Darkness had fallen, the sky draped around the Vilcabamba mountains like a mother wrapping her child in a blanket. The inhalation moved air to every cell of my body and as I glanced upward, the deepness of my breath surprised me - as though my lungs were being filled directly from the cosmos. I leaned into the feeling of fullness, allowing my eyes to consume as many stars as possible between blinks. Mesmerizing, brilliant, absorbing, the sheer amount of light pouring down from the night sky was like a fireworks display of astronomical proportions. I couldn’t tell what was moving in the sky and what was my corneas playing tricks.
A snow-capped mountain sloping down into hills and small valleys, filling lakes, and reflecting the spring moon back into the atmosphere. A row of rustic mountain huts. Horses tied to a post. Me, standing there feeling as though I’d been turned inside out - my soul swirling around my skin. Everything felt so magnificent and, instead of feeling small or inferior in comparison, my heart opened to a different reality: it’s all inside of me. The mountains, the galaxies full of dancing plasma, the sky and the moon and the howling echoing in the distance. All the separation I’d put between myself and Life melted away and I was left with only the truth of who I was.
I had come to Peru, to Cusco, to those mountains because one day - out of nowhere - I had the overwhelming urge to go. Machu Picchu had never been high on my list but in that moment it became the only place I needed to go. After a quick “hey, you don’t mind if I dip out for two weeks, right?” call to David, I had booked a return flight, reserved a room in a hostel in the center of Lima, and paid for a 5-day trek to Machu Picchu. It felt so right, like the entire Universe had given its blessing.
Time both crept and flashed, making it all the harder to hold on to. Vegan curries and Argentinian men, accidental party hostels, the markets where you can buy fresh smoothies next to a stall selling fragrant coriander, basil, and huacatay. Then there was Kundalini and community dinners and meditations and lying about in a sun-soaked yard. Those moments taste like mint tea now, a tingling memoir of the most gentle time. There was Jake, who I felt like I’d known forever, and Sunni, who radiates light in such a special way. There was Gabby, who felt like a sister to me. And there was Vento, an elderly Chilean reiki master whose energy preceded him and lingered behind long after he left.
After my aforementioned one-night stint at a rowdy party hostel, I trekked across town and up a flight of stairs so steep I had to stop and catch my breath every few steps. The altitude was never my friend. At the top of the hill was an unassuming door that led to the Healing House Cusco. This yoga studio cum hostel for the, let’s say, more spiritually inclined. It was woo woo: there were yoga classes throughout the day and a full range of energy healing services available. I was in love from the second I pushed open the heavy door and stepped inside.
My time at Healing House was pure magic. It is where I met all the people who impacted me on this trip. It was a sacred container, cradling my growth. It is where I was handed a mirror over and over again, the people in my surroundings reflecting back to me all that which I felt was broken in myself.
I enjoyed telling people I was doing the Salkantay Trek. In Peru, it is one of the standard travel questions: where are you from? How long are you traveling? How long have you been here? Are you doing a trek? It seemed to elicit an enthusiastic response, though every time I said it I felt a tug of anxiety. I didn’t want to leave Cusco’s magical, pulsing energy. I had so easily matched the city’s cadence, to leave felt like a punishment. And so I left on the trek with only the slightest amount of resolution.
We took an old bus up through the mountains, stopping at a literal shack of a restaurant for a breakfast of eggs and cold bacon. I was eating vegan at the time, so was left to eat a couple pieces of toast. Looking back, I wish I’d just eaten the food put in front of me. The ride was not unpleasant. I mostly zoned out looking at the landscape rattling by.
We arrived at the base of the mountain around 2pm. We hiked up and across to see the glacier-fed lake. My lungs burned the entire way up, causing my breathing to become slow and deliberate. I stopped dozens of times, needing a full 30 seconds to refresh my oxygen. Finally reaching the top, I was able to really absorb the crisp intensity of my surroundings. I felt good - it was hard but I had done it. There was no stopping me. I felt high on life and mountain air.
Downhill went easy on my lungs but caused my already troublesome knees to ache and burn more than they ever had before. I guess I hadn’t taken into account the impact of carrying a backpacking pack while going up and down hills. It took everything in me not to cry right there on the side of the mountain. Not only was I in pain but I was embarrassed. The following two and a half hour trek to the mountain huts we’d sleep in that night were miserable. I alternated between anger at myself for not having prepared better and anger at whatever inspired me to go there - why bring me all the way out here just so I could fail?
