Interlude I

With very little reflection, I can say that 2015 was the most dynamic, and definitely the most enlightening year of my life. I started this year very focused on, and very stressed by, a project in my professional life that I’d been solely devoted to for over three years. It ended very successfully, but it took absolutely everything I had. In the moment that my team and I finished the project, I couldn’t take a single additional step in that direction. I packed a bag and a box, then jumped on a jet plane to find a breath of fresh air. What I actually found was so much more than a simple breath. The sights my eyes were allowed to feast upon, the ideas that were both planted in and coaxed from my mind, and most importantly, the beautiful souls who so profoundly touched my life are some of the greatest gifts I’ve been given in my life. They’re second only to the love of my family. I learned many new, and better ways to look at the world. I learned more about empathy and acceptance. I learned about connection.

I also learned that I have a bit of a love for writing. One reason for this post is to apologize for that. When I realized I did, I stopped doing it for some reason, leaving the few of you who were following along with my journey hanging in the wind. Just after I posted my last blog post, I arrived in Scotland. There I spent around 24 days enjoying that stunning country, with almost all of my nights spent in a tent, before my last stop in Edinburgh. Being in a tent in Scotland, where it rained EVERY SINGLE NIGHT, was a little more inconvenient to pull out the electronics and spend time writing. At least, that’s what I told myself at the time. While completely true, there is also another reason I was silent. After the running of the bulls, the trip took a very relaxed and less action packed path. It was what I had originally planned. It was amazing. I wouldn’t trade a single moment of it. However, it was not as exciting as the previous three weeks had been. I wrote about the next stretch (which I will publish someday), but it just felt like it would be a let down for the reader. There was a lot of good human interaction, but also a lot of looking at scenery and historic things. I felt it would disappoint.

After a few months of further reflection, I felt I owed at least an explanation of why there was nothing more. Recently, and utterly due to the urging of my dear little sister, I’ve completed the editing and organization of the remainder of my pictures. Over the next few months, I will finish the pedalabout blog, or at least the portion describing my 2015 trip. The writing may be a bit abbreviated, but I want to at least let you know how I made it for the second half, and share the photography. No promises on time frame, but it will happen.

Until then, thanks again to all of you, for everything.

Happy holidays, and see you soon.

Valar Morghulis: The Running of the Bulls

The nice Oklahoman family, Chris, and me, just before the first cannon fired!

 

They say there’s no rest for the weary. Leaving Nowhere two Sundays after I had arrived in Sariñena, I was certainly weary. Previous to the diversion in the desert, I’d resigned myself to the fact that I would miss the Festival San Fermin in Pamplona, the Running of the Bulls. The timing was just not right for me to make it, with my original schedule, as I’d be 10 days gone from Spain when it began. I’d decided not to spend the extra time in Spain waiting for its commencement. Another benefit of the happy accident in the desert, I’d now be in Spain while the bulls ran. The timing was still tight, though. The bulls would run only two more days after the Sunday when I left Nowhere. It was a two day bike ride from where I was to Pamplona, if I made good time. It was time to make a decision. Did I want a trip that made the most of every opportunity, that included every experience that I wanted to have, or did I want to stay in the saddle and push for every inch? It was an easy decision. I got on a train to Pamplona.

 
I felt a brief twinge of regret while boarding the train, as though I’d sacrificed the integrity of my “bicycle” trip by taking an easy ride on the rails. I soon worked out, though, that the reason I chose to tour Europe on a bicycle wasn’t so that I could one day say, “I toured Europe on a bicycle. Completely on a bicycle.” I chose it for a number of reasons, mostly explained in the inaugural post of this blog. To travel slowly, so that I was able to soak up the land and culture. To truly see the place without a pane of plexiglass between my eyes and the vivid countryside. To more genuinely interact with the people whose paths I crossed. This is all still true, though I realized that jumping on a train didn’t really take much time out of the saddle, it only fast-forwarded me along the route, to a place I was more keen to be. All in all I’m happy with the decision I made, and feel no regret. Since then, I’ve ridden another train as well. I skipped the majority of southern and central England in a bid to give myself more time in the country this trip was built around, Scotland. We’ll get to that later, though, if I ever catch up with this writing……………..

 
While headed to the train station, I was lucky enough to make another new friend. A Nobody that I’d not met during Nowhere, but now I’m happy to call another friend for life. Christine, “Chris,” was sitting with my friend Jo during the ride. Before we arrived she loudly asked the group, “Anyone headed to Pamplona?”

 
“Yup,” I answered.
“Awesome, want to travel there together?”
“Sounds great.”

 
So for the next few days, I was graced with a wonderful traveling companion. Chris is on a summer backpacking trip around Europe, and has so far covered an exceptional percentage of the continent. I’m not sure of the exact number of countries, but it’s an impressive route. In addition, on the day we met she learned that she had just been accepted to Columbia University to study creative writing!!! So fantastically exciting! Congrats again, Chris!

 
The two hour train ride to Pamplona was a blur. We fell into the robotic existence that I’m not sure I remember experiencing since college. More specifically, those couple of days after every finals week. The physical self has little to nothing left. Precious sleep can be found in any environment, even sitting in a hard seat on a bright mid-day train, holding up a loaded touring bike. The mental self is even more misaligned. Every thought was mechanical and pragmatic, with absolutely no synapse to spare on anything non-essential. Thirst? Water. Hunger? Vending machine junk food (and lot’s of it). A place to sleep for the night? No luck there. Phone’s dead, no outlets, no wifi for the computer. It’ll wait. That’s 8 hours from now, who cares? Precious sleep.

 
It seemed like we arrived quickly, but we had no complaints. The train station in Pamplona is situated in a low river valley, in the new part of the city that is far under the old town. The surrounding countryside is made up of beautiful blue-green mountains. Very steep, but wooded and lush. I’m not sure exactly why I wasn’t able to capture its beauty in photograph, but I wasn’t. I’m sorry for this, as it was a view I’d have loved to share in all its glory. The walk to the old town looked to be about 25 minutes from the station. I was deflated upon seeing this. Oh, how quickly that would change.

 
After the short stroll across the river to the base of the hill, the view opened up to the magnificence of the medieval city. A proper fortress on a hill, it is. From our approach, the hand-laid stone walls stretched 40-50′ into the air up the side of the craggy ascent. A veritable barrier, but for the old portculises, which have since been molded into simple paved and painted streets. How dangerous and unpredictable life must have been a thousand years ago, to warrant such a tremendous effort put forth to the defense of your homes and families? What would life have been like, if that threat was so great and so persistent? Besides the Sagrada Familia in BCN, the walled fortress of Pamplona was likely my favorite view of a human creation in Spain.

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We made our way into the old part of the city, and were lucky to quickly find a small cafe with good WiFi. It was late afternoon, and we remained homeless for the night. Chris found us a table with handy electrical plugs while I grabbed us a snack, water, and a cold San Miguel. As you might imagine, a place to stay was hard to find, being the pinnacle of one of the largest events in Spain. The few available hotel rooms sported exorbitant prices, the hostels were booked, and the campgrounds were charging near $100 for a small patch of grass to pitch a tent. If the campgrounds were free, they would not have been an option, for after the long stretch on the playa, a real shower, sheets, and a bed were near priceless to us. It took some doing, but after a while Chris found us an airbnb flat to rent at a reasonable price. A real apartment with real beds and an actual bathtub. I felt like we’d booked into the Taj Mahal. We made our way there and had a simple, early night in.

 
I’m grateful for the fact that we arrived with two full days of the festival remaining, for the extreme lack of sleep had taken hold, and we missed the running of the bulls the next morning. It’s been quite a long time since I’ve slept in and missed something important, but on that morning, there was nothing doing. My alarm went off, and I either slept through it, or it was immediately silenced. Chris’s alarm actually woke me up when it went off down the hall, but I didn’t give its importance much credit. We even spoke down the hall about getting up before the snooze was hit. Nevertheless, at 7:55 I jumped from bed as if I was late to take the MCAT. The bulls run at 8:00 on the dot. We rushed out, and ran most of the way to the sight of the spectacle, but still missed it by 10 minutes.

 
This was a bit unfortunate. The plan was to watch the run on the first morning, then run ourselves on the second, and last, morning of the festival. Everyone we’d talked to said to watch once before you run. “Get the layout,” “See where to be to stay safe,” “Do NOT run on your first day,” that kind of thing.

 
We’d have to run it blind.  Ah well.  Valar Morghulis.

 
We made the most of the few hours in the old town after we missed the bulls. We saw the gorgeous old cathedral, which was ancient before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. A few museums were open, but like many museums I’d previously visited in Spain, I didn’t enjoy them too much. The only reason being that the signs and information on the exhibits are monolingual. No English placards or information posts. You can see many things that you just know are exceptional, if only you could know their story.  Nevermind, though. After the museums we inspected another long stretch of the impressive ancient battlements, which more than sated my desire to feel a connection to something from times long past.

 
After a quick and early lunch, the remainder or the day was spent… in bed. Glorious sleep. Whomever holds the tickets for one’s sleep debt was not a kind entity that day, and we did our very best to even up. Even after sleeping all day, it was an abbreviated dinner and a very early night. I was determined to be up not much after 5:00, and be near the bulls starting line the next morning with plenty of time to spare.

 
And so it was. And so we ran. Of course I ran. Of course I did. Despite all of the protestations, and being forbidden by so many people, I ran. I’m sorry Mom, Kendall, etc., but you had no hope.  There was never any question. There was nothing you could say. There is not a scenario that exists in any of the infinite galaxies in our universe that would put me in Pamplona when the bulls ran, and have me on the sidelines. Foolish as it may be, this was a big deal for me. I don’t have a formal bucket list, but if I did, running with the bulls would probably be the experience that has rested on that list for the longest time. I can remember being very young and learning about this event, and my desire to experience it has not waned over those decades. For some reason, I secretly suspect that I can see Nan at home with a smile on her face and fists raised, cheering me on! Of course I did. Of course I ran with the bulls. And it was glorious.

 

Chris and me before the cannon!

Chris and me before the cannon!

Before the start of the run, all of the crazy people who will participate mill about on the course. The adrenaline in the air is palpable. You could filter it out and sell it in little vials, it’s so thick. It didn’t take much to see that a large number of the future bovine prey had spent a great portion of the night in their cups, as is seemingly the tradition. I’m glad that I attended this event now, rather than a decade ago. Back then, the chances are that I’d have been among their ranks, bleary eyed and tired. Rather, Chris and I were both bright eyed, fresh and seething with anticipation. The crowd is a sea of white, covered with bright red accents. Almost everyone seems to spend the entire festival in the defacto uniform, and it makes for an impressive sight. A good while before the start, while having a coffee in the street, my eyes caught a sight that made me nearly sprain my neck when I realized what I’d seen. When you grow up in rural Texas, you learn to quickly differentiate between a high quality cowboy hat, and the rubbish imitation that’s cheaply sold and almost exclusively worn by the masses as a quasi-stylish accessory for outdoor activities. I spotted a truly nice felt cowboy hat. Brown beaver with an attractive crease. I immediately made my way towards it. I knew without question that this was a person that held something of a similar upbringing as me, and I would go and meet them. It turned out to be worn by a middle aged veterinarian who was there with his wife and youngest daughter. He was an OSU vet, and they came from Norman, Ok. The daughter had just finished an internship in Spain, and they were enjoying a holiday before she returned home. Yes, they ALL THREE ran with the bulls! It was amazing to talk to people from so close to home.

The nice Oklahoman family, Chris, and me, just before the first cannon fired!

The nice Oklahoman family, Chris, and me, just before the first cannon fired!

