July 2011

Retracing the steps of a legend

By Mark Adams
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As the actor Carleton Young declared in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That’s exactly what happened in the April 1913 issue of National Geographic, when the entire magazine was devoted to explorer Hiram Bingham III’s “discovery” of ancient Inca ruins in Peru. In his meticulously researched and marvelously readable book Turn Right at Machu Picchu, author and adventurer Mark Adams retraces the steps that led Bingham to the famed site 100 years ago this July.

Adams, whose Mr. America was named a Best Book of 2009 by the Washington Post, goes beyond merely printing the legend: He studies it, he lives it . . . and he debunks it. At first glance, it seems like Adams might have been following in the footsteps of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, given the book’s “maybe-I-should-have-worked-out-just-a-little-bit-more-before-starting-this-physically-demanding-quest” setting. Like Bryson, Adams peppers his book with interesting anecdotes, trenchant observations and frequently hilarious asides. But as the chapters (which more or less alternate between Bingham’s and Adams’ expeditions) fly by, both the book’s scholarship and its organization also call to mind John McPhee’s excellent history/travelogue of Alaska, Coming into the Country.

Even if you’ve never traveled farther than the Jungle Cruise at Walt Disney World, you’re guaranteed to be swept up in Adams’ vivid descriptions of the near-unpronounceable sights along the Inca trail, as well as the remarkable amount of information he tactfully packs into a single paragraph:

“We walked down the mountainside beneath Llactapata and crossed the Aobamba River—an important milestone, because we were now officially inside the Machu Picchu Historical Sanctuary. Technically, this zone is a haven not only for ruins but for the diverse flora and fauna of the region. (This is one of the few safe places for the rare Andean spectacled bear, which looks like a cross between a raccoon and a black bear cub.) There is one important eco-exception—the gigantic hydroelectrical plant on the backside of Machu Picchu. John and I walked past dozens of men in matching hard hats and coveralls driving heavy machinery; a funicular ran up the mountainside. KEEP OUT signs were posted everywhere. None of this is visible from the sacred ruins directly above. It was like stumbling upon a Bond villain’s secret hideout while hiking in Yosemite.”

Perhaps, in the best-case scenario, Adams’ book might impel you to adopt the motto of one of his former employers, Adventure magazine: “Dream it. Plan it. Do it.” And at the very least, you’ll get an unparalleled insight into how demanding, and how rewarding, following that dictum can be.

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