5 Ways to Keep Mosquitoes and Ticks from Bugging You! (Gear Guide+)

Black flies, ticks, mosquitoes, and other biting insects can turn the most peaceful outdoor paradise into a stressful tormenting nightmare. In this post I’ll discuss the bug repellent strategies and gear that have worked for me as well as those that are recommended by the CDC, and that are registered with the EPA (after being shown to be both safe and effective for human use in repelling ticks and mosquitoes).

1. Cover up

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Wearing long-sleeves, long pants, and gaiters in an attempt to keep the mosquitoes at bay hiking through the high sierra during my PCT thru hike.

The first step in keeping the insects at bay is to minimize the amount of skin the buggers have access to by wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, socks, gaiters, and closed-toe shoes. This is fairly effective at keeping ticks from biting you, but as many of us have discovered, mosquitoes have an impressive ability to bite through clothing. Constantly wearing head-to-toe rain gear is an effective way to keep the biting insects at bay, but when the weather is hot and humid wearing rain gear as bug repellent is just a different kind of misery. Instead, I move on to option #2…

My thoughts: wearing long-sleeved shirts, socks, long-pants, ultralight gaiters, and closed-toe shoes is just a start. For repelling ticks I highly recommend using permethrin-treated clothes as described in section 2. For black flies, be sure to include a head/bug net. For mosquitoes, add a an EPA-registered and CDC-approved skin-applied bug repellent as described in section 3.

2. Wear Permethrin-Treated Clothing

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Permethrin is based on the naturally occurring insecticides found in chrysanthemums.

Permethrin is a man-made synthetic insecticide based on the naturally occurring insecticides (pyrethroids) found in chrysanthemums. It kills insects and anthropods (eg ticks) that come in contact with it by affecting their nervous systems (neurotoxin). According to the centers for disease control and prevention (CDC), “permethrin-treated clothing repels and kills ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, and other biting and nuisance arthropods.”

The environmental protection agency (EPA) has evaluated permethrin for treating garments and has approved it as both safe and effective for human use for this purpose. The EPA in their “2009 revised exposure and risk assessment evaluated multiple exposure scenarios for permethrin factory-treated clothing, including toddlers wearing or mouthing the clothing, and military personnel who wear permethrin-treated uniforms on a daily basis. All exposure scenarios showed that permethrin factory-treated clothing is unlikely to pose any significant immediate or long-term hazard to people wearing the clothing.” The EPA also states that, “there is no evidence of reproductive or developmental effects to mother or child following exposure to permethrin.” If you have concerns about the safety of premethrin you can also check out this FAQ, which goes into more detail. One of the major reasons that permethrin is considered safe is that it is poorly absorbed through the skin.

When applied to clothing, permethrin binds tightly to the fibers of the clothing (especially cotton clothing). Since permethrin is not water soluble, it remains bound to clothing through repeated washing cycles and is not readily transferred to your skin if/when the garment gets wet. Note that permethrin kills ticks/mosquitoes on contact, so does not prevent bugs from landing on you. As a result, permethrin-treated clothing works best when it is loosely fitting.

The two CDC-recommended and EPA-registered methods approved for permethrin-treated clothing are factory-permethrin treatment and self-permethrin treatment.

Clothing Treatments (CDC Recommended and EPA registered) Manufacturer Claimed Maximum Effectiveness
Permethrin

  • Factory-permethrin treatment
    • Clothing: 70 launderings.
  • Self-permethrin treatment (0.5% permethrin):
    • Gear: 40 days of direct exposure to sunlight.
    • Clothing: 6 weeks and/or 6 launderings
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Wearing my factory-permethrin treated pants and shirt at Choquequirao, Peru.

Factory-Permethrin Treatment 

According to the CDC, factory-treated clothing, ie “clothing that is treated before purchase, is labeled for efficacy through 70 launderings.” My experience and the research I’ve done suggests that factory-permethrin clothing is effective through 25-50 washings. The military finds effectiveness against ticks last for about 50 washings and the EPA suggests that repellency beyond 25 washes when wear and tear is included is more likely to be true. Gear list/review of my factory-permethrin treated clothing:

  • Ex Officio BugsAway Damselfly Jacket (15/15)
    • Weight (5/5): 6 oz, 100% Nylon
    • Effectiveness (5/5): I carry/wear this mesh jacket for all of my hot weather backpacking and kayaking adventures. It protects me from both mosquitoes and excess exposure to sun. I give this jacket my highest recommendation. It remained effective against mosquitoes for about 1 year of heavy use (I didn’t count the # of laundering cycles). I used it on the PCT, kayaking in Maine during black fly season, hiking all over New England during mosquito season, and trekking through Peru in temperatures up to 112F.
    • Durability (5/5): The mesh has held up well under brutal thru-hiker treatment and ongoing use. After the factory-permethrin treatment wore off, I have self-permethrin treated the jacket and continue to use it for all my desert/hot climate adventures.
  •  Ex Officio BugsAway Damselfly Pants (11/15)
    • Weight (5/5): need to find scale, but light weight, 100% Nylon
    • Effectiveness (5/5): Both in the US and abroad I’ve found these pants to be effective at preventing bug-bites. For example, while my cohort in Peru ended up getting eaten alive with red welts all over their legs I remained bug-bite free.
    • Durability (1/5): These are great travel pants for hot weather, but not so good for brutal backpacking use: the butt of the pants shredded after less than a month of use during my PCT thru-hike.
  • UV InsectShield Buff (10/10)
    • Effectiveness (5/5): Keeps the bugs from biting my neck, which is awesome.
    • Durability (5/5): I’ve had good luck with the Buffs lasting forever
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Wearing my self-permethrin treated leggings, gaiters, and hat at Machu Picchu, Peru.

Self-Permethrin Treatment

If you apply permethrin yourself you have the option of either spraying it on to you clothing/gear or soaking your cloths in it. The CDC recommends treating “clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents with products containing 0.5% permethrin,” and treating items “at least 24–48 hours in advance of travel to allow them to dry.” Note: According to the EPA: “Permethrin repellent products used for factory-treatment of clothing or as spray-ons for clothing are not to be applied to certain clothing such as underwear.”

  • Sawyer 0.5% Permethrin Premium Clothing Insect Repellent
    • Spray-on application method (~4/5): I use it on gear items for tick protection. I don’t have a good metric for effectiveness of my treated gear, but it seems to work. The gear I treat with spray-on premerthin, with the amount of premethrin I used to treat it in parentheses, includes:
      • hiking boots & camp shoes (~ 3 oz for both)
      • sleeping bag (~6 oz)
      • backpack (~ 3 oz)
      • tent body (~ 6 oz)
    • Soaking application method (5/5): I use it for clothing items for both tick and mosquito protection. I soak my clothing items in 0.5% permethrin (using the method described in the section-hiker post linked here) to treat my cloths because I am skeptical about getting complete coverage of my clothing using the spray-on method. My self-permethrin treated clothing seems to keep its protective properties through 6-10  washes. The clothing I treat by soaking it in permethrin, with the amount of premethrin I used to treat it in parentheses, includes:
      • OR Sparkplug gaiters (~2 oz)
      • MontBel Stainless Mesh Desert hat and midweight hat (~1 oz)
      • Sleep clothes (~12 oz): sleep shirt, leggings, and camp socks
      • Montane Featherweight Wind Pants (~3 oz)
      • Wrightsock Coolmesh 2 socks (~4 oz/pair)
      • Techwick (T1) long-sleeve hoodie (~4 oz)
      • Lightweight fleece hoodie (~5 oz)
      • Hiking leggings (~4 oz)

My Thoughts About Permethrin: Factory-permethrin treated clothing keeps its repellence 5-10 times longer than self-permethrin treated clothing and is worth it to me for my super-lightweight summer clothing. As far as I can tell, permethrin-treated clothing is the best product out there for preventing tick bites. For mosquito repellency the situation is less clear. Permethrin kills mosquitoes on contact, and does not actually act as a repellent, which means that the mosquitoes land on you (and may bite you) before they die. For loose-fitting clothing permethrin works fairly well against mosquitoes, but it is much less effective when used on tight-fitting clothing made from thin fabrics. As a result, I recommend purchasing 1 size larger than normal to maximize effectiveness of permethrin-treated clothing for preventing mosquito bites. Also, according to the CDC mosquitoes in some areas (such as Puerto Rico) have developed resistance to permethrin!