The course is laid out through part of the old town, starting at the edge of the hill, and terminating at the Plaza del Toro, where the fighting arena sits. I don’t remember the exact length, but it’s much longer than what I can sprint, and all uphill. They block off the side streets, shutter up the shops, and wish everyone the best of luck. The entire course is full of people before the start. It’s amazingly crowded, even before everyone begins running. We guessed correctly, though, in that you need to be near the center of the run at the start, if you want to make it into the arena before they close it off. At 8:00 sharp, one cannon sounds. This means MOVE! An almost non-existant 30 seconds later, a second cannon rings. With this cannon, the bulls are off. There are six bulls that run, along with six large 3-4 year old steers. The steers wear bells and are trained to run straight up the course. The plan is that they will lead the bulls along the streets with less distraction than if they were just let out into the maelstrom of people on their own. I can see a long string of disasters if the steers weren’t in the group.

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We were near the half-way point of the course when the second cannon rang out. The double turn and open area referred to as “Dead Man’s Corner” was just behind us. We moved with the crowd, all at full speed ahead. It was a good long run along the long home stretch to the plaza. The long street we were on was typical for any downtown, old area of a Spanish city. A narrow lane with solid shopfronts supporting four to five story apartment complexes above. Besides the small corners in doorways, it was a smooth line all along the path. With the adrenaline coursing, it seemed like less than a flash before we heard the bells of the steers ringing behind. I slowed a bit to look back down the lane, conscious of the fact that I didn’t want to let Chris get out of my sight ahead of me. I doubt I could have done a lot if trouble really came, but the confidence I had in growing up and working with cattle my entire life made me want to keep her close in case I could potentially keep her from getting hurt if things got dicey. A minor commotion at the bottom of the hill was the only irregularity I could see in the throngs moving along behind us. A few more strides, and I saw the black forehead and yellow horns of the first bull in the mob.

 
The crowd of runners parted before them. We were already over to the left a bit, about halfway between the center of the street and the looming walls above. The crowds condensed around us as the bulls passed, as if they were moving along with a bubble around them. Their focus was ahead, and they seemed much more interested in making it down the street to their arena than they did bothering any of the white and red clad targets around them. They were past us in a breath. Oddly enough, the steers were in the back, with the bulls leading. They moved so quickly that I didn’t get a good count as they went by. Maybe there were six?  I hoped. Chris and I bet on this, and moved to the void in the center of the street to run behind. They close the arena very soon after the bulls arrive there, and we wanted to make it in, with a good stretch left to run. Luckily, it seemed like there had been no stragglers from the small herd, and no bulls overtook us as we ran for the arena.

 
We made it, and the gates were open. I admit I was blowing air, tongue probably hanging out after the long sprint, likely much more tired than the bulls who’d already entered their pen and been locked away. We found out later that the run we had participated in that morning was the fastest that had ever been recorded. I believed it. I knew that a lot of it was the adrenaline talking, but it seemed like it was over as soon as it began. They ran like hell was on their heels for the entire way, with little nonsense in the turns and corners where people usually are hurt. No one was seriously injured on the morning we ran, but we did meet up with one young guy who took a horn to the rib somewhere along the path. It wasn’t a bad injury. The piercing wasn’t much deeper than the skin. As you might imagine, he was feeling not one trickle of pain in that moment. “I got gored by a bull!” he proudly shouted to us as he lifted his shirt to brandish his new badge of honor. I suspect that the next morning he possessed a large and aching bruise in place of the trophy he so proudly displayed to us then. Even more disappointing was that the flesh wound was probably so small that he won’t even get a good scar out of it to carry around for the next few decades.

 
After the bulls were penned, the arena crammed with people. Pretty soon they let a small fighting bull with stubbed horns out into the throng. The newly amateur bull fighters of the crowd went to town. It surprises me that this part of the event isn’t where most of the injuries happen. Hundreds and hundreds of people in that arena, with many having a desire to get up close and personal with one of the little bulls. They juked and jived, ran and dived. I have a strong suspicion that most who were wanting the closest experience with the bulls have had very little previous contact with large livestock, if any. It was quite a show. Several bodies were seen to fly into the air. Chris and I stayed on the edge and just enjoyed the spectacle.

 

Chris and me in the arena, after the run.

Chris and me in the arena, after the run.

One of the evenings, I can’t even remember which it was now, I found a ticket into the bullfighting, and so trekked out to see the matador’s epic contest. I’d never seen proper Latin bullfighting before, and I’m glad I saw it at least once. Once may be enough for me, but I can’t be sure at the moment. There’s no question that it was quite a spectacle. The matadors are very skilled, I’ll give them that. They could turn the bulls in so tight a circle around themselves that they were able to stand by their side, with a free hand on the bulls hip as it endeavored to take them from their feet. Very early on in each fight, though, one of the guys on an armored horse would draw the bull in and spear him above the shoulder. I don’t know the nature or depth of this cut, but it was a clear handicap for the bull, and I wondered the entire time how much longer it would have taken to wear the bull down if they hadn’t done this. Do you remember the last scene in Gladiator, where Commodus has Maximus strung up in the holding cell in the coliseum? It’s just before their final encounter on the arena floor, and he sinks a dagger into the helpless Maximus’ ribs before they fit his armor and send him to fight. We all know that General Maximus Decimus Meridius would have never succumbed to the flimsy emperor in such a contest of arms, had he not been so handicapped (damn you, Ridley Scott). How much of this effect was present for the bulls? The entire remainder of the contest simply boiled down to the matadors completely wearing the bulls out physically. Before sword is drawn from the scabbard, the bulls were blowing so hard and were so tired that they would hardly take a step. So tired that at the end, the previously vicious beasts would allow the matador to kneel on the ground directly before them, the most demeaning taunt, and they’d not even charge. At this point, it wasn’t much of a job for the anthropomorphized peacocks to bury the thin sword deep into the bulls chest. The bulls were well fed and in good shape. They were worn down in just a few short minutes. I find it hard to believe that it would have been so easy a contest for the matadors if the bulls had been on equal footing. All in all, I did enjoy the show, but wished it could be modernized a bit. The romance of the event, and the Spanish people’s love for it will likely never allow this, as the greatest cheer came when the bull finally fell. It would be easy though, to have just as exciting a spectacle without killing the bull in the end. Probably it would be an even greater show, as the handicaps I mentioned above wouldn’t be necessary.

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The city itself was a madhouse during the festival. I commented to Chris that I’d never seen such a tourist trap in my life. She countered that I’d obviously never been to New York City, her hometown. It was a good point. I’m sure she is correct in that there is much more there catered to tourists than this hilltop city in Spain. However; I still stand by my opinion in this, if only in a slightly different way. What I mean is, I’ve never before seen such a collection of tourists. It wouldn’t surprise me if 9/10 people in the streets were tourists. With the locals either tending shop, on holiday, or boarded up inside their cozy flats. The streets in the city were bustling, with a crowdedness that I would expect only in the most populated downtown areas, or maybe Disney World. The crowds were thick, day and night. Revelers and merrymakers patronizing every bar, cafe, and memorabilia shop with open doors. All in white with a red bandanna ‘roud their necks or a belt upon their waists. It truly was another spectacle to see. The partying and drinking began early and continued until hours unknown, as we had only the slightest participation.

 
As I said before, a decade or so ago, this would have been the ideal place for me to spend a weekend. I’d have been in with the carousing and partying head over heels. As it was, it turned me off so that I felt near revulsion. I wanted no part of the all day and all night race to consume as much of the light, sweet Spanish beer as the fellow next to me. It wasn’t my scene. That may be due to the extreme sleep debt that I still felt, but I think after a week of rest I’d have felt near the same. It was a bit too much. Maybe the years have done more to me than I’d be willing to admit. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe admitting it makes me just the slightest bit sad, reminiscent, and relieved at the same time.

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It was a wild party, though. Participating in an event like the running of the bulls, an event that pushes such a shot of andrenaline into your veins is something that carries the anxiety and euphoria much past the few moments you’re in the street with the majestic, but angry beasts. It carries throughout the day and night. I understand why it was such a party. I don’t think it could have been stopped.  Though, I was happy to celebrate it in a more subdued way, and I’m glad Chris felt the same.

 
The experience of running with the bulls was all I every imagined it would be. Unbelievably exciting. I’ve never thought of myself as an adrenaline junky, and I don’t think I am, but coursing up that street with the bells, horns, and hooves passing just a couple of feet from you is something I’ll never forget.

 
The remainder of the San Fermin experience, though, took a turn for the worse in my head and heart.  The festival-goers also gave me another feeling, upon closer inspection. When you looked closely and read between the lines, the remainder of the experience was disappointing, almost to the point of disgust. With all of the novelty and high spirits, it was as if the common decency of the majority of the people there had gone out the window. People seemed to forget what a trash can was, and even what a bathroom was. Even though both were to be found within a few short steps of any place you could pick to stand, none were used. Any piece of trash in someones hand was immediately thrown to the ground, while not a dozen yards from a trashcan or dumpster. Remember, please, that I’d just left Nowhere and my hippies less than a day earlier. Two weeks in a place where people epitomized the “Leave No Trace” philosophy. This was an extreme shock. Believe it or not, it was painful for me to watch, and it made me feel regret to have once been a part of a group that might have treated someone’s home in such a way. During my previous, intense, two weeks of existence, not even a gum wrapper was dropped to blow in the wind. Amongst the festival-goers of San Fermin, you couldn’t place your foot on the street without it hitting at least one discarded piece of rubbish. Broken glass was so common that I was constantly cringing while rolling Lagertha through the streets on our first evening there. People, mainly guys but also a few ladies, were answering the call of nature along the edges of the narrow streets as if it was a perfectly fine thing to do. As if every other door along the street didn’t offer a public restroom. Immediately after the bulls were in the arena each morning, massive crews began a cleanup effort on the streets. First in each crew was a sweeper truck with articulating arms that would roll down the street, spinning the trash to the center of the street where it would be sucked up into it’s belly like a Vermeer hay swather. Then a crew of guys on foot would follow grabbing what was missed. After that, a water hauler would slowly follow with another guy at its back, using a massive pressure washer to spray down the streets and try to wash the filth away. I don’t know how many of these crews were employed each morning, but it was no small number. You could’t round a corner without seeing another of them. The civic effort this took was astounding. What was the city to do, though? If they didn’t do this, you wouldn’t have been able to walk down the streets by the second or third day, and the smell would have kept you from trying if you thought you could. How much must the city hate this? They have no choice, but it is mind boggling that they have to go through the effort. It’s no wonder that they say most of the locals leave on holiday for the duration of the festival. I would too. It’s completely unnecessary for people to treat a place in such a way. I feel I may really risk coming off as very sanctimonious in this tirade, as not too many years ago I’d probably have been right along with the rest; however, experiencing this fallacy just four short hours after I’d left the utterly opposite experience of Nowhere left me profoundly affected. I couldn’t help it, but I was disgusted with that part of the festival in general. I feel deep down that that is a good thing, and so thanks again, hippie friends.

 
Though still rather tired, the adrenaline rush of running with the bulls precluded any chance for sleep during that day. There wasn’t a chance anyhow, as Chris and I had to check out of our flat around lunch. I’d already decided to stay another day or two in Pamplona to rest and try to catch up on writing before I got back on the bike. Chris was leaving that day, with her sights set on Barcelona. We spent a couple of more hours in the city, mainly looking for a bed in which I could spend the night. With the festival at an end, it wasn’t too much of a chore. After it was sorted, we made our way to the train station. With a long hippie hug that I’d now become so very fond of, I sent her on her way to seek her next adventures (which have all turned out to be extraordinary and beautiful, as you can see on her fb page).

 
I spent the rest of the day in the little hostel I’d found re-sorting all of my gear, and showing a little love to the dusty and neglected Lagertha. I bought a cheap toothbrush and a little bottle of oil and went to work. I stripped her nearly completely down, and endeavored to remove all of the latent playa dust that had accumulated while she stood patiently in the desert, waiting out my diversion. She was unbelievably dirty, and I hated to even work the chain around the gears in that state. After a few hours of scrubbing, brushing, and oiling, the mechanical parts looked as good as new. I then unpacked all four panniers and my duffle, and repacked with a little keener eye to efficiency. There was a post office just down the street, so I took a close look at every single item in my packs as I did so. I found plenty of things that seemed completely unnecessary after nearly a month on the road. When I boxed them up, I was disappointed to find I’d only saved myself 8 pounds, but every little bit helps. Sleep came easy again that night, and I took advantage of the moderately comfy hostel bed to get in another good long night.

