My ears are still full of air. No matter how hard I lean my head to the left and to the right, everything has a muffled tone. I hear myself talk and it sounds like a distant echo. I have been making exaggerated chewing noises and shaking my head vigorously all day but my ears refuse to adjust to the lower altitude. You see, three days ago I was staring at the edge of the world tucked into a secret forgotten corner of the Andes mountains 12,000 ft. above sea level, jaw dropping in wonder.
Now I am staring out the window watching the afternoon sun reflect the changing Midwestern leaves, taking in the awareness of a new season. I blow my nose and try popping my ears again but my body refuses to make the transition, physically protesting what my heart refuses to acknowledge. This is always the hardest part.
How do I connect the dots? How do I gather up the photographs and bus tickets shoved in pockets, retell the conversations and lessons learned? How do I transition from jaw dropping experience to ear popping remembrance? It’s always the most basic questions that make me flinch. “What do they speak there?” “Where did you go again?” “Are you glad to be home?” I know these are somewhat obligatory inquiries made on the behalf of half interested friends and family, but like any life changing experience (grief, childbirth, love, etc.) it’s hard to quantify the impact and even harder to dissect for others.
It won’t be easy. It never is. While I am catching my breath and trying to drown out the ringing in my ears, desperately hoping to delay the imminent ‘my head is going to explode’ feeling of returning home I will be forced to accept the passing of another season. At times this shifting of gears feels overwhelming and impossible. I have more questions than answers, more revelations but fewer interpretations, bigger dreams, fewer sureties.
I arrive at Laguna Quilotoa bright and early to avoid the afternoon rain, making the descent easily, happily winding down the mountainside to the crater. The 3,000 ft. climb back to the beginning is not so effortless. I began my hike with the intention of walking around the lake, not realizing the path I had chosen was straight down-the only way out, UP. There would be no leisurely stroll to enjoy before retracing my footsteps, instead I am gasping for air trying to imagine how I will reach the top, stopping every 25 ft lungs burning and heart pounding.
I would like to pretend that the choices I have to make will be round-about, that I will have plenty of time to deliberate and come to a rational conclusion before embarking on a new phase of life, that my path will be smooth and linear, preferably with a nice view. But sometimes the only thing waiting at the base of the peak is a dead end, a chance to return to the mountaintop stronger and braver than before. And so filled with a renewed sense of accomplishment and confidence, believing that the challenges and doubts I face can be overcome, I continue ahead, one breathless step at a time.