Travel is a vanishing act, a solitary trip down a pinched line of geography to oblivion.
Paul Theroux

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Hippy Trail

The route, as it does every time, starts with buses. This time, it’s the Hippy Trail, the alternative route to Machu Picchu. A French guy I met in Cuenca told me of it—Skip the train, he’d said. You can walk it. And so I begin the four-day trip, which begins with a bus out of Cusco. We leave the city, with its adobe buildings and its base of Inca blocks and its terra cotta roofs, and then we climb, up, up, to the place where snow covers the peaks. They are jagged, these mountains, all covered in white. I’m scared, I tell the man next to me, a small Peruvian guy in a pressed white shirt and a woolen vest. I’m scared of the cold. He looks over and smiles: Don’t worry, he tells me, placing a fatherly hand on my arm. It gets warmer from here.

And it does. At the road’s highest point, the snow-capped peaks surround us, and then we begin to descend. The man in the woolen vest leans over me to look out the window. We’ll go down three thousand meters, by the time this is over. I can feel my ears pop as we wind around bends, criss-crossing the mountain, down and down until the alpine shrubs are replaced by green grass, calla lilies, eucalyptus and finally the flat, lime-colored fronds of banana trees. By the time we all unload in Santa Maria, I am sweating, and I can hear the river, so distant before, beyond the crops of coffee and plantain that the locals grow behind their tienda-homes. I sleep the night in this tiny town, in a hostel where the doors to the rooms don’t lock. All night I can hear men drinking; they start off quiet, talking together, their bottles clinking, but by midnight they’re singing, and this is the sound I finally sleep to.

On the second day, I hike to Santa Teresa, across floodplains littered with round, white stones and lined with banana-jungle and waterfalls. The track isn’t hard to follow; this is the Hippy Trail, after all, and all of us hippies get to know each other fast. The French guy wasn’t the first to have this idea, turns out. There’s a group of students from Chile, a couple of skinny guys from France who wear their expensive cameras around their necks, and a mother from Argentina with her twelve-year old son. His name is Andreas; he wants to practice his English, he tells me, so we chat slowly, with simple words, about our travels. I tell him I’m writing a book. What will you call it? he asks me. When I tell him I haven’t decided, he pauses. You’re kidding me, right? he finally says, cackling. He asks me my name. You could call it, Kate’s Adventures, he suggests.

We start early this day, and end late. Walking along the river is tough going; now sandy, now rocky, now the path is steep and clings to the riverbank; now I pass through water, jumping over stones. It is dark by the time I reach Santa Teresa, and again I find a hostel without locks on the doors. The owner is kind, though, and makes me a cup of tea stuffed with coca leaves. In the inky night, Santa Teresa is silent, and I wake only once, to the sound of a brief morning rain on the roof.

The trail on the third day traces the river once more, and again I see the Chilean students, the Argentine family, the French guys with their cameras. We follow the trail over rocks with rounded edges, past water that churns out of man-made caves, past crops of plantain. We climb out of the floodplain by lunchtime; now we must follow the road. The Chilean students offer me almonds; I share my raisins; we sip at our water and watch the sun cross the sky. The road is dusty, even after the rain in the night, and every time a truck rumbles past we close our eyes tight, shield our faces with our arms. And then we turn a bend, and Look, someone says, because there is the mountain, Machu Picchu, with it’s little hump and its rainbow flag, the flag of the Inca, a tiny speck that flaps high above us.

There it is, we say to each other. There it is. I am cold, all of a sudden, even with the sun beating down. And that’s when I start to see the faces. Closer and closer we come, plodding past the hydroelectric power station, past the Machu Picchu entrance gate, past the start of the railroad. And here you all are, every person who taught me to love the mountains. There is the face of my father, walking beside me; there is my mother. Here is my brother, running ahead of us, and here are the women I grew up hiking with, my Adirondack friends who now live scattered across the country, my North Country girls. Here are my dad’s friends, the Big Fellas, the guys who dragged their daughters up and down peaks in every season, teaching us to ski, teaching us not to whine. There is Jason’s face, and although I don’t know where he lives now, haven’t spoken to him in months, he is beside me, his hair fluttering in the wind and the mountains all around him. No city will choke you, he told me once, as long as you remember where you’re from. He’s the one who said to me, when I wept in the Boston night for how far the mountains felt, that they’d always be waiting for me, whenever I decided to return.

