The sound of the zipper unzipping, its teeth slowly pulling apart along its metal spine, pulled me out my sleep and into the darkness of the Peruvian mountains. The neon blue glow from my watch lit up the inside of my tent: 4:00 am, one hour to dawn.
The group camped just below us on the ridge was already moving out. I quickly rolled up my sleeping bag and stuffed my extra clothes in my red duffle bag, still wet and smelling of damp earth from yesterday’s rain. The porters came by to collect it; my bag would be paired with another and rolled into a canvas bundle, covered in tarp, to be carried by a single man in a worn pair of flip flops.
I filled up my two water bottles, attached them to my daypack, then joined the others as we weaved through the camp, following my flashlight’s faint yellow glow. The gate to the trail was still closed so we lined up behind the two other groups, those that were carrying full packs unhitching them and resting them on the ground, the porters disappearing down a different path.
“It’s too narrow,” our guide had explained, “it’s dangerous for them. They go to Machu Picchu a different way.”
We had agreed to wake up early so that we would be one of the first on the trail that morning. It was two miles of single-file to get to the Gate of the Sun, and our group needed to be up front because we were fast. It was those damn gym teachers.
I had trained for months for the Inca Trail, lifting leg weights and doing four-hour walks with a light pack to get my feet accustomed to the impact. I read reviews and blog posts, suggested training regiments, and clicked through photos of teams of grandmothers and retirees taking the whole day to walk a portion of the trail. There was no way I was going to be the slowest.
But on the first day when we met at the trailhead, unpacking our supplies and smiling for a group photo, I didn’t see anyone under 30. Or anyone who was overweight. Or anyone else using porters. When I started introducing myself I discovered that six of the ten hikers were friends from Australia, and they were all gym teachers who were carrying their own packs.
On the second day I realized that they were racing to the top, betting every morning which one of them would be the first to camp.
On the third day, after two people from our group had given up and turned around, I realized I was the slowest.
This last stretch on the fourth day was the most dangerous, with a steep drop down one side and the sheer face of the mountain on the other. After hikers died there, climbing in the dark, rushing to get to Machu Picchu, the government built a gate at the trailhead that stayed closed till dawn.
The groups talked among themselves, the people ahead of us jumping in place to warm up and high-fiving their young, energetic guide. He worked for the same company that we were using, and the night before he had come over to our campground to talk to us, asking how our hike was going.
“You got the best guide,” he told us. “Frederico, the Prophet.”
The Prophet had a way of awakening the shrouded mystery of the Inca Trail by speaking reverently about this ancient pilgrimage and about the sacred places that were scattered throughout the valley. On the third day, high up in the cloud forest, soaked from the rain, orchids growing horizontally from the stone walls, I had asked him what part of the trail he loved best.
“This. This is what I love best,” he said, pointing to the pathway of stones. “Now we are walking on the original trail, where my ancestors walked.”
“Is this your pilgrimage too?”
He kept walking, stick beating steadily on the stones with each footstep. “Sure,” he replied, shrugging. “Why not?”
In the early morning of the fourth day the Prophet stood quietly, staring out at the pink mountains.
“It’s dawn. Our journey is almost over.”
As the light slowly warmed his face, the gates opened and the groups ahead of us ran forward on to the trail.
“There is no need to rush,” he told the eager gym teachers who were already straining forward. “Enjoy this moment.”
He turned and passed through the gates.
The fog had not yet risen off the mountain, and it still clung to the corners of the trail, hiding in the open spaces between the trees and snuggling in with the leaves. We walked in single-file, closely stacked, so that our boots began to fall together in time to a steady rhythm, echoed by the sound of our walking sticks.
One-two, one-two – we moved as one beat to the pace set by the Prophet, the gym teachers ahead and me at the back. I passed walls covered in ancient lichen dripping with dew, scrambled up steep stairs made from Inca stone, dragging myself up with my hands, and pushed aside tendrils of moss descending down from the forest canopy, but I didn’t fall behind. After four days of climbing, I wasn’t going to miss the first light on the sacred city.
As our group wound along the trail, Frederico and the first few Australians behind him disappeared from view behind a bend in the mountain. When the trail straightened out once more, I saw that one hiker from our group had passed our guide and was now running quickly along the trail, leaving us behind.
“Where’s he going?” I asked the man ahead of me.
“He thinks we’re going too slow and that we’ll miss the sunrise.”
I watched the runner jog along the trail, his hands holding on to his shoulder straps to steady his large backpack. At each bend in the path he moved further away, so that I could only catch a flash of red from his pack.
The day came steadily on, our footsteps moving in unison away from the pink sky and towards the gray blue of early morning. The sun would be here soon, and I began to worry that the runner had been right, that we were going too slowly and that we would miss it.
The Prophet turned to us then and pointed to a cliff face up ahead. “Around this hill is the final stretch to the Gate of the Sun. These will be your last moments on the Inca Trail. Enjoy it.”
I looked down at the road that the ancient people of Peru had built. My footsteps were now part of the stones, part of this holy pilgrimage and 400 years of history. As I followed the Prophet and his ancestors around the mountain, I could make out the clear outline of the Gate of the Sun in the distance. Just below the hedge of bushes that grew under the stacked rocks of the gate, I could also see a spot of red.
The runner had fallen off the trail. A crowd of people had gathered and were pulling him back up, and as we got closer the gym teachers ran ahead and clustered around him.
“I almost died,” I heard him say through the crowd. “The only thing that stopped me were those bushes. I got caught on those bushes.”
He repeated it again and again.
I left the group and stepped through the Gate of the Sun. Down below, like a face looking up at us, was Machu Picchu, completely obscured by cloud. Only her nose, the peaked mountain at the far end of the city, was visible through the mist.
The stairs leading away from the gate were covered with hikers, chatting and eating snacks, waiting for a break in the clouds. The Prophet was alone.
“I guess we didn’t need to rush,” I said, putting down my walking sticks and sitting down next to him. “We won’t be able to see the sunrise.”
“No, you won’t see the sunrise,” he said, “but the clouds will clear, and Machu Picchu will still be there.”
“Yes, it’ll be there,” I agreed.
I looked down at the clouds, at what I had trained for months for, hiked for days for, flown around the world for.
“It’s here right now,” I told the prophet, gesturing, “under these clouds.”
“And it’s beautiful.”