This following is excerpted from The Jeweled Highway: On the Quest for a Life of Meaning by Ralph White, published by Divine Arts.
Most young males have the impulse to push themselves to the limit, to test their capacities. For my father and grandfather’s generations, they had no choice but to find their tests in the trenches of the Somme or the fields and towns of Normandy and Nazi-occupied Holland. For many of my age in America, Vietnam, or the struggles against the war, pushed them to find parts of themselves of which they had been unaware. For me, this time of youthful testing was South America.
There is nothing in Central America to prepare you for Colombia. After months of easygoing people, mostly poor but friendly, Barranquilla was a very rude shock. An air of menace seemed to hang over. It seemed that life was cheap, and blood flowed easily.
A few days after arriving, while attempting to travel from Santa Marta to Cartagena, my bus broke down in the hardcore slums of Barranquilla, and it was every man for himself. I was the only foreigner on board and, instead of trying to flag down a taxi and heading for somewhere vaguely safe, I was in money-saving mode and tried to make my way on foot to a bus stop. Unfortunately, a gang of destitute youths was in the way.
This was the only time in my life I have known a direct physical attack with a broken bottle. Set upon by two men at night in a neglected, rubbish-strewn public park, there was no appeal to reason. One of them had a maniacal strength born of some kind of derangement. When he tried to get his bottle edge near my throat, I forgot all notions of fair fighting. I grabbed the bastard’s hair and pulled it viciously with all the strength I could muster. This was enough for him to let go his iron grip on my neck and I broke from their grasp. Deciding that the sleeping bag and clothes in my backpack were not enough to die for, I used the fleetness of foot developed by years of cross-country running and headed for the streetlights and a group of people, yelling loudly, “Ladrones, ladrones,” the only word I could remember in Spanish for thieves.
My hands were cut up a little, but the shock was so intense I didn’t know if I was cut nastily on the face or not. I still had my faithful leather jacket, complete with passport and $240 worth of traveler’s checks. I found an all-night emergency clinic where they patched me up and assured me I didn’t need stitches. Briefly I pondered whether enough was enough and maybe I should head back to the safety of North America. I was deeply shocked and upset, but I wasn’t going to let this deter me from reaching Machu Picchu. I bought a couple of cheap cotton shirts and a towel, put them in a ten-cent straw bag, and headed south. It seemed that hitchhiking was not advisable in this crazy place; besides, the rickety buses were so cheap that you could cross the length of Colombia for about ten dollars. As the bus rolled inland from the coast, I began to see the outlines of the Andes and my heart soared. Outside Medellin, the war with the guerillas was happening in earnest. All males were taken off the bus, lined up at gunpoint, and searched closely for weapons. In the city itself, I had my first encounters with Colombian bar life with its scantily clad, flirtatious women who emanated an intense sexuality that was both attractive and mysterious.
After Cali, the mountains became higher, more severe, and colder. I knew nobody who had ever been this way before, and my only preparation was reading Prescott’s marvelous History of the Conquest of Peru, a tale of vicious thuggery by the conquistadors in the face of a highly developed culture. As I began to hear the otherworldly clicking sounds of the Quechua tongue, my mind turned often to the forgotten world of the Incas that had stimulated my whole trip. By the time I reached Pasto near the border, the nights had become icy and star-filled. Rattling down the mountainsides in an old bus missing half its windows, my leather jacket pulled close around me, my feet bare but for sandals after months of tropical warmth, I shivered uncontrollably. The Andes stretched away into the distance in silent vastness.
During ten days crossing Colombia, I had met only three foreigners. What would Ecuador hold? At 10,000 feet, I was entering a new world. The ubiquitous presence of DAS, the corrupt Colombian secret police always on the lookout to extort money for some minor violation, fell away. Ecuador seemed much more peaceful and sane. My funds were running very low and I still had to get to Machu Picchu and back. Should I try hitchhiking again?
I turned a corner in the border town of Ipiales and encountered a sight I had never seen before in South America: A tall blond guy with John Lennon glasses, a plaid shirt, cowboy boots, and a ponytail alongside a small, intense, dark-haired woman standing by the side of the dirt road, both with their thumbs out at passing vehicles. “Por favor, atrás. Porque no?” the man shouted in execrable Spanish as he gesticulated wildly at each truck rumbling by.
