Friday, May 4, 2012

Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams

Source of book: Borrowed from the library. This was recommended by a friend of a friend, and it just sounded interesting.

Mark Adams is a travel writer/editor for a number of magazines, but fulfilled the cushy side of that job description. Prior to the events described in this book, he had never actually backpacked, or even hiked seriously. He decided, however, to retrace the steps of Hiram Bingham to Machu Picchu.

Who? Where? I admit that while I was passingly familiar with Machu Picchu (pronounced MAH-choo PEEK-choo), the picturesque Inca ruins in Peru; I had no idea who Hiram Bingham was. How I managed to miss his story is a mystery, since I have devoured the accounts of various adventurers over the years. It turns out that one reason is that Bingham was a pretty incompetent writer. His original account was full of odd details about supplies, and tended to get bogged down in the mundane. A later book seemed to have had details altered to tell a better story. Perhaps his later fame and career in Congress caused later generations to consider him overrated. In any case, his story is interesting, and forms a key part of this book.
Picture of Machu Picchu from The National Geographic

In format, the book alternates between an account of Bingham’s explorations and the story of the author’s expeditions. I thought this was done rather effectively, although the short length of the chapters seemed odd at first. I suspect this was due in part to my tendency to read books with longer chapters. Adams synchronizes the stories so that the same locations are described in sequence.

Bingham is considered to be a forerunner of the character of Indiana Jones. The author traces the idea, but does not oversell the connection. In fact, while the book is described for sales purposes with this connection in mind, Adams downplays this aspect in the book, choosing to focus on the actual facts of Bingham’s life, which is fascinating even without the connection. See the note below for more on the real and fictional sources for Indiana Jones.

Some things I really enjoyed about this book. First, the description of Peruvian politics made me laugh. While too long here to quote, it contained the gem regarding Alan Garcia, who left office in disgrace, but later ran on the platform, essentially, of “I was an idiot last time,” and then won!

Adams’ descriptive language is fun. He describes one ruin as follows: “At the summit stood the remains of an Inca structure with jagged ten-foot walls like those at Sacsahuaman. A variety of plants sprouted from every crevice, making it look like the Lost Chia Pet of the Incas.”

I also found interesting the description of peccaries, a rather cute type of wild pig, which is nonetheless extraordinarily dangerous because of its tendency to attack. They look pretty harmless at the zoo.

I am a hiker, although not on the scale that Adams’ guide, John Leivers is. If anyone looks and acts like Indiana Jones, it would be Leivers – except Leivers has an even drier sense of humor. I loved the descriptions of the hiking in this book because I know firsthand how daunting the elevation changes are. The most I have ever climbed in a day is 3600 vertical feet. The highest I have hiked is about 12,000 feet. Not only did the author crest multiple passes at 14,000 feet, but he covered a vertical mile up and then down again in a day. My legs hurt just reading about it. Admittedly, they had mules to carry the heavy stuff, but still!

I concur with John Leivers’ philosophy here: “There’s a general law in life. The mind and body only get stronger when they’re traumatized.”

Leivers’ dry humor is also on display when at Machu Picchu itself. A group of hippie tourists approach a rock that was likely important in the Inca religion.

“Watch this,” John said. “Their guide’s going to tell them to hold their hands out to feel the cosmic energy emanating from the rock.”
Several hands reached out toward the Intihuatana. After a second or two, the mystics turned toward each other excitedly.
“I feel warmth,” said one.
“Me too,” said another.
“It’s a rock that sits in the sun all day,” John said, loud enough to be heard in Cusco. “Of course it feels warm.”

The author describes John’s philosophy in the form of a mathematical equation. (R+S) x E = H. Ruins, plus Solitude, times Exertion, equals Happiness. If one substitutes a good view or a beautiful lake for ruins, I completely concur. Although ruins would be cool too.

Finally, I loved the description of the Inca Trail itself, which the two hike on a later trip. The trail was clearly not designed to be either the shortest or the easiest route to Machu Picchu. The author believes it was designed to be the most dramatic and scenic route. 

There’s a school of thought that the Inca Trail had been plotted like a good adventure yarn, with twists and turns, rising and falling action, and foreshadowing of the big climax: Machu Picchu. It’s a suspenseful tale broken up by surprises. 

 Would I like to hike this trail? A thousand times yes!                       

This captures the true soul of the adventure of exploration, whether that of the great age of discovery, or the simple hike taken in the wilderness. The point is not to reach the destination in the quickest and easiest way possible. The joy is in the journey, and what lies ahead.

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

J. R. R. Tolkien, from The Fellowship of the Ring

Note on Indiana Jones: There are some clear parallels between Hiram Bingham III and Indiana Jones, of course. Both are professors at Ivy League universities, who moonlight as explorers in their spare time. Both were instrumental in the preservation of important artifacts, and both were remarkable in their tenacity and abilities. The book traces the link through a mostly forgotten movie, Secret of the Incas, which clearly drew inspiration from Bingham’s life, and equally clearly inspired the Indiana Jones movies. 
There were other sources, however. Bingham’s explorations took place in 1911 through 1915. However, over a century earlier, Mungo Park set the gold standard for kick-butt explorers with his exploration of the African interior. While Bingham was certainly competent, Park had to contend with far greater danger. His physical and mental powers were legendary, but they were not enough to keep him from dying while attempting at later expedition.
In the middle part of the Nineteenth Century, David Livingstone and others continued the exploratory tradition, which became cemented in popular consciousness. In 1885, H. Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’s Mines, the first of a series of adventure books that I consider to be the true literary source for Indiana Jones. The character of Allan Quatermain is strikingly similar, of course. All those great booby traps? Haggard dreamed many of them up. Who could forget the scene in The Last Crusade after the character drinks the wrong chalice? Haggard envisioned the rapid aging in a slightly different context, but the scene is remarkably similar.

Of course, if one wished to go even further back, one could find a parallel with Odysseus and Gilgamesh. The development of this archetype has fascinated me, and finding one more link as a result of this book was fun.


  1. Great. Yet another book to add to my to-read pile :)

    This sounds fascinating!

  2. I read this book last year and enjoyed it immensely.

  3. First Heather, now you. I almost snatched up a copy a week or so back but passed it by. I would very much like to read this one. (Working like mad at the moment to work through my review stack so I can comfortably and safely get back to things on my own bookshelves.)