When most people think about trails and Indigenous people, it’s for the sad and horrific stuff. The Trail of Tears, the Long Walk. It’s about removal, relocation, death, destruction. It’s rarely about trade centers like Chaco Canyon, or the elaborate roads to each of the coasts, or the Chichen Itza runners. Countless others. It’s time for Indigenous people to reclaim the narrative of our trails. And to make new trails in our communities for walking, biking, running.
Part of my COVID funk has been around the loss of the ability to travel. If I was independently wealthy, I’d quit my jobs and travel the world a big part of each year. Sometimes I just sit and look back at old travel photos, like the ones below from my favorite trip, to date.
A few years ago, we decided to walk the Inca Trail in Peru. We went all-in with the 5 day hike under the direction of the best guide ever: Rudi Gongora (above) and his company Evolution Treks. I chose this company because they were the only company hiring women porters, affording the areas Indigenous women the power to reclaim their earning capacity in an otherwise male-dominated industry.
Rudi speaks at least 4 languages, including Quechua and his micro home community language. Quechua is spoken by more than 8 million people, the most spoken Indigenous language in the Americas. Make no bones about it, it was the pan-Indigenous trade language. A modern reminder of how complex and how internationally-focused Indigenous economies were. Rudi’s knowledge of languages, ecology, medicine, history and culture is worth the trip. If you have the privilege to go to Peru, find my friend Rudi.
Our time on the Inca Trail was the most fabulous and the most (temporarily) painful walk of my life. Walking down the mountain into the historic sanctuary of Machu Picchu is one of the most stunning sites on the planet as UNESCO and others have long noted. If you are physically able to do so, even with the one day walk, don’t ride the bus to Machu Picchu.
Did I mention walking up and down and up and down the mountains? As the name suggests, the Incas built these trails as the infrastructure of their political, social, religious and economic system and I marveled at the complexity of all that to distract me from the pain. The hike “up” was challenging but do-able. The hike “down” brought back all the ghosts Christmas past. Basketball knees. Bad. Also, after walking and camping days in the rain, I learned that no gear is actually “water proof.” Just sayin’.
I clearly should have trained for the hike. But as my washed-up athlete post describes, I always think “I’ve got this.” If you want to see one of the most amazing feats of athleticism in the world, check out the porters that literally run down the paved steps (in the rain) from campsite to campsite carrying giant packs on their backs – while you struggle to walk with your small day pack of water and granola bars.
I am thrilled to see so many of our rural and tribal communities investing in walking trails and I hope it continues. Point blank, it sucks to walk/run around a track more than a few laps. And in many places, the high school track is where you see the healthy folks doing their thing.
In downtown Tahlequah, the first segment of new paved trail is complete, and that’s where I am running right now until I build up to more miles. Park my truck on our Cherokee Capital Square (now the Cherokee National History Museum) and do an out-and-back to the trail end. With one loop around the square, it’s exactly 2 miles. Far cry from the Inca Trail, but it’s a start. There’s a small creek along the trail that serves as a soothing distraction. And I start and stop on sacred grounds – a place built by Cherokees, with Cherokee money as the seat of Cherokee government when Oklahoma was just a twinkle in some Congressman’s eye. It’s inspiration for an Indian law nerd. And I’ll take it. Anything to stay motivated.
I’ll leave you for today with this photo of me. Creeping down a small set of steps like an 85 year old woman. And this was a nothing burger of a “hill.”