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November 23-29, 2005

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Don Quixote

Photograph by Alastair Bland
Men of La Mancha: Quixote tilted at windmills; our author, at gravity.

Nobody Expects the Spanish Freak Collision

In which our hero runs the bull, discovers Iceland, lands an estate and scrapes by on less than 10 Euros a day--until he must unexpectedly go home


By Alastair Bland

A large bull rests under his cork tree in the woods near Granada, Spain. Shafts of sunlight come through the morning mist and light up the fall colors on the trees. As I ride past on my bicycle, I smile at this peaceful image of farm life. But this bull is a quick-tempered old grouch and the mere sight of me pedalling along on my heavy, loaded bike blows his fuse. He jumps to his feet and begins to run alongside the road, falling in beside me, 20 feet to my left. Bulls can appear virtually immobile when at rest, but this half-ton fellow runs easily, in leaps and bounds, nimble as a deer. Abruptly he cuts toward me, and I see that our paths will cross. I do not believe that this guy has any malice in his heart; he's just scared--like I am, for I am seconds away from serious bodily harm.

But the hand of God stops the bull in midair, three feet off the ground. I breeze safely past as the animal sinks to his knees, his face squashed and smothered as though pressed against a window--and for a moment I am a believer. A second later, I realize he's just crashed into a thin wire fence that neither of us has seen. I glance back and see that the bull is not crippled, just confused. He shakes free of the wire and lumbers back into the woods.

Ten thousand miles from home, I need to be more careful. This is no place to get injured. Before I left, most of my family reminded me to ride carefully; a whole list of otherwise bright people, in fact, offered this same useless advice. But my dad, also a cyclist, acknowledged that fate will have its way. "Bad luck eventually gets us all," he said the morning of my flight. "Just don't let it get you in Spain."

"Wow, he was right," I think. Well, almost. I would be gored and bleeding right now if God hadn't intervened--I mean if that wire fence hadn't.

The bull is probably in his field right now, still mulling over what happened that morning. I know I still am.

The bull incident occurred in early October, and eight weeks remained of my planned three-month ride around Southern Europe. I had begun in Madrid in mid-September after staying with several friends downtown for three days. In Madrid people dance and drink each night until 4am, and intending to depart at 7 in the morning on a long bike tour is no excuse for staying in. I ended up leaving Madrid at noon. It took me two hours just to find my way out of the enormous metropolis of smog and construction, and I felt far more at home in the quiet hill country 20 miles to the north. These hills grew quickly into mountains of 6,000 feet. I camped in the foothills my first night, and the next day crawled upward into the sierra. I climbed over a gusty, cold pass of 1,800 meters, then descended onto the brown plains in the district of Segovia.

Cities on the barren grasslands of Spain tend to stand out brightly in the distance. Segovia, with its stone castle, Roman ruins and spired architecture, resembles Oz. It is fantastic, but real. Travel manuals will tell you that cities of Segovia's beauty and personality "beckon to be explored," but Segovia is most stunning from the distance. Within the city walls I found all the usual junk: crowds of visitors, postcard kiosks and trinket booths. Salamanca, 100 miles to the west, features a castle as well, but Salamanca is bigger and more sprawled out and modernized than Segovia, and its Oz-like brilliance is somewhat diminished.

September days on the open plains are usually 90 degrees or more, and nights drop to nearly freezing. For the first week, I carried a big bar of Ghirardelli chocolate with me. Every day it melted and took on the form and properties of an amoeba, and each night it solidified again. All this is to be expected from a San Francisco chocolate bar, I suppose, but chocolate from Catholic countries can do awesome things. I met a traveler in a campground who said he once witnessed a chocolate bar from Madrid melt and reform itself overnight into the Virgin Mary, and after that, it never melted again. He keeps it at home now, where he says he's baked it, soaked it and so forth, yet it holds its form.

The Sierra de Gata, 50 miles south of Salamanca and just west of Portugal, are green and beautiful. Forests of chestnut trees flank the highways, olive groves occupy the mountain slopes, creeks flow under the bridges and grapevines have found their way into most nooks and crannies of the land. Nearly every bit of terrain has been cultivated, but Spanish farmers preserve beauty well. They terrace the steep slopes and keep their fruit trees nicely pruned, and the folks live in crumbling stone villages that make great postcard subjects. Here in the mountains, I slept the night in the forest, and the next day I descended back onto a scorching hot grassland that did not end until the Atlantic Coast.

