Saturday, June 13, 2009

Stairway to Heaven

Anne Davison, Wendy Noonan and Terry Martin at the fabled city of Machu Picchu
By Wendy Noonan

I sat at the kitchen table, drinking coffee, wondering who I was. My grown-up children wanted my support, and my newborn granddaughter pulled at my heart. My parents needed me. My husband humoured me. Just retired, I had put my career behind me. I had decisions to make about my future: what next?

I opened the newspaper and saw a small advertisement for a four-day, 47-kilometre trek along the Inca Trail to the storied lost city of Machu Picchu. I couldn’t get that Arthritis Society ad out of my head, and eventually I plunged in. The challenge, I hoped, would bring back my focus.

To my delight, two friends decided to join me. I assured them this was something we could do. Altitude was no problem. After all, Calgary is 3,200 feet above sea level, so what would be difficult about Machu Picchu’s 4,200? Wrong! I’d missed a detail. We would climb to 4,200 metres – more than 13,000 feet.

I started training and began to think of other things. A good friend with lupus, a form of arthritis, had just been diagnosed with a rare type of blood cancer related to the disease. She agreed to be my “arthritis hero” – the person I dedicated my efforts to. As I thought of her quiet suffering, the required fund-raising became part of a larger challenge.

In Lima I met the 35 fellow trekkers from across Canada participating in the experience. We were bussed to Cuzco – high in the Andes – where we began adjusting to the altitude. Struggling to breathe, I learned I would have to lug my own gear. To prevent abuse, the porters carried only our sleeping bags – along with tents, food and other camp necessities, of course. When I saw their loads, I stopped complaining.

The trek began at the start of the Inca trail. We hiked along the Vilcanota River beneath the snow-capped Nevado Veronica, through cactus gardens and fields of corn to the Llactapata ruins. The first night was surreal: a tent in a camp in the Andes; cool, beautiful, so many things the Calgary suburbs are not.

The next day was the most challenging. A six-hour climb took us through an area known as the cloud-forest, through some meadows, and over the Dead Women’s Pass (4,200m): its name concerned me. Then the climb became even more arduous – uneven, steep and irregular stone steps that seemed to go on forever. The song-phrase “I’m climbing the stairway to heaven” took the form of an earworm. Against my will, it sang and sang and sang in my mind.

As I approached the summit I could hear the cheers of those already on top; an indescribable victory was at hand. I saw a condor high overhead. Surely this was a sign that all was well. Certainly I now knew I could accomplish anything.

I expected the third day to be easy – after all, I had survived Dead Women’s Pass. Wrong. It was twelve hours of hills; I would have given anything to walk on level ground for just a few steps. We trudged to the ruins of Runquracay, over an associated pass (3,850m), then on to the ruins of Sayacmarca. We soon traipsed through a humid-forest where moss grows four feet deep, then into the rainforest, where we passed through several Inca tunnels.

This was the most beautiful day by far. The trail was alive with countless species of orchids and birds. At times I took off on my own to experience the beauty and joy of the Andes. I let it settle around me and wished I could hold the memories of this day for a lifetime.

The next day we began the final leg of the trek to Machu Picchu. After hiking along narrow Incan stone paths and a 50-step nearly vertical climb I finally arrived at the Sun Gate. I had reached my destination and was able to look down on the Machu Picchu citadel. At first it was shrouded in mist, but the clouds magically lifted and the view became spectacular: the lost city, surrounded by jagged mountain peaks. The trek was over. I had accomplished an incredible feat.

After descending into modern Machu Picchu, I phoned my family. The emotions of those moments were overwhelming, something I had not trained for. I cried and cried and cried. My daughter later described it as “Mom finding God”. Maybe she was right. Since then I certainly have a better understanding of what is important to me. My Machu Picchu journey gave me more than I can tell.

Last month I went off on another adventure with Joints in Motion – this time a marathon in Trieste, Italy. The challenges were different. The adrenaline flowed when I thought about how I needed to prepare for that event – the training, the battle with the nagging voice in my head that kept asking, “At your age can you become fit enough to run that far? In this lousy economy will you be able to raise the money?”

I put aside those doubts because I wanted to give something in the battle against arthritis. I wanted to support my arthritis hero, and my challenges were small compared to those she faces every day. Fund raising takes on a whole new meaning when you hear stories of how loved ones deal with this often terrible disease.

In my own small way I believe I have made a difference. Now more than ever, I believe we all can do that. This is my way.
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