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by Ken McAlpine

To truly understand a place, you must see it through many eyes -- your own, those of your fellow travelers, the locals you meet, and the locals you never will. Do this, and you may come home with your perspective forever changed.

There you have the magic of travel. Keeping your eyes open has practical benefits, too. Say, when you are jogging along a narrow, rock-strewn trail bordered on one edge by freefall space, spiraling far, far down to a ribbon of smoky river which will cradle your broken body and sweep you northward through Peru until you join the Amazon and eventually the Atlantic Ocean.

Perhaps the only thing more mind-bending than the thought of that epic journey is the Inca trail on which I now jog. Carved into the side of the mountain, the trail looks out to higher mountains still. These are covered with snow, and here, in late afternoon, cloaked in dark clouds shot through with misty gold bands of sunlight. While the Spanish who conquered the Inca simply coveted the stuff, gold to the Inca was the teardrops of the sun. This trail is but a fraction of a vast 14,000-mile network that, in the words of one dumbstruck Spanish conquistador, "excels the constructions of Egypt and the monuments of Rome."

More numbing still, no one will ever really know how this vast web of trails, and the cities and temples they linked, were constructed. The Incas didn't keep records, and their Spanish conquerors, intent on wiping out all reminders of Inca presence, wouldn't have left them intact if they had.

What is known is this: An Inca messenger, chasqui in the Quechua language, probably ran this very trail 600 years ago, headed maybe, as we are, to Wayllabamba or Ollantaytambo, or perhaps the legendary city of Machu Picchu. And he did so a lot faster than I.

We are here, 17 of us, to enjoy the natural splendors of Peru, explore the local culture, and learn about Peru's Inca past. This is not unusual. Since the government has largely quashed its number one public relations stumbling block (the now subdued Shining Path), tourists these days are coming to Peru in droves, most of them heading, as we are, for Machu Picchu, the Lost City of the Incas.

But these visitors generally travel by bus, helicopter or train. Our itinerary calls for us to run, and not because we are late for our bus. Nope. We have signed on to run the Inca trail to Machu Picchu and beyond - along wind-swept rivers, through damp cloud forests, up and over blustery mountain passes - because we want to. At least, running is what my new friends came to do.

As Bob Graham, a 56-year-old emergency room doctor from Ledyard, Connecticut told me, "Running is a great way to explore a place. You see things you wouldn't normally see." Like everyone else's rump disappearing up the trail.

Only a few days into the trip, we have already established a pecking order, and I am right at the back. Not that anyone cares. My fellow runners are distinguished less by their impressive athletic accomplishments - marathons, 100-mile races, a rim-to-rim-and-back run of the Grand Canyon with only two pretzels' worth of supplies - than by their plucky mindset.

Our first night in Cuzco, I sat next to Amanda Zuckerman at dinner. A soon-to-be Harvard graduate, Amanda seemed quiet and shy. She had recently spent six weeks trekking in remote Nepal, an experience that included a close look at the butchering of a sheep. My heart went out to this delicate girl. Surely, I commiserated politely, that must have been a hard thing to watch? "Six weeks without protein," said Amanda. "I would have butchered it myself." Earlier that day, Becky Warren, another member of our group, was hit by a taxi.

"I got up," said Becky, "and everything seemed to be fine, so why not just move on?" No doubt these were folks not prone to whining, good news considering what lay ahead. For 15 days, we would traipse through Peru's southern highlands. We would spend some time touring ruins, shopping at outdoor markets or traveling by bus to the next trailhead. But most days we would be on the run, anywhere from four to eighteen miles, most of them at altitudes ranging from 7,000 to 16,000 feet. Something else about altitude. It requires climbing to get there.

"There will be a few climbs," beamed Devy Reinstein. "Nothing is completely flat in the Andes." Owner of Andes Adventures, purveyor of this unique tour and traditional hiking trips as well, Devy proved to be an organizational genius. Wherever we went, Devy was barking into radios and cell phones, managing hotel and restaurant reservations (seven nights of the trip were spent camping; the remaining nights in towns along the way), setting up bus and helicopter shuttles, and orchestrating the movements of 57 porters who would somehow have camp and a hot Peruvian meal ready and waiting when we arrived in nosebleed places. Though possessed of the energy and organizational skills of George Patton, Devy apparently lacked the gene for judging difficulty, time or distance.

Eventually, we settled on a system for deciphering Devy's assessment of our upcoming day. "Take anything he says and double it," said Bob's wife Betsy.

The fact that we might be longer on the trail than Devy expected bothered no one. Like any wise adventurers, my companions recognized an elemental fact of exploration. The longer you are out there, the more time you have to enjoy it.

And there was plenty to enjoy. We spent our first two days in Cuzco. Once the capital of the Inca empire, Cuzco remains South America's oldest continuously inhabited city, a place where present and past swirl about each other in a sea of red tile roofs, 500-year-old churches and older stone streets. We toured cavernous Spanish churches heavy with gold, and wandered about museums where mummified royal families squatted in the fetal position so that they might be easily reborn.

