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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.