Best of both worlds

We travel in two completely different circles. We have lived in our motorhome for nearly four and a half years and have traveled extensively in western North America. During that time we have done many backpack trips. For us this has been a great combination. It is so convenient to always have all of our stuff with us wherever we travel. It is great to be able to pull over and fix a good meal or use a clean bathroom. We have the ability to sleep comfortably anywhere we're parked, be it fancy RV resort or a Walmart parking lot. We tow a car and have made good use of our ability to self shuttle for backpack thru trips. It has also enabled us to wait out poor weather conditions in comfort.  International travel is extremely easy; our motorhome simply goes to a storage lot. The list goes on. Obviously our lifestyle is not for everyone, in fact we have never met anyone who lives in an RV and backpacks, but for us it is the best of both worlds.

Where we have been - The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and the Cusco Region in Peru

6/13 - 6/24  2014

In this post

We have talked about going to Peru for years and we have now added this "trip of a lifetime" to our list. While we have used REI Adventures in the past this time we went with Andes Adventures. John was familiar with this company as he did their trail running trip in Patagonia back in 2003 (you can read about his adventure).  He thought Devy and Abelardo did a superb job so we were happy to have the opportunity to travel with them. Not only did we do the iconic trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu we got to attend "Inti Raymi" (Festival of the Sun). We also did a high altitude trek around Mt Ausangate which I will write about in our next post.

We arrived in Cusco two days before the tour began. Flying in early helped us with acclimatization as Cusco is 11,800 feet in altitude (we also indulged in the traditional coca leaf tea which is said to help one to acclimatize). Cusco was a whirl of activity. We happened to be there during the month long celebration of Cusco’s anniversary.  The city was host to countless people from all over the country.

Cusco, Peru

A short walk from our hotel took us to the main square where a seemingly endless parade was going on.

Anniversary celebration in Cusco, Peru

The streets were lined with people in an inspiring show of national pride.

Anniversary celebration in Cusco, Peru

We had the privilege to watch colorful dancers …

Anniversary celebration in Cusco, Peru

… of all ages …

Anniversary celebration in Cusco, Peru

… and manner of costume.

Anniversary celebration in Cusco, Peru

Parades lasted all day and well into the night.

Anniversary celebration in Cusco, Peru

Cusco is the ancient capital of the Inca Empire. Spanish influence is evident throughout the city but remnants of the Inca civilization endure.

Cusco, Peru

On the first day of the tour we visited the Cathedral …

The Cathedral in Cusco, Peru

… and the Santo Domingo Monastery.

Santo Domingo Monastery in Cusco, Peru

What was interesting about this building is that it had incorporated some of the Inca architecture that predated the arrival of the Spaniards.

Santo Domingo Monastery in Cusco, Peru

The monastery was built on the site of the Sun Temple and was where the Inti Raymi, “Festival of the Sun”, would begin later in the month.

Site of the Sun Temple in Cusco, Peru

The following morning we visited the ruins of Sacsayhuaman, a fortress and temple perched on a hillside overlooking Cusco, where most of Inti Raymi would take place.

Sacsayhuaman in Cusco, Peru

After that we boarded a bus and headed toward the Sacred Valley …

The Sacred Valley in Peru

… and got some of our first views of terraced fields on the steep mountain slopes.

The Sacred Valley in Peru

We stopped in the village of Pisac …

Pisac, Peru

… for a “pit stop” and some “refueling”, empanadas in our case.

Jean enjoying an empanada in Pisac, Peru

We were then driven to the town of Yucay where we stayed at a luxurious lodge that had formerly been a nunnery.

Sonesta Posada del Inca Hotel in Yucay, Peru

The next morning we headed to where we would start the Inca Trail. On the way we visited the village of Ollantaytambo, reported to be the best surviving example of an Inca town. Many of its buildings sit upon Inca walls and its narrow cobbled streets, family courtyards and water system are said to be exactly as it was built in Inca times.

Ollantaytambo, Peru

We were greeted by four Quechua women in traditional dress who, for a modest tip, sang for us.

Quechua women in Ollantaytambo, Peru

We were shown a typical home complete with Guinea Pigs running loose. This seemed like a very practical way to ensure one’s family has access to fresh meat. However, it was a bit disconcerting to see some who looked exactly like the pet “piggies” our boys had many years ago.

