We were up at the crack of dawn to get ahead of the heat of the day. The morning greeted us with a gentle breeze and sunny skies. The extended six-day forecast calls for no rain, low humidity, and temperatures in the 80’s; ideal conditions for hiking the Camino!
Yesterday we logged 14 miles as we walked from the tip of Portugal through the castle town of Valencia before crossing the Tagus River entering into Tui, Spain. Today we walked another 13 miles to the fishing village of Sampaio. We are in great spirits and making record time.
There is talk amongst us that some plan to lose a few pounds as we walk the final 75 miles of the Camino. Candidly, our weight loss regime has not gotten off to a good start. We start the morning with a big breakfast of various meat like prosciutto and salami, egg frittatas and bacon, croissants and all kinds of pastries, homemade yogurt and fresh juices and strong black coffee and espresso. Our efforts to eat healthily are further hampered by the numerous bakeries selling tart pastries and butter cookies dipped in fine chocolate as we walk through the tiny Spanish villages. In the evenings after a hard day’s work, we indulge in the local culinary specialties like Padron peppers, Albarino wine, paella, mussels, clams, and the local cheeses.
Tonight we remind ourselves that we can get back on track tomorrow.
We range in age from 25 to 69. We have diverse professions. We are real estate agents, doctors and nurses, law enforcement representatives, life coaches, entrepreneurs, and retired individuals.
We reside in Minnesota, New York, Illinois, and Florida.
While our personal statistics and history vary immensely, what we all have in common is wanderlust and the desire to “do good.”
We arrived into Vigo, Spain today to prepare for our journey of 100 kilometers in six days, on the Portuguese route of the famed Camino. We will walk 12 – 22 kilometers a day, and God willing, under sunny skies with a gentle breeze to our back to propel us to our destination of Santiago, Spain.
We are all here to raise money and awareness of the work of Smile Network. This work is made possible because of the generosity of donors. You should know two things about the Camino trekkers: We have paid 100% of our personal expenses and collectively we have raised enough money to finance life-changing surgeries for over 160 children on Smile Network’s list of waiting patients.
We put one step in front of another as we climbed to Dead Woman’s Pass at 14,000 feet. One step, two steps, three steps, stop and take a breath, and repeat. Oxygen is sparse at this elevation. Even our porters are huffing and puffing as they run pass us to get to the next checkpoint to set up the mess tent and cook us lunch. The Andean Porters are said to be some of the shortest people in the world but also have the largest lungs of any human beings, and they too, feel the shortage of oxygen at this elevation. For those of us that arrive to the pass first, we patiently wait for the entire group, promising not to move on until we are all gathered at the summit. We are a unit and no one is left behind. Once we all arrive we take a few brief moments to hug each other and take a group photo and move on.
Today we will walk for 8 hours. Tomorrow nine hours.
We will be out of radio frequency range for the next 24 hours and will check back in when we have arrived to the Gate of the Sun.
We were all up early today to do the very thing that we have planned and trained for over the course of the last six months. We divided into two groups. Those of us that will hike the Inca Trail and those that will climb to the Sky Lodge.
Our trek group totals twelve. We were met early at the trail head by the twenty-one porters, two cooks and three guides that will support our trek up the mountain. Each of us has been limited to twelve pounds of gear that will go up the mountain on the backs of the porters. This includes our toiletries, sleeping bags and change of clothes.
In addition to our personal gear the porters will carry enough tents, sleeping pads, propane tanks for cooking our meals, pots and pans, and a four-day food and water supply. Our meals with be plant and protein based and our first night on the mountain our chef will prepare freshly caught trout from the cold water mountain streams of the area. Tomorrow breakfast will be omelettes and pancakes. We have been told from previous trek groups that the meals are amazing on the mountain.
Rony reminds us that our only job is to get up the mountain. Everything else will be done by the support crew. They will carry our gear, pitch our tents cook our meals.
