Thursday, 28 July 2011


from the window at Fuente De
An angel dropped us off in the mountains, and another one picked up our worn-out carcasses out on the plains a week later.
We started our hike at a clifftop monastery, and ended it -- spiritually at least -- at a severe little Cistercian sanctuary with 20 sisters singing psalms.

In between was seven days of breathtaking, knockout, spectacular scenes -- glacial cirques, thousand-foot walls of rock, gangs of Scouts camped out in meadows, salamanders, eagles, storks, owls, cows and calves, goats and kids, even a baby donkey. (Baby donkeys may be the most cute things on this planet.)

I walked the Camino Vadiniense with Kathy, my best camino mate. She traveled here from San Francisco to do this hike. She walks at the same speed I do, she knows a million stories and can identify all kinds of plants, and she knows how to pray. She has a disturbing ability to look chic and fashionable, even halfway down a mountain with a high wind blowing. But I forgive her for that.

It was cold up there, and lonesome. These mountains are prime tourist territory, and Spain is supposed to be on vacation about now. The "Crisis" is cutting deep up north, deep enough that the national bus company is only sending out one bus every three days from Leon to Potes. Tracy, an expat author and lover of arcane Spain, lives down in Andalucia, but was passing this way in her car. She gave Kathy and I a ride up to the mountains, saving us about seven hours on a combination of trains and buses. With Tracy we scanned facsimiles of bizarre apocolyptic manuscripts written in the neighborhood about a thousand years ago, and put on display in downtown Potes. We wandered the twee town, saw the nice (and empty) pilgrim albergue, and touched with our own fingers the True Cross relic so deeply revered at the Monastery of Santo Toribio de Liebana, up on the nearest mountain.

We left Tracy up there, and hiked 20 kilometers up the Deva river to Fuente De -- home to a cable-car that hauls the hardy another 500 or so meters up to the very top of the peaks and the trail-heads that scatter outward from there. It´s the edge of the Picos de Europa national park, a huge patch of skyscraper peaks that march in ranks right up to the Cantabrian Sea. We were, apparently, the only guests in our Fuente De hotel. The tour buses looked empty. The queues at the cable-car station just were not there. We were too tired to care very much, and the next day promised even more high-altitude wanderings.
the reservoir at Riaño

The maps tell us the mountain path we followed is only about 11 kilometers long, but it took us five hours to reach the Pandetrava Pass from Fuente De. We walked in glory, with eagles hovering overhead and long, green views down valleys and upward to the blue heaven. (The weather was very kind -- it was apparently pouring rain on the Leon side of the massif.) We ate a soft white cheese we bought in Camaleño, drank water from the springs along the route, cooled our toes in the watersheds and stock-watering tanks. The ten additional kilometers to Portilla de la Reina were gently downhill, following a babbling river past sheep herds and massive mastiff dogs. We were beat, and the paved surface was not kind to our feet. This is a stupendous camino, but it follows narrow valleys -- once you leave the mountain trail, there´s often noplace to walk but along the quiet country road. Which is covered in asphalt.
The locals

We slept in a private albergue in Portilla, a tiny town nestled in the folds of three mountains. The roof above us was new, and snapped and groaned all night. "It took those timbers a hundred years to grow. Now it will take them a hundred years to die," the owner said. I heard no other noise.
a water fountain/ancient tombstone

We walked a narrow gorge, then a tractor path along a stream with a thriving marijuana plantation on one bank. We dined like queens at a truck-stop in Boca de Huergano, and followed alongside the haunted reservoir of the Embalse de Riaño, a great blue  mountain lake made when the Esla was dammed in 1990. (It´s along here we found the tombstones and rock carvings left by the Vadiniense, a pre-Roman tribe that lived here before the Romans showed up, and gave their name to the trail.) The dam project drowned nine little towns in the river valley. Their church bells hang in a little memorial park in the new concrete-and-plaster town of Riaño. When the wind blows, the bells sing and wail.

These are just the first three days of the hike. I am now writing a guide to the path for the CSJ in London, and I need to get back to that... so hang on for more travelogue soon. Here are some photos from then, and maybe even one of Kathy´s videos!

Monday, 18 July 2011

Potatoes, and Being

I have not been a full-time journalist for several years now, but I still carry a notebook, and I still write down things I see and hear that are interesting. Most of them never go anywhere, but they make for interesting reading when I find them rolled-up and stuck inside old shoes out in the barn. I sometimes wonder where I was when I wrote that. And what was I thinking?
Here is a bit of grafitto I saw on a wall and copied-down:

"Quiero hacer contigo
lo que hace la primavera
con los cerezas." 

That translates to:
"I want to do with you
the thing that Spring does
with the cherry trees." 

I looked it up. Pablo Neruda wrote that, and it is beautiful. I wonder where is that wall?

And here is a description I found, apparently I wrote this whilst hospitalera-ing someplace.