A home in Ollantaytambo, Peru

Ollantaytambo is built adjacent to a significant ruin ...

Ollantaytambo, Peru

… which we took some time to explore …

Ollantaytambo, Peru

… and got a close look at the intricacy and precision of the Inca stonework. It is hard to imagine how this was accomplished with only stone tools and human labor.  All of our photos taken while sightseeing in the Cusco Region are on Flickr.

Ollantaytambo, Peru

Just getting to the trailhead proved to be an exciting adventure in itself. We rode in a comfortable tour bus that seemed over sized given how narrow the roads were. Fortunately our driver was exceptionally skilled as at one point he had to negotiate a partially washed out bridge. I think we were all relieved to arrive at the trailhead without mishap. We had a large group of fellow trekkers and we couldn’t have wished for a better bunch of folks to do this trip with.

Our group at the start of the Inca Trail in Peru

We first crossed the Urubamba River (the trail is visible to the left).

The Urubamba River and the Inca Trail in Peru

By looking back we got a view of Mount Veronica (18,865 feet), the highest peak in the Cordillera Urubamba.

Mt Veronica and the Urubamba River in Peru

Most visitors take the quick and easy way to Machu Picchu, the train which travels through the Urubamba River valley. One of many mysteries of Machu Picchu is why the Incas didn’t choose the same route rather than take the circuitous way that crosses three mountain passes. I figure there must be an important reason and we were quite content to take the trail. Besides, there is so much to be seen along the way.

The train to Machu Picchu and the Urubamba River in Peru

One of the most delightful human encounters we have ever had while hiking was meeting Marco. We found him sprawled out on the trail. Apparently he had become quite tired walking home from school, laid down to rest and went fast to sleep. Once awake he became animated and proudly showed Abelardo, our guide, what he had done in school that day. He walked the rest of the way to his home with us (and holding Abelardo's hand).

Marco showing off his school work to Abelardo

We continued on and were happy to see our camp in the distance …

Our camp near Llactapata along the Inca Trail in Peru

… adjacent to the ruins of Llactapata, "Town on Hillside".  One of the many great things about Andes Adventures is that the first night we got to camp near this site while other tours continue further up the trail. What this does is enable our group to be “out of step” with other groups so we hardly saw any other tourists on the trail.

Llactapata along the Inca Trail in Peru

Shortly after arriving at camp we were introduced to our cooks and porters. We learned that most were farmers and weavers who do this as a way to make some extra money.  Abelardo told us their names and ages.  I jokingly asked how many wives they had and this apparently struck them as quite funny.   Most reported having only one wife but some got into it and said they had more.

Our cooks and porters while trekking the Inca Trail in Peru

The next morning we hiked through the ruins.

Llactapata along the Inca Trail in Peru

Given the length of the terraces some cantilevered steps were ingeniously incorporated in the stone walls.

Jean at Llactapata along the Inca Trail in Peru

Later we stopped at a check point. The number of permits is limited to 200 trekkers and 300 guides and porters, a vast improvement over the days when thousands of trekkers started the trail every day. In the past the large numbers of people trashed the trail, camped within archeological sites and pooped anywhere they wanted.

Our group at a check point on the Inca Trail in Peru

A sign showed a simplified illustration of the elevation gain and loss of the trail.

Sign on the Inca Trail in Peru

The trail gradually gained elevation …

The Inca Trail in Peru

… becoming steeper when we began encountering something the Inca Trail is well known for; stairs, countless stone stairs of varying height and width.

The Inca Trail in Peru

The trail took us through lush forest …

The Inca Trail in Peru

… to above the tree line. We camped that night at Llulluchapampa which is at about 12,450 feet.

Our camp at Llulluchapampa along the Inca Trail in Peru

The following day we would cross Warmiwañusq'a Pass, also known as "Pass of the Dead Woman", at 13,779 feet. It is the highest point on the Inca Trail. To avoid hiking up it in the heat of the day we were awakened quite early and provided a quick cold breakfast (with a promise of our customary hot breakfast on the other side).

Approaching Pass of the Dead Woman on the Inca Trail in Peru

As with any hike it is important to stop periodically and look back as some of the best views may be behind you. Besides it can be quite satisfying to see where you have been and how far you have come rather than focus only on how far you have yet to go.

