I flicked a bead of perspiration off the Red Bull on the table. Ahead of me was a hundred and seventy kilometers of desert. I figured with the help of some stimulants I’d be able to cover that in three days if I walked into the night.
“I’ll need another,” I said to the young man. I grabbed a warm Red Bull from the shelf.
The young man, his black leather jacket scuffed brown on the sleeves from use, smiled politely.
“How is it in there? The desert? Are there gas stations?”
“Gas stations? No, there’s nothing.”
“But I mean for water, is there anything in the desert for water?”
“There isn’t anything.”
I drummed my fingers on the table. I’d heard the same from at least five other people. The gravity of no water for four days was beginning to sink in. The last town was nearing. I wasn’t nervous, walking through the Peruvian desert was something I’d dreamt of since seeing a picture of Karl Bushby amongst the dunes at seventeen. However, I needed to be prepared.
“Eh. One more.” I took a third Red Bull. If I hurried that’d be one for each day.
The young man lifted a Red Bull and turned it over. There were dents on it so he swapped it for a dent-free can.
“There’s nothing in there? There has to be a gas station.”
“And how far to the last town?”
“From here, walking, maybe an hour.”
I tapped the Fitbit on my shoe. It was only two o’clock. Ideally I’d stop for the night before the last town so in the morning I could load up with water. I wasn’t willing to stop at three though.
I paid the man. My three Red Bulls sat in the back basket of my cart. One of them perspired, making the silver can glisten. The Red Bull called to me. I considered drinking it and walking into the night. Instead, I held off. If I was going to walk into the night I’d drink the Red Bull later on.
Ahead was a toll. Vendors pushed brightly colored drinks on the drivers of slow-moving cars. I walked to the left where a lane was closed. Women held out bags of diced sugar cane and I waved them off. A cop leaned on the guard rail. I removed my sunglasses as I approached him.
“How’s it going?”
The cop stood straight. He was middle age with thick graying hair. “Good. You?”
“Good, good.” I looked down the road pensively and grinned. “I’m about to walk through the desert. Are there any gas stations in it?”
The cop waved his finger, signaling no.
“For water. Will there be something in the desert for water?”
“There are trucks passing.”
I stared down the road again and the cop stared with me, as though looking for something only I could see.
“And if I walk at night, will it be safe?”
“Sure, but you should rest during the night.”
“It’s cooler. I don’t want to be in there very long. I want to pass through as fast as I can.”
The cop pinched the shoulder of his uniform. He tugged on the fabric roughly to straighten the collar. “Smart.”
We shook hands then I continued.
The road was long and straight. It rolled for a while until flattening out. I walked in a fever, both eager to delve further into the extreme ecosystem and anxious to get out of it as quickly as I could.
Restaurants appeared much farther down the road than I was expecting. With each restaurant I passed I’d think, “That’s it. I’m really gone now.” Then an hour later there’d be another restaurant – a single room concrete building with a bamboo outhouse around back.
The landscape changed slowly. Tall thorn bushes were the only plant life for hours.
My cart was weighed down with water, the tires nearly pancaked and even pushing it on flat road a challenge. I had two five liter dromedary bags and a pair of two and a half liter bottles. The water alone amounted to over thirty pounds. I feared my axle snapping so I moved a bottle to my backpack. The bottle only fit halfway, its top pointed out. My camelbak was full, that was another two liters, and I had my two pound battery in my backpack too. I could feel all the extra weight on my legs after a single step. I was a professional walker, walking thirty miles a day at times, but I rarely walked with more than a few pounds on my back.
I did as well as I could with the extra weight. I wasn’t moving as quickly as I would have liked, but I was excited so I managed.
When the sun fell the sky was purple. A full moon lit the sand a pallid white. I’d pressed far into the desert and wanted to walk further, but I was tired. My legs were sore from the added weight. At a sandy path I turned toward the power lines running along the Pan-American.
Savannah ran ahead once she was off the leash. I laid my tarp beyond the power lines, further in the desert, far from the road. Thorn bushes were still the only plant life. I swept at the ground with my journal to ensure I didn’t get a thorn in the ear at midnight.
Since there were no mosquitos I thought I’d sleep exposed on the tarp, but the wind was strong, throwing sand, so I erected my tent for protection. I kept one side of the tent open and laid with my head outside.
When I woke at five my legs were sore like it was my first month walking. That little bit of extra weight had taken its toll on me.
The road had a shoulder so I walked in the early darkness. At first light I sat on the side of the road with Savannah’s head on my lap and drank a Red Bull. The sugar sparked through my mouth.