Cork trees populate these plains. They are a handsome race of tree, and on distant horizons, they resemble big, healthy lollipops. Every seven or eight years, farmers strip the trees of their bark and leave them to stand at the roadside, naked and humiliated, while they slowly recover. In the meantime, herds of cattle roam the hills and seek shade beneath the trees for the siesta hour. I tried this a few times myself, and enjoyed it very much with bread and cheese for lunch.

I swerved briefly into Portugal one blistering hot day in late September. The rolling plains had turned to dust, and a farmer explained that it hadn't rained for a year. In fact, the Iberian Peninsula was in the grip of the worst drought in six decades. Yet to my eye, the autumn harvest looked to be in solid health. Workers in the vineyards filled crates with beautiful wine grapes, the roadside cork trees stood freshly peeled, and from lofty vistas on the highway I could see no end of the olive groves. The lines of trees went on forever, and I had trouble believing that the entire world could use so many olives.

The blazing Portuguese sun forced me to take shelter in a bar in the town of Granja that afternoon. A young unemployed man named Patricio introduced himself and bought me a beer and a glass of wine. He told me all the great things about his country: he could think of three or four, and two of them were beers. He apologized for the drought. I mentioned in passing that I hoped to take a boat to Italy, and he apologized for his village having no seaport.

Patricio spoke in Portuguese, but we understood each other. I asked if there was a place to buy bread in town, and he proudly guided me to the bakery. Even the smallest, dullest villages like Granja will have 10 lively bars, but bakeries and places with nourishing food are more elusive. Patricio led me around the corner, down a cobblestone alleyway and into a hole in the wall. Here I found piles of beautiful, whole-grain artisan bread, and Patricio bought me a loaf.

On the street again, he encouraged me to stay for a while and have another beer, but I was already drunk. I said there was a long road ahead of me, and Patricio acknowledged sadly that I needed to go and he to stay, for this sorry, dry village with no seaport was his home.

Campgrounds in Spain offered me a safe, secure place to sleep at ease, with other friendly travelers about and such facilities as running water. But with no tables or benches, I had to sit in the dirt, and at $12 or so per night, I felt I was getting badly shafted. I realized 10 days into my trip that the money I'd saved by flying to Madrid rather than Sarajevo had already been lost to camping fees. I took to sleeping behind haystacks and in forests when convenient, though I found no tables or benches there, either.

Each morning I found a cafe to buy coffee. While the coffee in Spain is top notch, they serve it only in espresso shots. It's gone in 60 seconds, and that's if you savor it. In a seaside village near the border of Portugal, I explained to a waiter one morning about American coffee, about how we like 16 ounces, about how we need something big enough to nurse for an hour and with which to warm our hands. "Wear gloves," he suggested.

These same cafes double as bars, and all the old men gather here for drinks later in the day. Even the tiniest Spanish village will have several of these establishments, but there was no good way to decide which one would offer the best experience. They all look the same, and they're all named Cafe-Bar. Each one is smoky inside, has an epic collection of liquor bottles behind the bar and an espresso machine down at the end.

A smoked leg of ham usually hangs from the ceiling for when someone orders a sandwich.

The old men all look about the same, too, with dusty shoes, pleated pants, collared shirts and suspenders, though I do recall one man who looked exactly like George Orwell, only a foot shorter. I was having a drink, and I set my paperback copy of Orwell's Homage to Catalonia on the stool between us to see what he would say. I cleared my throat and nudged the book closer, but he did not flinch, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't him.

Spanish beer is watery and unexceptional, but it's very reasonably priced, about a dollar, no tip expected. It's the same for a glass of good wine. In fact, there is no truly awful wine in Spain. Even the cheap stuff, which can be had at 70 cents per one-liter box in the supermarket, is very drinkable. I recall my most wonderful moment in Spanish wines: I found a liter for 50 cents. I began laughing in the aisle of the supermarket, and added it to my cart.

