My mother died with very few secrets.
I thought I knew everything she had to confess as I had cared for her. I knew the twist of her bones as I had studied her x-rays like a doctor. I knew her marrow. I knew the sound of her heart (I heard it, I felt it) and I knew her wishes. I fought for her wishes. I found for them as I gave her morphine and as the doctors withdrew treatment we both knew she didn’t want anymore. I held her hand as she died. I told her she could go. I told her because I knew that she was waiting. She had been waiting so long for me to say goodbye.
She had started saying goodbye long before I did. She did it in acts: birthday cards for years without her. Journals in which she told me that I was someone; that I could be someone. And in a request, which she only told my father. A secret she kept from me. I think maybe it was too painful to speak together. To imagine a world in which I was a woman, and free, and without her. To imagine the steps I would take into fearsome places, without my backstop waiting to rescue me, to help me, to tell me I could. So she told my dad, who told me.
The request: that there were two things she wanted me to see in my life. One was the Taj Mahal. This, she said, was a symbol of eternal love.
The other was Machu Picchu. She had dreamed of travelling there, but she never did. And so she handed me her dream, and asked that I would live it for her. To walk the steps her legs were too weary for.
When my husband and I first started planning this extraordinary adventure, eight months travelling the Americas and the world, my mum’s request sat deep in my heart, and deep in the trip’s center. I knew that in coming all the way to Peru we would simply have to see Machu Picchu.
We chose to trek there, and because the Inca Trail books out more than a year in advance, we chose a challenging nine-day option that would lead us to the ruins of Choquequirao and over a range of mountain passes, before reaching the place itself: Machu Picchu.
I spent the first three days of the trek regretting everything.
For many years now I have struggled with knee pain on long hikes. Apparently it’s a common condition that affects women more than men: a lack of glute strength (reasons unknown) combined with a slightly wide hip-set means that my knees don’t work quite the way they should. I’ve seen many physios and done endless exercises to try and fix the problem – and I think one day I will – but it wasn’t enough to ensure a painless hike this time. And the first day of our trip: vertical downhill. For hours.
I love hiking more than almost anything, but I’m not especially good at it. It’s not just my knees but my mind. I find it very hard to be lost in the moment of the climb, and instead catastrophize about the hills awaiting me, and the impossibility of my success. Combine this intellectual tick-tick of disaster with high altitude, sore legs, blisters and a team of staunch mules and fast-moving men, and you’ve got a frail and frightened Kirsti thinking she made a terrible mistake.
But I had to remind myself that we’ve done hikes before I feared and regretted, until I looked back and witnessed the mountains I had overcome. I think some trekkers love the physical act of walking: lost in the woods, lost in their thoughts, straining their body to its limit and feeling the rush. I feel this in moments, but for me the thrill of hiking is knowing that I can do something I doubted I could complete. Knowing that I am more than what I believe myself to me. The evidence is in the hills, and it can’t be taken from me. I can believe so little of myself, but I can’t deny the paths that I have travelled by foot, under my own steam.
And there are only two options with hiking: you do it, or you don’t. You fail, or you succeed. And maybe you succeed by using a mule at times, and maybe you walk more slowly than you expected; maybe the hike takes four days instead of two, maybe you stumble, maybe you fall. But if you finish, no one can take that away from you. Completing a hike is one of the most certain things I have ever felt.
On the fifth day of our trek, we walked for hours across farmland dipped in the honey-light of the dawn. We stood aside for troops of mules kicking the dust into clouds, for crinkled men with sun-ripened skin leading those same mules beneath the open skies. We rounded a corner to see the impossible, craggy heights of snowy mountains, standing over us as ancestors. We ate cookies at their feet, and the condors began to circle: three creatures with wingspans as wide as always, soaring even higher than the hills.
As we began to climb, I became breathless. My heart raced, a product of the altitude and the exertion, and, I think, of fear. I have never walked so high. I have never felt the power leave my legs like a plug pulled from the bath, sucking away desperately, to nowhere. I’ve climbed mountains, but never like this, with the air thin as a cotton sheet in winter, and glaciers carving down towards me.
I walked as far as a could. Then I rode a stocky little mule until I could walk again. We ascended and ascended, the sun rich against our arms but the air cut-cold. We climbed until we were within the clouds, their bodies eddying around us, racing and lifting and moving like so many ghosts at the mercy of the wind.
And suddenly, we reached the top. From a distance, I was the ice, the snow. From the ground I would be nothing, just a small speck against a great and extraordinary thing. Invisibly inside the sky, where people look up to marvel. Where I had looked up in disbelief.
Two days prior, our guide had told us about a client he once took on the Inca Trail. She came with her sister, who was fit and active and could walk long distances in quick time. But this woman was bigger, and hadn’t trained for the walk. On the first day, which should have been brief, she arrived hours after all the others – hours, in fact, after dinner and dark.
Before our guide had the chance to seek her out for a conversation, she approached him and asked to talk. “I know,” she said, “that you’re going to tell me I have to go back. But I can’t. My sister and I grew up without knowing the other existed. My father had another, secret family, who we didn’t find out about until he died. That was when I met my sister. And going to Machu Picchu was her dream. And she asked me to come with her. If you send me back, she will come with me. There’s no way that she won’t, no matter what I say. So I can’t go back.”
