Sunday, 24 January 2016

A Month On the Mountain

Laika Dog in The House, photo by Kim Narenkevicius

So here I am, living in a dream house on the side of a mountain, 1300 meters above a deep green valley.  The scenery stretches out on all sides, at varying degrees of steep.

Here there are no sheep, but many cows. They are beautiful Galician reds, with big soft eyes and spongy wet noses and bell-bottom fetlocks. I hear them in the mornings, bells and bellows from inside their grey concrete bunker a few yards away. When the breeze blows right their moist perfume flows up the street, up toward the pasture where they’d like to be. When the sun comes out the farmer rolls open the door and they walk slow and easy out, right past the front gate and around the curve, up to their favorite place. They don’t wander. They know where they want to go. The farmer lets them.

But the sun doesn’t come out much these days. The cows stay inside where their bodies warm the space, safe from the fog that slides like a grey hand down the steep banks from O Cebreiro. I can see O Cebreiro from the big picture window, when the fog clears – but the fog doesn’t clear much these days, at least not at Cebreiro.  They get the worst of it up there. It’s only about 200 meters higher-up than here, but it gets all the fog, snow, wind, rain, pilgrims, and tourists. 

I am house- and dog-sitting in a village called Laguna de las Tablas, which is six stone houses and some barns strung out along a single street. It’s all that will fit along this ridge. Pastures and fields are neatly mapped-out with mossy stone walls, even the most steep drops are delineated. They are property lines, watercourses, stands of trees, meadows. Birches, beeches, pines, willows, trees whose names I don’t know. Their branches are bare, but they still are full of color – the tops of the trees are pink, red, soft green, almost yellow. I walk the dog in the morning above isolated, abandoned valleys. They are full of wind-battered, mossy birches like Japanese woodblock prints. Plastic bags are carried there on the wind. They wrap themselves in the branches and turn, over time, to tattered pennants. You see them trapped down there in the box canyon, waving like some odd white crop from the trees in just that lot.

Somehow, though, inhabited places, valleys with even just one house, have softer trees. The ones with halos of spring hovering over their heads. I wonder how they know.

Pilgrims love this part of the camino. Its beauty is overwhelming in spring, summer, and fall, but in January it is not so obvious. I drove today up the isolated camino path from Las Herrerias to Cebreiro, one of the most breathtaking hikes on the Frances route. The view was invisible, laden with fog. I do not remember that road being paved – I recall a soft green pathway… but I have not walked up to Cebreiro for more 20 years!

Today I stopped almost to the top, in La Laguna de Castilla, a tiny hamlet with a very good restaurant. (Yes, there are two La Lagunas here, within about 2 miles of one another!) Rain was falling. It was just me and Isidro, the barman, but he lit the fire and pulled up a glass of local tinto. We talked about taking care of pilgrims, building fires in old-fashioned iron stoves, how tough it is, keeping big stone houses warm. I was having a good day, Spanish-wise. I told him I love staying at Laurie’s house, how I’m getting some good work done, but I am always cold – I have never had the indoor temperature higher than 14.5 degrees. (58 degrees Fahrenheit).

“How many layers are you wearing?” Isidro asked.

“Indoors? Three up top, two on the bottom,” I told him.

“You have to wear a hat,” he said. And keep your shoes on always. Or boots, even.”


“You’re living in a house that was a barn not so long ago,” he said. “If you want to feel warm,  you need to bring a couple of cows inside, and sleep upstairs!” He roared with laughter. He poured another glass of wine. I haven’t been drinking, but it would be churlish to say no.  He carved a couple of slices off a chorizo – another thing I’ve been passing up. It was delicious. I told him so.

“What are you doing in that house for a month, all by yourself?” Isidro asked. (This is a variation on the perennial question any solo woman gets in Spain: “Where is your husband?”) 

“I am editing a book,” I told him. “I’m a writer.”

“Like Laura! It’s a literary house, then.”

“Yes. It’s a great place to work. And I like the dog.”
“Tell me, because I am wondering,” he said. “Are you famous?”

I laughed, probably a little too loud.

“Really, though. I think I have seen your face,” he continued. “And you have the attitude of a famous person. You are comfortable.”

“I am not famous in Spain,” I told him. “I am not famous anywhere, not TV-interview famous. Only in a very small part of the world. But there, yes. I am known. I am comfortable.”

That gave me something to contemplate through the afternoon. The sky cleared a bit, and I took Laika Dog out walking. I picked up litter along the road up to Cebreiro. After the second hairpin-turn I looked over the little town of Laguna and beyond, miles and miles of green fields, forests, deep valleys and mountains with snow on top. I looked at the hamlet, at “our” house. 

I thought how beautifully restored it is, comfortably decorated, “tastefully appointed,” even – full of food and Canadian recipes, a working kitchen, a labyrinth in the garden underneath the snow… Yeah, it’s cold as hell sometimes, but I have a cozy bed beneath the eaves. And that view! Oh, the view!
And I thought, yes. I have this place all to myself for weeks. A spectacular place. I work, but only because I want to.

I took the dog home. I drove up to Cebreiro, where the Franciscans have a Mass every single day at 6 p.m. – a real luxury! I went to the hotel bar afterward, a cozy little place, to use the internet. A group of young men were there, pilgrims, Japanese and Korean. One of them played “Long Distance Call” on a harmonica – well enough the barmaid lowered to TV volume.  The room went quiet while he finished.

The fire snapped and thumped. A huge flaming log dropped out of the hearth and rolled across the floor. The pilgrims shrieked and scaled the barstools, their steak and chips and flip-flops abandoned for a moment. An old man in the corner laughed out loud like a little boy, and the pilgrims, recovered, joined in.        

Life is lonesome up on the mountain, and cold sometimes. But it is very good indeed. 


Margaret Butterworth said...

Wish I was there!
Re labyrinths: I have just read "The Cleaner of Chartres" by Salley Vickers. I think you'd enjoy it.

Carolyn Blasdel said...

I have only been to O Cebreiro in the late spring, but your descriptive writing made me feel like I was there again. I savored the scene as I also live in a place where it is often foggy and rainy in the winter. Thank you so much; I enjoyed returning to Spain in my imagination.

Jayview said...

I am reading this and loving it while listening to the sound of a summer thunderstorm late at night in a Melbourne suburb. A world away, I am glad live a little in the place you evoke so vividly. Jean