Seen from the Inca Trail in Peru

Our early start definitely avoided hiking in any heat. While the sun can be quite hot the wind is chilly and I thought the shaded valley was cold. I don’t often have to wear a puffy coat and warm hat when hiking uphill.

Jean approaching the Pass of the Dead Woman on the Inca Trail in Peru

The “Pass of the Dead Woman” apparently earned its name from the rock formations at the pass which, when viewed from the other side, are supposed to resemble a woman lying on her back. I did wonder why it couldn’t have been named something a bit less morose like “Pass of the Sleeping Woman”.

Seen on the Inca Trail in Peru

Once over the pass we descended to the valley knowing we would soon hike up another pass. I enjoyed the warm sun and really looked forward to …

Jean on the Inca Trail in Peru

… our Second Breakfast!

Enjoying our hot breakfast while trekking the Inca Trail in Peru

As we approached Runkurakay Pass at 13,000 feet we had this view of the Runkurakay watchtower ruins below.

Runkurakay watchtower ruins seen from the Inca Trail in Peru

We also had great views of the Cordillera Vilcabamba.

Cordillera Vilcabamba seen from the Inca Trail in Peru

As the trail descended again we encountered Sayacmarca, "Dominant Town".

Sayacmarca seen from the Inca Trail in Peru

A short but steep side trail enabled us to walk around in the ruins.

Sayacmarca seen from the Inca Trail in Peru

We then continued to descend going through an Inca tunnel with carved steps

On the Inca Trail in Peru

The trail then entered some dense vegetation and became a wide, more “road like” stone paved trail.

On the Inca Trail in Peru

The trail then made its final ascent and we began to get views of Salcantay.

Salcantay seen from the Inca Trail in Peru

We camped near Phuyupatamarca, "Town in the Clouds" …

Our camp at Phuyupatamarca while trekking the Inca Trail in Peru

… and even the view from our tent was great!

Seen from our tent while camping at Phuyupatamarca along the Inca Trail in Peru

John took advantage of the deepening evening light for photography.

Seen from the Inca Trail in Peru

Our group arose quite early to see the sunrise and the morning light was gorgeous over the distant peaks such as Sacsarayoc (on the left) …

Sacsarayoc seen from the Inca Trail in Peru

… Salcantay ...

Salcantay seen from the Inca Trail in Peru

… and surrounding mountains.

Seen from the Inca Trail in Peru

We then began our final descent.

On the Inca Trail in Peru

The trail passes some ceremonial Inca baths where mountain water still flows through carved stone channels ...

Ceremonial baths on the Inca Trail in Peru

… and continues down more stairs.

On the Inca Trail in Peru

We passed another significant ruin on the way, Wiñay Wayna, "Forever Young."

Wiñay Wayna on the Inca Trail in Peru

This was our favorite ruins thus far.

Wiñay Wayna on the Inca Trail in Peru

We were delighted to have this beautiful site to ourselves …

Wiñay Wayna on the Inca Trail in Peru

… with the exception of a few llamas.

Llamas at Wiñay Wayna on the Inca Trail in Peru

We were approaching the end of the Inca Trail but we discovered that we weren’t quite done with stairs.  The climb was brief …

On the Inca Trail in Peru

… but I think these were the steepest we had encountered.

On the Inca Trail in Peru

Our efforts were immediately rewarded with the sight of Intipunku, "Gateway of the Sun" …

Intipunku seen from the Inca Trail in Peru

… and our first view of Machu Picchu!

Mach Picchu seen from the Inca Trail in Peru

We would not be touring the site that day so we continued down to the entrance where we would catch a bus to take us to Machu Picchu Pueblo (AKA Aguas Calientes) where our hotel (and hot showers) awaited us.

On the Inca Trail in Peru

The next morning we left our lodging early, picked up a sack lunch and boarded a bus that would take us to the entry gate of Machu Picchu. Our guide, Abelardo, is quite knowledgeable about the ruins and he led us around to some of the most notable structures.

Machu Picchu in Peru

I wish I had a better memory or had taken notes as he was a wealth of information.


Machu Picchu in Peru

Some of us had opted to do an optional hike to the top of Huayna Picchu, “Young Mountain”, the pointy peak seen beyond Machu Picchu in the distance.

