I have walked more this past week than any other week of my life. On Wednesday we took a van into the mountains from Ollyantaytambo–myself, two friends from Cusco, the owner of the hostel where we were staying, an Italian couple and their friend who were volunteering at the same hostel, and the owner´s dog Maruru, who is named after an Amazonian water lily and doesn´t tire. The van drops us off at a small mountain village where the owner´s relatives live, where we have tea and boiled potatoes, then start a twenty-kilometer hike along a dirt road through the valley back to Ollyanta. Maruru rolls around in dung, almost falls into a rushing river we have to cross by foot, with the current, holding on to the adjacent rock wall, because the trail had washed out.
The next morning I wake early to climb up to the ruins on a mountain above town, trying to get to the peak where I can see a pair of stone pillars. I get two-thirds of the way up, to a different layer of ruins, passing another one of those Temple of Doom caves that goes straight into the mountain and narrows until I can´t crawl any further. Í wave my iPhone flashlight around, trying to peer into the darkness, wishing I had a camera-mounted RC rover like in those Discovery Channel documentaries. On my way down I somehow lose the trail, and have already committed enough that it´s easier to keep going than climb back up, and what follows is two hours of intense concentration, stepping from a clump of tall dry grass to another, using occasional boulders and my walking stick for leverage. By some aesthetic instinct I follow the small yellow wildflowers, and later discover that the instinct is correct–the flowers grow where the aloe-like cacti don´t, and I suffer only a few needles to the calves and feet. As soon as I reconnect with the main trail my legs almost give out under me. I have never been more grateful to stand on smooth flat ground. A hike of this kind make you aware of the amount of focus and strength you can summon when you´re trying not to die. It also stretches, I think, your capacity for attention when performing ordinary tasks. Maybe when writers talk about writing with a gun to their heads, they´re talking about recreating that survival instinct under conditions of an otherwise complete safety and comfort.
The same afternoon I give my legs a break and take a train to Aguas Calientes, the touristy and vaguely Japanese hot springs town near Machu Picchu that is populated, maybe not coincidentally, with a bunch of Japanese tourists. I walk around looking for a hostel and solicitors in front of restaurants say to me Konichiwa, and Menu, menu? and Hello amigo, massage? In the main plaza I run into the Italian couple from the day before and we find a cheap clean room that later in the night smells of garlic from the restaurant downstairs. She carries her saucy Italiana accent fully into her Spanish but not her English; he´s thin and mustached and slightly nasally, doesn´t speak much English but imitates the whir of the electric saw that wakes us up the next morning ahead of our alarm for Machu Picchu.
I´d bought a ticket in advance for Huayna Picchu, the tall mountain you usually see in the background whenever you see shots of the ancient Incan city, and leave on the bus when the Italians go to get coffee. During the morning climb the mountains are blanketed with vague white clouds, and when I get to the top a couple dozen others are sitting on the rocks, cameras ready, waiting for the fog to clear. A Frenchman holds his arms out like a mock presenter displaying the view where the ruins are supposed to be, where instead is a giant round white cloud, and says, Machu Picchu! His buddies laugh, the Japanese groups laugh, the two Latvian girls laugh, I laugh, everyone laughs, the humor is universal. The clouds part and everyone snaps away. What did people do on mountain hikes before portable photography? What did they talk about when they were waiting for the clouds to part? Is one of the reasons we take pictures because we can´t stand not being busy, not doing something?
Thoughts that pass through me when I´m negotiating slippery stones on the way down.
I somehow lose the trail again, only briefly this time. Some of the steps in front of me are crumbled or non-existent, and I have to vault myself down a couple of the smaller terraces. By late morning I´ve descended from Huayna Picchu, and by mid-afternoon on the bus back to Aguas, and by early evening I´m in bed, the Italians are in bed, we´re sleeping off our sore knees before the next morning´s three hour hike to the next town.