The young man guiding me to the trailhead explained that I could either roll up the coca leaves and chew them, or I could steep them into strong tea. He said I needed their medicine to adjust to the high altitude on the mountain, especially due to my history of chronic head pain. Reluctant to try a cocaine plant, I brewed a tall thermos of its tea and stirred in a scoop of wild honey, watching as it dissolved in the hot water. To my surprise, it wasn’t bad—the sweet sap of Peruvian bees overpowered the bitter taste. The first few sips calmed me, as I began along the trail, and after a while, it felt as ordinary as drinking plain water.
The first day of hiking was an easy five hours, sprinkled with shallow hills and valleys. The light painted portraits of the sky as it outlined silhouettes of mountains in the distance; its presence mocked every photo that had ever tried to capture the essence of the natural world. At the campsite, I watched the sunset with a young Australian couple as then laid in my tent, clutching a Chinua Achebe novel for company in lieu of cellphone reception. Afraid of the unfamiliar darkness outside, I curled up in my sleeping bag, which was soaked from the sudden rain. I hoped it might offer insulation that my surroundings could not.
It was in that moment, when the melancholy of nightfall set in to remind me of her absence, that I registered I was truly alone. Six tents of twelve strangers and a few mountain dogs surrounded me, but there was no one—and no way to contact anyone. Though I became friendly with other hikers, I hadn’t told anyone that two days before I flew into Lima, my friend had passed away, shortly after her sixteenth birthday.
The news had not been a surprise. I knew it could happen before I left on my trip, and my logical way of coping was to plan. I compulsively rewrote packing lists and bought new hiking boots, smoothing every logistical kink I could think of to equip myself for the challenges I was about to face. But as I walked under the moonlight, searching for enough phone service to make even one phone call to a friend, I understood there was nothing I could’ve done to prepare for the uncertainty of life itself, much less what follows. I read until I finished my book around sunrise, hopelessly intent on consuming a fictional past to distract myself from the weight of the impending present.
I remember few things about hiking the following day. My mind was somewhere else. The Australian couple cried because they saw snow for the first time in their lives, and I did because I couldn’t process the turbulence of the world. My migraines persisted, and I relied on drinking the coca tea to help relieve pressure compounding in my brain. Looking back, I think its healing properties might’ve been mostly a placebo, but at the time, it seemed like the only thing which could propel me forward along the trail.
By the day’s end, my lack of lung capacity had taken a toll. My breathing had shortened during the eleven-hour incline, and I wondered whether the weakness I felt in my bones was a result of more than just thin air. Too exhausted to illustrate stories to occupy my thoughts that evening, I drifted off in the chilling tranquility of the mountain, sleeping through the night for the first time since she had been gone.
We got to Machu Picchu the next afternoon. It didn’t seem plausible to me that anything so beautiful could exist on Earth. I walked around in symmetrical patches of sand and peered over the valley below the citadel, stopping at the highest point to breathe in fresh air as the world stood still around me. Despite the thousands of other tourists, it felt like the view belonged to my eyes only. Time did not seem to exist at the summit—I would’ve stayed there forever, had the sun not started floating westward through the ivory clouds.
My phone ran out of battery once I left, so I depended on sunlight to gauge hours as I walked down the trail. I spent one last night in my tent and I wrote her a letter to tell her about the view, my handwriting scribbled without a screen to illuminate the damp paper I had found in my backpack. As the honey in my tea dissolved, I realized that the vastness of outside did not scare me quite as much as it had on the way to the top. After becoming acclimatized to the altitude at the summit, the height of the mountain suddenly was not so daunting.
Walking on flat ground in the village felt unnatural. The air was easier to breathe and so I moved briskly, my quicker strides meeting the future milliseconds earlier than they used to. I ate and slept and bathed as I recovered from the hike, observing how my body was adapting to all of the transitions it had endured. I boarded my flight home late on a smoggy August night and instantly fell asleep in my seat, muddled from the restless South American humidity.
I drifted into consciousness a little while later when my eyes opened into a bright purple sky, the airspace radiating the exact hue of lilac, which was her favorite. A stewardess told me it was four in the morning, but I couldn’t cosmically grasp how the world was illuminated so clearly at dawn. I understood something in that moment that I’ve never been able to put my finger on. Watching the purple light shine through the windowpane that morning was the first time I ever believed in something greater than myself.
The weeks and months after getting home are a blur now. Once reunited, we all clung to one another for security in a way we hadn’t before, finally forced to confront the reality that enveloped us after months of refusing to accept it. In hindsight, I think we were scared that addressing the inevitable future would make it encroach on us sooner, but it took all of the events coming to fruition to realize we had no control over any of it in the first place.
I learned a lot from time I spent with people close to me after that trip, navigating how to talk about the past and the future without letting the present slip from our adolescent grip. Though we tried hard to protect each other, no degree of love safeguarded the individual grief we all had to experience in the aftermath. Despite the eternal bonds I have with each person to which I am intrinsically linked because of that summer, I know the nights I spent alone in Peru were most formative to the person I became.
I remember so clearly the last time I held her hands and told her that I loved her. I knew nothing in my fifteen-year-old world would be the same once I left the hospital that afternoon. Four summers later, I’m sure I don’t believe time heals all wounds, though I’ve come to believe that the cosmos offers moments of sanctuary to pause the tribulations of life while clocks perpetually continue to tick.
I’ve never doubted that the clear view from the summit of the mountain and the lilac sky at dawn held some sort of meaning. Despite my characteristic lack of spirituality, I’m certain that I was given a response from the natural world on those mornings to remind me of the power within my solitude when I stopped fighting for control against the universe. Those days proved that as time inevitably keeps passing, there’s hope in finding moments that can make everything stand still, at least for an instant or two.
Getting to the top of that mountain taught me to believe in my own humanity. I learned that tests of resilience don’t happen when you can prepare for their onset, but rather when the opposite is true. Somewhere along the trail, I instinctively began to trust the cycle of light and the pattern of my breath to guide me to where I was supposed to be, and I ultimately discovered that beyond the powers of the coca tea, my own strength was what I had truly needed to survive.
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