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Rediscovering Machu Picchu and myself on the Inca Trail

It was August at the Equator, but it was below freezing at the top of Warmiwañuska, better known to English speakers as Dead Woman’s Pass. At 13,755 feet, it’s the highest point along Peru’s Inca Trail. I’d been there for an hour, standing among half a dozen bodies slumped over the rocks. If not for the frosty breaths escaping from their bundled faces, it might have appeared that Dead Woman’s Pass had claimed a few new victims. My companions were exhausted, and I was breathing heavy, too, but I finally felt like I’d come into my own again. I’d just finished the toughest section of the four-day journey to Machu Picchu an hour and a half ahead of schedule.

Six months earlier, I was in a hospital bed, barely able to move after having surgery on my spinal cord to remove a tumor. I was 26 and had never imagined life would knock me down so hard. My recovery was painful, and I was shocked by how bad I still felt several months out. There were moments when I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to do the things I loved.

Traveling, or more precisely, pushing myself physically and mentally while traveling, has been the love of my life, a means I’ve used expand to my awareness of myself and the world. I think that’s true for many women, actually. And the idea that travel might be more limited for me because of my illness was terrifying.

Luckily, others around me, especially my twin sister Jennifer, were more optimistic about my abilities. Once I was feeling a little stronger, she decided a trip for our 27th birthday would invigorate my body and enrich me spiritually. It would help me believe in myself again. An active trip might be risky, but sticking to “safe” would be worse.

Eventually, we settled on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. A well-traveled friend told us Peru was a welcoming place for two adventurous women traveling on a budget, and his description of the experience as “medicine for the soul” sounded like something I needed.

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