Posted by: lavieimaginee | September 11, 2013


A week ago, I was roused at 5:30am from a fitful sleep by a Peruvian voice outside my tent. “Flowers?” He queried. “Buenos dias, Flowers. Time to wake up and have some coca tea.” I groaned and sat up, blinking through the darkness at the two burrowed bodies beside me. The day hadn’t yet dawned, but we all knew what it held in store for us: the long ascent to Dead Woman’s Pass, the highest point of the Inca Trail. We were already nestled in the foothills of the Andes mountains, but this day would demand that we take on the mountains themselves, climbing a staggering 4,000 ft in elevation prior to lunch. We would pass the vegetation line and continue to climb, learning what it felt like to lift weighted legs in 30% less oxygen.

When I planned, scrimped and saved for this trip, I thought that the point was to arrive at Machu Picchu, or “old peak” in Quechuan. I wanted the journey, certainly. I wanted a pilgrimage. But the goal was always arrival; I wanted to trace the footsteps of the Incan pilgrims and the 20th century explorers, to traipse through rainforest and cloud-forest and clamber over mountains until I could turn a corner and see the remote ancient citadel entrenched below me. In a world of over-mapped corners and unfriendly borders, I wanted that sensation of discovery, of “stumbling” upon a once-hidden place, now widely (and perhaps ironically) regarded as one of the seven wonders of the world.

What I did not expect was the way in which the journey, subtly and almost without my consent, became the point. The arrival at Machu Picchu was, frankly, anti-climactic. But the shift in my perspective began sometime before that… somewhere on the trail itself. I first noticed it a week ago, in that moment when we finally summited Dead Woman’s Pass and I realized – with a small but unmistakable pang of anguish – that the hardest part of the trail was already behind us. The next evening, as the trail wound down from the mountains and grew progressively flatter, easier, and warmer, that tiny pang became a gnawing in my gut. I found my eyes welling up with premature nostalgia, an indescribably desperate longing for a place I had yet to leave behind. I only knew, in that moment, that I didn’t want to arrive anywhere; I wanted to stay in the rhythm of the road just a little bit longer. I wanted the trail, edged with teeth of stone; I wanted the wild orchids in their shades of sun-fire and blood; I wanted the throaty calls of jungle wildlings; I wanted the ritual cleansing of my own sweat, the intentionality of every hard-fought breath, the feeling of stronger legs beneath me each morning. But the trail wound on relentlessly, with even the most reluctant step bringing us closer to arrival, to landing, to the end of the journey.

The trail is, perhaps, a bit like life in that way… a bit like time. It unfolds before you and unwinds behind you, taking with it all sorts of stories that can never be retold. These moments, the “now” moments, the fully-present-and-embodied ones that I felt so anchored to on the trail, are already memory. In its way, this feels like loss.

And yet, I know that if I were to stay on the trail indefinitely, it would soon cease to be a journey. I would make the trail itself into a resting place, into my home. We humans weren’t created for stasis, surely, but we don’t do well in endlessly liminal spaces either; we find ways to domesticate and shelter, ways to stake our claim on small pieces of earth, ways to root even in shallow and uncertain terrain. And I guess this is why it would be mistake to conflate any place – including the Inca Trail – with the act of journeying. Because the reality is that we can cheapen any journey into a destination, or enliven any destination into a landscape that is rich with nomadic potential. The trick is committing to the wonder and fluidity of pilgrimage, and opening our eyes to all of the “unlikely” places where new pilgrimages can be found.

“Road Trip”

You don’t need the sprawl of the interstate, the odometer climbing
and candy wrappers haloing your seat. You don’t need toll booths and a pocket weighted with quarters. You don’t need speed limits or state lines or a full tank of gas. You don’t need to wait for solitude. You don’t need to wait for sadness.
Even if it’s an hour, two. Even if where you live promises little,
the destinations unremarkable, the landscape absent of glitter and thrill. Even if your car is a bicycle or your car is your legs or your car is your mind.
Make the goal, simply, movement. Let your gaze fall soft. Back out of the driveway of all that is familiar, and permit yourself the brief enchantment of a mapless ride.
Get lost. Get found. Get going.

-Maya Stein


  1. geez. articulate much?

    but seriously: this is beautiful.

  2. I feel like that picture is better than the one I took of the same thing on my DSLR. Very nice. Good observation about arriving at Machu Picchu being anti-climactic. It was something I only knew subconsciously before now.

  3. Riches! Thanks for sharing these words & ruminations, my dear. I hope to hear lots more about your trip, & see more lovely photos too.

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