It was raining and blustery and just above freezing as I shoved another translucent, blue gummy bear into my mouth. I was sitting at the top of Dead Woman’s Pass, 13,828 feet above sea level, waiting for the rest of my group to catch up and desperately in need of carbs. For a windswept, bedraggled hiker, I was in surprisingly good spirits. I watched the rain drip gingerly off my hooded poncho like a curious ant hiding beneath a blade of grass to stay dry as I gazed out at the misty cloud forest below, daydreaming about coca leaves and crimson orchids hidden in the deep crevices of towering trees. I had just completed the most difficult section of the Inca Trail in a downpour with a full pack on, and I was incandescently happy.
The moment I catch my first glimpse of Dead Woman’s Pass between ragged breaths in the thin air of 13,000 feet, I smile with relief. Perched atop massive stone steps, slick with jungle rain, I can barely make out the fluorescent sheets of plastic adorning ant-sized tourists up top to shield them from the downpour. My hiking partner, Rosie, and I are way out front of our group, preferring to put our heads down and charge forward until our heart rates soar and we stop to gasp for air in the crisp mountain morning. 828 feet later, I stagger up the final few stairs to the top of the notorious pass, beaming. My fingers go numb as I wander around snapping a few photos, the wind-chill dipping into the mid-twenties. I can feel the blood coursing through my capillaries as I take in the taller peaks and wait for my crew to catch up. The hardest part of the trek was behind me, I was higher than I had ever been with a full pack on, and my mom was somewhere just below, crushing it on The Inca Trail.
You inhale. The feeling of new air mixes with unknown space as you first place one foot and then the other onto the path ahead. A lightness tickles your stomach, curling upwards and into your heart. It tugs at the outermost threads of your mind and trembles, massaging the gray area that arises between excitement and edginess. At once delighted and supernaturally aware of your surroundings, you begin to sink into the unfamiliar. The journey is afoot.