Who on earth was this? These people looked as crazy as me. I walked up to them and learned that he was Californian, she Colombian, and they were heading for Peru. We had barely begun our conversation when a pickup truck suddenly pulled over. “Wanna hit it?” Cliff said.
“Sure. Why not?” I shrugged and clambered into the back of the truck with the two of them. And thus began a saga that lasted for thousands of miles.
Cliff had a beard, baggy jeans, and was carrying a hidden machete in his big orange pack. Leda was pale skinned with jet-black hair, dressed in a polo-necked sweater and white trousers. That day was the fulfillment of a hitchhiking dream. The truck teetered along winding mountain roads, crossing crumbling bridges over chasms, enormous snow-capped mountains above us. This seemed high adventure, heading into the unknown, a spirit of exhilaration infusing my soul after the danger and stress of Colombia. I stood in the back of the truck, the wind blowing my hair wildly, epic vistas opening up with each turn of the road, and felt fully alive. Yeah, this was living; this was free and adventurous and fun.
In Quito, the Ecuadorian capital, we rested a little, and then began the longest hitchhiking run of my life to reach the capital of Peru. We hitched a ride in a big truck to Guayaquil, the sleazy Pacific port. Standing at night at a truck stop outside the city in the humid, polluted tropical air, the vast container trucks moving out of the port and heading into the darkness, it looked like it was going to be a night at the side of the road for us. But Leda, with her flirtatious charm, convinced a trucker to open the back of his empty vehicle and let us in. I will always remember the booming, echoing sound of the sledgehammer as the driver sealed us into this huge, empty container coffin and we rumbled into the night toward who knows where. Sitting on the floor in pitch darkness, every whine of the brakes shrieked and howled through this gigantic echo chamber. Vehicles coming up behind sent long laser beams of light through the cracks in the rear door, creating a bizarre sound-and-light show. Rolling through the night in a blackness filled with otherworldly howls and strange light formations, Cliff revealed his capacity to see the light side of things. “Maybe we came here to die,” he confided.
Somehow we traveled through the night, all through the next day, and then a second night in the Atacama Desert. I had never imagined that deserts would be cold at night, but this was freezing and we were glad to arrive in fog-shrouded Lima. There was nothing romantic about this place. It seemed permanently wrapped in chilly, gray mist; a depressed aura hung over the whole city. So this was the long-awaited Peru? We left rapidly and headed into the mountains towards Cuzco. Passing the snow line, still without sweater or socks, I realized I was reaching the heart of the Andes. In Ayacucho, I bought for a few dollars a brown, llama-wool poncho, thick socks, and a hat with earflaps. There was little to suggest that this would become the future scene of numerous violent acts by the Sendero Luminoso, the Shining Path guerillas. Now the sky was becoming huge and the mountains increasingly vast. For days we journeyed through tiny villages where the cemeteries were much grander than the homes. In those days you only heard that evocative Andean pipe music in the Andes themselves, and each note took me deeper into a mysteriously beautiful world.
At last we rumbled down our final, brown-and-gray mountainside into Cuzco, ancient capital of the Incas. Nobody imagined then that it would become the South American Kathmandu within twenty years, but it had an immediately impressive and mysterious air. The fortress of Sacsayhuaman high above the town confirmed all one’s suspicions that something extraordinary had happened here. Vast irregularly shaped rocks fit together so closely that you could not get a razor blade between them. I read that the Peruvian army had been unable to raise even one of these massive blocks with all the benefits of modern technology, and yet here were thousands of them fitted together impeccably. Had the modern world wiped out some body of ancient knowledge?
