Travels: The Sierra
Tuesday, November 1, 2005
Suddenly, overnight, it's November. And I find myself asking an old, familiar question: how the hell did that happen?
It's easy for me to lose track of time's slipping forward here at this time of the year, given the lack of Stateside seasonal affect. Halloween? Not much of a cultural touchstone, barely puts in an appearance, and what there is seems largely to be a function the occasional store window display or a bar looking for an angle to bring in customers, at least here in the city center. A recent arrival as holidays go, carrying little weight, especially compared to, say, today (All Saints Day, el Día de Todos los Santos), or even tomorrow. A national holiday, many businesses closed, many folks away for the four-day weekend. Huge numbers of people bolted on Friday, causing massive traffic jams that groups from the agricultural sector took advantage of, blocking a major highway or two to call attention to their unhappiness with spiraling gasoline prices and the current level of government support. (News reports showed footage of swarms of men clustered across a highway, stalled traffic extending off into the distance, police trying to clear away uncooperative protestors.)
My friend Jorge invited me to join a group of friends heading off into the mountains for much of the weekend, I decided to do an overnight, returning to the city with a woman from the group late on Sunday. Packed a bag late Saturday afternoon, made the ten-minute walk to rendezvous with Jorge and a friend of his, Tony, waited while they crammed bags, bicycles, related detritus into Tony's tiny Kia, found myself stuffed into what free space remained of the back seat, trying to peer out through darkly tinted windows at the passing streets of Madrid. Windows tinted darkly enough that I finally gave up, settling for the teeny slice of untinted view I could see through the windshield.
A rendezvous followed in one of Madrid's new northern 'burbs, construction happening everywhere, blocks of flats and office buildings being thrown together along newly created thoroughfares, shopping centers sprouting up amid it all, traffic around the rendezvous point bumper to bumper, moving at a crawl.
Jorge spotted one of the group, parked in a service station/convenience store island, directed Tony into that compact zone, through cars, gas pumps, pulling up by a concrete barrier, Tony complaining the entire time. A slender 30ish woman got out of the other vehicle (María), came over for hellos, stood by Jorge's window chatting until we got out to stretch legs, when a third car appeared, containing the group's final two members (Juan Carlos, Almudena), folks I knew from excursions and evenings out last spring. Greetings, conversation, then individuals re-distributed themselves among the three vehicles, me ending up with María, happy to be in a front seat, surrounded by undarkened windows.
We were to follow Tony/Juan Carlos, that plan fell apart once out on the highway, between María's lack of driving testosterone and her car's modest horsepower compared to Tony's, who floored it, disappearing off into the distance as we headed northwest, evening falling as the mountains gradually drew near. We're driving along, making conversation, my Spanish feeling a bit sloppy, me realizing it was because I was tired (my bod dreaming about getting horizontal, me knowing that wasn't in the cards for many hours). María had spent a month traveling around the States a year, year and a half ago, we talked about that for a while. Time passed, it became clear that we'd truly been left in the dust, neither of us had any idea how to get to our destination. María's mobile phone got dug out of her shoulder bag, I found myself on the horn with Juan Carlos, whose family's country place we were going to. He began reeling off directions, enumerating names of exits, towns, landmarks to look for -- I knew within seconds that I'd never remember any of it without having it on paper. With no writing implements in easy range, I shoved the phone at María, she gave JC some heartfelt shit about them leaving us behind, went through directions with him, seemed to do all right.
Seemed to. But suffered from a certain vagueness, a chronic uncertainty that took us off the highway too soon, through a pueblo whose points of reference were not a match to Juan Carlos' directions. We bumbled along, eventually finding what seemed to be a correct turn, winding up on a country two-lane, no lights anywhere, the occasional car that came up behind us riding the rear bumper, passing as soon as they could, immediately impatient with Maria's slow, vacillating pace. Her headlights were out of adjustment, illuminating little of the pavement ahead on low-beam, she clicked back and forth between high-beam and low with nervous frequency.
Juan Carlos had told her, she said, that the village we sought would appear quickly. Twenty, twenty-five minutes later, we continued bumbling along, finding no mention of the village on road signs to that point.
Wednesday, November 2, 2005
Somewhere in there my bladder decided it had reached capacity, began signaling urgently for relief. Result: much bouncing and jiggling (discretely, I hoped), me warning María that we were going to need to stop sometime soon, her refusing to pull over, saying it was too dangerous (the roadside having no shoulder, giving immediately off onto grassy earth). Got me remembering a cold, late autumn night years back, driving along Alewife Parkway on the Cambridge/Arlington, Mass. line. Me in the driver's seat, the woman I was then involved with next to me, her 6 or 7 year old boy in the back seat. Without warning, the little guy's bladder hit capacity, he began calling for relief, wild squirming about quickly escalating to writhing/squealing. Me reluctant to pull off, the road having no shoulder, just a low curb and grassy earth.
