Updated: Apr 6
For a beginner backpacker, it is wise to embark on a nice easy trail to somewhere calm where you can easily get acquainted with the requirements of survival out in the wilderness. I, however, am not wise.
I met a Colombian Witch Doctor in Cusco earlier this week. His name is Richie. His eyes are as wide and alert as someone who is awake in the wee hours of the night shoveling cocaine up their nose, but the rest of his body is always calm and relaxed. He wears a wide, bright smile across his deep, worn face. He asked if I wanted to come with him to Pachanta– a rural Peruvian mountain town where he lives in a one room adobe hut. Now I am here in the middle of nowhere with no running water freezing my California ass off. The temperature here just barely peaks above zero degrees fahrenheit. My 1st grade level Spanish is useless since the people around here mostly speak the native Quechua and if this guy turns out to be a weirdo, I am not quite sure where I am or how to get back to civilization. Well, there is no doubt he’s bizarre, but who am I to judge? I suppose the question is– should I trust him enough to follow him into the cold snowy mountains and icy glaciers? I don’t know. It sounds intriguing, so here I am.
I left Cusco just 35 hours ago. Not much time to adjust to the altitude before we head out on an overnight trip to the top of some mountain. I am excited. I am also terrified, but that's half the fun. I haven’t had any food or water today. It’s early so I am not feeling it yet, but I am sure it will get me once we start hiking. Not sure when I’ll eat or drink. Traditionally you fast until sun down during a Wachuma Ceremony. Wachuma is basically the Peruvian version of Peyote: A psychedelic experience through the mescaline of the San Pedro cactus. Richie and Eduardo stayed up late last night preparing the medicine for us to take this morning as we climb to the top of Chau Piorqu– a black rocky mountain that tops out at about 18,000 feet. At least it was black when we hiked by it yesterday. I awoke this morning to a ferocious blizzard. When I asked Richie if we would still be going even with the bad weather, he looked at me with the look of confused disapproval that Peruvians give Gringos when we are acting like dramatic, wimpy children. Of course we are still going. It's just a little snow storm.
The snow has let up for now, so we set off into the mountains. Me, Richie, Eduardo, and Ayre– all of whom I met just a few days ago. I walked this part of the trail yesterday and it was easy, but with tonight's food and shelter on my back it feels like a whole new beast. Eduardo is taking the lead. He is a 23 year old Venezuelan kid who spends every day trekking through these mountains and free climbing 20,000 foot cliff sides till his hands look like someone took a saw blade to them. He’s about my height (5’10) and pretty scrawny, probably due to his “enough is good” philosophy on food. From behind I can just barely see his legs sticking out from the towering shadow of his backpack. The thing must weigh 50lbs more than what he holds on his tiny frame. You wouldn’t know it though, as he’s practically running up the narrow trail guiding us through the foothills of the valley. My shoulders, my back, my legs, everything is already feeling the crushing weight of my backpack, and we have barely made a dent in today’s journey.
We come to a small clearing by the river sheltered from the wind by a circle of smooth, rounded elephant-sized boulders. Most of the vegetation has disappeared by now. It’s too harsh up here for any trees to survive, but a nice sheet of green grass blankets the valley floor. The river roars by with a merciless force. This is where we will begin our ceremony. We unload our packs and begin preparing the space. I light up a mapacho and pull the thick, heavy smoke into my mouth with great care not to let it seep into my lungs. I exhale with a soft force into the air. I am not sure how much of what I see leaving my mouth is the smoke and how much is my cold, icy breath. I take another pull of the dense tobacco and release. I smell the burning of Palo Santo as Ayre circles around me waving a little stick of wood as if warding off some evil spirit with a magical wand. A shiver runs down my spine when I feel the cool burn of Agua De Florida hit my cheek while Eduardo spins in circles spraying it in all directions.
We all join together to make an offering to the mountains. We ask the mountains to allow us in and protect us along our journey. We sit, ruffling through a bag of coca leaves for quite some time. Once I have found three beautifully perfect leaves I stack them on top of one another and place them on the ground sending my love and appreciation to Pacha Mama and all that she provides us with.