His name is Alberto, he is Italian with 71 years and a pot belly with his trousers pulled way up over it, all held together with suspenders. He is exhausted, red in the face, unshaven. He has lost the arm off one side of his eyeglasses. One of his boots is split. He is a small man carrying a huge 20-kilo backpack. He says this trail is too hard for him. He needs an optician and a shoe repair shop, a coffee and maybe a shot of something stronger. He needs to make up his mind today, whether to keep going or to get on the bus for home. I am making him coffee. It is about all I can offer him. Poor old guy. What the hell is he doing out here?

I observed the famous Goya portrait of King Carlos III dressed as a hunter, which makes the king look like a dope. The king looks a lot like my dad did, when he was acting silly. Somehow I doubt they were related.  Goobers are goobers, no matter when or where they show up in history.

I wrote about how much I would like to have a vegetable garden, and a canary. Now I have both. The hailstorm destroyed a good bit of the garden, and this week we dug out the potatoes. They are small, beautiful, and delicious. There are not very many of them, but Paddy is over the moon. He boils them, and puts some mint leaves (also from our garden) in with them, and they are More Than Tatties. This week we ate courgettes, cabbage, and a few French beans, all grown out back. A dream come true, delicious and nutritious. 

I look at these old notes, and I see how seriously I took things, not so long ago. How caught-up I was in the lives around me, how significant were the plans for next week or next year. I was still realizing dreams, I was laying foundations and learning how to navigate and occupy a new life. So much was still so  strange and terrifying.

Now we are moved-in and settled-down. We still are laying foundations, but now they are for patios and studios and garden-beds, not for entire houses. We know where to go for the best lunch, sharp knives, fresh fruit, fast trains. The people whose doings were so fascinating and intimate to ours have all given up on this place and moved back to civilization.

The Camino doesn´t stop here so much any more. I rarely volunteer as a hospitalera, unless helping out at Bruno´s or hosting people here counts toward the total. The travelers who stay with us these days are students and neo-retirees, nice, deodorized middle-class people of a particular, self-selecting, safe type. I like them, but I kinda miss the hippies and drifters and fire-worshipping stone-masons, the shrieking Spanglish-speaking Swiss ladies and the bony Germans who think they are Jesus. 

I have become safe now, too (if not deodorized). I no longer feel like a valiant pioneer. I no longer imagine the things I do are important. I am getting over doing. I am shifting slowly into being.

I am disappearing into the landscape. Which is a good thing, as this landscape is as beautiful as anyplace I have ever seen, or been.

I don´t mind vanishing, long as I can still get out and hike a trail and write a guide for it, and see it published. Long as my neighbors still manage to smile when they see me, and I can pay my bills when they come due, and long as there´s still dog food and chicken-scratch in the bins. Long as my friends and family  still love me, and come to visit now and then.

Long as I am able to notice enough to take notes. And maybe even
hago contigo
lo que hace el verano
con las patatas.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Can´t Be Easy

Beautiful weather for walking. Had three fine pilgrims from Oregon stay here last night, a teacher and two students, part of a group that´s on the Road. They were enjoyable company, but they made me feel quite old and out of touch.

This morning Patrick and I began the monumental task of moving his painting things out of the little kitchen and out to his new studio in the back yard. It is one of the domino-theory frustrations here -- in order to do Job A, you must first do Job B. But to do Job B, everything already in the corner of Space J must be moved to Space K. It is much like one of those sliding-square puzzles. I hate puzzles.

But the back yard was a shambles, and something had to be done, so me and Paddy girded our loins and set to it. We moved a big length of fence alongside the chicken coop, only slightly damaging the existing fence. We shifted a large pile of boards from one side of the woodpile to another -- they all were right-angles and Zs and Ts, spiked and studded with pointy nails and screws and bits of string. I dismantled this year´s garden irrigation hose system, seeing as the builders had pretty well demolished it anyway. I started a pile of things to go to the trash, another to go to the gardening shed, another to go to the tool storage. I was getting into the rhythm of it, accustomed as I am to feeling spiders run up my arms and bits of adobe dribble off the beams and into my hair. And then I asked Paddy to help me move a great sheet of corrugated iron from the middle of the yard into the woodshed. We couldn´t find a second pair of gloves, so I gave Paddy half of my pair. Of course you know what happened next.

No stitches, but a pretty tightly-bound bandage round the middle finger and across the palm of my right hand. So that is my excuse for not blogging more. It hurts when I type, and I don´t want to keep breaking it open. 
None of this would be remarkable, except for one factor: We expected a volunteer a week ago who was to stay right through the end of summer, helping out with these heavy chores. (We´ve been saving them up for a while now, and they´re hitting critical mass.) The guy has not called or written, nor has he answered my emails. I guess he isn´t coming. People do that a lot these days, and not just builders.

The piles are still out there.
The wheelbarrow needs to be wheeled to the bin. Paddy goes light-headed when stoop-and-lift are required. It will be a while before my right hand picks up anything heavier than a Coke bottle.
I hope it doesn´t rain anytime soon.
I hope the volunteer shows up.
I hope the cuts close up before next week. I want to go Camino-ing again!