We were greeted by a gentle breeze and sunny skies as we checked in at the trail head on the east side of the raging Urubamba River. The forecast says that the temperature will rise to 76 degrees Fahrenheit today and the extended four-day forecast calls for no rain, ideal weather conditions for the Inca Trail
The guard post at the trail head is similar to a border crossing. No one gets access to the trail with out their passport in-hand and their official government issued Inca permit. Once we clear the check point, one or two at a time, we cross the suspended bridge above the river that blows side to side due to the winds blowing though the canyon that has been carved out of the rocks by the white water of the Urubamba. Its like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.
We are feeling many different emotions; apprehension, gratefulness, excitement. We had parted ways with Kim and KrissAnn a day earlier and we asked if Rony would call them before we go on. He puts Kim on the speaker phone and she reminds us that as we walk the trail “to turn around and look at where we have come from. She tells us the view will be different then the view going up the mountain and that like in life, the view looking back is different and we will feel the win of our accomplishments.”
We will trek eight miles today parallel to the river. We begin at an altitude of 7000 feet. Today will be the easiest of the four days and tomorrow the most difficult with a climb to Dead Woman’s pass at 14,000 feet. Tomorrow the ascent is steep and the winds that blow through the mountain pass increase the trek’s difficulty, but that is tomorrow.
SkyLodge, June 23rd
Have you ever wanted to sleep in a Condor’s nest? A night in the sky lodge might be the closest you get to this experience. Situated 1200 feet above the floor of the Sacred Valley is a vertically hanging transparent capsule with a 300-degree view of the Andes. The pod is anchored into the side of a cliff and to get there you must first climb a 400 meter vertical mountain face on a via ferret, an Italian term for an iron path made of steel cables fixed to the mountainside, rebar steps and a series of ladders and wire bridges similar to tight ropes are suspended hundreds of feet above canyons below.
None of us had ever climbed before. The only thing securing us to the side of the mountain was the steel cable that we were clipped into as we ascended the mountain face. After being fitted into our gear and a review of safety protocol we began our two- hour ascent just before sunset. Adrenaline and fear propelled us up the mountain. They say going down the via ferrata is impossible so once you begin you are committed to climbing the distance. At the top, our guides also served as our cooks and made us a four-course dinner with wine before we were tucked in for the evening.
Leaving the pod at night is forbidden and in the space of a few hours as we tried to get some sleep we saw the sunset, the moon rise, and the sky above us filled with the constellations of the southern skies. In the morning we watched as the sun climbed into the sky over the mountain peaks and drank coffee and had breakfast before proceeding to a series of nine zip lines that would take us back to the floor of the sacred valley.
We agreed this was a once in a lifetime bucket list item and is not for the faint of hearing. We agreed our personal grit had been tested.
We landed in Cusco two days ago and it feels that we have already packed a short lifetime into 48 hours. One can’t help but marvel at the Incan majesty of Cusco. The cobble-stone streets line the wonders of this ancient place. In this high altitude city, you will find a melting pot of cultures represented in the textiles, summer festivals, and archeological ruins.
We have been introduced to our mountain guide Rony Camasa who we believe has been directed to test the limits of our physical abilities as we prepare and acclimate for our high altitude climbs in the Andes. We climbed the Chinchero Ruins located high up on the windswept plains of the Sacred Valley at 12,500 feet. Chinchero is said to be the birthplace of the rainbow. The view at the top overlooks the snow-capped Andean peaks on the Western horizon. We also trekked the Pisac ruins which are situated at the eastern end of the Sacred Valley. The Pisac ruins are considered to be one of the finest remaining Inca archeologic sites in Peru. This hilltop citadel lies on a triangular plateau with plunging gorges on either side. We are not sure if we are more terrified by the site lines of the gorges or the accelerated beat of our hearts and the sound of our heaving lungs that are not adequately equipped for this altitude as we ascend into the ruins. For some of us, the self-doubt about our physical ability to tackle the next few days begins to creep in again.