It became apparent real damn quick that if the car didn't come to a halt, the levee would burst with big consequences. I slowed (as cars behind, in the finest Boston area tradition, hit their horns), got the wheels over the curb and up onto the grass. My sweetie and her progeny were immediately outside, opening up the little guy's far too abundant cold weather clothing, cries of distress subsiding as the greenery got watered.
A memory that got me wondering if María was going to force me to disgrace myself instead of allowing me a shot at relative dignity and quick weight-loss.
At which time, the car's headlights picked out a roadsign indicating the pueblo loomed ahead. We soon arrived at the outskirts, at a crossroads with nonexistent signage, forcing us to guess which turn to take. Found ourselves heading up an incline, through a tight archway into ancient, narrow stone streets. In Pedraza, the road immediately forking, neither of us with any idea which way to go, me urging María to make a decision as I needed relief pretty damn quickly. A minute later, the car nosed its way into a small plaza -- one of the ancient buildings contained a restaurant, I was out the door and moving toward the entrance in no time flat. Miraculously, the other four members of the group appeared from the door I hurtled toward -- I said hello as I shot by, was gone before they could reply, hit a restroom seconds later where internal pressure was released, balance restored.
Post-restroom bliss: the restaurant had a small darkwood bar tucked away in the foyer with two lovely young woman waiting to cater to us. We indulged them, stood around sipping cañas, trying out the complimentary finger food -- pork rinds powdered with what tasted like a combination of nutmeg and pimentón dulce. Works better than it sounds, trust me. And even so, I didn't want more than two or three bite-sized bits. Everyone else in the group was all over them, inhaling three small platesful -- platefuls? platesfuls? I can never remember -- in rapid succession. If the expressions on the faces of the two young women were any gauge, we were an entertaining group. And after amusing them for a while, we finished up, walked out into the night, found our way through an ancient passageway into the pueblo's plaza. Which turned out to be hauntingly beautiful, the night sky above shining with stars, a strong autumn wind whipping through it all.
The others had talked about stopping briefly in at another joint before finding a place for a genuine meal. We wandered into a small, ancient watering hole off the plaza, everyone ordered a glass of something, a couple of plates of meat 'n' cheese got hoovered down. Then out back into the night for a walk outside the medieval town's walls to gaze at the nighttime countryside, Juan Carlos filling me in on some of the area's history, me learning that his parents were natives of the town where we'd be spending the night, a pueblo whose population had shrunk to, he said, about seven. Then we were back inside Pedraza, wandering old stone streets, past old stone walls (Jorge stopping to climb as many as he could manage), finally heading into a lovely, comfortable-looking restaurant with its own small plaza, a place one or two of the others called 'pijo' -- an unflattering term meaning 'yuppy,' 'overpriced,' 'pretentious.' Which should have given me a clue, so that I wouldn't have been so surprised when they all headed into the bar instead of the restaurant. I mentioned that I was looking for an actual, substantial meal, not more nibbling. They initially ignored that, then made the mistake of handing me a tapas menu, telling me to order whatever I wanted. Three big plates of excellent food showed up soon after, everyone at the table lay waste to them in short order (complaining only when the bill arrived).
Friday, November 4, 2005
Something that nearly always seems to be the case here in Madrid: whatever group of people I'm hanging with, no matter how big or small, I'm generally the oldest. And often the only one with gray hair. Kind of strange, now that I think about it. There's something cultural at work there, meaning that many folks my age back in the States have a younger feel to them, seem to slip into the mindset of being old -- of experiencing physical decline, no longer feeling youthful -- later than most folks I see of that age here. There seem to be clearer divisions drawn here when it comes to the image of what it means to be a given age, the roles and self-images an individual adopts and identifies with as that number increases. People do that stateside as well, but the image of actually getting or being old has evolved, youthfulness now being a perceived quality that endures far longer than it used to. I suspect that's beginning to happen here, but it's a change only getting underway.
All of which is to say that this weekend, once again, I was the oldest. And that seemed to play a role at times in how the others interacted with me. That and the fact that they all knew each other better than they knew me, that my Spanish had limitations theirs didn't. There were times conversation went on all around me, 'around' being the operative word, dialogue curving in space around my contours of my body as it passed back and forth between speakers, leaving me in a pocket of quiet amid all the noise. Watching, listening. Happened out on the street, walking around the pueblo, happened in the bar of the pijo joint. Giving me time to absorb all the rest of the input. In the bar, a fútbol match played on the TV, a few locals hung about watching, talking, eating, drinking. Conversation flowed around our table, food appeared, got hoovered rapidly down.
