A flashlight shines through the barrier between me and a cold, harsh morning. The bitter smell of cacao tea wakes me up. I hear my tent-mate start to stir and feel a heavy sigh rise through my chest. I clamp down on it before it escapes. Slowly, my aching body makes its way up and I crouch to avoid the roof of the tent. I’ve already got most of my warm clothing on; I just need my hiking boots.
I’ve never been comfortable with my anxiety. In part that’s why I challenge myself to large, life-changing trips: I want to prove that anxiety doesn’t need to hold you back. But this time feels harder and home feels further away.
Hiking boots on; beanie on. The cacao tea warms my hands as I make my way out of the tent and look out across the valley. The sky is so close here you can see rain falling below you onto such endless fields you realise roads are a figment of your imagination. I kneel and feel the dirt. Home was connected to this dirt thousands of years ago and it helps me ground myself. ‘Ha. Ground,’ I think to myself. This small pun gives me the strength to face the day. ‘By far the hardest day on the Inca Trail,’ they tell me.
I look to the south-west and try to pierce through the thousands of kilometres that lie between home and I. Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult. There are literally thousands of kilometres and my eyesight has never been that good.
I walk over to the breakfast tent that has been prepared by humble humans who have been tied to these mountains for centuries. They remind me that there’s more to us than our thoughts: humans have history, and feeling grounded is certainly worth something. I take a deep breath and a sip of cacao tea. Nope, still not a fan. But it certainly helps calm me.
Bags packed; backpack on. We start our ascent with the aim of making it all the way up Dead Woman’s Pass and down the other side. I feel short of breath for most of the walk. Carlos, one of my guides, walks beside me and offers to carry my bag.
Anxious thoughts run through my head and I nearly refuse. But, looking back between two peaks, the fog has cleared and I see a breathtaking view of ancient ruins – the history of a culture that raised Carlos. I’m on his land, in his home. I bend toward the ground and touch the dirt. A deep breath in to gather courage; a deep breath out to forget the thousands of kilometres. He looks at me with a tilt of the head and puts a hand on my shoulder. He carries my bag until we reach the top.
The Incas embrace me.
This piece was originally conceived for a travel writing scholarship application through World Nomads.