Sometimes, the best way to begin a story is at the end.
It was dusk on Christmas Eve. I had just spent four of the most incredible days of my entire life hiking the Inca Trail – starting at the famous kilometer 82 and ending at the Sun Gate. I’d climbed up to 14,000 feet of elevation in the freezing rain and hail, going up approximately 17.5 million flights of stairs built by thousands of years ago by people with tiny feet. That morning – day five – I’d explored Machu Picchu and hiked Huayna Picchu, lumbering up approximately 200 million more steps. We’d started to refer to this trip as the vacation of stairs.
When combined with the fact that I camped every night and the high altitude made it impossible for me to sleep, hiking the Inca Trail was one of the most physically challenging things I’ve ever done, and definitely the most exhilarating. I had bruises all over my body in places I didn’t know I’d even fallen, and I was sore and exhausted, but I was also high on life. And also kind of high on coca leaves.
The problem with adrenaline is that it doesn’t last forever. And once it leaves your body, you crash – hard. Which brings me to the end of the story: Christmas Eve at the Aguas Calientes train station. Ticket in hand, I was about to embark on three days of travel – to Ollantaytambo, to Cusco, and the next day back to Lima, then Atlanta, and finally my home destination via a string of planes, trains and bumper cars (driving in Peru is like an amusement park ride without the amusement).
Life…was amazing! Even without any clean socks or underwear! And yet here I was hours before Christmas, standing in a train station, in a country that had just celebrated its summer solstice and yet was still somehow cold, my stomach hurting from a questionable grilled vegetable pizza I’d eaten for lunch (and, admittedly, a pisco sour. Ok, two pisco sours and a cerveza). I wasn’t exactly sure when my train was coming because the posted signs were all in Spanish so I had no choice other than to just wait and pray I didn’t accidentally end up in Brazil.
I went through my standard series of paranoid passport. money. immigration card. camera. pocket checks, hobbled over to a bench and sat down, clutching my backpack tightly to my chest. The station was full of people from all over the world speaking in various languages. People eating, drinking, laughing, yelling…each of them with a good story of their own, I’m sure, about why they were celebrating Christmas in Aguas Calientes.
Over the roar of the multicultural crowd, a different sound emerged. I stood up and looked around. The music I heard was coming from the old, beat-up acoustic guitar of a guy sitting in the corner, surrounded by ratty bags and boxes and a coffee can for tips. He was definitely Peruvian, and most likely homeless. He was wearing a Santa hat and had an epic beard that would have made a Detroit hipster jealous. And to be honest, he wasn’t very talented. But he was strumming along and singing along to the tune of “Let it Be” by the Beatles, which has always been one of my favorite songs.
“When the broken hearted people living in the world agree…there will be an answer… let it be.
And though they may be parted, there is still a chance that they will see…there will be an answer…let it be.”
OK, he might have butchered the words a little bit. But still. At that moment, that semi-recognizable song just spoke to me. I was suddenly overcome by a wave of – I don’t know. Maybe it was just good old-fashioned homesickness. But, surrounded by thousands of people in that train station on Christmas Eve, I suddenly felt very alone.
There’s a scene in the movie 127 Hours, before James Franco cuts off his arm, when he closes his eyes and has vivid flashbacks to memories of his childhood. It reminds me of that moment. I closed my eyes and started thinking about my son, and my family and friends, and basically every single thing that’s ever happened to me in my entire life, and I wished more than anything that I was home.
Then, suddenly, I started laughing. “What the fuck?” I thought. “You’re not broken hearted, you just hiked the Inca trail, and you’re a little drunk, which is your own damn fault. Get over yourself!”
So I did. I took a deep breath, got up, put a sole in the guitar-player’s coffee can, and realized with delight – and about 70% certainty – that the train that had just pulled into the station was mine. It was time to begin the long journey home.
When people ask me why I decided to hike the Inca Trail, my answer was “because I’ve always wanted to hike the Inca Trail.” I mean, who doesn’t want to climb up 8.5 billion stairs in a week, duh. I saved money and vacation time all year for this trip, and I recognize that am incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to have done something so incredible.
I did it because I wanted to do it, but also because I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. Which probably seems a little confusing. But I promise it will all make sense when I start from the beginning.