Guys, I know I’ve been off the radar lately, but I’ve been working on a ton of upcoming writing projects that are making my heart soar and my head spin. One of my biggest goals for myself this year is to start getting involved with live storytelling events like The Moth, which terrifies and excites me all at once. The piece below is a story I developed for their mom-themed show, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to finally share it with you all.
In 2017, my mom offered to buy me a trip for my 30th birthday. The plan was to fly south to Peru to visit one of the wonders of the world – Machu Picchu. Obviously, I was ecstatic. Since I was 3 weeks old, my mom had been formulating these big, elaborate plans for international trips and throwing me onto airplanes so we could travel the world together.
On this trip, however, I had a catch.
I didn’t want to see Machu Picchu unless we backpacked in on the Inca Trail.
Now, my mom is a total badass who runs half marathons in her 50s, but she had never been backpacking before. She’s more of a “let’s go skiing and grab a few glasses of wine later” type of explorer. Understandably, she had a few concerns.
She asked me, “Where do you pee and go to the bathroom when you’re backpacking?”
“Well, you dig a hole, and you just go, mom.”
Horrified, she responded, “Emily, when you get older, sometimes things don’t just squirt out in a straight line!”
I don’t know very much about the intricacies of peeing in your 50s, but, luckily, a quick Google search promised that there would be squat toilets at every campground, which meant that we were on our way to PERU!
Our first day on the trail, one of the things that immediately struck me was the sheer scale of the landscape. The Inca Trail is known for being a sacred pilgrimage path, and it was easy to see why.
My mother and I were hiking through a tropical version of the Yosemite Valley, situated at an elevation that was 6,000 feet higher. The nearest car was over 20 miles away and the wind howled through gigantic peaks all around us. There were hummingbirds the size of soda cans. Llamas and Alpacas dotted the horizon. I have never seen earth quite like it.
The trail cuts through a dense cloud forest for most of the trek, which, for us, meant that it was pouring rain for the first three days of hiking. Everyone in our group had to throw on these nerdy little plastic ponchos as raincoats and trudge up and down slick steps.
On day two, we huffed and puffed towards the highest point on the trail, which has the confidence-inducing name: Dead Woman’s Pass.
Though we both love to hike, my mom and I struggled in the thin air as we made our way up the narrow pathway at nearly 14,000 feet. I’m a lot more impatient than my mother, so I did this dumb thing where I would charge ahead until it felt like my heart was going to burst out of my chest like the alien in Alien. Meanwhile, my mom would slowly but surely trod along a few minutes behind me, breathless but smiling.
At one point, the trail got so sketchy that she had to give me one of her trekking poles to steady myself as we descended into a steep valley. We were both terrified of snapping an ankle, and we hobbled along together through the clouds.
It was fucking incredible to my mom rise to the occasion, time and time again. I was so proud of her ability to smile through the altitude and the constant rain and the baby skunks that hid near the bathrooms at night.
But sometimes, it felt like the trail had this magical quality like it knew exactly when to throw us a bone, because as we neared the end of that sketchy descent, we almost tripped over our very first llamas. And, I’m not exaggerating when I say this, but I think I’ve got around two hundred selfies of my mom and I posing in front of the llamas with wildly excited smiles.
The rain eased up and, as if on cue, a huge rainbow broke out across the Urubamba Valley. It wouldn’t have surprised me one bit if Kermit appeared with his banjo and started singing.
By the time we finally reached the site of Machu Picchu, we were struck by the sudden clash of staccato, city energy and the onslaught of commerce. It felt like Los Angeles, but worse. Buses roared by as thousands of bejeweled seniors and fanny pack-wearing families streamed into the sacred valley. My stomach turned.
It was the backpacking equivalent of the quote, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.”
The site itself was gorgeous, but the experience of arriving left both my mother and I unsettled and hungry for more wilderness.
When you embark on a pilgrimage, you enter into a silent contract with yourself to arrive at the end as a changed human. You rip away the gossamer of your most tender parts and stare at the chunks of meat fueling the engine inside. The freedom of communing with discomfort for a spell is invaluable. This is why hiking can be so transformative.
Some of the trekkers in our group were ecstatic just to have completed the most difficult hike they will ever attempt, while my mother and I, pushed our limits outdoors and learned that we crave even more.
Since we got back to the States, my mom’s on her way to becoming an even bigger dirtbag than I am. She recently moved to Lake Tahoe, bought a van, and is trying to convince me to go to Africa with her to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.
And I can’t wait to see what she has in store for my 40th birthday.
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