Determined to make it to Machu Picchu the cheapest and most mystical way possible, we decided to hitch up the Valley of the Incas. In the small village of Písac, below a mountainside covered in ancient graves, I witnessed a too-common tragedy of mountain life. The narrow dirt roads of the Andes constitute the world’s most hair-raising land travel: terrifying drops and insufficient room for two vehicles to pass. When trucks and buses met, one vehicle often had to back up with its wheels only inches from the edge of the cliff. In these mountains you chose your driver very carefully. You saw upturned trucks thousands of feet below the road in riverbeds, the result of momentary poor judgment or sheer bad luck. While in Písac, I began to hear loud wailing and weeping. Women were crying and running through the center of the village. A truck carrying a large number of the village men had gone over a cliff and killed everyone on board. How do you respond to a tragedy like this? It seemed the latest in a long line of events that have battered these stoic people since the shameless and brutal destruction of their high culture by Francisco Pizarro and his gold-obsessed thugs in the sixteenth century.
Later, hitchhiking up the Sacred Valley of the Incas, surrounded by beauty, I felt free and alive. I was walking at dusk in the midst of mysteries into the unknown, with no certainty of a bed for that night. How far was the next town? Magic was in the air amidst the towering snowcaps, and the laughter in the eyes of the Indian women who wore high, white hats and spoke with clicking tongues.
Boarding a train from Ollantaytambo for the last hour or two to the sacred city itself I felt the intense exhilaration of almost reaching my destination. We climbed off by the railroad tracks. A small fleet of minibuses provided transport for the wealthy staying in the tourist hotel at the top of the mountain, but for the likes of us, there were a few wooden shacks with crude pallets made of tree branches by the side of the river. We dropped off our few possessions and headed up the steep mountainside by a small path. It was a demanding climb, but I was so excited that I had boundless energy. It was easy to see why this place was not discovered until 1911. As we got closer to the summit, the landscape began to open up and silent grandeur began to take hold of us. Finally, at the summit, we gazed on the ancient ruins. Above us, on the opposite peak, the Temple of the Moon; before us, the Temple of the Sun. For decades archeologists had mistakenly considered this some kind of fortress. It was clear that this was a deeply holy place.
There were few visitors and they left soon. Before long, we stood pretty much alone at the hitching post of the sun at 8,000 feet. The green and brown slopes of the mountains all around us swept down to the river as it made its U-shaped curve around the sacred mountain. As evening approached, the mantle of clouds above us and the higher mountains all around formed a vast, perfect natural amphitheater with a lilac-colored dome. A profound silence settled. The only sound was the distant rushing of the Urubamba River thousands of feet below us. We stood transfixed in the spiritual heart of the Andes, our souls gripped by an overwhelming sense of awe and wonder. As dusk began to gather, flashes of lightning outlined the Temple of the Moon on the peak opposite us.
Weren’t there also other natural holy places where a mysterious combination of landscape elements and some subtle presence produced a profound feeling of reverence among sensitive people? Perhaps ancient cultures had possessed a consciousness of this that we had mostly lost. As I gazed out on this vision of sublime beauty, I knew intuitively that there were many other spots on the planet where this feeling of magical reverence was generated organically.
Those moments at Machu Picchu have stayed with me as glimpses of a deeper order beneath the surface of life. I felt a quiet humility in the face of those ancient Incan secrets, and a longing to see into the mysteries of existence with a wisdom similar to that which had clearly inspired the priests. I felt I was granted a moment of insight into divine harmonies inaccessible to the five senses, and was truly grateful. This was the apex of my pilgrimage, and I had received something unexpected — a taste of inner peace that has remained with me all my life, and a glimpse of the sacred places of the earth where the old mysteries had been celebrated. I could ask for nothing more.
We could not drag ourselves away from this transcendent scene, but as darkness had crept upon us, it was unclear how we would find our way down the mountain paths. Arm in arm so as not to lose contact we stumbled downward in the darkness, silent lightning flashes occasionally illuminating the winding track and throwing the Temple of the Moon into dramatic relief high above us. At last, we found our way to the huts where we had left our possessions, and threw ourselves down on those primitive cots. It was bitterly cold and, wrapped in my poncho, I tossed all night trying vainly to sleep.