Huayna Picchu and Machu Picchu in Peru

Access to Huayna Picchu is limited to 400 people a day and permits must be purchased well in advance. 200 are allowed to start at 7:00 AM and 200 are allowed at 10:00 AM. We were in the 10:00 group. While we waited in line we wondered where the trail was on the seemingly vertical peak.

Waiting to hike up Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

Given the steepness of terrain we weren’t surprised to encounter stairs, …

Hiking up Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

… some so vertical …

Hiking up Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

… they could be climbed like a ladder.

Hiking up Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

The final ascent to the top involves going through a natural hole in the rocks …

Hiking up Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

… and up an actual ladder.

Hiking up Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

But our efforts were well worth it for the views. We could see well up the valley to the rear of Machu Picchu …

View from Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

… and the slope to the front of the site where one can see the bus road down to Machu Picchu Pueblo with its many switchbacks.  Also visible is Machu Picchu Mountain and a bit of the Inca Trail in the distance toward the upper left in the photo below.

View from Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

Of course we could see the ruins itself.  What struck me was how huge it is and apparently a significant portion of the ruins is still hidden by vegetation.

View from Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

The area at the summit is rocky and was quite crowded so we soon headed down. One option would have been to take a longer trail down the other side to see the Gran Caverna, “Temple of the Moon”. As much as we would have liked to have seen it we decided to not take the time. It is thought that the High Priest lived on this mountain so not surprisingly structures were built on the steep slopes.

View from Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

Also not surprising is that in order to get back down one must descend stairs, …

Hiking down Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

… lots …

Hiking down Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

… and lots of stairs.

Hiking down Huayna Picchu at Machu Picchu in Peru

After this hike we did what many other people did, find a place to eat lunch. The rules are that no food or disposable water bottles are to be brought into the site. Visitors are expected to store their lunch in a locker located outside of the entrance gate and leave the ruins to eat. Or one can pay the high prices at the restaurant. However, we had been told it is possible to carry one’s lunch in a small daypack and find a hidden spot in the rocks beyond the ruins to eat it. Normally we prefer to obey the rules but at the time we justified it to ourselves. Our thought is that guards must know it is happening and as long as no damage is being done or trash left behind that they will turn a blind eye to rule breakers like us.

Machu Picchu can be so crowded that for much of the day it is impossible to not encounter numerous tour groups. John struggled to take any photographs without people in them.

Machu Picchu in Peru

Fortunately this changed after about 3:00 PM when most visitors left as many had trains to catch for the long trip back to Cusco.  John spent the next two hours taking photographs in relative solitude.

Machu Picchu in Peru

I have read that there is an area known as the “Sacred District” which contains three primary structures, the first being the “Temple of the Sun”, the only rounded structure.

Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu in Peru

We were told that one theory is that the stone protuberances at the corners of the window in the photo below once held strings that crossed in the middle.

Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu in Peru

The shadow of the strings cast on the large stone on the floor of the temple helped the Incas to monitor the approach of the winter solstice. In addition the position of the window is such that at the winter solstice when the sun clears the distant mountains it will shine directly through the window onto the Torreon, the large shaped rock within the Temple of the Sun.  We were there on the Winter Solstice but didn't do what was necessary to be there when the sun cleared the distant ridge.  If we had we would have been disappointed as we heard clouds had obscured the sun. 

Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu in Peru

Below the Temple of the Sun is a small natural cave that I have seen described as the “Royal Tomb” although as I understand it no human remains have been found there.

Temple of the Sun at Machu Picchu in Peru

I have also read that it has been thought to be a temple to Pachamama, the Mother Earth.

Inside the cave located below the Temple of the Sun in Machu Picchu, Peru

Another structure located within the Sacred District is the Temple of the Three Windows.

Temple of the Three Windows at Machu Picchu in Peru

The third structure is the Intiwatana, “Hitching Post of the Sun”, a carved rock pillar whose four corners are oriented toward the four cardinal points. I have read that this rock is carved so that shadows cast on it mark the changing of the seasons. The winter solstice held great importance for the Incans and in a few days we would be attending the Inti Raymi, the “Festival of the Sun” which is held annually.

The Intiwatana at Machu Picchu in Peru

Another significant feature is the “Temple of the Condor”. The natural formation was shaped to represent the outspread wings of a condor.

