Photos by Robert Higdon
February 19, 2018
My father was walking home from a cemetery with a friend who had just buried his fourth wife. Neither of the men was yet 45 years old. The widower looked at my father and said wistfully, “Bob, I guess I’m not supposed to be married.” I’m beginning to feel that way about riding to the end of the line in South America.
In the last week the vision of my right eye has deteriorated to the point that when the group sets out tomorrow morning, I will be riding in the chase van and my bike will be on the trailer. It is unclear, so to speak, what is causing the problem. There are at least three things that could be at issue, or it could be something else. If it’s an infectious process, I should be able to handle that. It all stems from a ratty, incurable skin condition known as rosacea, something I inherited from my father, the dermatologist. Every now and then he reaches out from the grave, taps me on the shoulder, and reminds me who is in charge. The other conditions are potentially fly-home-early trip-enders. This is an off-day in Cusco and I’m spending it waiting to hear from my cornea specialist in Maryland.
I realized something was seriously amiss when I was unable to keep up with anyone through the fog leaving Nazca and again in the fog and rain on the ride into Cusco. The fog notwithstanding, I simply couldn’t see, and when you can’t see where you’re going on a motorcycle, you really do need to reassess things. The looming decision point seems to be Santiago, Chile. We’ll reach there on March 7. If I can’t ride by then, that’s the best place to send the bike back to the U.S., and probably me along with it. There are a lot of unknowns here. That will change in time. It always does.
We went to Machu Picchu yesterday, leaving the hotel at 0530 on a jitney bus for a five-minute ride to the bus station. There we boarded a grander bus for a two-hour ride to the town of Ollantaytambo. Then it was a train for 90 minutes to Aguas Calientes, where you take a final bus up a harrowing series of switchbacks to the entrance to the park. It takes 25 minutes, but seems endless. I couldn’t look out the window.
This is the rainy season, but we were blessed. Though it had rained continually through the night before, we arrived in the late morning to sunshine and a few high clouds. For the out-of-shape members of the brigade, it is a punishing hike up to the overlook of the excavated area, but we made it. Not everyone did. Paramedics were preparing to carry a woman who’d collapsed near the top back to the entrance on a stretcher.
This site would be a test for me as to how travel-jaded I’ve become. As I came up over the last ridge, gasping for breath, I saw the entire panorama laid out before and below me. I just smiled. It was magnificent. I aimed the camera here and there robotically, but there’s no lens that can do justice to places like this or Fuji or the Dolomite Alps. Nope, you commit these scenes to read-only memory in your brain and hope you don’t have a power outage.
Javier, our hyperactive guide, was far too excited for these kinds of altitudes. Machine-gunning facts at 500 rounds/minute, he stated that this is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Well, maybe if he means the Incan world, but the site wasn’t seen by anyone outside the tribe until 1911 when an American archaeologist, Hiram Bingham, hired some locals to show him where it was. And this wasn’t even the place he was looking for.
The park, meant to hold one thousand residents, receives more than one million visitors each year. Javier points to some lichen on a rock. “Someone will take an instrument and remove this. We want this park to remain pristine forever. Touching the rock changes it.” Though he seems genuinely in earnest, the futility of such an undertaking is obvious. You’ll stop the erosion of the rain, the lightning strikes, and the slow, silent work of the lichen? Do what you will, one day these majestic mountains will all be just grains of sand. Ask Ozymandias.
Still, a faint heart never filled a flush. A Swedish engineering firm has devised a plan to remove people from the park altogether, circling visitors around in some Andean Magic Mountain ride. That’s one approach to reducing tourism, I suppose. But if Peru believes it can find a way to put time in a bottle, they’ll be the first people ever to have done so.
I talked to my cornea man a few minutes ago. He thinks it may be just acute dryness. I’m already taking drops for that twice a day. He told me to double up. Pray for improvement. As of tomorrow, I begin an indefinite sentence in the van.