Other repellent treatments for clothing: DEET (EPA-registered) and picaridin (EPA-registered) may be applied to clothing, but they provide shorter duration of protection (same duration as on skin) when compared to permethrin, and must be reapplied after laundering. Both DEET and picaridin are repellents that can be applied to clothing that has been treated with permethrin to provide added protection. Note that DEET may damage plastics and some types of fabrics. I recently experienced this when the small bottle of 100% DEET in my pack leaked, melted through its cap, and fused itself to my bug net in a scary mess.

3. Use Bug Spray (Skin-Applied Repellents)

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The bug repellent picaridin is based on piperidine, a compound found in black peppercorns.

The CDC and EPA recommend using skin-applied bug repellents (wearing bug spray) in addition to using permethrin-treated clothing. The question then becomes, which bug repellent should I use? Since bug repellents are classified as pesticides, the EPA is in change of regulating them. Skin-applied bug repellents whose safety and efficacy data meet EPA standards are given an EPA-registered status. EPA-registered repellents can be classified as either conventional repellents, biopesticide repellents, or natural repellents.

Conventional repellents

Conventional repellents are synthetic repellents that directly kill or inactivate pests. The two conventional repellents that are both EPA-registered and CDC-recommended are DEET and picaridin. DEET and picaridin have the longest-lasting repellent effects of all of the skin-applied bug repellents evaluated and registered by the EPA.

DEET in concentrations of 5% to 99% is EPA-registered and approved for direct application to human skin. Unlike permethrin, DEET doesn’t kill mosquitoes or ticks, it just makes it hard for them to smell/detect us, and therefore less likely to bite us. Although the court of public opinion is convinced that DEET is horribly toxic, the EPA believes that it is safe for use as instructed at all concentrations, and for children and adults of all ages. Note that DEET may decrease the SPF of sunscreen and it may dissolve plastics and some fabrics.

Picaridin is a synthetic compound resembling piperine, which is found in black pepper. Picaridin is EPA-registered for human application in concentrations of 5% to 96.8%. It is commercially available as Sawyer Picaridin Insect Repellent as well as under other brand names.

Conventional Repellents (CDC Recommended and EPA registered)
Maximum Repellent Efficacy/Duration
Picaridin (aka icaridin)

DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide)

  • Mosquitoes:
    • 2 hrs (5% DEET)
    • 8 hrs (25% DEET)
    • 12 hours (100% DEET)
  • Ticks:
    • 2 hrs (5% DEET)
    • 4 hrs (25% DEET)
    • 10 hours (100% DEET)

My Thoughts About Conventional Repellents: I hate having to apply bug repellent directly to my skin, but on my thru-hikes (and other adventures) I carry a small bottle of 100% DEET for emergency bug-repellent use. DEET has worked well when I needed it, except for one stretch of the PCT where the mosquitoes were impressively aggressive and to my surprise seemed to be DEET-resistant; I applied 100% DEET and they bit me anyway. Although I didn’t know it at the time, it is scientifically possible that the mosquitoes in question were in fact DEET-resistant. After doing the research for this post, I’m going to give picaridin a try.

Biopesticide Repellents

Biopesticide repellents are naturally derived repellents, which are generally considered less toxic than conventional pesticides. It is also important to note that biopesticide repellents don’t need to stand up to the same degree of rigor as conventional pesticides to gain EPA-registered status. There are two EPA-registered and CDC-recommended biopesticide repellents: oil of lemon eucalyptus, aka PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol) and IR3535 (the active ingredient in Skin-So-Soft).

Oil of lemon eucalyptus is an EPA-approved way to market PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol), a synthetic version of the compound found in the oil of the lemon eucalyptus plant. The essential oil of lemon eucalyptus (pure lemon eucalyptus oil) is NOT EPA-registered and repellency of the essential oil only lasts for ~1hr.  According to the FDA, commercially available bug repellents listing Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus as their active ingredient are using the man-made synthetic version of the compound: p-Menthand-3,8-diol. Oil of lemon eucalyptus (PMD) at high concentrations has an efficacy similar to DEET over shorter period of time, but if you can find the information about it’s toxicity you profile you’ll be surprised to learn that the EPA considers oil of lemon eucalyptus to be more toxic than DEET at least in terms of potential for eye irritation. Having accidentally gotten DEET (Toxicity Category III) in my eye, I shudder in horror at the thought of accidentally getting oil of lemon eucalyptus (Toxicity Category I) in my eye. To me, the labeling practices for oil of lemon eucalyptus seem to be deceptive at best. It is commercially available as: Repel Plant-Based Lemon Eucalyptus Repellent and Cutter Lemon Eucalyptus Insect Repellent.

IR3535 is the EPA-registered bug repellent in modern Skin-So-Soft bug repellents. It is important to note that the Skin-So-Soft bath oil that was used as bug repellent in the ’90s does not contain IR3535. I remember the Skin-So-Soft bath oil as bug repellent as being woefully inadequate to the task, but have not tried the Skin-So-Soft containing IR3535. Although IR3535 is EPA-registered, the only commercially available forms I was able to find are combined with sunscreen, and the CDC does not recommend the use of combined sunscreen/bug spray products because sunscreens typically need to be applied more often than bug sprays alone. It’s also important to note that the toxicity profile for IR3535 is similar to that of conventional bug sprays. IR3535 is commercially available as: Skin So Soft Bug Guard Plus IR3535 Expedition SPF 30.

Biopesticide Repellents (CDC Recommended and EPA registered)
Maximum Repellent Efficacy
 Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus aka PMD (p-Menthane-3,8-diol)

IR 3535

  • Mosquitoes:
    • 10 hours (20% IR3535)
  • Ticks:
    • 12 hours (20% IR3535)
  • Black flies:
    • 3 hours (20% IR3535)

Although the following natural repellents (classified as biopesticides) require frequent re-application, and are not recommended by the CDC, they are registered with the EPA as being safe and effective:

Natural Repellents (EPA Registered)
Maximum Repellent Efficacy
Refined oil of Nepeta cataria aka Hydrogenated Catnip Oil (HCO)

  • Mosquitoes:
    • 7 hrs (15% HCO)
Oil of citronella

  • Mosquitoes
    • 2-3 hrs (~5%)
  • Ticks
    • ~1 hr (~5%)
 Essential oil of wild tomato (lycopersicon hirsutum) aka 2-undercanone or methyl nonyl ketone

  • Mosquitoes
    • 5 hrs (7.75%)
  • Ticks
    • 2 hrs (7.75%)

NOTE: The CDC does not recommend the use of products that combine sunscreen and repellent “because sunscreen may need to be reapplied more often and in larger amounts than needed for the repellent component to provide protection from biting insects.” Instead they recommend the use of separate products where sunscreen is applied first and is followed by the use of insect repellent.

My Thoughts About Skin-Applied Pesticides: After looking at all of the repellent options currently EPA-registered and CDC-approved I’m going to switch from 100% DEET to 20% Picaridin. The improved safety profile of picaridin compared to DEET as well as the promise of greater efficacy against black flies and longer duration of protection have convinced me to give it a try. At first glance the biopesticides, especially the Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus sounded promising, but on closer review the fact that they can claim a connection to naturally occurring pesticides isn’t enough to convince me that they are safer than the conventional repellents and the need to reapply them more frequently makes them a poor choice for me. If you’re looking for a second opinion, the EWG guide to repellents list the pros and cons associated with the different repellent options. Whichever bug repellent you choose, be sure to check the concentration of the active ingredient and to read/follow the application directions carefully. Which bug repellents have your tried? Comment and let me know which ones have worked (or failed to work) for you.

4. Know your enemy!

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Avoid the biting bugs by learning to love winter!

Know when and where the biting bugs are most active, and try to avoid them. Let’s start with when. The biting insects tend to be most active during the same seasons that people are most active: the spring in summer months. Below is some general information about the when and where for some of the most pesky biting bugs.

