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Wednesdays Got Me Like…

A lot of my blogs talk about all the fun we have working together when we come to Peru on the medical campaigns. We spend a lot of time laughing. After 8 years of doing this, we’ve made so many memories we can pass any space of time just reliving what we’ve done in the previous years. Another common thread between all the years is the hard work we do. The number of patients grows every year. We are busier every year than were the last. And without exception, every year, Wednesday is the day that’s hardest to get past. Our campaigns run Monday through Thursday. Monday/ Tuesday is like the half marathon. I’m tired but not too tired. Wednesday feels like mile 23 of the marathon. Get focused. Go to your happy place. Just keep moving forward and get those patients seen. And then Thursday is like mile 25. Almost there. I can do anything for just a few more hours. Then the euphoria of the end of the day! The final numbers. Records broken! The hugs. The group photos. The tears. And then a little bit of an emotional let down. The thought that we won’t see many of these folks again till next year. Or maybe we won’t ever work with them again. The exact same group of campaigners, missionaries and Peruvian friends will not ever assemble again. The longing for family for which the campaign had been a distraction now becomes very obvious. I’ve gained the reputation for being grumpy on Wednesday. It’s called “Wednesday McKeown” by the guys. It’s kind of funny but I’m not very proud of that. I think I made amends this year though. My friend Sundar who made a great debut with the Cusco18 campaign gave a devo Wednesday morning. I was already planning to check in regularly on my attitude, but Sundar left us with a message printed on cards which was brilliant. After the example of Old Testament King Hezekiah, the message on the card was “Lean On God.” I placed that little card right in the middle of my messy little table so I could look at it all day. It helped me a lot; that and the constant reminder of the people walking to my chair all day and the needs that are so great among our neighbors. I don’t lack for anything. Many of them struggle every day for the basic necessities of life. Suffering is synonymous with existence in this fallen world. The universal desire for something greater than ourselves is within us all. We had the opportunity to help the physical needs of 1,981 neighbors this week. Four people seeking for something greater put on Christ in baptism. The poignance, resilience and beauty of the human experience passed by me all day on Wednesday. I hope for all their sake my attitude was better this time than it has been before.


Lost In Translation

Although our campaigns have always been well staffed with excellent Spanish and Quechua interpreters (2018 has some of the best) one of the biggest challenges has been with the languages. Like adjusting to the thin air at this elevation, as the week goes on I usually acclimate to Spanish too. At least I think my accent and pronunciation gets less American even if my vocabulary still consists of about 50 words. I can usually limp through an entire initial interview in Spanish as long as the patient answers yes/no and doesn’t elaborate or change the subject. Some of us like the eye docs have picked up enough of the language to conduct the entire history and physical unassisted. I always defend myself saying yeah, but their questions focus (Ha!) on one organ so the questions are the same every time. Meanwhile the MD’s are over there picking through vague, tangential details (and superstitions) about bowel habits, fatigue, pain and some strange sensation of heat on the top of one’s head and somehow (to the patient) these things are all interrelated. It’s easy to see how the most articulate interpreter could get lost in this tangled web. Here are my favorite translations for the blooper reel so far this week.

There are apparently a couple of ways to express that something/someone is “healthy.” Dr. Rick was trying to tell his patient that his eyes were healthy. Which is exactly what his translator said to the patient. But the expression that the translator inserted actually related more specifically to something that is healthy to eat. The patient looked around the room kind of alarmed I guess at the idea of someone eating eyeballs for good health.

This morning I was doing my best with the initial introductory remarks in Spanish. We were having a laugh over my attempt. I was still doing pretty well I thought since this was after about 6 cups of coffee, enough caffeine that my translator said I was like “gelatina”– jiggling all over. The patient laughed at my Spanglish and asked where I was from. “Estados Unidas. Tennessee. You know? Elvis Presley?” The patient was over 50. I figure Elvis is like Coke and McDonalds. Who in the world wouldn’t know him? Somewhere during this smiling and nodding I realized the translator hadn’t broken that all down for him. I was on my own. Then I realized he thought that I was Elvis Presley! I tried to clean up my mess getting the translator to tell him that Elvis was from my town, I was “Dr. Jason.” Finally I gave up and moved on to the interview. When we finished I pulled my phone and Googled a picture of The King in all his sequined jumpsuit glory.

