One Step, Then Another
— an essay by Mike Murray

It’s five-thirty and the sky is a stretch of long blue cotton, the air like ice water with a taste of dust. From my tent I can hear the clanking of plates as the Peruvian family we’re traveling with sets up breakfast. I can also hear the two girls one tent over spitting out irritated french expletives. My tent smells like timber, but there’s no timber here.

I stumble to the mess tent bleary eyed. Breakfast consists of powdered coffee, tea, pita bread, jam, and an egg pancake that tastes gourmet considering we’re at the base of a mountain, at least ten miles away from the nearest town. We meet as a group to go over the plan. It’s 3.2 kilometers straight up to the top, Raul explains, we break, snack, and take pictures. Then we go down and have lunch. It’ll be reaalll warm, so put on your bug spray and sunscreen. He tells us this will be our longest day, about ten hours from the base to the campsite. He then explains it in Spanish. The young, portly face of a Spaniard, visiting Peru on his week off from university, drops like a pile of fire wood. Diez ahora? I see him mouth to his younger brother, taking off his wide brimmed hat to wipe his brow. His brother is an eager sixteen year old with a narrow head of short brown hair and something to prove. A smile spreads across his face.

Each hiker wants to get to the top of Mt. Salcantay for a different reason. The two French girls, Cloe and Anais, are intrepid; they’ve already hiked Lake Titicaca in the south and are seven steps ahead of most of us in bike shorts and bouncing pony tails. There’s an older woman from Madrid and her daughter, a bank manager with smooth red nails and fresh, three-hundred dollar hiking boots. The daughter, Marianna, wants the picture from the top so she can use her new telephoto lens. Her mother, Senora Juarez, tells me she wants to do as much as she can before she dies. The prospect of dying, she tells me, compels her to live.

Hiking is not about physical prowess. The force that drives a person up a mountain, that drives them to the top, is not sheer muscle. If this were the case mountains would be flooded with slim, well-trimmed gym goers. Most people that hike are not perfect physical specimens. I’ve never been a beach front model; my midsection is short, a series of slight curves and odd muscular bulges; my legs are stocky, feet too wide for most shoes, and I have a slight slouch, but hiking has been a part of my life since I could strap on Velcro shoes. Hiking for me has never been about getting to the top, necessarily, it’s about getting around the next bend, over the next hill, beyond the precipice up ahead. Every long distance hiker knows that thinking about the top doesn’t get you there.

The first hour we begin our rise in elevation from the base. Tall, rock strewn hills grow around us, and we can begin to see the trail that leads to the top. The group clusters together in twos and threes; I hike with a little bit of everyone. When it comes to hiking partners I’m over-particular. There are times when talking fills the lull of rocks--hills with rocks, hills with rocks, hills with rocks-- but there are other times when only silence suffices. These are the wide views, the monumental look outs onto great tracks of country where I can see full cities and towns unfold like creased sheets. I look back every twenty minutes or so. This is a habit I picked up when my dad and I hiked the Appalachian Trail. Retrospect in hiking is important. It is satisfying, a relief even, to see that my legs have taken me somewhere, that all my work was for some purpose, that my feet are not just making imprints in the dirt.

The ascent’s difficulty increases as the hill begins a strict vertical rise. Groups unravel or become quiet, and breathing becomes important. The air in this part of Peru is thin because of the elevation. I’m a runner, so breathing is not a problem I often encounter, but on Salcantay I have to stop every ten to fifteen minutes just to catch my breath. It’s not that I’m speed trekking--my pace is steady and sluggish--there simply is not enough air. This is what I think as I make my momentary pit stops. It’s strategic, what a good, well-seasoned hiker would do. I think of my dad, and how he would probably agree. Half an hour later three middle aged Peruvian men with donkeys loaded with cooking equipment and backpacks more than half their size scoot pass me with snickering ease. Excuse me amigo, they say. These are the people who woke up two hours prior to my shaking off sleep in order to cook me breakfast. They also started half an hour later than we did.

So much for well-seasoned.

My guide suggests coca leaves. He tells me that all the guides chew it to avoid elevation sickness, hunger, and dehydration. Coca is not a drug. It has less narcotics in it than tobacco and coffee, and more nutrients than most fruits. This has earned it the name “Inca Gold” because the Inca used coca leaves the way Westerners use Ibuprofen. Coca grows naturally in Peru and it costs less than a pack of Trident gum. Having read about this, I picked some up before I went on the trip. Raul shows me how to fold the leaves into squares like a blanket, packing it tight, applying a little saliva, and then fitting it into the bottom lip like chewing tobacco. You don’t chew, he says, you suck. Getting all of the juices out is the point. This gives me a little boost of energy, before reaching the real climb.

