Guest Blog by By Caryn Sullivan, Pioneer PRess

When I heard about the mix of Minnesotans who were going to climb the Inca Trail together in July, I thought, “I’d like to be a fly in that mess tent!” After all, former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau and Pam Borton, former Minnesota Gophers women’s basketball coach, don’t typically travel in the same social circles, much less to a foreign country together. Yet, they were part of a group of 18 who signed up for a Smile Network International adventure and mission trip.

Curious about how they had fared, I checked in with several of the trekkers. They offered similar reflections in separate conversations.

Tim and Mary Pawlenty had never camped with their daughters. So for their first camping experience Mary Pawlenty immersed herself in planning, ensuring they had the proper clothing and equipment for Peru’s winter conditions. All the shopping and lists could not have prepared them for the impact of the trip.

“The physical challenge, the quality of the individuals, the majestic beauty of the Andes, the rich history of the culture, the support of the Peruvian porters…” Mary Pawlenty was enraptured as she described the trip to me in a noisy cafeteria.

The Pawlentys not only undertook a physical challenge, they also stepped out of their comfort zone by participating in an intimate adventure with strangers, sleeping in such close quarters even whispered voices carried.

“Tim’s a politician, so he’s always got a buffer around him,” Mary Pawlenty explained. “For him to have some of those walls break down and for him to be willing to be in that environment was kind of a big deal. I don’t think there was any particular moment when that happened. It was pretty clear along the way that it just needed to happen because you can’t function in those settings if you don’t just relax into the real. And we did. There was never a conversation. It happened naturally.”

“I think it may also have helped that Pam (Borton) has done what she has done, that the chief has done what she has done. It allowed us all to be on a bit of an equal footing,” Mary Pawlenty, a retired district court judge, said. “We all knew how we can set aside that component of our lives. You didn’t feel like anyone cared about any of that… Every step of the way, whether it was just a good laugh or a word of encouragement, there was something about the camaraderie. It was really clear that political differences did not exist in that moment. I just don’t know that you can go on a trek like that and keep up barriers that exist based on ways that you are different.”

Mary Pawlenty chuckled as she noted that her husband was the only adult male among many women. “In so many settings he’s around people who look and act and think exactly like he does and nothing could have been further from that reality on this particular trek. He adapted as well as I’ve ever seen him adapt to anything. He loved it.”

Despite emails reminding them to train for the climb, the Pawlentys did not focus on training. They stay in shape by running and assumed that would be adequate. The first day was manageable. But the second day was as physically challenging and psychologically daunting as anything they’d done before.

Borton had trained hard for the climb by running, hitting the StairMaster, and taking “hot yoga” classes. She wanted to test herself, so she pushed hard the first couple of days, then slowed down and went into coach mode.

Day two of the trek is grueling because hikers climb thousands of rugged stone stairs to Dead Woman’s Pass. As she struggled, Mary Pawlenty was mindful there would be no helicopter rescue. Nor was there a slide to transport her to the bottom of the trail. How was she going to make it to the top? Suddenly, Borton appeared at her side. Though she didn’t recall the coach’s words, Mary Pawlenty remembered their impact. It was the right time, the right message, and the right amount of encouragement from a woman she’d just met.

Borton acknowledged that one of her strengths is reading people. She observed that Mary Pawlenty seemed to be running on fumes. An expert in coaching athletes and executives, Borton told the former first lady she was doing a great job and should keep going.

Though she had equivocated about going on the trip without her partner, Borton ultimately concluded there was a reason she was supposed to go. The brief encouragement she offered Mary Pawlenty was repeated many times as she empowered her fellow travelers. “People see me as being the coach,” she said. “They don’t want to let down the coach.” As she watched others struggle to ascend the mountain, she was reminded that we can do more than we think we can, mentally and physically.

Gino Valentini, 21, first hiked the Inca Trail when he was 10 years old. On the July trip he served as Smile Network’s coordinator and assistant guide. He’s been well trained by his mother, Kim Valentini, who started Smile Network in 2003 to provide cleft lip and palate surgeries to people who cannot afford them.

Though he has been a part of many groups that tackled the trail, Gino Valentini said there was something special about the camaraderie of this group. There were a lot of Type A personalities, and at times he felt like he was herding kittens. But from the outset the college students, politicians, pharmacist and Silicon Valley techie were all on a first-name basis. “It was interesting for me because these are all influential people who I look up to.”

Before the trip Gino Valentini, who attends college in Montana, didn’t know who Janee Harteau was. He discovered that, unencumbered by her bulletproof vest and 20-pound belt, the Minneapolis police chief was not only lighthearted, but hilarious. With the mess tent serving as home base, the group shared meals, stories and songs. Harteau had a story for everything. “She’s been there, done that, and seen things I couldn’t imagine,” Gino Valentini said.

Perhaps the diversity was part of the magic. Borton said they had the right mix of people, all of whom were there for the right reasons. The intimacy engendered new perspectives. No longer viewing them from afar, Borton discovered the Pawlentys were fun and funny.

Mary Pawlenty offered similar sentiments. “Everybody comes from such different backgrounds. For a group of people that is so different and diverse to come together the way we did feels like a dream.”

The climb was also thought provoking. As Mary Pawlenty shared some of her thoughts, it struck me that they also apply to how we live our lives. “How can I take another step? How will I manage this next challenge? Will I have the good judgment to turn around and look at what’s beautiful in all directions? Will I at the end be generally happy with the company I’ve kept? How am I doing relationally with people I’m journeying with?”

The experience changed her family in many ways. They’ve become more intentional about their time and their philanthropy. They’ve embraced camping and hiking and vacations with a purpose.

And the trip may have been a catalyst for a different type of change. With her husband working in the private sector in Washington, D.C., Mary Pawlenty yearns to return to what she considers a more normal life. “There may have been an element to what was happening along the trail that made me feel like we could be real people among others in that kind of a setting. That was helpful to me as we’re on the road toward being just a regular family in Minnesota. That might have been one of the joys I experienced.”


Editor’s Note:

Caryn M. Sullivan of Eagan is a contributing columnist for the Pioneer Press and author of the book “Bitter or Better.” Her email address is caryn@carynmsullivan.com. At the moment, she is on a Smile Network trip in Spain and will be blogging about it at smilenetwork.org.