“See?” I pointed. “Elvis Presley!”

He smiled and nodded.

“He’s dead” I said.

To top that, a patient told me about her pelvic pain a few years out from a hysterectomy. I wanted to know if her ovaries had been left intact and if her pain was cyclical. My translator looked puzzled at first (even the best Peruvian or American translators seem to struggle with certain organs and body parts). He asked her something about huevos.

“It is ‘huevos,’ right?”

Concerned and certain that was slang for the wrong gender, I called for the next nearest translator, “Hey what’s the word for ‘ovary’?”

She came over to us. The clinic was very noisy at that time of the morning. Now two translators hovering over the blank faced patient, Translator #2 started into a long line of questioning which seem unnecessary for the question I’d posed in the first place. But anyway, then one of our missionaries walked up.

“Barton,” I called over the noisy room. “What’s ‘ovary’?”

“‘Ovary?’ Isn’t it ‘ovajo’ (sp) or something like that?” Barton suggested.

“‘Ovary?'” Translator #2 called back. “I was asking her about sunny side up eggs!!”

“WHAAT?!” I said looking at the now totally bewildered woman. “So let me understand, we have now questioned this poor woman about her testicles and her breakfast?! What’s the word for ‘bacon’ while we’re at it?!” We managed to straighten this confusion up and all had a good laugh about it.

Two days left in clinic this week. We saw a great number, 503 today and look forward to even bigger crowds the next two days.

For tonight, buenas noches (I think).

Old And New

We are starting out with a rainy morning for the opening day of the clinic. The weather changes quickly in Cusco, so I would be surprised if we aren’t baking in the sun by lunch time. The rain certainly didn’t dampen the fellowship yesterday. The Lord blessed us with sunshine and just enough clouds to make the shadows dance and play across the mountaintops that surround Cusco. We rejoined old friends, restarted old gags, laughed over old jokes, sat in our old seats at out favorite hang outs; met new friends, tried to pronounce names correctly, learned who had the most interesting job (forensic accountant for FBI), learned to spell our names in Telugu, watched the newbie try to choke down Cuy (guinea pig) and pretend he liked it, “It’s kind of chewy and sticky. . .” Worship was led by new members, a reassuring sign that the church is thriving in Cusco. We sang old worship songs in Spanish. This gets me every time. You could look around the small, crowded worship room and see dozens of folks with eyes wet with tears; so powerful is the blending of voices of brothers and sisters from around the world, their love for each other, and their love for their Savior; and most importantly this week, love for their neighbors. We hope to show that love to the San Sebasti√°n community today, help them in whatever small way we can, and sow His seed. I hope you have a great day wherever you’re reading too!

Getting the Band Back Together

Dear Reader: the next few days will simply be a series of updates on the mission work that we support in Cusco, Peru, and the medical campaign that I am participating in this week. Mostly a journal of the week’s activities. So if you’re interested, please read on!

It feels a little like the band is getting back together for one of those big rock tours where they claim “this is the LAST one and then we’re retiring.” This the eighth medical campaign of the church in Cusco, Peru. And while all the original American missionary families who planted the Lord’s church here will be gone from Peru at the end of the year (they are being replaced by three other families now working here), I hardly think this will be the last tour, er, medical campaign. These four-day, free to the public, primary care clinics since 2011 have been hugely successful as an outreach tool in the city of Cusco and beyond.

This tour is sold out too. The church now is led by the largest number of American missionary families, six altogether, and is supported by more Stateside churches than any point in the past. The participation of Peruvians in the leadership of the church is at an all-time high as well. This is tremendously encouraging as the long plan of the missionary team is, of course, to train up leaders and hand off all functions of the church to the Peruvians. The team also is hosting more American interns than they ever have and a few have signed on to continue working with the church long-term. Finally, with widespread support from American churches comes an enthusiastic number of medical professionals and others to the campaign this year: about 50 people in all. This is by far the biggest group of campaigners we have had and I have no doubt this will translate to seeing more patients than we ever have.

The last couple of years have been well attended by American volunteers, but some of us had to leave the tour for personal reasons. But our hearts were always with our friends and co-workers. It’s also amazing that we are entering a second generation of campaigners. There are family members attending for the first time and kids of the original campaigners who have grown up in the last eight years. Those kids, seeing their moms and dads come home blessed by their experiences with the people of Cusco, are now coming to work alongside their parents.

