these things all happened:
When the car pulls over, I’m almost frantic. The driver brakes hard around the hairpin turn (rather than accelerating like he’s been doing) and heeds my quiet but urgent request. There is no shoulder, just the tarmac, a strip of gravel, and a thousand foot drop. As I exit the car, I throw my hydration vest and the half-eaten orange onto the seat of the Corolla. My clammy body lurches to the strip of gravel and, sensing the wind and what is about to come, I drop to my knees. The refuse that hurls from my mouth contains the last litre of water I consumed, and the last energy bar along with some nuts and the half orange I just choked down as we sped down the mountain from Lares. The last time I vomited like this was at km 50 of the Haliburton Forest 50 miler – great race – my best to date actually. This time is different. After starting out in the wrong direction, losing the path twice, slogging up over 1700m of vertical (from 3000 to 4700+), my training partner Julien and I have to throw in the towel at Quishuarani, a mere 25kms into our proposed 55km project of running the Lares trek loop. Through mountains of black and ice, and every shade of green, past stout brown women weaving at the base of a magnificent cirque, past potato fields and herds of sheep and llamas. We had stopped endlessly (probably too often) to catch our breaths for the views, and to take photo evidence. But our slow progress meant that with 6 hours of daylight left, we had only gone over one of the three big passes, and I wasn’t taking food or water on very well (looking a bit ghostly). We took our one opportunity to get on the road, and we ran the 10 or so kilometres down to Lares. I’ll be back.
* * *
I have become unphased by beggars in the street: the mumbling, the baked skin, the jangling tin of 10 and 20 cent coins, the wild eyes, the stories I tell myself about them. But I gasp if they bare their feet from beneath their twisting limbs, their torn garments. Those feet, bloated, blackened, caked in dirt or blood, were the last thing to come into the world, but they are the first to be beaten. I can’t watch.
* * *
According to Scott, there was an eclipse on Sunday. Who knows? According to just about everybody there’s a weird energy here. I’ve never once felt it. Except maybe last night. The sun hovered over the southern slums, stacked brick upon brick to the antennas at the top of one green mountain, and then all the others. (You can’t sense the chaos from all the way on the other side of the valley. It’s a quiet chaos, almost calming as you walk up the steep concrete steps…the steps are everywhere, and so are the dirty backyards filled with garbage and livestock and red-brown earth.)
The yellow light hung there in the sky, painting the silver rim of moon into a blue corner. I went up the switchback road, plodding into the grey horizon with its jagged edge. By the time I arrived at the Devil’s Balcony to descend the rough and thorny trail, everything was dusty with the recently set sun. I didn’t think to look up, but the moon would have been there, like a ring glinting in the sun. My legs felt unnervingly fresh for being on my second run of the day, and cruising at a good pace at nearly 4000m above sea level. Energy. Grizzly and grey but almost buzzing, the air was granular and the soft ground – once I got to it – was muddy and black as ink. I could still feel the horseshoe prints though – I could sense them.
Jenny says you shouldn’t go up there after sunset because you could get robbed. I’ve only heard third-hand cases…many of them…but all third-hand. I was aware of this fact though, almost twitchy with the buzz of the pixels as I silently started up the last climb on an old Inca road.
I heard it then. The beating of a drum and the hoot of a whistle. Just two instruments moving in the darkening sky above me. I was walking by this point, and could see three huddled figures silhouetted against what was still left of light in the sky. As I approached, they stopped. The woman was wrapped in a blanket, the two men hunched over, one adjusting his collared shirt and woolen vest while the other held himself as he urinated into the darkness. Stout, brown andean folk. The woman looked at me sharply and said, “where are you going young man?” I replied that I was going to get to the top and make my way back. The man with the sweater-vest and fedora looked at me urgently, the whites of his eyes bulging into the quickly falling night. I looked from one to the other: they all had purple flour smeared on their faces, and the man urinating into the thorny edge of the path had colourful pink and white and purple strips of paper round his neck. They were all drunk. The man in the sweater vest said, “I used to go up there as a young man,” pointing to where they had just come from. “I’d go aaaaall the way up, no problem. But you have to be careful. Things happen now.” Looking into their buggy eyes, I assured them all I was really just going a few hundred metres further before turning around. “Ok, ok,” said the woman, “but there are people out.”
The man who had had his back to me turned to shake my hand. He held it while he watched me through his dark and swimming eyes. “Sometimes things just happen. Not just out there, but here too. And we just can’t help it! There’s nothing we can do. It’s out of our control.”
I bid them all adieu, shook their clammy hands, watched their purple faces recede back into the night as I started up into the darkness again with the renewed beat of a drum and the flitting of a whistle. I don’t believe in premonitions, as I said. Or this energy. But as I floated down through the mess of rocks and the steep stone steps to where the street is lit with yellow light, where the dogs scavenge for garbage at the hairpin turn all day and every day, I felt those bugging eyes – dark and white against the night. They were from another time. A time when this buzzing night and these pixels under the sliver moon – when they meant something.