And so all of you are with me as I climb, all of you who showed me that the mountains are my home. I can nearly hear your steps as I follow the railroad tracks deeper and deeper into the jungle, closer and closer to the ancient city. Can you feel it? I wonder as I walk. Do you see me now, in your mind? Can you feel that I’m here? I plod along, the train a whistle in the distance, and I know that you’d be proud.

I sleep my last night in Aguas Calientes, a town the French guy in Cuenca said was the worst in all Peru. I can’t say I agree; though overpriced, over-paved, hyper-clean, Aguas Calientes, set as it is in the crook of two green mountains, is decidedly better than the crumbling desert shacks I passed on the way to Lima, whole villages swathed in trash and gray sky. I sleep in the expensive, tourist town, and wake at 4 AM to walk my final stretch with other sleepy hippies. We can’t see each other’s faces in the darkness.

It’s raining lightly and we hike without speaking. No one has a light; we stumble along the stony path that rises steeply up. We’re all sweating, walking in a line, glancing up every few moments. Slowly, slowly, the daylight comes, lightening the sky, but still the sun doesn’t show its face, the rain doesn’t weaken. We walk and walk, comrades by now, but when we finally reach the entrance to the park, we’re disappointed.

For this is not what we expected. We expected the ruins to sprawl before us, I guess, or for the gates to open, welcoming us, but we never expected to see this endless line of tourists waiting to enter. We didn’t expect these buses that line up and pump exhaust into the sky, or these guides that saunter around with little flags in their hands, or this rain. None of us have rain jackets, and the second we reach the gate it starts to really pour. The silence of the climb is gone, replaced by the sound of water hitting the ground and of tourists complaining in every language. I don’t have enough clothes; I’m shivering. We all are. We stand in the line, in the rain, and blink our eyes, frowning. We walked so far, to find this.

In the press of the tourists, we inch forward. All must show their passports; we hold our documents close to try and keep them dry. Everyone is soaking; water drips from the brim of my baseball cap, from my shirt sleeves and pant legs and shoelaces and nose. I think of the sunny days we’ve had, trekking here, and search the sky for some sign of blue, of something bright. The minutes tick past, and then, finally, we are in, past the passport control, and I feel a surge of something good.

But there’s more waiting. Everyone’s huddled under a shelter just past the checkpoint, and you can’t even move through. I push and push; no one budges. Police come, blow their whistles, shove through the crowd, past the patient guides and the grouchy tourists and the crying children. Wet raincoats, wet hair, and the water that slides off the pine trees and down onto us. I won’t get there, I think, and just then there’s a break in the crowd, I spot a path, and push through.

In the end, my first glimpse of the Lost City isn’t the sweet moment I’d hoped for. I’m jostled and shoved as I look out at the ruins, which are partially shrouded in fog. I cannot see the famous peaks that surround the terraces and columns and crumbling bricks; the clouds move in and out, concealing the city from view. I climb up, past the tourists taking drippy pictures, past the tour guides with their umbrellas. I climb along the terraces, and finally the people dwindle. Now there is silence, and when I turn around again, I see my first glimpse, my first real view of the city. The clouds ebb just a little, and there it is, mystical in the fog, the ruins before me and beyond, those famous, jagged peaks.

And here you are again, all of a sudden. The faces come to me, and here we all stand in this ghostly silence. I think that I’ve never felt such an invisible presence; I feel as though I’m surrounded. My family, my friends, my lovers, other hikers: all of the ones who love the mountains like I do. It’s as if I can hear your breath; it’s as though I have brought you here. I don’t have pictures, or strands of your hair, or letters that you wrote to be scattered to the wind, but I have the memory of your footsteps on the trail. I have the touch of your hand in my mind, as you reach down to help me climb. It’s the smell of your body as you sweat, lightly, and it’s the way your skin glistens with rain. It’s all the peaks I have climbed with you; you’re here as my mountain family. 

Did you feel something then, when I stood over that city looking out? Did you glance up from your desk, from your garden, out the window, and think of me? Did you feel the white mist, the white wind? Did you see them in your dreams—those peaks like ghosts? You were there, did you know that? You were with me.



  1. Holly is going next month, but definitely not the hippy way. Most of the time I kind of wish I was tagging along and watching Kate have her adventure ... but not this time.

  2. OHH you owner of moments, you spirit maker. I'm leaned in to my computer, reading your words, and missing and loving you.