Finally, the band with its original members is back together with all its original members for the first time in two years. Like David Lee Roth and Michael Anthony flying back to L.A. to jam one more time with Eddie and Alex– Ward and I are back with Pulliam and Rick (I beg your pardon if you allow me some artistic license with the analogy. It’s not terribly accurate but if any of the four of us could do one of those high kicks, it would be Ward).

I’m super excited to be back in Cusco with all these people who have become such a special part of my life. I’m so thankful for the way God has blessed all of us together.

Now let’s Rock this campaign!

Just one last time… ūüėČ

Your Honor, See What Happened Wuz. . .

No, I¬†haven’t written anything in a long time. Yes,¬†I know this is a poor excuse for a blog post. But so many people were entertained by my little run in with Hawaii Five-O last week while Tiffany and I were in Honolulu that I thought I’d open up my¬†contrition letter for a period of public comment. Especially you lawyer types–give me your best tips on schmoozing a judge. I know how y’all work though. I can’t afford to pay you hourly for advice. I’m only trying to save $150 to start with.

Your Honor,

This correspondence is regarding citation number 1DTI-15-075097 which I received from Officer Ohai on March 20, 2015. Thank you for the opportunity to explain the mitigating circumstances of this incident.

I was visiting Oahu last week and speaking at the International Anesthesia Research Society, a large academic medical meeting being held in Honolulu. On Friday morning my wife and I were trying to visit the North Shore beaches. We had rented a car during our stay. The H1 traffic had been very slow and heavy as we tried to get out of Waikiki. We had finally gotten past even more congestion on H2 when I was pulled over for speeding.

We were going up a hill when the violation occurred; the compact car we were driving was struggling to make it up the hill so I had accelerated to compensate. Still I believe I was not exceeding the speed of the rest of the traffic around us. I was also unaware that the maximum speed limit on the island was 55 mph which of course is very different from the mainland. In the southeast where we live there are few places where the limit is less than 70.  That’s unfortunately what I had assumed on the Hawaiian interstate as well. Officer Ohai pleasantly informed me otherwise. It was a mistake and I deeply regret it.

I thank you for your time and consideration of these circumstances and I humbly ask your pardon for this violation. If there were ever a court appearance I would gladly make, this would be it. Traffic school‚ÄĒI‚Äôd be delighted to attend! But the commute from Alabama is quite far. Visiting your island is an incomparable joy! And while $150 is a small unexpected cost of enjoying Hawaiian paradise I‚Äôd sure like to keep that money in my pocket to put to better use the next time we visit.

Respectfully yours,

Jason L. McKeown, M.D.

Oh yeah, my wife had a hey day with this! If he'd thrown me across the car and searched me you better believe the whole video would've been on Instagram.

Oh yeah, my wife had a hey day with this! If he’d thrown me across the car and searched me you better believe the whole video would’ve been on Instagram.

Sing it with me Sammy Hagar: "I--CAN'T--DRIVE--FIFTY FIIIIIVE!!!"

Sing it with me Sammy Hagar: “I–CAN’T–DRIVE–FIFTY FIIIIIVE!!!”

If We Never Meet Again, Part III

Thirteen thousand five hundred feet! We were on an emotional high that equalled the elevation. That part may have been mostly from hypoxia, but I felt giddy as I jaunted back down the rock rejoining the group at the pass. The rear guard had taken a beating on the last ascent but they had persevered and were resting with the others. When everyone had regained their breath and strength we started off again down the far side of the pass. The trail ahead would prove to be the opposite of the trail behind us in almost every way.


The Inca Trail lay ahead of us in the valley below the pass. We would follow it to the archeological site of Huchuyqosqo where our guides would be waiting for us with lunch. We descended at a relaxed pace and were glad to not have gravity working against us for a change. Our way soon merged with a trail that was intermittently paved with large flat blocks of stone placed carefully by Inca centuries ago. Steep flights of stone stairs aided our descent. We wound down the hillside past a village restored to Inca style. Down, down, we wound into a damp, narrow gorge. The sound of rushing water grew louder as we went. The claustrophobic gorge allowed only occasional glances of the river below. We hugged against the rock walls rising steeply above us as our trail tapered soon into a foot path like a sidewalk between two high-rise buildings. As we neared the bottom we came to the first of several wooden footbridges. They were wide enough for one person at a timeРnot that we were trustful enough of the construction to have ventured more that one person at a time. With the rapids now clearly visible below and our trail alternating between footbridges and staircases someone observed it was like a real-life version of the video game Temple Run.

