(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
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.)
|Putucuci Mountain and the secret door. All photos by Barbara Doran.|
(Those who are coming to this serialized story for the first time, you can read the complete opus to date by clicking here.)
There was no reason for him to be here. The little yellow mutt sat beside my left hiking boot, gazing up at me. He must have crept up from behind, while I was standing at summit’s edge and panicking at the sight of the vertiginous plunge and the infinite stone stairs I’d have to stagger down if I was to reach camp before night fell.
But how did the dog get here? To arrive at my feet on Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point of the Inca Trail, he would have had to climb for a day and a half, just as I had done. Did he belong to a hiker from another group headed for Macchu Pichu, and had somehow gotten lost? Yet dogs were strictly prohibited on the ancient trail.
Nor was he feral. He was not bony, dirty, hungry, tired, or fierce. Instead he was plump and clean, and as friendly as if he had met me on a previous occasion and, after sniffing me thoroughly, judged me to be okay. His brown eyes were sweet. I could have bent down to pet him, except my knees were shot and my legs gone rigid in the cold.
Or was he a spirit? Had the little dog materialized out of the very thin air of the Peruvian Andes, right when I was begging the universe out loud for help to get down the mountain? After all, we were 12,000 feet above reason.
And I did need help. I was the only one left of my group. By now the others were probably halfway to the next mountain, where the porters were setting up tents and cooking dinner. My Outward Bound guide Robert and one of the Peruvian guides remained behind to make sure I survived the long descent. The two men were waiting for me, some thirty steps below; an opaque mist was rising fast to envelop them. Still I couldn’t move. Even with the aid of my hiking poles I had no strength left. I was Dead Woman Not Walking.
My insurance would cover a medivac rescue, if there was room on the pass for a copter to land, or if it could even fly this high. No matter, my friend Arthur had the satellite phone, and he was far away with the rest of the merry band. That left – what? Crawling down on my butt?
The dog seemed to have other ideas. He jumped down to the next stair, turned, and regarded me with encouragement. “You can,” said the brown eyes. So I planted my poles on the step below, and painfully lowered myself to his level. But the animal had already moved on, this time two steps down, where he paused again, offering his faith, and a promise of safety.
I simply couldn’t disappoint him. He’d gone through a lot of trouble to be real.
And that was how we did it: together. Step by step, my knight in yellow fur escorted me down, coaxing me past my pain, giving me the heart to go on. We breached the fog to find Robert and the other guide, who were relieved to see me walking again but mystified by the dog’s presence. I introduced him: “This is Li’l Yeller.” Adding, “If you have any questions, I don’t know.”
We hastened on. Li’l Yeller ran back and forth, romping around the men’s feet, then bounding back to me as I struggled to follow. He always tested the next step before I moved to it, finding the best spot to support my poles, then sending me a look of recommendation. Inky darkness overtook us; we turned on our headlamps.
Then the camp lights came into view. Perhaps smelling the food from the cook tent, the dog raced ahead; this time he didn’t return. I was too exhausted to wonder where he’d gone. Thrusting the flap aside, I fell into my tent and burrowed inside the sleeping bag. My tentmate Barb brought me some food from dinner, but I fell asleep between the first two bites.
Our tent was pitched on an incline. During the night, my sleeping bag gradually slipped downwards until, at dawn, I woke up at the bottom, curled in a fetal position and pressed against the flap. I could hear the breakfast pots clanging and the footsteps of my comrades heading for the makeshift johnny. As I sat up, to my surprise, my muscles obeyed without protest. It seemed that they had finally become habituated to abuse, and that the days of agonizing aches, the seizures and refusals, were behind me.
Something appeared outside the tent opening, a blurred silhouette. I unzipped the flap and stuck my head through. There was my magical mystery mutt, seated on his haunches like a sentry. He turned his head and gave me the brown-eyed once-over. His glance said, “Ah! You’re all right now – good to go. My job’s done.” And he scampered off.
I didn’t see Li’l Yeller again for the remaining two days of the hike. He went ahead with the porters, who had become enchanted with him, feeding him scraps and naming him Picchu (meaning “mountain,” from whence he’d come.) One porter decided to bring him home on the train back to Cusco, as a pet for his kids.
On the fourth day, my group reached our destination, entered the Sun Gate, and beheld the marvels of Machu Picchu. We showered off four days of body mung in a hotel that seemed like a mirage.
The following dawn, we convened to explore the sacred city before the trains of tourists arrived. Arthur decided, instead, to keep climbing. He was determined to scale Waynu Picchu, an even higher mountain nearby that overlooked the ruins.
|Waynu Picchu looms over the sacred city|
The top native guide recommended against the plan, warning that the path was too primitive and dangerous; only the year before, two people had fallen to their deaths; Arthur could proceed, but on his own and at his own risk. Incredibly, four others from our group leapt to join him. They all geared up and set off for the mountain.