Monday, 4 July 2011

Harvest Lost

It hadn´t rained in a month, but nobody here was complaining. The fields had gone brown to match the khaki ground. The drains started stinking of dirt. Squadrons of flies arrived, outside and in. And sometime last week the farmers received a signal that we cannot hear, and the harvest began.

Paco, a little man, climbed into the cab of his John Deere combine and disappeared behind the controls. From dawn to 1 a.m. he was out there in the fields with a herd of similar city-sized machines, lumbering through the rows of wheat, rye, alfalfa, oats, soy. On each family´s era, their ancient threshing-floor, the wheat began to heap. The new-cut fields were corrugated with lines of straw, or chockablock with bales and rolls of green or gold, drying there in the hot sun until the men came back to truck and tuck them away.

It happens fast, the harvest. Once the flurry finishes, the farmers go off to the beach for a holiday, or visit their mums in Madrid. Or cook up a fine fiesta for mid-August. The fields stand brown and dry until the next planting goes in, starting in September. 

Even at harvest time, most of our farmers take Sunday mornings off, even if only to not interrupt the Mass with their roaring, clanking machines. After church this Sunday, out on the steps outside, Pilar asked me how we´re doing. "We are OK, but for the asthma, the allergies. Even Paddy is coughing," I said. "It´s the dust, the chaff off the fields. We could use a bit of rain, no?"

Her eyes widened. "Mujer, no! The harvest isn´t finished. Rain now? No. No. Later on. Once the barn is full and the door is closed."

Faux pas. Cut grain and straw need to lie and dry for a little while before they can be baled up and stored away. Wet weather during the harvest means rot and mold, a ruined crop. That´s why it´s so important to "make hay while the sun shines." 

And seven hours later, a season´s worth of wind and stacked-up cumulonimbus rolled in from the northeast and smashed headlong into Moratinos. It took only about a half-hour, but the sideways wind, monsoon-force rain, and repeated doses of horizontally-driven hail blasted the heads off the grain still standing in the fields. Beans and grapes, tomatoes and marigolds were shredded, torn away, flattened where they stood. Carefully tended garden rows were plastered with the leaves ripped from the fruit trees.

Our patio flooded. Flowerpots floated free. The power went out. The herb garden was battered flat -- the patio filled with the fragrance of basil, cilantro, thyme, and wet earth. The rain kept coming. Murphy came howling in through the window, disgusted and muddy. 

The sun did not go down for another hour or so, but nobody went outside.
We waited until morning to go down the street. Maybe, like us, the other families were busy indoors, sweeping and mopping up the back rooms and kitchens where the wind had driven water into every little crack and fault. They were reaching shoulder-deep into the drain at the bottom of the patio, into the brown, hail-chilled water, to open the clogged grate and let the backed-up water run away.

Maybe they were asking God why the rain came now, when the fruit was just forming on the trees and vines, and so much of the feed-crop was still in the field.  

I walked the town this morning in the usual white light of July, to see what the storm had done. The hail  had a sand-blast effect on northward-facing walls. The white paint Justi put on his house last week is spalled and bubbled on one side. The front of the Alamo, rendered five years ago by professional adobe artists, is transformed -- fine gravel lies all along the pavement out front, gravel that yesterday was part of  the street-side edifice. Now all that remains of the protective render is straw and mud, clinging to the adobe bricks beneath. The straws stick out now. From down the street, when the sun hits it, the abandoned little house looks furry.

The hail beat the windows of the little adobe house for sale on Calle Ontanon. One of the window-sills is slipping. Another good storm and its right angles will slip into curves and slide down the face of the wall. (I wish I could buy it and preserve its rustic beauty, but I just don´t have the wherewithal.)  

It was rain that did the most damage, tons of water suddenly dumped onto clay so dry it´s turned to dust. The tons of dirt we hauled up to the bodega roof in May unclenched and flowed, leaving  swaths of asphalt exposed. Streams flowed beneath the door of each windward bodega, soaking the walls and doors and floors. Another piece of roof collapsed into the derelict house on the way into town. The crack in its face is a bit wider, the lean a bit more severe. Out at the abandoned Fabrica de Luz along the N120, the center part of the house fell down. And out in the fields the dogs found rabbits and mice and a lizard drowned in the ditches.

The streets are littered with stones and dirt, leaves and branches.
The men were out today with their tractors, finding out how bad it is, saving what they could. 
It´s bad, Feliciano said. The grapes are ruined. A lot of the grain is ruined. The garden? The acre of potatoes planted with such great expectation?
He shrugged his shoulders and smiled his twinkly smile. "It´s the weather. What can you do?"    

These monumental storms happen every three or four years. They are part of the rhythm around here. This very blog opened with a monumental storm, if you go back to the very start you will see it there.

I asked for rain, and got a minor disaster.
I gotta watch what I say.