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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—I’d 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’d 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!!!”

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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.

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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 time– not 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.

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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.


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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. Huchuyquosqo– and more importantly lunch– were 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Craig, Emily, Lindsey and Lacee

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Rick– probably checking for wi-fi

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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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If We Never Meet Again, Part I

That title’s an old church song for those who don’t recognize old church songs. It’s one that old country churches drag down really, really, really– slow. Kind of like old memories get dragged down over time.

But if we never meet again I’ll always remember that last Friday we spent in Peru.

The memories actually start on Thursday night. “Ward! You’re a genius!!” I said, sounding in my own head a little like Bill Shatner. “It’s crazy– but it– just– might work!”

This I said after a campaign week that seemed full of crazy ideas, long shots and flights by the seats of pants but consequently full of great successes. Friday is historically “hike day” for those that come to Cusco to work the medical campaign Sunday through Thursday. It’s a reward both for hard work and for successfully acclimating to the high altitude. This year’s test of the capacity to sufficiently oxygenate tissue at lower than typical gringo air pressure was a Socrates Caballero led expedition from a “comfortable” 11,000 ft up to an even thinner 13,250 ft.

Altitude and attitude should never be confused. High altitude you can blame for hyperventilation. But not bad attitude. That you blame on lack of coffee. And Ward and I had already gone through that on Tues. We weren’t about to make the same mistake again. Socrates and the bus were scheduled to pick us up at 5 a.m., long before our inn keeper would be up to make coffee. There’s one Starbucks in Cusco– the one in the Plaza– that wasn’t on the way to the trailhead and wouldn’t be open for hours. But it was open at 8 p.m. on Thursday and that’s where Ward and I happened to be. The simplicity of Ward’s idea was its genius: buy coffee Thursday night and warm it up early Friday morning. That was assuming the hostel had a microwave and assuming the kitchen would be unlocked where we could get to it. Those were big assumptions but desperate times, well– you know. If worse came to worst we would drink the coffee cold.

So it was with great satisfaction that Ward and I made our appearance to the rest of the envious day hike group at 5 a.m. sharp with steaming, almost fresh Americanos in hand. We were also again sporting the alpaca wool knee-high stockings that he and I debuted last year. There was a bit less envy over these. With socks, coffee, and backpacks stuffed with snacks, water and Gatorade, we were confident in our readiness to tackle 8 hours on the trail.

The day hike had been casually described by master trailsman Socrates as an “easy walk” but suspiciously he and others had given multiple disclaimers for anyone who felt like they were in less than top physical condition. Nobody had taken the hint. Our group was 20 gringos with widely varying ages and levels of fitness and hiking experience along with three Peruvians, Socrates in the lead, Elvis and Yolanda in the rear. Our bus would drive us about an hour out of Cusco to Patabamba, a village at an elevation of 12,600 ft, about 1,500 ft higher than Cusco. The hike was characterized as “easy” because the ratio of climb to descent favored the latter. Descent being characterized as easier is very deceptive. Gravity is of course in your favor but your quads and knees take a beating. However it was in the segments of elevation gain and loss that the real difficulty lay. For instance, the overall climb from Patabamba to the high mountain pass, approximately 13,250 ft, the highest elevation we would reach, was relatively modest. But in reality the last 800 ft of gain was over the last 2 miles! From the pass the rest of the hike was indeed downhill. But again not easy downhill. From the pass we would follow the Inca Trail and descend 1,400 ft to the archaeological site of Huchuyqosqo (pronounced by Socrates, “Hoochy-Cusco,” to endless snickering) where lunch would be waiting for us. But the final descent was the most treacherous: a series of steep, gravel, switchbacks cut into the face of a gorge for a final 2,000 ft drop to complete the last 2 miles of our trip to the city of Lamay. The total distance for the entire hike would be about 10 miles. Easy.

King Of The Mountain, Socrates Caballero

King Of The Mountain, Socrates Caballero

Shortly before we reached Patabamba I did a last minute check on my pack with my big Nikon SLR in the bottom. I flipped the switch on my camera. Nothing. I’d left the battery charging at the hotel. I had my reheated Starbucks– but no camera. Hashtag: #dayhikeFAIL. With a lump in my throat and the camera now just dead weight in my pack, I was glad to have Wes “Blacksheep” along on the hike. He had just as much money tied up in his camera and equipment but also a lot more talent as a photographer. I’d just get copies of all his pictures.

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The Journey Begins.

