|photos by David, whose last names I must find|
The alarm went off at 6 Sunday morning. I rose before dawn, put on my boots, and clomped out to the car. My lunch bag was already out there, my hiking poles, my little backpack. I headed up to the Picos de Europa to hike with the Amigos de la Ruta Vadiniense, the people who (kinda) waymarked and mapped the trail from the mountain fastness of Potes down to Mansilla de las Mulas. We would hike the first day of the trail. Because (I´ve gotta say it) the waymarks on that first stretch are still somewhat nonsensical or non-existant, I wanted to hike it with the experts, to ensure the trail guide I wrote last year is accurate.
I should have read the warning signs: a bad night´s sleep, an aching back, a dead fox in the road. In a village under the streetlights I dodged another new carcass, this one a cat. Another cat stood over it, heartbroken.
I should have just gone home, but no. This was an opportunity. Maybe I would make friends. Maybe I would see something spectacular. It was not unfamiliar country -- I walked the 20-km. walk from Potes to Espinama two or three times last year, but kept losing the waymarks, finding myself trailing along the highway in the valley -- I never could find most of the footpaths that zig-zag along the mountain-faces.
We met up in Cistierna, a mining town halfway where the Amigos are headquartered. There were 13 of us. We drove the rest of the way in cars. I am not used to riding in back seats. The switchback roads and the bright flashing light of morning sun between the peaks to made me very very carsick. Atop the Puerto San Glorio I had the man stop the car.
On the way down the mountain, just outside Potes, I had the man stop again.
While I hunkered along the highway I looked at my boots. Something was wrong. I had put one of my newer hiking boots on my left foot, and one of my old, worn-out boots on the right. One brown, one tan -- they are the same make and model, but Jeez. This is how people get labeled "eccentric," I thought. Or just "wierd."
We started walking after a short coffee break. I probably should have eaten something, but my stomach was still unhappy. We walked uphill from the 8th century monastery of Sto. Toribio. We walked along those mountain faces, uphill uphill uphill. Wild cherry trees grew along the trail, we ate, we stained our fingers with blood-colored nectar. The man with the GPS unit, the man wo painted the arrows, he took wrong turnings. He stopped the march and had us turn back. Not just a couple of times. We started to fall behind schedule. I heard grumbling.
We walked at a good clip, a lot faster than I ordinarily go. The people chatted and laughed and enjoyed themselves. Birds sang. A roebuck jumped up the trail ahead of us, his face hard and serious. We passed over little mountain towns, towns where I know they sell lovely goat-milk cheese, but we did not stop.
We passed over towns with fountains where hikers fill their water bottles. They did not stop, but I did. I need lots of water when I hike, and we were hiking in 90-degree sun. I fell behind. We stopped for a beer at a bar in Las Llanes, but not for long -- we were behind schedule, had to get going. I bolted my sandwich. I noticed my Spanish was not up to par, English kept slipping into my sentences. I noticed I did not need to use the toilet. I was drinking volumes of water, but not eliminating it, not the usual way.
The GPS man, took me aside and apologized. "You walked this before. Tell me, are we going wrong again?" I looked him in the eye. "I followed the arrows before, and always ended up along the road. When it comes to the mountainsides, you and your machine are the experts," I told him. Or I think I did. "I am here today because I want to see where your trails go. You show me."
Maybe I was hard on him. But as time went on and the kilometers racked up, I ran out of compassion. I ran out of goodwill and curiosity and finally energy. We followed wooded pathways, saw vultures and eagles and massive 500-year-old chestnut and oak trees, and a ruined castle. Carlos and David, two of the company, realized I was struggling, and walked with me those long final stretches. They filled my bottle for me at waterfalls, tried to engage me in conversation, stopped with me when I had to stop and breathe. They made excuses for me, saying I live down on the plain, I am not used to the altitude. But I live at 900 meters. Their town, Cistierna, is only 30 meters higher up.
We fell into "devil take the hindmost," a group dynamic that gives the people up front frequent rest breaks while the people behind catch up. Once we arrived, everyone jumped up and took off again. We laggers never had a rest. It made me think of capitalism. The bright sun through the tree canopy made me think of mirror-balls at a disco, until I started to feel the spin. I wondered if I was in real troubled, if I was having a heat stroke.
Then Carlos pulled an orange from his pack. He kept walking as he peeled it. He handed me half. "You are eating this," he said. And yes, I did. It was miraculous, that orange. It was the finest, juiciest orange I ever ate in all my life, and it hit my system like jet fuel.
I call all the blessings of heaven down upon Carlos, because he and his orange saved my ass.
After 30 kilometers we struggled finally into a tiny town called Pido, where I immersed my head and shoulders into a spring-fed water trough. My back screeched, but my head rejoiced. I´d made it back alive.
On the long drive home I was not ill. I saw a fox, a live one this time. It was a very dark night. The lights on my dashboard stopped working, then came on again. I stopped the car out in the fields. I looked right up through the Milky Way into deep, deep space. I said Thank You.
That was Sunday. This is Tuesday. I slept through most of Monday, and this afternoon I will visit David the Massage Therapist, whom I hope can put my back back to right.
I am humbled. I have learned. I will join the Vadiniense amigos group, but I will not go hiking with them any more -- too late I learned that most of them are also members of a mountaineering group. They walk like mountaineers, straight on and up to a clear goal. And me, I amble. I stop when I am tired. I walk like a pilgrim, a person whose only goal is probably weeks away.