How much could a wandering writer carry from tambo to tambo?


Salar de Atacama, Chile

From The Design Observer:

The sky is cloudless and still, and although the early afternoon temperature is only in the mid-70s, the air is incomprehensibly arid, and the sun intense enough to burn through our shirts. Downslope, heat waves shimmer over Chile’s Salar de Atacama, making the long piles of lithium 20 miles out on the salt flats seem to rise and fall like waves on a white ocean. At 1,150 square miles, the salar is the second biggest playa in the world, and unlike most intermittent dry lake beds, this one is almost permanently absent of water. Next to me, Jerry Moore turns slowly in a full circle, looking for a line of rocks, or a disturbance that might signify there was once an anthropic line within sight. Given that the slope where we are standing is mostly alluvial gravels and rocks, this seems an extravagant hope. “It’s gotta be here somewhere,” he mutters.

We’ve been walking downhill for almost a mile, and Jerry’s sure we’ve already and unknowingly crossed the Inca Road. We turn and head back toward the single tree growing out here on the bajada. Jerry is an anthropologist who for years has been excavating early settlements on the coastal plains of northwestern Peru, near Tumbes, where the Inca Road begins. We’ve previously endured archaeological adventures in Baja California, where he conducted the research for his book The Prehistory of Home. We work well together. I follow lines in space, writing about the process of humans transforming terrain into territory, while Jerry follows lines through time, investigating what the lines once connected, the traces of homes and temples and trade centers. Despite the fact that our trips invariably involve vehicular disasters, we like traveling together. Jerry speaks Spanish, which I don’t. He also packs a folding shovel wherever he goes, an asset as valuable in the desert as a towel is in the rest of the galaxy.

Now we’ve made it to the middle of the Atacama, having so far sustained only one fender bender. The trip is a chance for Jerry to examine some prehistoric Chilean settlements and see the southern end of the Inca Road. That ancient route was actually a network of roads, with two main stems: one started in Quito, Equador, and ran down the eastern side of the Andes; the other started in Tumbes and paralleled the western side of the mountains, cutting through the Atacama on its way to the terminus just south of Santiago. That’s the branch we’re seeking, the Camino de la Costa, which traversed more than 2,500 miles of some of the most difficult terrain on Earth. The Incas were nomads from the highlands of Peru who might have numbered as few as 20,000 souls when they set out to conquer and co-opt large chunks of what is now Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, northwest Argentina, northern Chile and southern Colombia into a single Empire from 1438 to 1533. They held it all together with a network of 25,000 miles of roads that linked together as many as 12 million people on both sides of the Andes.

Consider that the Incas did not have the wheel, but that their network was the largest operational road system in the world until the 19th century. Consider that, where it was used for ceremonies, the road could be as wide as 65 feet and paved for more than a dozen miles. Consider that it had bridges, tunnels, forts, temples and inns along the way, not to mention a spur that climbed astonishingly to Machu Picchu. Consider that we can’t find the bloody thing.

“On the Road Home”, William L. Fox, The Design Observer