Narrow crooked dirtscrabble ladder into the hilltops, each switchback a modest increment upward. Chasing coy blue holes in clouds, through small collections of homes, farmland, three cows here a half acre of yucca there. I register only faintly first through fatigue and illness that this is an incredible road, and later the sublime pierces the merely biological and I am wide open to the flood of landscape. Ascent into ethereal mist, dirt through rockscapes covered with a green rolling onward. In the distance shadow peaks and towering layers of sky, 12000 feet at Abra de Barro Negra welcomes with steady Maine spittle, tiny plants soldiering against the descended nimbus clouds. Gather speed into the 50k descent to the river valley, can’t feel my fingers or toes, forehead like I’ve had a gluttonous scoop of gelato too fast.
On the downhill in the big ring the recent days of frustration and weakness and torpor are switched off, I’m full burn and concentration. The fat bike glues to bermed curves, whistling in my ears hints of the thousand foot drops at the outside of every arc and that’s when I touch the faster currents in the flow. Lower, the space between the tracks turns to sand and when I alternate the tires plow and duneslide before tracking again. Pugsleys show little grace uphill, but right now I’m the first time you saw the space shuttle brashly scorching the final vector to Houston, holyshit that tubby motherfucker can fly.
In a little over an hour I’m in Balsas, baking nighttime heat acting as if the mountain pass is a pleasant fiction.
* * *
The next day my stomach still couldn’t tolerate, you know, food, so I didn’t eat any. This turns out to have an effect on cycling up 8000 foot climbs, which one must do to leave this valley. Crawling weaving in the granny gear dry mouth and light head, drinking at triple my normal pace in the 7am start sun. By early afternoon I stop to calculate how I’m doing, wait, that can’t be right, my hourly average is the number I used to use to figure distance I’d cover backpacking. I put it out of my mind and push my nose toward the stem, if I make the pass by, say, 5:30, then I can pull off another glorious coup like last night. The problem is, it’s Sunday, so people are hanging out, having a good time. I see a group of guys ahead sitting in the road in front of a house, they are going to be hard to escape. Deductively they insistently wave me over, one is seemingly asleep on an upside down bucket, elbows on his knees, head in hands. We make our introductions, I explain that I’ve been sick so it’s slow going, not surprisingly sugar cane whiskey is proffered as the best remedy. I gamely take a shot, more chatting and when the (2 liter former cola) bottle comes again I confess that some juice or water will be way better for me, I should go on to the little store and then be on my way. One of the guys tells me to hang on, jumps up and runs to the house. Some activity later and there’s a mom with a pitcher of koolaid on offer, no going back now, I knock back multiple gulpfuls and a few more shots as we talk about my favorite things about Peru, the weather in the USA, whether I want to buy a mobile from them, that sort of thing. Then I declare firmly that I must go, or I’ll not get over the pass before night, figuring I’m two and half hours away, and even though their “so what? sleep here” is a very decent point, I do want to make some progress given the ill-slow recent days. Then Alva with the trump card: “Stay with us for awhile and we’ll take you to the pass.” I eye the dormant mototaxi dubiously but they regard this latest play as irrefutable, I smile and sit down.
We’re bouncing along in one the worst machines ever conceived, unsteady on three wheels, creaking spewing fumes deafening hum rattle gnash, the Pugs noosed haphazardly behind me. It’s all too, I tap Alva on the shoulder, he looks back and I raise my hand to stop, he locks the brakes, I take a half step out of the side and blow like Vesuvius, a pluming arc of red instant drink, cane liquor, and last night’s mostly undigested dinner back when I thought I needed to top up my stores. I’m spitting and coughing, Alva is openly weeping over the handlebars, as this is the funniest thing to happen in a while. Hop back in, “mejor?” “claro!” At the top of the pass it’s pouring rain, we shake hands exclaim on the great time, I duck into an outhouse, put on all my warm clothes. In a half hour I’m pedaling in warmth again, in another half thinking about a place to sleep.