Trails as Story

I completed a five day trek to Machu Picchu via the Salkantay Pass. I walked around 50 miles and seemingly reached the top of the world. I could share lots of details about the trip: the long miles and tired feet, the meals shared over dim light, the uncooperative tents, or the constant assault of impressive views. In truth, these are neither new nor particularly interesting stories. Instead, I thought I’d share a few thoughts that stayed with me along the way.

In many ways, I approached the long slog to Machu Picchu as a pilgrimage. I don’t mean in the traditional sense: I am not, after all, a professed member of any faith nor do I have some connection to the people who walked the trails centuries ago (admittedly, by the final climb of Huayna Picchu, I had gained a healthy respect for religions of old that saw the mountains as gods). Despite my lack of membership in the religions of pilgrimages, something about the act devotion and the sense of purpose appealed to me as I thought about how I wanted to travel a few months ago. The intentionality inherent in pilgrimages lends a weight of importance to every step and the trek was a great chance to immerse myself in that mindset.

Unlike established pilgrimages, my journey to Machu Picchu lacked a real focus of devotion. On reflection, I didn’t think it was a moment for spontaneous conversion to faith or a good time for self-absorption. As a result, I began walking with an idea of open meditation. The basic idea? Embrace mindfulness throughout the day in all its forms. I tried to eat a little slower. I tried to observe the challenge or ease of each step. I tried to pause at vistas and bear witness to their beauty before taking a picture. I tried, when appropriate, to find some solitude on the trail. I opted to walk whenever the option was available, forgoing ziplines and shuttle buses in favor of humbly putting one foot in front of the other.

Out of this open meditation came one pervasive thought: trails are a fantastic way of framing the collective storytelling that is life. I’ve been enamored with this idea of the power of storytelling for a while now - even using it as the framework of my personal statement for law school - and it popped up again as I adventured to Machu Picchu.

Trails are a living embodiment of collective storytelling that reaches through time. In the past, trailblazers are the initial discoverers, some by accident and others through purpose. They forge a path that we all generally follow. In the present, we trod upon the footsteps of our forbearers, fine-tuning the worn trail with every footstep. Occasionally we find new, better, and more interesting pathways to the same destination. Finally, just as the past communicates with the present, in the current moment we communicate with the future, showing the way we took in the hope that those wiser than us can amend our missteps.

In each dimension of time - the past, the present, and the future - there is a constantly changing understanding of the story in the eyes of the individual. Every person, despite having many examples to follow in the established trail and fellow hikers, will travel along the trail in a unique way. It is only when we add up the sum of parts that we get something greater: a collective understanding of the road we have traveled to be shared with others preparing for the same journey.

For me, this sophomoric revelation made me think even more about what story I’m telling and how it will fit into the larger whole. What footprints am I leaving behind in my actions and writing? What would be the impact of someone following those footprints? Who am I following? Where are all these trails taking us?

Although none of these questions will be resolved through an act of thinking, it’s good to pause and think about where our feet have been, where they are and where they are taking us. Ultimately, however, I keep returning to a brilliant phrase I read years ago: “we make the road by walking”.