image image image image

Reminiscent of Machu Picchu we were officially welcomed to the Inca Trail by the remains of a stone doorway.¬†Although the sky wasn’t all that visible from inside the canyon it was apparent that the cloud cover had thickened; the smell of rain was in the air. This part of the trail was flat and manageable. The¬†original people used this roadway to speed¬†information from village to village via their swiftest messengers. Knowing this made the runner in me want to take off and see what kind of pace I could keep. But then I remembered the elevation which would¬†surely make a fool out of me. I was also starting to feel the fatigue and mental fuzziness¬†that I’m familiar with from distance running– the symptoms of¬†dehydration.


Soon a fine drizzle reached us and we dug for ponchos and top layers and hats to stay dry. About the same time the rain started we came to a narrowing in the stream running below our trail. The water was swift but shallow and there were plenty of tempting¬†rocks sticking up from¬†the water. On the opposite bank was a cleft in the cliff face that created a shallow cave about six feet tall. The rocks made an easy path across to the nice dry cave. It was hard to resist. A handful of people couldn’t help but take a quick detour to explore. They eased down the bank carefully and picked their ways across the rocks to the other bank. Landon was among the handful who attempted the crossing. I can only guess that being the compassionate fellow that he is he didn’t want Wes to be singled out as the only guy on the hike¬†to take a swim.¬†Or maybe he just accidentally slipped. Either way Landon went down and came out the other side of the creek to roaring applause. When he and the others had their curiosity satisfied they began their return across the rocks. There was hopeful speculation that Landon might make his record two for two as he tiptoed out to midstream. He grinned and shook his head with confidence that he wouldn’t make the same mistake twice. He made his way choosing each footfall with care. But he chose poorly. Past the halfway point a treacherous rock rolled under his weight and Landon went¬†butt-first into the creek again! No one could have been more pleased than Wes.

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The opposite bank of the creek was painted with green grass and flowers and grazing cattle. Inca terraces rose like stadium bleachers away from the river. They used every potential space to cultivate their crops. The rain made the landscape glisten and the valley steam. And it turned our path to mud. It was difficult to keep out of the middle of the trail where it was slippery and deep. There was not a shoulder to the trail. In many places there was only a knee-high wooden rail, a dirt wall, and a drop off. The next obstacle we reached was worthy of an Indiana Jones adventure. It was a chasm spanned by a steep ladder anchored into the adjacent rock wall like a staircase. The rungs were logs six inches in diameter with about two feet between them. And through those gaps you could see straight down into the ravine. How old was this ladder? When was its last safety inspection? Did anyone have a bullwhip we could just use to swing across? That seemed about as safe at the time. I hung back to watch the last of our group get safely across. With a collective sigh of relief we continued on. HuchuyquosqoРand more importantly lunchРwere not far now.

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Finally we reached the watch tower entrance to the ruins of “Hoochy Cusco.” The last part of the trail was a grassy descent nearly two football fields long with a grade similar to an interstate exit ramp. I was definitely feeling the effects of dehydration: dull headache, mild nausea. I trotted down the slope alongside Pulliam. Our¬†tired legs couldn’t seem to slow our¬†descent. I was pumping the brakes but kept picking up speed. We cruised into the¬†grassy meadow at the bottom of the ramp where Socrates’s partners had gone ahead of us and set up camp where our lunch was waiting for us. The weary group made its way to the meadow and one by one¬†each of us¬†quietly collapsed on the ground.


Our guides and their colleagues who had run ahead of us busied themselves putting finishing touches on our lunch under a cooking tent while we gringos resuscitated ourselves by finishing off what water we had left in our bottles. Without any running water up on the mountain the Peruvians were equipped with soap and a several gallon sized hand washing station. They obviously anticipated how obsessive some of us healthcare professionals were about cleaning our hands. Then all of us huddled shoulder to shoulder around a long folding table under a tent open at both ends. We sipped on rich, sweet apple juice, freshly made complete with pulp. The courses included tart mushroom ceviche, and savory stuffed chicken medallions. Socrates proudly described each course as it was presented. The elegance of the food was hardly what we expected for dining in a tent on top of a mountain. For the first time in the history of our group sitting down for a meal there was more eating than there was talking and laughing. No one had the energy to do both.