We left the following morning on the train. The visit had been brief but perfect. Now that the object of my adventure had been accomplished, there remained the knotty problem of how to return to North America with my meager funds. Still the Andes beckoned. Surely I couldn’t head back without seeing Lake Titicaca and maybe even Bolivia. After a night or two in Cuzco, we determined to hitch for the lake. Little did I know that I was about to experience the coldest night of my life.
In some remote village, notable only for the hostility of its inhabitants to any “gringos,” we flagged down a potato truck and after some hesitation climbed on top. There we found a handful of Indians atop the potato sacks. The slow-moving truck lumbered on and the temperatures fell lower and lower. By the time we reached a high pass I was shivering uncontrollably. The zip on my trusty leather jacket broke and I could only huddle with my poncho wrapped around my feet, still suffering the ill effects of a mutton soup given us the night before in which the lumps of meat still had wool attached to them. The driver stopped at one point to pull back that tarp to prevent the potatoes from freezing, not to protect us. My fingernails cracked and began to bleed. There was no heat anywhere in my body, no ability to revive warmth by blowing on my hands or rubbing any body part; warmth had disappeared totally. We stopped to ford a river under the clear night sky. It was bitter, bitter cold.
The night went on, with endless, futile attempts to find a comfortable body position and sleep. By the time sunrise came, we had reached Lake Titicaca, and I was close to suffering from exposure. We pulled into the lakeside town of Juliaca and climbed stiffly down from the top of the truck in the early-morning sunlight. I shivered violently for the next few hours. But there was this amazing lake, stretching endlessly before us like a huge inland sea. The sun was well up before we stopped shaking, and the night seemed no more than a nightmare. Had it been real?
On the far side lay Bolivia, a land where three quarters of the people were indigenous, the Tibet of South America, somewhere truly off the beaten path at that time. I couldn’t resist. A truck ride across the Bolivian border was the small town of Copacabana, where we decided to spend the night. Here a hill rose above the lake from which the small Islands of the Sun and the Moon — the legendary birthplace of the Incan gods — were visible.
The following afternoon I climbed the nearest hillside to gaze down upon the great lake. All afternoon I sat silently on the hilltop watching the shades of Lake Titicaca turn from green to blue to indigo while scarlet clouds hung on distant mountaintops. My being was filled with an almost inexplicable sense of wholeness. My heart was full, my mind at peace, my body at rest after long exertions. But there was something more than that. Again I had the sense of being at a sacred spot, somewhere where the harmonies of Heaven and Earth were more perceptible. As I descended the hill at dusk, I had a deep sense that this feeling was why I had come so far. There was no obvious source of such satisfaction, but for hours as I gazed on those mystical waters, I had been filled with a transcendent serenity.
I had done it. I had made it to my goal, all the way from Canada, and this was my first opportunity to rest and consider after the rush of leaving the sacred city, and the agonies of the journey out of Peru. I had endured many a crisis to be sitting overlooking that wondrous lake. I felt mature and capable of facing the world. I simply sat and sat. I did not consciously meditate. I walked down to the village at dusk with the clear feeling: This is why I came to South America.
Now we were ready for the capital, and hitched a ride in an open truck with Aymara Indians, each with his cheek bulging with a wad of coca leaves. The truck stopped to ford a shallow river and we found ourselves facing a group of goose-stepping, black-shirted marines. Posters of the dictator, Hugo Banzer, with his disturbing little moustache, were starting to appear everywhere. A soldier climbed the sides of our truck to inspect us. When he saw us, his eyes widened, and he spat one word — “Heepies!” — with a look of contempt. I suppose my headband and beard didn’t help.
The empty plains seemed to go on forever; suddenly we turned sharp left and dropped steeply. A huge crater appeared in the earth. There was a large city far, far below, as if at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It was late afternoon, and the reflected pink rays from the enormous snowcap Illimani that rises above La Paz cast a beautiful if melancholic glow across the whole basin.
I had the desire to cross the Andes all the way to the savannah country in the east of Bolivia. We hitched across the Altiplano to the old silver town of Oruro, and the following morning landed a ride in a long flatbed truck all the way to Cochabamba, sixteen hours to the east. This journey stands in my memory as the most exhilarating ride I ever took. The truck passed a broken-down wooden sign reading 5,000 metres, meaning that we were approaching 16,000 feet. Sitting amongst pipes in the back of the truck, huddled together for warmth under our ponchos, we could see great condors flying high in the sky. Snowcapped peaks seemed to go on to infinity all around us. I had never felt so full, so able to see so far, so awed by the size and beauty of the world.