* * *
Three figures appear through the mist. They just appear. One moment it is green and black and the sitting cloud, and the next there are three figures. Within seconds, you can hear their breathing. There’re following the stones laid at the border of this old road. They are going somewhere. The road gets to the buttress cliff. They walk between the stones and amongst the cacti and low bushes. Across the Apurimac canyon mist is clearing, the clouds begin to reveal the edge of ridges, crests and peaks plummeting down and back into the thick ocean of fog below. Except for the green under their feet, everything is still black and white. You watch them approach what looks like an impassable rock face. Step by step, foot by foot. The two tall men are wearing shoes. They are the colour of canyon cloud. The man in front is wearing sandals. He displaces nothing but moves through the mist like knife through flesh.
After the river that comes down from the plateau where the alpacas graze, after hours that near them to the place of sacrifice, to the horns that overlook a kingdom of layer upon layer of mountains, after black and orange cliffs run the canyon like a ribbon under more rocks, more stones – after it all – and as the sun gets high above the canyon and into the blue sky, the short man starts to run.
His sandaled feet hardly touch the ground. They float his body up the trail as it reaches for the hot sky, up through the green and the river that flows down the trail. They are not afraid. You watch them, feel them graze the rocks and the dust that lays dry for thousands of years under the protection of cliffs. The two men behind, the two tall ones are burning in their chests. Their lungs have lost the elasticity they should have and their tongues are out of their faces like dogs. It’s the only thing you can hear from the ribbon cliffs all the gaping way down to the canyon floor (the invisible canyon floor).
At the top, sitting on Inca walls where life was cut through without a sound, between the horns of stone, the top of steps laid hundreds of years ago. You can watch them as they drink cloudy chicha from a plastic bottle, as they eat grains of yellow choclo. The sun is out, but there is no sound.
* * *
I lent my hat to a stranger. He lost it. On a night I expected the hard breathing, the skin of a woman, this man knocked, entered, and, through his round glasses and wisps of black hair falling to his shoulders, he opened his chest. He opened a plastic bag, he stuttered, he showed his love. In the bag was a bottle of wine from Mendoza, a hat knit by some old woman, and a CD of afro-peruvian music. He cared. A gift greater than gasps.
* * *
The long run starts with a relaxed 10km. Relaxed is not a physical state, it is a state of mind. I have water strapped to every part of me, I have a jacket bundled into the pocket of my vest, I have nuts and dried fruit, a soggy piece of french toast. I have hydration salts – I have water purification tablets, gloves, a cap and buff for the cold. (The feeling that I am prepared for everything).
I go up through fields, slipping in horse manure, rocks tearing at my shoes and thorns at my bare skin. When I get above the ruins and the dogs and the tern that dive-bombs me every time – when I have a solid birds eye view of the city below, I stop. Walking peacefully toward the V, the steep red trail in the green valley, up and up to the pass, there is a sun in the sky and across the valley I can see another trail, yet unexplored. When I arrive at the pass breathing hard, my legs are loose, they are eager to carry me, to turn over more quickly on the firm ground, around the grassy corner and into a ribbed and gasping canyon. The movement of my body is unconcerned, unconscious, dialed out – dialed in.
My hard kilometers start around the sweeping corner of the second pass, the narrow dirt path that feels downhill both ways. I’m cruising, I’m feeling as alive as it is possible to feel. Powerful. At the top, at 4300m I breathe hard, lactic acid surging through my legs. The thin air allows it to get everywhere, even my arms and my lungs burn. It is almost like sobbing. The sweeping peaks that surround me and the memory of mist without a breath of wind mitigate the suffering. There is a lake and endless cones, with stone ribs bent over ridges, lines against the sky like giant teeth, like the smooth lines of a naked body. The hard kilometers continue. I am pushing myself through the pain, breathing at the edge of thin air. As I turn down the valley, Cusco is a white dot in the distance far below and everything is dark. With the black clouds comes booming in the sky.
A new kind of urgency.
I put on my gloves and jacket and make the next kilometers about outrunning the threat of lightning, the boisterous and flexing storm. I had never thought of being out in the bald mountains, on a ridge, in the lightning. But as the dark settles in above me, it seems that’s what’s happened. I run. My legs take me through the sounds, they take me through the silence, thank god!
The final 8k descending from the last pass the storm is gone and I feel the damage. The Inca ruins above the city are covered in a layer of white. The trails have swollen with water, they have become rivers. At some points I am on the edge of control, my feet churning over through the mud and tumbling rocks, through the clashing grains of ice. I crash through the coolness of bushes laden with water, overhanging the trail. Other times I am up to my ankles in frigid water. It is cold and refreshing to see a landscape covered in white, even just for a moment. I arrive home smiling.