When I say this was an altogether perfect experience I omit the part about how bad I felt when we got to Huchuyqosqo. I mean I felt rotten. Tired. Light headed. A little nauseated. I’ve done a couple of marathons and had the same post-race sensations. But just like that, the misery was forgotten in the euphoria of the moment and that’s why this moment of the trip is so vivid. Our tummies were full. We were rehydrated. White clouds towered above the purple mountains. The soft, green grass invited¬†us to rest. After dessert everyone filed out of the lunch tent and stretched. We rested heads on our packs or just flopped onto the ground. Several fell asleep instantly. I reapplied sunscreen because the midday sun was bearing down on us. I felt too tired and too caught up in the moment to sleep anyway. The guides circulated amongst the bodies laid out on the hill carrying cups, a pot of boiled water and a plate of mint and coca leaves. I took a steaming cup, folded in several good-sized coca leaves followed by¬†a generous spoonful¬†of cane sugar. The surreal-ness of the moment was complete. Coca tea and a nap in a meadow on top of a mountain in Peru. Yeah. It was just that kind of day.


Most of us recovered our stamina after lunch and the nap but several folks had had a pretty tough time reaching the¬†rendezvous point. image¬†They took the option of leaving with Elvis heading¬†straight from the meadow back to the buses in the valley. The rest of us stayed with Socrates to tour the ruins of Huchuyqosqo. Before we left Ward cut a length of tent rope and wound it around his foot trying to secure the flopping boot tread that had been damaged that morning. Clouds above darkened somewhat as we¬†gathered in an adjacent meadow that was very wide and flat: a perfect spot for a town. We congregated near a tall, flat-topped rock formation where stairs led up to¬†the remains which once were rows of¬†Inca houses. As we waited for Socrates to join us Landon took¬†Vonna up on a dare to scale the rock. He scraped up the backside of it, and pretty quickly reached the top raising his hands in triumph again like he’d done a dozen times already that day. He hopped down just as quickly when Socrates arrived and filled us¬†in; the last thing on top of that rock was probably a llama getting its throat slit. I had been an Inca sacrificial altar.



We circled around as Socrates began his oration over the culture and architecture of Huchuyqosqo. image¬†The speech went on in great detail. Everyone listened patiently.¬†Socrates in his inimitable style continued.¬†A fine mist of rain started.¬†Achy legs and feet that weren’t a problem while walking became a real nuisance while¬†standing still. Everyone shifted. Laid packs on the ground. Some sat down. There was thunder in the distance.¬†And finally– as if those distractions weren’t enough, “brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrt. . . ”

Violent, uncontrollable laughter. The culprit (who shall remain unnamed) looked more startled than anyone in our group as Socrates turned on him in disbelief: “Seriously?!?! Do I fart in the middle of your preaching???”

Socrates tried to describe a couple other archaeological features, but suffice it to say the tour was effectively over at that point. Nobody was able to get it back together. We followed him down the hill a few minutes later towards the precipice and the trail head where the last harrowing descent of our journey would start.

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The last part of the hike had been billed as the shortest: only about three kilometers. Less than two miles. But the trick was that two miles of trail descended several hundred feet down a gorge. The grade was steep. The path was narrow and dusty with lots of loose rocks. Perfect for sliding or twisting an ankle. The path down the gorge was flanked on one side by a rock wall; the other, thick bushes, agave¬†and scrubby trees. The trail twisted through switchback after switchback after switchback. Quad muscles that had been relatively spared by the climbing we’d done earlier in the day now quaked with fatigue. Our group spread out along the trail with Socrates and Barton at the front. Also leading was The Terminator, Craig Waddell, once again in fierce¬†defiance of his coronary disease. Everyone else lagged behind staying spaced enough between people to avoid crossing up hiking poles or tripping each other but close enough to grab hold if someone started to slide. In worst shape was Rick with his painful¬†knee that was screaming with every downhill step. Rick walked¬†with arms spread wide to his sides and used a hiking pole in each hand like a crutch. Wes started calling him¬†C-3PO.¬†With his wide and awkward shuffling gait he actually did resemble the famous mobility challenged Star Wars droid. But soon Rick figured out a way to compensate for the pain. His¬†descent time was probably doubled, but Rick found by walking backwards¬†that the knee wasn’t as bothersome. In the meantime we met¬†¬†Craig going the opposite direction and hiking back up the trail past¬†us. Since¬†Craig was unhindered by elevation or angina, he was doubling back to check on his friend Richard at the rear of the group who wasn’t having such an easy time.