By the time night fell, we were under a brilliant starry canopy. That same deep love of the stars that I had experienced in Tucson three years earlier came back to me. How, I wondered, could anybody imagine that we mere human beings, on our tiny planet in this vast cosmos, have figured out the ultimate nature of reality? Beneath a brilliant night sky high in the world’s greatest mountains, it was difficult to take the certainties of scientific materialism seriously. How could we know, a mere 200 years after the rise of modern technology, that only the sense-perceptible world is real? It seemed shortsighted, to say the least.
Then it was time to head for Santa Cruz province, where Che Guevara had been killed six years previously. As we reviewed the various trucks about to set off in our direction, I knew this would be another hair-raising ride. I examined each driver very carefully to see who seemed the most sane, balanced, and sober. We made our choice, hopped in the back of the truck, and headed off. After a long, long ride, we began to feel the altitude dropping and a feeling of warmth in the evening air. This felt so foreign after months of icy cold at night ever since the mountains in the far south of Colombia.
This was the southernmost point of the journey. Now it was time to head north to Colombia; from there, fly to Miami, and then hitchhike to British Columbia. Leaving Lake Titicaca for the coast, we hitched a ride in the back of a pickup truck. Descending from the high Andes in an endless series of hairpin bends, I lay in the back of the truck, breathing that familiar South American mix of gasoline fumes and cold dust, trying to fight off nausea.
When at last we arrived in the city of Arequipa at about 4,000 feet, it felt like I had returned to “civilization” as commonly understood. As we approached the city, I could see industrial chimneys belching smoke. The faces of the residents seemed strained after the serenity of the Indian faces with which I had become familiar. That night I went to a movie theater for the first time in many months to see Paul Newman in WUSA, a film about a radio station in New Orleans. I remember nothing about the plot. What struck me with appalling force was the contorted expressions on the characters’ faces. Their anxieties had made them exceptionally ugly, or so it seemed to me after my mountain sojourn.
The whole experience of returning to modern urban life produced in me an overwhelming sensation that Western civilization was destroying both the Earth and the souls of its inhabitants. From the obscenely grim factories to the pinched, fearful, angry faces of the people, it was clear that this modern world of industry and profit that had so much of the planet in its grip was fundamentally out of balance with the universe. Right down to the deepest core of my being, I felt this truth. The world today must be restored to health and well-being.
I did not set out on a self-conscious vision quest in going to South America, but I had inadvertently experienced one. I knew from that point on that my life’s work needed to be about restoring wholeness to the human spirit and to the natural environment.
At Machu Picchu and Lake Titicaca, I had tasted insight into the sacred dimensions of the world. Now I saw with piercing intuitive clarity how this forgotten sense of harmony with the cosmos must be restored if we are to have a viable future. In a sense, the goal of the journey had been accomplished. I would return a changed man.
North America beckoned. In Lima, everything depended on maximizing my paltry financial resources. My Colombian friend and co-traveler, Leda, went out one day to the black marketeers to change into dollars the little money left from the various currencies acquired since the border of Ecuador months before. Then she disappeared. Cliff had remained in La Paz, and for two days I paced and wondered and worried. At six o’clock in the morning there was a knock on the door of my cheap little hotel near the Presidential palace. I answered with some trepidation. There was Leda. She looked at me and I could see tears in her eyes. “Ay, yo he perdido toda la plata,” she moaned. She had lost all the money and been harassed relentlessly by the police for days simply because she was Colombian.
By a stroke of good fortune, I happened to have two twenty-dollar bills in my jeans pocket. I was 6,000 miles from home. Now it was really time to return. The only question was how.
Join Ralph White at The Alchemist’s Kitchen in NYC on Monday, September 19, where he’ll be giving a talk on the Rosicrucian Enlightenment and the roots of Western alchemy. Learn more here.