By Molly Sprayregen | I was determined not to yell at Hillary, so I directed my glare to the pregnant donkey that was tied to a tree across the road. Its long, soft moans drowned out the screaming in my head, so that when Hillary marched by and apologized for leaving her hiking poles tucked behind the back seat of the colectivo—forcing us to wait four hours for its return—I was able to hold my tongue. Grace and I leaned against a crumbling stone house, in silence. Hillary eventually joined us, and we all stared hopelessly down the dirt road that made up the whole town of Vaquería.
It seemed an odd place to begin what Lonely Planet Peru trumpeted as one of the greatest hikes in the world. We couldn’t even find a sign marking the trailhead. A few local hikers guided us to the starting point, and when Hillary finally had a pole in each hand, we set out, already miles behind schedule.
But we weren’t too worried. The three of us had been through 10 years of summer camp together, learning how to hang a bear bag 20 feet in the air using only a rope and a tennis shoe, how to position ourselves in front of a camping stove to avoid scorching an eyebrow, how to lick every morsel of freeze-dried Turkey Supreme from a rusty pot without gagging, and precisely how not to go to the bathroom. We had come to read the contour lines of forest maps as easily as the bedtime stories we’d read back when our counselors still had to help us pitch our tents. Then we’d taken lifeguarding and first aid courses so that we could become the teachers. But right now we were alone, the masters of the mountains, and we felt confident enough to break all those silly camp regulations.
We had hiked for less than an hour when my heart started pounding in my toes. Every guidebook and fellow backpacker had warned us about the altitude here—we were aiming to cross a pass situated 15,000 feet above sea level—but I was convinced it could never affect me. My stomach thrashed. My head rolled from side to side. Our first-aid kit was filled with nothing but Band-Aids.
I dragged my feet over the dirt, pausing every few steps to throw off my pack and wheeze. Hillary and Grace vanished in the distance as I passed through a string of small villages, stepping to the side to avoid the occasional goat stampede (a welcome excuse for another rest). I stumbled past sweat-stained men slapping bricks onto disintegrated homes and women rinsing cloth in metal buckets on the grass. They all solemnly shook their heads at my suffering, warning me that the hike would only get harder.
Every person I passed tried to sell me a donkey. Most tourists used them to carry their equipment, but my summer-camp mothers raised me better than that. I would shelter my gear on my back like I did through Minnesota, Washington, Wyoming, and Idaho, like I did in the Canadian mountains and like I had for the past two weeks in Peru. I would haul my feet forward even if a group of four small village boys followed me for an hour, hurling stones at my ankles.
By dusk, we had no chance of reaching our intended campsite, so we stopped at the first one we came across.
No one wanted to cook, so we dipped dried pita in a jar of tomato sauce for dinner. I thought of our camp director finding us like this and not knowing what to reprimand us for first. Not only was the meal incomplete and non-nutritious, but we also ate it inside the tent, the ultimate camping taboo. It felt like we were stealing from our parents’ liquor cabinets. We rejoiced with pita bread pressed against our cheeks and sauce sliding down our chins. It was a delightful little rebellion. Huddled together for warmth, we soon drifted off to sleep.
I had no idea if hours or minutes had passed when we heard voices murmuring in Spanish outside our tent. They seemed to be directed at us. Whoever it was, they heard the rustles of our sleeping bags as we stirred, and took that to mean we were wide awake and itching to hear a folk concert. The sounds of a charango—a type of mandolin—flooded the silence, and for a moment I wondered if my dreams had simply become sophisticated enough for musical accompaniment. But soon, a harp-like instrument joined in, along with something else that sounded like one of those wooden fish I used to scrape with a stick in my second-grade music class.
“Just ignore it,” Grace moaned. “They’ll go away.” Hillary uttered some indistinct sounds. We stayed quiet. They played on.