She walked all the way, arriving to the campsite after nine each night and setting off around 4 each morning, hours earlier than the rest of the group.
When she and her sister arrived at the Sungate, the famed and magical entrance to Machu Picchu, they held each other and they cried.
“That was when I understood about dreams,” our guide told us. “I don’t turn people back anymore.”
I realised that I’ve never really considered my dreams in too much depth. There have been things I’ve wanted to do, sure, and things I have wanted to achieve. But I couldn’t say what my dream was. I dreamed of going to India, to see the Taj Mahal. I dreamed of fulfilling this wish my mum carried, for me to see Machu Picchu. I had dreamed her dreams for so long I think maybe I lost sight of my own.
And then there’s this other thing that I’ve never been quite able to articulate. I have never believed in my survival. Though I tested negative to the gene that gave Mum her cancer, and I have every logical reason to believe that I will live a long and happy life, I still don’t think it’s true. I fear standard medical tests because I am certain that they will finally reveal the truth: that I am not going to live. I’ve had my health scares and challenges, but none have threatened my life in the way I am certain one will. Perhaps, in the same way we learn the love we’re shown, we expect the life we live closest to.
It’s hard to imagine greatness when you’re sure your life is limited. It’s hard to believe in a future you have no faith in. It’s hard to look into a distance you can’t see. It makes it really hard to dream.
I realised that the only dream I’ve ever allowed myself is survival. To live. To live longer than my mum did. To live and to have dreams of my own, and to achieve them.
When I reached the summit of that mountain, I felt more alive than I ever had. I looked at the trail I had walked, a snaking impossibility zig-zagging through the earth, and I felt proud. I thanked my legs for carrying me. I looked at the ice above me, and I felt the awe reserved for the hardest things. I looked at the man beside me, and I felt home.
And I gave myself a new dream. I told myself that I could climb mountains. That I could witness amazing things in the world, and I could be strong enough to see them. I could be someone who kayaked across lakes and walked to summits and clung to rock faces. I could have faith in the body that I was always so sure would betray me. I could think the best of it, instead of the worst.
The best part was, the dream was already coming true. While one voice told me that I could be someone who could climb mountains, another spoke more loudly: you just did.
I made it to Machu Picchu. I stood amid the ruins of endless years, I learned about the architecture and marvelled at the civilisation’s prowess. I watched the light break through the hills and I let her go to them. I asked them to hold her. I asked these ancestors to find the path that travels to wherever she is, whatever strange vibration echoes the beat her heart used to carry.
Because those were not my mountains. They held the dreams of other people. The women who hugged and cried amid their peaks. The man who reached Machu Picchu on foot at 85 years old, and realised that this was his last trip, the one he had to take. My mother, who died before she could finish living. And I loved her there, and in that moment. I looked at the hills, and I gave her all the love I could.
But this was her dream. It wasn’t mine.
I have found it too easy to let my life be hemmed by its losses. A year and a half ago, on my mother’s birthday no less, I discovered that the baby I was carrying was ectopic, and had to be removed. This was less than three months after my beloved grandmother’s death, and, like when Mum died, I felt ripped apart. Not just by the surgery, which was sudden and painful and heartbreaking and necessary, if I wanted to live. But by the realisation that could you can heal and be torn again; you can believe in motherhood even without a mother, and it can be taken from you. You can hope that your body is better than you believe, but it can still fail you. You can want something more than you have words for, and it can still be taken away.
Travelling here, on this adventure, was in some small part because of that loss too. I was far too afraid to try for another baby, and I needed time. I needed a different fear: zika virus, perhaps, or malaria, or deep-vein thrombosis on a flight, or just timing, just bad timing, to make me wait. I needed time to prove to myself that the tiny life I held within me was real, even if it was just a bunch of cells. Even if it was nothing, it was something to me, because I wanted it. It’s not a foetus when you want it. When you want it, it’s a baby.
But now, I am travelling, with the man I love. I am seeing a world I barely knew existed, one crackling with energy and colour and light. A world in which I see wild horses running across open plains. A world where monkeys leap from tree to tree above me, and anacondas sleep coiled in hushed grass. I drank wine on a balcony overlooking Quito’s ancient plaza. I watched the sunrise over the Andes. We have found a new kind of love together, deeper than I ever knew. I have spent every second by his side and seen him as more than I ever did: more silly, more gentle, more kind.
And I have climbed mountains. I have forgiven myself for stumbling, for running out of breath. I have allowed myself to be slow, as long as I move forward. I rode a mule when my faulty knees couldn’t climb anymore, without allowing this to feel like giving up. Instead, it was surrender.
I have carried dreams over passes thousands of meters high, and found my own. They’re not as heavy. These dreams I’ve found for myself have almost no weight.
They are not for my Mum, or for my baby. They are not defined by something which has gone. They are not penance, they are not a sentence.
They are just me, believing that I can be extraordinary.
And, too, that Marcus and I can be extraordinary together, not because of those who have gone, but because we believe in each other, and we believe in ourselves, and we keep walking forward.
And even if I found out I was not going to survive; even if my mother’s fate was my own, I would keep walking forward into the arms of whatever awaits.
Because my dreams don’t lie in some distant place. It is simply knowing that one step in front of the other will carry you to the top. So you keep walking. Or rolling. Or travelling.
You keep climbing until you are the peak of the mountain: you stand on top of the highest thing knowing you will climb again, higher still.