And then we were outside in the brisk air, heading toward the cars. Somewhere during the evening, Juan Carlos had taken us to check out the village's castle -- the genuine article, old, impressive, shining in the darkness courtesy of discretely-placed floodlights. It loomed in the background as we mounted up, got underway, the wind giving the night a strange, wild feel.
I found myself riding with Tony, the member of the group I knew the least. 30-something, slender, close-cropped black hair, longish, pencil-thin sideburns, ears that bent outward at the top (suggesting wings), a small gold hoop hanging from one earlobe. A person whose vibe seemed to shift quite a bit, sometimes coming across as an alpha male, a bit distant, opaque, other times more open, more sympathetic, with a nice smile. I suspect he didn't know exactly what to make of me, took advantage of us sitting next to each other to ask me -- approaching it carefully, prefacing it by saying he was going to take advantage of the opportunity to lay a question on me -- how I'd come to be here. A reasonable question for which I don't have a tidy answer, so my response wandered on a while, as it tends to do when I answer that question. He listened, speaking infrequently, nighttime countryside passing outside the windows.
My response finally petered out, we pulled into a small road, parked, fell out into the brisk night air. Right outside a small compound, the house belonging to Juan Carlos' family. A large metal combo door/gate gave onto a small courtyard and the door to the house. Inside: hallway, stairs, small kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living room (with fireplace, which Jorge immediately got to work on). More bedrooms upstairs, for whenever the hell people might want to get some sleep.
Sunday, November 6, 2005
Juan Carlos turned on the heat, Jorge built a fine fire, a soireé took form in the small living room, the hour approaching 1 a.m. JC opened up the household liquor cabinet, began distributing glasses of hooch, insisted I had to try some kind of whiskey or scotch despite my 'no, gracias.' I took the glass foisted on me (recognizing the excellent intentions behind the foisting, and Juan Carlos is nothing if not a high-quality person -- generous, intelligent, good-natured), held onto it while everyone else sipped or hoovered their drinks, unobtrusively put it aside later.
Four of the group had squeezed together onto the sofa, Jorge and I sat in chairs. They talked and laughed, I enjoyed them but stayed mostly quiet. Tired. At some point, Tony began drifting off, shook himself awake, announced he was ready to hit the hay. I hopped on that bandwagon, got assigned a guestroom, slipped into bed soon after.
The heat, by that time, was cranking like it meant business, my teeny bedroom inching its way from 'bake' to 'broil.' I shut the radiator down, it turned out to be one of those that didn't know the meaning of the word 'off.' The bedcovers consisted of a sheer, lacy, nearly nonexistent sheet and a thick, spongy bedspread -- one not substantial enough, the other way too substantial. I think I reached a compromise, covered the bottom half of my bod with the spread, only used the sheet from the waist up (feeling like I'd just put on a negligeé). One does what one can.
Outside, the wind blew. After an hour or two of sleep, I got up to dump the ballast, saw that a light remained on in the living room, where Almudena had been assigned the sofabed. I heard coughs, the sound of a page turning.
Returned to bed, slept fitfully.
A strange thing about nights of less than optimal sleep: come morning, it takes me just as long to come to as on normal a.m.'s. Which is to say a while. Two, three hours, even with the benign assistance of caffeinated fluids. If I'm already awake or have only been skimming the surface of sleep, wake-up time should be proportionally shorter, shouldn't it? Doesn't seem to work that way. (Grumble, grumble.)
That particular morning, I shuffled into the kitchen around 10, found María and Almudena trying to get the water heater lit. I figured it was like the one in my flat, needed time to produce a stream of gas after being shut off for extended periods. They let me take over, I eventually got it up and running. Which meant hot water for a shower, something else that helps me with the morning return to something resembling a sentient life form.
Post-that, returned to the kitchen, found María, Almu, Tony, drinking café, eating sweet stuff, blabbering away like actual high-functioning humans. I poured a cuppa, sat down to sip it, look out the barred window at the autumn sky (clouds just beginning to allow sunlight through), listen to conversation. Juan Carlos showed shortly after, Jorge after that, people finished up, pulled on clothes, headed out to the cars for the day's first activity.
Driving along Spanish country roads, houses far and few between, though piles of cut timber waiting for transport to mills seemed surprisingly numerous. Me with Almudena and Jorge, beginning to approach something resembling normal consciousness, pulling out my camera now and then, aiming it at whatever caught my eye.
