Even Simon and I drift into our own worlds throughout the day as the truck ascends higher and goes slower, the twists in the road tighter and tighter. Steep mountain walls flank the road, and we choke on dust around each corner and yawn to relieve the pressure in our ears. The higher we go and further from the jungle we are. I see him take out the picture of the girl several times. As the air cools, I pull out my collection of alpaca hats I bought in Cusco two months earlier and pull one on. After Simon and I drift into our own thoughts, I take out a camera and snap a self-portrait. I look overtired, my eyes creepily large and dark, my smile forced. I sneak one of Simon, a profile, his face pensive and brooding. We’re clearly people at the end of something.
We won’t reach Puno that day, or the next day either. Our final night in the truck is so cold I pull on all my layers and shiver in the thin nylon sleeping bag. I will huddle as close as I can to Simon without him thinking I’m putting the moves on him. In the morning the water in our bottles will be frozen across the top, and we’ll awake to snow covered peaks looming over yellow and brown ground, bulking and so near I’m almost frightened. We’ll soon realize it’s our final day when we stop climbing and start descending into territory that’s more and more inhabited. The towns will come quickly, and then it will feel almost like we’re in the suburbs, if the cities of Juliaca and Puno can possibly have anything like that, the buildings and crossroads and other vehicles are the continuous scenery the last two hours of our trip. Before we know it we’ll be saying goodbye, Simon rushing to catch a train to La Paz—he’ll get there just in time to meet his friend. He’ll email me a few days later to let me know he arrived. Then we’ll email a few months later, then never again. I’ll return back to the States; Peru will elect Alan García; Peru will become a memory, a place I ache for when I look through my photos. In five years Peru will have another election, this time giving Ollanta Humala a shot at the job, and in his final weeks as president Alan García will inaugurate El Puente Billinghurst, the bridge spanning the Madre de Dios River in Puerto Maldonado, the final piece of the 1,600-mile paved road. It’s a moment I will read about in a June, 2011 article in The Science Christian Monitor, which will say, “The outgoing president sees the highway as a crowning achievement of his tenure.” And I’ll miss the muddy river and wonder how good the new road can really be.
But before we start descending on our final day, we arrive at a plateau and hit a straightaway. The land opens up around us—a vast sea of yellow grass, the rock and snow of peaks close now, very close. Meandering through the contours of open field are herds of vicuñas. Sometimes we pass the people who tend the herds, women in brilliant colors, men in faded pants and button-downs, stooped, skin shaped by wind, the women and children with cheeks splotched from cold. They follow their animals, perhaps through their own fifteen-mile radius, and the vicuña move like water, as a whole. We pass their houses—stone huts made out of stacked round cobbles, tiny pieces of the mountain collected and arranged. This has to be some of the bleakest terrain on earth: yellow, gray, white, brown. The truck slows and comes to a stop at a shrine, a white cross bearing a red and gold vestige, a wooden arch over it with the words “Santisima Cruz de Oquepuño.” The cross is mounted on three steps, which hold offerings of flowers, rocks and liquor, a few empty bottles scattered around its base. The men get out and say a prayer. White Cap takes off his cap and I’m surprised by his baldness. Gimp and First Matey bow their heads. It seems to me that at this point there’s little more to pray for, except, perhaps, that the brakes hold out. Simon jumps down and stretches his legs, watches vicuña nibble at brown earth. I stand on the truck and look from where we came. The lush land is now completely behind us. The wind comes down from the mountains, and I can’t get a scent of the jungle, not even a hint of that humid air. It’s only snow and rocks and ice, the road a dusty strip unraveling behind us.