After lacing up our hiking boots and doing the hard work we were rewarded with food. We ate at Chicha, owned by world-renowned Chef “Gaston.” One knows a chef is famous when they are recognized by just their first name. Some of us tested our personal grit by stretching our cultural bandwidth by ordering the local specialties like alpaca steaks, and cuy, more commonly known as guinea pig, but candidly most of us stuck with more traditional items like roasted chicken. Over meals, there is talk of the physical challenges on the ruins and Kim reminds us that she has taken over 500 people on the Inca Trail and that everyone who started the trek, finished the trek on their own two feet.
Tomorrow we will rise early and be transported deeper into the Andes to the trailhead of the famed Inca Trail.
It is estimated that the 26-mile trek through the Andes is made up of over 82,000 steps and 55,000 stairs. Twelve trekkers are hiking this ancient path to create awareness for the plight of children born with facial deformities and to raise money and awareness for Smile Network. They are supported by donors who have contributed with donations, a hundred percent of which will directly underwrite surgeries for children on the Smile Network waiting List. Meet the trekkers and group guides:
KrisAnn Meyer – Guide
I met Kim Valentini, a business executive from Minnesota. We bonded over life stories and continued connecting over time. As fate would have it, we were reunited in a very different setting through our mutual desire to make a difference in the world. That’s when I started “Miles for Smiles Adventure Programs.” Smile Network had just begun doing surgical missions in Peru, home of the magnificent Inca Trail, and the legendary Incan civilization of Machu Picchu. I had been climbing mountains since I was young, so my next adventure became clear. I offered to guide 11 Smile Network volunteers on the first trip to hike the Inca Trail. Now is the time to ask yourself: “Where is my Mountain, and why aren’t I climbing it?” I have been a flight attendant for Delta Airlines for 43 years. After guiding three children to adulthood, I am guiding myself now on a new journey in my Airstream trailer, volunteering as a park host in various parks throughout America. Next stop Alaska!
Kim Valentini – Guide
Life is short and I want to cram as much into this lifetime as is humanly possible. I have been blessed with good fortune and was able to leave the corporate world sixteen years ago and take some time to map out what I wanted the second act of my life to look like. I have been blessed with two amazing children who are now young adults. As an empty nester, I have the ability and the luxury of time to be able to explore the world and be a conduit to providing opportunities to others to be able make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate. As the founder of Smile Network I am in a unique position to marry talent to need, and it is an honor for me to introduce you to these individuals who are doing incredible things make the world a better place.
Jae Kullar 51 (mom) and Kiran Kullar 17(daughter)
I was born in London, England and grew up in Canada near Toronto. I have lived in Atlanta for the past 21 years. I have been married to my husband, Raj, for 24 years and have two teenage daughters, Simirin who is 14 and Kiran who is 17. Kiran and I did our first trip with Smile Network on the Camino in 2015. Following the trip, Kiran decided she wanted to pursue a medical career specifically as a neonatal surgeon so she could one day volunteer as a doctor for Smiile Network. I am a Benefits Manager for Delta Airline and Kiran plays soccer for her high school and is currently preparing for her SAT’s and touring colleges.
I grew up in a small town, married and raised our two sons in the same small town. I have worked in nursing all of my life, retiring from the Minnesota Security Hospital. My husband and I have been married 43 years and have five grandsons. About 14 years ago, I started making hand soaps which I turned into a small business. I have soaps in four local shops and have a website from which I get orders. My favorite part of my business is the social aspect. I sell my soaps at four shows a year and I love seeing my returning customers and meeting new ones. I have come to appreciate each new day and try to live life to the fullest. I can’t wait for this journey to begin.
I am a member of the Minnesota Air National Guard with the United States Air Force for the last 17 years. I currently work at the Department of of Human Services for the State of Minnesota and I am also back in school pursuing an education in Biology and Community Health. Like others, I often contemplate what my purpose is and I have come to one inescapable conclusion: My purpose and legacy will not be measured by the money I make or the action I take, but by the lives I touch. I believe that when we venture out across the globe we can perpetuate the idea that every interaction between two human beings, is an opportunity to create a better world and improve the lives of others. It is a great big world out there, and I want to see and experience as much if it as I can. When I heard a coworker talk about Smile Network, I knew I want to partipcate! I am thrilled and honored to join this group of people and this mission.