Temple of the Condor Machu Picchu in Peru

A rock on the floor was carved to represent the head and the beak (John took some artistic license in the above photo by digitally removing the cords surrounding it).

The beak of the condor in the Temple of the Condor at Machu Picchu in Peru

We learned that the king’s residence …

King’s residence at Machu Picchu in Peru

… was the only dwelling with an indoor toilet.

The king’s toilet at Machu Picchu in Peru

Much of Machu Picchu has been restored and I have read that some archeologists complain that some is being restored incorrectly, such as some walls are being rebuilt too high.

Machu Picchu in Peru

Despite these concerns the restoration efforts continue.

Restoration at Machu Picchu in Peru

It would seem to me that the names and purposes of structures within the site are all theoretical. I am reminded of a great book I saw many years ago, Motel of the Mysteries by David McCauley. It is a future archeologist’s account of excavating a Motel Six. One illustration was of the "altar" (the television) in the main room but the funniest illustration showed the archeologist's assistant wearing a ceremonial collar with a headband bearing the sacred chant -  “San-i-tized-for-your-pro-tec-tion”.

There is a debate as to the true purpose of Machu Picchu. One theory is that it is a site of great religious significance but another is that it was built as a royal retreat, a country estate so to speak.

Machu Picchu in Peru

But given its location, the carved rock surfaces and structures, where the approach of the winter solstice can be monitored, as well as the reverence the Incas held for the sun I tend to believe that Machu Picchu was much more important than just a place where the king could get away from it all.  All of our Inca Trail and Machu Picchu photos are on Flickr.

Machu Picchu in Peru

The next morning we boarded the train, spent the night at Yucay and returned to Cusco the following day. The city was even more festive than when we left in anticipation of Inti Raymi, the “Festival for the Sun”. On the day of the festival we boarded our tour bus and our driver made a valiant effort to negotiate the traffic clogged narrow streets. On our final approach up the hill to Sacsayhuaman where the main event was to take place we decided it would be faster to get out and walk. Inti Raymi is an authentic celebration that dates back from the Inca times to worship Apu Inti Tayta, the Sun God.  It is held each year at the winter solstice and is a huge extravaganza with countless performers.

Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru

Not knowing anything about the culture we had no idea of the significance of each group of participants.

Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru

All we could do was sit back and enjoy the spectacle.

Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru

We marveled at the elaborate costumes.

Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru

We had forgotten to bring binoculars so this was one of those times when it paid off to be married to a photographer.

Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru

Whereas I could take in the entire performance John was kept busy focusing on individuals taking thousands of photos.

Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru

Most of them weren’t worth keeping but he got some that really highlight some of the individual performers.

Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru

Part way through the festival a reluctant llama was taken to the center platform where the “king”, Pachacutec, stood. We had a momentary concern that the llama would be actually sacrificed. If this was to happen then we knew that we would need to respect it. After all we were guests in this country and it was a privilege to be allowed to attend such a sacred event.

Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru

The llama was placed on an altar and surrounded by costumed performers. Before long one fellow held up what looked like an animal’s internal organs but as far as we know the llama was unhurt and must have been hidden within the altar.

Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru

The performance ended with a procession of all of the performers around the periphery of the field. So we got closer views of all of them including the king …

Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru

… and the queen.

Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru

I can’t imagine the logistics of putting on a show like this; choreographing it, recruiting the performers, teaching them their parts, procuring the costumes, the list goes on. But at the time what struck us the most was the pride Peruvians take in their Inca heritage. Granted there were many tourists present and we occupied some of the best seats but the hillsides were covered with local people who came to witness the event. It was obvious that this festival would continue as it is even if no tourists ever attended it again.  All of our Inti Raymi photos are on Flickr.

Inti Raymi in Cusco, Peru

Our experience thus far in Peru had been wonderful and well worth what it took to get there. Most of our group was content to return home at that point. However we were not done yet, we still had a high altitude trek around Mt Ausangate to look forward to and I will write about that next time.

This next bit is just something that Jean has been thinking about

Where's my tribe?

I was recently reminded of a book I read a while back, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything by Ken Robinson. He uses the term the element "to describe the place where the things we love to do and the things we are good at come together". The author states that some people find their element early in life and our oldest son Dan is a great example. He is a natural born Engineer who exhibited an intense interest in how things work at an extremely young age.

