“I want to keep hiking until I die. And I hope I’ll be climbing a mountain when that happens. But not for a while yet! I’m only 72.”
Earlier this year, when a chance to see Peru’s Machu Picchu presented itself, I asked, Why not? I had never been to South America. I had always wanted to see the Inca ruins in the Sacred Valley.
I tamped down the doubting thoughts that said, don’t be silly, you’re 72, you’ve had two back surgeries and a hip replacement. You’ll never be able to deal with the altitude. What about your balance on those narrow trails?
If I had listened to those voices, I would have stayed home. Instead, along with my partner I researched altitude sickness on the internet (chlorophyll helps!). Then we packed our bags and set off.
Twenty-four hours, three flights and several long layovers later, we finally landed in Cusco and spent what was left of our first day walking through the concentric terraces at Moray.
Although the entire Sacred Valley of Peru is filled with Inca ruins, Machu Picchu is the end point for most travelers—and with good reason. After a train ride and bus trip that wound up to the summit, we stood on a terrace at the end of the Inca trail, looking out over a thick fog. I could see about 50 feet in front of me.
Was there a lost city there in the mist?
At that moment, I could not be sure. But gradually, as we waited, a slight breeze moved the clouds. The outline of a wall drifted into view and then disappeared. The next breeze moved more cloud. There, below us, I could see walls and terraces. A ray of sun pierced the grey mist and all of a sudden there was green grass on the terraces. Soon, the entire city lay spread out below us.
Huayna Picchu or Little Mountain, didn’t look so little across the valley through the mist, but I was willing to try climbing it. We scrambled up the steep narrow trail. Argh, I thought, I have to come back down this?
But I kept climbing, chewing coca leaves for stamina and help with the altitude. I usually use two hiking poles for balance, but here the path was so narrow I could only use one. Near the top, I had to scramble through a narrow crevice on hands and knees, ducking low to keep my head safe, holding the camera with one hand and slithering up through mud and water, to emerge at the top.
We rested, looking out at the stone city spread out below us. And then it was time for the descent. I’m not graceful when it comes to going down steep, narrow trails, especially when I resort to the safe way — sliding down on my butt. The view of Machu Picchu was stunning, whether I was going up or coming down.
How long had I dreamed of making this journey?
I was in graduate school in the 1970s when I first heard of Machu Picchu. I was studying modern poetry and read the biography of Harriet Monroe, founder and editor of the iconic Poetry magazine. The story of her death struck me. She had died in Peru at the age of 75 while on her way to climb Machu Picchu.
This endnote stayed with me, and through the years I told friends, I want to die like Harriet Monroe did.
At age 25 in graduate school, 50 more years of living seemed quite adequate, though it was hard to imagine how a woman of “that age” could still be traveling and climbing mountains. But Harriet Monroe had not only traveled, she had traveled widely. Europe. China. By boat and by train.
I have traveled to many of the same places Monroe visited during her life—China, Europe—but I got there on an airplane in a matter of hours.
At the end of the day in Machu Picchu, walking slowing back through the terraces and up the stairs to the entrance to this ancient city, I thought of Monroe. She died before she got to Machu Picchu, from a brain hemorrhage at an unfamiliar altitude. I am sorry she didn’t get to see this magnificent place. But I am not sorry she tried, not sorry she assumed that at 75 she should go climb up to see for herself this amazing new discovery. After all, she had been climbing mountains, according to her own account, for more than 40 years.
Like Monroe, I want to keep hiking until I die. And I hope I’ll be climbing a mountain when that happens. But not for a while yet! I’m only 72.
Judith McDaniel lives in Tucson Arizona where she can hike all year. At 60, she decided to go to law school — not to practice law, but to find new knowledge in order to become a more effective advocate. She now teaches courses in law and political science at the University of Arizona and is a Tucson Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project. The OpEd Project.