I bent forward to stretch my hamstrings and was halted mid-stretch by the tightness in my back. I rubbed my fists into my thighs, then into my back. It was cool and windy which should have made for easy walking, but even with the Red Bull walking was a trudge. I could only manage two miles at a time.
Around nine a gray building appeared in the distance. A restaurant. I could see trucks parked in front of it.
Twenty minutes later I was stepping inside with Savannah. Wind coming through the doorway swirled sand on the floor. A pair of truckers ate at one table while another trucker waited for his food at another table across the room. The windows were small squares behind bars. The glass was so dusty light barely made it in. No one looked up at me.
A woman about my age came from the back room to greet me. She was pretty in a last call sort of way. She was fit, but had a big nose and unfriendly eyes. Her outfit was all pink. A deep V lined with faux fur announced her modest cleavage.
“What do you want?” she asked, seemingly annoyed I decided to patronize her restaurant.
“Do you have eggs?”
“Oh.” Everyone had eggs, every restaurant I’d ever walked into had eggs. Not so in the desert apparently.
“We have chicken.”
She nodded curtly, glancing at the man sitting by himself in the corner. Then she turned.
“And a coffee too, please!”
She didn’t acknowledge the request but I assumed she heard.
I sat and waited. Music played from someone’s cellphone and a singer’s tin voice bounced through the room.
I ate my plate of chicken and rice then passed the bone down to Savannah. “The coffee?” I said to the woman.
Across from me the man sitting alone sipped his coffee. He soured at the taste of it then stood and left.
A minute later hot water and a packet of instant coffee was sat in front of me. Feeling the hurt in my legs I stirred in some powder then sipped at the coffee anxiously. It was the worst coffee I’d ever had, like drinking old melted nails. I stirred in the remainder of the powder but it didn’t help the taste. I forced one large gulp, purely to get at the caffeine, then I pushed the coffee aside. It was the water I realized, water that would have laid me out for a week a year before but now something my body wouldn’t even register.
I paid then left. When I looked back to the restaurant the woman in pink was standing in the doorway watching me. Why someone had chose to build a house there I couldn’t figure out.
The miles remained difficult. I imagined doing over thirty miles but as the day progressed and I took more and more breaks thirty miles seemed a distant reality. Around noon another restaurant appeared. It was nicer than the other, the outside painted red for Coca-Cola and the inside filled by red Coca-Cola tables and chairs.
I ate in a delirium, not exactly hungry, but desperate for any sort of energy. I had a second coffee too. Then when I went to pay I saw a small bag of leaves beneath the clear counter.
“Is that coca?” I asked.
The owner, a sharp-cheeked woman, smirked. “It is.”
I’d had coca before, while I was in Colombia. It was a mild stimulant, similar to coffee but headier. Inca messengers used it to run mountain trails for hours on end.
“How much for a bag?”
About $1.25. “I’ll take a bag.”
A burly man who’d been flirting with the owner since I arrived burst out laughing. “The gringo buys coca!”
The owner laughed too.
“He’s going to fall over from it!” The burly man smacked his hands together, miming someone hitting the ground.
I glared at him, short-tempered from my aching body and frustrated at how slow I was walking. I struggled in my second language to come up with a sufficiently sharp rebuttal. “A gringo has never bought coca?” I hoped my tone portrayed what my sentence lacked.
The man swept a hand over his mustache. “There aren’t many gringos here so I don’t know.”
I said nothing in return, only looked at him dumbly. One rebuttal was enough to quell my anger and I couldn’t come up with anything else anyway.
“There are cyclists here all the time!” said the owner.
The man crossed his arms over his rotund belly. “But I don’t see them buying coca, I’m in my truck!”
The owner flicked a hand to dismiss him. “Here,” she said, nodding motherly as she slid the bag across the counter.
The moment was nothing. The man wasn’t being mean. I wasn’t being mean. Being called a gringo wasn’t derogatory in the least. But the woman washed away all the animosity in the room with a single movement. In the moment after she nodded to me I felt as though I were home in winter. The desert was forgotten, replaced by hot chocolate, a fireplace, good conversation.
Then in an instant the feeling left and I was in the desert again.
I took four soles from my backpack to pay. A few minutes later I was back on the road, stuffing my cheek with a leaf. Soon my lips were numb. The stimulant gave me tunnel vision. Road and sand reached to the horizon. The desert wasn’t as bad as I expected though, there were restaurants, and I thought I could see another restaurant somewhere far ahead.