All across Spain I saw occasional little orchards of pomegranates, cherries and walnuts, plus a strange lot of quinces, that inedible apple fruit. Everywhere else it's olives. Meanwhile, fig trees grow wild like big weeds. They grow along the edges of the orchards, hoping to get inside, but the olive farmers fend them off. So instead the figs grow from the cracks in stone bridges, from cliff faces, in abandoned lots and amidst the ruins of castles and old bridges. The trees send in their roots to creep through the property and bust up the mortar and split apart the stones. The Romans would be rolling in their graves if they could see what fig trees are doing to their architecture.

The season was just right when I was there, and I picked figs daily. I could have lived off them, but Spain is full of good foods. I bought cheese, garbanzos and paté for dinner each night, and I could never resist fresh bread. Especially on a cold morning, nothing, save coffee, smells better than a bakery.

I tried to visit Seville because a friend told me it is beautiful, and a travel brochure said it yearns to be discovered, but I could find no way into the city. All roads may lead to Seville, but only freeways enter. I circled for two hours trying to find a legal bike route, then gave up and moved on to the southeast, in the direction of Granada. I got there on Oct. 1.

Granada is home to the Alhambra, the great big palace of the Moors, and the eighth wonder of the world. Thirty kilometers behind Granada towers another wonder, the highest mountain in Spain, Pico Veleta, 3,394 meters high. I rode nearly to the summit and then hiked the last 300 meters over a rocky trail. The view from the top is fantastic. Looking north, I saw the plains and lesser mountain ranges of Spain, and beyond the Pyrenees and the wide hill country of France. Further north lay England, right across the Channel. On my tiptoes, I could just make out the Faroe Islands, but the earth, you understand, is curved; I could make out little beyond 62 degrees of latitude.

However, there is a phenomenon in nature whereby light, rather than speeding off from the earth into space, actually bends with the curved surface of our planet. By this wonder of physics I saw Iceland from the top of a mountain in Spain! It appeared as a grotesque, anvil-shaped pirate ship on the cold, gray Atlantic. It's strange to think that it wasn't really there--just bent light from over the horizon.

I turned south and saw the Mediterranean, a mere puddle from this altitude. Beyond lay the Dark Continent. It looked not half as dark as one would imagine. The blinding sands of the Sahara dominated all the way to the horizon. Off to my left ran a winding green strip: the Nile. And further east, a jaundice-yellow plain of haze, fire and smoke--Iraq, no doubt.

Biker

Top of the World: Posing on antiquities.

I rode north from Granada, bothered that I had spent 50 Euros in just two days on overpriced food, campgrounds and the world's eighth wonder, and I vowed that until the trip's end I would not sleep in another paid campsite. I rode into the Sierra Segura, and these mountains were gorgeous, green and wild. Imagine the lower regions of the Sierra Nevada or the Rockies but with castles on the mountaintops, ancient farms by the road and stone walls running through the woods. I traveled the quiet back roads leading from village to village. I stopped for water in bars, bread in the bakeries and wine in the grocery store, and I had picnics in the courtyards of old ruined castles.

The mighty Guadalquivir River begins in the Sierra Segura, and I camped one night in a wooded meadow very near the trickling source. By now I had learned that a bed of pine needles and grass with a roof of foliage overhead is 10 degrees warmer at night than an open rocky field, and as an illegal camper, I needed the forest for cover. In these mountains, I saw deer and wild goats by day, and wild boars visited me at night. Each morning I emerged quickly from the woods to begin riding, and if a cop car or ranger truck passed by, well, my illicit nights of rest were behind me.

Just northeast of Hornos de Segura in the mountains there lies an abandoned estate off to the right of the highway. I found it as evening was darkening and decided I would move in for the night. I have never owned a home, and I was proud to call this one my own. It was a noble place, a mansion of many rooms, with overgrown gardens of figs and walnuts, an olive grove on the terrace out front and a cool spring just up the slope. The place had no ceiling, but the stars that night were fantastic.

I began to enjoy each day more than the last as I fell into a comfortable rhythm.

I got coffee at dawn, traveled the small roads for 50 miles each day, evaded bulls, picked figs, bought bread, drank beer with old Civil War veterans and slept in the woods again each night. I had my route loosely planned out, and I would be in the mountains most of the way to Barcelona. And then I would take a boat to Italy, visit my aunt in Ferrara for a while, go on to Greece and who knows what next.