Settled down on some rocks, we sit in silence. There is a quiet stillness as Richie carefully opens the Wachuma, stored in an old Inca Kola bottle that he had fished out of the trash. He sits in the center blowing Mapacho into the bottle. Eyes closed. Breathing his love and intentions into the medicine. Then he pulls out a dirty little plastic bowl and begins pouring. The medicine is a viscous light green with an ever so slight tint of yellow. It sticks together like a heavy, slick waterfall as it cascades into the bowl. First Eduardo drinks, then Ayre, then he looks at me with his intense, darting stare, and I know it's my turn. I sit kneeling in front of him with both my hands extended in front of me ready to receive. He hands me the bowl and we exchange a little smile and nod– a silent thank you for the gift he is giving me. I press the ice-cold plastic bowl to my lips and let the smooth slimy liquid run down my throat. It has an ever so slightly bitter taste. Not the worst thing I have had here in Peru. As it hits my empty stomach, I feel a wave of nausea. I take a slow deep breath through my nose and as I release, it passes. On we go.
We have strayed from any modern trail. As we weave through the hills I see the slight remnant of what was an ancient Inca trail many, many centuries ago, so slight I would never be able to follow it if I didn’t already know it was there. Finally, we arrive at the base of Chau Piorpu– a monstrous, black rocky mound with a thin blanket of blinding white snow from last night's storm. Just as we approach, a new storm rolls in. We throw on our plastic hooded ponchos to keep us dry and take a quick rest. I grab a handful of coca leaves and shove them into my mouth, chewing them until there is a wet earthy ball sitting in the side of my cheek. This will help with the altitude sickness. Richie warns us that we are starting the most difficult part of the trek, something I can clearly see as I stare straight up to the top of the mountain. The snow falls lightly as we begin climbing, but as if to test our will and our strength, Patcha Mama has given us a full blown blizzard by the time we are half way up.
With Wachuma, there is a brief period of delirium before the psychedelic experience really takes hold. That's where I am at right now as I trudge along this foot wide path with a 50 foot drop to my side. I focus on one step at a time. It takes every ounce of willpower to keep my body moving. I am so lightheaded I think the wind might just blow me right down the mountain to my rocky death. I charge forward, head down– a worthless attempt to shield myself from the sting of the snow darting in every direction. My lungs have taken on a mind of their own. Gasping for oxygen, yet feeling empty as the air gets thinner and thinner. They feel like they might just collapse. My head is so light it might just blow away. Why did I think that climbing an 18,000 foot mountain with no experience and tripping on mescaline was a good idea? Trekking through the mountains fasting on Wachuma. That would make a funny story title. I repeat those words to myself as some sort of bizarre effort to distract myself from the discomfort of my body. We are long past any signs of life. Though, I can’t see much of my surroundings anyway. The storm engulfs us in a smokey white abyss. I don’t know where I am going. I just keep walking. Willing myself to the top of the mountain. Every so often we stop to rest, and each time Richie assures me we are almost there or the camp spot is just around the next bend. Lies. The trail seems never ending. I have no idea if it has been 10 minutes or two hours. There is nothing in my mind but the force to keep my body moving. I can’t breathe. I feel like I am suffocating. But I am not. I am perfectly fine.
As I ascend the mountain, I imagine what it will be like to reach the top. I picture a great triumph filled with joy and excitement, but, as I step around the last bend, I share only a brief exchange of smiles with my fellow trekkers before I realize– fuck, now I am stuck up here for who knows how long in the middle of a damn blizzard. The day has barely begun and I have no idea how long we plan on being up here. When I ask Richie, he merrily chirps “maybe a night or maybe a few days. Let's just see what happens!” This is my reward for clawing my way up an 18,000 foot mountain in a wailing snow storm, hungry, thirsty, and tripping on mescaline. Fanfuckingtastic.