Fixing the dishwasher
Dan "helping" Papa fix the dishwasher

Before long he developed a passion for robotics and built his first robot at age nine. It was made from LEGO Technics and was controlled by a Commodore 64 computer which he programmed after teaching himself BASIC.

LEGO robot
Dan and his first robot at his Fourth Grade Invention Fair

Ken Robinson also states that a primary component of being in one's element is "connecting with other people who share their passion and a desire to make the most of themselves through it". He believes one needs to find their tribe, those people who "get" you, who provide you with validation, encouragement, inspiration, collaboration and sometimes even competition. They are the ones who help you to become even better at what you love to do. Dan found his tribe shortly after entering Washington State University’s Electrical Engineering program when he joined the WSU Robotics Club. Their collaborative effort resulted in "Eddie", an autonomous outdoor robot built primarily to compete in the Seattle Robotics Society’s Robo-Magellan competition (which they won in 2006).

Mission accomplished!
Brent Allen and Dan Strother with "Eddie" at the 2006 Seattle Robotics Society's Robothon

Others find their element and tribe later on. For example it wasn't until John was in his early 30's that he became an avid mountain climber and found his tribe by joining the Seattle Mountaineers.

 John on a climb with the Seattle Mountaineers

But the author also mentions that there are some who never find their element and I remember when I first read that I felt sadness for those individuals. Thinking about it now leads me to admit that I could be one of them because when I look back at my life I just don't see much in the way of aptitude or passion. I had some early interests in a variety of things; horses, music, dance, art and track but I had no natural talent or real aptitude. And I had no lasting passion to drive me to pursue any of the activities long enough to become very good at any of them. Education and the pursuit of a career didn't excite me. I eventually attended Nursing School but was content with an Associate Degree and I only worked as a Registered Nurse until we had children. While I loved being a mother it could be debated whether or not I had an aptitude for it.

 Jean and Tom at Arches National Park, Utah

And I never found a tribe with other mothers I knew as I always felt like I was out of step with them. While they were busy signing their kids up for organized activities, whether they wanted to do them or not, and pressuring them to achieve academically I was defending our kid's desire to play what they wanted in their own yard and to learn at their own pace. And I just couldn't get into discussions with other moms about shoe shopping or home decorating. I also volunteered at our children's elementary school, got involved with PTA, child advocacy and school funding campaigns. I suppose the aptitude was there but I felt no real passion. I only did it because I saw a need to help make things better for the children in our community.  It made me feel anxious, not fulfilled.

Once the kids were grown and John retired we sold our house and began living and traveling fulltime in a motorhome. One could think that I would find a tribe here but I have also felt out of step with the other fulltimers we have met so far. Our motorhome is a means to an end, not an end in itself and its modest size has led more than one fellow RVer to say "you live fulltime in that?!?" Whereas we sought a motorhome that was maneuverable and functional (with a dirt colored interior) others seem to purchase motorhomes that duplicate some of the spacious luxury and decorative aspects of a stationary house.

Our motorhome compared to a "big rig"

It is not my intent to criticize the choices made by others, especially fellow RVers. We have met some absolutely delightful people in our travels, some who have become our friends. I am just observing that we have not yet met any true kindred spirits when it comes to how we live and what we do. While we are now part of the fulltime RVer community they just aren't my tribe.

I then wondered if writing is my element and if the multitudes of bloggers were my tribe. But I don't think so. While writing this blog definitely meets a need that I have (something I have already written about) it is debatable if I have much in the way of aptitude. If I did then I don't think it would be so hard for me or take me so long to write something coherent. And I can't say I have a true passion for writing because if I did I would write more often and post more frequently.

What about adventure travel? Well, I can't say that I found my element or tribe here either as I am not really all that adventurous. While we traveled independently in Canada, New Zealand and Australia, our trips to non-westernized countries; Tanzania, Nepal and Peru, have all been on well organized tours. It was not necessary to learn a new language, know how to get anywhere or to even understand anything at all about the country we were visiting. Everything was taken care of for us; we just did what we were told and went where we were taken. We have met enough truly adventurous travelers to know that I am not one of them.

