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How the Memory of Climbing a Mountain in Peru Saved My Life

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Editor's Note

If you have experienced suicidal thoughts, domestic violence or emotional abuse, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

I climbed a mountain once; years later, the memory of this adventure would save my life.

• What is PTSD?

It was the summer of 2003 and I was 24 years old. I was living in a small town in southern Peru in the foothills of the Andes Mountains. My friend and I lived in the cozy second-floor apartment of a small house at the end of a dusty street.  The house had a courtyard filled with red flowers and a huge looted Spanish colonial wine jar that guarded the entrance to the house. I was an archaeologist working on a project with my friend. We spent our days analyzing 1,000-year-old ceramics and we spent our nights drinking and dancing with the other archaeologists who were staying in town.

One afternoon, a group of archaeologists — all graduate students in their mid-20s — were planning to hike to the top of Cerro Baúl and spend the night there. They invited me along on their adventure.

A little background: Cerro Baúl is a 2,000-foot tall rock formation with a flat, table-like top and a fascinating history. It looks formidable as it towers above the valley floor. Archaeologists believe that 1,500 years ago, this mesa was home to an ancient city, complete with palaces and sacred temples. There are even remnants of an ancient brewery where people used to brew alcohol for elaborate feasts atop the mountain. Today, Cerro Baúl is considered a sacred space; pilgrims climb to its summit and often leave offerings near its precipice.

photo of cross offerings at summit of Cerro Baul mountain in peru

There are several reasons why I could have declined their offer and stayed safely in my little apartment, warm in my bed. First, I had never hiked up a mountain before, let alone hike with all my belongings on my back in order to sleep outside. Second, I had only just met this group of people and wasn’t sure if I wanted to sleep on top of a mountain with them. Finally, I had never experienced high altitude and I really did not want to pass out and roll down a mountain in front of everyone. So, considering all of this, my obvious answer was, “Of course I want to go!” I stuffed my sleeping bag into my backpack and filled in the remaining space with a few snacks and water. On my way out the door, a Peruvian archaeologist and friend muttered, “Vaya con Dios” and blessed me with the sign of the cross. He smiled kindly at me, but I knew he thought we were “crazy” for wanting to spend the night on top of a cold mountain.

The hike was a challenge. It was a three-hour walk across hilly, gravely terrain that overlooked the shadowy mountains with their shades of brown, blue and green. When we were just below the summit, the trail narrowed and forced us to walk in a tight single file line. I can still feel the cool mountain wall against my face and hear the stones as they rush like marbles down to the valley floor.  It was difficult to breathe, either because of the altitude or because I wasn’t in the greatest shape. I felt dizzy and I was clinging to the mountain’s rough wall. I was afraid I would roll down the mountain like the stones under my feet.

When I reached the summit, the landscape was breathtaking. It was a monotone brown, yet I could see spots of vibrant green where the groundwater had forged its way above the surface into small streams. In places like this, the vegetation clung to the water and grew so bright that it looked like green islands amidst an ocean of brown. It was amazing. In the distance, I could see higher mountain peaks covered in snow. I could see farther than I ever imagined, it felt like I could see to the ends of the earth. I will never forget standing at the edge of the summit, staring at the landscape and feeling the wind’s silent whispers wrap around me. There is something humbling about sharing the same space with the birds as they fly by you. I felt so powerful and powerless at the same time.

That night, I saw the Southern Cross lighting up the sky. At first glance, it looks small and insignificant, nestled in the forest of stars and galaxies. Yet, it is exceptional because it does not display itself for the world to see. You have to make an effort and intentionally seek out its beauty. It felt like I was being told a secret when the Southern Cross showed me its light. It was comforting. I fell asleep staring at the Southern Cross and counting shooting stars.

I left Peru feeling like I was finally in charge of my life. I felt like I was filled with wisdom for having traveled and lived in another country. I felt strong and brave for climbing a mountain and sleeping on top of it.

I went home to Michigan and to my former husband. I started the grueling life of a graduate student. I felt like I could do anything and I wanted to be an archaeologist. I worked hard during the day at school and at my job, and then I would come home to my husband and to a strange, subtle silencing. At the time, I couldn’t say what this feeling was, but it felt like a small weight or rock in my chest. However, it was subtle enough that I could ignore it, so I did. As I continued to work hard toward my degree, the days turned to months, turned to years and this subtle silencing in my home turned into a dull roar. What I didn’t see back then was that my ex-husband’s control over me was increasing. I had fewer and fewer friends of my own; we only saw his friends. I had to abide by strict rules in our household — he dictated what music we listened to and I was not allowed to close any doors in the house. As time went on, the silence turned deafening. I realized that this silence was my voice, my life being crushed. It was also around this time that the physical abuse started. The power I thought I had in my life had disappeared. The fact I had once stood on top of the world didn’t matter anymore because I was trapped in a prison with a life sentence.

Four years after I slept under the Southern Cross, I walked out on my abusive ex-husband. I was clinging to life at this time. My friends and family had no idea what I was living through. It took all of my strength and sheer will to leave him and when I did, I felt exhausted and done. I did not want to get out of bed. I fantasized about not waking up. Eventually, I started running and I discovered music again… my music. I found the song “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The song reminded me of the time I climbed a mountain with only a small backpack and a sleeping bag.

I remembered how I once stood on top of the world and slept under the blanket of the real Southern Cross. In that moment I realized I am going to be OK. The world will keep turning, the Southern Cross will keep shining and I can live to see another day. So, every day, I put on my running shoes, turned on Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and I ran like hell.

Images via contributor.

Originally published: September 17, 2019
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