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“You picked a bad day, amigo.”
A fat arm reaches forward on the dirty, white towel atop the dashboard. He wipes the foggy windshield creating a small, drippy circle in the condensation. As he speaks, two balls of fat rise on the top of his cheekbones like dotted i’s and a hopeless smile sneaks out of his mouth.
“Just get over that mountain peak there and the snow should stop. It’s all downhill once you’re over that. Now, if the snow’s too heavy to pass, head back to the road and hitch a ride into town. Okay? The Andes Mountains are not something you want to go up against.”
Looking through the wet circle formed like a rabbit hole on the windshield, there’s no escape from the white. The snow howls against the van and everything in sight is covered with stop-sign frost.
“I can’t thank you enough for the ride, Diego.”
“Ya, and now I’m the one responsible for letting you do this.” He throws the towel back on the dashboard. “Just make it over the peak.”
I leave the van and cross the icy road putting my rucksack on my back as the wind’s hail bites my face.
Bolivia. A visceral danger twists the air. On the bus ride crossing the border, I fainted in the bathroom adjusting to the altitude sickness: the nausea, the headaches, the quick, short breaths.
A dim red hut hides in the white, ambiguous and distant.
It’s a strange way to meet a Couchsurfing host, but after I message him about my plans to do the Choro trek, he said he’d meet me here with girlfriend to take on the four day trek together.
The mountains cascade silver tops backwards in the clouds. The earth, covered in a white coat, heaves its ice club, and I tuck my mouth down into my snow jacket’s neck protector moving toward the dubious red.
Two blurred masses – one bright blue, the other black – move from far away voices.
“We got to hurry up and move past this mountain before the trail gets worse! Once we’re over it, we can introduce ourselves!”
I shout back through the snow, but it’s shredded away in the whisking winds as the blurs move.
The two colored blotches snap in and out of sight through the opaque mass of sheep-cloth pale white cloud as we follow the path winding up the mountain, and the wind yells pushing us sideways. Breathing miniature panic attacks out into the snow, I’m scared of the blankness; the soft white flakes obliterating my mental map of the mountain path, flashing disaster scenarios past my mind’s eye like movie trailers.
The black blur beside the blue lowers its face mask revealing bruise-colored lips and shiny teeth. Her screaming voice fades in and out of the winds, “Only a few minutes more! Just over that pile of placed rocks!”
The snow speaks again as a hint of bright blue blurs in the slanted sleet dropping like white thrown sand, “No turning back now!”
I feel the piled rocks, the path straightens, and the winds lessen as I pull up over the mountaintop.
The snow is gentle, the sheep-cloth clouds break, and the sun glistens through revealing a pure blue sky as beautiful and perfect as a highschool crush. All is below me brilliant, gorgeous, and clear: snowcapped mountains continuing forever in white and grey tops, the aluminum rock path winding its way down into the valley where white patches of snow rest low on the hills, the mountain bottoms dressed brown in dead grass pushing their way against the endless trail, and a creek sneaking away beyond distant curves.
“You’ve made it!”
The shoulders of a dark blue jacket sway, extending a gloved hand that shakes my own. Two small, brown dots peep through enormous broad glasses; a rainbow beanie perches on the edges of their thick rims; a thin beard runs along the bottom of his jaw weaving small brown hairs around one another.
“I’m Victor! Welcome to 5,000 meters of great Bolivian elevation.”
My breath drags, “Hiya, I’m David.”
“David, I’m Clementine!”
From around the corner, another hand extends itself out from a heavy, black jacket and thin black tights. Chestnut freckles scatter below her eyes.
“Would you like some peanut butter?” As she speaks, she’s aged by the wrinkles on her cheeks, but her eyes stay young, beautifully young above the freckles, “We even got some apples you can spread it on.”
“Here ya’ go.”
Victor hands each of us a slice of green apple covered in peanut butter.
“To new friends, Couchsurfing, and trekking!”
Back over the valley, mist hugs the mountains creeping over them like the sky’s foggy breath. We finish the pieces of cut apple and continue down the trail, descending the mountain’s switchbacks away from the cold.
“Amazing!” Victor’s negligible eyes stare wonderously through telescope glasses at the jagged mountains breaking down into the valley. “To think of all the generations that have used this trail, stretching hundreds of years back in time, to the Incas! And now us here too, watching the same mountains and river on the same trail!”
“No signs of the modern world here!” Clementine responds smiling at Victor. Old soul wrinkles sprout on her cheeks. Her fresh eyes burgeoning with delight.
“I hear that in the states companies have already started to remove old telephone lines. Is that right, David?”
“I’m not sure, but I wouldn’t see why not.”
“Ya, apparently that’s going wireless now. They’re saying in about twenty years all those metal electrical towers and long lines of black wires will be gone – completely obsolete. Imagine, no more hills traversed with those lines of a human imprint, just the mountains and valleys how they’ve always been for everyone before us, for the Incas, for the millions of others, millions of years before you or I.”
Down in the valley, the snow dissipates and the evaporating mist reveals a bright blonde sun tinting the austere stretch of grass champagne. The conversation fades, and soon Victor and Clementine are yards ahead of me with their backpacks bobbing behind them like weaving cupid angels as they hug and kissed down the road. They twist away from my view following the creekside trail.
Quiet thoughts stream into my mind as the hills reel round each other, escaping the mountains high above. I think through the night’s simple joys: the resting of tired legs, afternoon tea, a big plate of spaghetti, the night sky. I hold mock interviews with myself. Time passes and I wonder.
The sun lowers, breathing a pink and purple breath, waving across the sky like a wooden roller coaster. Small pockets of cloud reflected the color and hang in the sky like bar room lights.
I hurry to Victor and Clementine, and we pick up our pace as the sun disappears behind the dark, rough mountains.
As the trail blackens blending with the non-trail, a faint light illuminates a grey straw hut as a timid, calm voice wobbles in the air.
A short woman’s head pops at the hut’s edge. A single braid of long, black hair falls to her waist. In her arms, a child in a prism-colored cloth whimpers hushed gurgling sounds. The pink, and blues, and greens of the cloth cascade down her shoulder in their mixed pattern design.
Clementine and the woman speak in Spanish.
She walks us to the back of her hut and opens an arm out to the field of grass before the creek. Bright white teeth smile out from her brown skin and long, bubbled chin.
I light a small fire ahead of my tent, change out of my dirty clothes, and lay out my sleeping bag pushing aside my belongings.
Victor’s head pokes out from his tent, “Hey we’re having an early night tonight, but we’ll see ya tomorrow morning. The sun should wake us up, and we’ll head out early!”
“Sounds good to me.”
I push my sweatshirt and unused clothes into my sleeping bag cover and place my head down on the new, thin pillow.
Outside the tent, the soft voice of the Bolivian mother sings sweet, melodious songs to her newborn. Warm, loved, and comfortable in the bright color wheel of his blanket, the child sleeps with the Spanish melodies wrapped tight in his mother’s arms, tired of another day staring curiously into her eyes.
I open the flap of my tent and watch the Andes Mountains as the tender melody flows in the ancient air out over the Inca trail, till it rises up over the mountains and disappears to the stars.
I was alone, but didn’t feel so. I was far from home, but didn’t feel so.
David Hargreaves is homeless. He currently spends his time travelling South America asking strangers online if he can sleep on their couches. He writes, plays music, wanders, gets groceries, drinks, sleeps, and wakes up to do it again, hopefully in a different place, hopefully on a different couch, hoping a good story comes from it. You can tell him what you think at firstname.lastname@example.org.