A woman sings in a bathroom high in the Andes Mountains. Two men take beautiful sights for granted. Will hikes the Salkantay Trail to Machu Picchu. Text POD to (332) 877-9540 to join a wonderful community of travelers and definitely get a call from host Will Conway. Text MEMBER to that same number if you're interested in bonus material from the upcoming interview series (or click here).
Weird trivia and stuff Will wants to say
- You can find a picture of me at Humantay Lake on Instagram here. So yeah. That's what it looks like.
- Kyo's name is not Kyo. That's not a name - at least not to my knowledge.
- Nicole Allen is the owner of the haunting, lovely voice you hear in the episode. She's also the real character - that's whose voice I heard in the bathroom that morning. You can find her singing more lovely things on Instagram, here.
- The episode's also accurate in that she was singing Amarillo by Morning. If you're unfamiliar, it's a great country tune by George Strait. Here's the original on Spotify.
I hear with my little ear
Sound of howling wind; boots crunching on hard dirt. A door squeaks open and then closes. The wind fades and we're inside. A man sniffles and boots shuffle. A faucet runs. A woman sings Amarillo by Morning.
[Theme Music Begins]
This is Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I’m Will Conway.
Today: the burden of skepticism, the terror of too much experience, the joy of choosing to be happy and the voice of an angel.
If you're new here, welcome. Make sure you subscribe. If you really like it, sent it to a friend. And stick around after the episode for an announcement about the guests on the upcoming interview portion.
Let's get to it.
[Theme Music Ends]
[Sound of howling wind; boots crunching in dirt]
Don’t buy hiking boots two days before trekking 25 kilometers a day for five days.
You may think that’s not life advice anyone needs to hear really, but I did.
Clearly, I did.
I’d been traveling with nothing more than a black and gray thirty-liter Deuter backpack. The bottom third is now consumed by a hammock I’d bought in Leticia for the slowboat. I stubbornly refused to toss it. So I lost my space. Four t shirts, a button-down for some reason, a pair of shorts, a swimsuit, three pairs of underwear, a sweatshirt, flip flops, and a pair of sneakers. That's all I've had.
This is Peru. This is the land of treks and exotic intensity and wild mountains and swirling tendrils of fog, and I just linked up with two of the most outdoorsy guys I’ve traveled with yet, and we’re about to do the Salkantay trek. A man needs a pair of boots. And so I swung into a trekking outfitter and found a pair of Batas. They’d be four or five hundred bucks in the US. Got ‘em for $40.
It’s 4 in the afternoon. I’ve been up since 4am, hiking up this long, winding mountain pass since 5:30 or so.
There’s a bite in the air this morning, and my breath swirls, gray and twisting and disappearing into mountain fog. The long, winding pass stretches out for miles, snaking like a pale green river through towering mountains. We’re surrounded on all sides. The sun is just beginning to hit the summit of the Salkantay peak, towering gray and gold 2,000 meters above me.
I’ve hiked 23 kilometers today, so these boots have 24 kilometers on them. Total. We’re at 3700 meters in elevation - two football fields higher than the summit of Vail in Colorado. I’m pretty sure I’m walking on bloody stumps. About two hours ago, I felt my feet shifting in my boots. I was convinced my socks were bunching or shifting because I was sweating.
And then I realized it wasn’t my socks moving.
It was my skin.
We actually finished hiking for the day - this is extra credit. Our guide steered us into camp, pointed us to a few wooden lean-tos, the concrete latrine, said dinner’s in two hours, and then pointed up a gradual incline behind us and said there’s a gorgeous lake up there. And so off we went.
Kyo is a few paces behind me. That’s Kyo, like coyote, as he always likes to say. Flo is maybe 20 yards ahead. A big, handsome Austrian dude, a few years older than us, a few clicks more badass too. He has plans to get to Punta Arenas in southern Chile and hook up with a boating company to work his way to Antarctica.
The man’s seen the world. The whole world. He spent years in Southeast Asia, a year more on the subcontinent, the Alps, the Himalayas, Africa, scuba diving with great whites in Australia and, now, South America.
[Breathing man coughs; mumbles expletives]
It’s slow hauling now - the elevation is getting to me, and these bloody stumps masquerading as feet must’ve had a sidebar without me and decided they were done for the day. It’s ten paces, and then gasp for air and let my heart thump fall away from my ears, and then ten more paces. And this hill is longer than I thought. Kyo’s red in the face, tongue hanging out and panting behind me. And then there’s Flo, way ahead now and moving like a ballerina... or a mountain goat, or some other responsible metaphor.