 
I awoke with a purpose. After having nearly three full days of rest, I was mentally awake again. Though, I  admittedly still didn’t have a good grasp on the Nowhere experience I’d had. I was still struggling to truly process those days in the desert. I wanted to preserve every moment in a Pensieve, if only Dumbledore had been around to loan me his. Alas, I was in the wrong country for a few more days. I desperately wanted to record what I could while the memories were still so raw and fresh that I could easily imagine that they were ongoing. In short, I wanted to write.

 

 
I emerged from the hostel and for a moment, I thought I’d somehow been transported to another place. Not a single white and red uniform could be seen. I had thought that there would be quite a bit of carryover from the festival, it being such a big event for the town. This wasn’t true in the slightest. If I’d shown up that morning, you couldn’t have convinced me that 12 hours previous, San Fermin was on in full force. The faces had changed completely. Somehow you could tell that the locals were back. Rarely could you pick out someone that you thought might possibly be a tourist. It was beautiful. The literal overnight transformation of the city from a tourist ridden mad house to a friendly and traditional mountaintop Spanish city was nothing short of magical. The relief of the townspeople was tangible. You could tell how overjoyed they were that the festival was over at long last. The friendliness in the air was more present than anywhere else I’d been in Spain. By the time I’d walked a few blocks down the first street, I knew that I would be in Pamplona for several days yet.

 
My goal was a quiet little cafe that sported both WiFi and air conditioning. Neither are very prevalent in the small, locally owned establishments in Spain, so it wasn’t an easy quest. I came across several that had both, but they were all large and loud. One of these was the Cafe Iruña, the old stomping grounds of Hemingway.  It was the place he made famous in The Sun Also Rises by enjoying martinis and Spanish wine while attending the festival to which he brought so much notoriety. These days it is large and bright, polished and commercialized. It didn’t suit my needs for a place to settle in and write, but I did enjoy lunch and a beer there, just so that I could say I did. Finally though, I did find the very place I’d been looking for. A small cafe under a hotel, just a few short blocks from the main square. About six barstools and no more than five tables. One of which was conveniently tucked around a corner in the back. It was hidden from almost every view in the place, with an electrical plug directly underneath the seat. It was cool and quiet. In a word, it was perfect.

 
There I sat for three days. Each of which was a carbon copy of the others. Sleep in moderately, walk down to the cafe, have breakfast and coffee, then start writing. Lunch. Write. Dinner. Write. Back to the hostel for fitful, restless sleep. By this time, I wasn’t the zombie I had been previously, so sleeping in the non-air conditioned room was tough, as there seemed to be no breeze at all through the small windows. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but the two nights in an artificially cool room had me back to my spoiled self more quickly than I could have believed. The writing took the full three days. I seem to write slowly, and I didn’t want to rush it. By the middle of the second day, the guy and three nice ladies who worked the cafe were full of smiles for me, and we were on a first name basis. They were as friendly as could be, and served as my muses while I recorded my thoughts on how I’d spent the previous two weeks. My few days there were very cozy. Good food, good coffee, cold beer, and great hosts. I’ll remember that cafe forever.

Two of my muses, who took such good care of me as i patronized their establishment for three days, writing about my new hippie friends.

Two of my muses, who took such good care of me as I patronized their establishment for three days, writing about my new hippie friends.

 

After all of my time in Spain, if you asked what city I’d chose if I was to move to Spain, I’d easily pick Pamplona. Though during the festival, I’d leave town with the rest of the locals.

 

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A Cup and a Carabiner: A Tale of Two Thousand Hippies

I’ve not prefaced anything I’ve written so far, but I will with this blog post.  I feel I’ll have trouble getting it right, but I want it to be a genuine and complete accounting of what the whole experience meant to me.  You’ll likely label me a converted hippie at some point during reading.  Maybe you’ll be right, but bear with me, and I think we’ll all get there together in the end.  Settle in.  This story might stretch a bit.  I hope you enjoy.

 

So a group of guys were having a beer.  Let’s be honest, it’s a well known fact that no good story ever started with “Well, I was having a salad..”  So that’s how this tale begins, with some guys having a beer in a little bar in a dusty town in the desert of Spain.

 

As I slowly rode up to the Hotel Sarinena that fateful Sunday, hot, exhausted, dehydrated, I noticed a group of five or six guys that immediately stood out to me.  They were clearly not locals.  As soon as they saw me, a boisterous round of beckoning drew me to them like a pilgrim to a mirage.  And what a miracle, the hails were in English.  It had actually been four or five days since I had spoken with anyone who had fluent English.  I hope I’m not so fickle that such a short amount of time without my native tongue could throw me that far off, but it was music to my ears after the day I’d had. “Dude, you’re decked out.” “What the hell are you doing?” “Why are you here?” “Where the hell are you going?”  I couldn’t even respond intelligibly.  “I’m riding around,” I tried.  “Going around Europe,” the next attempt.  “Today is hot, who are you guys?”  Unbelievably, my first response to their offers to join them for a beer was “No, I need a shower and some water.” I think they understood, as they directed me inside.  I checked in, locked the bike up, and headed upstairs for one of the longest and most appreciated cold showers I’ve ever taken.  Soon I found myself heading back downstairs to take them up on their offer, and seek some more solid sustenance.

I don’t blame them, because it had been over an hour, but when I returned only two of them were still there.  It was evident to me that they were in a very deep conversation.  I surely appeared very differently than I had upon my arrival, so they didn’t notice me walk adjacent to the table at which they were sitting.  Not wanting to interrupt, I took a chair at a table nearby.  I ordered a beer, water, and bocadillo (sandwich on traditional bread) of Jamon and queso, then settled in for a bit of relaxation.  Their conversation was clearly not meant to be private, as the volume was just above a normal conversation level with inflection that spoke of their passion for the subject.  It wasn’t my intention to eavesdrop, but I felt that with the conditions described above, it was a public offering.  I hung on every word.  They were discussing how to lead people, teach them, direct them, offer contrasting opinions in the face of flawed logic, and to resolve conflict.  The crux of the conversation was how to best accomplish all of these things and still offer the chance for the person in question to maintain as much dignity and self respect as possible, while also opening their minds to seek the other point of view in any given situation.  What a lofty and poignant discussion I heard.  In a sleepy, dusty, one-horse Spanish town in the middle of nowhere (remember that phrase, it’ll return), I was graced with the opportunity to absorb one of the most well argued and astute discussions that I have ever heard in my entire life.  It was the first of a long string of surreal experiences that I would have in that desert over the next 14 days.  My respect for the two gentlemen, Tristan and Wouter, was immediately set to a peg that you’d have to have a ladder to reach.

During a bathroom break for one, the other turned and began conversing with me.  He immediately insisted that I join them at their table, and enter the conversation.  Over the next few minutes, they pressed me to add what I would to the conversation.  I put forth what I could, but they had so graciously exhausted the topic, I’m afraid I was unable to add much of value.  Anyhow, the conversation was essentially over and we moved on to more mundane topics.  Both shared professions with me, being project managers.  Wouter is from the Netherlands, and works in various commercial and production industries.  Tristan grew up on a large station (ranch) in Namibia, currently lives in Jo’burg, South Africa, and has been in mining and construction.   Even this fleeting connection with profession led me to relate immediately to them.  Having a conversation in fluent English also helped.  I told them my story, and my curiosity quickly drove me to extract theirs.

“We’re building a temple.”

*confused silence*

me – “What kind of temple”

them – “Have you ever heard of Burning Man? We’re burners, man.”

me – “Ahhh, sure.  I know Burning Man.  Never been, but I’m aware of it, and I think I have a good grasp of the concept.”

them –  “Right, mate.  The European version is coming up not far from here, and we’re here building the main temple for it.  Want to help?”

(note: For those who are unaware, (and it is fine to be unaware) Burning Man is an arts festival held in the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada during the middle of August every year.  It’s a cult-ish type of event that has a huge following and attendance (around 70,000 people per year).  It’s a very unique event, and yes, very hippy-ish.  It’s dominated by huge artistic installations that teams of people work on for the entire year.  They have the art pieces scattered out around the desert for the entire festival, open to viewing.  Then at the end of the festival, they burn them all, sealing the undertaking of creating and appreciating each piece into their own personal experience.  Yea, I understand if it sounds a little off.  It does to me as well.  It really seems like a foreign concept, but it’s their way to express and appreciate art, so let them have it.  I have followed it for a long time, and because of its uniqueness and sheer scale, it’s one of those things that I’ve always had a check box beside in my mind.)

This is the big Burning Man event in Nevada:

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But I digress.

My immediate internal reaction was, “No, I have a schedule.  I just took a rest day.  I need to cover ground. I need to move, to go, to pedal.”  We chatted a bit more after I gave them a noncommittal answer.  Then, I had a simple epiphany.  “What the hell am I thinking?  I have three months.  I’m not in a hurry.”  “Where the wind blows me.”  That had been my only real commitment to myself when I started the trip.  Whenever and wherever.  This was actually  perfect.  I like these guys.  They’re engaging and intriguing, and they are BUILDING something.  Growing things and building things.  I have a hard time passing up the chance to do either.  I suppose it’s just who I am.

After a few, we walked down to the vacant lot where they’d set up the pre-build site.  Though it was dark at this point, the other four guys who had been at the hotel when I arrived were hard at work.  Three more Dutchmen and a crazy Italian they were, putting the final touches on an octagonal base structure that appeared to have been no small task to create well.  Though they remembered me, we made proper introductions then.  Arlo, Remco, Joost, and Massimo.  Some of the kindest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.  I watched for a few minutes, helped hold a board or back-up on a wrench where I could, and finally got my first glimpse at the conceptual drawings of the temple they were building.  I stayed noncommittal when they asked if I’d join, but the truth is that my impulsive mind had already decided.  I begged leave for the evening, and went to enjoy a nice long sleep in an air conditioned room.  Come to think of it, that was the last night of air conditioned sleeping I’ve had.  Nearly three weeks ago now.  Anyhow, after a little jamon, cheese, bread, and cafe Americano for breakfast, I packed my kit, loaded the bike, and rolled down the side street to the build site.

Conceptual rendering of the Temple of Reflection.

Conceptual rendering of the Temple of Reflection.

They all actually stopped and cheered as I pulled onto the lot and parked Lagertha unobtrusively in a weeded corner.  Everyone boisterously greeted me, and thanked me for stopping to help.  A lot of hugging was involved, to my initial dismay.  As such, after this whole two week experience, if you asked me to describe the hippies I met in one simple sentence, I could easily.  “Well, they hug a lot.”   I think it runs along the base of their psyche, but yeah, hugs all around, all the time.  I was mildly uncomfortable with the whole affair for several days, being the cold standoff-ish Texan that I am.

Despite that, it was time to get to work.  I certainly never expected to be doing any carpentry while on my European adventure, but you know me.  It felt good, and I eagerly jumped in.  I have a relatively new friend in San Antonio who has a good amount of experience with bicycle touring.  As we were discussing my trip and kit just before I left, she derided me quite strongly, though jokingly, about carrying the weight of a pair of jeans I’d not have any real use for.  Though having worn jeans essentially every day of my life, I couldn’t leave home without a pair.  Had this happy accident of joining the hippies not transpired, Lyndsay, you would have been absolutely correct.  The jeans would have been unnecessary.  As it was though, I was ecstatic that I had them to wear while working on the temple.  Since then, I’ve put them in a box with some other unneeded weight, and shipped them home.  If I happen upon another group of hippies that want help building something, well, the old legs will just have to get banged up.  You’ll notice in a few of the pics that I also acquired a little straw hat.  I would have given nearly anything for a nice, big, Texas style palm-leaf cowboy hat, but what I got did the job well enough.  With the hat, buff, and bandanna, I kept most of the sun off.

