The mountain looms. Ignoring the “I can’ts” lobbing across my mind. Altitude accentuating the agony. Hammering heartbeat. Inferior lungs. Exhaling in a humiliating whoosh. The peak well above my comfort zone. Weighted legs. Stalling. A gulp of metallic water from my canteen. Sun and wind chaffing. A flicker of reverence launching untapped stamina — I’m traversing a portion of the intricate 25,000-mile Inca road system!
Santos, our Inca Shaman darts by. He’s hiking in sandals (!), playing a wooden flute-like instrument. I wonder what he thinks of this out-of-shape gringo gasping for air? He pauses in the distance. Incapable of speaking his native tongue, I ask for a picture in Spanish. He smiles, waving me over.
Later, he leads our group of twelve in a ceremony at the edge of a luminous glacier lake. He distributes symbolic coca leaves and we cling to their divinity as he begins chanting in hushed Quechua. Our Peruvian guide translates:
Release your negativity. Leave it here in the wide embrace of the Andes. Be free of debilitating thoughts. Let them go. They drag you under. Forgive yourself. Forgive others. Disappointment, grudges, and bitterness destroy. Know in this moment, you have all you need: the sustaining sun, soothing air, purifying water, guiding stars, protective mountains, and exalting skies. The moon’s pull to keep you centered, the soil to nourish. Mother Earth always provides, ready with healing hand. Use this restorative energy. Envision family, friends, those suffering you’ve never met. Lift them up with your compassion. We have nothing more valuable to give the world — or each other.
We clutch hands, stitching our circle tighter. Snow loses its grip on a nearby cliff, triggering a small avalanche amidst our tranquility. A Condor swoops gracefully. Both men intensely engaged in their sacred ritual. Who am I to be standing in such a surreal natural sanctuary? I close moist eyes and picture the Southern Cross dancing in last night’s sky, wondering how I’ll ever translate such marvel to another. I tuck the memory into a deep pocket of my brain, hoping I’ll find a way.
Back home, I study our photographs, trying to recapture the rush of accomplishment, to harness the spirited Inca drive. I mean — who possesses such moxy as to erect cities and trails upon alarmingly precarious territory? I observe people all around me facing everyday mountains, trouncing obstacles with unparalleled grit, and I ask:
What’s the magic ingredient that propels an individual to exceed mediocrity — striving for excellence in every pursuit?