Rick and Craig (photo credit to Wes Blankenship)

Rick and Craig (photo credit to Wes Blankenship)

The descent took a long time. Occasionally we would reach a flat area that afforded a view of the top of the gorge from which we’d come. image¬†It was deceptive how steep a drop it was when we were mostly blinded by the constant switchbacks. You also could barely take an eye off the treacherous trail.¬†Every foot placement had to be precise or you’d slide.¬†When we did get a view of the top though it was startling and it seemed as if we were flies on a vast wall. We could also see how far we still had to go. Eventually we could make out specks on the trail far below which were our friends who had gotten a head start. Then soon we made out our bus parked near the road in the valley.¬†When I reached the bottom there was a mountain stream cascading down the rocks. Pulliam and Alan were there with me. We perched on a giant rock in mid stream, took selfies to say “we made it,” and then waited on our friends to catch up.

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We stepped onto pavement at the end of the trail and were applauded across an imaginary finish line by our friends who were already waiting there. Thirsty, sweaty and spent everyone gratefully piled into the bus. As we turned onto a two lane road and started our ride out of the Sacred Valley back to Cusco, I remember the open window and the cool air rushing into my face. I remember smiling at the towering gorge shrinking in the distance behind us. Finally, swallowed up by sleep I must have dreamed of the alpaca steak I would have at our favorite restaurant back in Cusco later that night.

We walk thousands of miles in this life. Some are easy. Some are very hard. But regardless of the level of difficulty, the very best miles are those we walk with friends.


If We Never Meet Again, Part II

The attack came without warning.

You may remember how some of us nearly¬†got blown up on last year’s hike when we accidentally walked up¬†on a fireworks display in the middle of a village street party. Peru is predominantly¬†Catholic¬†so like other parts of the world most communities celebrate Carnivale in late February and early March which is when we always go. So the fireworks were a part of this observance. dancers¬†A popular part¬†of the festivities for young people in Cusco is playing pranks on strangers like spraying them¬†with Silly String¬†or lobbing water balloons at them. Gringos are especially popular targets in the city. Some of us had been hit on the sidewalk in Cusco earlier in the week. I managed not to get hit despite the efforts of some of my teammates who tried to recruit water gun packing kids to go get the “gringo grande.” I guess the grande part is what saved me. Anybody who’s six and a half feet tall in Peru is a registered freak of nature.

Well the kids in the mountains were a whole lot stealthier than the sidewalk stalkers in Cusco. Giggling¬†snipers appeared over the wall and the hedge as streams of water and balloons came raining down from our left. Some of us tried to retaliate but with nothing but our water bottles we were no match for their fire power. Where did those kids get Super Soakers anyway? Amazon? Probably not. Since the sun was starting to warm up¬†the shower was kind of refreshing– for those who hadn’t already fallen in the creek. But just for the kids we pretended to panic and fled along the trail to get out of range.

Those of us who have campaigned in Cusco the last¬†four years¬†are no strangers to breathtaking views of the Sacred Valley which was the bread basket of the Inca civilization. We have taken day excursions the last three trips we’ve made to Peru but the views never cease to¬†amaze.

Campaign 4-timers, Rick & 3 Jasons

Campaign 4-timers, Rick & 3 Jasons

The unspoiled natural beauty and the preservation of the special relationship between man and the land provide a glimpse thousands of years back in time. Today on¬†the trail we came to one overlook after another. Each one essentially provided the same view¬†except at a slightly different perspective¬†and elevation but¬†the lighting varied from point to point as clouds hid and revealed the sun. The changes were¬†subtle but obvious to us; this is what makes amateur photography frustrating. It’s impossible to capture in pixels the nuanced changes in lighting and hues, and it feels pointless showing those photos to people back home sometimes. As¬†striking as pictures of the valley are the vastness of the landscape¬†and the vividness of color is unfortunately¬†lost. Despite this¬†we scrambled up to each overlook panting and digging for our cameras like we were seeing the valley for the very first time.