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The days sorted into the traditional two-part Spanish work day.  Two long working stretches, broken by a long siesta in the middle.  We tried to start around 7am, and worked until 1pm or so.  Had a little lunch, then took siesta until 6.  Then back to work until 1 or so in the morning, with dinner at 9.  Having less than 6 hours of darkness in a day makes the day long, regardless of what you’re doing.  Long and hot, but there was a lot to do.  It suited my “high gear or no gear” mindset well.  On most days, the siesta was spent at the local swimming hole.  Sarinena has an exceptional public swimming area, with two near Olympic sized pools, lots of grass and shade trees, and an attached cafe/bar.  The perfect place to rest during the hot part of the day.

The two wonderful ladies who took care of us at the pool the entire time, Fiona, and me.

The two wonderful ladies who took care of us at the pool the entire time, Fiona, and me.

Siesta at the pool with another group of hippies.

Siesta at the pool with another group of hippies.

It was very interesting to construct something with such a diverse group of people.  Over the course of the week, our numbers swelled from seven to over a dozen.  The new arrivals coming from all over the globe.  We represented five different continents by the end of the week, lacking only South America and the cold  white place at the bottom of our world.  Some of the folks had some experience in building, some had never touched a power tool.  All were enthusiastic, hard working, and friendly.  We taught, we learned, we got it right, we made mistakes and reworked, we laughed.  There were a few “shake my head” moments when I didn’t understand something, but we made progress, and essentially had the structure mocked up within a few days.

Ok, a little diversion to explain the rolls of the group.  In my experience with construction, a project really centers around two main groups.  The engineers who design whatever we’re building, and the superintendents, who lead the charge in actually getting the thing in the air.  The dynamic of the hippie construction crew was actually quite similar.  The slight shift was that the first mind behind the structure was that of the artist.  He took the spot of the engineers in my former (and yes, still future) career.  He drew the initial concept, and artistically controlled the build throughout.  Then, in place of the superintendents, we had the engineer.  He had the responsibility of designing the construct to match the what the artist wanted, but also not fall down.  Furthermore, he had to direct the build.  In this setting, Arlo was the artist, and Tristan the engineer.  Arlo designed a beautiful structure for the temple, and Tristan designed the bones that would hold it up in the strong desert winds.  For over six months he and Tristan have been working back and forth with the conceptual drawings, adding, subtracting, and adjusting to arrive at a something that was both aesthetically pleasing and that could actually be put in the air.

I remained a complete peon throughout the process.  Hopefully I was able to offer a few things with constructability and means & methods, but I had and wanted no artistic or structural input.  It was important to stay neutral between the two parties, but it was hard not to lean in one direction.  Having not a single artistic bone in my body, and being a little more analytical, I mostly found my train of though coinciding more closely with Tristan.  Over the course of the project, we had not one single disagreement or dissimilar opinion when it came to a structural decision, joint design, connection method, etc.  It was extremely fulfilling to work alongside someone for such a period of time whose mind is on so similar a track as yours, and it reminded me greatly of being back home working with Dad.

I always say that my career consists very much of me becoming a bridge between our client’s engineers and my construction guys.  There are always differences of opinion between all of the personalities.  Sometimes the engineers want something that is just not possible.  Sometimes they want something that is possible, but the construction guys really don’t want to do it that way.  Maybe they want to do it the way that they have 1,400 times in the past.  Very often, they have a more efficient way to arrive at the place the engineers want to be, and it’s a matter of convincing the engineers to trust them long enough to see it through.  Like much of life, it’s a compromise.  The same was true here.  The similarity of watching Arlo and Tristan banter between their ideas and desires for the temple was so much like my real life back home that I couldn’t believe it, and I just stood and watched and smiled very often.

One more diversion before we move on.  We need to take a moment to appreciate something.  Let’s consider of some of the great names of adventurous protagonists in literature and film.   Han Solo, Dirk Pitt, James Bond, Huckleberry Finn, Sherlock Holmes, Robert Langdon, Lisbeth Salander, Ethan Hunt, Indiana Jones.  They all have such a ring, don’t they?  Imagine if any of them approached you out of the blue, gave you their name, and said, “I need your help.  Hurry, an adventure awaits.”  I am admittedly impulsive and foolhardy, but I’m also tough and resilient, so I’d grab my pack and go.  “What’s happened, what do we need to do?!?!”  I’ve always imagined that if I ever tried my hand at a novel, the second-most likely genre I’d choose to explore would be adventure/mystery, a la Clive Cussler, Steve Berry, Indiana Jones (sorry, not quoting an author for a screenplay), or Dan Brown.  For that type of story you must have a protagonist with the right kind of name and persona, much like those listed above.  Tristan Lang, the enigmatic and perceptive bushman from Namibia.  How has that name and story not already been taken by some master of literature?  There was never a more perfect ring to a name for a character that was a cross between 007, Indiana Jones, and Dirk Pitt.  I should really thank you, though, Tristan.  Now I will never in my life have to worry about trying to write that novel.  I couldn’t do it, as I couldn’t come up with a more fitting name and persona for my lead.  Enough said.

“Welcome home, hippies!” Tristan yelled out the window at a group of people walking up the street in Sarinena.  We were running errands in town during siesta one day, when we saw the group.  They looked very moderately or commonly dressed to me.  I couldn’t tell that they weren’t locals.  “Are you sure they’re headed to the festival?”  “Definitely,” he replied.

“Ok, I wasn’t able to differentiate.”

“Look at their belts,” he directed me.  “See the cups?”

Yes.  I did see, now that it was pointed out.  An old style tin camp cup swayed from the waist of each in the group.

“That’s the sure way to spot a burner.  A cup and a carabiner.  The two essential items for attending a festival like this.  Everyone has something to give you.  Coffee in the morning, water during the day, and something cool in the evening.  It’s all freely offered.  Everyone has something to give, but no one has cups.  Paper and plastic cups are wasteful, and just something else to clean up.  A cup and carabiner on your belt, and you are ready.”  I was outfitted before the sun set.

I originally planned to stay 2-3 days to just help them with the heavy lifting, then be on my way.  When that time was up, I realized how much I was enjoying the group, so to myself I said, “yea I think I’ll hang out another day or so.”  Then a few more people would show up.  “Not tomorrow, maybe the next day.  I’m not in a hurry.”  Two of the guys that showed up in this time frame, like several before, are undoubtedly now friends of mine for life.  Mercy and Pez, from Australia and Israel respectively.  Both the friendly, witty, and charismatic sorts that you can form an instant friendship with.  With the combination of people in the group by the weekend, the chances of me leaving were nil.  They were all pushing for me to commit to stay, and attend the festival with them.  (Also to spend final three days disassembling the temple at the prebuild site, then erecting it in its on-site location).

After I finally committed to staying, under condition of being able to get in, Wouter immediately put his festival ticket into the palm of my hand.  The implications of what this meant didn’t sink in immediately.  I had to roll it around a bit to appreciate how truly profound it was.  Here’s a guy whose made the sacrifices and arrangements in his life to take three weeks and travel to Spain, to build a temple, and to participate in an annual festival that is the highlight of his year.  There are a limited number of tickets, sold out now for months, with no extras to be had.  After just a few days of knowing me, working along side me, and learning my story, he gave up his spot for me.  With little to no chance of finding another way to get in.  He literally packed his bags and prepared to leave the day before we were all to transition to the festival site.  The utter and complete selflessness of that sacrifice, to this very minute while I’m typing these words, moves me to a place that I still cannot really process.  I can hardly even type.  I can’t even begin to understand it.

For my Texan friends, imagine that you have only one yearly entry into one of the majors.  You work and feed all summer and fall.  You stage outside of Houston, your only tag.  You fit and drench and trim, then start pulling down and weigh in.  You give them the final shear before you move into the Reliant center  for the sift.  Then that morning you load the trailer and go home, because you’ve willingly given your tag to someone you just met on the road.  “We’ll get’em next year.”  Let that sink in for a moment.  That nearly describes what this was like.  To my non-Texan friends… sorry, just ignore that metaphor.  It would take another entire post to explain.

I feel like I’m so very slightly scratching the surface of this entire story, but I hope by now you’re beginning to see why my 2-3 day detour so easily morphed into two weeks.

Leading into the weekend, it was time to disassemble the structure, pack it on a little bobtail, and ship it to sight.  I’d been out there a bit earlier in the day to get my arm band, so this was the second trip.  The construct was actually very modular, easy to disassemble and pack.  We had it taken down, packed, hauled, and unloaded in under a day.  We’d soon find, though, that reassembly of a structure with many long legs, difficult angles, and unforgiving lines would be a little different when you had to do it on a 5% grade.  On flat land, I think we could have finished the installation in under two days.  With the site conditions, it took three long days and nights.  Nothing new.  That’s construction for you, and everyone mostly took it in stride.  The toughest part, after negotiating the angles of the ground, was finishing all of the cladding and cloth, which were essentially the artistic touches that rendered it from a simple wood structure to what was imagined as the Temple of Reflection.  Materials ran short in the end.  The cladding and reflective material didn’t stretch as far as they should have.  So in the end the visual effect wasn’t quite what it might  have been.  Still, before the desert winds wreaked havoc on the cloth, it came together nicely, and I was happy with the view, as compared to the original artistic conceptuals.

Image dump for the build:

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View out my window while we stayed in town.

View out my window while we stayed in town.

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Maria Pilar - MaPi, a local who happened upon us and was invaluable to the cloth team.  She even fetched her mother's sewing machine and brought it to the site to help.

Maria Pilar – MaPi, a local who happened upon us and was invaluable to the cloth team. She even fetched her mother’s sewing machine and brought it to the site to help.

Pez & MaPi

Pez & MaPi

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Tristan, Pez, Me, and Mercy.  A group I'd take on any challenge with.

Tristan, Pez, Me, and Mercy. A group I’d take on any challenge with.

What fun it was working with these guys.

What fun it was working with these guys.

The never ending struggle between artistic representation and practical constructability.

The never ending struggle between artistic representation and practical constructability.

Cloth Crew

Cloth Crew

The early group.

The early group.

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Some early arrivals in free camping.

Some early arrivals in free camping.

Early Middle of Nowhere.

Early Middle of Nowhere.

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Tristan, Pez, & Mercy on one of the final late nights of assembly.  Everyone working with us this night stopped and congregated to watch that moon rise over the hills through the center of our temple's columns.

Tristan, Pez, & Mercy on one of the final late nights of assembly. Everyone working with us this night stopped and congregated to watch that moon rise over the hills through the center of our temple’s columns.

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I think Arlo may have just lost an artistic want to structural stability here. Unfortunately.  If we could have built it how he had it in his head, things would have been different.

I think Arlo may have just lost an artistic want to structural stability here. Unfortunately. If we could have built it how he had it in his head, things would have been different.

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Our Muse, Davilo.  He carried that 2X4 around all week.  It was 2" round by the time we were done.

Our Muse, Davilo. He carried that 2X4 around all week. It was 2″ round by the time we were done.

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"But it will fall down if we do it that way."

“But it will fall down if we do it that way.”

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More artistic and engineering compromise.

More artistic and engineering compromise.

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Structure close to complete on-site.

Structure close to complete on-site.

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On the line, Coco.

On the line, Coco.

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A lot of late nights to finish in time.

A lot of late nights to finish in time.

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Arlo and Tristan

Arlo and Tristan

I've been working on my spaceship...

I’ve been working on my spaceship…

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The first ascension of the "A" Ring.

The first ascension of the “A” Ring.

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Our host for the time in town, Massimo.

Our host for the time in town, Massimo.

Tristan and Wouter

Tristan and Wouter

Communal lunch.

Communal lunch.

So two Dutchmen and an Israeli walk into a bar...

So two Dutchmen and an Israeli walk into a bar…

Massimo did such a great PR job with the  community, a local industrial sewing shop helped our guys working on the cloth!

Massimo did such a great PR job with the community, a local industrial sewing shop helped our guys working on the cloth!

