I wonder what the classic poets and authors of the Age of Enlightenment would have produced if they could have walked through the Peruvian Andes... in any given day, I climb and descend thousands of meters of elevation, mostly along the Inca Trail, but sometimes along the dirt roads where mines have cut through the ancient trail or it's otherwise obscure. Along the bare rock face of one enormous mountain, I counted 27 sharp switchback turns for the unpaved 'highway' on the opposite side of the valley; I prefer climbing on foot than driving that oversized zigzag. At the top, over 4,000 meters, the temperature is cool and the air brisk; at the bottom, over the roar of a rocky, muddy river, less than 2,000 meters, the humidity is oppressive and temperature soaring; somewhere in the middle, an horizon of clouds separate the extremes. Plodding up or down on foot, there's little time for changing clothing layers - hot below, cold above. It's a workout, and a great one, too! What would Dante have written? It's like traveling the seven levels of the heavens, with villages at every horizon.
Two slightly untoward and unprecedented events have passed since the last update. One day, I failed to reign supreme in the routine battles with dogs. One got me in the ham. I was high up along the Inca Trail, populated by isolated clusters of two or three rock huts. The trail is so easily obscured in the rocky country above the treeline, that I go pretty far out of my way any time I see a person to talk with and confirm direction. In this way, I approached a hut, smoke rising through the grass roof, and a big dog barked as usual. Two small children were outside playing in the mud, so the dog was doing its job. I was shouting hellos to the hut occupants, but before an adult could come out, a second big dog came running from behind the hut - and ignoring all rules of battle - noisily passed under my waving trekking poles and grabbed me full force on the back of my thigh. What force it had! Such strength! I whacked it across the ribs and it released its grip just as the mother of the kids came running, spoon in hand. The dogs ran off, the kids cried, the young woman had no idea what to do. I dropped my pants expecting gushing blood, but though red and quickly swelling, there was thankfully no penetraton through the skin. The woman said the dog was old and had lost most of its teeth. A nasty bruise lasted a good long week and the soreness did little to interupt my gait, so all's well that ends well. I can't blame the dog for doing its duty. I hope it doesn't happen again - better to get bitten by no dog than even a toothless one.
The second unplanned event happened because of bad advice. What can be done? A priest told me it would take 10 hours to walk from one small town to another. The maps I have are unreliable at best, so I always ask. Even though the distance on the map looked a lot longer than a 10-hour walk, I liked what the priest said, so I believed him. The Inca Trail led upwards from the village through another, and another, but was then in high country (4,400 meters) across a broad wet valley, marshy with lakes and barren of trees. I wasn't sure what pass led to the inhabited valley on the other side of the mountains and what passes led to more unoccupied isolated valleys. Beautiful country, nonetheless. Knowing I would be alone for most of the day, I made of point of asking everyone I saw in the morning to clarify directions. Everyone seemed to indicate the distance to the next town was very great, but no one offered a time estimate. After 12 hour of steady uphill walking in the rain, I came to the end of the path - it just ended in the grass. Getting dark, I eliminated the idea of continuing without a path. The last people I saw were hours and hours below. I came to the end of a day without a village or even a house for the first time, and in a cold rain. Poohey. A few kilometers below, I remembered having passed two abandoned stone huts. I made it to them just as the last glow of rainy twilight faded. Shelter, fairly dry, musky smelling, but adequate for the situation, even comfortable. In inspecting my home for the night, I shone the flashlight across the inside of the framework of the grass roof and startled a bat hanging upsidedown from the main beam. Uck - not a fan of bats, though I appreciate their role in the foodchain, I'm offput by the erratic flying, which it began immediately. Quick inventory of the cupboard which is unavoidably my backpack - can of tuna, small pot of beef, tube of sweetened condensed evaporated milk, instant coffee, tea bags, saltines, a pear, an apple, and an orange. I wouldn't starve. I attempted to make a fire from wood from the little doorframe, and succeeded enough to heat water for a cup of coffee, but the funny thing about altitude, low oxygen makes for a poor fire, blue flames, in fact, and not very hot. I gave up after the cup of coffee, changed into dry clothes, made a bed of some of the soggy grass from the interior of the roof and passed a rather uncomfortable night with my unwelcomed bedfellow flying the length of the little hut erratically until dawn. (Just as the flame of the last candle flickered out, the thought popped into my head - don't vampire bats live in South America?) In the morning, rewarded with a glorious view, thick white clouds below, of the reflection of a thickly snow-covered mountain across the lake. I retreated to the last family of shepherds I had seen, got coffee, hot food, and instruction on how to find the footpath to the right pass and how to find the elusive village that was 18 hours distant by foot, not 10. The priest must have gone on horseback. Another pilgrim adventure.
Still headed toward Ecuador... another week? 10 days? Less sparsely populated, so hard to gage. I'll try not to let so much time pass before the next update. Thanks for the comments!