The top of the mountain is a perfectly circular clearing about ten feet wide. It is lined with a bench fashioned out of stones by the Inca people some hundreds of years ago. A large stone platform is sprawled out in the middle. We sit in silence. The storm roars on with no signs of letting up. There is no use trying to set up the tent. It would just end up a wet and windy mess of an endeavor. So, we just sit here quietly in our own worlds. The white abyss still engulfs us, blocking anything outside the circle from our sight. I am sitting on the bench curled up in a ball under my poncho shivering viciously and wondering what kind of psychopath I must be to have turned down an invitation to Miami this weekend to do this. I believe my exact words were “no thanks, I’m going to go live in a hut in the mountains and climb glaciers.” How bizarre. I am so uncomfortable. I feel aggravated. I feel scared. I feel helpless. I am finding no comfort. I feel the cool wind piercing through my thin cotton pants. The snow has soaked through my hiking boots and the only two pairs of wool socks I have. My lululemon down jacket, Richie’s windbreaker, and the knockoff North Face fleece that I bought in Cusco are providing little protection from the cold. I’ve given up on my soaking wet gloves and resolved to clench my hands in between my armpits so that my body warmth might thaw my completely numb appendages. It is probably also wise to prepare for a trip like this with proper clothing. Wise, but apparently not necessary. When the tempest finally begins to calm, ever so slightly, Eduardo prepares the next dose of the medicine. We drink. We go deeper.
The storm slowly drifts to a stop and we are left sitting here staring out into the pearly white mist that still surrounds us. I begin to get up and walk around. The movement seems to warm me slightly. Or perhaps, it just gives me a distraction so that my mind drifts from the thought of my frozen body. You may have heard the famous Wim Hof quote: “Cold is an emotion.” I would say, rather, that cold incites an intense wave of emotion which brings to the surface discomfort that has long been locked away. As I stand at the edge of the cliff staring out into the great gorge of nothingness I let myself feel it. Waves of emotion come flowing up. A lifetime of suppressed feelings barrelling out. I feel them. I release them. Suddenly I am not so cold anymore. Though I see nothing, I can feel the mountains around us. In their greatness, staring down at the only four humans audacious enough to brave these parts in search of something profound.
The sun hits my face and I come to a jolting stop. I find only a hint of warmth on my cold, bare skin, but it feels orgasmic. In the midst of the cold, dark storm I had prayed for just a drop of sunlight. I craved it like nothing I had craved before. But, as it hits me I feel a deep sadness wash over me. Through me. Like lukewarm water running through every inch of my body. Tears start streaming down my face with the intensity of the roaring river that runs through this valley. My heart aches, but doesn’t tighten or pull away from the vehement force. I want to stay in this magnificent pocket of the world forever. Live on this mountain supported by this eminent mound of rock that has withstood a ferocious turbulence for all of time. I feel at ease here. A storm could blow in at any moment and bury us in snow. A boulder could have come crashing down to wash us clear of this earth while we made the journey up here. But this never scared me. Not once. I feel supported.
How wonderful it would be to stay here in the mountains living a simple life. Live a life where I’m not constantly looking over my shoulder suspicious of anyone walking too closely behind me as I do on the city streets of San Francisco. Not once since I arrived here has some senseless creep made an obnoxious attempt to get his hands on my body. Back in California it is constant. I am so closed off to the world for fear of being attacked. Fear of being taken advantage of. How wonderful it is to sit and bask in enjoyment of the passing events free of that perpetual terror. As tears of despair for these twisted realities run down along my rough burnt skin, the sorrow I feel seems to dissipate. There is no use in letting them live in my body breeding fear, hate, longing. This right here is perfection.
We drink again. We go deeper.
I am walking in endless circles. There is not much else to do, but it never once loses its wondrous sense of excitement. The storm has passed and the sun has graced us with its extraordinary presence. Chau Piorqu stands tall surrounded by graceful mountains in every direction and about a dozen lakes litter the valley floor below– each a different shade of blue. The medicine has given me an acute awareness. I see every color and every tiny crevasse of the stones in laser focus. No matter how far away a mountain stands, I can see every little detail. Every time that I turn I discover something new. These mountains have stood here unwavering for millions of years, but they never look the same from one moment to the next. The clouds dance through the sky so fast it seems impossible. A mountain is completely engulfed by a sea of dark gray storm clouds one moment and when I turn back to look at it a minute later, the sun is gleaming off every sharp ridge that pierces the crystal blue skyline. How could this happen so fast? I suppose it hasn’t. How long I spend staring into one little pocket of the earth’s skin, entranced by the complex simplicity of what supports us and holds us here in this world, I have no idea. For a minute I stare into the soft turquoise waters of a lake. Perhaps it was an hour. I don’t know. Time is still. Or maybe moving a thousand miles an hour. Either way I am in awe.
