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.

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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

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Tragedy in the Whites

I plan to climb Mt. Washington this winter, and I expect to survive the attempt…but I recognize that not everybody does. New Hampshire’s White Mountains, though beautiful, can be dangerous, especially during the winter. Yesterday the hiking community received a painful reminder of this truth when we learned of the tragic death of fellow hiker and adventurer Kate Matrosova. Though I did not know Kate Matrosova we have some things in common… We are both women in our 30s that enjoy hiking and mountaineering, we’ve both climbed Kilimajaro, we’ve both gone on solo winter hikes in the White Mountains, and we both hoped to climb Mt. Washington this winter…

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” – Albert Einstein

There are people that think that I am crazy… crazy for hiking, crazy for backpacking, crazy for going on solo adventures in the woods, crazy for going outside during the wintertime… When the snow begins to fall most people head home to curl up beside the hearth, drink a cup of hot cocoa, and read a book or watch a movie… some people head to the hills to ski, but a small number of us head to the mountains to hike and soak in the spectaular snow-covered views. When I learned that someone that shared my passion for the outdoors died doing the thing I love, I felt compelled to learn more about what happened… partly from a morbid sense of curiosity, partly to reassure myself that I wouldn’t end up in a similar situation, and partly to learn from the tragedy to try to avoid ending up in a similar situation.

So, What happened? Matrosova was attempting a winter traverse of the Northern Presidentials: Mt. Madison, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Washington. This day-hike is 13.5 to 17.5 miles long and is one of the most challenging hikes in the White Mountains.* She began at 5 am on Sunday morning, but by 3:30 in afternoon she’d activated her personal locator beacon initiating rescue efforts. Even though rescuers were deployed Sunday evening, they were unable to locate Matrosova and deteriorating weather conditions forced them to postpone their search until morning. At 2 pm on Monday her body was located near Star Lake, not far from Madison Spring Hut (which is closed during the winter).

Could/would the same thing happen to me? I tried to reassure myself that the same thing wouldn’t have happened to me. After all, I’d made a different decision than Kate did when it came to attempting a Mt. Washington climb on that Sunday… I decided not to hike and she decided to hike. Despite the fact that I’ve been checking the weather and looking for a viable window of opportunity to climb Mt. Washington since my successful Mt. Lafayette ascent in January . I decided that the forecast high temperature of 0F degrees was too low for me, that the forecast low of -30F was way too low for me, the predicted wind speeds of 80 mph were too high, and the weather pattern was too unstable (tail end/after effects of the blizzaed) for me to even consider making a Mt. Washington attempt…. Brrrrrr!!!! But I have to admit that I spent most of the day Sunday and Monday looking out my window at the beautifully sunny skies wishing that I was out hiking, seriously contemplating going for a quick hike up Mt. Monadnock (which is closer to home for me), and grumbling about the cruelty of winter when it feels like you should be outside enjoying the sun, but are trapped inside.

It bothers me that the initial reaction of the hiking community to the death of an adventurer is to assume that they must have been inexperienced, cocky, or reckless. From the little information that is publicly available, it looks to me like Kate Matrosova had more mountaineering experience than I do… If I assume that she was more comfortable with winter mountaineering than I am, her decisions begin to make more sense, not less… Perhaps she felt like she was equipped to deal with those temperatures and wind speeds? It’s hard for me to imagine, but certainly possible… She probably had a number of bail out options and plans (I always do), and the fact that she used her locator beacon before it started to get dark suggests to me that she realized when she got in over her head that she needed help and called for it.

It is a classic stage of grief to try to isolate ourselves and reassure ourselves that we would have responded differently and that we would have survived, but as I watched the online forums explode with commentary about Kate’s death I found it upsetting… Was this the kind of commentary that people would make about me if, god-forbid, something happened to me on one of my solo hikes? I knew that the answer was yes because some variant of the same conversation seems to unfold every time a hiker meets an untimely death, but I didn’t like it…

As hikers, backpackpers, and mountaineers we acknowledge that risk is a part of our sport, a part of our community, and a part of our lives… and that sometimes death is the cost of living. Everyone that has done extensive hiking and backpacking has made bad decisions, has been cocky, and has been inexperienced. The thing that really makes us different from those that have perished is that we have had the privilege of living through our mistakes and learning from them… Not everyone is that lucky. I fully intend to survive my Mt. Washington attempt! But then again, I have no doubt that Kate Matrosova did as well.