We bailed out of our bus at the trailhead at Patabamba a little after sunrise. The goal was to get through the most difficult uphill parts of the trail before the midday sun began to cook us on top of the mountain. It was very pleasant in the low 50’s. Our group skirted the village past hedges and through narrow fence rows, stretched out through pastures and then descended into a eucalyptus forrest where we could hear gurgling water. Our group pulled up on the edge of a stream where our trail crossed the shallow rapids at the top of a small waterfall. Socrates gave us a few reminders as we huddled together for group photos. Then he gave a few words of caution for crossing the stream before passing out collapsible hiking poles to anyone who wanted one. The first of the group then started carefully crossing the rocks in the stream bed. Mostly the stepping-stones were flat and dry. Not many were loose but there were inevitable bobbles where a rock shifted and someone got a boot wet. The water wasn’t deep enough really to wet more than your calf. But soggy socks and clothes were not the way anyone wanted to start the day. Surprisingly our group negotiated the rocks very well for novices. It was about that time that Blacksheep turned a squeaky foot on a bad rock and went down like a wounded grizzly. It was like we watched the fall in slow motion and all twelve SportsCenter replays before Wes finally found a resting spot flat on his back in the middle of the stream. It should have been instantly hilarious as Wes hauled himself quickly back upright insisting “I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m fine.” What squelched the laughter though as he slogged the rest of the way to the dry bank was at the end of his outstretched arm– his thousand dollar camera. And water was pouring out of it like a canteen being emptied on the ground. So much for the hoped for National Geographic quality photo documentation of our hike.

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The front of the group had stretched up the trail far enough that the leaders hadn’t even seen what happened to Wes, who happened to be right in front of me when he fell. Wes was silent all except for the squish of water that pressed out of the tops of his sneakers with every step. He fiddled with the camera powering it on and off, optimistically trying every setting to see if it would work but every time he hit the shutter button came the rapid fire “chic-chic-chic-chic” like a White House press conference.

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Wannabe Mountain Men

Wannabe Mountain Men

We encountered shepherd children along the trail who were no older than my kindergartener who I won’t let out of our backyard alone. But here were these children with all of their family’s valuable livestock, hundreds of sheep, leading them up and down trails steeper than where we tourists dared to tread. They do this every day. One boy smiled mischievously at us with our cameras and teased in Spanish “If you don’t pay me, I get to keep your camera!” Obviously they were just as accustomed to gringo photo ops as they were grazing sheep. We managed to buy them off with chocolate cookies from our snack packs that Socrates passed out. Ward almost negotiated a much, much bigger deal with a Quechua lady shepherd in exchange for a picture with her. He put a couple of soles in her hand and then put his arm around her shoulders. She giggled nervously and smiled up at him as I shot the picture. Elvis explained what she said to Ward. Apparently it is not customary for Quechua couples to stand that close unless they are very, very close– like married close.

Morning traffic

Morning traffic

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It was very clear who these trails really belonged to though. Our friend Craig Waddell observed that in the States there would have been “No Trespassing Private Property” signs posted everywhere. We were walking through fields these people’s ancestors had farmed for a thousand years. The people today had plowed the same hillsides with the same hand tools used by their ancestors. Yet they bore no ill will toward us as strangers. Neither did their animals which equally called the mountain home. I met a large bull that had apparently finished his breakfast. He merged onto the trail and headed straight toward me. I climbed up a low bluff and got off of his trail! There was no question who had the right of way.

News of our coming had made it up the trail to the first village we came to. There were children here and there playing or tending their animals. They didn’t pay much notice as we entered the middle of the village where oddly there seemed to be very few villagers. The narrow trail widened slightly into a street flanked by houses and animal stalls. To our left the village was built into the hillside.  More houses rose above us behind a shoulder high mud brick wall topped with a taller hedge. Our pace slowed and our group spread to fill the street. The village had become eerily quiet. . . much like a scene in a war movie where a jungle patrol warily reaches that suspicious point. . . that perfect place for an ambush. . .

To be continued. . .

 

Guest Blog by Jason Ward, PT #Cusco14

“Can’t put it in words…” is a common phrase used for many reasons and in many situations, and participating in the medical campaign in Cusco, Peru at the Iglesia de Cristo is one of those situations.

A campaign here in Cusco is not necessarily the most physically taxing compared to other places one could go to serve but it isn’t necessarily the easiest either. My physical experience this year which has been in some cases similar to the previous included: varying degrees of headaches in the base of my skull, an upset stomach, di-aunt rita (in the way my kids call it which I trust you can phonetically deduce), small and not-so-small findings when blowing my nose of various shades depending on the environment to which we were exposed, fever blisters on the outside of my mouth and canker sores on the inside, and an unfamiliar and less than normally comfortable bed. Shortness of breath after one flight of stairs, chapped lips, unfamiliar smells (most of which are quite unpleasant but primarily a result of this labor-some way of life), knee pain from the never-ending descent off the side of a mountain on our hike, and skinning a hunk of scalp off the top of my head while loading a Peruvian-sized tourist bus. A healthy patch of road rash or in this case “trail” rash although that was from my own doing when Dr. McKeown and I thought it would be cute to take a parallel trail to overtake the lead of the group which happened to be on a slight decline. That slope enabled an increased speed that was too much to handle and ended in a cloud of Peruvian dust and the sole of my boot half ripped off.