Black flies

Mosquitoes

  • Season: whenever temperatures are consistently above 50F
  • Most active time of day: depends on species.
    • A. aegypti & A. albopictus: typically bite from dawn ’til dusk, but may bite at night
    • Culex species: typically bite from dusk ’til dawn
  • What attracts them? Carbon dioxide from your breath, heat, and and other compounds secreted in our sweat and found on our breath.
  • Areas to avoid: swampy areas and areas with standing water; mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water

Ticks

  • Season: whenever temperatures are above freezing (32F), although they tend to be most active April to September. Ticks are least active when temperatures are below 32F and during droughts
  • Most active time of day:  during the most humid part of the day; ticks need moisture to survive, especially the tiny and troublesome nymphs. As a result, nymphs are most active at night and during the mornings on hot days.
  • Areas to avoid: tall grasses and leaf litter and elevations below ~3500 feet
  • Added advice: shower as soon as you return from your outdoor adventure, do a tick check, wash your clothing in hot water, and remove ticks promptly

Additional Thoughts: In addition to avoiding the buggiest areas in the buggiest times (e.g. hiking in the snow), I’ve found that hiking faster (>2 miles/hr) prevents the majority of black flies and mosquitoes from landing on me and biting me. It turns out that mosquitoes typically fly at 1-1.5 miles/hour (1.5 miles/hr), so the little data I was able to find supports the anecdotal evidence that I can outrun most mosquitoes!

5. Dealing with the Itch


When I was a kid loved playing  in the swamp down by the river, which meant that I’d frequently come home covered in both mud and bug bites. The itchiness would drive me nuts, so I started experimenting with things in the first-aid cabinet that might take the itch away: “after bite”-didn’t work, benadryl cream-didn’t work, calamine lotion-didn’t work, toothpaste-didn’t work, and then I tried IcyHot. It worked!! IcyHot completely masked the itch. I then discovered that if I hadn’t scratched the bite before applying the IcyHot, the bug bite would disappear by the time that the IcyHot wore off… I’d found a bug bite cure!

My Thoughts on IcyHot: As an adult I’ve realized that bug bite prevention works better than carrying IcyHot with me everywhere I go (and constantly coating myself in it), but when my bug bite prevention methods fail and I have a bug bite that’s driving me nuts I still head to the medicine cabinet and treat it with IcyHot.

Summary

When it comes to avoiding ticks and Lyme disease my basic strategy is to:

  • Cover up with long-sleeves, long-pants, and gaiters
  • Use permethrin treated clothing
  • Avoid tall grassy areas
  • (while backpacking) Do a ticks checks and change into dedicated sleep clothes (long-sleeved lightweight shirt, camp socks, leggings) before getting into my sleeping bag at night.
  • (while in civilization) Do tick checks and shower after returning from each hike/outdoor activity in tick-infested areas
  • Avoid unleashed dogs (they run through the tall grasses and bring the ticks back to me)

For mosquitoes, I try to avoid the skin-applied repellents, but when the mosquitoes/black flies are particularly irritating I end up including them. My mesh Bugs Away jacket is a godsend in hot, humid weather. For mosquitoes my basic strategy is to:

  • Cover up with long-sleeves, long-pants, and gaiters
  • Use permethrin treated clothing
  • Hike faster! I’ve found that mosquitoes and black flies don’t tend to bite me when I’m hiking at >2 miles/hr
  • Use EPA-registered and CDC-approved repellent on exposed areas (hands, ankles, neck/face) sparingly as needed; I typically carry/use DEET, but will be trying out 20% picaridin.
  • Use a head/bug net in extreme circumstances, especially when the gnats dive-bomb my eyes, fly up my nose, and start swarming so thickly that I inhale the dang things… For gnats I also use the thru-hiker trick of poking a tall blade of grass/wheat out of my hat since they seem to be attracted to the highest moving point; it seems to help a little, but is much less effective than a properly positioned high quality bug net.

Combining these strategies seems to work for me with most biting insects most of the time. The one glaring exception is horse flies. Horse flies are relatively undeterred by repellents, and will bite any exposed flesh they can find. When I’m in an area horribly overrun with horseflies my strategy is to either to dive into the closest body of water and go for a swim (staying under water as much as possible) or to dive into the safety and security of my tent for a nap.

Links

Previous posts I’ve written about ticks:

Previous posts I’ve written about mosquitoes:

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The X-Zone (In Memory of Christina)

The X-Zone (In Memory of Christina)

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“We smiled + laughed + it was good.” -Christina Jenkins

Prologue

For this post I am skipping ahead to the story of my last day in Peru… the last day I would spend with my friend Christina… the day we explored the caves and tunnels of the ancient Incan site known as the X-Zone.

When I got the news that Christina died in Peru on November 5, 2016 my heart broke. I’ve been trying to sort through the pieces ever since.

I  linger among my memories of Christina, trying to write them down so that I can keep the cruel sands of time from sweeping them away. I don’t want to forget. I don’t want the sound of her laughter to fade from my ears. I want to remember, and I want you to know how amazing she was… I keep thinking that if I find the right words I’ll be able to show you the Christina that I knew, but my words keep failing me.

Christina was a free spirit. She refused to let life box her in, so I shouldn’t be surprised that her spirit refuses to be caged in by my clumsy words now that she’s gone. If she were here she’d encourage me to take the time and space I needed to grieve, but she would also gleefully dance in and around my ‘word cage,’ laughing and sticking her tongue out at me while she doused it with glitter, rainbows, and ponies. Eventually I would have realized the futility of my efforts. Then I would have turned to her with eyes wide, feigning as much uncertainty (and innocence) as I could muster, and say, “I think I might not be able to capture your spirit in words.” I can imagine how she would roll her eyes at me, gesture that it was about time that I figured that one out, and say, “Ya, think!”

I realize that my words will never be right. I’ll never be able to describe Christina’s incredible spirit to you, but I hope that you’ll be able to catch a glimpse of it here and there as it dances around my broken words. The story of our adventures at the X-Zone is the only story I seem to be able to tell right now, and it feels strangely fitting for it to come before its time.

Christina following a path towards the tunnels of the X-Zone (Photo by Jari Jarvela)

“A Pachamama,” I said as I popped the cork and poured the first sip of Prosecco onto the ground as an offering to the Earth. “A Christina,” my voice wavered as I said her name and began pouring a second offering of champagne onto the ground. My voice cracked, “Te amo,” and I finished the pour with tears leaking from the corners of my eyes and down my cheeks. I couldn’t believe she was really gone, that I’d come back from my trip to Peru, but that she wouldn’t. I took a deep breath and lifted my glass, “a vida, a aventuras, a sueñas y glitter, a todo que fue, y todo que será.” I drank my my sip of the Prosecco and stared up at the moon lost in grief and memories.

“Cloud bed, I missed you!” Christina said smiling as she threw herself onto the impossibly comfortable bed at the posh El Convento hotel in Cusco. I flopped down beside her, my body sinking into the fluffy white comforter. After spending 13 days sleeping in a tent and trekking through the Andes among strangers (some of whom became friends), it was really nice to relax and have a slumber party with an old friend  in a place that had the most comfortable beds in the whole wide world. The extra oxygen they were pumping into the room to help offset the effects of altitude probably didn’t hurt either!

A beautiful bit of serendipity had led Christina and I to the convent in Cusco where we were having our slumber party and planning our adventures. Christina had come to Peru to volunteer at a center for women and children recovering from abuse in Cusco, and I was there to trek through the Andes and to visit Machu Piccu. We didn’t realize that we were both going to be in the same city at the same time until I reached out to Christina on the off-hand chance that she might like to join me in fulfilling the dreams of visiting Peru that we’d talked about almost a decade earlier.

During our time in Peru Christina and I celebrated our friendship, roasted marshmallows, discussed our journeys through darker times, and rejoiced that the paths we were on seemed to be leading us to better, happier places. It was the first time in a long time that we were both experiencing an upswing in the roller coaster called life at the same time and we were making the most of it.

“We could go explore the X-zone tomorrow,” I proposed almost immediately. I’d been intrigued by the Inca/pre-Inca site from the moment Christina first mentioned it a few weeks earlier. Heading to the mountains to explore a network of caves and tunnels steeped in mystery and mysticism seemed like the perfect adventure for us!

“You are so predictable,” Christina laughed as we pulled out our cell phones to try to solve the X-Zone’s first mystery: it’s location. The directions we found were just about as clear as mud, but when Christina discovered the GPS coordinates for the X-Zone (13°29’47.1″S, 71°58’26.5″W) we decided to go for it. We’d try to find the mysterious X-Zone in the morning and we’d invite my new friend Jari (the Finnish writer I met during my trek through the Andes) to come with us.

