|The trail to 13,000 ft. |
(All photos by Barb Doran, my tent-mate.)
I'm too old for this, I complained to no one. My hiking group had long since passed me and disappeared into plumes of fog as I fell farther and farther behind. By the afternoon of the second day's climb, my thighs were nearly useless; my problem knee sent up flares. By now I was hauling my dead weight on a pair of hiking poles. Behind me were all the steps I'd climbed since morning, and before me lay more and more, leading endlessly upwards, hemming the ridges of the Peruvian Andes. The stone stairs, 27 miles in all, were constructed some 500 years ago by Incans who probably never lived to the age of complaining they were too old for this. The careless ones had slipped and plunged off the edge; their howls were in my ears as the path narrowed to a few feet across, forcing me to press my body to the side of the mountain, turning my back on the sheer drop, to inch around blind corners on legs that shuddered violently.
I'd accepted the invitation with great excitement and, in my folly, no questions. Arthur Sulzberger was soliciting friends to take the four-day hike up the ancient trail to Machu Picchu, the remote sacred compound of Incan rulers. Surely the place would be crawling with pagan spirits, and ghosts of a bygone race, with a shaman on every corner - and legal coca! My kind of scene.
I didn't learn, until the date was near and the money was due, that this was an Outward Bound expedition. I knew all about that torment, because my brother had done one in his twenties; he said it changed his life. My personal impression was, they teach you self-reliance, fill you with pride of accomplishment, introduce you to your true essence, but only after breaking you down by privation, physical exhaustion, despair, and a cruel lack of amenities.
I called Arthur to bow out, saying I was physically unqualified and far too whiny for the Outward Bound experience. He batted away my protests. Almost everyone on this hike would be in their fifties, people like me who had lost any interest in suffering. We could expect many comforts. We wouldn't have to hunt for water or follow the stars. There would be regular meals and tents with high thread count. Arthur himself expected to enjoy a martini and a cigar at the end of each day.
"But I have a bad back."
"I'll carry your pack," he said.
"I don't think my knee is up to a lot of climbing. I have this old tear in the meniscus that acts up - "
"It's not like we're climbing rock face," he said. "The trail is very gradual."
"I have a drastic fear of heights."
He paused. "Well...this is how you get over it."
I put in some half-hearted time on the Stairmaster. I bought all the hiking gear with the tags still attached so I could return it. My husband was annoyingly supportive: "You'll get through it with flying colors and then be so glad you did it," etc.; and when I left my passport home (also known as a cry for help), he grabbed a taxi to JFK, delivering it just minutes before check-in closed, alas. As I boarded the flight to Peru, Arthur shot me a triumphant look, then disappeared through the curtain into first class. I was left alone in coach with my certain knowledge of failure.
I knew the limit of my capabilities. I was right to predict they would give out, and they did.
Now Arthur and his nimble friends had disappeared through the curtain of mist, leaving me alone on the trail, except for an Outward Bound guide named Robert to spot me in case I fell or needed to be carried the rest of the way.
Robert followed me closely, a few steps behind, the way my father had learned to walk behind my mother in case she fell, which started to happen more frequently in her mid-seventies.
It was a point of pride with Mom that she rarely needed her wheelchair, ever since the unwieldy metal leg braces for polio victims had been improved with plastic and cushioning. Then she moved faster on her crutches, though still carefully, always testing her rubber crutch tips on a surface - whether the ground was firm, uneven, or slippery (small area rugs were her bane) - before she took the next step.
Nevertheless, Mom wasn't able to maintain her stride indefinitely. Old age brings fresh woes to polio survivors. Even with the help of new braces, her legs had become so bowed from supporting her weight they almost looked like a dog's hind legs. She never knew when they might falter and wobble, and when she lost her balance, there was nothing to do except fall.
Once, during her travels, she hoisted herself onto the bottom step of a bus, was unable to right herself, and toppled backward onto the road like a felled tree. Horrified, Dad rushed to where she lay; she had survived a few falls before, but he didn't see how she would get up from this one, and they were far from medical help. Yet when they stood her up, she boarded the bus. She told me later that the secret was, if you knew you were going to crash, to make yourself utterly limp. Flailing to break your fall would increase your chance of breaking bones. With her way, the worst you could get would be a concussion and huge bruises that were no big deal to this tough-skinned marvel of a woman.
Mom hated for anyone to walk close behind her. It implied that she needed support, was weak or helpless, dependent on others, all of which enraged and humiliated her. Hovering people, no matter their good intentions, ruined her concentration, for she had a task: of ascertaining where to place her rubber crutch tips, then testing the surface, then locking her arms on the grips while she swung herself forward, then scouting the next safe spot to plant the crutches. When left alone to focus, she could travel at remarkable speed. Thus she resented my Dad when, after the bus accident, he insisted on following a few steps behind her - as Robert was doing for me now on the Inca trail.