Larry, AKA "Country Boy Travels", on a trek up the Khumbu Valley in Nepal

One might ask why is it so important to me to identify my "element" and to find my "tribe". It's a good question and I'm not sure I can answer it adequately. I just have a gut level need to know that I am good at something and despite my being a shy and private person I apparently have a need to belong to a group. I want to know if there are others who will accept me as I am and not see me as someone who needs to change. So I asked myself "what am I really good at". The first thing that came to mind was putting one foot in front of the other.

Jean on the John Muir Trail in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, California

But finding one's element is so much more than merely determining what one is good at. There are plenty of things people can do very well but they just don't love doing them. So I asked myself "what do I have the most passion for"? Well, I would have to say it is being in the natural world. I marvel at the glow of a sunrise, …

Sunrise over Mt McKinley in Denali National Park, Alaska

... seeing snow capped peaks, …

Mt Sanford in Wrangell – St Elias National Park, Alaska

… observing clouds dancing across the sky, ...

Sunset over Dinosaur National Monument, Utah

… watching the color show while the sun sets, …

Mt Robson and Berg Lake in Mt Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia

… and gazing at stars not diminished by city lights.

Night sky in Peru

I also love breathing crisp morning air, feeling the warm sun on my skin and drinking cold water from a clear mountain stream. I thoroughly enjoy listening to the wind through the trees, hearing a marmot's whistle and the bugling of an elk as well as the times of complete silence. I value solitude but I also enjoy hearing the enthusiasm expressed by people we encounter in the backcountry who love the same things that I do.

 Andy and Jean at Hance Creek in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

I now see that my element (as well as John's) has been staring me in the face all along – backpacking. It is so obvious to me now that I can't help but wonder why it took me so long to see it. After all, backpacking has been a part of my life for many years. I went on my first backpack trip when I was 18. John and I did a bit while we were still in Kentucky and more while we traveled west in 1977.

 Jean backpacking in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

While I had no opportunities when I was in nursing school and then working we did some shorter trips later on with our kids.

 Tom, Dan and Jean backpacking in Yellow stone National Park, Wyoming

What I now see is that I have thought of backpacking as a young person's activity and I'm 60 now, old enough to be the mother, even grandmother, of individuals we encounter in the backcountry.  But the long list of our backpack trips that we have done since hitting the road should have been a big clue that I am an accomplished backpacker despite my "advanced" age. I should also have noticed the subject matter of the first part of each blog post. The "Where we have been" has been evolving to be backpack trip reports rather than a journal of all of our travels. While we have visited some interesting urban areas and touristy places I just have little interest in writing much about them. And the second part, the things I think about, contains posts on topics such as why I love backpacking  and the natural beauty we see when we are in the backcountry.

Mokowanis Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana

So I've found my tribe, backpackers. I have found those who share my passion for the outdoors and who are willing to do what is necessary to be there. They "get" me. I am no longer seen as odd because I willingly hike on rough trails, carry a heavy pack and can enjoy eating instant mashed potatoes out of a Zip Lock bag before sleeping on the ground.

Our campsite in Serpentine Canyon on the Tonto Trail in Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona

However, being part of a tribe also carries some responsibility. After all if we want to receive validation, encouragement and inspiration from others then it seems only fair that we provide the same when we can to our fellow tribe members. But given our preference to seek out lesser traveled trails how do we fulfill our obligation to others in our tribe? How do we connect with other backpackers if we don't encounter many in the backcountry?

Our campsite while on backpack trip within Weminuche Wilderness Area, Colorado

One answer is through the internet. There must be many web sites, blogs, forums, groups etc devoted to the natural world and backpacking and I have started looking for them. For example, about three years ago I discovered the subreddit "Earth Porn" as a place to post John's photos. In the comments I often included links to more photos and to our blog. My goal at the time was to increase views of his photos and visitors to the blog. It was all about boosting our stats and I now see that I was just seeking validation. But more recently I've been working at being less self serving. Now I periodically check the Camping and Hiking subreddit looking for questions that I might be able to help answer. For example I have tried to provide useful information regarding backpacking in areas we are now quite familiar with such as Glacier National Park and Grand Canyon. I still include links to the pertinent blog post and photos on Flickr but no longer in an effort to increase our stats. I am now content if our information helps someone have an enjoyable backcountry experience and I have discovered that having just one person express gratitude provides far more validation than thousands of blog visitors or Flickr views.