An alpaca in the hills above Cusco

“Aqui?” asked the cab driver looking skeptical as he stopped the cab. Jari, Christina, and I had asked thim to drop us off in the middle of an abandoned field high in the hills above Cusco, miles away from the nearest tourists. The cab driver seemed less than thrilled by the idea.”Sí,” we replied, eager to get out of the cab and start on our adventure. The cab driver continued to look dubious and, switching to English to make sure there wasn’t some sort of misunderstanding, said, “Here? Are you sure?” Christina and I each assured him that were sure. We paid the fare, and started getting out of the cab, thinking that the discussion was over. It wasn’t.

The cab driver turned pointedly to Jari, “Are you really sure?” Jari seemed startled by the sudden attention and puzzled by the question since it had already been asked, and unambiguously answered, multiple times and in multiple languages. Jari turned to me and Christina looking to us to answer, beseeching us with the silent question, “What am I missing here?”

Photo of Jari, Christina, and I at the X-Zone (taken by Christina)

As soon as Jari turned to us for the answer, Christina and I started to giggle and the cab drivers shoulders began to sag. The cab driver was finally realizing that even though Jari was male, he wasn’t secretly in charge, and the answer to the question wasn’t going to change. While Christina mumbled something about smashing the patriarchy, I assured the cab driver that we definitely wanted to be dropped off exactly where we were, in the middle of the field.

Still shaking his head, the cab driver reluctantly drove away. As we watched him disappear (driving at about 1 mile an hour in case we decided to change our minds and chase down the cab) Christina and I couldn’t help but laugh… the absurdity of the whole situation was overwhelming.

Looking out at Cusco from the base of the X-ZOne

After regaining our composure we starting walking up the road. The X-Zone was supposed to be located in one of the rocky outcroppings on the far side of the fields, but the nearest fields were all cordoned off with barbed wire. Hopping barbed wire fences was not on the list of approved adventure activities for the day, so we continued up the road.

About 200 feet after we passed the last of the barbed wire, we left the road and set off across the fields. Accompanied by friends (both old and new), I was in my happy place as we walked through the hills without a trail, and without a care. The sky was blue and beautiful, the air was clean and clear, the day was warm, and the terrain was gorgeous. I was loving every minute of it! In truth, I wasn’t in a hurry to find the X-Zone… The sooner we found it, the sooner our adventure would be over, and I didn’t want our adventure to be over.

In retrospect, it was nothing short of a miracle that we managed to find the X-Zone. Even though we knew exactly where it was (we had its GPS coordinates), our technology had stopped working as soon as we got outside of the city limits so we had no sense of scale, and there were at least half a dozen rocky outcroppings that all seemed equally likely to house the X-Zone.

We weren’t exactly lost, but we didn’t exactly know where we were either.

The dry fields we were cutting through as we followed the directions from the herdsman (unbeknownst to us we were heading away from the X-Zone instead of towards it)

As we looked around uncertainly we spotted a herdsman resting in the shade and eating lunch. He seemed rather entertained by the sudden appearance of our motley crew. “¿Sabes donde estan las grutas?” (Do you know where the caves are?) I asked him. “Sí,” he replied, pointing to a rocky outcropping on the hill above us.

When we arrived at that rocky outcropping we were disappointed to discover its distinct lack of caves. It wasn’t the X-Zone. Perhaps the herdsman had been pointing to an outcropping further up the hill? We hoped that was the case, as we continued picking our way through the eucalyptus trees towards the next rocky outcropping.

Looking through the rocks of the X-Zone to the hills of Cusco beyond

The next person I asked for directions was the guide for a group of tourists exploring the hillside on horseback. He seemed irritated by our presence and replied gruffly, “Go home, hire a guide, and come back to look for the X-Zone tomorrow.” When I explained to him that I was getting on a plane to return to the United States later that day, he reluctantly pointed us towards the X-Zone.

We followed the new directions back down the hill, bushwhacking through another forest of eucalyptus trees, and scrambling through the rocks until we stumbled into a small clearing. As we entered the clearing we interrupted the romantic entanglements of a pair of teenagers. “Ah, so cute!” Christina squeezed my shoulder while embodying the cute. “I know, right?” I replied. Unfortunately they seemed embarrassed by our presence and quickly drew apart.

Our real focus was the rocky outcropping above us. Had we finally found the X-Zone? As we stood in the middle of the clearing wondering if this was it, two guys emerged from what looked like the opening of a cave. We’d found it!

Excited, but ever practical, Christina insisted that we stop and have a picnic before exploring the caves. We’d worked up our appetites with all of the gallivanting we’d done!

Christina checking out the view of Sacsauhuaman from amidst the rocks of the X-Zone

The men descending from the caves approached us. Carefully ignoring Jari and I, the one covered in talismans and crystals, looked directly at Christina and said, “You are obviously a very spiritual person. You are here to visit the X-Zone, yes?” She smiled, said yes, and they had a short conversation.

“That was odd,” I remarked as he walked away. Christina nodded her head, “Yeah, I end up having a lot of weird conversations like that. It’s because of my tattoos.” I looked at her, still puzzled.

“My tattoos, especially this part,” she explained as she rotated her arm and showed us the colorful red and orange circles/rings on her elbow. “People seem to associate my tattoos with Pachamama (Mother Earth/The Earth Goddess) and believe that I honor her with them. That’s why that guy looked at me and said that I was obviously a very spiritual person.”

Evidence of Inca/Pre-Inca stonework at the X-Zone

After we finished basking in the sun and eating our lunch, we began exploring the caves and tunnels of the X-Zone. Everyone else had left by then and we had the tunnels to ourselves.

As we entered the shade of the caves we marveled at the signs of Inca/Pre-Inca civilizations that had used the caves in centuries past. It is believed that the caves and tunnels of the X-Zone (also known as Lanlakuyuq) were of special importance in Inca times because they directly connected visitors between two of the three worlds of the Inca belief system: Kay Pacha (this world) and Ukhu Pacha (the world below).

Fresh coca leaves left as an offering to Pachamama in a natural crevasse in the rock

Throughout the tunnels and caves of the X-Zone were small offerings of coca leaves from modern times that had been carefully tucked into crevices of the rock, and left for Pachamama. Although I’d never heard of Pachamama before visiting Peru, the sense of reverence and respect for nature associated with the offerings to Pachamama were powerful to observe and something that I could identify with at some level.

Christina leading the way through one of the tunnels at the X-Zone

As we wandered through the X-Zone we were constantly discovering new tunnels and caves. Each time we discovered a new path, one of us would volunteer to check it out, and we’d take turns disappearing into the darkness of the unknown. The rest of us would wait eagerly to hear the first reports of what lay ahead.

We never knew whether we’d find a new route, a dead end, evidence of ancient Inca civilizations, or something else entirely. The only thing we knew for sure was that it would be interesting.

“The rock formations in there are really cool!” exclaimed Christina as she emerged from the darkness. “I went as far as I felt comfortable going, but I bet Jari could squeeze his way through even more,” she she said laughing. Jari seemed to delight in squeezing himself through the tiniest of spaces, which was pretty entertaining to watch.

One of the narrow cracks that Jari and I squeezed ourselves through at the X-Zone

As Jari disappeared into the darkness, Christina turned towards me. She confided that she was a bit claustrophobic, but loved the way the no pressure dynamic we had allowed her to explore her fears (and these spaces) as much or as little as she wanted. I confessed that I have a touch of claustrophobia too, but that most of the caves and tunnels I’ve explored haven’t been small enough for it to be a problem.

As we went deeper into the X-Zone it didn’t take long for me to find a tunnel that pushed me right up to the edge of my comfort zone… A series of ancient stone steps plunged steeply into the belly of the earth on the path branching to the left. My curiosity piqued, I asked if I could be the first one to explore this tunnel. After following the steps down into the darkness, the tunnel turned sharply to the left, and the last of the light and sound from the surface faded away. I turned my headlamp on, and snapped a rushed photo of the stairs behind me before excitedly pressing forward to explore more of the tunnel.

