting stars above my head. Arequipa was a wonderful beginning. Cuzco was fascinating and fun and in each place we found great places to eat and drink. We had a wonderful Hostel with the first room opening up to the inner garden and the second room that waited for us upon return from Salkantay looked out across the night skyline of the Plaza de Armas. At last it came time for us to begin our five day trek over Salkantay Pass and on to Machu Picchu.
On the first day we took a four hour drive above the clouds, along the cliff-edged roadway littered in cattle, pigs, horses, and chickens… where there is no guardrail and the best way to enjoy the ride is to kiss your life good-bye and just let go. I did this, just as I do each time I fly…and enjoyed the scenery as I knew I could be gaining a quick view of the bottom of the canyon at any moment. All went well and we arrived at the trail head. We loaded our horses and began to climb…and climb…and climb for about six hours. It was warm, humid and dusty and my asthma didn’t seem to like any of these factors any more than it liked the elevation. Even though I pushed forward through the pain in my lungs by the time I reached basecamp between Humantay and Salkantay mountains my lungs were in bad shape and I had a serious dose of altitude sickness. The truth is I knew I was in deep trouble and once again found myself considering mortality and the good fortune that I had purchased insurance that included repatriation of remains. That night I rested and allowed my body to adjust to the thin air. Darkness fell and the stars came out; it was beautiful.
The trail up to the pass was stunningly beautiful. We crossed verdant green pampas and up steep rocky ridges, always with Salkantay above us. When we got to the top we had some time alone among the stones and the silence. I constructed a stone Apu to show my respect. It’s strange, but I have constructed stone pyramids in forests and deserts around the world, never knowing why I have felt compelled to do so or that the ancient Incas did the same. Now, my Apu resides at the top of the pass alongside a hundred others…very cool.
After reaching the top of the pass we began descending down the other side. My elevation sickness had passed and I was feeling strong as we hiked for four more hours, down into the cloud forests and then the rain-forests. As you might be able to tell, I love nature and feel at home outdoors. I’m connected to the land in a somewhat spiritual way. I love birds and of all the birds of the world, hummingbirds hold a special magical place for me. As we descended through the cloud and rainforests we saw three species of hummingbirds: the dark green giant hummingbird like those we had seen in Cuzco, a small chestnut colored variety, and a stunning sapphire blue hummingbird. The forests were stunning and as someone who has his own greenhouse and used to raise orchids and bromeliads I really appreciated the profusion of these wonderful plants hanging from every branch and rock formation. It rained on us for the last hour of this trek but this seems appropriate in a rain forest and is no problem since all Marines are amphibious.
On the last camping night we all sat around a campfire drinking Peruvian Cusquena beer and enjoying conversation about life and adventure. Then, the next morning we began walking the last six hours to Aquas Calientes and Machu Picchu. It was a dry hot morning and once again the dust in the wind, exertion, and elevation conspired to rob me of my strength, if not my resolve. One hour into the trek I felt my lungs tighten and shortly thereafter I went into a full asthma attack whereas my breathing almost stopped. So that I could reach the ground with some dignity I sat quickly on a rock and shot my rescue inhaler into my lungs. This started my breathing again and in short order I stood back up on my own two feet. The guide had been next to me during the attack and he was clearly concerned. He asked me once again to let him flag down a combie/car but I refused and we carried on forward for the next two hours. Once we got to Hydroelectrica I realized that I could not eat lunch and just drank a few bottles of power aid. I was feeling pretty poorly, my lungs were hurting as if my ribs had been broken and the guide asked me if he could put me on a train. I wanted to push through the pain and I did. We hiked for three more hours through amazing rainforests with parrots flying overhead and the rushing river beside us. In the end quite like when I ran the marathon four years ago…determination prevailed and I crossed the finish line at Aquas Calientes alongside my companions: I was very pleased with this outcome. I guess in some ways it would have been nice if this was easier for me, yet truly, I’m glad it was difficult. Suffering always passes, memories of overcoming hardship remain.
To be a traveler you must truly experience the food, drink, people, and landscape of the place you are exploring. I have been fortunate enough to sit around campfires in Kenya and Namibia. I have tracked kudu with Bushmen and sat in the snow covered mountain-town squares talking with Italian World War II Veterans in Abuzzo. It doesn’t really matter if I’m hunting pronghorn with Colorado cowboys or kayaking a Texas Hill country river…it’s all about the journey. A traveler is changed, evolved, somehow more complete with each sojourn. And, the joys and the hardships are all a part of the experience. The traveler wouldn’t have it any other way.