The landscape has changed. We are in the belly of the mountain, surrounded by steep crags that cast shadows on our path. The trail is clear cut now, weaving over and between large boulders, across stretches of patchy field grass surrounded by canyonesque sides. The sun is high in the sky now and I have to peel off my zip up jacket from this morning. My shirt sticks to my back and sunscreen runs down my temples in white drops. A dull ache infects my quads, the kind of pain a hiker loves, because it means you’ve made tracks. It’s pain that proves itself. The air has become thick and filled with the smell of dirt and fresh cut trees, though there is an undercurrent of cold that periodically sweeps in and skims my bare arms. It’s around the fifth time I feel this that I look up from the jagged ground. Looking back at me is a snow capped mountain that feels close enough to touch, but at the same time surreal, as if I’d woken up from a dream and found myself in a different world. The snow looks clean and crisp and dotted with bits of black rock. As I continue my walk I can’t peel my eyes away--I almost trip and fall because of it. It hovers by my side, like a partner accompanying me on my trek to the top. It’s a welcomed friend, who knows how to speak in its own way, but at the same time can hold fast to silence.

Meanwhile, Marianna has become unsalvageable. Raul has to stop and wait for one of the Peruvians with a donkey to manage her to the top. By the time they pass me, the plump young Spaniard has joined her too. Both create echoes with their raucous spanish laughter. I wave at them as they clip-clop by, their Peruvian guide scowling at the ground and sucking viciously on his coca. I squeeze the sweet, grassy juice from my clump and swallow it with pride. Anais and Chloe are far ahead and out of sight at this point. It’s just me, my fifteen pound pack, and the snow capped mountain.

It’s hard not to judge them. All of us feel the burn of lactic acid in our legs, the sting of sunscreen in our eyes, and the slow burn of the sun. Who are they to quit and take the easy way? What do they think they signed up for, a joy ride to the peak? For a moment their lazy ease takes something away from me; the sense that they will accomplish the same feat with half the work, a quarter the pain, and in a fraction of time. We, the hikers, are laboring for our view, while they get to cruise. Then I remember the number one rule of hiking: it’s not about getting to the top. It feels like an empty aphorism as I stare up at the last part of my daunting climb, but then I stop and sit. I look around at the patch of wild flowers growing to my side, at my friend the snowcap, at the all-too big sky that goes on past the campsite and over Cusco, where I began my trip. I breathe in the cool mountain air like a gulp of water. Then I remember what they’re missing, and why it’s important to hike, rather than take the donkey.

My legs are stiff now and I look up at my last thirty minutes of climbing. Nothing but rock, nothing but uphill, but I can see Chloe and Anais and the two Spaniards at the top. I can see a blurry wood sign and vague movement. It gives me hope. I begin where all hiking begins: one step, then another, then another. On top of being steep, the hill is planted with large rocks that require wide steps and hard pushes. I rely completely on my legs now, and I place in them the kind of faith some reserve for a God. These legs will get me through, and if I make it, if I am saved, they will be there to thank. The pressure from the rocks and the ground is stupefying, and it seems as if the mountain is working against me. My muscles begin to shake, and the dull ache has become a piercing pain that starts at the knee and spreads. Hunger and thirst compel me to stop, and I know I can’t, that if I do I will never complete my journey.

Now I hear their voices. They cheer me on: “C’mon Mike. Almost there. You got it. It’s yours.” It’s my group. I wasn’t even sure they remembered my name, and though they are not what drive me their voices, kind and welcoming, help me forward like a promise. They say, you can join us, just keep trying. I let the burn settle in my legs, and there’s the sign “Abra Salcantay 4600 m.s.n.m.” Anais is waving too, her curly oak colored hair flying up like a curtain. When I get to the top, I bathe in that miraculous cooling breeze.

We wait for the rest of the group to join us at the top. People meander and sip water. The view is astounding. We are surrounded by a ring of mountains: snowcapped, craggy, with small patches of grass, and close enough that we could walk. Moving on to the next peak is tempting, though I know it isn’t a possibility. As long as there’s a further precipice the temptation will always linger, like an itch waiting to be scratched.

The group sits around Raul, and we talk and snack. The air is grand, and enough to warrant our jackets and sweaters again. He tells us about our next destination. Certain faces twist into tired expressions. Others, mine among them, brighten. We’ll be entering a new climate zone, he tells us, a tropical forest. He says to load up on bug spray, and rest. We have another six hours ahead of us, before we reach the campsite.

I lay out in the sun, and smile.


Mike Murray is currently taking classes at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston, where he attends fiction workshops. He teaches English as a Second Language and Literature in Boston. He lives and writes in Cambridge, MA.