In spite of the rainstorm, the train departed right on time according to plan as promised by our local Peruvian guides. But on schedule was way too soon. Only half our group had hopped aboard, frantic, soaked from the skies, caked in mud, ponchos torn, exhausted from a last-ditch effort sprint to catch the train before it rolled out down the tracks toward Aguas Calientes. The conductor – the universe in general – didn’t seem to care about our situation, about our feelings, about the separation from our friends and loved ones and all the unknowns associated with it. It was as if life was moving forward without asking our permission.
Some stood in the aisles with dropped jaws, processing the last few minutes of their actions as frames of the Andes flipped by out the windows. Some took to their seats steaming mad – literally in Marcus’ case as he tried to piece together what had just happened, his sweat condensed to plumes that rose above him. Scott, a 40-year-old lymphoma survivor, explained the relentless nature of the rain into my camera with a what-the-hell-just-happened laugh until his tone turned serious when he learned not all had made it aboard. “No. I gotta get out,” he uttered as he exited his seat, in search of the new friends he’d been looking out for the past few days on the trail, the ones he’d walked backwards for in support at the day’s end. He was seeking sight of Cyndi in particular, a fellow cancer survivor who’d been struggling that day who he’d promised to watch after. She had barely made it, but others weren’t so fortunate, with their fates left to be determined at the end of the lonely, muddy trail. Perhaps another 10-mile hike was in store as we were told that only one train left town per day.
Caring so much for people you’ve known less than a week may seem absurd, but time operates on a different scale on these journeys. So do many other typically predictable elements of life. To witness a mixture of strangers, who might otherwise pass one another by on the familiar streets back home, share in every waking and sleeping minute together along a foreign trail has proven to introduce unprecedented depths of connection on each Above + Beyond Cancer endeavor. It doesn’t take long before burly grown men grow comfortable opening up about their feelings over a meal, discussing the importance of sweetness and hope, before previously unfamiliar hands are held for physical and spiritual stability along precarious paths.
Yes, there are times when we walk alone. Solitude is a key component as well. Susan walks without being able to feel her feet, contemplating the treatment she’s still in the process of recovering from while Joni thinks about what she’ll tell her second grade class about her experience when she returns. Greg walks lost in thought about his wife who passed away from cancer six years ago and his son who died tragically earlier this year. Dave and Kathy remember their respective spouses who each lost their lives to cancer, giving silent thanks they found each other. Michelle confronts the mental storm that is her marriage back home. Leah copes with the burden of being a cancer doctor as well as a patient. Kelly handles spills into mud and off bridges with grace, knowing her sister, who died from cancer last year, should have been with her on this trip.
These endeavors are important for many reasons, but most of all because cancer remains a serious threat in our world. Not just for the people sitting next to you. Not just for this community or this country. Everyone we encountered along the way from airline attendants to local Peruvian porters understood our cause, explaining their connection to cancer as they designed their individual prayer flags to add to the powerful collection that would move in the Andes’ air.
It’s an unfortunate commonality among us. Like other basic parts of life – birth, love, death – there is an unspoken understanding of the disease’s presence. It will continue to separate us too soon, which is why we must continue climbing mountains figuratively and literally, shouting loudly from the tops of them about what can and might be done.
These are our children, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, companions and those we never got the chance to know floating through the wind. There are photos of friends there who set sail to scale peaks with us only a year or two ago, who we sat next to anxiously on airplanes, who allowed us to carry their baggage when they felt weak, and took on our load when they felt strong. The calm comfort of their presence remains with us in our minds and hearts even though we were separated seemingly too soon, without enough notice. As if life hadn’t asked our approval.
For those of us who journey on, it’s important to find ourselves doing things we’d otherwise never be a part of. To walk voluntarily through the rain, the mud, the adversity, the pain. Just as the disease of cancer often selects its victims arbitrarily, the altitude of the mountains does the same. We learn how to fight through it without asking why me. It’s important that we go to foreign lands, to get away from everything we know in order to understand again what we do know. How to live, how to love, how to move forward with eyes wide open and harness our angers, our energies, and do something with it all. How to be transformed, like Amy, who found that for the first time, thanks to sharing life with other survivors, she no longer spent every day fearing death. Like Joseph, who discovered that it is possible, and better, to be selfless in the midst of lacking recognizable strength. Like Bill, who at age 66, reached a peak he wasn’t able to when he traveled to Peru 40 years ago, all thanks to a newfound confidence. “I never would have gotten here without you,” he said to his new friends as he looked out over the world. Upon our return, we will reunite for an evening of inspiration. We will be moved to tears, to laughter, to act. Because this is a group who knows that quitting is not an option, whether or not you asked for your present circumstances. For cancer. For all kinds of storms.
Sometimes we try our best to catch the train, to keep hold of our loved ones and not let go. But the train leaves, seemingly too early most times, or perhaps right on time, yet we’re angry because things, schedules, life determined by tiny cells and seconds just might be going according to plan and we can’t accept it, at least for a while, until we meet again in another place down the tracks, in a town we can’t correctly pronounce, in a land of unprecedented beauty, a place we altogether can’t fathom until we’re there ourselves.