I am a Physician Assistant at Mayo Clinic, in the Division of Gastroenteroogy and Hepatoogy. I have been a PA for 15 years. I am a proud mom of two awesome kids. I love spending time with my husband and kids and especially going to their gymnastic meets. I have a passion for traveling. I enjoy experiencing new cultures, especially the food. I am super excited not only to have this amazing opportunity, but also to share it with my husband, Mike. I have been on five surgical missions, three of those with Smile Network. This will be my third trip to Peru. Peruvains are wonderful people and they have amazing food. I can’t wait to explore the Inca trail with my fellow trekkers.
I live in Rochester, MN with my wife Shayla, son Tyler, daughter Keaton, and a dog named Asia. I’m originally from Arizona where I grew up and went to school, eventually graduating from Arizona State University with a Mechanical Engineering degree. I started my career working for Aerospace and Defense companies, but currently I work for a structural composite company in Stewartville, MN as Vice President of Engineering. I enjoy traveling worldwide, volunteering with my son’s Boy Scout troop, “tinkering” with stuff, and doing anything outside, but especially enjoy hunting and fishing. Having twice backpacked the Havasupai trail in the Grand Canyon, I’m excited to hike the Inca Trail with my wife!
Chad and Lindsay Lundeen
We have been married for nearly 11 years and live in Chaska with our 3 children and 2 rescue boxer-mixes. Chad was born and raised in Minnesota and went to college at Minnesota State Mankato to play hockey and majored in Business. For the past 21 seasons, he has worked for the Minnesota Vikings in many different capacities, most recently as the Vice President of Operations, Facilities and Security for the past three years. He still enjoys playing hockey, although most of his time at the rink now is dedicated to coaching all three of his kiddos teams, as well as coaching their soccer and football teams! He also loves to golf, be on the lake and read Jack Reacher novels.
Lindsay was also born and raised in Minnesota where she attended the University of Cincinnati to play volleyball and major in Elementary Education. She later transferred to NDSU, where she graduated. She spent 9 years as an Elementary Teacher in both Becker and Wayzata before staying home with their kiddos after their second child was born. After 4-years at home, she got the bug to teach group fitness, where she has been for the past 5 years at Life Time Fitness in Chanhassen. Once their youngest went to Kindergarten, she tackled a management role there, while pursuing her love of teaching fitness. She loves to be on the lake, work out, cheer on the Minnesota Vikings with her kids, read and rescue dogs, (her husband would add). Both love being with their three kids: Evie (10), Titus (8) and Eloise (5). Eloise was born with a complete unilateral cleft lip and a complete bilateral cleft palate in July of 2013 so participating in this trek has added meaning.
Kyle Soderberg and Janell Stanton Soderberg
Kyle Soderberg was born and raised in MN, where he met his beautiful wife Janell and started their family, currently consisting of 3 wonderful kitties and a super intelligent and compassionate puppy. Together, they discovered their love of the outdoors and hiking. When not spending time with family or immersed in nature, Kyle is a Residential Youth Counselor and Sunday School Youth Leader. “A Smile Network Mission means, helping children (Check), and fantastic adventures, (Check, Check). I’m in, and couldn’t be more excited!”
Janell Stanton Soderberg was born and raised in rural Wisconsin and she too has a beautiful family consisting of 3 wonderful kitties and a super intelligent and compassionate puppy and last, but definitely not least, her husband Kyle. Janell attended the University of Minnesota and then law school at the University of South Dakota. As an attorney, Janell practices employment law representing small and medium sized businesses. She is also passionate about volunteering and currently volunteers with Wills for Heroes writing estate plans for firefighters, police officers, EMTs and veterans, and participates at the Domestic Abuse Legal Advocacy Center attending legal advice clinics to advise domestic abuse survivors on family law, landlord/tenant issues and expungements. In her free time, Janell enjoys spending time in the great outdoors hiking, backpacking, cross country skiing and connecting with other inspirational women as part of local adventure groups. An opportunity for Janell to combine adventure and helping others could not align with her interests any better and she is very excited about her upcoming adventure to Peru!