Inca stairs in a tunnel at the X-Zone

At the base of the stairs, the tunnel widened enough for two people to stand side by side, but quickly narrowed, and was barely wide enough for me to walk through it comfortably. My small headlamp illuminated the way as the path continued downwards at a gently grade. After descending about 10 paces (30-40 feet) it looked like I’d come to a dead end. I was slightly disappointed that there wasn’t more to explore, but it was still pretty amazing. I gazed upwards, marveling at the beauty and texture of the rock, listening to the silence of the darkness, and wondering how far below the surface of the Earth I was because I truly had no idea.

Looking at the rock formations above me I noticed that there was a crack in the wall of the tunnel to my right. My gaze followed it down and I was surprised to discover that the trail hadn’t come to a dead-end! It just took a sharp right into an impossibly narrow looking crack. I eyed the crack carefully. The upper portion of it was too narrow for me to squeeze through, but it flared open just a little bit towards the bottom, and the floor of the crack was well-worn from (presumably) human traffic.

One of the tight squeezes at the X-Zone

The average-sized Quechuan person would probably have no trouble crawling through that opening, but it wasn’t clear that the same would be true for me so I got down on my hands and knees and looked more carefully at the opening…

The flared section at the bottom looked to be around 15-16 inches high and extended into the crack about 3 feet (~1m) before opening up into an area that would be wide enough and tall enough for me to stand up in. I could definitely squeeze my way through it, but I’d need to crawl/wriggle through some of that space on my belly, “pecho a tierra.” As I thought about it, a wave of panic quickly washed over me and I reflexively looked back along my path of retreat, towards the exit.

Nothing had changed, the path was still clear. I reminded myself that I was still okay, and the panic faded away. I took a deep breath and weighed my fears against my desire to keep exploring. Throwing caution to the wind, I lowered myself onto my belly and squirmed through the opening.

A tricky maneuver in one of the cracks at the X-Zone

After squeezing through the narrow stretch, I stood up with a sense of exhilaration. I made it and I was still okay! Smiling, I looked around at my newly discovered world. It was small, and I was definitely pushing at the edges of my comfort zone, but I was still on the fun side of that boundary.

I gave the crack ahead of me a calculating look. It seemed like it was way too narrow at the base for me to navigate, but it looked like it might be possible to climb up a few feet and squeeze through the upper portion. That seemed a bit risky though… especially since there were no indications that the crack would widen again.

If I’d been with a guide that could assure me that the crack was passable and safe, I may have been able to push through my claustrophobia enough to keep exploring the crack… maybe. As it was, continuing to follow the crack seemed dangerous and stupid. I decided that I would quit while I was ahead and spend a moment enjoying the space that I had discovered.

“Are you okay??” Christina’s muffled voice, barely audible, broke through the silence. “Yes!” I replied into the darkness. “Are you okay??” Christina repeated, clearly unable to hear me from where she stood at the entrance of the cave.

I dropped down onto my belly, squirmed through the crawl space until I could project my voice into the wider part of the tunnel and repeated, “yes!” I finished crawling through the space, stood up, and shouted, “I’m okay,” into the silence.

“Okay!” replied Christina, her voice still muted but much louder now.

The entrance (left) to the longest/deepest tunnel I explored at the X-Zone

“I’m on my way!” I exclaimed as I headed back towards the mouth of the cave. “There’s enough space in here for two if one of you wants to come down,” I continued. I’d forgotten that I’d asked  Christina and Jari to wait for me at the entrance of the cave. I’d been worried that if my claustrophobia reared it’s ugly head I might need to be able to make a hasty exit from the tunnel, and that would be impossible for me to do while someone else was descending into it. Luckily my comfort level had grown, and that thought no longer worried me.

Jari descended into the tunnel and almost instantly disappeared into the darkness beyond me. As I reached the foot of the stairs leading out of the cave I paused and looked around again. This section was wider and much more spacious than I remembered. “Christina, do you want to come down too? I think this section is wide enough that it’s probably within your comfort zone.” I was feeling reluctant to emerge from the cave, so was glad when she decided to come down and join me.

Christina’s ankle was bothering her, so she descended slowly and cautiously. “Yeah, this is fine,” she said once she reached me. Then, before turning her gaze to the walls of the tunnel, she gave me a quick and impulsive hug, “You were down there so long, and your voice was so muffled, I was starting to worry about you! I’m glad you’re okay!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize how long I was gone!” Time had disappeared in the darkness and silence of the cave and I had absolutely no idea how long I’d been down there.

Inca stairs leading down through a tunnel at the X-Zone

As Christina and Jari finished exploring the tunnel I began poking around the adjacent tunnel. It was much shorter, following a number of Inca stairs up into a smallish clearing on the side of the hill. It didn’t seem like it went anywhere interesting, so I descended and waited for Christina and Jari to finish exploring. As I waited, I checked the time and was surprised and saddened to learn that it was already late afternoon. I was going to have to head back to Cusco soon :(

“I’m going to have to come back here!” Christina exclaimed as she emerged from the cave beaming.

“By the way…” she said as Jari emerged from the cave and the three of us prepared to leave the area. “Did you notice this?” She pointed to some small white letters painted on a rock near the entrance of the tunnel we’d just been exploring. Jari responded while I moved closer, “Yeah, I saw that before. Do you think it’s official, or is it just graffiti?” The words, which were carefully painted in all caps about 1 inch high, said, “NO ENTRAR,” (DO NOT ENTER).

In general I think of myself as being very observant, but I hadn’t noticed the fine lettering either on my way into- or on my way out of- the tunnel. My heart sunk. I was pretty sure that it was official because of the way the rock had been scraped away to make an uncharacteristically smooth surface in just that one spot, and because the size, styling, color, and type of paint didn’t seem typical of graffiti.

“I think it’s probably official,” I confessed, feeling especially guilty because I was glad I hadn’t seen it until after I’d explored the tunnels. I view myself as a trail ambassador, so I wouldn’t have felt comfortable knowingly violating the (presumed) property owner’s wishes if I’d seen it before.

“I thought it was probably graffiti,” shrugged Jari. Perhaps we were just seeing our own biases? As a scientist I thought it was written by an archeologist, and as someone that writes about graffiti, Jari thought it was graffiti. We looked expectantly at Christina, she would be our tie-breaker.

She looked at us and burst out laughing, “I don’t know, but if it’s graffiti, it’s f***ing brilliant!”

She turned to me, “Don’t you have a plane to catch? Let’s get moving.” She was right, I did have a plane to catch, but exploring the X-Zone was a lot more fun than sitting in an airplane. “Fine!” I said, sticking out my tongue out at her and laughing.

“Let’s go that way,” I said pointing towards a tunnel that we hadn’t explored yet, but that seemed like it would lead us vaguely back towards the point where the taxi had dropped us off. I was definitely procrastinating. We’d worked plenty of buffer into our schedule, so we still had plenty of time left… or, perhaps more accurately, we weren’t out of time yet ;)

Emerging from the tunnel we were presented with a choice: we could either squeeze through the lower doorway to the right (which seemed to lead us back away from the road), or we could climb the steep narrow stairs that started partway up the rock on the right…

“Are those actually stairs?” asked Christina skeptically.

“Hmmm… probably? What else would they be?” I said looking at the stairs carefully to make sure that I wouldn’t damage them by climbing them. “I’ll go check them out!” I offered selflessly… Yeah, I was definitely procrastinating.

The high road or the low road at the x-zone

“The view from here is pretty good,” I told Jari and Christina as I reached the top of the stairs. Hopping to a rock a little bit higher up, I gained a spectacular view of the golden hills surrounding us. I was near the top of the rocky outcropping, and at this altitude the horizon looked even further away than usual.

I didn’t realize quite how far up I’d scrambled until I looked back down into the craggy chasm and saw Christina nervously eyeing the steep stairs. “I think it might not be a good idea for you with your ankle,” I admitted to Christina as I headed back towards the top of the stairs. I figured I’d head back down to Christina as soon as Jari finished coming up.

Christina looking dubious and deciding not no, but heck no

When I got over to the stairs, however, I noticed that Jari had stopped, and was gingerly dabbing at the top of his head. “Jari?” I asked, looking at him and sensing that something was wrong. He was so distracted he didn’t notice.

“He just slammed his head into the rock,” Christina explained. Jari remained silent, focusing on the task of climbing the remaining stairs. Christina broke the silence to say, “It was a pretty good hit.” If Christina thought it was a good hit I was definitely worried.