Blown out boot

Blown out boot

The most distressing physical challenge this year was an onset of blurred vision for no apparent reason. And this wasn’t just a bit of fuzzy haze. I would have to believe this was effectively, legally blind. To see my menu or computer screen or my fellow campaigners I needed to be within 18 inches and even then a little squint of my eyes was necessary to make out any specifics. It was a little concerning at first but when it persisted into and throughout the entire next day my mind began to wonder if this would be some irreversible condition leaving me with a prescription four or five times worse than my usual. Even worse was the upcoming site-seeing trip and my fear that I’d have to enjoy the hike but take a look at God’s amazing creation at a later time hunkered over a screen viewing my photos within the aforementioned 18 inches.

Of all of the difficulties that came with this week they pale in comparison to the pains and struggles of those we met and momentarily attempted to assist. In the states, my experience is that there are a high prevalence of patients who have had their condition for months and years but many of the Peruvians I worked with described a history of their condition that gave a new meaning to chronic pain. Decades of troubles associated with their primary complaint was commonplace and most had no attitude of “woe is me” but rather an acknowledgment that they prefer it not be there but an acceptance of it as part of life. Their line of work was an assortment of field work, to textile handcrafting, to some, less physical work requiring sitting more like a greater percentage of my patients in the states. Those in the field spoke of persistent pain “cada dia, todo dia” – every day, all day and yet they gave no indication that they expected anything else or that they’re considering another line of work or that they entertain the idea of their inability to work. Deformities of limbs were plentiful too and most all of our limited stock of assistive devices for walking found a new owner even though it wasn’t an exact fit. Some of the elderly described their pains as their eyes swelled with tears but were quickly suppressed as to avoid dwelling on this source of potential depression. Daily stomach ache, surely of parasitic origin, following their meal of basic staple food from the area, altered gait supported with homemade welded steel and wooden crutches, disruption of sleep, poorly healing wounds with sure infection, stooped posture and the like were the descriptions given and displays one after another.

Their lack of access to healthcare to relieve their pain didn’t keep them from being inventive. Many describe rubbing the area (the universal self-treatment), shaking the affected part, using various plant and animal concoctions to steep over or rub on and my favorite, urinating on a towel and laying it across his painful area. I asked the translator to repeat that one twice, certain I misunderstood her accent, only to make it worse and finally provoking the patient to burst out with elevated volume and in spanglish, “AYE, PEE!”

In all of my real, and at the moment, significant issues that were truly unpleasant, they were and are (as I’m writing this) relatively little to have to endure. And through enduring them I even gain greater empathy for my patients and appreciation for my health and the fortune to live where I seldom have these ailments and definitely not all at once.

I pray for those without.

Without the knowledge and resources as to where to best find advice, to diagnose their problem, to receive the appropriate treatment and without being equipped with the education to best care for themselves.

The experience this year in Cusco has been such that I can’t fully put it in words and it was a bit of challenge to the body but I’m wealthier for having gone through it. My vision did recover to a great extent in time for our hike, with the help of Dr. Pulliam and Dr. Williams, and the Andes mountains were as remarkable as I’d expected.

Jason Ward

Guest Blog by Landon Wadley, RN #Cusco14

Hello from Cusco, Peru! What a trip it has been so far. Another medical mission campaign is in the books and what a winner it’s been. The official numbers will soon be out and I hope you’re as simultaneously wowed and thankful as I am for such a wonderful work that has borne and will bear many fruits for God’s kingdom. While it was no doubt the most successful campaign we’ve had thus far from a sheer numbers standpoint, I unfortunately was only able to play a much smaller role then I intended at the outset of the campaign. Forces beyond my control saw to this rather abruptly. In case you didn’t know, it’s an unspoken truth that with this wonderful week of devoted service to God there’s going to be at least one person who is given the pleasure of only hearing the wonderful things being done while they’re hunkered in the bed, fetal positioned, trying to find their happy place while a vicious Peruvian bug introduces them to a new definition of pain and suffering. As you may have guessed, the honor of being the first fell to me this year.