A brief stop at a local tourism office -- open on Sunday morning, an attractive 20-something woman behind the counter handing out great maps of local trekking possibilities -- then we took a dirt road up into hilly land, pulled over, got out of the cars to the sound of cowbells and high winds blowing through trees and brush. Followed a dirt road up a slope that led to broad expanses of land, panoramic views, the breeze at times approaching gale force, suggesting all one would need to do to take off would be extend arms and let go. The kind of conditions that clear my head, or at least induce a bracing illusion of clarity.
The cow poop in the middle of the track near the bottom of that last image? An omen. Cows roamed freely in this area, leaving poop piles of unnerving size and number, in my experience only surpassed by a truly surreal dog poop minefield along a stretch of sidewalk in Manhattan's upper east side ten or twelve years back. My mother's side of the family were upstate New York farmers, I never saw anything on their spreads that compared with the thoroughness of the cow leavings here. Like fecal carpet bombing in certain spots.
Tony and Juan Carlos disappeared together up a hillside (completely innocent, just walking/talking, nothing homoerotic about it), the rest of us continued along the path. Spectacular views, intense wind. Passed a family of Latinos out on a Sunday jaunt, looking to be an extended clan of South or Central American lineage. Passed a couple of hunters standing by a truck, rifles in hand, staring as we passed, returning a greeting with a curt head-nod. I found myself walking with Almudena not long after, her recounting a bit about a summer's-end trip to Senegal, one in which a ferry being out of service necessitated a long detour through 100 or so miles of back-country, along roads like the one we followed. Not exactly, I got the idea, the trip they'd been expecting.
A short time later we heard gunfire, not far away. Almu glanced around uncertainly, clearly not wild about our proximity to that kind of activity. Me neither, given how close by it sounded. We continued on, the loop we were on pointed us back in the direction of the car, we went with it. Reached the vehicle, called Tony/J.C., let them know we were heading to a nearby town. Mounted up, took off.
Tuesday, November 8, 2005
Woke this morning up in the wee hours, the neighborhood outside quiet. Could feel I wouldn't be getting back to sleep right away, turned on the bedside light to read for a bit. Opened up a book, found myself needing to stop now and then to look up a word (part of the cost of the ongoing learn-Spanish thing), began thinking how nice it would be to have what's called a photographic memory. Which got me remembering Ricky Berg, a guy I knew in junior high who actually had a photographic memory. I remember him telling me how easy it made certain kinds of homework, I remember staring at him as he talked, thinking about the possibilities. Which got the me of here/now thinking about how I experience and process this life of mine.
It's not photographic, exactly. More along the lines of a vivid process of absorption, me in the middle of whatever's happening, senses working away (like, er, everyone else on the planet, I suppose). Watching, listening, etc., often with a slight sense of something I could maybe call remove. Not distance, exactly, a word that suggests a kind of not-feeling. A slight remove. Or something. Whatever it is, I sure as hell am feeling while I'm in the middle of it all. And adoring the show, even in the weird times.
I found myself with Jorge, María, Almudena, post-morning hike, doing the watching/listening thing in a bar/restaurant in a old, old village -- locals streaming in and out in Sunday mode, coming from church or on the way to Sunday dinner, appearing to be mostly family groups, sometimes three generations, lots of kids and teenagers about. J., M. and A. ordered liquid refreshment, a plate or two of finger food. I -- having eaten nothing at breakfast, the only available fare being heavily sugared -- ordered juice, water, a sandwich, the others countered with another round of food/drink. Noise, energy, conversation. Tony and Juan Carlos showed up at some point, briefly disappeared to pick up bags of provisions for the evening's dinner, reappeared settled down with us for a while.
In his food run, Juan Carlos picked up the single largest, heaviest bar of chocolate I've ever come across. So thick, so dense that someone had to use a knife and some elbow grease to break a chunk off, fingers alone lacking the torque or muscle mass to get the job done. Not to be used lightly, this chocolate, not for baking or for making cups of hot liquid. To be employed as a weapon. A club or bludgeon. Or as an anchor, to stabilize hikers trying to make some headway in the face of gale force winds.
But I blabber.
We collected our stuff, filed outside (our table immediately disappearing beneath the heaving mass of an extended family looking for somewhere to sit, and the term 'heaving mass' is only a slight exaggeration of the way they took over the space we'd just occupied). Headed back to the car through a river of locals exiting an ancient church, drove to another village for what I thought would be a meal. Turned out to be a rerun of the situation from the evening before, stopping at another joint for liquid refreshment and finger food, me the only lonely soul jonesing for something more substantial. A joint in a lovely village, a pueblo that looked like it might provide a nice life, the streets alive with locals out for Sunday socializing, the various restaurants, pubs, bakeries packed with customers.
