A Place Above The Clouds
Machu Picchu, Peru
I was nearing the end of my third decade on earth and feeling the first stirrings of old age, or at least the end of youth. I decided it was time to really start seeing the world. Sure, I had traveled to England, Mexico, Canada. I had crisscrossed the United States several times. But I wanted to go somewhere legendary – a distant island, an unexplored wilderness, a world wonder.
So, in the summer of my twenty-seventh year, I arranged to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Five months later, my friend, Johann, and I huddled in a tent amongst Inca ruins, exotic agave plants, and piles of fresh dung. Peeking out of the tent, we could see across the misty valley to the unbelievable emerald peaks, vertical faces broken with inaccessible hanging valleys and sheer cliffs. Cows from a nearby farm had climbed the steep flowered slopes and lowed far above us, seemingly ready to tumble down on our heads.
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The new year was only a few hours away. Rain pattered on the roof of our green cocoon. Inside, our bags piled around us, slightly wet. Johann sprawled on his sleeping bag, writing in his notebook. I had been friends with Johann for decades. He was the one I learned to explore with, in the brown corn fields and swamps near our homes on the edge of suburbia.
But all that seemed far away that night. We had lived long lives since then, changing and evolving. Over the past ten years, I hadn’t seen him more than two or three times a year. The chance to take this adventure together was a fortunate one.
The day before we had taken a van from Cusco and hiked to the first camp – impossible rocky heights, the scattered ruins of a mighty civilization, rich vales closing in as we tramped into the bush. We took a left up a canyon, while the Sacred Road of the Incas followed the larger river to the right past the terraced complex of Llactapata. We peered down at the crossroads from a small ruin on the edge of a cliff. Hikers lounged amongst the crumbling fortifications, settling in for the night. We moved on. And now here we were camping in another wayside fortress, protected from the howling wind by ancient walls.
“Happy New Year,” Johann said cheerily, switching off his flashlight.
“Auld Lang Syne,” I mumbled, before drifting off to sleep.
After breakfast on New Year’s Day I felt refreshed and ready. It didn’t last. I struggled up some easy rises as we continued towards the hamlet of Walla Pampas, my breath coming hard. I realized with horror that I was in terrible shape. My will was strong but my lungs were weak. Dread of the coming nightmare began, tempered by astonishment at the constant beauty that assaulted me. After a few short miles of silent straining up the empty brown trail, sounds emerged from ahead – the village.
Rustic Walla Pampas was the last permanent habitation before the other side of the mountains. We bought more water from the colorful inhabitants, who kept the bottles in stacks next to hay in a barn on the side of the trail. Roosters and dogs ignored us. A muddy fork in the path led past a river of snowmelt up to the snow-capped mountain of Salcantay, but it was closed due to avalanche.
As we tromped out, we could see the Warmi Eanusq’a, Dead Woman’s Pass, a green notch between the mighty peaks. It looked a long way away.
We trekked up steep hills through a forest of contorted unca trees. Our local Quechua guide, Edison, pointed out plants and rock features. Taking a break at a creek of singing water, I realized I was falling further behind at each stage. The hike up to Dead Woman’s Pass was the most ego-crushing climb I have ever experienced. Breathing laboriously, I cursed my cardio-vascular weakness. Johann did much better, following Edison with persistence. They stopped every so often and waited for me to catch up. The magnificent views back to the facing mountain’s five-thousand-foot vertical wall were welcomed in my pain.
I collapsed at about twelve thousand feet, where we stopped for lunch. While resting, I brushed my hand on a plant and was rewarded with a stinging sensation. Poison! It washed off, but the feel of needles poking through my skin remained. Great. My body received what food it could, and I polished off one of the water bottles. Then I popped four Advils. Johann seemed less affected, in much better condition.
After what seemed like only minutes, we had to carry on. I renamed the trail, Dead Eric’s Pass. We passed treeline. I put each foot in front of the other, gasping for oxygen, head throbbing. The trail rose gently here, but the going seemed just as hard. I trudged up the dirt road, staring down at the yellow tents, which receded further and further into the valley hundreds of feet below. Why couldn’t we have stopped there?
The urge to lie down on the side of the trail and let my consciousness slip away became unbearable. Anyone who has hiked long distances, or run a cross-country race, or performed hard physical labor for days on end knows this feeling – the death-urge. It is often this way. When we are in the midst of life, in the very thick of effort and action, death is closest to us. But this impulse was ignored. There was so much left to accomplish, so many places to see. Besides, Johann didn’t speak Spanish.
The abra, the pass, was only a few dozen yards away and I had to stop, panting. Johann and Edison watched, shouting for me to keep going. I struggled the last few feet and threw my pack on the dirt. All around us, the timeless mountains soared. We stopped to take pictures at the top, more to give a record of our passage than to capture the unspeakable beauty of our surroundings.
“Almost there,” Edison mentioned, heading downhill onto the flagstone road that began mysteriously at that lonely, impossible pass.
“Hits away!” Johann gave a silly grin and followed.
The thousand feet of steps down to the Pacay Mayu camp were almost bleachers. Again Johann and Edison outpaced me, but this time my lungs were not the problem. My legs wobbled and buckled. Finally, a sprawling camp appeared, dozens of hikers and tents. Our tent nestled snugly in a small grove of native trees.
I was ready for sleep as soon as my pack went down. I don’t know how I got through dinner that night. Campers from Germany, Argentina, and Britain swarmed around us, even though yesterday we saw only a few. Many were introducing themselves, meeting new friends with whom to conquer the trail. They were ghosts to me.