Not long along I was told about another opportunity to connect with our tribe - the Grand Canyon hikers Yahoo group. So far I have just been "lurking" as discussions have been outside my area of expertise such as the use of pack rafts and exploring more remote routes. At this point in time my knowledge seems pretty basic compared to that of regular contributors. But we have hiked every trail between the South Rim and the Colorado River so we do know a thing or two about the canyon. Perhaps the value of my future contributions could be to less experienced individuals who are as intimidated by the knowledge of regular contributors as I am. But I will also rely on their experience to answer questions we have about trails and routes we have not yet done.

However, despite the richness of online resources I still feel a need for some face to face connection.   And we do get it because despite our best efforts to seek more remote trails it is rare to not encounter other people. But this is good.  Prior to retirement when we had many human interactions in our day to day lives we typically avoided other people in the backcountry. But since we have been traveling fulltime we have had less contact with other people. The result is we are more willing to spend time talking with other backpackers. A common situation is in parks which have designated eating areas in the backcountry (because of bears). Our first experience with this was in Tombstone Territorial Park in Yukon where we talked at length with four young adults from Whitehorse, Yukon and a young couple from the Czech Republic.

Lenka and Martin at the Divide Lake cook tent in Tombstone Territorial Park, Yukon

While on the trail we typically see at least one other person sometime during the day. We don't always say more than a quick "hi" or "how's it going" and some individuals obviously aren't open to talking. Sometimes backpackers are just too pressed for time to reach their destination. But often times fellow backpackers are more than happy to stop at least briefly to catch their breath, drink some water and talk a bit. John always finds it easy to engage others in conversation especially about places we have been but he is also good at asking them open questions so it isn’t always one sided. Most of the time I am content to just throw in a brief comment but there are times when I get wound up and do my fair share of talking.

Aaron and Jean on the John Muir Trail, California

I have come to realize that being in a tribe of backpackers has a distinct advantage for those of us who are older because backpacking has, to a large extent, been untouched by technology. We "Digital Immigrants" who can't keep up with the rapid advancements and the frenzied pace maintained by the multitasking "Digital Natives" are not at a significant disadvantage in the backcountry. Granted GPS devices are commonplace as are such gadgets as personal locator beacons but by and large backpacking is still just about hefting that pack on your back and putting one foot in front of the other and you don't have to be a young, quick thinking, technological whiz to do it.

Jean on the John Muir Trail in Sequoia National Park, California

And when it comes to persevering and enduring out on trails young people have nothing on those of us who are older. Granted we are not as fast as we once were and we don't go as far as we used to but we are so accustomed to regular aches and pains that we don't even notice much of the discomfort associated with backpacking. I don't hear a lot of complaining out in the backcountry but when I have it has always come out of the mouth of a young person. Those of us who have reached a "certain age" are often times just so grateful to be upright and breathing that little else bothers us.

John on the Tonto Trail in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

It has been an unfortunate trend in our culture for quite some time to no longer value the wisdom and experience of our elderly. It is much more commonplace to thrust them into retirement communities and nursing homes away from younger individuals. But in backpacking our seniors still have a lot to offer. The greatest inspiration we have received from a tribe member came from Carol who, at 77 years young, was backpacking the entire John Muir Trail. We, along with everyone else she encountered, told her what an inspiration she was and asked to take her picture.

Carol (77) ascending Glen Pass (11,978 feet) on the John Muir Trail in Kings Canyon National Park, California

We are well aware that at some point in time we will give up backpacking either by choice or necessity. When that day comes I'll find my element somewhere else and acquire a new tribe but until then we will keep putting one foot in front of the other. And when, like Carol, everyone we encounter in the backcountry wants to take our picture then we will know that we too have achieved the status of "Respected Elder". Perhaps we too will be an inspiration to others. If so then that could very well be the best contribution we can make to our tribe.


Karin said...

Thank you! Your post about your adventures on the Inca Trail to Machu Piichu is a wonderful combination of words and pictures. I have a much better understanding of what we will be doing and now I really look forward with more clarify to our trek and to seeing that magic place. I always knew I wanted to go, but I wasn't sure how to get there! Glad I picked the walking tour. :)

Anonymous said...

Love your narrative and introspection. I relate and just turned 70.