- Dead Woman's Pass
The sun cut over the top of the Andes, and Gina palmed the sweat off her forehead. She yanked on her backpack straps, hoisting the bag higher on her shoulders. Behind her, some of the other hikers in her group talked above the slap of their feet on the rounded stone. Gina hiked alone.
When she was young, Gina's mother had spent Saturdays paging through National Geographic magazines at their worn kitchen table and saying, "I would love to go there. And there." Her bitten-down nails brushed across the pictures. "What I'd really like to do is hike the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu like my mother did."
Gina's mother sighed then, closed the magazine, and said, "Maybe when you graduate from college, we'll go." She turned toward the window where their soybean crops extended all the way to the horizon. When Gina was younger, she thought her mother would eventually go to Macchu Picchu, that it was just a matter of money or time, and that she would bring Gina along. They could figure out the airport together, be brave and get lost in a new city, stumble into a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and drink pisco sours, like she had seen people do on the Travel Channel. They would hike the Inca Trail together, whisper goodnight in their shared tent atop a mountain, wake up to the sunrise and think about the fact that Gina's grandmother had hiked this very trail.
But then, a year ago, just after Gina turned twenty-three, a sleeping semi-truck driver swerved into the family pick-up and Gina's mother died two days later in the Blue Earth County Hospital, the same hospital where she had been born.
Gina jabbed her pole into a space between rocks and pulled her body up a few more inches. She breathed heavily through her mouth and took small steps. She had learned that if she made her stride wider, she would tire more quickly and have to take breaks, after which it was hard to start back up again. It was better to minimize the stretch and burn of her leg muscles by going slowly. Her heart pounded and she listened to the sound of it mingling with her steady, heavy breath.
When she had a clear understanding of where she would place her feet over the next few steps, she looked up to the mountain ahead of her, deep green and quiet. These mountains made her feel miniscule in a way that the plains of her childhood could not. If she looked carefully, she could see the tiny red and yellow and blue dots of other hikers' jackets far above her on the trail. To think that she had to make it that far today, and then farther, was almost enough to make her stop walking altogether.
She felt a hand on her shoulder. Javier, the trek's second guide, smiled at her out of the thin neck scarf he wore to protect himself from the sun.
"Hey, Javier," Gina said.
"How are you doing, Gina?" Javier spoke normally. His breath was not labored. Gina suspected that he could run up and down this mountain in half the time it would take her to only make it up. His ancestors had carried food and stones across these mountains five centuries ago. This landscape was in [End Page 21] his blood. Gina pictured the outline of the mountains as the electronic peaks and valleys of her mother's heartbeat on the hospital monitor. The plains were Gina's homeland. A flatline.
For a moment, Gina could hear the long, screeching beep of her mother's heart giving up. She could see the face that had leaned over her pillow at night with goodnight kisses turn slack and bruised the colors of dusk.
"I'm fine," said Gina. "This mountain is kicking my ass. Much harder than yesterday."
Javier giggled his high-pitched, wheezy laugh. "You're doing well," he said. "The second day of the hike, this section of trail up to Dead Woman's Pass, is the hardest day of...