The construction of the temple structure was surprisingly complex.  All octagonal, and because the octagons on each layer were offset, none of the already tricky angles matched.  It was quite a fun challenge to work through.

The construction of the temple structure was surprisingly complex. All octagonal, and because the octagons on each layer were offset, none of the already tricky angles matched. It was quite a fun challenge to work through.

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First trial attachment of a Spire on top of the "A" ring.  This move was just a bit dicey, but it held even better than expected.  Wout looks like he's falling, but he's not.

First trial attachment of a Spire on top of the “A” ring. This move was just a bit dicey, but it held even better than expected. Wout looks like he’s falling, but he’s not.

Time to add another character to the story’s Dramatis Personae.  On Saturday Tristan ran to Zaragoza to pick up his girlfriend Christina, who joined us for the remainder of the time.  A lovely person who is native to Malaga, in southern Spain.  She spent nearly a decade in the States, working as a contract physiotherapist for the Oakland Raiders.  Her English was great, and she helped me with my Spanish for the remainder of the time there.  A great teacher and wonderful addition to the crew.  Thanks again for everything, Christina.

On the morning of the first day of the festival, they held a dedication ceremony for the temple.  It started at daybreak.  After the very late night we’d had completing the temple, I was thankful to Tristan and Christina for shaking my tent to rouse me as they made their way by.  On my walk to the temple I crossed paths with Fiona, another new friend whom I’d met a couple of nights previous.  She was one of the managers for the Welfare tent, which is a hospitality type of service that offers tea, coffee,  water, a cool place to sit, emotional support, or whatever else they can to whomever needs it.  So it was that we met up and made our way to the temple to watch the ceremony together.  At the temple, the hippies were already well into their merrymaking.  The sun was just cresting the eastern horizon, showering the valley in it’s vibrant golden iridescence. In the circle, there was a lot of hand holding, dancing, kumbaya type stuff that was just a bit out from what Fi and I were prepared to participate in that morning.  Instead we found a soft spot a few meters back from the circle and just watched the festivities.  Fortuitous, that decision, as it allowed me to grab these shots of the glorious sunrise as it bathed the temple and the hippies dancing underneath.  Take a peak.

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Hippies gonna hippie.

Hippies gonna hippie.

What a marvelous sunrise we had on the morning they dedicated the temple.  The hippies did a lot of Kumbaya singing and the like, so I opted to step back and photograph the view.

What a marvelous sunrise we had on the morning they dedicated the temple. The hippies did a lot of Kumbaya singing and the like, so I opted to step back and photograph the view.

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Before we move on to my experience with the festival proper, let’s discuss a few things about what it actually is, why it exists, and what it stands for.  A strong comprehension of the fundamentals of a subject is the best platform for true understanding.  The festival is called Nowhere.  From what I’ve seen of Europe so far, albeit that’s a small piece, they picked the most apt location for an event of that name.  I was about halfway across Spain, and it was easily the most remote part of the country that I’d seen. Very deserted terrain, dry sagebrush type country.  There was a nice river running through the area that had a very fertile strip of farmland on either side, but other than that, it reminded me a lot of both central New Mexico, and the area around McCamey and Rankin, though free of rock.  The river area was very reminiscent of the Pecos and its farmland around Roswell, if you’ve ever been through there.  Outside of the river bottom, the soil was a very fine, firm, yellow clay.  I think it held water more firmly than our red clay back home, which made it difficult to deal with runoff cooking and shower water.

The festival is run on the backbone of 10 core principles.  They are all important, and everyone took them all very seriously.  Though three really stuck out to me, and caused me to appreciate their practice in the setting.  I’m sure I’ll delve into each again further down the post, but briefly they were: Leave no trace. Decommodification. Acceptance.

Leave no trace means exactly what it says.  The intensity took me by surprise, though.  As someone who grew up deeply connected to the land, studying agriculture, range management, ecology, biology, and having the heart of a conservationist, I’ve always believed (probably a little arrogantly) that I have a solid grasp of what it means to conserve the land in a macro sense.  Though you know I wouldn’t identify as an environmentalist, and I disagree with quite a few of their fundamentals, the environment is extremely important to me.  The leave no trace principle at Nowhere dealt with things on a more micro-scale, and I’ve never seen it employed so completely.  Obviously I was completely on-board as soon as it was explained to me. Oh, how I underestimated these hippies.  Within 2 minutes of being on-site I’d already screwed up.  The entrance gate was near the edge of the packed site for the festival, with native pasture edging up.  We were standing near it when I turned my head over my shoulder and spit my gum out into a little Spanish sagebrush equivalent.  Not a thought crossed my mind as I did it.  It’s something I would do on our own land back home and never look back.  Immediately I was given a very friendly refresher course in what “leave no trace” means, and kindly asked to retrieve the gum.  Of course I did, sheepishly, and found a trash bin.  They have a very useful phrase to describe and discuss the picking up and prevention of trash.  (MOOP).  Matter Out Of Place.  It’s an acronym, noun, and verb.  If something is man-made, it shouldn’t be on the ground.  If a tool is not being used, it needs to be in the toolbox.  If something has a place somewhere on a shelf, table, or tent, put it there.  If not, it goes in a rubbish or recycling bin.  If a place is messy, MOOP it and return it to its rightful condition.

Decommodification. The removal of money.  The removal of bartering for that matter.  There are two other principles that tie into this slightly, Self-Reliance and Gifting, though the decommodification was the core of the set for me.  Disclaimer: the one exception to this was ice.  They shipped a truckload of ice in every day, and anyone could buy a bag for the food and coolers.  Without this, there would have been a lot of sick hippies.  Speaking of that, there was a small e. coli outbreak, which I avoided, but the ice was a necessity.  Anyhow, I saw not a single Euro exchanged for anything other than ice for the entire festival.  You had what you brought, or someone gave you a gift.  And if you had something, you gave it to someone else.  When a gift was given, it was truly a gift, with nothing expected in return.  The selfless, sharing culture that this inspired was an incredible human experiment in my eyes.  It was phenomenal to watch develop.  There were serious items being given as well.  I’m not just talking about a sandwich, a beer, or a cup of water, though those were offered by the minute.  I saw a brand new tent gifted to a guy who was in a bind, by someone who didn’t have an extra.  They made due without for the rest of the trip. A watch, a cooler, it was extraordinary.  In some cases, you did see the dual gifting approach the barter system, when there was a gift on both sides, but it was the exception when that happened.  In the real world, a removal of currency on a large scale obviously approaches some sociopolitical systems that I’ll never be within million miles of, but for one week on a small scale, the entire group thrived.

Acceptance.  This is the big one.  The defining characteristic of the people I met at the festival.  The character trait that allowed all of the other traits to thrive.  This was simple for me, as the phrase “To each their own” is something I’ve committed myself to living by for many years, second only to the golden rule.  In the States, Libertarianism is a growing political movement.  It’s unfortunate that there’s not a decent Libertarian candidate, but the party is a little more focused on getting the government to leave us alone than what I’m talking about…. wait, who the hell brought up politics?  Lo siento.  Anyhow, it reminds me of one of my favorite cartoons.  It’s one that takes just a tiny bit of scientific knowledge to get, but it’s hilarious and fitting with this comparison.  On the far left there is a guy with “Psychologist” written on his shirt.  The next guy to the right has “Biologist” on his shirt, and is saying to the psychologist, “You know that psychology is only applied biology?”  Next to him a chemist is saying “Please.. Biology is simply applied chemistry.”  Then a physicist to his right says, “There is nothing special about chemistry, it is only basic, applied physics.”  Then way over to the right there is a final guy with the “Mathematician” tag.  “Hey,” he says to the rest of them, “I didn’t even see all of you guys way over there.”

This acceptance by people at Nowhere is simply applied Libertarianism in its most basic and complete form.  If someone is not causing harm, let them be.  They’re not going to force you to do what they’re doing, be it singing, dancing, wearing a unicorn costume, rolling around in the mud.  Accept that they can do what they want to do.  If you aren’t a fan, you can remove yourself without objecting to their right to be themselves.  I’ve probably always been much more accepting in this way than most people who know me realize, which is fine, but the point is that it wasn’t a transition into this mindset when I arrived at Nowhere.  It was just an excellent opportunity to practice it.  But this is truly the backbone of the entire scene.  This mindset is what elevated the level of enjoyment had by everyone there.  It removed conflict, it opened doors and connected people, it allowed people to be themselves.

It took a little while, but soon I understood why Tristan had greeted the group of hippies earlier with “Welcome Home.”  I had thought it was just a catchy phrase they had taken to using.  It wasn’t.  To many, it had a deep meaning.  It was because of this acceptance.  In many cases, the people were there because it was a safe place for them to be themselves.  To express what they wanted to express, to wear what they wanted to wear, to be who they wanted to be, away from the scornful and judgmental eyes of society proper.  Here they were among family.  Here they were home.  It gave me chills when I realized what it meant to them, how important an experience it was.

The festival site itself was laid out on several acres, maybe 40 in a long irregular shape, of rolling clay land on about the third bank of the river, just below the first set of escarpments.  It had been cleared of vegetation many years ago, and packed to create a place for events like this.  The entire site drained to the river, so it would not fit the definition of a “playa” as we defined it back home; however, that was the common term used by everyone to describe the site.  Though not exact, it’s a great word to portray the site and a close depiction, so I won’t be a stickler for definitions (Yes, Kendall, I did just say that. Color me a changed man).  Around the outside of the playa the established camps, or “barrios” were situated.  These were groups of people, anywhere from 20-60 who shared the space and camped, cooked, and generally hung out together.  Each was provided with a 20′ shipping container, a 1 cubic meter water cube that was filled with potable daily, and a primitive shower.  Primitive but wonderful.  That dust was invasive.  The climate was also interesting.  It was actually rather harsh.  From all of the preliminary research I did on the Spanish climate along my prospective bicycle route, and I did quite a lot, the area we were inhabiting was experiencing a little heat wave, with temperatures 6-10 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal.  The average high was around 100f, with the highest we experienced at 107.  The humidity was low, so it was a nice dry heat.  The wind picked up around mid day, and blew the fine dust around at about 20-30 mph until late afternoon.  All in all it was just almost exactly like a Thursday back in west Texas.  Luckily the heat didn’t bother me too badly, though it was certainly hot, and there was no escape into any conditioned space.  It made it tough to nap in the middle of the day, but too many summers slogging through identical conditions on red sand instead of yellow clay had conditioned me well enough.  The one upside, though I’m likely one of the few people at the festival who appreciated it, was that the dust in this wind was more easy to withstand than our native sand.  It filtered into every seam, layer, and crevasse of your clothing moreso than sand, but it didn’t cut or pepper you as harshly.  A fine distinction, but it was noticeable to me.  That said, we did take the opportunity to go hop in the river, or even run in for a dip in the pool to cool off when we got the chance.  I felt acutely sympathetic for a lot of my new friends, though.  Many of them were from cool and green northern places like Berlin, Latvia, the Netherlands, or Scotland.  The combination of heat and blowing dust did a number on a lot of them, and it was heartbreaking to be able to do no more than to offer shade and somehow try to cut the wind down to a gentle, cooling breeze.

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Desert sunsets very reminiscent of home.

Desert sunsets very reminiscent of home.

Surviving the harsh climate is truly a substantial part of the experience.  It wouldn’t be the same in some cool, green environment.  It’s a test of wills that puts in peril the human condition, rewarding with a badge of honor when you come out unscathed on the other side.  The physical condition of a person’s body may not be up to the challenge, but for the vast majority, confronting that challenge with your own presence of spirit and mental strength is the gratifying metamorphosis that binds together all of the other facets of the experience.

Lagertha, patiently waiting out my detour in the heat by my tent.

Lagertha, patiently waiting out my detour in the heat by my tent.

The big shade structure we had at our barrio, Wonderever, had a dozen or so hammocks hung from the support poles.  I’m completely convinced that these hammocks were the coolest, most comfortable place to spend the heat of the day.  With the absence of any misters or evaporative cooling of any kind, one shade is near as good as another.  The hammock offered the advantage of distributing the breeze in all 360 degrees around your body, without building an insulative and reflective relationship with the ground.