At the previous place, Jorge had received a call from two friends of his, friends the rest of the group didn't seem quite so crazy about. We waited for them to show, me enjoying the scene, when they arrived, everyone in the original group except Jorge took off for a second, more ambitious hike, me opting to go with them. So that in short order, I found myself crammed into a small car with four other folks, heading out of the village toward mountains and dark, overspreading clouds.
Thursday, November 10, 2005
Once again, I found myself amid talking people, no conversation coming my way. And not resisting it, the scenery outside becoming dramatic enough, compelling enough to hold my full attention as the car headed deeper into actual mountains, steep, forested slopes angling up toward darkening skies. At a certain point, the landscape changed from mixed forest to pine forest, enormous, tall old pines, extending away both uphill and down, a kind of landscape I hadn't experienced in a long while.
The car stopped, parked outside a gate, we got out and slipped past the barrier, heading down a dirt road into quiet, no sound except my traveling companions' voices and the wind in the trees. And in the moments when conversation ceased, or when I allowed the others to get well ahead of me, the silence that settled in felt total, a kind of silence that wind in trees only seems to deepen, if you know what I mean.
Quiet. Seemingly endless pine forest. And cow poop. (Visible here to either side of the trail.)
Same as with the morning's hike: cow poop everywhere. Strangely sizeable mounds of it. This time with nary a cow in sight. Just us five humans, trying to keep our hiking footwear poop-free.
The trail extended on and on, at one point skirting a section of forest that contained old open-air buildings, apparently a camp, at one time, for, well, fascist youth, during the time of the dictatorship. Now an assortment of empty, quiet buildings, spread out among tall pines, the space around the camp dotted with a few ingenious rustic fountains, a couple of them still spouting cold, clear water. A ghost camp, access to most of the structures closed off by strung wire.
Rain started up, began coming down as if it meant business. Falling heavily enough that an hour into the hike I began thinking about turning back, getting ready for the return to Madrid that evening. At which point the others left the trail, began heading straight up the slope, unmindful of shrubbery, plentiful rocks, steady rain. Hunting for a certain kind of conifer (which came as news to me). María gamely slogging along, despite wearing footwear made for city streets, not steep, rock-strewn, rain-damp mountainsides. And when they finally stumbled across one of the trees, they examined it, paused to talk/take a breather. One or two moved off to water the abundant moss and lichen, the rest discussed continuing uphill. I voted against, citing my need to return to the city that evening, strongly suggesting we head back to the car, head back to the house. They listened, agreed, we began the return hike, the sound of rainfall all around, surprisingly loud, streams that had been minimal on the trip in already beginning to swell.
The ride back to the house -- going from deep forest/deep mountains to small village then back out into open country -- included a detour through a teeny, nondescript hamlet to stop in at a surprisingly pricey furniture/antiques joint, dealing in an extensive spread of fare both interesting and cheesy. It's everywhere, the antiques biz.
At the house: me making a fire (not getting why it wouldn't catch until Juan Carlos remembered to tell me about the built-in fireplace fan, apparently an integral part of the process, immediately transforming me from puzzled loser to world-class fireplace dude), María and Tony making dinner in the kitchen. A homemade tortilla con patatas, which would have made me happy all by itself. Tony, however, conjured up a vinegar-based dipping sauce, the first time I've ever eaten tortilla with a salsa. Turned out to be so addictively spectacular that the meal disappeared in no time flat, all of us sitting around the living room coffee table, eating simple, excellent food at near supersonic speed.
Jorge and his friends materialized after the inhaling of the tortilla. People tried convincing me to stay the night, but I had work to do the next day, I was ready to go (the thought of trying for a night of sleep with eight partying Spaniards in that small house did not appeal).
María, the other person in the group with things to do in Madrid the following day, was my ride home. Still not completely sure of herself on the local roads, much smoother once we made the highway. Rain fell on and off all the way into town, mist rose from moist earth in the light of passing towns' streetlamps.
And suddenly we were in the city's northern reaches, María pulling over at la Plaza de Castilla, me dragging my bag out from the back seat, doing the two-cheek good-bye kiss thing, heading down into the Metro to catch a half-empty train into the center.
A short, simple jaunt -- 26, 27 hours. Out and back, really, nothing more. Hard to believe it's taken me so long to lay it out here.
Or not so hard to believe, given the number of things this simple overnight's gotten me thinking about. Self-examination, mostly. Nothing I'll inflict on anyone but myself, at least not now.
Later, maybe. Won't that be fun?