Sometimes movement seems like an end in itself. For the first time in months, I saw a highway stretch out flat before me, the wind lashed my face and tears welled up in my eyes, the needle on the speedo bounced up to 80 mph. We had chosen to cut Westward from Cajamarca, Peru to the coast where the roads are straight and flat, where we could make up some time by bypassing some noodly mountain roads. There will be plenty of mountain roads in the future, why not get a change of scenery. After several days of hard riding through unpaved mountain roads from Ecuador across into Northern Peru, up steep muddy climbs, through razor-sharp switchbacks, on cliff-edge trails, after dropping my bike three times, and almost running out of gas, the coast sounded like the break that we needed.
Here was the coast, a thick salty fog, semi-trucks lurching forward at break-neck speeds, mounds of garbage littering the sides of the road like oversized confetti, miles and miles of sugarcane fields, desolate sugarcane towns, abandoned sugarcane towns. For the first time in months, there was no scenery to admire, no indigenous culture to marvel at. There was simply, briefly, pavement and speed. That stretch of highway was like a deprivation tank, and without external stimulation my thoughts sunk inward.
We blasted through the dull gray apocalyptic landscape, into which other vehicles faded in and out in the distance. I felt a kind of joy. Though I had expected sun and warmth and beaches, I have always enjoyed the lonesome feeling of a long empty road. I feel home there. Perhaps it is the Texan in me. A state where flat highways stretch out endlessly beyond the horizon, beyond the imagination, where movement is measured in one dimension, forward, and where your body and your mind stand alone like a dot in the center of an unfathomable blank canvas. When I lived there, I couldn’t wait to leave, to find the mountains, the Mountains. But, perhaps I have brought those flat spaces with me and carry their lonesomeness inside me.
We didn’t actually make up much time on the coast. Our bursts of speed were interrupted by constant road maintenance and, weary of the semi-trucks, a detour to a smaller road which was less traveled, but proved far less smooth. When we reached our destination in Huaraz, we discovered that our friends who had split with us in Cajamarca and traveled through the mountains had already arrived several hours earlier. I felt a ridiculous disappointment, as if we had been in some kind of race that we were sure to win.
But of course we were not racing and had even taken an afternoon to explore the intriguing Moche ruins of Cao and see in-person the tattooed mummy woman for which the ruins are famous. Pondering the life and passions of mummified corpses has become an accidental Peruvian pastime of mine. Her skin still displayed the markings of an ancient artisan, which carried through the centuries the mythology of a faded culture, like a manuscript of flesh, wrapped in layer upon layer of cloth, into which was woven in thread a crude face, a burial face (perhaps to be recognized by her ancestors in heaven), and then hidden, first by men and then by time. She was discovered by shamans, who, guided by visions summoned by the San Pedro cactus, felt her presence speak to them from the tomb—that she was a woman, a royal, a healer who knew the secrets of the ocean, who at a young age died giving birth to her fourth child. She must have been loved, revered, perhaps worshiped. Did she save someone’s life, win a war, speak for the gods? Was she afraid when she died, did she see it coming? Did her child live, did she imagine seeing her grow into adulthood? Behind her grinning, slack-jawed skull, she holds many secrets. Her face has been digitally reconstructed and a model has been made—life-size, sitting on a pedestal of her height, gazing placidly forward. We were asked to close our eyes and feel her face with our hands. It felt startlingly intimate. At a touch, that withered tattooed body, those fingers and those toes so well-preserved, that spirit who bid the shamans to discover her, and this face with its silky texture, in the darkness (the darkness of my closed eyelids, which could just as easily have been the darkness of night, or lost memory, or time) felt like a living complete woman, silent and still and strong. I felt as though I should ask permission, and ask a pardon for my ignorance. For I did not understand the manuscript, I could not read the book. I was just a voyeur, another witless witness gawking at her decrepit mortal remains.
The highway stretched out still through a wasted desert landscape, through a faded savage kingdom, where once humans marched, moved stones, waged ritual war, sacrificed throngs of warriors and drank their blood to satisfy forgotten gods perhaps or to prolong the vitality of long diminished rulers. The sun was setting. We rode on through the gray, salty fog, pushing the speedo needle higher and higher. Gradually a thick, obscuring film built up on my visor. Like sand burying a temple.