Meanwhile, the porters were ready to go home – but Picchu had disappeared. They searched everywhere for the little dog, but in the end they had to leave without him.
After absorbing all I could of the stupendous Incan ruins, I paused to sit alone and meditate on a grass terrace facing Waynu Picchu. Faraway, one could see Arthur and his gang creeping like ants up the steep green flank of the mountain. I hoped they had some kind of divine protection. And I thought back to my little yellow companion who had appeared and vanished so eerily.
If you are open to the idea of spirit animals, those creatures who act as guides throughout our lives, whether in real form or symbolically, then it becomes fun to identify them. Once, before going to sleep, I experimentally asked my unconscious to reveal my personal spirit animal in a dream. My unconscious obliged. I was shown a wooden rabbit perched like a signpost at the head of my driveway. I was unsurprised; I’ve always adored rabbits and owned many. They represent my soft and vulnerable side, needy of protection and love, that I prefer to hide from most people. Yes, it is true: I’m basically fluffy.
People generally have more than one animal guide, so I asked to glimpse a second one in the next night’s dream. Accordingly, I was shown a painted snake with its jaw encased in a tin muzzle. This one came as a shock: I never imagined a spirit animal could be a creature that has always terrified me. Yet in my dream I was not afraid of the snake; being muzzled, it would not bite me. I grudgingly recognized that, like rabbits, snakes have been a constant throughout my life as well. They tend to show up when I need the message: to take my head out of its cloud hat and look where I’m going. I fear but also admire their stealth, their shape-shifting, their dynamism. If I can accept that the snake is actually on my side and not against me, then it’s a powerful defender for the bunny-self to have.
Was there a third? This time I posed the question while meditating. Suddenly I found myself gazing down into the shallows of a limpid pool. I saw weeds wafting over colored pebbles, small fish flicking by. I stood utterly still on long legs, watching, analyzing...At length I raised up, spread my wings, and flew up into the sky. I was a crane. This was a perfectly apt metaphor for an artist. We stare intently into the secret world of the unconscious, pluck an idea or an image from the depths, and fly away to present our findings to the world.
As I mused on animal guides, in the meantime Arthur and company had arrived successfully at Waynu Picchu’s peak. On top they found someone already there: a hiker, apparently Jewish because he wore a tallis shawl, who was seated on the ground in meditative prayer, eyes open and focused on an invisible point beyond. As Arthur looked on, a huge condor swooped down and alighted in front of the praying man. The bird folded its wings and stared straight into the man’s eyes. Neither moved. Minutes passed. At last the bird turned away and sailed back into the air. The man blinked, then rose and quietly gathered his things, not acknowledging the new arrivals as he passed them to begin the hike down.
It was then that Arthur and his friends saw another animal was present. It was Picchu. How he got to the top of the peak, no one could imagine. This time, the dog was completely exhausted, with nothing left in him to go down. This time, he was the one rescued. One of the group carried Picchu all the way to the bottom in his arms, and, in the process, fell so deeply in love with the little mutt that he resolved to take him back to U.S., no matter what it took to get him out.
|The divine Picchu, saved|
After moving heaven and hell, hacking at red tape and offering bribes, Picchu’s savior had to admit failure. The dog remained in Peru, and the expedition cook took charge of him, intending to keep him as a family pet. I’ve often wondered if, as the cook approached his house with Picchu at his heels, the man turned around to find the pup gone.
Picchu was a gift of the mountain, after all, to which he returned.
I had one more encounter with the cosmic before leaving the sacred city. On my way out I took a last glance at Putucuci, a third mountain thrusting up between Waynu and Machu Picchu, like a green-mittened hand with the thumb folded in. As I stared, I felt an immense pressure pulling me toward the mountain – so potent that I had to grip the railing to keep from being swept off the edge. The fold in the mountainside opened, showing a triangular entrance. The urge to fly overwhelmed me. If I succumbed, if I let go of the rail, if I trusted the power that both compelled and paralyzed me, if I took a few deliberate steps forward, I would leave the parapet and soar over the depthless chasm, through the mountain door and into the mother ship.
Eyes locked on this portal, I could not turn my head. “You’re going to die! Look away! Look away!” I hollered at myself inside. Tourists streamed by, unaware of my battle with reason. Someone jostled me, and broke the trance. I ripped my gaze away from Putucuci, hurrying from the site.
Later I pulled one of the native guides aside to tell him about the experience, asking if this had occurred to anyone else. He allowed that one year, someone stole onto the site during the night and stepped off the edge to his death. “There’s nothing strange that can’t happen up in these mountains,” he added, with an odd faraway look that implied both fear and respect. “Things you can’t even name.”
I had felt that same unseen pressure a few years before, pulling me to a fateful encounter with an unusual man.
(To be continued.)
To Picchu with thanks: