SHORTLY BEFORE MY TREK through the Peruvian Andes, my friend Cassandra announced that the Inca empire’s cape-clad citizens are still floating around the ruins of Machu Picchu. “Actually,” she deadpanned, “they aren’t floating, but vibrating invisibly.” The possibility that I might encounter vibrating Incas gave me pause. I had always thought the Incas were killed off by the conquistadores midway through the sixteenth century, but Cassandra assured me they were still very much alive and had long ago reached a level of spiritual enlightenment so advanced that they could no longer be seen. “You’ll find them while hiking on the Inca Trail,” she told me with just a hint of a smile. “Or else, they’ll find you.”
By way of explanation, she gave me a copy of The Celestine Prophecy, which I read on the flight to Peru. (Three rows up, an older woman wearing enough silver loops in her left ear to hang a miniature shower curtain was also reading the book.) I had recognized the title from the New York Times best-seller list, where its more than three million readers have kept it for the past two years. The book’s simple prose makes The Bridges of Madison County look like something translated from Russian, but the spirituality it espouses—based on Ralph Waldo Emerson’s pantheism and a kind of ontological twelve-step program—is clever and catchy. And its final chapter echoes Cassandra’s assertion that the ancient Incas didn’t die out, but rather achieved the final transcendental “insight” and became, literally, a spiritual culture.
I spent two lazy days before my hike in the warm thin air of the ancient Inca capital of Cuzco (the Earth’s Navel, in the Quechua language), trying to acclimate my body to the 11,000-foot elevation in the endless chocolate-brown Andes, doing little more after exchanging my dollars for soles than drink coffee in the cafes surrounding the central Plaza de Armas and debate whether I should try the Andean delicacy of roasted guinea pig. The city has a colorful crafts market held every night under the arches around the plaza and a steady flow of young bohemian-looking backpackers with tanned faces, bloodshot eyes, and heady tales about their adventures on the trail. The locals are friendly, sometimes flirtatious, quick to make eye contact and smile. Many still wear traditional red-and-green wool ponchos and Bolivian bowlers. Occasionally an old woman will pass by with a shaggy llama in tow or a young boy will climb onto a rooftop to play his antaras, the Andean Pan pipes made from bamboo. With the rusty Spanish learned during my undergraduate days in the early eighties at the University of Texas at Austin, I managed several halting but enjoyable conversations with Peruvian soldiers, shopkeepers, and clusters of uniformed schoolchildren, all of whom wanted to know about Texas and if I was planning to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu (Old Peak), the famous Lost City of the Incas.
A number of tour agencies with offices on the Plaza de Armas offer porters and guides for river-running tours down the Urubamba or for the twenty-mile hike through the Andes to the Lost City, which poet Pablo Neruda called “Mother of stone and sperm of condors.” Although I was a little nervous about thieves, the altitude (the first pass on the trail reaches a height of almost 14,000 feet), the cold nights (after the sun sets, temperatures often plummet below freezing), giardia, broken bones, getting lost, and general loneliness, I resolved on the eve of my departure to venture to Machu Picchu on my own.
Saturday morning, well before sunrise—with roosters crowing in the hills—I boarded the local train from Cuzco to the Km 88 station, a beautiful but bruising three-hour ride over the mountains to the official start of the Inca Trail. I was unnerved a bit by the fact that I was the only person getting off the train at Km 88 (presumably everyone else was riding to Machu Picchu), but I quickly focused on the task at hand. Boots tightened, baseball cap donned, forty-pound backpack secured, I crossed high above the white water of the Urubamba on a swaying suspension bridge, paid the $14 trail fee (which included entry to Machu Picchu), registered with the trail guards, checked my map and compass, and headed east through a eucalyptus grove, past a small Inca ruin called Llactapata (Town on Hillside). Because of the heat—by midafternoon it was pushing 90 degrees—and the steep ascent of the rocky trail, it was difficult to appreciate the beauty of the surrounding countryside, which included one or two small farming villages with terraced crops and a tremendous view of the 19,000-foot snowcapped Veronica Mountain. The trail followed the Cusichaca River for several miles before turning west into much more isolated territory. The warm breeze kicked up dust and the smell of long-gone packhorses. Condors circled overhead. I pitched my tent an hour before dark at a fork in the smaller Llullucha River, boiled some river water for soup, and was soon flat on my back under a tree, exhausted, sunburned, scribbling a few lines in my journal by flashlight.
I don’t know if it was because of the altitude or my profound weariness, but as soon as I turned off the light and stared up through the branches at the star-filled sky, something spooky occurred. Alone at night, out in the empty mountains, I gradually, almost eerily, began to feel with my skin and breathing that mysterious thing within the tree that causes its limbs and leaves to reach for the sun—the tree’s soul, or life force, or whatever it is that with the tree’s death goes elsewhere. Although the sensation was weird, it was pleasant: I felt that I was not alone. Perhaps the experience was less a result of some rarefied spiritual communion than a by-product of reading The Celestine Prophecy. Either way, it made sleeping by myself in the mountains that first night much easier.
Midway through the second morning on the trail, I met up