What started as a very simple, almost cordial inquiry via Twitter in mid-February landed me strapped to an all-terrain wheelchair, clinging to the side of a Peruvian mountain and fearing for my own life just six weeks later. I remember being at dinner with my parents and mentioning the message I received. I had to read it three or four times just to make sure I wasn't adding or subtracting words at will. It read:
"Kevin. What are your obligations April 16-25? We r having a Team Gleason Adventure in Machu Picchu & I want u to b r guest.
Can this be real? Is this spam? Was my Twitter account hacked? I went through all of these questions and then decided on a simple response: "Sure, I'd love to." One conference call and a few e-mails later, it was time to start packing for a nine-day trip to Peru, the highlight being a treacherous hike up Machu Picchu.
Oh, and by the way, "SG" stands for Steve Gleason, the former New Orleans Saints player battling ALS. One guy in a wheelchair with a debilitating disease asking another guy with the same disease if he wants to "hike" up a mountain. Makes total sense, right? You would think I would have done a tremendous amount of research before agreeing to such an adventure. I didn't. To be honest, I went to visit zappos.com to see if a good-looking pair of hiking shoes actually existed well before I read about all the ancient history I was about to witness.
I was overwhelmed with the invitation from Team Gleason, a once-in-a-lifetime trip at almost zero cost, and I was even able to bring a guest. I brought a close friend, who also happens to be my foundation's director of fundraising, and we had little-to-no hiking or extreme adventure experience between the two of us. Let's just say that we probably spent more time arguing over whose pants had more zippers than we did training for this epic journey.
We arrived in Peru a day later than originally scheduled, thanks to the American Airlines computer system taking a six-hour nap in the middle of the day. Fortunately though, in the meantime, the other 19 -- that's right, 19 -- people had arrived safe and sound. Once we cleared customs, things got a little shaky. We could not find our contact at the airport, went to the wrong hotel, and had to meet the team in the lobby at 6 a.m. the following morning.
I was definitely anxious about meeting Steve. While we had e-mailed a few times, that was pretty much the extent of our communication. But the thing was, it wasn't just the thought of meeting Steve that gave me pause, it was the presence of his closest friends, family, and oh yeah, two different film crews as well. Not only would this trip push me to my physical, emotional, and mental edges, it would all be documented for your viewing pleasure.
The next morning felt like the first day of summer camp. There were very quick introductions, handshakes, and from there, we were on the bus -- an activity we would quickly become quite accustomed to -- and off to the airport for our first adventure.
It was difficult at first being unable to communicate directly with Steve. Because he was not in his power wheelchair, he was unable to speak clearly. We were such a large group of people -- almost 30 once you included our tour guide and porters -- that when we went somewhere, we moved through the airport like celebrities. I mentioned the film crews, didn't I?
I remember trying to recall just a few people's names during the journey, and I was amazed at how eager and willing to help everyone was from the very beginning of the trip. Of course, it should have come as no surprise -- these were Steve's closest friends and family, after all. And because they know what ALS is on every level, assistance, such as offering to open something or even hold it for a moment, came completely natural to them. I remember feeling so relieved and welcomed at the same time, and we hadn't even stepped on a single mountain yet.