Monday morning, it was the first day of the campaign. Preparations made, spirits high, devo done, people being served, and surprise! By 10:00, I’m getting worried,but by 10:30 there’s no mistaking it, my week has just been drastically rearranged. I make a quick escape, stock up on Gatorade, grab a taxi (with the capable assistance of Barton Kizer) and head for the hotel to weather who knows what and for how long. Cusco leper 2014, yes!!! You may not have experienced sickness in a different country before but I’m here to tell you it’s kinda scary. All of a sudden the rug gets ripped out from under you. There’s already new places, people, and a different language, and now you’re facing all this down feeling dead to the world with the hotel toilet as your new best friend. Forgive me, but all scary stuff. The sunny side to this story, however, came in the fact that I didn’t have to face it alone.

Monday: bed, bathroom, bed, bathroom, agonizing pain, pain med, bathroom. . . you get the picture. Thankfully, it was Dr. Jason McKeown to the rescue (who has been on call for past Cusco lepers) to break up this monotonous sick fest with IV saline and awesome bedside manner. It was indeed just what the doctor ordered and could not have come at a better time. . . I felt human again! Monday evening, Wes Blankenship stepped up to the plate and delivered the much needed supplies of Gatorade and water. Though these guys didn’t stick around when the action heated up again (couldn’t hold it against them I wouldn’t have either..haha) I was still feeling pretty thankful and really blessed.

Tuesday evening, one of the missionaries did the “Good Samaritan” and helped a brother out with more hydration and solid food! He graciously stuck around for a little and we shared a good talk and some laughs (I’m sure he could tell I was a little stir crazy and needed some human contact). In the meantime, while all this was going on, all the guys were constantly checking in on me making sure I had what I needed and letting me know they were only a shout out away for anything.

It wasn’t until Wednesday that I could walk, talk, and think like a real person, but alas it was too late to join up with the group for the day as they were out on location administering care to one of the more rural parts of Peru.

Thursday, I was finally back in action and what an amazing day God let me be a part of with a great and capable team of like-minded Christian folks who constantly, with care and compassion, inquired about my health. It was good to be back.

Now, I haven’t spoken much about the medical mission aspect of things. There are those who are better equipped to do that this time around seeing as how they kinda did more of it this year then I, unfortunately. I am, however, in a unique position to highlight one of the best things that can be gleaned from not only this trip but from whenever a Christian brother or sister is in need. First hand, I got a top notch display of the level of compassion, kindness, and selfless love that would make Christ proud. It’s an experience that is truly unique to those who are in Christ and thus members of His church. They really hit Phillipians 2:3,4 square on the head: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.” It truly took “a village” to heal Landon, and I’m thankful for each person who played a part. It’s a good feeling to know that you always have brothers and sisters who have your back. My prayer is that these efforts this year in Cusco will not only save souls, but will also validate people like was done for me, allowing them to experience the loving Christian family that God wants for each of His children.

Best wishes and God’s blessings,
Landon Wadley
(“Cusco Leper, 2014”)

Guest Blog by Drs Rick Williams and Jason Pulliam #Cusco14

John 9:6-8 – Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.

There are several accounts of people in the Bible suffering from poor eyesight. As referenced above, Jesus restored the sight of many who were blind. Moses’ eyes grew dim in his later years. Paul was afflicted with 3 days of blindness after encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus. As an optometrist, my mind puzzles over what caused their blindness. Was it a physical disease like cataracts or glaucoma? Or did they simply need glasses?

This marks our 4th year to visit Cusco to provide medical care. Over this time, we have dispensed over 5,000 pairs of glasses free of charge to those in need. We have also been able to treat numerous cases of glaucoma, conjunctivitis, pingueculitis, and dry eye disease. Some cases require surgery or advanced medical care that we just cannot provide, and I wish we had the ability to make some Peruvian mud from our spittle and restore sight to the blind. But we are happy to have a small role in improving the quality of life of so many here in Peru.

As we see Jesus healing the blind, we see a common occurrence: He touched them. That simple but powerful human touch made all the difference. In our clinic, we shake their hand and greet them with a Southern “Buenos Dias!”. They sometimes hug us or give us a kiss on the cheek to thank us for helping them. I can’t count how many patients have told me that they can’t read their Bibles anymore because they need reading glasses. We have had patients come to tears when they put on their glasses and can see clearly for the first time in 8 years. We meet their physical needs to hopefully reach them spiritually, and it all revolves around our human touch.

Our hope and prayer is to be the hands of Jesus, touching them and healing their souls.

John 9:25b – One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.

Rick and Jason at work in the village of Mosoqullacta

Rick and Jason at work in the village of Mosoqullacta