As Jari approached the top, he looked up at me. As soon as our eyes met I knew that Christina was right. Jari’s expression remained stoic, but his eyes spoke volumes. Normally they were full of intensity, regardless of whether they were sparkling with laughter, flaring with irritation, or hardened into a steely focus… That intensity was always there, but not this time. His gaze was directed but unfocused, and I wasn’t 100% sure he was seeing me. I hoped that the only thing hiding behind those eyes was pain, but I had no idea how hard he’d hit his head, or what kind of injury we might be dealing with.

As I helped him to his feet he distractedly lifted his hand and gingerly touched his scalp. I reflexively asked, “Is it bleeding?”

“Yes,” he said, turning his head towards me and meeting my gaze, “quite a bit.” That was his way of saying that it hurt like a motherf***er. I breathed a sigh of relief. Jari was responsive and his eyes were focused and reactive. That was really good news.

“Would you like me to take a look at it?” He nodded. There wasn’t enough space at the top of the stairs where we were, so I suggested a suitable rock just a couple feet of way. “Let’s go over there.”

I looked down to check-in with Christina. “Yeah, no,” she quipped. “I’m not going up there… Nope. No way,” she said with an air of infallible certainty. “I’m good, I’ll wait for you down here.” It seemed like a prudent decision to me, so I nodded and turned my attention back to Jari.

I led him over to a slightly larger space, sat him down on a rock, and took a look at the gash on his head. It was about an inch and a half long, and although I didn’t think it needed stitches, it looked like it might leave a scar. “Would you like me to clean it up for you?” I asked. There were some small bits of rock and grit in the open wound that really needed to be dealt with. With Jari’s consent, I moved to the other side of him, put down my backpack, and started taking out my first-aid kit…

“Jocelynin lääkekassi muistuttaa kulma-apteekin ja kenttäsairaalan yhdistelmää, saan häneltä pikakurssin ödeemaisen ihmisen elvyttämiseen. Keuhkojen hapenottokykyä hän on mitannut koko porukalta kahdesti päivässä oksimetrillä.” -Jari Järvelä in Tintinä Andeilla for Suomen Kuvalehti

“Jocelyn’s first-aid kit seemed like a combination of a field hospital and the corner pharmacy…” -rough translation from the Finnish article “Tintina Andeilla” by Jari Järvelä

Suddenly a security guard materialized in the clearing below us,”¡Bájense!”(Get down from there!), he bellowed. I apologized immediately, and told him we’d come down. The security guard pulled out his walkie-talkie and called someoen. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he was clearly unhappy.

I paused to weigh my options… On one hand, I was dealing with an angry guard. On the other hand I was dealing with a head wound. Since the guard wasn’t pointing a gun at me, and cleaning the detritus out of Jari’s wound before it scabbed over would be much better than doing it later, I decided to deal with Jari’s injury first. Besides, I’ve never been good at following orders :-P

I felt the guards impatient gaze upon me as I slowly and carefully prodded at Jari’s gash, dislodging the grit and cleaning it up as best I could. Despite the pain, Jari remained stoic and unflinchingly still, which was surprising until I remembered that he was ex-military.

While I cleaned up Jari’s gash, I thought about how we were going to get down from the rocks. Scrambling down the way we’d come up seemed like a fantastically bad idea given the circumstances, but I didn’t want to get separated from Christina either. After I finished getting Jari cleaned up I looked back down at Christina. Although she couldn’t see the guard, she’d heard him yell at us. “How about I just meet you around front?” she offered.

“That could work,” I replied. “It looks like there’s another way down from up here, so I could meet up with you at the front of the outcropping.” I felt uncomfortable splitting up our small group, but in this case it seemed wise. “Are you sure that’s okay?” I asked, double-checking that Christina was really okay with this plan.

dsc08948

She rolled her eyes at me just a little bit, as she said, “Of course.” Christina was like me: if she said she was okay with something, she was. We both smiled, knowing that if our positions were reversed we would have had the exact same conversation. I turned my attention back to Jari and we started making our way down through the rocks.

“Get down from there!” the guard repeated as soon as Jari and I started moving. “Yes, yes, we’re coming down,” I replied wondering how the guard could imagine we were doing anything else. “Don’t you know this area is closed?” he continued, pointing to the sign in the clearing beside him, which read, “Cerrado, área en mantenimiento” (Closed, maintenance area). He clearly wasn’t sure how we could have ended up where we were without seeing that sign.

“Lo siento,” I apologized again and admitted (truthfully) that we had come in from the other side and hadn’t seen the sign. As Jari and I continued our descent, Christina emerged from down below and approached the guard. She offered to pay any admission fees that we might have missed due to our round-about approach to the site. She wouldn’t knowingly evade the tourist fees because she believed that we should do our part in supporting the local archeological sites (I agreed). Although that seemed to placate the guard, he continued to watch Jari and I like a hawk. At least he’d stopped interrogating us, which was definitely an improvement.

“Maybe you’ll end up with an unexpected souvenir from this trip,” I commented, looking back at Jari. He seemed to be feeling much better, but was completed befuddled by my non sequitur. “Oh,” I said smiling as I realized that I was channeling my mother, “If you end up with a scar, it’ll be an unexpected souvenir.” He smiled as I went on to tell the story of how I’d fallen during my PCT thru-hike and broken my nose, and that my mom’s reaction had been to ask if the fall had given me a ‘souvenir’ (most people can’t tell, but I did end up with a ‘souvenir’ from that fall).

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When we finally reached the clearing where the guard was waiting for us we asked him about the best way to get back to Cusco from there. He was eyeing us impatiently, but explained that we needed to, “Follow the path through the trees over there,” while waving off towards the right. We set off in what we thought was the correct direction.

“No, not that way!” the guard yelled, clearly exasperated. “Over there,” he pointed and waved to a different spot. It was not even a little bit clear where the path he wanted us to follow was located, but we tried again.

“No,” the guard replied again, “you see, over there, the path goes over there!” Even then it wasn’t clear to us, but the guard clearly thought that there was a path, and that there was both a right way, and a wrong way, for us to leave the clearing. 

We continued this comical dance of taking a couple steps towards what we thought was the path, looking to the guard, having him redirect us, and then trying again until we finally made it out of the clearing and into the safety of the eucalyptus trees.

“Well, that certainly ought to have convinced the guard that our story about getting lost was believable,” Christina blurted out as we hiked down the narrow dirt path. “You’re not wrong,” I laughed, and within a few seconds we were all laughing so hard we couldn’t walk and had to stop and take a break.

After we escaped from the clearing it seemed like the hands of time sped up. Before we knew it we were walking along the road back to Cusco contemplating the chances that an empty cab might happen by, and trying to decide if we’d be better off hitchhiking or walking the rest of the way into the city. While we were contemplating which bad plan was our best plan we happened upon a Quechuan woman and her son standing expectantly by the side of the road.

“¿Está esperando un taxi?” (Are you waiting for a cab?) we asked. She shook her head, “No.” Then after a moments pause she continued,  “Estoy esperando el autobús” (I’m waiting for the bus). In an amazing stroke of luck, the was due within moments, and it would take us almost exactly where we needed to go.

As Christina, Jari, and I climbed onto the bus I turned to take one last look back at the rocky outcropping of the X-Zone. I didn’t want my adventures in Peru to end, and I didn’t want to say good-bye to my friends, but I had a plane to catch.


Epilogue

The first weekend of November (2016), was the first big adventure I went on after returning from the X-Zone and my adventures in Peru: a solo backpacking trip to the White Mountains where I climbed 4 of New Hampshire’s acclaimed 4000 footers (North Tripyramid, Middle Tripyramid, Whiteface, and Passaconaway). I trudged through the crusty snow, my head in a cloud of icy fog, feeling more intensely alive than I had in weeks. I pitched my tent in a snow-covered clearing, ate a simple dinner of mac-and-cheese with tuna, and curled up to sleep, happy and content. As I drifted off to sleep I imagined Christina laughing as I tried to explain to her how sleeping on the wet, cold, snowy ground after a dinner of processed mac and cheese could possible be defined as ‘fun’ and not just ‘miserable.’ She would have hated it!

