“Hug the mountain,” I found myself saying. “Hug. The. Mountain!”
It was two summers ago, and I was hiking to the Sun Gate, once the main entrance to Machu Picchu, with my dad. Our traveling companions had scattered, and it was just the two of us making our way along the route, which a traitorous guidebook had described as “moderately challenging.”
The man was, and is, amazingly fit for his age—he was 78 when we took our trip to Peru—but after a lifetime of use, his knees weren’t great. He was blithely making his way along the route, which was full of huge rocks and not unlike an obstacle course. Occasionally, he stumbled a bit, which didn’t seem to concern him at all, but worried the hell out of me. We were, after all, walking along a kind of terrace, right next to what was essentially a cliff.
I soon realized Dad was the oldest hiker on the mountain. Other travelers noticed, too, and they started giving him high-fives as we passed. He seemed mildly insulted by the fuss. One man, pushing his companion not to turn back, nodded at Dad and said to her in Spanish, “Look at him. If he can do it, so can you.”
After about two hours of this, during which I was sure he was going to pitch over the side at any moment, we finally came to the gate itself. Below us, in the distance, the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu looked tiny, dwarfed by the surrounding mountains. As we joined the other hikers, they regarded my dad, and then burst into spontaneous applause.
“What about me?” we heard a voice say. “I’m 72!” It was my uncle Don, who’d been waiting for us at the gate. He was jealous of all the attention his brother was getting.
If the way up was tough, the way down was somehow even tougher, and by the time we got to the bottom, we’d had our fill of the mystery and majesty of Machu Picchu. We were both alive, which was its own mystery. That night, as we all headed to dinner from our hotel, starving, Dad declared that his knees would never, ever be the same. But he didn’t regret the experience. Neither did I.
And as we walked the cobblestone streets, I remember being overcome by the most delicious sensation. The town sat at an elevation of more than 6,000 feet, and the weather was in the sixties. What hell were they going through 3,000-plus miles away, in Houston? I felt so far removed from the boiling cauldron that is the Bayou City in summertime, I almost couldn’t imagine. But I knew that the mountains were exactly where I wanted to be.