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This is what 4am looks like when you’re at the bottom of a canyon that cuts off power for the night. It’s what 4am looks like when your group, the “slow group,” starts its ascent. Black. So black you can’t even see a foot in front of you. But, if you look up, there will be stars. More stars than you’ve ever seen. So you turn off your flashlight, and stand, for a moment, staring upwards, wishing you knew more constellations, any constellations, before turning it back on and meeting your guide.
The rest of the group, the other half, the “fast group,” is still asleep. They will leave 45 or so minutes after you. But you need the extra time because you’re terribly out of shape, because you can’t go more than a few steps on an incline without your breath getting heavy, your heart beating fast. Despite that, for some reason, you decided you were going to hike the 1200 meters to the top of Colca Canyon. For some reason, you decided you could make it up without a mule.
You could have rented a mule to ride to the top of the canyon. It was an option. In fact, the whole two days prior, you said, every time you had to stop, every time your legs ached and your heart pounded and your chest collapsed, “On the third day, I’m renting a mule.”
On the first day, when you hiked down into the canyon for four hours, you fell behind everyone else. When your guide would stop the group at a resting point, and you’d finally catch up to them, your legs shook, your breath shook. When you had to walk just ten minutes up a path you clung to the rocks, you clung to your chest. When you reached the guesthouse you’d be staying at that night, you downed a water, a Coke, some Lomo Saltado, and then could hardly get up from your plastic chair. “I think I’m going to need a mule,” you told the girl next to you.
On the second day, on a half hour climb to a rest area that had overpriced chocolate bars and guinie pigs in cages waiting to be grilled, you were the last one to arrive. When you did, finally, you collapsed into a chair, dripping with sweat.
“I’m renting a mule,” you muttered as you peeled an orange and unwrapped a Twix bar.
But you didn’t rent the mule.
There are many options for trekking Peru’s Colca Canyon. You can do it yourself, but if you’re a solo traveler, if you spent the week before working at your laptop and met no one else in Arequipa, it’s probably best to take a tour. Be with others. If you search online you’ll find websites that tell you it costs $250 and that it has to be booked five months ahead. Or you can ask your hostel two days before and book a tour for $50. You can take a bus tour or you can take a trek and treks last two days or three days. At first a three-day trek sounds like it would be worse than a two-day trek, but it’s actually better. Both cover the same distance, both have the same amount of walking. The three-day trek just spreads it out more. For either trek, there’s an option to rent a mule to take you up to the top of the canyon on your last day.
On the second day of your trip you are happy you took the three day over the two day excursion. You arrived at the hotel in the afternoon, when it was still hot enough to enjoy the pool for 15 minutes or so. The two-day-trippers arrived much later, much more exhausted, after the sun started to disappear and the air started to chill. After a quick swim, you laid in the grass and pondered whether you should get a mule the next day. Even when you booked the tour you were certain that you were going to get the mule to take you up the canyon on the third day of the trek. You were certain that you would never make it up yourself. And the past two days of trekking only confirmed that you were in no shape to hike for three hours uphill. Usually you’re good with downhill, but, on this trip, even that had been struggle.
But no one else in your group needed a mule. Not the American couple who were living in Lima. Not the three Dutch couples who weren’t traveling together. Not the older Australian woman. Not the German girl who came on the trek covered in red puffy spots that you worried the whole time you’d contract.
The only other person who was considering a mule was her friend, another German girl, who had also been slow and had some trouble.
You talked to her, that afternoon, and together decided that you would do it. You would trek up the canyon together and not get mules. You could do it.
Mules were expensive, anyways. Seventy Soles. Twenty-five dollars. Which doesn’t seem like a lot of money except that the whole three day trek, including two night of accommodation, transportation, and most of the meals, was only fifty dollars.
That night, in front of a bonfire, the guide asked if anyone wanted to rent a mule, and then, after you all said no, time and again, asked you, “are you sure?”
