It was a feeling that I yearned for. To stand on top of a mountain in the cool silence of dawn. Cliché? Perhaps. But nevertheless, I was certain that there were few moments in life more satisfying than that stillness.
And at last, after years of fantasizing, there I sat in an unassuming patch of grass in Peru preparing for the four-day trek to Machu Picchu. My sense of normalcy seemed out of place for such a momentous moment but I attributed my calm to the lingering sensation that this wasn’t actually about to happen. The legendary mysticism of the place had always tugged at me and I wasn’t sure that I would ever actually cross it off my bucket list. I was floating in blissful disbelief.
Months earlier in Ohio, hours of enthusiastic web browsing and disillusioned bank account checking led me to what would be my future Machu Picchu tour company- Big Foot Cusco, a tour operator and travel agency based in, you guessed it, Cusco. The winning trek was the Inka Jungle Biking and Hiking Tour, a four-day, three-night journey that took the low road to Machu Picchu and included stints along the Urubamba River and the historic Inca Trail.
The decision was not difficult. I was on the kind of budget that forces one to choose between eating breakfast or lunch and it didn’t take long to see that Big Foot would fit nicely into the financial scheme of things. A mere $280 got me three meals a day, three nights in basic lodgings, an entrance ticket for the ruins and a spattering of other benefits that included a guide, first aid kit and “personal assistance.”
In the end, I was happy with my decision. As it turns out, most tour operators in Cusco share the same guides and none of my fellow hikers had even heard of Big Foot. They came from a variety of other tour companies and had paid anywhere from $250 to $480 for the same services. Unless I’m mistaken, we had all enjoyed the same cold omelets each morning and dingy mattresses each night. Lucky for me, I had already decided that lifelong-dream fulfillment was not to be taken lightly. It demanded suffering and I was intent on feeling the pain. Bring on the icy showers, aching joints and pre-dawn, rooster-crow wake-up calls. Bring on the 25-mile climb!
I have always maintained that Machu Picchu Mountain deserves respect and feel that arriving by train, for me, would compromise the integrity and sacrality of the site. Archeologists marvel at the ruins, a seemingly impossible architectural feat and a testament to the strength and will of the Incan people. I marvel at the serenity of the mountainside and the palpable energy of the indomitable human spirit that resides there.
When Francisco Pizarro and the Spanish Conquest thundered through Peru, Machu Picchu was veiled in clouds, unreachable to their avaricious grasp. Nestled between two sacred mountains, the city breathes the spirits of its builders and symbolizes the ferocity of man, the impossible trials that we endure to construct and defend our identity. This was my impetus and inspiration, the reason that my soul ached for Machu Picchu.
After two days and 22 miles of steep, rocky and breathtaking terrain, I had slept very little and eaten even less. My notoriously bad knees were about to give out. I hadn’t had time to properly acclimate in Cusco and my lungs were feeling the strain of the altitude. My pack was heavy, my head was light and we had already lost someone on day two when she disappeared in favor of the train. Following hostels in Santa Maria and Santa Teresa, we were finally in Aguas Calientes, a comparably ritzy tourist town and the last stop before our final ascent. A 4 AM wake-up call and five-mile vertical march were all that lay between me and her majesty.
The next morning, with my feet bandaged and headlamp firmly affixed, I threw back a couple of muscle relaxers and stiffly embarked into the darkness. The sun climbed with me into the sky and I struggled to the peak just as it crested the mountain. My head had been down for the final ten minutes of the climb staring at the stone steps and focusing on my breathing. When I finally lifted my eyes, the fog had just melted from the sprawling scene before me. Awestruck I watched the landscape materialize from my imagination.
I knew it would happen. I burst into tears.
In that moment the Colombian, the only other soloist in our group of eleven, looked at me sympathetically. In Spanish: “I know. It’s a hard climb.” He was so sincere.
I laughed over the lump in my throat and used a series of incoherent hand gestures and awkward facial expressions in an attempt to communicate my feelings. I was simply beyond words. I let the magic of the environment wash over me and basked in the indescribable sensation of living the exact moment of my formerly impossible dreams.
From the shores of the mighty Ohio River to the booming metropolis of Lexington, Kentucky, Molly Dugan has the market on travel in the tri-state area. Once a barefoot wanderer throughout South America, Molly has temporarily traded mountains for manicures as she embarks on her most challenging adventure yet- wilderness survival in corporate America. Momentarily high-heeling her way through life, our cubical correspondent proves that you don’t have to go off the map to get out of the house.