Landon King of The World

Landon King of The World

Emily and Lindsey

Emily and Lindsey


At times as the trail wound along the mountainside the path edged fairly close on our right to steep drop offs concealed by grass and brush. Other times though the trail was bounded on our right by a wide shoulder. We came up to one of these wide spots where there was a grassy table where animals would stop to graze. It was a couple hundred feet long, just a foot or so lower and parallel to the main trail we were on. Just then I felt like sprinting.

Ward's blow out

Ward’s blow out

I threw out some stupid challenge to Ward as I hopped down onto¬†the lower trail and the race was on. He was right at my heels and had caught me by flying down¬†the outside as we passed the front¬†of the hiking group and started trying to turn back left to get back up on the main trail. Ward’s right foot about that time shot out from under him as he hit a gravel patch and lost all traction. His feet scrambled like crazy under him as he tried to regain control but he couldn’t fight his way out of the skid. He finally hit the ground in a barrel roll throwing up a huge cloud of dust. I think I fell down too for no good reason except I was laughing too hard to stand up! Ward got up laughing too. He checked himself over. No major injuries– except for his boot. During the tumble he’d completely split the entire sole off of his hiking boot down to the heel and now it was flapping like a hungry, hungry hippo every time he took a step. The ridiculous way he had to walk to keep the boot from slapping the ground and tripping him drew comparisons to the Python “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch.


We reached a wide grassy bank along the trail that overlooked the valley. It was the perfect place for our scheduled snack that Socrates had advised us about.¬†In our briefing a few days before he’d said something random about having a snack– like a Snickers bar. So what did every one of us do? We went and bought Snickers bars so that we could all pull them out at the same time. I flopped down on the grass that was beginning to warm in the mid morning sun. I pillowed my head on my backpack and shut my eyes trying to hang on to that moment. I heard someone walk up next to me. It was Rick whose sore knee had started bothering him already more than he wanted to admit. He carefully lowered himself onto the grass and stretched out a few feet away from me pulling his tattered Alabama ball cap over his eyes. I exhaled a long breath of contentment and tuned out the laughter and conversations around me choosing to focus on the warm sun on my face and the sound of the breeze moving across the grassy mountainside. Rick and I were two of the original docs who started the medical campaigns. I couldn’t imagine working in Peru¬†without him. This year though my plans almost fell through.

“I’m glad you got to come, McKeown.”

“Yep,” I said with a fist bump.

Up and moving again we could see in the distance our trail winding and steepening to the 13,000 ft gap in the distance that was our destination. Feeling the nearness of it even though it was still a couple miles away I trotted to the front of the group where Wes was picking up his pace. imageMaybe it was anticipation. Maybe his clothes had dried enough that they weren’t weighing him down as much. We put some distance between us and the majority of the group so that we reached the next overlook almost alone. I always have this uncontrollable urge to climb to the highest point whenever we stop. There was a long ascending¬†ridge of bare rock that I hiked a hundred feet up and then sat down to enjoy the view. ¬†The rest of the group caught up and I could see down on the trail where three shepherd boys had met them. They must have made a lot of soles off of them because the boys were cheesing for everyone that had¬†a camera. When I climbed down from my perch the group had moved on down the trail.

The ruts in the trail grew deeper and the ascent steepened noticeably. As I rejoined the back of our pack I¬†could hear people groaning and puffing with the increased effort. I moved through the group back up toward the front. Despite his bum knee Rick had joined Socrates in¬†the lead and was beginning to pull away like a man on a mission. He was going to be the first to reach the gap and he was in the zone. The loose gravel surface that had not been a factor when the trail’s slope was flatter now became another degree of difficulty. Those of us without trail sticks to lean on had to be extra sure of our footing or else one careless step could mean a nasty ankle twist or fall.


