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.