I like to try new things – especially when it involves travel and service to others. I was able to go to Haiti with Smile Network in 2017, and that was an amazing adventure assisting as a non-medical volunteer to provide life changing surgeries and new smiles to 43 children. I enjoy almost all activities outdoors, I’m willing to try new things, once. I have worked in finance, as a teacher and a job coach for adults with special abilities.
I am a Wisconsin native and Minnesota transplant for the past 25 years. I am a University of Wisconsin graduate and full board Badger! As a freelance Event Planner, I have been fortunate to have key positions with the Men’s Final Four Basketball Championship, 2 Super Bowls, NHL All-Star Game, US Pond Hockey Championships and have assisted many other local organizations with event management. I am an avid outdoors woman, runner and triathlete completing 16 marathons and 12 Ironman triathlon races. My husband, J Robinson, and the summer wrestling camps that bear his name (J Robinson Camps) began a relationship with Smile Network several years ago in which our company matches donations made by the wrestling campers each summer. J speaks to over 1,300 campers each summer about the mission of Smile Network and the importance of getting involved to serve those in need. The opportunity to take part in the Peru trip to experience this mystical region and assist however needed with Smile Network by fundraising or at the Lima mission site is truly a blessing.
We are 19 adventurous souls traveling together ranging in age from 17 to 62. We come from many walks of life, from rural towns and big cities. Some of us are doing this adventure as solo travelers, we have a mother and daughter combination, three married couples and multiple small friend groups. What we all share is a love of adventure, and when given the opportunity to combine our passion for adventure, and to step out of our comfort zone, we were all in!
Today we arrived into Cusco, Peru. When you live at sea level your lungs know you have arrived into this mountain village deep in the Andes mountains as you pull your luggage across the 3 percent uphill grade of the airport parking lot. Let’s say it’s analogous to pushing a cart uphill. It’s more challenging than you might think. At this point, each of us secretly begins to questions “What did I get myself into? Can I do this?” And the self doubt beings to creep in.
So……give us some time to adjust to the altitude and in the interim, this is who were are.
Meet Judy, Kim, Kathy, and Jody. We are scaling a vertical cliff to the sky lodge which is anchored into the rock of the mountainside Our “pod” where we will spend the night hangs from the rocks with the floor of the Sacred Valley. thousands of feet below us.
Traveler, Grandma, Community Volunteer, farmer
My husband John and I have two adult children, Tyler married to Emily and Abby married to Sam. They have blessed us with seven grandchildren. I am a 7th generation farm owner near Le Sueur, MN. I love travel and service and believe there is no better education. The past six years I have been a volunteer with Smile Network and it has been a life-altering experience. I continue to be touched by the open-hearted generosity of the community, which I call home and their support of this worthy cause. I am thrilled to be sharing this adventure with old friends and looking forward to meeting new ones.
I have many interest and passions: children, volunteering, travel, fitness, nature, photography, and history.
I look forward to exchanging smiles with the beautiful children of Peru and their families.
Wife, mother, realtor, volunteer mission coordinator for Smile Network.
This will be my 11th life-changing experience with Smile Network. Six years ago, I had never really hiked, camped or done much travel. One night I rented the movie, “The Way.” As a recent empty nester this story and the quote, “you don’t choose a life, you live one” prompted me to examine my life. I contacted Smile Network and stepped out of my comfort zone and signed up to trek the Inca Trail and participate in my first surgical mission. This experience ignited a spark in me and Smile Network continues to inspire me to challenge myself on many levels.