But the next morning, fifteen minutes into the hike up, at 4:15 in the morning, in the pitch black, when your breath was already heaving, when your legs were already shaking, when the guide pointed you and the five others who joined in the “slow group” in the right direction, before turning around to guide the others, you wished you had gotten the mule.
The German girl, the one who agreed that she would be slow too, she got a mule.
She woke up that morning saying she was sick and was up all night. The guide called around and found her an extra one. You cursed her as she stayed behind and considered asking if he could find you one too. But you kept quiet. It was 4:15 in the morning. It was pitch black. You had a long trek ahead of you. There was no other option but to walk.
At first, you are in front, leading the group of women behind you with your iPhone’s flashlight. That is how prepared you are to trek. You’re using the flashlight function on your iPhone. Another girl has walking sticks, most everyone else has headlamps. You have an iPhone.
You walk, leading them around turns you can’t see, pausing at corners when one turn would lead you up and the other would send you slipping down the rocks. You walk until you can’t walk. Until you need a break, a sip of water, oxygen.
You ask then if anyone else wants to take the lead and, luckily, Rosalind, the older woman, the olive farmer from Australia, offers to take over. You’re grateful. Because you feel so guilty for the other girls that they joined you in the slow group that you would spend the whole morning pushing yourself too far, too fast, if you stayed in front.
You tried to convince people not to join you. Sure there were a few who would benefit from the 45 minute head start. The Dutch girl who, on the first day, was sick from altitude. The German girl. The one who got the mule.
The others decided, the night before, that they wanted to join the “slow group.” They wanted to take their time, enjoy a leisurely pace that the “fast group” wouldn’t have. I tried telling them that it wasn’t a matter of fast and slow, it was a matter of normal and slow. But somehow the slow group became bigger than the fast group, the normal group.
Rosalind, and her headlamp, take the lead. She goes at a slow pace and instills a one-hundred on, one-hundred off stride. One-hundred paces. One-hundred count rest. It’s just what you need to get your heart rate back to normal. To feel normal.
Slowly, the sun starts to rise. Slowly, you make your way up the canyon. You increase your pace to 150. Then 200. You take breaks here and there to eat some Oreos, drink some water, take some photos.
It’s two and a half hours later and the sun is out, when your guide, and the rest of the group catch up to you. The girls you had been trekking with all morning now increase their pace. But you still struggle. More so than before because you’ve made it two-thirds of the way up a canyon you had no business climbing.
You still have an hour to go.
The guide turns on his iPod, cranks up, “Eye of the Tiger,” and you continue to walk.
At one point, a man with three mules passes you. Two of the mules are carrying supplies and the other is free. Your guide asks if you want it. He could ask if you could hitch a lift.
But you decline. You’ve made it this far. You’re close to the end. You can finish.
As the mules disappear up the canyon, you immediately regret saying no. You slow down. There are more stairs and stairs are hard because you have to pull yourself up. You prefer the stretches of dirt paths.
“Half hour more,” the guide says. Half hour more. You think back to the day before. To the half hour climb. You managed that. And, today, you managed your way nearly to the top. You walk. You take breaks. You can feel your heart in your ears.
But you walk.
You look up and see the top. And you see some of the rest of your trekking group there watching down at you, cheering that you can make it. You can make it. You are almost there. Your guide cranks up Jason Mraz behind you:
But I won’t hesitate no more, no more.
It cannot wait, I’m yours.
And you put one foot in front of the other.
You turn a corner and realize it’s your last one.
He plays, “We are the Champions,” behind you, and you walk the last part of the path, and you cry.
Not a lot, just a few little tears. Because you did it. Because you did something you didn’t think you could do. Because you pushed yourself to do something you didn’t think you could do.
And you think about that mule you could have taken. How much easier it would have been. And you think about all the mules in your life. The ex-boyfriends. The bank accounts. Your mother’s house. All those things you fall back on instead of pushing yourself for more.
And you wipe the tears from your eyes, and you laugh, and you smile, and you stop to breathe, as you meet your other trek-mates at the top of the canyon. As you hug them, and high five them, and shake their hands.