I think the water usage behind a mister system might be objectionable to a lot of the hippies in terms of conservation and sustainability……. on paper.  I know that a mister system would be extremely effective in that wind under the shade.  I think if you implemented one during the day, those philosophical complaints would evaporate more quickly that the mist that had landed on their skin.  If I ever return, I’m going to do my best to devise a simple, solar or gas powered system to use at the camp.  Tristan postulated that a bank of  wet evap filters on the upwind side of camp would work nicely, and I think he’s right.  If the wind was strong enough, they may even have a higher efficacy than misters.

Speaking of barrios, I was warmly welcomed into one by a great group of people.  Because many of the temple crew are a part of the Wonderever group, the barrio as a whole has a special relationship with the entire temple effort.  During the few days we temple builders were on-site assembling our so-called masterpiece, Wonderever took care of us in terms of food, water, and  siesta-time shelter.  After the build, recognizing me as the homeless vagabond that I was, and because all hippies, like most people, love what they consider a beautiful story, they graciously welcomed me into the Wonderever family.  It was a group I thoroughly enjoyed spending the week with.  An even more diverse group than our temple crew, I now have another handful of new friends, scattered across the globe.  Life in the Wonderever camp was as pleasant and unassuming as life could possibly be.  A lot of the group had camped together at Nowhere before, and then many, like me, were newcomers.  The camaraderie, communication, and selflessness was a great experience.

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Jo, I don't know what was going through Pez's head here, but I don't think I'd ask.

Jo, I don’t know what was going through Pez’s head here, but I don’t think I’d ask.

Melissa, one of my few countrymen in our camp.

Melissa, one of my few countrymen in our camp.

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Wonderever

Wonderever

During the day at Nowhere, there were a nearly innumerable amount of things to do, though the heat of the day often staunched the most noble efforts towards interaction and participation.  There were a veritable deluge of organized activities hosted by different groups each day.  And in the desert, there is SO much room for activities!…     Anyone?……..  No?…….   Ok, I’ll just show myself out…

Anyhow, these events, called workshops, were hosted by different groups all around the site. Some at barrios, some in the public areas and any number of combinations in between.  I think there were about 100 a day, which rather impressed me, considering that the total attendance of the festival was only around 1,800 people.  Anything you could imagine could be found at one of the workshops.  A lot of what I would call hippie-ish stuff about art and expression.  A lot of meditation.  Tons of yoga.  Coffee and classics was a favorite of mine.  I mean… morning coffee and classical music?  Sign me up.   You didn’t learn or teach or act, just drink coffee and listen to the music.  Many were unassuming like that.  Gin and tonic hour in the evening.  Social hour under the sun.  Intro to massage.  Free massage hour, by professionals.  Reggae dance hour.  Dance instruction.  How to hoola-hoop. Get your nails did. How to hug (of course that was one, though it was just an excuse.  They all had it down to start with).  There were TED-Talk like speeches about sustainable building and urban development.  Blind food tasting.  Zombie Outbreak Survival Practice, yep🙂.  Improv shows, Improv instruction.  Comedy hour and comedy collaboration.  Tea and Techno. Archery. Cabaret. You name it, and there was a workshop for it.  There were also quite a few that were a little more risque, but we’re keeping this blog PG.  You can ask for a list of those later, if you fancy.  Just don’t ask if you don’t want to know.

LARP Mario Kart

LARP Mario Kart

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I stood in a constant state of awe, throughout the week, at the sheer volume of what the people were willing to share. Hosting these never ending workshops, performances, and gatherings epitomized the spirit of why they attended.  Give, receive, teach, absorb, share, accept.  It was surely a spectacle, but any other gathering of people I’d ever experienced paled in terms of inclusion and participation.

If there’s one thing the hippies are more skilled at than anyone else I know, its finding the beauty in things.  As mentioned above, they especially like a beautiful story.  For whatever reason, they found my story especially dear.  I guess it was pretty unique, as it took a long and complicated string of coincidences and accidents to land me there.  I quickly found that my story had spread across the festival pretty thoroughly.  It was a near hourly occurrence that I would meet someone, talk for a bit, and then hear “OH! You’re the Texan on the bike who helped the guys build the temple!  I heard about you.  It’s amazing how you got here to be with us!”   And then we’d have another round of hugs.  Then usually another after that.

I was very thankful for this willingness to hear and appreciate a story.  It was this trait that actually allowed me to enjoy my time there, because it was this that saved my friend Wouter.  When we arrived to check in and get our tickets, he was completely without, having previously given me his.  He started talking to the gate crew, and worked his way up the ranks, telling our story, and exploring whether or not anything could be done.  For quite a while the answer was, “unfortunately no, we’re completely full and don’t created extra passes.”  It was grim, and my heart was breaking.  I was completely willing, and tried vehemently to return his ticket so that he could attend.  I could get back on my bike and continue my original journey.  He wouldn’t hear of it, though.  Giving me the ticket was an unconditional decision that would not be spoiled, even if it sent him packing.  After a while, though, our story had time to percolate through the hearts of the people who could make something happen.  With the grace of a philanthropist, the team made the concession and Wouter walked through the gates with us.  I was relieved and ecstatic.  Even though it was something he wanted, I would not have been able to enjoy my experience there if it had cost him his.  Thank you again, Laza, if you happen across this story.

Yep, but on dust also.

Yep, but on dust also.

Of course I did.  You didn't even have to ask.

Of course I did. You didn’t even have to ask.

Yes, I watched an actual, real, ordained wedding happen in the Temple that we built.

Yes, I watched an actual, real, ordained wedding happen in the Temple that we built.

Authentic hippie.

Authentic hippie.

Pez, you beautiful, wonderful human being.

Pez, you beautiful, wonderful human being.

Throughout the festival, a common question from people was, “What is your favorite thing about Nowhere?”  There was so much.  It is not an easy question to answer.  The answer I usually gave was the blending of cultures.  There were people from every corner of the globe.  The diversity in thought processes, interpretations, speech, culture, (this is a never ending list), etc. was fascinating to me.  Just absorbing these differences over the course of a day was an experience that I don’t think I could get anywhere else.  If you asked me the same question right now, this might still be my answer.  I don’t think so, but I am having trouble pinning down what that answer would be.  Ask me in a month.  I should have it all sorted by then.

Another of the most profound things about the festival was the complete and utter absence of malice.  During the week I heard not a single raised voice, let alone did I see any actual confrontation.  If you put this many people in the same sized area in Texas, layered on the environmental conditions, then added the music, beer,  and partying for a full week, it would have been a very different story.  We’d have had fist fights and shouting matches every hour on the hour.  I know, I’ve seen it time and time again.  Unfortunately, I may have even participated in a couple many years ago.  Again, this culture of acceptance and inclusion directed this way of thinking completely out of the collective mind.  The resolution in any conversation made itself available far before it came close to the beginning of a confrontation.  Things were let go to blow in the wind.  No situation was left to incubate in the desert heat.  On a similar thread, the safety and security of every person was complete.  Unlike at any American university on any given Saturday, I am completely confident that over the course of the week not a single girl, or person for that matter, was taken advantage of or even made to feel uncomfortable.

The same for material possessions.  In my tent, I kept all of the valuable items that I had with me.  A new laptop, my Canon DSLR camera, a wallet full of a few hundred Euros.  I don’t know what signals I felt early in the week, but I had no reservations with leaving these things unattended.  I didn’t feel the need to even cover them up or hide them.  Lo and behold, when I walked through the gates and left the festival, I was carrying everything I had carried in.  Except my sunglasses.  I lost those, as is standard for me. They weren’t stolen, but I hope that whomever was able to MOOP them is enjoying them now.  I haven’t seen a lot of Maui’s in Europe.

Then there were the nights.  Cool desert nights, the best kind. A refuge from the extended and unbearable sun.  And of course it was a party.  It was a festival, how could it not be?  Take everything I’ve said about the mindset and personalities of the people above, remove the heat and glaring light, add some music and a cool drink, and there you have it. Of course it was a big party, and it was great party as well.  There was one strip of barrios on the loud end of the camp whose seeming purpose it was to host these parties.  Lights, stages, near world class DJ’s.  Speaking of which, Massimo, our host during the temple prebuild, is an extraordinary DJ.  He played a set early on Thursday night that was one of the best I’ve ever heard.  A couple of hours after the sun retreated for its nightly sabbatical, the entire festival began the slow but deliberate migration towards the music.  On the way you’d stop and watch a few minutes of a Cabaret, visit a barrio’s late evening cocktail hour, or even sneak into another camp to spirit away a group of friends who were finishing a late siesta.

We all grow up and live with a set of social norms.  Not necessarily rules, but just standard modes of operation that are followed when interacting with the rest of the world.  I’m talking about cliques and exclusion, and the volatile herd mentality.  It’s something that I don’t think anyone likes, but we all participate in it.  It’s never enjoyable when you find yourself on the wrong end of that communal relationship.  This was also something that wasn’t present at Nowhere.  Of course you develop friendships and sort into groups.  Those groups eat together, drink together, dance together, etc.  The difference was the fluidity of the crowd.  There was never a membrane around the group.  No barriers to entry or exit.  One could bounce from here to there, to these or those with no recourse and all the elasticity that you could manage.

The music was a welcome relief to what it would have been in the States.  I’ve never enjoyed hip hop much, and luckily there was little to be heard at Nowhere.  The music had a lot of the current and ubiquitous house electronica, with a strong Eurodance slant, as you’d expect. This was coupled with some pop influenced, remix electronica that was phenomenal.  If that’s Greek to you, I apologize.  Just understand that it’s light but fast dancing music with a good beat.  I’ve always enjoyed this kind of music, and I listen to it often when I’m by myself.

If you’ve known me long at all, you probably know that I try very hard to be as self-reliant as I can.  I generally do not seek or feel like I need approval for what I do or how I live my life.  You probably also know, especially if you’ve ever been out on the town with me, that there is one enormous, glaring hole in this.  Yes, dancing.  I have always liked dancing, but I just don’t do it in public because it puts me out of my comfort zone as quickly as if I had to give a speech about quantum mechanics without any clothes on.  If we were to have 10 nights out on the town, I’d probably spend a total of 3.14 minutes on the dance floor.  It’s the one area in my life where my self-consciousness throttles my confidence the most strongly.  That mental block I’ve always had is now floating down a river somewhere in central Spain.  The hippies delicately reached in, drew it out, and punted it across the playa.

I said earlier how enthusiastic and open I was to having the accepting attitude that pervades Nowhere.  I was serious when I said that it is something that I’ve tried to live by for a long time.  Only I never realized that it would some day be a two way street for me.  What more acceptance do I need that what I already have?  I’m fine.  Nowhere near perfect, but I stay happy, and am comfortable most everywhere.  Acceptance is something I can give to other people who feel like they need it.  It’s not something I need for myself.  I didn’t realize it when it happened.  It was only after a couple of days of reflection that I realized that I had had that moment of acceptance for myself, from my new hippie friends in the middle of Nowhere.  That I needed it never crossed my mind, but I suppose now that I did.  That’s what broke down that barrier.  Epiphanic.  Walking onto a dance floor is a small thing compared to what many people on that playa did and felt, but it was something to me.

Remember in the preface when I predicted that you would label me a hippie at some point in this story?  This is that point.  I completely understand if you’ve done so now.  Please just try not to strain those necks shaking your heads.  I don’t want to have to truck you all to the chiropractor when I get home.  Continue to bear with me, we’ve almost made it.

I’ve never been one for fate or destiny or cosmic direction or any of that existential kind of stuff, and I am NOT about to wax in that direction now; however, they were terms I heard many times over the fortnight to describe the series of events that led me to Nowhere.  I fall in more for chance, probability, coincidence and accidents.  A happy accident, that’s how I describe it.

