The great green valley of San Martin opened up before us. The dogs flowed over the ridge and down into doggie heaven. Something moved in the far distance, a fox.
Definitely a fox, a gray one. He saw us coming. He took off running.
Lulu saw. Lulu the huntress, the greyhound. A fox is pretty large prey, and it had a good head start. But Lulu lives for chasing things that run away.
Mist rolled down the valley. The fox ran hard. The greyhound stretched out her legs. The other dogs followed her. It was a medieval tapestry, a hunt scene in faded black and grey.
I lost them in the fog, but I knew where they were. They fox had gone to ground.
A mile later I stepped across the frozen field to collar the yapping, baying curs. From deep in a brambly ditch came the skunky stink of musk and an extraordinary noise, a low mechanical burr with a coloratura yowl. Teeth, claws, rabies. Varmint panic.
I really wanted to see the critter, but I really did not want to get too close.
Everyone but Lulu came away with me. Everyone but Lu knows you don't get too near anything that makes a noise like that.
Lulu ended up bloodied, but not badly hurt. She caught up to us later. I do not know what became of the fox. I wasn't about to go looking for it.
Today again I walked the dogs in fog -- it's normal this time of year. (It disappears again in January, when winter sits down hard.) We walked on the camino, watching the ditches for litter. In a bush I saw a plastic box. I reached inside the branches and pulled it out.
The label on the lid was ruined, but I knew straightaway what it was: a Geocache.
Inside were some flyers explaining what a Geocache is. There was a very nice leatherbound notebook, a rubber stamp, pencils, and some lanyards. Judging from the promotional nature of all the above, the geocache was a project of the Tourist Office of Castilla y Leon, who in their wisdom decided to spice up the lives of tourists and pilgrims with a high-tech "camino treasure hunt."
Geocachers are given a scorecard and an initial set of map coordinates, and use GPS units, compasses, and maps to locate these little boxes of goodies. They use the rubber stamp to mark their card, and they leave their name and a comment in the notebook. They can take a Castilla y Leon lanyard, but they'll leave some other little item behind for the next guy -- a candy bar, keychain, or similar swag.
The next set of coordinates is printed on the lid of the box. Or it was, once, before the rain got it.
I wrote in the notebook. I was the first and only person to have done so. I put it all back the way I found it, but more out of sight. (There are millions of geocaches hidden all over the world; this is the third one I have found by accident.) I wondered how long it has been there.
It made me think about geocaches, and geocachers.
They are the people who love maps, obviously. People who love knowing just where they are, just what time it is, They benefit from our passion for measurement and quantifying. We've assigned a numbers for every corner of the world, brought it under control, tamed it, made it ours.
Savage tribes are settled on reservations. Venomous spiders and highway robbers are all gassed and passed away into history. Exploring the world is a breeze, especially when you have all the coordinates in your hand-held worldwide GPS unit -- you can travel all over a foreign country, but you can't even get lost!
And with geocaching, all that safety hasn't drained all the wild blood out of orienteering. Play your coordinates right, and you can track plastic boxes full of Maple Leaf key fobs, cigarette rolling papers, granola bars... and the numbers to follow to find the next one. It's hunter-gatherer behavior, Hiawatha the Scout, without the bushwacking and chilblains and food poisoning.
It's harmless fun for people with leisure time and expendable income. Obviously the Junta de Castilla y Leon spent a nice chunk of money on plastic boxes and flyers, notebooks, pencils and satellite bandwidth. Which evidently nobody has bothered to find.
It's hard not to think of a few better uses for public funds. Most pilgrims are too busy shlepping themselves to the next albergue to involve themselves in treasure hunts.
Geocachers have their own community websites, and they set up their own caches -- I don't think they go looking for tourist-office inventions. Geocaching is already here, without any government involvement. Two summers ago I helped a Canadian volunteer hide three plastic caches in the neighborhood, saw her upload the coordinates to a satellite somewhere overhead. An international community of geocachers occasionally ply their hobbies in Moratinos, but somehow they missed the cache that I found, almost in plain sight, looking an awful lot like trash.
Which is kinda nice, really. We should let some things stay mysteries. We should just walk sometimes, without a map or a guide. We should know the delight of finding the box in the bushes, without a map or machine to send us there.
Sometimes the ditch gives up a box. And sometimes it's a fox.
We only think we are safe, poking around in the bushes.