I embrace the wisdom of Saint Francis of Assisi…” for it is in the giving that we receive.” I intend to conquer some personal fears while in the Andes and experience the majestic sites of Peru, nurture friendships and once again witness the miracle of Smile Network in the lives of children.
Wife, Mother, Adventurer, Purpose Driven Woman
I grew up in a small town in central Minnesota and after high school attended the University of Minnesota Morris where I met my husband. Together we moved several times and furthered our education and raised two children and immersed ourselves in the communities where we live and work. I have always worked for mission-driven organizations. Currently, I work for the Minnesota State University Mankato, supporting efforts needed to raise funds for students, research and other campus initiatives.
I “grew up” with my kids and as the years went by I challenged them and myself. I’ve walked many miles, sailed the Caribbean, jumped out of a plane, held a stingray and swam with sharks, ran half marathons, hiked Mt Quandary and sewn a quilt: all things that require persistence and more perseverance than I thought I had. The need to be purposeful was instilled by my Mom and since her passing, it’s become more important to me to make a difference. I have supported friends affiliated with the Smile Network for years and am thrilled to now be doing the Peru trip with them where my sense for adventure will align with my need for purpose.
Wife, Mother, Grandmother, Keeper of Mitch’s Memory and Spirit
I live in Le Seuer., Minnesota I am married to my husband Kent and have four beautiful children and four grandchildren. My husband an I own and electrical contracting company in Le Seuer and Arlington. I also drive transit for Minnesota River Vally out of St Peter part time. I love meeting people and doing new actives. I hiked the Camino in August of 2015 with Smile Network and it was profound for me. I believe you get back more than you give. Looking toward to making an impact in the world!
Come back to this site tomorrow to learn more about the 12 trekkers who have joined the trip as well.
Great accomplishments generally have their roots in humble beginnings. Today nineteen adventurous individuals from Minnesota, Georgia and Washington State embarked on a trip of a lifetime. They are in route to the Andes mountains to either hike the famed Inca Trail or to scale a mountain cliff in the Sacred Valley of Peru. Each of these adventurous souls has their own reasons for initiating this journey, but what they all have in common is a propensity to make a difference in the lives of the less fortunate. They are taking on this adventure to create awareness of the hardships experienced by children around the world born with a facial deformity of a cleft lip or cleft palate.
In the United States, a child born with this birth defect generally receives a surgery to repair the defect within months of being born. This is not the case in other parts of the world. In the developing world, these children are hidden away from the mainstream of everyday life. Often times, the parents of these children struggle to get enough nourishment into their child’s tiny body. Food and liquids are hard to get down, sometimes there is a failure to thrive and sadly sometimes these children die. They die for lack of access to a simple and relatively inexpensive procedure because they are so poor that health care is not accessible to them.
In as little time as 45 minutes and for just $500 Smile Network is able to provide a life-changing surgery to a child by sending highly skilled and specialized surgical teams to surgical sites around the world. This effort is made possible by the likes of the adventurous individuals who have set out on this journey today. Months ago these individuals signed up to participate in this trip and have trained vigorously and planned extensively. You should know two additional things: They are paying all of their own expenses to participate and each has raised money by seeking sponsorship from friends, families, and colleagues to underwrite the cost of surgeries. As of today, they have collectively raised over $52,000, enough to fund surgeries for over a hundred children. Each has very specific personal reasons for being taking on this feat. Follow their journey through Peru this week as they lace up their hiking boots and do the tough work. More to come…
We are 60 kilometers into our trek. Every morning we are up before the sun to beat the heat of the day as we set out on another 20 Kilometer hike.
Spirits are high as we complete the third day. We are half way to our destination. Over the course of the next six days we will walk 100 kilometers to our destination of Santiago Spain.
We have dubbed the trek the “food, wine and sunshine tour.” We have had a few laughs and a few tears have fallen. We are supported in the effort by each other and the donors who have generously contributed to the fundraising efforts of our group. To date, thirty-two children will receive life-altering surgeries as a result of the efforts of these amazing individuals.