Somewhere along the way my legs transformed themselves into twisted roots, anchoring themselves to the edge of the trail in order to live out their lives in tranquility amongst the silence of the landscape, the whispering of the mountain wind, the power of the peaks, the cows. Despite the fact that I would have well enjoyed spending the remainder of my life in that magnificent wilderness, my determination refused to be subdued so easily, so I uprooted my feet, each step requiring a deliberate and conscious push forward.
Our crew had become separated long ago and as I came closer and closer to my destination I began to wonder whether or not the person carrying lunch would catch up with me – quite the frightening thought at 15,000 feet. Each drop of water left in my bottle became a cherished resource; every nibble of a cracker was a blessing that replenished the fuel of my body. I hiked alongside a few Americans who volunteered with an NGO called Krochet Kids in the neighborhood of Chorrillos, Lima. We shared stories of our lives back home, our pasts, our aspirations, any conversation to occupy the brain and keep it from realizing that my body was nearing its physical limit.
At long last, after what seemed to be an eternity of uphill, we made it. If it had not been for the adrenaline rush sparked by the excitement of such an achievement, I’m fairly sure I would have fallen face first into that icy blue water out of sheer exhaustion. I rushed over to where the lagoon emptied out into a small stream and filled my water bottle to the top with the crystal clear life-giving miracle matter. I returned to the edge of the lagoon, sat down and hoped for the clouds to part so that I could get a glimpse at the towering peaks that surrounded us. I snapped a few photos, despite knowing that no photograph could ever give proper justice to the beauty of the area (I needed proof that I made it to the top after all) and rejoiced as my friend Catherine came bouncing along the trail with all the sandwich supplies in her pack.
After a gratifying lunch and a few more obligatory photos, we began the descent back to the bus. A couple hours later we were on the bumpy road back to our hotel in Huaraz, followed by supper, preparations for the following day, and some well-deserved rest.
The next morning we awoke at 6am in order to set out on the second great trek of Semana Santa – Laguna Churup. We were a smaller gang of three this time after the other half of our group had opted to choose the less strenuous yet just as exhilarating activity of bridge jumping instead of another mountain trek for the day.
We bumbled into town and met our guide for the day, an older Peruvian caballero curiously enough also named Oscar (are they just fooling with us gringos?). After a short ride in his taxi climbing more rocky roads leading out of town, we parked alongside a weathered fencerow and began climbing old stone staircases, hopping on small footpaths that weaved between old farmhouses and petite fields of corn.
Eventually, the trees and homes subsided along with the cool air of the morning and we found ourselves strolling through a wide open pasture, the mountains lay in front of us, the town behind us, the sun shining bright above. I paused to inhale the crisp, clean air while taking in the surroundings, knowing very well that my lungs would miss this moment once I was back in Lima being choked by the exhaust fumes of a thousand combis.
As I surveyed the countryside, my eye was drawn to a black strip of land in the distance that abnormally abutted the otherwise stunning landscape. Amongst the lush green of the mountains and calming blue of the endless skies, this area seemed like a malevolent cancer plaguing the earth –dreadful, foreboding. I’ve played enough Zelda video-games to recognize where the boss intent on destroying the natural harmony of the land sleeps. I asked Oscar what it was. “Minera,” he woefully replied. He told me of the problems that had came about as a result of the mine – contamination, pollution; how the mine brought little revenue to the actual people of Huaraz; how there had been protests against its implementation by the townspeople, yet in the end the mining company won out. “Así son estas cosas.”
The sight of the mine and conversation with Oscar sets off a string of thoughts in my wandering consciousness: the image of a disheveled woman silently begging as she watches us eat breakfast on the sidewalk under the glow of the morning appears then vanishes replaced by an Andean child wrapped in a colorful blanket tied to his mother’s back, staring with its almond-shaped, glowing brown eyes at the strange pale folks sitting on the back of the bus. It’s midday now and somewhere in town travelers like ourselves are handing an old woman a few soles to take a picture with her alpaca that she’s dressed up in sunglasses. I wonder about what I’m going to do for my capstone project; the rights of the people of Huaraz; the (f)utility of protest; the shortcomings of resource-based economies; the power of money; the future of this land in 20 years, 50 years, 100 years; Oscar’s future; my own future; humanity’s future. My thoughts grow as enormous as the mountains around me. I can only see one face of the mountain from where I stand. From the summit I would be able to see everything, but for now I am roaming through the valley and these peaks will remain unconquered.
After an hour or so we are out of the valley and hopping across stones on a small rocky path, each step bringing us closer to the top. Eventually, we arrive to the base of colossal boulders with iron ropes bolted on the sides from the top to the bottom. The word “risk management” surfaces in my mind as my legs throb in exhaustion but I shove the thought away, grabbing a hold of the rope and climbing towards the top.
At last, after climbing a few more questionable boulders and hopping across a stone in the middle of a rushing stream just a few feet from the edge of an impressive waterfall, we reach Laguna Churup. The absence of any cloud cover gives us a clear view of the immense peak we’d been ambling towards all morning. Compared to Laguna 69, the surrounding area is nearly deserted, save for one family enjoying their mountain picnic on a distant boulder and a couple of Canadians who congratulate us on making it up and direct us to a comfortable spot in which we take our lunch.
We carved up a few tomatoes, a block of mozzarella cheese, and a couple avocados, crafting gigantic double-decker sandwiches to replenish our wasted bodies and minds. After lunch, we collapse atop the boulder, basking under the warmth of the afternoon sun and staring up at the peak in front of us. After a short nap, Oscar informs us that it’s time to begin our descent and so we begrudgingly pack up our things, wishing we could spend the rest of our evening, week, or even semester at the base of that great mountain eating tomato, avocado, cheese sandwiches and pondering life’s greatest mysteries.
After a much shorter and less strenuous descent we hop into Oscar’s taxi and make our way back into town. Stumbling into a nearby café, we collapse inside the booths and order a few drinks. The serotonin rushing through our brains won’t let us stop smiling, as if some invisible force has fastened fishhooks at the corners of our mouths and is continually pulling the strings above our ears. We’re too frazzled to even speak to each other, but the elation of our adventurous group is silently understood. We eat a fulfilling dinner, grab our things from the hotel, and make our way to the bus station. As I squeeze my way through the crowds of travelers and suitcases in order to get on my bus, the thought of leaving the peaceful pace of Huaraz in order to return to the never-ending noise and movement of Lima depresses me. And yet, I still smile, realizing how right I was to buy that second bus ticket just a few days ago in Lima, how joyous it was to reach the edge of those lagoons on both days after hikes that I thought might kill me, and how wonderful it will be when I return in July to do the 3-night/4-day Santa Cruz trek with the greatest of friends.