Inca Trail, 2011
The texture of the language was strange on our tongues, rolling consonants and too many vowels. Quechua. So different from the Spanish we floundered over for months in advance. We heard so many voices and so few words. Children tugged at our shirts, palms up for soles. We quickly learned the repercussions of generosity.
The market steamed in December sun, an assault of smells to make our Midwestern noses balk. Meat dripped from hooks, produce was tested under avocado-skin hands, color fell in sashes. My broken bartering bought us alpaca layers; we knew the trail would be cold at night.
The bus took us through towns that had no use for such luxurious travel. Dogs sat on corrugated tin roofs; they scrounged through street garbage and panted against cardboard walls. Flashes of white teeth announced endless children, come out to wave at our strange skin. They smiled at us. They smiled at each other.
They made me wonder: what does it really take to be happy?
We camped at fourteen thousand feet, breathing in frozen air and reaching up on our tiptoes to touch the stars. We’d hiked through misty apparitions of Inca legends and come out dew-dropped with mystery. Our muscles had strained and our lungs had burned, but we made it to the top of the world. We marveled at our own smallness. We marveled at the rock formation that gave this site its name.
Dead Woman’s Pass.
It was fitting. She looked just like a dead woman lying on her back. That night, we crowded into the gathering tent in our long johns and alpaca socks and shirts made of heat-retaining, perspiration-wicking fabric and ate one of fourteen variations of potato. Our unwashed clothes stank of hard work and damp.
Ageless constellations adorned that widow’s peak of a cliff, perched among clouds that looked so solid we might have walked out over them and into another world. When we walked to our tents, we shone our flashlights uselessly into a night that had never seen electricity. Vast darkness made us believe in a universal truth. Isolation made us hope for one.
Five hundred and fifty years looked much younger through the Sun Gate than it felt under our fingers. The drizzle of fog swirled into phantoms, warrior faces vanquished by smallpox. The stones we treaded were carved from the earth itself. Our ears echoed the lack of alpaca footsteps—our constant companions up until this point. The pounding multitude of human feet buzzed irritably.
We were there, our destination, the heart of Incan civilization. But I couldn’t help but feel we had lost something along the way. I had felt gods in the mountain stars, spirits in the hidden eyes of the rainforest. When I had walked those sturdy stones alone, I felt the extinct world wrap around my bones.
Maybe that world was still captured in the stone building. Maybe it too was simply eroding under foreign fingers.
We lost more than our sense of direction in that maze of crumbling stone. We lost our sense of self, our sense of placement in a world that never imaged us. What did our enemy skin mean all these centuries later? If a scout stood on Torreón and looked below, would he even recognize his beloved kingdom?
Were we preserving history? Or conquest?
It had been five days since we’d slept in a bed or taken a shower. The hot water ran out after only half of our thirteen had bathed, but we didn’t care. There were bigger things in the world than hot water.
We wandered the noisy streets, bewildered that anything could be so loud, that the sky could look so small. We became re-accustomed to colors besides green.
At night, we danced.
Flashes of yellow adorned New Year’s Eve, an offering of gold, of corn, of the sun. Cusqueña poured, and locals took our hands in a flurry of salsa steps. We tried and failed to keep up. We learned that laughter breaches language. Rain was a blessing, not an inconvenience, so we let it drip from our noses onto the plaza stones below.
The celebration was not of bangles and gemstones and limousines.
The topography of the world was strange from the plane. Mountains sprawled through degree of color; lakes were mere paint blots of blue. The technology grated against the short-term life we had adopted.
We had traversed twenty-six miles and one hundred years, shadowed the footsteps of Spanish soldiers as they carried their advanced weaponry and technology across bridges carved out of mountainsides. Did the strength of those architectural feats impress them? Did they ever doubt their self-assessed superiority?
Do we ever doubt ours?
At forty thousand feet, we were closer to the beloved Inti than those who worshipped him ever were. Of course, we know now that the sun is no deity, is nothing more than a roiling compression of plasma. The abundance of what we know! In four hundred and fifty years, we have charted advancements that surpass what the great Inca Empire could ever have imagined. We have gained much. So much, that we often forget to ask ourselves what we have lost.
Savannah Brooks is a graduate student pursuing her MFA in creative writing at Hamline University. She works as the assistant fiction editor of Hamline’s national literary annual, the Water~Stone Review and the editor-in-chief of Hamline’s graduate literary annual, rock, paper, scissors. She lives in the most beautiful literary capital: Saint Paul, Minnesota.