Last year I did a¬†cardiac treadmill test in response to some scary chest pains I had while training for a race. It was negative and we chalked the whole experience up to dehydration and “hyper-caffiene-ation.” And if I can brag about a medical test– I did five extra minutes on the machine set at the most¬†difficult¬†setting, the one¬†they use for adolescents. If that treadmill setting was a “10,” then the trail we were climbing was a “15.”¬†Despite that tech who told me I had the heart of a 17 year old, this 800 ft long, high altitude Stair Master work out was trying to make me look like a 41 year old couch potato. I was really having to dig deep. Conversation had to be made in choppy¬†sentence fragments between breaths. While I was amazed at the level of stress I was feeling in my own body, in the back of my mind I anxiously recalled what Craig Waddell confided¬†to¬†me at the beginning of the week.

“I just want you to know since you’re going on that hike with me at the end of the week– I had two heart stents placed 12 days ago.” The poet/philosopher/Bible scholar/dairy farmer chuckled ¬†in a mischievous way that told me two things: #1 His cardiologist had no idea he had plans to hike to 13,000 ft, and #2 if a lifetime of hard labor in farming hadn’t killed him, he didn’t plan on some little mountain in South America getting the best of him either.

I caught up to Ward, a guy my age and equally as fit. I don’t remember us speaking but just exchanging looks of amused disbelief over how hard we were working to get up this hill. It was steep, don’t get me wrong, but the same size hill that I at Alabama elevation could run or climb and still keep¬†a¬†moderate pace. All this ridiculous exertion and¬†hyperventilation and on top of all that– the guy with the¬†limp was about to beat us to the summit.¬†Unacceptable. Ward and I pushed and scrambled our way ahead. At last¬†the trail leveled abruptly. I looked up and there was Socrates smiling and¬†standing against a backdrop of mountaintops, clouds and the valley lying below. He looked like he’d just taken a stroll thorugh the park. He welcomed us to 13,300 ft with high fives.

And then I found a nice smooth spot to collapse.

When I could feel adequate oxygen levels in my brain again I began to look around. Ward lay on the ground nearby. There was Rick sitting on the ground and looking a little bit like a guy who had his stool kicked out from under him. Soon¬†there was Craig, arriving at the pass triumphant over the mountain and his coronary arteries! Wes and Pulliam weren’t far behind. It was because of Craig’s impressive finish ahead of¬†these two guys, each of them¬†15 to 20 years younger with¬†fewer stents, lower cholesterol and no blood thinners, that the rumors started. There was only one logical explanation: Craig was obviously a cyborg. Other than the absence of a thick Austrian accent, a menacing disposition or a grenade launcher, the similarity was unmistakeable. He was an absolutely unstoppable force.


Craig, Emily, Lindsey and Lacee


Rick– probably checking for wi-fi


Pulliam and Wes, speechless for the only time ever

As we waited for the rest to arrive I surveyed the immediate surroundings. Yes, we were indeed sitting at the highest elevation of our hike. I had never stood on any higher ground in my life. However the cleft where we were currently sitting was not the highest point of the mountaintop we had summited. That distinction belonged to the peaks in front of and behind us. To my back was a grass covered peak that was deceptively steep and quite tall. Though it appeared to be a simple climb it would have been difficult and it would have taken a while. Across the trail from where we sat was essentially a giant black rock 300 ft tall and twice that across. The surface of this peak was more barren, rough and not as steep.

“Who wants to go up there?!” I pointed.

Most everybody was still sitting or lying and concentrating on making air move in and out of their bodies. They all looked at me like I was an idiot. All except the other idiot. “I’ll go!” said Ward. Off we went. I took off at a sprint just to make a show of it. That lasted about 20 yards. Bad idea.

The rock was steep enough we made our way up by switching back and forth across it. We navigated around tall, scrubby plants and climbed over boulders. We scaled the last 10 feet of rock to reach a perch that was about the size of a queen-size bed. NOW we were at the top of the mountain!

imageThe rest of our group back at the bottom looked tiny hundreds of feet below us. But even farther away was Elvis and the tail end of our group still trudging slowly up the trail toward the pass. We took the obligatory selfies from the top of the rock as a cloud shadowed us and briefly misted us with rain.

Then for one last surprise. From below my perch came the sound of deep heavy breathing that stopped me for a second. I thought somehow one of those bulls from way back down the mountain¬†had managed by some secret trail to come up behind me. Then I saw fingers clawing¬†the edge of the rock and Landon pulled himself up. “You guys didn’t wait for me!”

One last idiot.

I was in fitting company. From where we stood we were at the top of the world. It was all downhill from here– literally. But the day had just gotten started.

To Be Concluded . . .

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