Between breaths, Kyo’s droning on and on about conservative politics. He’s a former soldier from Florida, and his politics aren’t exactly busting stereotypes. He’s a lovely guy though and he gives my ideas a run for their money, so I appreciate him. But the sky is stunning and blue and this path looks like a hundred-mile moss-covered stone and there’s a whitecapped mountain before us that’s making me question my place in the world and so I just kind of want him to shut up about the Second Amendment for a minute. Anyway, Flo is standing with his hands on his hips ahead where the hill levels off.
[Boots crunching, sounds of heavy breathing for 15 seconds]
As we come up behind him, we see it, too. The hill dips back down into a sprawling lake at the base of a goliath mountain. The air is chilled and the lake water must be freezing, but still it’s adopted the hues of the Caribbean - clear and a collage of every color in the palette of teal and cyan turquoise. The sheer rockface of the mountain towers behind it, rocketing from the earth a thousand meters or more, slate gray at first and then salted white, and then crowned in ice as it rises to a point.
The whole thing is so large my perception of space is altogether shattered. The lake may very well be a mile across. It could be thirty. On the back wall, I notice what appear to be thin cracks in the mountainside, and only after staring for the longest time do I realize they’re moving. Rushing waterfalls, towering and colossal but somehow dwarfed by the magnificence of the global grandiosity so enormous I can’t help but fail to comprehend. Cyo and Flo and I stand silent for a long moment, panting and recovering, and I feel myself rushing to the edge of endorphins, overpowered and joyous in my own insignificance, dominated by this tiny sliver of nature that stands callous and gargantuan and indifferent before us.
But then Flo speaks.
“It’s nice, but I think the one in Santa Cruz was bigger.”
Kyo: "Yeah, they had these all over Brazil. This probably ranks in the top ten though."
And Flo says that maybe this ranks in his top ten, but we should spend time in the Alps. Those are even more beautiful than this. And Australia’s different but it’s wild, too. And Southeast Asia is oh my god and Africa? Forget about it.
And I can’t help but think that this is what we have in front of us, and maybe the world is more beautiful elsewhere but right now I have this, and it’s doing the trick and it’s all I need. Because compared to this, I am nothing. Compared to the andes, I’m a fucking ant and this is an oak tree. And it doesn’t matter if there are red woods in the Rockies. It doesn’t matter if there are sky scrapers in the Himalayas. A damn oak tree is plenty for me to forget about myself for a while. And this whole thing is stunning and I don’t need anything else. I just need this.
And I realize in that moment that I never want to be Flo, as amazing as he is. Because his travels have jaded him. His perception of the world is rocked by his dominance of it. He’s so overcome this globe that he forgets he is a mere mortal, an ant in a cornfield with a Frequent Flyer Platinum Package, and that this world is so much more than any man could comprehend. And I vow right then and there to never, ever take these sites for granted. To never let myself grow weary of the view before me because there have been views before. To never forget that once in my life, I marvelled at the White Mountains in New Hampshire like the world could never do more than that, and it didn’t matter that somewhere far east stood everest and K2 and to the south, Salkantay and this stunning Humantay Lake. Because this whole world is too big to comprehend and I cannot forget that.
[Breathing fades; door slams shut and sounds from the beginning repeat. Voice begins singing Amarillo by Morning]
We took our pictures and we marveled, Kyo and Flo desecrating this holy land with their lists and comparisons and jaded cynicism. And as the sun melted away, we descended back down the hill for dinner, my feet burning and my skin slipping and sliding like wet socks. And I passed out no later than eight o’clock in the evening and woke up first thing in the morning and now I’m here, in this bathroom.
It’s 5:30 in the morning. 20 degrees Fahrenheit, minus 7 Celsius in the Peruvian Andes. And here, in the frigid morning air, I’ve walked into a humble little cinder block restroom built for trekkers, brushing my teeth. And that voice is dancing in chilly air from the women’s room. I’m shivering under four layers. I shivered through the night, but I’m wide awake. And smiling.
I finish brushing my teeth as her voice fades away, and we leave the bathroom at the same moment. She’s a charmed young woman with a baby face and innocent eyes and a passion for everything.
"Was that you singing?" I ask.
And she blushes red.
"I’m so sorry," she says. "I sing when I’m inspired."
[Theme Music Begins]
That was Baggage Claim: travel stories no one tells.
I'm Will Conway.
Thank you so much for listening.
Special gratitude goes out to Nikki Allen [linked above].
Find her on Instagram, the link is above.
Okay everyone... see you next. Or wait, this Thursday.
That's weird. Whatever. See you on Thursday.
[Theme Music Ends]