The history was interesting, but I enjoyed present day Cuzco more, which is why, when Devy handed us a pass to Cuzco's rash of museums, I stuffed it in my pocket and discovered a lively town instead. The Incas knew Cuzco as "the navel of the world," and it remains a maelstrom of activity today, frying meat smells spilling from restaurants, boys kicking soccer balls up steep sidewalks, painters working inside shadowy doorways, and streets upon which no auto insurer in their right mind would ever step.

In Cuzco, we also met Eddie Pizarro. Our guide for the trip, Eddie was a native of Cuzco. He had studied tourism and Inca history at the Universidad Andina Del Cuzco, and he was a wealth of Inca information, at least what information there was to tell.

What was known? Without formal tools, without written instruction, workers and craftsmen had quarried stones, hauled them improbable distances, then cut them so they folded upon each other like lovers, creating buildings solid enough to withstand the fervored wrath of Nature (Peru has suffered powerful earthquakes) and the Spanish. "So perfect," said Eddie, "the Spanish thought the Incas were devils."

Endowed with a Zen-like calm and a 10-year-old's sense of fun and wonder, Eddie obviously enjoyed the mystery that overhung most everything he told us.

There were some things, said Eddie, we might choose to remember. For instance, that Inca was actually the name of the God-like rulers descended from the son of the Sun, and Quechua (pronounced "Catch-wa") was their culture.

Beyond that, "People guess about everything." Eddie shrugged. "UFOs. Aliens. You can make your own theory, because nothing is proved."

Cuzco was interesting, but the real magic began when we got out on the trail. Few places rival Peru's natural beauty, and few places give you a better gander at it than the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.

From its jumping off spot at Chilca, the trail is only 28 miles long, winding through a potpourri of stupefying natural wonder. Peru's mountains don't hump into the sky - they sheer straight up, like mossy shark fins. Far below, in a broccoli-mass of trees, rivers glint like silver thread. Between the two, birds wheel in God's own space. And then we would round a bend and there, on a grassy bluff or a near-sheer terrace, would be a temple crafted from cow-size stones. Eddie would smile as he pointed out that the nearest quarry was 12 miles away. "We have to change the mind just a little bit to understand these people," he said. Or, as Liz Sotoodeh put it, grimacing as the two of us huffed up toward 13,779-foot Warmiwanusq'a Pass, "I just wish I was pulling a boulder."

We carried almost nothing, and I tried to keep this in mind as we climbed. Actually, I had felt surprisingly good ever since we hit the trail, a spring in my step I attributed partly to the running I had done before the trip, partly to my decision to walk most of the trail. Certainly it was difficult to run, especially when the trail went mountain goat steep. But I walked mostly because running seemed to defeat the purpose.

Much of the Inca trail to Machu Picchu is uneven stone; running requires careful attention to footing so as not to twist an ankle. With God's own scenery erupting about us, it seemed silly to stare at the ground.

"The running is secondary to the culture," said Ed Wehan, who once ran 100 miles in 19 hours but now moved at a mall walker's pace. "You can picture the Incas, get a feel for the country by being out in it."

Run or walk, as we ascended toward Warmiwanusq'a Pass, most of our group was rasping, one was barfing - and Ed was singing. "Tiiiiired of living, but scaaared of dying, that old man river, he just keeps rollin' aloooong."

Cresting the pass was just part of our longest day, an 18-mile trek that took us from our campsite at Llactapata to Phuyupatamarca, over three mountain passes, a trip that took me about 10 hours. This might sound like a grind but it wasn't, because here is what it allowed us to enjoy: Villages where children lit up when we pulled colored pencils and berets from our packs. Cloud forests thick with moss and cool shadow and sprinkled with bright orchids and black butterflies. Wide, grassy pampas and, atop Warmiwanusq'a Pass, a Scottish moor-like scene, a cold wind sending cannonballs of gray fog gusting past.

That evening, standing outside my tent at Phuyupatamarca, I watched the setting sun paint orange cloud swirls, then touch the snowy mountains soft pink.

That night, over the rim of those same mountains, we saw lightning detonate in bright-ball explosions, and Eddie pointed out the shapes of animals woven into the Milky Way while the cold stung our fingers. "Just for us," he said.

This wasn't entirely true. When we summited a last steep pitch of trail the next day and looked down at Machu Picchu from the Gateway of the Sun, the Lost City of the Incas had been found by swarms of tourists. Buses belched their way up and down the mountain, and a cafeteria served overpriced hamburgers.

The Sun God had sent man and woman to civilize the world, and they had done far too good a job of it.

Still, it all felt right. Later, Eddie would tell me that the view from the Sun Gate had, at times, moved him to tears, and I doubt they were tears of regret. Peru is far from spoiled; a second week in the windswept Andes would confirm that.

Standing at the Gateway of the Sun, gazing out into a world of smashing blue, I could see Machu Picchu, and the world around it, as a Quechua pilgrim might have seen it. A place where one's spirit might soar.

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