He wears thick-soled, heavy-duty hiking boots and a yellow University of Pittsburgh baseball cap. A miniature gnome dangles from the center pocket of his backpack. Most days he’s in long sleeves and shorts, a Makalu trekking pole in each hand.
“Give me a color from the Crayola deck of 64,” he says. “The big box.”
We’re sitting outdoors in the Sacred Valley of Peru, a large umbrella overhead to shade the noonday sun. Someone comments on the hedge of fuchsia bougainvillea. “If the color’s not in that box, I don’t know it.”
This is the heart of Inca land, where stone, stucco and mud-brick houses line narrow cobblestone streets. Small, meticulously tilled fields of potato, beans and cabbage grow alongside the road. We stop at the Inca ruins in the village of Ollantaytambo, and walk through a crowded market lined with Quechua tribal hats and baby alpaca shawls, bags and scarves. The guide leads us to an ancient stone structure designed to transport water. She talks with pride about the ingenious Inca irrigation systems. To demonstrate, she passes her hand across the trough, causing the flowing water to stop. She swipes the channel a second time, and the water begins to run. The guide turns to Dan, takes his hand, tells him about the barrier that’s strung knee-high across the grass, and ushers him to the trough. She places his hand in the cool water then slides his fingers across the stone at the mouth of the channel.
“Whoa, no water. That’s cool.” The guide swipes his hand a second time. He feels the water flow.
A tumor cost Dan the sight in one eye when he was three. The cancer relapsed and, at the age of seven, he lost his other eye. The man has climbed the 19,340-foot Mount Kilimanjaro—the highest peak on the African continent—and trekked to Everest base camp in Nepal. He has jumped out of an airplane more than 300 times. To prove he is not without fear, he tells the story of once trekking along a narrow ridge when someone in his group starts talking about the drop-offs.
“Sometimes not being able to see where you are is a good thing,” Dan explains from the back of the van. We’re driving through the high plateau on our way back to Cusco. “You don’t realize the danger you’re in. Once I heard the guy describe just how narrow the ridge was, and how steep the drop-offs were, I was scared shitless.” There are sighs and nods from the group, but no one has a story to top his. We’ve all been on ridges at elevation and we’ve all been scared. We can’t imagine being there blind.
The following morning, twelve of us step out of the van outside the village of Mollepata and begin the six-day, roughly 35-mile trek to Machu Picchu. We are in the Andes on the Salkantay Trail, a route foraged centuries ago by villagers and their horses and mules. The trail opened to the public in September 2008.
Dan’s wife, Teresa, is expecting the couple’s first child, a daughter, in November. She has her physician’s clearance to 12,000 feet, which means she’ll hike with us the first day and again at the end of the trek. On Day 1, a jingling wristband of sleigh bells hangs from Teresa’s backpack. Dan follows the sound and listens for her verbal cues. He responds with the agility of a trained athlete.
“Rock left. Switchback right. Steep down.”
Like hearing lyrics from a song none of us knows, we watch the synchronicity of a well-rehearsed high-mountain dance. For most of us, the experience of hiking with Dan, or anyone like him, is a first. I close both eyes, take a step, then another, trying to imagine his world. The eyelids fly open before I’ve counted to five, so strong is the urge to see where I am going, so entrenched the desire for control.
After dinner we throw on another layer of fleece and step outside into a cool night. “You can only see this when there’s no moon,” explains Jose. “This is our one chance all week.” We look to the sky and there, to the left of the Southern Cross, wedged between Scorpion and the Milky Way, is the sleeping llama, another icon in the lore of the Incas. The animal is tucked into the blackness of a sky splattered in stars, his head folded into a curled front leg.
“Anyone want to borrow these?” Phoebe holds up her binoculars.
“I’d love to have a look,” says Dan, his mischievous grin nearly as bright as the sky overhead. The group erupts in laughter.
For three days we climb steadily toward the namesake of the trail—the Salkantay—the mountain most revered by the Incas, the second highest in Peru. With Teresa waiting for us in a lodge down trail, we take turns guiding Dan, carrying the bells, giving the cues. Where we go, he goes—across crude, narrow bridges, through rocky switchbacks, down muddy slopes. To watch him negotiate loose rock, up AND down, is to abandon all excuses…for sore ankles and throbbing knees, for tired lungs and blisters on the feet. Instead of excuses we feel gratitude, and lots of it.
It turns out this trip was about getting my self back—the wise, lighter self who lives below the angst of ego and responsibility, the self who knew I needed to forget about the rotten economy, trust that my family would manage without me, and go. What I didn’t know about before I left was the man who would open my heart another notch, who would expand my mind and give me that rare gift of humility and self-empowerment. If he can do this blind, well, here we go.
We cross the pass at 15,237 feet on Day 3, celebrating with hugs and photos, piling rocks atop the cairns already there, with blessings for our children and loved ones. With his finger in the air, our guide traces the routes of five international expeditions that have attempted summits of Salkantay, the successful and the tragic. He checks the clouds overhead, promises lunch in an hour, and turns to lead the descent.
The mountain that has held our eye for three days is suddenly to our backs. Loose rock is harder to handle going down, balance trickier as the body redistributes its weight through the pelvis and torso. The lungs find freedom but the joints are stressed and cranky. To a blind man, the descent is a series of steps—thousands of them—into nothingness. Add mud, or wet, slippery rock from snowmelt, and the experience must be terrifying. Dan’s technique is to bend both legs at the knees, his poles out in front like the forelegs of a horse, his trunk upright. The jaw, cheekbones and forehead lock in acute awareness of every step. There is no letting up for the Crouching Tiger, not once. To lose concentration could mean disaster of the worst possible kind.
Three more days of down, and up, and down again, and we walk at sunset into the town of Aguas Calientes. Overhead, in misty cloud-cover, looms the magical Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu.
“Was the trip at all spiritual?” asks a friend a month after I return home. We’re sitting outside at a Starbucks on a late August afternoon. No longer under a summer sky, the sun has shifted to cast bright amber light through a hanging basket of petunias. I wonder if the color fuchsia was in his box of 64.
“There was a lot about that trip I found spiritual,” I say, and tell her first about Dan.