Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Pushing the Envelope at Machu Picchu

My clothes soaked through with sweat, I was exhausted after a virtually vertical climb from the Machu Picchu world heritage site (altitude 2400 m/8000 ft.) to the top of Machu Picchu Mountain (altitude 3600 m/12,000 ft.). But invigorated by the sights below I temporarily forgot my burning lungs and leg muscles. The nearby mountains all rose like spires from the valleys below where the rivers were thin, white ribbons bordering our hotel and the tourist village, Aguas Caliente (altitude 2000 m/6900 ft.), now all in miniature. It was the highest point on earth that I had ever been, exceeding the previous day’s high at Cuzco (3400 m/11,200 feet). As difficult as it has been to climb the equivalent of 8000 stairs, the accomplishment was exhilarating. This was truly a mountaintop experience in every meaning of that phrase.  
Having arisen at 4 AM so that we could be on the first buses and up the mountain by 6 AM (along with several hundred others), we had already explored some of Machu Picchu by 8 AM.  A highlight was experiencing the sun break over the mountains and watching it illuminate this ancient Incan city. While my mind had been flooded with images that many people never see, those mental pictures were eclipsed by standing on the mountain summit, looking down on everything. It seemed to put everything in proper perspective.

In a world where my outlook is so often shaped by the Parkinson's disease that has been claiming my body these past six years, it is difficult to find times of clarity, just looking honestly at my world and myself. Most of our lives are spent in the valley. The hubbub of activity and endless distraction dominate our concerns and consume our time. It is like the rivers, which I had marveled at that less than 24 hours ago. Then they seemed so angry and demanding as they boiled and blustered down their jagged course. From the mountaintop, they had become a few white lines. There, high above all that had occupied me hours before, I felt serenity that I recognized from precious times of personal reflection at Westminster Abby (a Benedictine monastery near Vancouver, at which I have been a guest at least annually for over 25 years). It was as if the world stood still, suddenly silent in the constancy of the mountains. The majesty of that moment was not under my control, but somehow existed outside the limitations of my senses. It could not be duplicated or captured by any photograph. 
But, as it had come, unannounced and astonishing, it departed, leaving a compelling urge to return to the Valley; which prompting was given physical reality by the sting left by the bites of flying ants. Even as I write this feeble description I feel the chill of the mountain breeze that confronted 's the warmth of the sun as I made my way down the steep path.

The trip down the mountain was much shorter than the ascent, given  gravity-induced momentum. But its demands were evident, if different, as my knees and legs threatened to buckle at each step in their attempt to brake my dissent, thereby avoiding full flight (for about 30 seconds) and the rather destructive and final landing. 
"Push the envelope", is a mathematical term adopted into aeronautical language and explained as follows: "envelope is the description of the upper and lower limits of the various factors that it is safe to fly at, i.e. speed, engine power, manoeuvrability, wind speed, altitude etc. By 'pushing the envelope', i.e. testing those limits, test pilots were able to determine just how far it was safe to go." By pushing the envelope physically, I had pushed the envelope mentally, and even perhaps spiritually. My Parkinson's disease had become secondary, if relevant at all. It was not a question of trying to prove something, so much as to demonstrate the reality that "living life on purpose" means "pushing the envelope". By doing so, I could reclaim territory surrendered to the enemy, whether that is fear, pain, insecurity or depression. There was a lesson learned on that mountain. One that I expect will need to be repeated from time to time in order to retain its vibrancy.  Push the Envelope!


  1. bob...i have looked forward to this reflection from the mountain top. i knew it would be a good one. i really like that sentence beginning the third paragraph: "in a world where my outlook is so often shaped by..." That introduced the meat of your reflection and has such a broad application, even beyond the PD world. Also the reminder that in every lovely garden in this fallen world there is always a snake, or in this case "flying ants!!!" i'll have to see how gary richmond defends this aspect of creation. and thanks for properly defining "to push the envelope." like many i have used that phrase and heard it used often with no solid meaning attached. your definition and explanation was very helpful i tended to equate it with "thinking outside the box," but your explanation provides a helpful distinction between the two. and as some german philosopher once said,"there is nothing better than a good distinction." obviously he had never tasted frozen custard! thanks for taking me with you up the mountain. will watch for more pix. carson told me he has downloaded many pix on a website or something do you know the address?
    vaya con dios!

  2. What beauty! Thanks for pushing the envelope and sharing with us.

  3. Bob - we've not met (I'm a friend of your seat & bunk mate, Carson), but this reflection is breathtaking (some pun intended). Thanks.

    Mark Buchanan

  4. respect for you was formidable...but it just grew to "immense"! Thank you so much for your vulnerability to run head-on into such an amazing adventure and, more so, to share it with the rest of us mere mortals. And the way you share it...not even a hint of legalese...:-) I will look forward to each and every update. Bless you, Bob! Laurel

  5. Thanks Bob.Astonishing accomplishment.

  6. Thank you so much for this inspiring reflection in particular. Travel safely til we meet again in MOntreal. Peter Nova Scotia

  7. Thank you for sharing this incredible experience. You are truly inspiring!