I turn and catch the soft gaze of Ayre’s eyes. His face is turned bright red by the fiery Peruvian sun. My burnt skin, I am sure, is even worse. I can feel the thick chunks of dead skin forming on the surface of my face and lips. We are burnt, filthy, and look absolutely ridiculous. I couldn't care less. Ayre is a British musician, and he looks like it. He has long blonde hair and a matching scruffy beard. Soft, kind blue eyes. He is even less prepared than I am; sporting jeans, a single jacket, and a pair of thin leather boots that you’d imagine seeing on stage in a smoky dive bar vibrating to the sound of some AC/DC song. As our eyes meet, we break into a bout of uncontrollable laughter. We don’t need to exchange a single word to know that we are thinking the exact same thing. Acknowledging the insanity and the beauty of leaving our comfortable western lives to come here. The search for lessons that our worlds cannot teach us.
Thank the Lord, it's time to eat. Richie pulls out his little gas burner and candies some peanuts in sugar cane syrup that he makes himself. I have never tasted anything so magnificent. We shovel them into our mouths by the handful like prisoners tasting salt for the first time in years. The warm sweet and salty goo running down my throat is incomparable to anything I have ever experienced before. I have truly never tasted anything so divine. It warms my stomach and I feel revived. The intensity of the medicine thickens and we dance around our little clearing all afternoon.
We drink one last time. We go deeper still.
Quiet, staring out in the magical Peruvian landscape I begin to sing. Hallelujah by Lenard Cohen. It seems fitting. I have certainly found my cold and broken Hallelujah. Emphasis on the cold. As the words pour out of my heart, tears flow from my eyes. This song is an ode to all the struggles and hardship that brought me to this beautiful, magnificent, perfect moment. Eduardo joins in and peace rolls over our little clearing in the mountains. We harmonize. We smile. We find a fleeting moment of peace.
As the sun begins to drop in the sky and the promise of night is evident, Eduardo builds a small ring of stones and gets to work on a fire. We are all huddled around, eager for a spark of warmth as the hardly bearable cold day turns into an even colder night. After some time and diligent effort, the damp wood finally lets up a single diminutive flame. A flame so bizarre that my jaw drops and my mind scrambles to comprehend the sight of something I never imagined existed. A violet flame. Magnificent strokes of fiery purple light struggle to cut through the oxygen deprived air. Fighting to be seen. By someone. By anyone. By us. The journey here was certainly not an easy one, but it is only through struggle that I could have discovered something so perfectly magical.
I have completely forgotten the cold. The air is seeping into my boots and turning my wet socks into icicles and I couldn’t care less. Never would I imagine that I would bear witness to something so beautiful. The small purple flames whirl with a lively vigor in the wind. It seems alive, like it is performing a secret ancient dance just for us. I am completely entranced. The next time I look around we are surrounded by darkness. The sun is long gone and the moon is sitting just above the mountain tops off in the distance. The moon is full and bright, and the sky is littered with stars. The four of us sit here, huddled up around the fire huffing and puffing in unison so that we might keep this warmth alive just a little bit longer. Each time I think we’ve lost it, Richie comes to the rescue, and with one powerful puff the Violet Flame bursts up towards the starry sky and dances for us once more. Each moment that it does a shock of joy and gratitude washes through me. Tears run down my face and I thank the fire for its grace and warmth. I look up to my little mountain family and say Thank you. Had I made this journey alone, I certainly would not have lived to tell the tale. Eduardo raises his thick brows, looks at me, and says “Yeah, we are well aware of that.” We all laugh.
Hours pass in front of this little fire, I am sure of it. We give it everything we have. All our coca leaves, mapachos, and any dry brush or loose paper that we can manage to find has been consumed by the flame. Despite our continued efforts, the glimpse of violet light finally dies from the mountain top, and we are consumed by darkness. We retire to seek warmth in the two tents and two broken sleeping bags that the four of us are to share. We curl up with each other. Bodies entwined like children grasping for warmth. For comfort. A sleepless night. The medicine continues its work in new and profound ways. As I finally drift off to sleep the sun begins to pour into the tent.