If you need one book while visiting Machu Picchu, take this one.
Having said that, Adams’ work falls short in several ways. There’s no one to really care about – and that includes the author. Adams breezes over or ignores several compelling themes that could have enriched the narrative. As it is, we get the well-researched parallel story of explorer Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu in 1911, a proficiently written if uninspiring and jokey prose style (including the choice of title), mixed with a welcome, skeptical approach to all the mystic, New Age shenanigans surrounding the monument.
What doesn’t help is that Bingham himself is a bit of a scoundrel. An independently wealthy (through marriage) Ivy League professor, he’s bored with his work and in 1909 determines to retrace the conquering Simón Bolivar’s 1819 march across the northern Andes. One thing leads to another: several years later he returns to Peru to stumble upon the mountain top Machu Picchu, overgrown and only frequented by local farmers/ranchers. He mistakenly believes it to be the Lost City of the Incas, to where Manco, the last Inca ruler, fled the Spanish conquistadores in the 16th century. It is not – Manco’s last redoubt is later located at a place call Vilcabamba – but, as a center piece to a vast Inca sun-worship complex, its claim to fame is undiminished. (Adams, flippantly, calls it “the country estate of an Inca emperor.” [p.26])
Fame, it turns out, is mostly what Bingham is about. Having already been a plagiarist at university, the bored professor now abandons his wife and young children for many months at a time, illegally removes artifacts from Peru when he feels Yale’s growing collection to be threatened, and does things such as selling property that his deceased father had willed to his church. Despite coming from a long line of adventurous missionaries, he loses his faith at Yale and, after leveraging the fame he so sought into the U.S. Senate, is censured by his colleagues, leaves in disgrace, and returns as a lobbyist. Ouch. Adams does a valiant job underlining the man’s courage and fortitude, but it is a heavy lift.
As for Adams himself, he too is bored, as an editor at various New York adventure travel magazines for too many years, and decides to retrace Bingham’s route despite his own complete lack of outdoors or adventure experience. When he ask his Peruvian wife:
“What would you say if I told you I wanted to quit my job and go follow the footsteps of the guy who found Machu Picchu?”
“I guess…” She paused. Somewhere in the background, an angry kitten meowed. “I guess I’d say ‘What took you so long?’” [p.27]
While this sounds like an early mid-life crisis, we get almost nothing on the author’s motives other than boredom.
While his near-complete lack of preparation for the arduous months of trekking ahead at times amuses, we get no compelling insight, or learning, from it, other than that two pairs of socks is critical, especially when hiking downhill.
Given the former editor’s aversion to make his narrator very involving, one would hope that he had found a suitable foil for his treks, which he did, in the form of a seasoned Aussie guide named John Leivers – who, for me, is by far the book’s most interesting character. Early on Adams shares his take on his guide, as “a bit of a misanthrope…and a little tight with his money.” [p.43] Indeed, Leivers has no fixed address, other than a virtual one at gmail. Better yet, so disconnected and free to roam the wild, he had no “more than the most tangential grasp of popular culture.” [p.73] He brings a marvelous, jaundiced eye to the benefits of our modern world, pointing out:
It used to take three weeks to get people in the right frame of mind, to un-brainwash them. Now it would take three months just get people’s heads straightened out… It’s a real problem now – people don’t know how to enjoy life. They want hedonism, short-term thrills.
While I can very much identify with such a man, Adams, a longtime New Yorker who admits to having an “overdeveloped pop-culture lobe of my brain” [p.1], seems unable to connect, and instead mostly observes.
His observations about Leivers are, at times, felicitous:
He held his yellow GPS in front of him like the handle of a fishing pole and scribbled notes furiously in his blue notebook, reeling in secrets. [p.93]
“Mystical tourists” oohing and aahing about a sacred rock on the ledge above them, get this corrective treatment from Leivers:
“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.” [p.189]
Yet, despite the shared turmoils, the relation develops little depth.
Adams, admirably, pokes fun at himself with frequency. Back in New York between two journeys, he suddenly “stopped glazing my hands with sanitizer every ten minutes.” [p.216] I half expected him to confess to the precaution of lugging down bottled water on his first visit to Latin America – as an old work colleague from New York once did.
Granted, there are two primary streams in travel writing. One, developed by the British mostly between the wars, is empiricist, characterized by sharp, at times encyclopedic, observations of foreign cultures in strange lands. The author/adventurer downplays or ignores the difficulties, and his own backstory, that filter his perceptions, often evidenced in a self-deprecatory, dry wit. We get to know these narrators indirectly, through their humor and, often, strong opinions.
A later, more American stream transforms the narrator into a major, if not the major, character – think of Twain’s Innocents Abroad or Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods – whose dramatic interactions with the travel environment can overwhelm any in-depth study per se.
Adams appears to be a neither/nor writer, whose backstory is thin, humor strained, and ability to empathize with his main characters limited.
Furthermore, issues of potential interest, such as why on earth is the human psyche so drawn to Lost Cities, are ignored. (From Atlantis, to El Dorado, to the earthly paradise of Shangri-La, I suspect the yearning for lost cities is tied to original sin and our inability to recapture Eden.) The Inca’s pantheistic and savage practices of human sacrifice are glossed over – along with the base behavior of the marauding Spanish – and we hear little about the potential source for their amazingly advanced skills in “sacred geography,” especially the solstice-aligning of monuments hundreds of kilometers apart.*
If the author experiences any epiphany, this might come the closest:
At the same time, after walking through the Inca landscape and seeing how their architectural wonders connected to the natural environment – and to one another – I wasn’t any closer to understanding Machu Picchu. [p.197]
OK, such an otherworldly culture can seem impenetrable, but why, then, tell us about it? Despite Adams admirable tenacity in trekking in the highest Andes – with a seasoned guide, and three porters and cooks – the main lesson he passes on to his two sons, at book’s end, is “…when hiking downhill: always wear two pairs of socks.”
* As it was pointed out to me in our book club discussion of the work, Adams may have believed he already had more than enough material, between Bingham’s and his own exertions, to digress. Indeed, his subsequent work, Meet Me in Atlantis, takes the Lost City theme and runs with it.
[Mark Adams, Turn Right at Machu Picchu, Plume (Penguin Group), London, May 2012]