 

*The Northern Presidentials: The typical route starts at the Appalachia parking lot off of Highway 2 (where she was dropped off at 5 am on Sunday), follows the Valley-Way trail to Madison Spring Hut, and then follows the Appalachian Trail across a beautiful and exposed ridge to Mount Washington and Lakes of the Clouds Hut (the Gulfside Trail to Crawford Path with optional side-trips to the summits of Madison, Adams, and Jefferson) before descending via the Amanoosuk Trail to the Base Road Parking lot (off of 302, where she was planning on meeting her husband later that day)

This post by a White Mountain guide gives another interesting perspective.

Getting Thru

Getting Thru

I have never felt a greater sense of community and belonging than I did on my solo thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. I spent most of my time alone, but whenever I encountered another thru-hiker there was an immediate spark of recognition and a connection. A recognition that whatever we were or did before, we were now thru-hikers. We’d trudged through the rain, scrambled over rocks, dodged rattlesnakes, sworn at mice, seen amazing views, met incredible people, and accepted both food and kindness from complete strangers.  We’d been hot, we’d been hungry, we’d been thirsty, we’d hurt, and through it all, we’d persevered, because we were thru-hikers. It didn’t matter if we’d known each other for 30 seconds or 6 months, we were a community and we looked out for each other.

There are some people on the trail that youJES_AT_2013-59 connect to so strongly that they become more than just your community and your friends, they become your crew, your trail family. For most of my hike I was a loner. I rarely saw the same people more than once. I was part of the community, but didn’t have a trail family. Somewhere in Maine I realized that that had changed, I was part of a crew and had been adopted into a trail family. I still hiked by myself, but my crew, my new trail family, was never far away and would often materialize in the evening to cook, camp, and carouse.

On October 4, 2013, I reached the summit of Mount Katahdin and was immediately greeted by the eight people that had become my crew, my trail family. We were on top of the world! We knew who and what we were. We were thru-hikers! We were confident, we were respected, we were strong, and, as long as we were on the trail, we felt a certain sense of invincibility and solidarity. At that point civilization meant luxury. It meant hot food and grocery stores and soft beds and the family and friends that we’d left behind.

We returned to the world we’d left behind and realized and that there was a price to pay for all of the luxuries that we’d been dreaming about. Even though we’d changed, the rest of the world really hadn’t, and most of the uncertainty, chaos, and problems that we’d left behind were still sitting there waiting for us. We thought that we’d have lots of time on the trail to deal with whatever baggage we were dragging behind us, to figure out how we fit into the world, and what we wanted to do with our lives, but it didn’t seem to work out that way (at least for me). We’d been warned about post hike depression, that leaving the trail would be hard, and that we’d have trouble adjusting to civilization. We thought we understood what that meant and that we were prepared for it, but we weren’t. We had been a part of something that was bigger than ourselves and we had changed.

We had disconnected ourselves from jobs, our homes, our lives, and the people we loved so that we could follow a dream, hike the trail, and go on an incredible journey. Our new world on the trail had became our everything, and now that it was gone. We were lost at the very moment that we’d expected to be found. We went home but were strangers there because we had changed. The people that were close to us and understood us when we left didn’t understand us anymore because we had changed. Our trail families, the people that understood us now, were far away and having their own struggles as they tried to figure out how to connect to the worlds that they were returning to. It takes time or trauma or both to disconnect from the world as completely as we had, and we hadn’t truly understood how hard it would be and how much time it would take  to reconnect to world.

It is three months later and it seems like most of us are either still working on reconnecting, or are preparing to disconnect again.

shady2On January 9, 2014, just three months after completing his thru-hike of the AT and less than a year after finishing his military service, my friend Shady is dead. Shady was a thru-hiker, a war veteran, and an epic hero. At first glance Shady was just a thru-hiker like the rest of us, a part of our community, and a part of my trail family. As thru-hikers we know that, “You can leave the trail, but the trail never leaves you,” and as a vet, Shady had left the war, but the war hadn’t left him. Hiking with him during the day you wouldn’t know that he’d been an Airborne Ranger in the United States Army and that he had served one tour in Iraq and three tours in Afghanistan as part of  United States Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, respectively. He was kind, generous, and just like we immediately welcomed and accepted him as a part of our family, he immediately welcomed us and accepted us as part of his family. He was a part of our crew, he tried to take care of us and we tried to take care of him.

For most of us questions like, “Would you be willing to die to protect your family, your crew, your country” and “would you able kill to protect your country, your crew, and your family?” are purely theoretically. We haven’t been confronted with the harsh reality, sacrifices, and memories that happen when you’ve lived through answers to those questions. Many of our vets, however, have had to face those realities and either live or die with consequences. For them, sacrifice is no longer a romantic notion, it has become a complicated, messy reality. Facing those realities and living through those experiences disconnects them from the world that they are trying to protect. The sacrifices that Shady had made, had been willing to make, and continued to make were not intangible far away things comfortable tucked away in the land of theory. They stalked him on the trail and ambushed him in his sleep. He did not sleep well.