I took a last look around at the shadows of giant mountains rising overhead. The glimpses of alien equatorial sky peeking through the clouds made a night of stargazing tempting, but any thought except sleep was impossible.
The next day, our breakfast was accompanied by the sound of the nearby Pacay Mayu stream, which I could follow with my eyes for thousands of yards in an unbroken cascade back up the valley. I slurped coca tea, brain hungry for drugs. The native porters, wearing multi-colored shawls and wide brimmed hats, packed our things quickly. I spoke broken Spanish to our bearded cook, Hannibal, thanking him for another satisfying meal.
Once again, Edison simply motioned with his hand and started to walk off through the camp. We hurried to follow as a light rain began to fall. We started to ascend the Runtu Rakay abra, shortly entering the clouds themselves, where the rain transformed into a windy mist. Halfway up the pass, Johann explored the egg-shaped ancient observatory. I rested, hunkering on a boulder. When my friend’s astronomical inquires were satisfied, we continued past a murky lagoon and up the grey path. The backpack, light early that morning, felt like a bag of stones.
Visibility became nil. We reached the small Inca ruin of Sayaq Marka, but could barely see the walls around us, not to mention the supposed hundred mile views. After an interlude of poking through the misty walls with our mute guide, we kept snaking alongside the steep slopes. Rain began in earnest and I pulled my poncho tight around me. The silence of Edison became the norm, broken once in a while by a comment or “heigh-ho” from Johann.
Further down the ageless road, we passed through a tunnel, cut twelve meters through solid rock, with tiers and steps sculpted into the stone. This feat of engineering has stumped all attempts to explain it. Johann stuck with me that day, though he could easily have pulled ahead. The air plummeted into clouds on our left. An hour later, the trail crossed a causeway of ridgeline and spread out into a small peak.
We had come to a last hand of the mountains, outstretched towards Machu Picchu. Three sides dropped away into foggy nothing. The path dipped between two of the fingers and down into cloudbanks. But Edison took us up the muddy hill, where I realized our porters and Hannibal were setting up camp.
“Why are we stopping here? It’s only two o clock.”
“Ah, this is a very special place. Very special,” Edison assured us, breaking into a rare craggly grin.
Our boots sank a bit into the sticky slop as we picked our way to our lonesome tent, which the porters had set higher on the wet hill than the rest. I collapsed while Johann sat on a chair outside and wrote. An hour or two later, Edison called to us. In his usually silent manner he led us across the mud. A terraced ruin perched directly below us in a cleft between two prominences – Phuyupatamarca, the place above the clouds. The trail continued there the next day, down thousands of steps towards Macchu Picchu.
The clouds had cleared on the west side of the peak. We could see down into a tremendous river valley.
“The Urubamba,” said Edison, “goes past Machu Picchu, part of the Amazon.”
I took futile pictures. Clouds rolled around us. Windows periodically opened into clear leagues of sky. A helicopter made its way down the canyons thousands of feet below us.
“Taking the soft people to Machu Picchu,” Edison nodded.
After a while he led us back toward the tents, but proceeded past them up the hill towards the high point of this mountain shoulder. My eyes searched the cloud-soaked outcrop for a seat. Small flowers peeked from the long grass alongside the trail. They called to me like mythical lotus poppies. But if I had lain down on that enchanted grass, I might never have risen again.
The clouds kept clearing. Far to the west, the sun dipped towards a range of frosty snow-capped mountains. The air seemed to glow in the angled evening light.
Edison pointed to our left. “Ah, look.”
A rainbow had formed on the clouds behind us, which were creeping over the trail we had traversed a few hours before. “Amazing!” But then, more. “Look, our shadows!” I waved my arms. “Oh my god.” Our silhouettes were projected on the rainbow as the sun’s flat rays broke across the peak we stood on – God shadows on the multicolored clouds.
“I never really believed that was possible.” I stammered. “Stories, fiction.”
The clouds continued to part. A huge mountain appeared directly to the south, miles away across a gaping abyss.
“Wow!” I exclaimed.
“No, no. That is the small one.”
“Small?” I stared in wonder at the giant, white-crested peak.
“Yes. Big one, Salcantay, over there.” Edison pointed to the left of the clearing mountain. “But too many clouds.”
“Maybe it will show,” Johann said.
“Dinner in one hour.” Our taciturn guide shrugged and walked back down to the campsite, leaving Johann and I there alone on the peak.
We waited there for nature to reveal itself, not really anticipating success. The panorama continued to unfold languidly, more magnificent and primitive than any I had ever seen. White snakes climbed up the mountainsides, spilling through the passes. The atmosphere shifted yellow and red. We concentrated patiently on the sunset, holding our position on the edge of the milky void.
Then astonishment, revelation, reward. Glaciers, snowfields, a monstrous, immortal rock surged into view – cold and deathly might defying the dark purple of space. Salcantay granted us its kingly presence at last, mocking our expectations and fears. This final phenomenon nearly brought me to tears.
In less than three hours, I had been given more than could ever have been asked for. I was satisfied, complete. Never mind that more and perhaps greater moments were to come. A few hours later, I witnessed the constellation of Orion hanging upside down over moonglow on the Veronica Glacier. The next morning I stepped through the Gate of the Sun and saw what I had believed was the goal of the journey – the world wonder of Machu Picchu. And years of other wonders have followed, spectacles and miracles, fellowship and fulfillment, light and love.
I didn’t know that then. Things felt true with my oldest friend on that pure and magic mountaintop. I was tired, more tired than I had ever been. I had earned enough of the bittersweet beauty of life and would happily have ended everything right there.