That same weekend Christina was also off on an adventure. Her time volunteering at the women’s shelter in Cusco had just ended, and she was enjoying her final days in Peru at a spiritual retreat in the Sacred Valley. While enjoying Pisco Sours and causas (a layered potato dish typical of Peruvian cuisine that Christina loved), Christina had explained to me that she was hoping the guided shamanic journeys at the retreat would help her integrate her experiences in Peru (her work, her activism, her newfound joy of solo adventuring et al) with her life going forward. She was looking forward to the new world she was going to create for herself when she returned to the United States, and was confident that the retreat would leave her feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on whatever it was that the world would throw at her next.

On Sunday night (November 6), I returned from my adventure, exhausted, but feeling rejuvenated and ready to take on life’s challenges… I crawled into my bed, which was so warm and comfortable that it felt like a little slice of heaven, and started drifting off to sleep. Mere moments before becoming completely unrousable my phone rang.

Half-asleep, I answered it. It was the late night phone call that everyone dreads. Christina was dead. Still groggy, I hung up the phone, incapable of believing what I’d just been told… Moments later a fitful sleep overtook me.

I awoke the next morning, uncertain whether the call had been real or imagined. My mind rejected the unbearable truth. I prepared for, and then gave a talk to a room full of colleagues at 10 am. It had to be done. It went well. Christina and I had always been able to do what had to be done… It’s what we did… But we had also learned the hard way that we needed to allow ourselves time and space to grieve.

On November 8th I dragged myself to the polls amidst my grief and voted. It needed to be done. The next day, as my liberal friends mourned the loss of the country, I mourned the loss of my friend. I wanted to shout at them, “America isn’t dead! Maybe she’s different than what you thought she was, but she’s not gone!” Sobbing, I’d finish with a whimper, “Christina is dead! No matter how much I fight, I can’t get her back!”

In fact, just getting Christina’s body back to the United States turned out to be an ordeal. Memorial services for Christina were delayed as the people closest to her dealt with the repatriation of her mortal remains… It took longer than it should. Finally her body was returned to US soil, and on December 10th we were able to hold a Memorial service for her in a small space just outside of Boston.

As I prepared for the services I struggled to find words to describe what Christina had meant to me. During a rough patch in her life, my ex-husband and I had welcomed Christina into our home, and she’d transitioned from being one of my friends to being one of my sisters. Like my little brothers, she teased me mercilessly and helped me learn to take myself less seriously. She also knew that when the sh** hit the fan she could count on me to wade through it, stand by her, and help her clean it up. It’s what we did.

So, what did Christina mean to me? When I tried to distill my words into thoughts, they came out as fragments, and I ended up with was this poem:

“Be the TROUBLE you want to see in the world”

A mischievous twinkle in her eye

Suddenly a ridiculous adventure

Butterfly wings and glitter

Happiness found

Embrace the whimsy, the joy

It is okay to play!

TROUBLE is fun

“Be the CHANGE you want to see in the world”

Strong and in charge

Life is messy

The work is never done

Embrace the challenge, the tears

Fight for what you love

CHANGE is hard

“Embrace the power of BOTH”

This isn’t the Highlander

There can be more than one

Be trouble, be change

Discover more options

Responsible and fun

Whimsical and strong

Laughter and tears

Glitter and Grit

BOTH is better

I miss her, and I don’t expect that to change. She has been woven into the fiber of my life and my being. She was family, and the love I have for my family is unconditional and unfettered by bounds between life and death.

Christina and I causing ‘trouble’ in 2009 (Photo by David Green).


The words Christina used to describe herself were, “survivor. radical. traveler. she/her. leaping. healing. glitter + grit.”
“Love, as I am often heard saying, is a verb. To love involves choices + acts,  including – perhaps, especially – difficult ones. Love is showing up when it is hard. Love is saying no when it is the true choice for you. And love is using our voices, speaking up + calling out, when needed.” -Christina Jenkins

“I love writing. I love finding my words, using my voice, sharing + listening. Writing is a form of visibility that is both a privilege + a way to continue showing up for radical social justice.” – Christina Jenkins

Thirsting for Adventure (Trekking in Peru: Day 2)

Thirsting for Adventure (Trekking in Peru: Day 2)

“How much water will you need for the day?” the guide asked as we prepared for our second day of trekking through the Andes.

“I don’t know, a liter?” answered one of our group members. I gave the guide a skeptical look, that number seemed dangerously low to me. Our plan for the day included ~4700ft of elevation gain through an exposed section of high altitude desert with no shade and the forecast was predicting temperatures over 90°F. Both my experience and the research I’ve done on water requirements for hikers suggested that 1L wouldn’t be anywhere near enough:

“When’s the next time we can get water?” I asked, hoping I was missing something since the guide seemed unconcerned. “We can get water when we stop at Maranpata for lunch,” he replied. I looked at the elevation/mileage cheat-sheet that I’d made up before the trip. Maranpata wasn’t that far away, but we had to climb from the Apurimac River at 5084ft (1550m) up to 9950 ft (3033m) to get there.

“Hmmm,” I paused to to do some calculations. The guide estimated it would take us ~6hrs, it was going to be a strenuous climb, and it was going to be extremely hot.  I would probably need ~4L in that time, but I could ‘camel-up’ and drink a liter with breakfast and drop that number a bit. “I’ll take 3 liters,” I concluded.

“Really? Are you sure you?” replied the guide, urging me to take less.

“Yes, I’m sure,” I replied confidently. I’d made the mistake of skimping on water during a heat wave on my AT thru-hike in Virginia and ended up suffering from heat exhaustion (complete with nausea, vomiting, and double vision). It wasn’t an experience that I cared to repeat.

The guide remained unconvinced, “Water is very heavy. Make sure you don’t take more than you need.”

“I know,” I replied.  “A lot of people skimp on water because water is heavy and they want to keep their pack weight low, but when temperatures climb over 90°F skimping on water isn’t just a bad idea, it’s dangerous! Even though its heavy, for conditions like these most hikers I know would carry 2-3 L of water.” Eventually everyone sorted out how much water they were going to carry (the range was 1.5L to 3L) and we set off on our adventure.

The trail rose steeply out of the canyon, providing us with some shade as we started our first uphill climb of the trek. Since the temperatures were already in the ’80s, we would enjoy the shade while it lasted!

The first couple of switchbacks leading up from the river seemed long and gentle, especially since our guide was leading us with a slow deliberate pace called rest-stepping (a strategy I was familiar with from high-altitude mountaineering). Down by the river at ~5000ft rest-stepping felt awkward and out of place, but as we gained elevation and the switchbacks got steeper it began to feel more natural for me.

Unsurprisingly, the distance between the fastest members of our group (me, Jari, and the guide) and the slowest people in our group began to grow as we climbed. We also lost the glorious shade, and began to split our time between hiking in the blistering heat of the sun and baking in the middle of the trail while waiting for the group to catch up.

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After three hours of hiking we’d traversed 1.2 miles and reached Santa Rosa, a small oasis at 6873 ft (2095m) with shade, benches, toilets, and a stand selling beverages and snacks. We took a 10-minute break there and bought beverages. I bought a blue Gatorade, someone else bought a coke, and the Quechuean woman running the stand brought out a pitcher of mud-colored liquid and poured some into glasses for both the cook and the guide.

“¿Qué es esto? (What’s that?)” I asked, my curiosity piqued by the milky-brown liquid. “Acca,” replied the woman. “Chicha,” clarified the cook. I furrowed my brow as I tried, and failed, to translate chicha from Spanish into English. “Inca Whiskey,” elaborated the guide smiling broadly. I wasn’t sure if he was kidding, but it seemed plausible that it was some sort of home brew. The only way to know for sure would be to try some. Even though I like whiskey, alcohol seemed like a bad idea on a scorching hot day when I was headed to altitude, so I went back to drinking my unnaturally blue Gatorade.

Since our group had struggled with the first part of the climb, the guide offered to take the day-packs of the slowest group members and put them on a horse that would stay with us as we climbed. While he and the head horsemen (Gumercindo, pictured above), re-sorted gear to free up one of the horses, we headed out.

In the guides absence the group seemed willing to let me set the pace and lead the charge up the mountain. As a kid, my dad had one simple rule for hiking as a group, “you start as a group, you hike as a group, you end as a group.” So I tried to keep our group together by setting a relatively slow pace, and making sure that everyone was caught up at each switchback.

The midday sun directly overhead was blazingly hot. Even in the best conditions the ~2700 ft (~823 m) of elevation gain in the 2 short miles (~3 km) between Santa Rosa and Maranpata would have felt steep, but with temperatures soaring up over 100ºF it felt even more impressive.