I felt the same humiliation, as I shifted more and more of my weight from my spent legs to my poles. I could not afford to look anywhere but the stones at my feet. Each step presented a unique problem. Some were slippery, some uneven, some loose, some just broken rubble. I had to locate a safe spot to plant the pole tips, test the stability of the surface, then hoist myself up and assess the next stair; a progress on repeat, over and over...until I realized I was inside my mother.
Immediately I started to cry. I tried to hide my tears from Robert, but he could hear me snorkeling mucous. "It's not that much farther," he said. "Everyone's up there." I looked up from the stones. He was pointing up at a mountain peak ahead that was so shrouded in fog it might have been a hundred yards away or ten miles for all I could tell.
He added, "They're waiting in Warmiwañusqa - Dead Woman's Pass."
Those words stopped me cold. Inhabiting my mother, leaning on her crutches, I was seized by the truth I'd resisted: that she was dying. Years before, she had begin the long, slow decline into dementia, and it would claim her soon. Every day, she was passing farther from reach. I could not stop her fade nor break her fall.
I collapsed on a boulder and sobbed. Robert shifted nervously nearby. He thought I was throwing in the towel, and then what would he do with me?
I gestured with my hand that I only needed a minute to recover, but really I needed years, starting with the past.
My mother was hard to love. She wouldn't admit to needing it, but she did. "I love you" wasn't in her lexicon - she had to be prompted; someone had to say it first, forcing her to stammer the words in response. Just to give her a hug was awkward; she always tensed up a bit, with a nervous laugh, as if she hadn't been taught what to do. And maybe she hadn't. Like my father, she had been raised by governesses, with a vague set of parents on the periphery. Or maybe she hesitated to put her arms around anyone because it meant lifting her crutches from the floor and trusting her weight to another.
Her intensity was an impediment, too. The same ferocious will that made her so unstoppable was what kept her and me apart. She had given birth to my two older brothers before coming down with the polio virus. I was the first child born - and the first girl - after she'd been crippled. She turned her intensity onto me, in the form of fierce hope. Though Mom would not have put it this way, in fact would have denied it, I understood my job to be that I would somehow avenge her impairment, by climbing out of "a woman's place" on two good legs and taking power; by refusing to be suppressed, whether by a crippling virus or low expectations; by creating things of wonderment; and I should accomplish all this for both of us.
I rebelled against this last assignment. I knew the limit of my capabilities: I couldn't carry both her weight and mine. I found her suffocating; inwardly, I kept my distance. If she was hard to love, I made it harder.
Finally, at 85, she was condemned to the hated wheelchair and needed other people's assistance with everything, which was her nightmare. Far away, I wept on the Inca Trail. I'd finally realized she would be dead in a few years. Now I myself was paralyzed, by the wild intensity of the love I'd held back. It hammered for release. I wanted to lift off the trail and fly home and open my full heart to her.
I picked up my crutches, dried my eyes, and climbed the rest of the stairs to Dead Woman's Pass.
At the top I found two llamas hunkered on the plateau, indifferent to the clicking cameras of the hikers. My comrades cheered my arrival and lavished hugs on me that, like my mother, I received awkwardly. I was a tear-stained emotional mess, and I didn't want them to know the extent of my exhaustion. Having wasted precious time on waiting for me, the others were anxious to move on and reach camp before darkness fell. Arthur longed for his martini. I would be holding the whole group back.
Go without me, don't worry, I'll get there at my own speed, I insisted with a confidence that was bogus. Relieved, they hurried over the lip of the pass and out of sight, beginning the trek down the mountain. Robert and a native guide stayed. The two men were going to walk ahead of me this time, in case I keeled over forwards. Robert pointed out the camp in the distance. One couldn't really see it because it lay behind two more mountains we would have to traverse by nightfall. I mustered my morale and followed them to the edge.
There my spirits died. I was staring down the steps of an interminable stone staircase, steeped in fog. There was no bottom. Climbing up I could ignore the fearful drop, but not going down. My vertigo attacked, murdering the pitiful last of my energy. Before you fall, I reminded myself, make yourself utterly limp.
Unaware of my panic, the two men climbed down twenty yards and paused expectantly. I was still at the top, unmoving. Robert saw, to his frustration, that I had begun to cry again. I was silently begging the wind, the mountain, the Dead Woman, for help. Surely this place was crawling with spirits.
And then a little yellow dog appeared.
(To be continued.)