By the time the triangular wooden huts came into view, dusk was approaching and everyone was worn out, starving, and cold. We claimed our huts, two to each, and set down our packs. Some stretched out on their sleeping bags, some beelined for the showers. I sat down on the floor and furiously journaled how I was feeling. If I didn’t let it out here, it would come out in some other way that I’d most likely regret. I felt only slightly better. The leader of the group called out a ten-minute warning for dinner and all of the hikers still in their huts filed up a slight hill to the dining hall.
Gathered around a wooden table, we passed pitchers of boiling water to one another and snacked on trail mix while waiting for dinner. Everyone swapped notes about the first day of hiking and got more acquainted. There was a couple from Australia, an American guy who proudly and openly told us he voted for Trump, a very sweet nineteen year old girl who was also having a hard time with the altitude, and a handful of others that have faded into the past. Everyone was friendly and talkative but I felt as though all the words hung in the thickness of the air and pressed against my mouth and nose. I floated there, answering questions and throwing in a well-timed laugh for good measure, all the while feeling suffocated.
Relieved when dinner was over, I headed out before anyone else, eager to take advantage of the empty showers. Walking down the slight hill, we arrive again at the beginning. This is the moment I looked up and felt the surging power of the infinite universe melding into me. I felt at once whole and broken apart, like the pain had to crack me so the light could fall in and heal me.
After seconds or minutes of stargazing, I can’t recall which, I laid down in my hut. The infiniteness I’d felt under the stars still lingered but anxiety began to rage:
There was no cell reception - what if something happened to Journey or David and no one could reach me? What if something happens to us out here and I die in Peru, three thousand miles away from my family? What kind of mother would I be? What kind of wife would I be? Traveling at every opportunity, wanting more out of life than the ordinary, being adventurous - these were luxuries afforded to people with no responsibilities - why was I pursuing this? Why had I felt called to come here, to this beautiful, punishing mountain if I was just going to be so miserable? What was the point?
I closed my eyes and was engulfed by the darkness, flecked with glimmering constellations superimposed on the backs of my eyelids. It’s as if I’m falling backward into space, the floor spinning ever so slightly underneath me. I press my fingertips into the ground to reassure myself. I let go, allowing my eyes to roll back and my muscles to relax. It is in this moment I am sure that I want to turn back instead of finishing the trek. It was never the trek I was supposed to do; it was the stars that brought me all the way out here. And I get that it may sound crazy but lying there with pure mountain air filling my lungs and the stars hanging securely in the sky, I felt like I saw the vastness of my being for the first time.
Seeing how expansive I was, and how easily I became one with the cosmos, shook me awake: I didn’t want to spend another second on this earth doing things I feel like I should do. I should finish the trek, I should eat vegan, I should feel guilty for not living with my daughter. I should grow my business this way, I should forgive my mother, I should be happier.
I’m one with the cosmos for fucks sake - why would I waste my precious time on earth in this body finishing books I don’t like or tearing up my body just to prove to a group of strangers that I’m not a quitter?
The stars and I talked all night and when the sun rose not enough hours later I said my goodbyes and traipsed back to the bus stop where I’d have to wait for a drop off so I could catch a ride back. I passed three hours with writing and playing games on my phone. When a van finally arrived, I secured my spot in his front passenger seat, said muchas gracias, senor, and settled in for the long, stuffy ride back to Cusco.
I spent my final week in Cusco fielding questions about why I was back early from the trek, eating curry, drinking red wine, and talking into the deepest hours of the night with the temporary family I had found.
On my final night, I stopped at the pizza shop at the bottom of the stairs to Healing House. Waiting for the pie I ordered to share with friends back at the hostel, I sat and stared off into space, attempting to digest how the trip had unfolded. A woman came in and sat a table away to wait for her food. She pulled a can of Peruvian beer out of a plastic grocery bag and held it in the air toward me: “do you want this? We’re leaving early tomorrow and I have this one,” she nodded to her open beer. Totally caught off guard, I laughed and said, “ya know, I could really use a beer.” We started talking, each sharing our experience of the Salkantay Trek. When I told her I had felt called to do the trek but quit after day one, she looked me in the eyes and said “that’s incredible that you had the strength to honor yourself in that way. Maybe there was no reason you were brought here only to turn back, or maybe you turning back was the lesson you were brought here to learn.”
Both of our pizzas were sitting at the counter. We wished each other well and walked away from each other, each a little different than when we sat down.