I found the steepness of the switchbacks particularly impressive. When I’d seen the elevation profile for the hike I’d assumed this stretch of trail would be a steep, rocky scramble straight up the mountain like the scrambles in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Instead it was a consistently graded dirt track more like the trails I’d hiked in California, but much, much steeper. The impressive elevation gains on this hike (1800 ft in the first 1.2 miles, and 2700 ft in the the next two miles) rivaled some of the steepest sections of the trails I’d hiked on the AT and PCT. One advantage of the super-steep switchbacks was that they were so steep they created shadows, which gave us a little bit of shade to rest in.

We were taking the hike so slowly and resting so often that despite the elevation gains, the heat, and the altitude I was feeling pretty good. It also gave me plenty of time to marvel at the beauty of the trail around me and wonder at its curiosities. Per usual, I took pictures of each new flower and strange plant that I saw. I also marveled at the things I didn’t expect to see while hiking through the desert in Peru,  like the groves of bamboo tucked into the ravines. I’d always thought that bamboo was strictly native to China, but it turns out that bamboo is also native to Peru and the Americas!

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As the morning turned into afternoon the energy levels among the people in the group started to drop. One person in particular was really struggling. Her pace had slowed significantly in the last hour and she was feeling nauseous. In addition, she was starting to stumble in a way that I found alarming. Unusual “umbles” (stumbles, mumbles, fumbles, and grumbles)  while hiking are classic warning signs that something is going seriously awry.

Since we were going up in altitude, we hadn’t eaten in 6 hrs, and the temperatures were excessively hot, it was hard to tell if the problem was dehydration, altitude, declining blood sugar levels, or all of the above. The next time she stumbled I suggested we stop in the shade for a few minutes to rest and drink some water. I also offered her some of my favorite electrolyte gummy candies (shot bloks). Luckily she started to feel a little better after that, and her gait and nausea began to improve.

Finally at around 2 pm we made it to our lunch destination at ~9,573 ft (2918 m). By then a lot of people in the group were feeling excessively fatigued and headachey. Since temperatures had reached 102°F and it had been about 7 hours since we last ate, dehydration and low blood sugar were definitely a part of the problem, but exertion at high altitude was also likely to be part of the problem.

  • 75% of people have some symptoms of acute mountain sickness (AMS) above 8000ft (2500 m)
    • Mild AMS: headache, dizziness, fatigue, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, nausea, disturbed sleep, and a general feeling of malaise
    • Moderate AMS: severe headache (not relieved by medication), nausea and vomiting, increasing weakness and fatigue, shortness of breath, and decreased coordination (ataxia)
    • Severe AMS: shortness of breath at rest, inability to walk, decreasing mental status, high altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE) and high altitude cerebral edema (HACE)

While we rested in the shade waiting for lunch I pulled out the pulse oximeter (Acc-U-Rate CMS 500DL, US$19.95) that I’d brought along. I’d purchased it because I was curious about how the altitude would affect my poor asthmatic lungs, and as a scientist I’d hoped that the entire group would join me in collecting data  about the effects of altitude on our physiology. I measured my oxygen saturation (SpO2) and then passed the pulse oximeter around to the rest of the people in the group. Sure enough, every single person in the group had a lower SpO2 at Maranpata than they had had that morning at the Apurimac River. Mine had dropped from 96% to 93%, but other people in the group had seen more dramatic drops. For example, the woman that had been struggling with nausea on the way up had dropped from 94% to 74%.

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*The decrease in mean SpO2 levels between our campsite at the Apurimac River (94.4% +/-0.3SE, n=7) and Maranpata (86.9%+/-2.6SE, n=4) was statistically significant (p<0.03)

Luckily after resting, hydrating, and eating lunch everyone started to feel better. Besides, the rest of the day’s hike was what the guide called, “Inca flat,” which meant that there were plenty of little ups and downs, but not significant changes in altitude.

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Heading from Maranpata towards Choquequirao the cacti quickly gave way to greener, lusher vegetation, and we caught our first glimpse of the Inca ruins of Choquequirao in the distance. The steep farming terraces of the lowest sector of Choquequirao seemed to be cut into the face of sheer cliffs. It was incredible to think about what kind of oasis this must have been when it was actively being farmed and maintained. Especially since only a fraction of the site at Choquequirao has been excavated.

As we got closer to the first visible ruins of Choquequirao (Phaqchayuq, or “the one with the waterfall”), which sports at least 80 agricultural terraces I noticed the unmistakable  purple star-shaped flowers of the nightshade family mixed in among the vegetation. They reminded me of the potato plants that used to grow in my grandfathers garden. I wondered if this plant might be among the 2,500 varieties of potato cultivated in the Andes, and if its ancestors had escaped from the Inca terraces centuries ago.

Even though the two miles (3km) from Maranpata to the Choquequirao campsite were relatively flat, the pace of our group as a whole was still incredibly slow. As the sun dropped behind the ridge a sense of disappointment welled up within me. One of Choquequirao’s claims to fame is that it contains the only known Inca site dedicated to the sunset and I’d really been looking forward to watching the sunset from that amazing site. It was only as I realized that I wasn’t going to get to watch that sunset that I began to understand that the speed of our group might have a negative impact on our itinerary and on my vacation.

After settling in among the terraces at the Choquequirao campsite and admiring the beautiful mountains around us, Jari and I headed into the dining tent for tea, snacks, and cocoa. It turned out that he was just as disappointed about missing the sunset at Choquequirao as I was and was concerned that the slow pace of our group might prevent him from getting to visit the ‘Llamas del Sol (Sun Llamas)’ at Choquequirao the next day. I had no idea what the Llamas del Sol were, but I was excited to find out, so I said that I’d happily explore them with him.

Eventually everyone else from the group filed in and we ate dinner. Once again the cooks prepared a real feast for us, including something that I’d never eaten before, lupine salad (ensalada de tarwi). “I had no idea that lupine was edible,” I commented as the guide described each dish. “Usually it isn’t,” he explained, “raw lupine beans are poisonous, but the Inca learned that if you soak the lupine beans in the river for two weeks they become edible.” I was curious about what the white beans from the pretty purple flower tasted like, so immediately tried one. Their flavor was absolutely unique. They were slightly bitter, nutty, and vaguely reminiscent of bug spray, but still surprisingly good. I took a heaping serving of them and enjoyed imagining that they might act like a natural bug repellent.

While the cooks prepared bananas flambé for dessert,  Jari quietly asked the guide if we were going to get to be able to check out the Llamas del Sol at Choquequirao the next day. The guide explained that to see the llamas we’d have to hike half-way down the mountain and back up again, and that it would be way too much for our group. “Yes, but I would still really like to do it,” insisted Jari. “Count me in!” I added.

The guide sighed, “I don’t know why Jari is fascinated with dead llamas. We’ll see plenty of live llamas on this trek without having to do any extra hiking.” I still had no idea what the Llamas del Sol were, but I was intrigued, especially since it would involve extra hiking. “The two of us (Jari and I) could go check out the llamas and then catch up to everyone afterwards,” I proposed. Although the guide wasn’t enthusiastic about it, he gave an affirmative nod, “that could work.” Jari and I would get our adventure at Choquequirao!

–Next Installment: Day 3-Choquequirao and the Llamas del Sol–

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Summary: Day 2 by the numbers

  • Apurimac River (5084ft/1550m) to Santa Rosa (6873 ft/ 2095m)
    • Distance: 1.2 miles (2 km)
    • Elevation gain ~1800 ft (~550m)
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 1.5 hrs (3 hrs)
  • Santa Rosa to Maranpata: 9,573 ft (2918 m)
    • Distance: 2.1 miles (3 km)
    • Elevation gain: 2700 ft (~823m)
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 1.5-2hrs (4 hrs)
  • Maranpata to Choquequirao Campsite: 9950ft (3033m)
    • Distance: 2.1 miles (3 km)
    • Elevation gain: ~0ft (‘Inca flat’ as described by guide)
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 1.5hrs (3 hrs)
  •  Totals: 5 miles (8 km)
    • ~4700 ft (~1400 m) elevation gain
    • Predicted hiking time (actual): 4-5 hrs (~11 hrs: 7:30 am to  6:30 pm)