My legs were screaming on the first morning I woke up in Balaguer, two days before my arrival in Sarinena.  I took a rest day there.  The guys didn’t have beers at the hotel the previous day.  Had I been in better shape and not taken that rest day, the wind would have blown me right through town, none the wiser.  For that matter, the decision to go through Sarinena had only been made for a day previous.  I had planned to go through Huesca, a larger town to the north.  There were about two bars in closer proximity to the prebuild site that they could easily have chosen to visit, rather than the hotel where I had planned to stay.  The other four guys had gone back to work by the time I came down from the room after the shower.  Had Tristan and Wout not wanted to complete their discussion over another beer, they’d all have been gone.  I’d have had a meal, a sleep, and another early start on Lagertha the next morning.  How many other random little chances aligned to lead me into this situation?  I have no idea.  A very large number, I am sure, and I’m thankful for all of them.

Some guy I didn't know, Mercy, and me.  Just before I left.

Some guy I didn’t know, Mercy, and me. Just before I left.

Susanna, the former pro basketball player who so aptly helped us finish the temple late on the final night.  Also the talented artist behind my face paint.

Susanna, the former pro basketball player who so aptly helped us finish the temple late on the final night. Also the talented artist behind my face paint.

Yes, my face was painted, and very well at that.  No, I don't have a better picture, as I sweated it off post-haste.

Yes, my face was painted, and very well at that. No, I don’t have a better picture, as I sweated it off post-haste.

I’ve known a lot of people and had a lot of friends over the years.  I’ve been very fortunate.  My family has provided innumerable opportunities for me to experience things and enrich my life.  Growing up, through high school, stock shows, family friends, college, work, there are a lot of you.  I still love you, and I’m still one of you.  I’ll be home soon, and then back to normal life, however:

Who could have imagined, though, that I could so ungraciously stumble into such a community of people literally and figuratively in the middle of Nowhere?  Who could have guessed that the utter randomness and diversity that made up that group of people I spent two weeks with would so completely fill something in me that I didn’t recognize needed filling?  Who could have fathomed that such a group, who were total strangers just days previous, with enormous cultural and language barriers, would end up giving me what could possibly have been the most extraordinary few days I’ve ever lived?

Fiona, Tristan, Pez, Christina, Wouter, Mercy, Arlo, Massimo, Joost, Jo, Karina, Deborah, Tom, Arbie, Blaize, Laza, Freddie, Paloma, Jerome, Susan, Dante, Ilsa, MaPi, Salvador, Owen, Remco, Buk, Valentin, Sophia, Melissa, Guij (and every other last one of you burners), hats off to you.  Hope to see you next year, or somewhere in between.  I can say nothing more.

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Epilogue:

So what’s the consensus?  Am I a converted hippie?  I think I can say no, I didn’t go through a conversion.  I definitely feel like I opened up a bit, to be sure.  My understanding and views probably expanded, but I don’t think I went through a conversion.  There’s a larger and more important question here, though.  I’m not going to give you the question, but I’ll give you the answer.

 

Maybe I’ve been a little bit of a hippie all along.

 

 

 

 

Hills, Hills, Hills, and Hippies

Where to start? That phrase has meaning to me in several different contexts at the moment. One being where to start this bit of writing. So much has happened since I left Barcelona, it feels like a lifetime ago.
The second context for the phrase is where to start the trip? I chose Barcelona for a number of reasons. The city was in the top few of those I wanted to see, and my prospective route around Europe seemed to work with it as a starting point. The art, architecture, and history of the city make it one I’d always wanted to visit. Not to mention the people, food, and nightlife. I suppose that if you start at any coastal city, and move inland, you will generally be going uphill for a while. I knew this in the back of my mind before the trip, but I knew it in the very front of my mind (and very acutely in my legs) after the first couple of days on the road. After the second day I was actually questioning whether or not I’d be able to do it. Then I looked at the elevation profiles for the two days of riding. Straight uphill for 60 miles. That was a relief. It can’t be uphill forever.  And so it was that on the third day, I was rewarded with a 15 mile downhill stretch that I covered in about a half hour. It was thrilling, and much welcomed.
On that day, I passed and stopped at Montserrat. It’s a monastery build on top of this giant granite mountain. I didn’t have any idea of the scale of that mountain before I saw it. There is a walking path that you can take, and hike up to the monastery from the base of the mountain, which is a popular thing for tourists and locals alike. I thought it sounded like a nice break in the day of cycling, and planned to do just that when I arrived. NOPE!  Not when I arrived, and saw the place. It’s a half day hike, at the minimum. The gondola it was, for me. The audacity of a group of monks, 1000 years ago, to climb this mountain and build a monastery at the top is mind boggling. The top is surrounded by sheer granite cliffs, and I’m sure modern technology has been employed to open the current walking path to the summit. They didn’t appear to use stone from the mountain to build the structures, either. It looked like imported stone, which only adds to how insane a task it must have been. By now, it’s turned into a tourist attraction, with a veritable city at the top. Hotels, shops, restaurants, and even permanent housing in the form of the ubiquitous four story Spanish apartment complex.
Unfortunately, I made a foolish mistake with my technology that night, and lost all of my pictures from that day. I apologize for not being able to show them, but I’ll include a link to their website, and I encourage all to have a look at it.

http://www.montserratvisita.com/en/index.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Maria_de_Montserrat_Abbey
After the day I visited Montserrat, I fell into several steady days of cycling. This far inland, I’ve found a very balanced terrain, with steep hills and long descents. No flat stretches, but a balance is nearly as nice, and more interesting. It’s a much appreciated profile for riding, after the first few tough days that were all ascent. My body began to adapt, legs growing accustomed to hours pumping the pedals, dragging myself and 75 lbs of kit around the countryside. Some of the countryside in that stretch reminded me quite a bit of central and northern New Mexico, and the more green areas were not too dissimilar to north-central Texas, albeit with more variation to the terrain. The farming here looks relatively advanced, compared to much of ours. At the least, every bit of equipment is large, new, and spotless. Mostly bearded wheat, with quite a bit of alfalfa and corn as well. A few fields of soybeans, which would be necessary to feed all of the pigs. So far I’ve seen two cows and one large heard of goats. I’m surprised at the lack of free range livestock. This country, in the rougher and drier parts where there is no farming, looks like it would support a great deal of stock. I haven’t figured out yet why they have none.

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The exception would be the pig farms. They are nearly on every hilltop, and in every valley. All very traditional, indoor production facilities in old brick and terracotta buildings with the signature Spanish tile roofs. You could smell them from the road in most places, but you’ll hear no complaints about that from me, as first, it doesn’t really bother me. More importantly, these are likely the source of that Jamon de Iberica (Iberican ham) that I mentioned in the last post. That ham. That ham. Expect to hear about it at least twice more before I leave Spain.

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Near the end of this leg I went through stretch of country that was near solid orchards. Peaches, olives, apricots, nectarines, pears. Most of the fruit was a bit green, so I didn’t have much. However I did come across one peach orchard that was being picked. It was a small tract, maybe 6 acres just next to an old farm house. It was clearly a small family operation. I saw a young man about my age and an older woman stretching into the trees and loading a big 3 square meter cube with the fruit. After parking Lagertha in the bar-ditch, I walked through the orchard and asked, in moderate Spanish, if I could buy some fruit. “Cuantas fruitas,” the young man replied. He didn’t see my bike, and I think he thought I wanted to buy in large quantities. “Dos o tres,” I replied. He grinned and made a very dismissive gesture with his hand, then turned and walked away down the orchard row. A few paces out, he turned over his shoulder, “ven aqui” he beckoned me back to where the woman was picking. He pointed at the trees and the big bins they were filling. “Verde,” he told me. Ah, those were green. They looked ripe, but I hadn’t felt any to see how firm they were. The old woman had a bucket near her that was full of fruit. She handed me a peach, and I could tell this was their bucket of ripe fruit to haul back to the house for themselves. From here they could see my bike, and asked where I was from and what I was doing. I replied as well as I could in my limited but growing Spanish. Then, they both started handing me fruit, and loaded me up with as many ripe and juicy peaches as I could carry. There were about a dozen of them, and I ate every single one over the remainder of the afternoon. They may not have been quite as good as the best Fredericksburg peach you’ve ever had, but they were close.

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I have one truth that I’ve heard my entire life, and postulated myself many times. One of the big things for me to prove to myself on this trip is that I am correct in this opinion. It’s that country folk are the same, the world over. They are friendly and kind, generous and good natured, hard working and hospitable. This was my first experience in proving this true. I’d like to get a dozen or so examples like this by the end of my trip, and I’m not at all worried about being able to achieve that.

Also during this stretch, I found the town of Balaguer.  When I woke up to leave, my legs refused to move, so I decided to spend a recovery day there.  After a couple of hours exploring the small city, I was glad I did.  Like many in the area, it has a very intriguing history, and I spent much of the day exploring the two churches, the remains of the former castle, and the walled fortifications.  The early residents of the city had been driven out by the Moors between 800-900, and they controlled it until 1106.  At that time, the Christian “Reconquista,” launched from nearby France, targeted many of these cities in northern Catalonia as their first conquests.  After the Christians recaptured it then, they immediately began work building the castle, walls, and cathedral.  The castle is in ruins, the cathedral has been rebuilt many times over the years, but some of the original walls are there, and in amazing shape.  You can see in some places how deeply they laid foundation material before the wall started, and those depths would make our engineers in the nuclear industry proud.  Maybe even a bit jealous.

Image dump for Balaguer:

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Anyhow, on the road again the next day, for my longest day yet.  54 miles, and the hottest day as well.  It got up to 102f about the time I was working up a large hill west of Binefar.  A short downhill run set me to the final 20 mile stretch into Sarinena.  This is where the trouble began for me.  Also the precursor to one of the most enjoyable times of my life, but we’ll get to that later.  First, the heat.

 

As I was plodding along this final stretch, I started to feel a little funny.  I reached up mechanically, as I’d been doing every few minutes, to wipe some of the sweat from my brow, hoping to preempt the dive bomb onto my sunshades.  When I drew my index finger across my brow, it came away dry.  “Isn’t that funny,” I thought.  “There’s no way I’m not sweating.”  I pedaled a few hundred yards to the meager shade of a little tree and parked the bike.  Stumbled a little climbing off (which actually could mean that I was just being myself, if you know me), but I was a bit dizzy.  I removed my helmet and felt my bandanna, then my shirt.  Completely dry.  My arms and neck were cool and clammy.  Uh oh.  I said a quiet little thanks to Kevin Robideau, Joe Chavez, and Mike Lopez for the thorough education in hot weather safety over the last few years at the NEF.  After growing up and working in the west Texas heat for all of my life, it was the corporate safety culture that actually taught me how to recognize and diagnose these symptoms.  I was beginning to get, or already had, heat exhaustion.  What a bummer.  I didn’t really think I was in any real trouble.  I wasn’t too woozy, wasn’t cramping, not much of a headache; however, I knew I had to take some precautions and still cover those last 15 or so miles.  Here’s another little fact that I understood the science and math behind before I left, but really didn’t expect or prepare for until I had to feel it in practice: The longer days of high latitudes mean that the hot part of the day lasts for 2-3 hours longer than it does for us down closer to the Tropic of Cancer.  It starts to get light about 5:30am, and is fully dark about 11:15.  It isn’t any hotter than back home, but these extra couple of hours are added directly into the middle of the hot part of the day.  It’s just another little challenge to add to the stack that must be overcome, and makes it a worthwhile challenge.

Conquering that challenge, though, just took a little time.  And a little water.  In the shade, I laid down and dribbled a little water all over my clothing.  There was a gentle breeze, so it was a nice bit of cooling off.  Rest a bit.  Mount back up, and push a few more miles. Ok, feeling the heat again.  How about that, not a tree for the last two miles.  Push a little further.  There’s one.  Repeat the lie down, dribble water, rest.  So it went for the final stretch.  A couple of miles at a time.  Certainly the biggest challenge yet.  On the prospective last of these rests, a passerby let their spirit of goodwill, or maybe it was just curiosity, get to them.  They stopped and offered me a ride into Sarinena.  I didn’t want to take it, being so close to finishing the long hot ride on my own power, but it was still over 100 degrees, and I was completely tuckered.  I took the ride for about 3 miles into town.  He dropped me off around the corner from the hotel where I planned to stay.  I eased my bike up to the Hotel Sarinena, and that’s where everything changed.

