It’s just after 9:00 am on Valentine’s day about ten years ago. I’m hot and sweaty, tired and thirsty, hungry, hangry and most importantly: lost. The only things left in my backpack other than a bathing suit and a pair of fresh underwear are two stale biscuits and half a liter of water. My (then) boyfriend is unapologetically optimistic and still forging ahead despite a lack of trail through the world’s second deepest canyon — Canyon del Colca. It’s day two of what should have been a three-day trip down, across, up, around and back through one of Peru’s most striking landscapes. But our bus had already broken down the night before, and so our trek started a day early, walking an extra two hours at nightfall to get to the nearby town. After sleeping on straw mats and holding in our pee until we could find the hole-in-the-ground outhouse down the hill, we started off with the first light around 5:00 am on day three.
We had encountered another hiker the day before that told us to take the high road across the ridge instead of the longer low road that followed closer to the river. He assured us it was just about four hours to the next refuge, where hot springs and home-cooked meals awaited. Now, four hours in, we were on neither path and hadn’t seen a soul for hours, unless you count the group of relaxed bathers the size of ants some 2000 meters down in the river. Home to the native Peruvian condor, I was pretty confident my about-to-be withered remains would end up sustenance for this endangered species, and at that point, it didn’t seem such a terrible way to go. The alternative was misplacing a foot and sliding those 2000 meters straight down to the bottom of the canyon. I don’t like to think of myself as afraid of heights, but I do get a hefty dose of an erratic heartbeat when nearing the edge of a tall tower or a big cliff. I like amusement parks, bungee jumping, and planes, but in this instance, I do think I’d choose to wither or be attacked by condors.
So here I am, on the face of this canyon, where my boyfriend is pretending he’s following a path when the trail is as evident as the crumbs Hansel and Gretel left on their way into the forest. To keep from slipping down the edge, we’re grabbing onto prickly cacti and stringy native shrubs as we inch our way along, bellies to the canyon wall. It’s hard to remember what was running through my head at the time, but I’m sure something along the lines of, “A flare gun would be great right about now.” Or perhaps even, “Hmm…I wonder how long it will take them to find our bodies. It’s a shame I left my passport in the train station locker because how will they identify me now?” And most definitely, “WTF, I don’t even like hiking,” would have been par for the course.
The moral of the story is that we came to a section where the so-called path was interrupted by a particularly jagged indent in the cliff face. I tried to Google mountaineering terms to more accurately describe this situation but turns out no one who climbs is dumb enough to take on such a risk without adequate preparation or equipment. So I’ll leave you to imagine a steep, rocky, dusty, small crack in a not-even-a-path. The type of pothole in a typical road you could quickly hop of over. Except this wasn’t a regular road, and a slight misstep led to a dizzying drop and imminent death.
I’d made it 4.5 hours in the sun on very little water and dry biscuits, but asking me to hop over 17 inches of nothing, well, it was like asking me to jump across the whole darn canyon in one leap. My boyfriend stepped over, and then looked back, waiting for me. With one foot in front like I was ready to leap, I could feel my back leg shaking. I couldn’t move. I wanted to get on my hands and knees, but there wasn’t enough room. I crouched down, trying to make the distance less, but only succeeded in knocking some loose dirt down the abyss, watching it slide down the side like sand in an hourglass counting my remaining minutes on earth. I knew I was irrational, and that was the worst. I knew I just needed to get one foot in front of the other and it would be over. But given the circumstances, that was nearly impossible. It took me a whole three minutes (that felt like three hours) to work up the courage to make an ungraceful ballerina leap accompanied by a llama-like yelp over a tiny fissure in the path.
Looking back, I physically survived a small step on a steep path, but mentally, I confronted the weight of my entire life coming to a crashing end. It wasn’t the first or the last time that I’d met such a roadblock. I’ve survived an earthquake in New Zealand, two bouts of dengue fever, heat stroke, and an underwater poisonous creature attack that left my ankle the size of my thigh for about two weeks. I’ve also survived the more usual things: job interviews, breakups, moving homes, summer cocktail parties, getting out of bed in the morning when it’s raining, and getting a raw egg thrown in my face in seventh grade.
The point is, I arrive at these moments of thinking “It’s over. I’ll never make it out alive,” with equal ease. Sure, some moments are decidedly more grave than others, like crawling to the Bangkok emergency room with hemorrhagic dengue fever vs. deciding if I want guac on my burrito or not, but both can induce the “I just can’t do it!” type anxiety that is all too familiar. So what has changed in these ten years? I know I'll be OK.
Knowing that I can accept and survive the scary, the impossible, the anxiety-producing, every day and come out OK is what is essential. Knowing that I can look back on each of those experiences and decisions that have left me momentarily paralyzed helps me confront my latest challenges, enjoy the smallest pleasures, and keep moving forward no matter what bumps, breaks, cliffs, or cracks there are in the road. Knowing that if I get lost, I’ll find a way, or make a move, or turn around and start over, tells me that it’s going to be fine — that I am resilient.
Henna Garrison has an appetite for all things written, edible or adventurous. She lives in Sicily where her favorite pastimes include eavesdropping and eating cassata. She is the currently the Program Director at Anna Tasca Lanza Cooking School. Check out her words and work on her website and Instagram @hennamg.
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