When I took stock of my own social media photos toward the end of 2018, here’s what I saw: a grinning picture of myself in a flowing caftan, flanked by Chippendales dancers; a far-too-tan version of me, with hair extensions, on a red carpet with Gabrielle Union; teetering in seven-inch heels with Jennifer Lopez; batting fake eyelashes with Cher; in a prom-style pose with George Clooney (Yes, I did my own hair. No, I don’t know what I was thinking).
Fun, right? But those photos didn’t show me throwing an outfit over my head in a casino parking lot after a 10-hour day of editing because I needed to be at an event. Or surreptitiously sitting in a corner answering emails from a publisher. Or limping into the casino kids’ club at the end of the night to pick up my child because, as a single mom, I couldn’t find a babysitter and didn’t have the option to stay home. (Incidentally, in that Cher picture? I was almost blinded by a rogue eyelash I’d stuck on myself in a rearview mirror.)
How did I get here? To be honest, I’m not sure. As an introvert, I was exhausted by the end of a night in a packed club. I had lost every impulse to write—the very desire that had lured me into the magazine business in the first place. My other love, reading, had become a chore. My job as group editor-in-chief had become far more about politics than storytelling. (I can speak only about my own experience in a very specific set of circumstances. I know many happy, fulfilled, and creative magazine editors.) I didn’t know who I was anymore. So I quit.
I didn’t leave my job in one of those cinematic moments, like when Jennifer Aniston flips off her restaurant manager in Office Space (“There’s my flair!”). I quietly backed out of the magazine industry, got an academic fellowship in a writing program, and planned a nonfiction book I’d wanted to write years earlier, when I still considered myself a writer. I could, literally and metaphorically, scrub off my makeup. But that big move didn’t fix me. I had become programmed to wake up panicked at 4 a.m. to scroll through my e-mail inbox looking for blown deadlines, print emergencies, problems with translators operating with a 15-hour time difference. If I wasn’t on my laptop, I was on my phone, awaiting the next crisis. And finally, when I took my then-third grader to dinner to celebrate her last day of school, a little voice said, “Mama? Could you put down your phone? Can you hear me?”
I knew I had a problem. Here I was, having worked so hard to reclaim my creativity, and my brain couldn’t slow down to meet my circumstances. I was appallingly addicted to technology, to being busy, to stress.
Escaping to Peru
My intervention came in the form of an invitation: a week-long hiking trip in Peru’s Sacred Valley with a group of women, some of whom I’d worked and traveled with, and a few I didn’t know. We would stay at Explora Valle Sagrado, a lodge built in 2016 by the Chilean company Explora. And while our modern, low-slung lodge would be, like all the Explora properties around South America, a designer’s dream, we were encouraged to think of it as a base of exploration. “Prepare to unplug,” our host noted in the invitation. This wasn’t a light stroll in the hills followed by a night of in-room television. We’d have WiFi if we really needed it in the lodge, but our days would start early, with hours-long hikes at sometimes punishing elevations, a planning session after dinner for the next day’s hike, and a tumble into bed in a screen-free room at night. If sticking me on top of a mountain and taking away my cell service wouldn’t cure me, nothing could.
I wasn’t fully prepared for just how serenely beautiful the lodge would be. After a full day of travel and then a 90-minute drive from Cusco’s airport north into the Sacred Valley, I reached Urquillos. The lodge sits low to the landscape, almost organically rising out of a 15th-century corn plantation. It’s an elegant study in responsible design, constructed of indigenous woods of the Andes and reinforced adobe, and designed by revered Chilean architect José Crus Ovalle. Philosophically, Explora’s focus is on integrating seamlessly with the very remote places in which it operates. In Peru’s Sacred Valley, daily hikes reach high into the Andes, where you’ll see no other hikers thanks to agreements with the people who live on and cultivate these areas of the altiplano. Fixate on the luxury trappings of Explora’s lodge, and the worry is that you won’t throw yourself fully into understanding the place itself.
Once I met up with our group, we took a short walk close to the lodge to begin to acclimate to the elevation, just a bit higher than 9,000 feet above sea level. We fell into the patter that hikers do, reacquainting ourselves with old friends and joining in new conversations. It was my first day without a cell phone, and I was feeling triumphant. “I’ll be honest with you,” one fellow traveler told me. “I thought you might be too high-maintenance for this trip. I’ve seen your Instagram account.”
Hiking the Sacred Valley
The Sacred Valley—dotted with indigenous Quechua villages, ringed with Incan agricultural terraces and watched over by apus, is Peru’s breadbasket, where as many as 3,000 varieties of potatoes and more than 55 varieties of corn are grown. Snaking through it all is the Urubamba River, which was thought by the Incas to be the terrestrial reflection of the Milky Way.
The history of the Explora property itself is fascinating, since it sits on some of the same buttressed walls the Incas built in the 15th century. One of these very walls, stretching through Explora’s own fields, guides guests to its new bath house. The 18th century colonial home, using Inca walls as its foundation, once belonged to Mateo Pumacahua, the Peruvian revolutionary who led the Cusco Rebellion of 1814 in the War of Independence.
Over the next five days, we covered nearly 50 miles from our base at Explora. We hiked around Cinco Lagunas, which rises to nearly 15,000 feet and looks down into lagoons that reflect the snow-capped peak of Sawasiray. We passed through isolated mountain potato farms where farmers shared their midday meals of potatoes cooked underground. We collected stones to pile in ritual heaps or left coca leaves to thank Pachamama (Mother Earth) along our hikes. We nursed aching limbs, and for those with altitude sickness, aching heads.
As we reached over 15,000 feet, my lip spontaneously split. Although I hadn’t suffered from normal symptoms of altitude sickness, it’s not uncommon to experience angioedema, an allergic reaction to high elevations that can cause deep tissue swelling. Each morning, I’d splash my face with cold water, layer on my hiking gear, and head out.
On our hikes, which grew progressively higher and more challenging, we talked in the way that people with no agendas do, face-to-face, no screen in sight, when there’s nothing to do but get to the next peak. We took pictures of each other, hair plastered to our heads under layers of gear, triumphantly unbathed and unglamorous. Each night after our planning session, I took a long bath in my silent room, looking out to a noiseless, starry sky, and read a book. An actual paper book, with pages I had to turn. When it was time to leave, I fished my cell phone out of the bottom of a bag and marveled how the world had continued to spin on its axis while I had unplugged. My stress level had plummeted, I’d forged new and important friendships, and I’d rediscovered long-dormant pockets of creative thinking. In the airport in Cusco, a man moved in to make conversation with me—until he saw the giant, festering lesion on my face, and backed slowly away. The old me would have been horrified. The new me grinned and went back to my book.
My week in the Sacred Valley didn’t change my life, but it did jumpstart my new way of living. My weekends are now, for the most part, technology-free. When I need to focus on the book I’m now writing, I turn off my email and think only about the story. I have conversations on walks with my daughter and really, really listen. And sometimes I think back to those starry, noiseless nights in the middle of a cornfield with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company, and I remember who I am.