The descent into Berreota, Spain, was as delightful as the morning’s climb. Hairpin switchbacks, one after the other, into a mountain valley with a big river, a highway, and an old, abandoned railroad grade with a cool, long, curved tunnel. I slept at a picnic area beside it between the railroad grade and he river, which had a suspension bridge walkway over to the highway. I knew no rain was forecast, so I skipped the tent and woke up to a heavy frost. I wrote my son Tim a long e-mail from inside my sleeping bag waiting for the sun to hit my camp. Still, I had to dry out my sleeping gear at lunchtime.
The day’s route started on the old railroad grade along the river, then took me over another gorgeous mountain pass. If yesterday’s pass was like Vermont, today’s was like Colorado. It’s two tunnels were closed to bicycles, so I was obliged to take the old road, an extra 18 kilometers and an extra 200 meters in altitude (860 meters at the top). Hardly any traffic (the occasional propane truck, barred from the tunnel), and another gorgeous, peaceful lunch spot at the top, this time with snow around but sunny enough for a nap out of the wind. I’m in heaven. My nap was interrupted by suddenly heavy traffic, both cars and trucks. I figured the tunnel was closed, an accident or something, and sure enough, when I reached the bottom a police roadblock was directing traffic onto the old road. The descent, with hairpin switchbacks one after the other, big trucks sharing the narrow road, and the occasional icy patch, was a white-knuckle affair. Another kind of heaven for Billy.
Now that I have visited Francis and Irene, I find myself lacking an immediate destination. Looking at the big map, I haven’t progressed very far toward Hong Kong in six weeks. Zooming in, there’s a lot of inviting destinations. Gibraltar and Morocco are ten days and a €65 ferry ride away, and I’ve always wanted to see both. But the accident, and then adding Amsterdam to the itinerary have already set me back and hurt my budget, and a trip to Morocco could do more.
I’ve also realized that visiting big cities is costly, in terms of money and time, compared to camping in the countryside.
Which is what I’ve been doing for five days now. Two mountain campsites were up in the Pyrenees, with heavy frost. the first I have described; the second was in an unused pasture, and had all the ingredients: hidden from view, wind break, morning sun, soft grass underneath and perfectly flat. Not always easy to find an hour before sunset. After dinner, reading (re-reading, actually) Rene Descartes’ “Discourse on The Method…” on my phone, I was struck with a clarity of purpose and a determination to take action. This happens to me now and then. I wish it would happen more often and last longer when it does.
At any rate, it caused me to abandon my southward course toward Madrid, Lisbon, Gibraltar and Morocco, and turn east, through the desert and mountains to Barcelona. There I’ll take a ferry to Italy and continue east toward my goal, Hong Kong.
Now, three days later, I am at my third desert campsite. The first, in a pine grove on a ridge, was windy but nice. When I had nearly found it, far from the village below and high up on a rocky path, I met with a very old man walking with his cane, a Basque farmer by the looks but neat and clean in a beret and wool coat. We had few words in common, “Hola,” and, “America.” “Bueno”, he said, and gestured with his cane toward the whole scene; sunset, valley, mountains, tiny village with church tower and lights winking on in the homes. We stood for a long while in silence. He tapped my pannier with his cane and pointed it toward the pines. Then he gripped both my arms and looked me in the eyes. “Via con Dios!” he said, and smiled. We parted, and after a few steps turned and waved a small wave, nodding our heads in understanding.
Next day the wind blew me 110 kilometers through tiny desert villages, past monasteries, irrigated crop land, mesas and arroyos, crumbling hilltop forts. I washed up at a gas station rest room miles from nowhere, then had a beer in a village cantina with some old men at 11:00AM.
I avoided ridge top campsites that night and sought the shelter of a pine grove on the south side of the hill. Still, the wind raged and shook my little tent all night long. Up before sunrise and on the road early, I had another long ride with the wind, including a section on a primitive mountain road, hardly more than a trail. The snow-capped Pyrenees were distant now and the road flat and smooth. The desert is starting to give way to vineyards and olive groves, still irrigated. Tonight I found an empty stone hut in an olive grove, ancient but still in use, four meters square with a low door, a single small window, and a fireplace. I don’t dare attract attention by making a fire, but the wind rages out there and I am cosy and warm, using the hearth to cook rice on my alcohol stove.
Sorry, no photos this time. I’m uploading using my European phone, which is a bit too slow for that. Next time