Finally we crawled outside, tripping over each other as we squinted our eyes at four tiny, grinning Peruvian men standing before us playing their songs. The three of us giggled and shuffled our feet, unsure of what the men wanted us to do. Eventually, the one wearing a puffy blue jacket emblazoned with a picture of Michael Jackson’s face took Hillary’s hands and began to sway with her. I grabbed Grace’s and we did the same, now unable to stifle our laughter. A colossal full moon had wheeled above the looming mountains, and everyone’s face was illuminated in its light. It felt like some sort of religious ritual. But the guys just wanted to dance.
The man with the King of Pop on his jacket introduced himself as Frédi, and he promised to bring us all donkeys the next morning. I felt ashamed and weak, but my stomach still lurched from the altitude, and it was either rent a donkey or hike out. Grace and Hillary decided that if I could wimp out, they could too. We made plans to meet Frédi the next morning at the scene of our midnight dance.
He and two folk-band buddies arrived an hour late, donkeyless, and threw our packs onto their backs. The donkeys were waiting just a little further up the path, they said, so they would just carry our stuff until we reached them. Had I felt better, I would have never allowed it. But it was a choice between one discomfort and another, and we opted for the awkward feeling of bouncing along while these strangers shouldered our weight. We didn’t know whether to find it all funny or creepy, so we chose funny.
But the path kept unfurling ahead of us, and no matter how far we hiked, the men told us the donkeys were just a bit further along.
We distracted ourselves from the ascent and the uneasy labor arrangement by examining the dirt that had taken refuge deep in our pores. By this point in our trip, we had all come to embody that kind of mud-in-your-eyelids dirtiness that sets in after a few days in the woods without a shower, the kind where your hair contains so much grease that it actually starts to look good. I was proud of my ponytail that slid to the side no matter how tight I pulled it. It was looking to be a very successful day.
Our agreement had been to pay Frédi and his men to take us to the top of Punta Union Pass. When we approached a small, flat ridge, the men dropped our bags, asked for bread and money, and started back the way we came. We had reached the top, they said, and we were beside ourselves with excitement. We took photographs with our arms whisked open to the sides and toasted with granola bars.
It took only a few more steps to realize we had not yet even started climbing the mountain. As we snaked around a bend, a sheer rock face inscribed with one thin, windy path loomed overhead. Here it was. The “spiraling rocky buttress” our guidebook warned us we’d encounter. The top was simply a wall of gray stone. We guessed the trail led to some sort of opening that we couldn’t see from way down here at the bottom. We had our homes on our backs again, although compared to the weightlessness of the morning, now it felt like we were toting small cottages around instead of tent parts. We tightened our straps and heaved ourselves forward. “At least we can say that we didn’t climb it like wimps now!” I shouted.
But despite the 50 pounds now pressing against my hips, part of me still felt pretty wimpy. Throughout our summers at camp, we were known as the kids who never caused trouble. While most cabin walls were covered with posters of Seventeen magazine’s hotties of the week, ours were always adorned with pictures of the parents and puppies that waited for us at home. While girls stole each other’s gum and called each other fat, we spent our free time reenacting scenes from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and choreographing elaborate dance medleys to Mamma Mia!. In the middle of the night, some cabins snuck out. Our most rebellious post-bedtime act was duct-taping pillows to ourselves and trying to sumo wrestle. But there’s a line between being youthful and being naïve. Our innocence was endearing when we were a group of 17-year-olds who preferred apple juice to alcohol. But as 19-year-olds realizing we’d not only been abandoned in the wilderness but also lost $100 in the process, innocence felt pretty ridiculous. We crossed that blurry line in South America, and I have also found it is extremely easy to cross in Philadelphia. This trip was the summer after my freshman year at Penn, a year when I fell for the tricks of the frat-boy Frédis offering me cups of blood-red jungle juice, the boys who danced with me at midnight—only under flashing strobe lights instead of twinkling stars—and avoided eye contact with me on Locust Walk the next morning. I know I’m not finished making more of these silly mistakes. They only seem so obvious in retrospect. But I can say with absolute certainty that now, whether I’m deep within the wilderness or deep within a frat-party mob, I will never again dance with boys I don’t know.
Molly Sprayregen is a sophomore English major from Chicago, Illinois.