 

There I met the hippies.

 

 

 

Barcelona

What a city.  I’d always heard many good things about Barcelona, and they all proved to be true.  I stayed three nights in Barcelona.  It took a lot of time to get all of my gear set, then see all of the sites of the city.  The first night was in La Ramblas, a very busy, touristy area.  The second day, I quickly migrated to a room right on the beach, and stayed there the next couple of nights. The city is as beautiful as you would expect.

In the easternmost part of the city, and in the old areas, the architecture is just stunning.  Intricate detail, bold designs, and features that just tug on the nostalgia for the golden days of architecture in the city.

Everything in that big box, along with everything in a 36" duffle is packed onto Lagertha

Everything in that big box, along with everything in a 36″ duffle is packed onto Lagertha

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I found the Spanish Christopher Robin

I found the Spanish Christopher Robin

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Green Blooded Hobgoblin

Green Blooded Hobgoblin

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It was a little difficult to connect with the locals, though, to really draw the culture out.  Partially due to the very small amount of Spanish I can speak.  However, it seemed that the biggest barrier was differentiating between other tourists and locals.  It wouldn’t surprise me if there were 4-5 times as many tourists in the areas I stayed and visited than locals.  If someone is from an English speaking country, it’s not hard to tell that they’re not a local.  The same for quite a few other places of origin.  But more often than not it’s just unclear.  I think the locals in the service industry, those that deal with tourists constantly, seem to be quite impatient with us.  Maybe especially those who don’t speak Spanish.  It was surprising, and a little disappointing.  I don’t think this was the rule, but more common than not.  On the other hand, almost all of the other locals I was able to interact with were lovely.  They were curious and friendly, and I enjoyed my time with them.  Also, having the tourists around is not all bad.  There were a lot of interesting, and diverse people that I was able to meet, which is the backbone of the purpose for my trip.  Particularly, there were a couple of Scottish guys that were awesome to hang out with, and I hope still want to offer me a place to shower and sleep about a month from now!

This is all rather boring, I can tell.  Let’s get to some more pictures. First, beaches.  I’ve seen a few beaches, but this one takes the cake on my list.  It goes on for something like 7 miles.  It was extraordinary.  Smooth yellow sand, full of people, and the water was truly the perfect temperature.  During the heat of the day, it was fairly crowded, but the thing was so long that there was room somewhere.  There’s not too many beds directly on the water, so everyone funneled from the rest of the city down a few main streets.  Have you seen those Nat Geo videos of the great migration?  Three million wildebeests or something like that, rushing across rivers?  Seeing people head to the Barcelona beach, just before midday, was reminiscent of that.

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The most prominent and popular structure in the city is La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s masterpiece.  Growing up, I always heard people say, about mundane things, “it’s too gaudi” or “I don’t like it, it’s a little gaudi.”  I’m a little embarrassed to admit that until I started researching this trip, I didn’t understand the origin of that phrase.  Now I do.   And while I now understand it, I see that using it as a negative description is a disservice to a genius.  You stand in awe when you see what he created.  The texture, detail, and brilliance are indescribable.

Several years ago, I read Ken Follet’s wonderful two books about builders in ancient Europe.  They were mainly in southern England, but they both had a short stint on the continent, so I don’t mind describing them as such.  They are great books, and he is a master storyteller.  The books center around the construction of great structures, mainly one epic cathedral.  While reading, I had to research the layout of a cathedral, as I was completely ignorant of the nomenclature, e.g. Nave, Transept, Choir, Crypt, Apse, etc., etc.  I’m still not too clear on it, but Follet paints such a beautiful picture, you want to visualize it correctly.  After reading, and watching Starz’ fantastic translation of the first book to film, I thought I had a good idea of what it would be like to walk into a great cathedral.  The even columns, towering walls, celestial ceiling, I thought I could imagine those things correctly in my mind.

I was wrong.  I was so wrong that I question whether or not I actually read those books.

The exterior of La Sagrada Familia is beyond stunning in it’s own right.  The texture and crenelations, the sculptures and spires will make you reach to hold onto something as you gaze upon it.  Then, in the most extraordinary contrast I’ve ever seen, you walk inside, and the smooth lines, branching columns, and sheer polish take your breath away.

The most dedicated cynic, while walking among those epic branching columns, glaring at that most intricate ceiling, could not feel the tiniest sliver of irreverence.  It wouldn’t be possible.  I’ll never forget being there, looking for so long that my neck screamed in protest, then sitting in a pew only to lean back and look longer.

I hope these pictures do it at least a little justice.  They may be a bit out of order, but here they are:

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Is this just the slightest bit pagan?  I wasn't sure.

Is this just the slightest bit pagan? I wasn’t sure.

The food in Barcelona, for my palate, was hit or miss.  Admittedly more hit than miss, but I still got ahold a few things that weren’t for me.  I’ll admit that a lot of this is because I’m not game for any more than the most basic seafood, and seafood is king here.  I had good paella, good croquettes, chorizo, and many other great dishes.  They have a locally produced ham here called Jamon Iberica that is absolutely amazing.  Old fashioned, hard-cured, red meat.  The best place I found was a little hole in the wall where all patrons are standing, and it’s nearly a fistfight for space.  Imagine the Dry Bean at midnight after a big Aggie win, but with stellar food.  That’s this place, and I’m sorry for the non-Aggies who won’t get that reference.  Just think, very small place, very good, and very crowded.  Unlike many places, this joint had no English translations on the menu above the bar, no pictures of the dishes, and also, everything was in Catalan, rather than Spanish.  It’s not too different of a language apparently, but enough so that I was well out of luck.  When I found a space close to ordering position, a nice couple very quickly saw that I was out of my element, and needed help.  They turned out to be Christian & Friederike, a very cool German couple who mentored me in the ways & methods of that particular dive.  Thanks again, Christian & Friederike!!!!

Christian & Friederike!!!

Christian & Friederike!!!

This is the morning I left Barcelona.  What a nightmare to get out of the city.  But, just had to take it slow and try not to backtrack too much, and I finally made it out.

Lagertha is ready.

Lagertha is ready.

Leaving Barcelona - Exiting the city was quite the nightmare, but I got out eventually :)

Leaving Barcelona – Exiting the city was quite the nightmare, but I got out eventually🙂

Ok.  I’m very tired.  Climbed about 2,600′ on Lagertha over the last two days.  I’m going to sleep.  I have more pictures from Barcelona, though, so here they are.  I have a feeling that on this trip, when I have been too long between posts, but am very tired, I may just do image dumps.  The remainder of this post is the first of those.  I hope the pictures are worth it.  The pictures of the beach below are from Ft. Lauderdale, where I ate lunch waiting for my flight to Copenhagen, rather than from Barcelona.

Happy reading, and I hope you are all well.

Ft. Lauderdale Pier/Beach

Ft. Lauderdale Pier/Beach

Ft. Lauderdale Pier/Beach

Ft. Lauderdale Pier/Beach

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I kept hoping these guys would do the trick where they flip their noses up and eat the treat, but they never did.   :(

I kept hoping these guys would do the trick where they flip their noses up and eat the treat, but they never did.😦

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Copenhagen: Leather Pants and Bicycles

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And pretty people.  Lots of leather pants on pretty people, and lots of pretty people on bicycles.  The combination of the three seems a bit dubious to me, but as I completely lack experience with leather pants or being pretty, I’ll reserve judgement for now.  Seriously, though.  The Scandinavians must have a selective breeding program in place.  It’s the only explanation.

I think I'm on the right continent for this, at least.

I think I’m on the right continent for this, at least.

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Brooks saddles everywhere.  I'm glad I outfitted myself with one.  I think it will prove to be a lifesaver.

Brooks saddles everywhere. I’m glad I outfitted myself with one. I think it will prove to be a lifesaver.

I had a few hours to spend around the city central during a layover.  Copenhagen seemed like a wonderful city.  The people were very warm and kind.  I’ve always heard that about the northern European countries, so I was glad that my brief experience there proved it true to me.  The only downside to my little stroll was the lunch I had.  The special of the day at a little corner cafe was an open faced sandwich.  What could go wrong, right?  Well, one piece was topped with very large and very fragrant chunks of raw, white, fish.  Another was coated with a meat paste of some kind that would have possibly tempted me nearer to the full moon, but not that day.  Regardless, a longer return trip will be needed one day to beautiful Copenhagen.

I have no idea what this guy was doing here.  Seemed very out of place in the metro area many miles from any unruly bovine.  However, it was very proudly displayed in a small leather shop, and I enjoyed getting a look inside.

I have no idea what this guy was doing here. Seemed very out of place in the metro area many miles from any unruly bovine. However, it was very proudly displayed in a small leather shop, and I enjoyed getting a look inside.

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Poor kid on the metro rail had a bag of this to munch on.  Not a baby carrot in sight.  I felt a little bad for him, but I'm sure he'll have excellent habits when he grows up.

Poor kid on the metro rail had a bag of this to munch on. Not a baby carrot in sight. I felt a little bad for him, but I’m sure he’ll have excellent habits when he grows up.

Inaugural Blog Post

One evening a few years ago, I came across a video on the internet that piqued my interest.  No, it wasn’t one of those kinds of videos.  It was two rather scruffy looking guys showing how to make a stove out of an aluminum can.  They appear to be in some exotic locale, but I’ve no idea where it was.  The little stove is simple and ingenious.  I quickly grabbed a coke zero can out of the trash, repeated their efforts, grabbed some isopropanol from under the sink, and gazed at the perfectly symmetrical flame as it flickered from the rim.  The video went fairly viral for a while, so you may have seen it.  If not, take a look.  It is interesting, even if you have no plan to trek out on a lightweight camping trip.

 

http://tomsbiketrip.com/how-to-turn-a-beer-can-into-the-only-camping-stove-youll-ever-need-video/

 

The other thing that stuck with me was that the two guys looked like they knew a bit about adventure.  They looked like they had a story.  I followed the electronic bread crumb trail until I came upon Tom’s site proper.  Then I started reading. Then the sun came up.  Then I followed a few links to other blogs by people who are “bicycle tourers,” and I read more.  I think I sought out a breakfast burrito and a coffee at that point, but I kept reading after.  I was completely enthralled.  There was no question in my mind that this was for me.  This mode of travel, this approach to seeing a place appealed to me more than any I’d previously been aware of. I decided at sometime during that night that I would do this.  Barring anything catastrophic that took away the use of my legs, I would do this.

 

The basic instructions for traveling the world on a bicycle, according to Tom, are simple:

 

  1. Get a bike.
  2. Quit your job.
  3. Leave (Start pedaling).

 

This severe approach, while attractive, wasn’t quite for me.  I needed to plan a bit, and wait for the right time with work.  This was the right path for me, and I believe the timing has mostly worked out for me to go now.

 

I’m going to fly to Europe this month, get on my bike, and ride about the place.  Prospective countries are Spain, UK, Ireland, Scotland, Netherlands, Germany.  That’s about as much of an itinerary as I have.  I don’t know how far or how long I’ll make it.  I may not even like it, but I doubt that.
If you want to delve into this mindset, I’d recommend reading over at http://www.worldbiking.info  This has been my favorite cycle tour blog.  It follows the story of Amaya and Eric, a couple that have ridden over 140,000 miles through 96 countries during the last few years.  All on their bikes.  There are trials, and there are tribulations, but they’re still on the road because the positive aspects outweigh any other.  Amaya’s writing is nice to read, and it’s full of great pictures from the road.  If you go all of the way back to the beginning of the blog posts and read to current, it’s quite an exciting story that spans several years and many, many miles.