One foggy Saturday morning on a quiet road in the district of La Mancha, I descended into the Júcar River valley. I looked forward to encountering a coffee bar, but I had to navigate carefully through the thick, dripping fog. I went slowly as the road switched sharply back and forth, but the grade grew steeper. I braked hard at a sharp curve, my tires skidded on the wet surface and the bike slipped from under me. I hurtled into midair, hung there for a while, and then came down. I landed poorly. My left collarbone crunched into bits and pieces, and my wrist broke.

I jumped to my feet, screaming in fright and fury. With my right arm I dragged the bike to the shoulder of the road. I touched my own shoulder and felt a bulge through my shirt, sort of like a snapped wishbone. I peered down and saw it looked shrunken and puny.

"Dammit!" I screamed. "My shoulder's broken!"

I walked in fast, tight, nervous circles. I stomped angrily, kicked the dirt and yelled about my misfortune, and my lame arm dangled sadly. I soon began to shiver and shake, and I grew nauseous. I lay down to wait for help.

Several minutes later, I heard a car. It was below me, puttering slowly up the switchbacks. I am no stranger to hitchhiking and am not afraid to raise my thumb to a stranger, but my symptoms had worsened. I couldn't muster the energy to move and the vehicle just drove right past where I lay. Twenty minutes more ticked by, during which time I managed to get back on my feet.

A four-door sedan came along, downhill, around that awful, treacherous curve. I waved with my right arm. Three fellows inside waved back and drove onward into the thick fog.

"Where the hell are you going?!" I screamed, but I don't suppose they understood English.

After a few minutes another car arrived, going uphill this time. I waved again and stomped my feet desperately. I would have used both arms and waved like I meant it, but my condition would not allow it. I looked like someone just saying hello, and the nice man at the wheel regarded me with a smile. He waved and kept on going.

I shouted a long string of epithets. I employed the mightiest words I knew, words meant to crash like thunder and shock the gods, but the cold fog swallowed them up.

And then I heard another vehicle, from down below me, in the river valley. It sounded bigger and louder than the other cars. I listened to it grumble up the grade for 10 minutes before it materialized out of the mist 100 feet away. It was a massive green tractor, and behind the plexiglass window sat a man. I delivered the same performance I'd given to the other cars, and this guy drove slowly enough that he was able to take it all in. He observed the emotional nuances in my face, the tortured gesticulations of my right arm and the subtle inactivity of the left, and was convinced that I was not just saying hello.

He pulled to the shoulder, left the engine running and jumped out.

"Please, help me," I said calmly in Spanish. "I had an accident. My arm is broken, here and here and maybe here. Oh, and here also."

He said, "Friend, I will get help."

He produced a cell phone and made a call.

"The ambulance is coming," he told me after a short chat with the operator.

The farmer's name was Agostin. He was about 40 years old, wore fashionable clothes and drove a nice tractor. He turned off the motor so we could better communicate. We discussed the situation and designed a plan. We unloaded all the valuables from my bike and locked it to a tree. I gave Agostin the key, and he said he would pick the bike up on his way home after work and keep it in his garage until I could retrieve it.

I thought quickly about the logistics of this situation and said, "It might be six months. Will it be safe?"

He assured me the bike would be in a dry place, out of the rain and where his goats would not eat it.

The ambulance arrived, and a smiling, good-natured man came out to meet me. He opened the door and helped me in. Meanwhile, Agostin wrote out his full name, phone number and address in the town of La Recueja. I looked him in the eyes, promised I'd be back for the bike and said thanks. He shook my hand in all sincerity, and stepped back as the driver shut the door.

We went to the hospital in Albacete where I waited in lines, got X-rayed, listened for my name in waiting rooms, struggled to take my shirt on and off. It was all very exhausting, but it didn't cost a dime, and after two hours they sent me on my way in an arm cast and sling with my belongings in a big plastic bag.

I made it via bus, train and subway to Madrid before dark. To think that I'd been just a heap of broken bones at the side of the highway that morning! My friends in Madrid wanted me to come out dancing that evening, but I had a solid excuse to stay in--and a warm apartment all to myself. I was happy for the moment, but my bones were broken and my trip cut short by seven weeks, and in just two days more I would be back home.

I rode as carefully as I could for 1,000 miles, but as my dad said, "Bad luck eventually gets us all." And it got me in Spain.

I wonder how I might have fared had that bull gotten his hooves on me instead, but I'll never know, of course, thanks to God. I mean, thanks to that wire fence.


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