At night Shady tried to protect us from foes we couldn’t see and only he could know. When a sharp screech pierced the quiet night sky in the 100 Mile Wilderness, Shady threw himself over the person next to him in the shelter to protect him with his body. He thought that an improvised explosive device was going off, and he was going to save as many of us from it as he could. He didn’t hesitate, he didn’t think about what would happen to him, he just did what he could to protect us. None of us had any doubt that Shady was willing sacrifice himself to protect us. It didn’t matter that what he was actually protecting us from was a personal alarm going off in somebodies pack. It didn’t matter that he’d woken us up at 2 am again. I didn’t matter that it took 10 minutes for him to realize that it was actually his alarm in his pack. It didn’t matter that it took him another 10 minutes to figure out how to shut it off (though I may have kindly suggested that he throw the damn thing into the river after the first five minutes). We loved Shady and he was part of our crew.  I wish that we could have protected him the way he tried to protect us.

As thru-hikers many of us find it challenging to transition back into the real world and I can only imagine how much harder it must be for our vets. I am glad that I had the opportunity to walk beside Shady and to call him my friend. I admired Shady for his honesty, his strength, his sacrifice, his openness and his sensitivity. He reminded me of one of my childhood heroes, my dad (a Vietnam combat vet). I wish they could have met each other. Knowing Shady and hiking the trail have both helped me to better understand the sacrifices that Shady, my dad, and many of our nations servicemen and servicewomen make.  Shady restored my faith in heroes. Not the perfect superheroes of my childhood, but the kind of heroes that I can believe in and embrace as an adult. Heroes that are real, that are human, that are conflicted, and that have risked everything to protect us.

Now that I’ve learned to believe in heroes again I am horrified to learn that our heroes are dying… not just out on the battlefield and in foreign lands, but here at home and by their own hands (22 veterans kill themselves each day according to the federal Department of Veterans Affairs). I want to reach out to our veterans, to thank them, and to support them. We need to figure out what we can do to keep our heroes from dying.

My condolences to Shady’s family and friends. Memorial services for Shady will be held on January 13, 2014. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to the Wounded Warrior Project, P.O. Box 758517, Topeka, Kansas 66675 or to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, P.O. Box 807, Harpers Ferry, West Virginia 25425.

Update: The Silence: More thoughts about Shady, Combat Vets, and PTSD.


If you or someone you know needs to talk, here are some hotline numbers:
(877)838-2838 …..1-877-Vet2Vet Veterans peer support line
(800)442-4673 …..1-800-442-HOPE Speak to someone NOW
(800)784-2432 …..1-800-SUICIDA Spanish speaking suicide hotline
(877)968-8454 …..1-877-YOUTHLINE teen to teen peer counseling hotline
(800)472-3457 …..1-800-GRADHLP Grad student hotline
(800)773-6667 …..1-800-PPD-MOMS Post partum depression hotline
If you are thinking about suicide and have trouble reaching out consider reading this article.

Race Brook Falls (Day 107)

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I have a little fm radio that I sometimes listen to while I’m hiking. One of the nice things about the radio is that I get some updates about the news and weather, though I’m usually paying more attention to the woods and the trail than the background noise from the radio. Today, however, the news got my full attention, “A trip along the Appalachian Trail turned tragic on Wednesday when a Delaware man hiking with his brother died after plunging 35 feet.”

I stopped in my tracks. I’d hiked through that section of the trail (race brook falls) on Tuesday, less than 24 hours before the tragedy. I was overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions.

I know a couple of sets of brothers hiking the AT that are about a day behind me. I tried to remember if any of them were from Delaware… I wasn’t sure. I’ve heard rumor that the brothers were on a backpacking trip, but weren’t thru-hikers. Regardless, chances are pretty good that I met/saw them on Tuesday since I hiked 20 miles that day, pretty much centered around Race Brook Falls. I may have even met them while I was hiking with my brother.

Day hikers, section hikers, and other thru-hikers all have at least one thing in common: a love of the trail and of the woods. This binds us all together and makes us like a family, whether we just share a smile, a conversation, a meal, a view, or a day in one of the shelters watching the rain. The day hikers and section hikers fade into and out of my days, often anonymously, but their words and smiles stay with me and help me through the hardest miles.

I may never know if I met and talked to the brothers from Delaware, but tonight I mourn the loss of a fellow hiker.

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