When you're on the side of a mountain in the middle of a range chock full of them, dusk turns to darkness in an instant. We were on hour six of our four hour hike, our large group of 25 people, was now two or three smaller groups, walking the same treacherous trail. I remember having the thought or feeling of relief when the sun started disappearing. I mean, there was no way our tour guide would keep us wandering through the Andes after dark, right?
My chair was part of the lead group, my seatbelt fastened and a bandanna tied tightly around my forehead to keep my neck supported. Then there were the four grown men -- two in the front and two in the back -- lifting, pushing and even sometimes pulling my chair up and down the smallest of paths. Leading the way in our group was Kyle, a brave, unbelievably determined individual.
Kyle was not only leading our group, but the entire movement, and he was doing so with an extraordinary amount of responsibility on his back. Literally. He had Steve and Michel's son, Rivers, strapped to his back in a very well-designed and durable hiking/kid-carrying backpack. Not to mention, he was holding the one flashlight our group had packed for this four-hour day hike. I still, to this day, cannot imagine the amount of pressure he felt with every single step.
I remember all of us, at one time or another, cursing our guide, the terrain, our shoes and anything else that seemed to be slowing us down. With the cameras following us, we truly felt like we were on Survivor.
Our guide told us that once we got to the Sun Gate, the hike would get much easier and the view would be worth the work. The funny thing about the Sun Gate is that if you arrive after dark, that view is far less impressive. Shocking, I know. And while it was definitely a moral victory at that point in our journey, it would ultimately be a very short-lived celebration. Yes, we could see lights in the distance that were said to be our hotel, but the vision of Sound of Music, like rolling grassy hills our guys had promised, were instead more treacherous, twisting trails.
Once we were all used to the dark, there was actually a sense of calm. I imagine an aerial shot of our groups walking along using iPhones as flashlights and yelling out, "Five steps down, eight steps up," like we were some type of tactical force would have been quite impressive. Hell, it was impressive, I was there.
We reached a relatively flat stretch, and by "flat," I mean no sudden inclines or declines, that was far too rocky to ride in the chair because of the constant jarring of my head and neck. I was like a human bobblehead. So I decided to walk. My feet felt foreign and my legs felt like Jell-O, but it was easier -- or at least less painful -- than sitting in that damn chair.
The two men who were responsible for lifting my chair (and my life) were now holding my arms as I threw one foot in front of the other. I will forever be in debt to those two guys. One, a salt-and-peppered, New York City executive built like a yoga instructor, and the other, Steve's caregiver who could easily fill the role of Thor, literally carried me up and down Machu Picchu for 11 hours.
I know I have ALS. And I know that this vicious disease tries to break my body every day. So to try and explain or articulate the way it felt to walk across the last mile marker, then fall into the arms of a loved one and have a beer with a group like Team Gleason moments later... is beyond words. Beyond expectations. And beyond any feeling I can ever imagine having felt. It was, genuinely, a life-changing experience.