The Day I Walked 500 Miles

Ok, it wasn’t 5,000 miles, but it felt like that.

It all started when we got off the train at the 104 kilometer mark on the Inka Trail.

I had signed up for a short hike and was told it would be an easy two hours. I’m not in the best of shape, but walking — that I can do. At this point in my life (almost exactly one year ago today), I was doing anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 steps a day, so I naively thought I’ve got this. Spoiler Alert I did not have this.

What I learned upon arrival was that it was not two hours, in fact, it would take the better part of the day. I had woken up at 5 am to get the train and would only be taking a well-earned shower 11 hours later, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first obstacle was, of course, the altitude. Peru is the only place I’ve ever been with a high altitude so I had no idea what to expect. For those reading this who have never walked in high altitude, it’s like every breath has only half of its normal air. At this point I was still very confident, I thought I would just walk slower but I could still do it.

The second obstacle was water. We could only drink the water we had with us. No one sells water on the trail and we could not drink water from the streams. We had to carry our water, so it was a careful balance between the desire to have water and your ability to carry it. Also, there was only one bathroom along the route, so limiting water consumption was essential — unless you wanted to pee in the bush, and carry your own used toilet paper as nothing could be left behind.

The final obstacle and potentially the hardest, in my opinion, was that this was not a flat hike, or even an uphill/downhill hike — no this was up and down STAIRS. I assure you that after twenty minutes of going up 20 stairs, to go down 5, to go up 3, I started to see why Machu Picchu was lost for so long — no one wanted to finish this hike.

It wasn’t very long into the hike when I fell behind from the main group. This didn’t concern me, I know my limitations and I knew I wasn’t going to be lead group material. I also wasn’t at the end, which was something. I was never with any other hiker of my group, but never more than 30 minutes behind them, or so I found out later. I had two travelling companions. The first was the guide. We had three for the full group: one in the front, one in the middle and one at the end. The guide from the middle dropped back to see me every so often, to make sure I was still there and uninjured I assumed.

My second companion was almost constant, she only left me when the guide was with me and never for more than 3 minutes was a stray dog. I named her Cusco which I was told means center of the world, and she was the center of mine.

Cusco kept me motivated and moving, she would nudge me to keep going if she felt my break was too long, she would bark at me sometimes when I sat and urge me to move, each time I did so I discovered right around that next turn was a shady spot much better to sit in. I was a little concerned I was hallucinating her.

The walk was hard, up the stairs down the stairs, up the stairs down the stairs. To be honest, I have very few photos of the whole experience as I was just focused on putting one foot in front of the other and getting it done. Around the two hour mark, my will began to falter. The next time I saw the guide, I asked him if I wanted to turn around and give up, how exactly would I be able to get back. He smiled and said, “Don’t worry, you’re almost there, we just have this next part, then it’s 500 stairs straight up, then another half hour and were at the halfway point.”

I know he was trying to be encouraging, but he wasn’t. I wanted to cry, actually, that’s not true, I tried to cry, it turns out I wasn’t hydrated enough and I didn’t want to waste valuable water just to turn it into tears. I was beyond done, I was having problems breathing, I needed to rest every 10 minutes, I knew those 500 stairs would take me forever, I was just done.

And then it happened — around the next bend was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen.

The waterfall that came out of nowhere, I burst out laughing, again thinking this was some kind of delusion and ran to play in the water. After splashing around like a child for around 5 minutes, the guide stopped me and offered to take my photo. It was then I realized, if this waterfall could find a way to survive in this landscape of stairs then I could find a way to finish, to see the next waterfall.

The rest of the hike wasn’t easy, but I made it to the lunch point. After lunch it was more hills and fewer stairs, it was a nice break, almost relaxing in comparison.

The only challenge left was the monkey steps, we were told at the beginning of the hike this was the hardest part. You can’t simply walk up, you need to climb like a monkey. I was dreading this part, and I worked to conserve as much water as I could for this part. I came to the first set of steps. In my head, I was calling them the baby monkey steps, as they were about half the size I expected. I was a bit annoyed that I wasn’t warned about two sets, but let’s be real I was already 6 hours into the 2-hour hike, nothing was shocking anymore.

I made my way up slowly, they almost took me out. When I got to the top I thought to myself the real monkey steps are taking me out, but I knew after the money steps it’s the Sun Gate and then it’s over. You can’t stop with the end in sight. So for what seemed like the millionth time that day I reminded myself I can do this and I would do this.

I spent the next few steps stopping every ten for a ten-second break and then continuing to walk. On my third break I started to hear my name being called, I looked up and saw the group about 20 feet ahead of me. All the while thinking great they waited for me to go up these steps. Someone yelled don’t stop your almost done, I replied except for the monkey steps. I heard them laughing, finally, someone yelled down, “Ummm no you just did those” for the second time that day I lost control. I was laughing so hard I had to sit down. I had built the challenge up so far in my head that I didn’t realize I had done it. It was just a 20 more feet and I would get my first view of Machu Picchu.

I have no words to describe that moment, the awe, the exhaustion, and the pure joy. The hike was over.

I had spent a good bit of the day worried I was delaying the group. We came as a group we would have to leave as one; I wasn’t the last person, but it was always on my mind. When I had the chance to talk to the group, they had a completely different perspective. They were proud of me, that I continued on even with the struggle. They all admitted they were struggling too, that they wanted to stop, but they didn’t because they didn’t and that I was struggling more than they were.

I’ve always been told you learn who you are when you travel. From Peru I learned I’m someone who doesn’t give up, and that lesson will travel with me.